Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Keep an open mind

Casting is always hard. Especially in a comedy. And when you cast a network sitcom pilot the actors who read for you all have a certain level of proficiency. They’re all in SAG, most have been in series or at least have guested on series so they generally know their way around a joke. They know where the punchlines are and what words to hit to sell the joke.

But when I’m casting I look for something more. A very intangible quality. There are people who on some gut level are just FUNNY. They hear the rhythm, they feel the timing, you get the sense it’s effortless. They find laughs that aren’t there. A look, a gesture, even a tiny one, a raised eyebrow – almost without trying they make something funnier. David Hyde Pierce is a prime example.

I was watching a few minutes of THE COOL KIDS last week (don’t ask me why), and I realized that Vicki Lawrence has it. I had never given her much thought actually. She was Carol Burnett-light on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, played that broad character in MAMA’S FAMILY, and spent much of her career appearing on disposable shows like YES DEAR and THE LOVE BOAT. (She also had a hit record in 1973 that I played the crap out of when I was a disc jockey – “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”)

But seeing her on THE COOL KIDS it struck me that this woman was way more special than I had ever given her credit for. And like I said, it’s an intangible quality. I can’t totally explain it, but I know it when I see it.

And to me the lesson here is to always keep an open mind. If I were assembling a pilot two years ago and my casting director suggested Vicki Lawrence I would not have been excited. And I would have missed out. People can surprise you. Be open to it.

Signed,

A new Vicki Lawrence fan

35 comments :

Janet Ybarra said...

This is why I have a lot of respect for established character actors. These are actors who probably recognize their face but probably not their name.

They may not have achieved fame but because they aren't famous they stick with it for the love of the craft and the work.

If they do comedies, they are the ones, as Ken says, who really know how to sell a joke or go the extra mile to find the laughs and make it look easy.

One of the interesting things about the series ADAM 12 is for the guest stars they wouldn't just draw from up-and-coming actors but also older, established actors who often had a long career as a character actor in film and television before appearing on ADAM 12.

Honest Ed said...

Years ago, I was showrunning a show and we were casting for a small part - a 3rd rate club magician. Something went askew and an agent sent us an Elvis impersonator - a pretty successful Elvis impersonator at that. We were about to send him away when I suddenly saw a possibility and what had sat pretty flat on the page, tbh, was suddenly alive. I cast him as Elvis the magician - see Elvis saw a woman in half! - and it worked really well. Not only that but the 1st AD had his birthday on the filming day and got serenaded by Elvis singing Happy Birthday at the end of the day!

Brian said...

Friday Question: When I was watching reminiscences about the Dick Van Dyke Show, Rose Marie said that when she saw the script, she had a great guy for the Buddy Sorrell part, which was Morey Amsterdam. Keeping in mind that there are many levels of approval and the writers have their own ideas about who they want when the script is written, do you have any stories of actors recommending someone that may or may not have been your choice, but ended up getting the part?

Also, with regards to your post, kudos to whoever saw Wendie Malick in "Dream On" and said "She'd be great in Just Shoot Me!" I liked "Dream On" fine, but I didn't see anything that led me to believe that she'd be so good in JSM, and subsequently Frasier and Hot in Cleveland.

Keith said...

Ken, I read this interesting article about the "Hollywood of the East" - Wilmywood.

http://mediahub.unc.edu/hollywood-east-disappearing-wilmington-along/


Due to some policies its disappearing.

Have you ever been to this place for shooting? Can you please share some interesting stories about this place.

Thanks.

Susan said...

I had a similar impression. It was like seeing her for the first time even though she’s been around forever.

Mel Agar said...

The Cool Kids -- great talent, so-so show. :(

Janet Ybarra said...

Just had to mention Rose Marie in the context of my comment above regarding ADAM 12. She appeared in an episode as a bartender and she called the officers because an old man had gotten drunk and decided to strip naked and run around.

It was a great scene and as I mentioned the actor playing the old man, I knew I recognized him from other work but had no idea of his name. He was a great actor, as well.

Anonymous said...

Ken,

Well said. All I can add is ditto, ditto, ditto. My wife and I Tivo new shows and run through them to either set up a One Pass or dump them. This one gets a One Pass and it's because we were both surprised and delighted by Vicki Lawrence.

There was a Brit show called Waiting for God that I really enjoyed and have thought for a long time that a retirement community show would have potential. However, with the networks always skewing to capture the younger demographic, I never really thought anyone would order such a series. I'll be interested to see how this show does.

