Monday, October 22, 2018

Poker night in Hell

One of the hardest scripts David Isaacs and I ever wrote was THE MERCHANT OF KOREA episode of MASH (season 6). It was the first script that introduced the character of Charles Emerson Winchester (although it didn’t air until later in the season) so in many ways it was a pilot. But that wasn’t the difficulty.

The reason the script was so tough was because it featured an extended poker game. We’ve written poker scenes in other sitcoms and the problems are always the same.

The first issue is that you have to be true to the game. So you have to pay strict attention to who has what cards, and how you maneuver the betting to achieve your desired result. You also have to have characters spell things out to the portion of the audience that doesn’t really understand the game. What hand beats another hand? And how do you convey that to the viewer? You need them to know enough that they can follow the story. But you come up against the age-old writing problem of characters telling other characters things they already know. So you have to very deftly dole out your exposition.

And you need to make the scene funny. Not easy with just five people sitting at a table playing cards.

But wait – there’s more!

Editing is a bitch. You can’t take out too much or the game stops making sense. Or at the very least, people are betting and making decisions way too quickly and unnaturally. They need time to call. And what about poker games where there are individual rounds of cards issued, not five cards all at once? If a player wants new cards he has to ask for them and receive them. All of that must be covered. It’s not unusual for the writing room to get confused once they dive back into a poker scene. “How many cards have been issued?” “What was Hawkeye’s hand?” “Does Hot Lips get to call before BJ?” “Which players have folded by this point?” You get the idea.

Poker games are also murder during production. In terms of continuity, imagine having to remember exactly how many chips and what cards each player has at any given moment in the script. And where they are on the table (along with snacks, drinks, ashtrays, what-have-you).

And for the director, he’s always in danger of “going over the line.” What’s that? To explain simply: there is an imaginary line that runs through the middle of a scene. And if you have a shot that goes over that line it can be disorienting to the viewers. Characters may be looking in the wrong direction, etc. Camera coverage of poker games are always fraught with danger.  

Plus, if you’re doing the poker game in front of a studio audience (multi-cam), you generally don’t want someone sitting with his back to the camera and audience. None of the cameras will be able to see his face. And if you leave that seat vacant it always looks a little weird. Five people are jammed together while a chair stays empty. I tip my hat to THE ODD COUPLE TV show. They did lots of poker games. We did too on MASH but generally tried to make them very short or cut away to something else so we could come back just when we needed to without having to show all the logistics that got us there.

So that’s why I’m so proud of THE MERCHANT OF KOREA episode. Yes, we introduce a major character (pun only intended in retrospect) and wrote what I thought was a clever and funny episode, but my main source of pride is that… it seems to make sense.

Meanwhile, you will never see me and David doing to reboot of MAVERICK.

25 comments :

Matt Barnett said...

Between "MASH" and "The Odd Couple", I thought Poker would play a much bigger role in my life. HAHA.

CRL said...

The Odd Couple solved that problem by always having Speed ask 'Are we gonna play cards, or what?', which would shift the focus to the 'or what'.

Matt Barnett said...

-- Friday question --

What do you think of the pacing of today's sitcoms? They go at such a fast tempo that it's almost anxiety inducing. I first noticed this with "Cougar Town." I recently watched an episode of "The Goldbergs" and it ripped by at neck break speed. "Modern Family" is the same way. For me, it's almost too fast to enjoy.

Janet Ybarra said...

I loved your article today, Ken, because so many of my favorite MASH episodes have been poker episodes: "Merchant of Korea," "Dear Sigmund," and "Deal Me Out."

Based on what you wrote today, I would be curious if you and David referred to those earlier poker episodes as you worked to structure "Merchant"?

Also, those earlier poker games were set in the Swamp but "Merchant" was in the Officers' Club. Did that make a difference in writing or producing?

Also, how does the number of characters in the game affect writing or producing?

Thanks again, as I found this really fascinating.

Paul Duca said...

It's where we learned that at the Levine house,they always carve the ham equally.

Michael said...

I knew you had written that episode, but I didn't realize that it predated the others with Winchester, so to speak (and for what it's worth, I think Larry Linville was a genius, but he was right: they had gone as far as they could with Frank Burns, and David Ogden Stiers was a genius, too, and he and the folks behind the scenes made Winchester a terrific character).