As always, thanks.

Keith (a different Keith)

Xmastime said...

Thanks for the tip, giving it a spin right now. That's a great cast, PLUS turns out was created/written by the great Charlie Day from Always Sunny! :)

I also noted on my blog: As you people know, I'm a huge fan of British sitcoms. And one thing I've noticed is that Brits love shows about old fuckers. There's Last of the Summer Wine, Dad's Army, Waiting for God, Hold the Sunrise, As Time Goes By, Fresh Fields, One Foot in the Grave, and on and on and on.


America? Not so much.

Bradley said...

YES! Vicki Lawrence has "it" in spades. She always elevates whatever she is in, no matter how sub-par the material. The Cool Kids had a surprisingly funny pilot, followed by a disastrous episode 2. I'll give it one more shot, solely because of Vicki. That you wrote an entry about her put a smile on my face.

Andy Rose said...

I've been surprised that David Alan Grier hasn't gotten more top-line work. He always, always manages to make me laugh, even when the material he's working with isn't very good.

Blecher said...

I agree, Ken. But even still, it's subjective isn't it? What you see, others might not. I mean no disrespect because I know she was your lead in "Almost Perfect," but I just don't understand how Nancy Travis has had a career in sitcoms.

BruceB said...

Most actors that do very broad comedy know how to "pull it back" to a realistic performance for light comedy or drama. Broad acting for comedy sketches is fun though, and the audience usually gets caught up in the fun the actors are having, making it more enjoyable for everyone. I've always liked Vickie Lawrence and am not surprised she can do less hammy sitcom style acting just as well as she did wonderfully hammy sketch. She did a number of appearances on "Yes, Dear" in the more realistic sitcom mode a few years back.

Oh, and Janet, above, I'm pretty sure the old man on Adam 12 with Rose Marie was Burt Mustin, a wonderful character actor who worked constantly until almost 100 years old. Jack Webb, who produced Adam 12 was a fan and cast him a lot.

DARON72 said...

David Alan Grier is a master thespian (can I still use that term?). He is amazing in Robert Altman's "Streamers." Nobody in the business probably thinks of him as a dramatic actor anymore but he can really deliver the goods!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

THE COOL KIDS is really terrible, and I'm sad about that because I really like Vicki Lawrence. I'd have thought, though, that the fact that Carol Burnett picked her would have been an indicator of how good she is. Burnett has always had superb taste in terms of who she hired to work with her, whether they were young or established.

wg

Janet Ybarra said...

It's a shame so much great talent is wasted on an iffy show.

I guess it's a good example that for a series to be great it takes talent behind the camera as well.

Janet Ybarra said...

Bruce, you are absolutely right! It was Burt Mustin, and I saw where he did work right up to his death at age 92 in 1977.

Great eye, or great memory, or both, Bruce.

Janet Ybarra said...

Jack Webb is somewhat underappreciated. He gets too intertwined with his Sgt. Friday character but he really was a great producer and a jazz fan, too.

He let his wife Julie London get away from him, but then she went on to marry fellow jazz musician Bobby Troup.

Then when it was time to cast EMERGENCY, he offered a job not only to London, his ex-wife but to Troup, her new husband as well.

I'd call that classy.

Mike Bloodworth said...

You are correct. It was Butt Mustin.
M.B.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Coincidentally, just a few days ago I asked an F.Q. about casting. Today's blog answers some, but not all of it. I'd still like to see my question answered in the near future. Maybe as a follow up to this Blog.
M.B.

thirteen said...

Burt Mustin may be better remembered by us antique wrecks as Gus the Fireman on Leave It to Beaver. During the early seasons, Beaver would go to him for advice. In one of the later shows, Beaver's aunt wants to pay to send him away to school (I think) and Beaver doesn't want to go, but no one's listening to him. There's an outdoor shot of Beaver passing the firehouse, looking at it briefly and then looking away, saddened. That brief scene has always stuck with me.

I worked with somebody who worked with Vicki Lawrence on Fox After Breakfast, which soon became The Vicki Lawrence Show.. She may be best appreciated from afar.

E. Yarber said...

Of course Jack Webb showed an entirely different side of his acting in SUNSET BOULEVARD.

While waiting for the bus this morning, I listened to part of Bryan Cranston's audiobook reading of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, a nearly eight-hour one-man performance. (The bus only SEEMED to take eight hours to arrive). Who could have suspected this sort of sustained tension from him if you only knew of his SEINFELD and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE work?

I'm Outraged! said...

She also had a 1974 top 10 hit in Australia with 'Ships in the Night'
.

Terrence Moss said...

Nancy Travis is a solid comedic actress.

Terrence Moss said...

he was great on "the Carmichael Show" -- which NBC fucked up.

VP81955 said...

It's only two eps in. Give it time to develop characters' backstories, conflicts, etc.

Anonymous said...

It was nice to see Jamie Farr in the pilot of The Cool Kids though :)
~Kimberly

Rick Hawkins said...

Having had the good fortune of working with Vicki Lawrence since the Carol Burnett Show, I've known from the outset what a naturally funny, versatile and gifted actress she is. As a result, I've put her at the top of my list when casting multiple sitcoms, including having the pleasure of Exec Producing "Mama's Family." Ken, you say "broad" like it's a bad thing. Vicki, Carol, Betty White, Ken Barry, and Harvey Korman all had the understanding and comedy skill to base their sketch characters in the honesty of human behavior which makes them both funny and timeless. FYI - Vicki is also an amazingly sensitive dramatic actress who can break your heart. I wish she'd be given more opportunities to show her range. She's a total pro. So happy to see she's found another sitcom home.

Curt Alliaume said...

Google Vicki Lawrence's appearances on game shows sometime (The $25,000 Pyramid, Match Game). She definitely has a sarcastic, cutting edge that hadn't fully developed when she was a teenager or 20-something working with Carol Burnett.

Frank Beans said...

One comedic actor that comes to mind is John Cleese on FAWLTY TOWERS, in the episode called "The Hotel Inspectors" where Basil Fawlty has to deal with a pestering asshat, whom he later mistakenly thinks is a hotel inspector. The man is rattling off a list of very specific, unusual requests when they first encounter each other at the hotel desk, and Cleese just looks around in bewilderment. No dialogue from him, but a priceless visual expression that is one of the funniest comedy moments of all time.

John Blahut said...

Welcome to the fan club, Ken! I've been a fan of hers for years. Mama's family sold me on her.

cadavra said...

I love THE COOL KIDS. Are the jokes obvious? Of course they are; they're not trying to break new ground here. But watching four incredible pros in action (I'll spare you the "reading the phone book" cliche) and within their firmly established wheelhouses is what makes it so delightful. We have so few character actors left (especially compared to the old days) that any excuse to get them working again is okay by me.

Mark said...

VIcki Lawrence has always been a significant talent - whether she is appearing on sitcoms, dramas, variety shows, or even game shows. She is a marvelous character actress - one of those people who can lose herself in a role, like Carroll O’Connor, or Jean Stapleton, or Henry Winkler, or Polly Holliday. But like WInkler and Holliday (and Sorrell Booke from “Dukes Of Hazzard”), she never got her due from the critics because of the material she was playing. “Mama’s Family” was not exactly a Noel Coward classic, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t do excellent work in it.

I am curious about how she is to work with. She was let go from her syndicated talk show, “Vicki”, and I know that she was estranged for a while from Carol Burnett (who by all accounts is a great person).

Danny said...

Re: Mark's comment about the estrangement between Vicki Lawrence and Carol Burnett. By the time MAMA'S FAMILY was revived as a made-for-syndication series in 1986, Burnett and husband Joe Hamilton had divorced. Hamilton was executive producer of MAMA'S FAMILY. Burnett was angry with Lawrence because she went back to work for her ex-husband on the MAMA'S FAMILY revival. Both ladies have told the same story about this, so it's likely true.

C Harris Lynn said...

A phenomenal waste of talent.

There has to be interference from somewhere; it has a dream cast, and Charlie is great, but this show is excruciating. It took me two hours to get through the pilot, and I stopped the second ep halfway through. I sincerely hope they get it together, because it's impossible for those four luminaries, backed by Charlie's writing, to be this completely unfunny.

The Mick was hilarious, and they reined it in immediately, toning-down a completely inappropriate premise the pilot made good on. The eps following were so careful, it never found an audience, then became uneven as it tried to regain lost ground, and died too soon.

I absolutely love this cast, and Charlie's work in general, so I'll check back later in the season (I have a feeling it won't get a full ride), but I'd rather wax my house with Round-Up than sit through 30 more minutes of this show. I really hate to say that, but...

I hope they are playing it safe to build an audience -- or something -- and plan on cutting loose later in the run, but this show is the biggest waste of talent I've witnessed since Studio 60.