Anyway, I'm reminded of a later episode about bridge--the season 9 opener where Potter and Winchester want to compete and suffer for their arrogance.

Brian said...

Friday question: Did you and David write the episode of Mash where the characters had a series of deals or favors going in a chain? Each one wanted something in return from somebody else and it kept going until there 7 or 8 things that all had to happen. Of course, it come crashing down at the end when the chain breaks. If you did write it (and you can recognize if from my description), can you give us some background on it?

McAlvie said...

I've always enjoyed that episode. I think because it was very character driven, since so much of it did take place at the poker table. That it was tightly plotted was evident because it did have the feel of a real poker game and played fair with the audience. I think one of the reasons MASH lives on in popularity is that it was really such an intelligent show. Not in that the characters were all great brains, but because it didn't treat the audience as stupid.

It was a really great way to let the audience get to know Winchester, too. "He whistles louder when he has nothing!"

E. Yarber said...

The attention to detail here reflects a general principle I try to instill in beginning writers.

Back in the early days of cartoons, some companies relied on what was called "Rubber Hose Animation," where the characters bounced around with seemingly boneless limbs. Disney particularly tried to get away from that, insisting that figures had to reflect a degree of weight and inner anatomy as they moved around instead of just being imposed on the space.

You can apply the same standard to any sort of writing. If the characters are playing poker, are the cards just floating around the table, or do you know exactly what hand each character is holding? If someone is acting strange, do the others in the room just watch like background scenery, or is each having an individual response? An easy mistake to make is to focus entirely on the action of one character at a time while blanking out on the setting as a whole, just as a Rubber Hose character's hand may reach for a doorknob while the arm attached to it flops loosely between it and the body.

A writer should never forget Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Nothing happens in a vacuum, especially in drama, which should keep your stories popping in unexpected directions like a pinball rather than moving dully in a clearly predetermined path.

Mike Bloodworth said...

This isn't necessarily an F.Q., but...
I'm really confused. If this was the first "Charles" episode written that means they had to go back and write an introduction episode AFTER he was already on the show. WHY?? Was this a guest shot before they decided to make David Ogden Stiers a regular? Was he already cast as Frank's replacement and they figured they would worry about how he got here, later? Were the parameters of the character in place before you and David wrote it? And if not, were "Charles'" characteristics and personality influenced by this episode? I know they will air shows out of the order in which they were shot, but I had no idea that they wrote out of sequence. A little clarification would be nice.
M.B.

Donald Benson said...

Probably not the one you have in mind, but I recall one where Hawkeye got old-fashioned long underwear from home -- a highly coveted item during a cold snap. The red union suit moved from character to character via various deals.

Janet Ybarra said...

No, that episode was during the Henry Blake years... several years before Ken and David's time.

VP81955 said...

Speaking of bridge, one of the weirdest films on it ever made was "Grand Slam," a pre-Code comedy from 1933 starring Loretta Young and Paul Lukas as a married couple (he's a Russian waiter and would-be writer). It satirizes the contract bridge craze of the early '30s, which more or less succeeded miniature golf as a momentary American obsession (Paul develops a bizarre bidding "method" that sweeps the country). Supporting them are several of Warners' superb corps of character actors (including Frank McHugh, Glenda Farrell and Roscoe Karns, who calls a championship bridge match on radio followed by everyone from streetwalkers to Chinese laundry workers to Harlem bootblacks. (Hey, it was 1933, after all.) Its absurdist tone makes it a delight; Turner Classic Movies runs it occasionally.

Unknown said...

Hadn't realized what a pain a poker game would be to write, but I can give a real life example that probably would've been even harder.

I'm on a corporate trip to Lake Tahoe, with pretty much the entire company I was working for. One of the lodges has this huge roundish table whose top is a slice of a single monster sized tree. Big enough to put, say, 23 people around. And someone has a deck of cards...

First and only time I've ever played 23 player Texas Hold'em, the maximum size you can do with a single deck. I suspect writing that game would've required it be shot in as close to a single take as possible.

(It did actually have an affect on my life. First, it resulted in a popular after work tournament each week for a year or so. And that led to me playing at the local card rooms (we had some former poker pros at work), eventually getting up to having the skill level to play 40/80 Limit Hold'Em).

Dan Cluley said...

Probably "For want of a boot" from s2 but "The price of tomato juice" from s4 is somewhat similar.

Gary said...

Plus, if you’re doing the poker game in front of a studio audience (multi-cam), you generally don’t want someone sitting with his back to the camera and audience. None of the cameras will be able to see his face. And if you leave that seat vacant it always looks a little weird. Five people are jammed together while a chair stays empty

You do see that on sitcoms, though, and it bugs me, though I understand why they do it. The family having breakfast, everyone crowded shoulder to shoulder, while a good portion of the table--the side facing the audience and the cameras--is completely unoccupied.

Douglas Trapasso said...

@unknown - I know very little about poker (thankfully) but is there any logical reason a game that big could't be played with two decks?

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Douglas: you can't play hold'em with more than one deck, or you can end up with duplicate winning (and losing) hands. It also screws up the odds of getting a flush, straight, pairs, etc etc, and can lead to weird card combinations. (Imagine having a hand with *five* aces!)

Ken, interesting you bring this up as I consider myself a (non-winning) hold'em poker player. But one (rare) time I actually had four of a kind, I used the line given to Hawkeye: "I have two pair. A pair of black nines, and a pair of red nines!"

Unknown: IMHO playing hold'em with THAT many players would be a nightmare. No matter how good a hand you have, there's a real chance someone has an even better one.

Anyway, all of this is another good reason why there's almost zero really good poker movies.

Andy Rose said...

A producer on Breaking Bad said that, for all of the elaborate stunts and pyro they did on that show, the scenes he really hated shooting were dialogue scenes in a moving car. Seems simple, but you have to close off a couple of blocks of a public street (and hire a couple of blocks' worth of cops and PAs to lock it down), get background vehicles, do special camera setups, special lighting, have the key crew follow with a chase car, etc. If somebody goes up in the middle of the scene, it takes a few minutes to reset all of those cars. And if one of your actors is doing the actual driving, there may be insurance issues, too. No wonder so many shows use green screen for car scenes, no matter how bad it looks.

sueK2001 said...

When I bought the Season Six DVD's, I must have watched "Merchant" a dozen times...easily one of my favorite episodes with so many great moments..so you and David did good..and your hard work will last a lifetime!

Mike Barer said...

I imagine on the other end, golf would be the easiest. All you have to do is film two people on grass with golf clubs.

B. Alton said...

Glad you mentioned the poker in The Odd Couple, Ken, as one of my fave eps, from the much maligned first season, is “The Blackout” where a missing $50 from the “poker pot” ends up as the “lettuce” for Oscar’s deli sandwich. Contains classic Belson Oscar “buy a dog” line. Features the always funny Larry Gelman (Dr. Tuperman on The Bob Newhart Show) as one of the poker regulars (Vinnie?)

Joseph Scarbrough Puppet Productions said...

"The Merchant of Korea" is one of my favorite episodes, if only because of the heat wave subplot: it's very relatable, considering my part of the country generally has extremely hot and humid summers.

But, I digress. As far as THE ODD COUPLE goes, I remember listening to a commentary with Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, saying that when it came to the poker games, Jerry usually wrote those, because he was an avid poker player, so he was sort of the "technical advisor" in that sense. But, they also mentioned that the reason why they phased out Oscar's poker buddies (except for Murray the Cop, whose character was broadened over the series, since Al Molinaro worked so well with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman) was because network research was turning up that audiences found Oscar's poker games boring and uninteresting.

Donald Benson said...

Very minor peeve: When characters play chess, and the "checkmate" move comes as a complete surprise to the loser. Unless the guy only learned the game a day or two before, he'd know it was coming no matter how brilliant his opponent. I recall "From Russia With Love" had a chess match between masters. It ended when one conceded, seeing he was ultimately boxed in.

A friend of my father's bragged his way into a game with a local champ. To save at least some face, after twenty minutes or so he shook his head sadly and said, "I concede. You've got me in seventeen moves."

Grepdrep said...

This series has become incredibly popular. And this is quite understandable. On all MASH websites, the recipe for creating a series is described as follows: "Take a little humor, then pour a little more humor, add a few fine points of absolute humor to your taste and put on a slow fire, and add a little bit of touching to the dessert." The recipe by and large fully meets the reality ..