Friday, June 19, 2020

Friday Questions

Celebrating Juneteenth with Friday Questions.


Jon Weisman leads off:


Was Diane's "Norman" after everyone shouts "Norm" originally scripted and then just carried on, or did it originate as a kind of ad-lib? It's such a nice touch and so Diane, and I've always wanted to know if there was an origin story. 


It was a Shelley ad lib originally and never put into the scripts.  In her dialogue she would refer to Norm as Norman, but in the entrances she tossed that in on her own.


Craig Gustafson wants to know:


When writing a sitcom episode, how much trouble are tags? I just watched the "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode, "Obnoxious, Offensive, Egomaniac, Etc...", where they break into Alan Brady's office to retrieve a script littered with Alan Brady insults. It's one of the classic episodes (based on the writers' experiences writing obscenities into their "Joey Bishop Show" scripts) with a perfect ending.  And then they had to come back for another two minutes, which were completely anti-climactic.

Is this hard to maneuver around?


Tags are a pain in the ass.  They’re only there to work around two commercial breaks.  Usually we would try to callback something from the show and get a joke or two out of that, but I’d say 90% of sitcom tags can be lifted and you’d never miss them. 


On dramas, they sometime wrap things up.  PERRY MASON tags always had someone say, “Perry, the thing I don’t understand is…”  He would then spell out the plot for the audience.


But now most sitcoms have abandoned tags for the three-act structure.  It used to be two-acts with the act break coming in the middle.  Now the story is broken into thirds.  Again, this is not because it’s a better way of storytelling, it’s because networks want to get in their commercials without losing too much audience. Considering the shorter time allowed for program content it's actually a worse structure for good storytelling. 


From marka:


We watch shows where we see the joke coming from the first moment. We watch shows where we know how it's going to end two minutes in. We all have, I know.


But why? Is it laziness on the part of the writers? Is it ignorance on their part, do they think they're writing great stuff? Is the head writer just wanting to get to the track so if enough words are on the script then he's outta here? Do none of them care?


All of the above with the exception of the last one.  Staff writers might care deeply, but if the showrunner is a hack, or has Laker tickets (remember when you could go to basketball games?), there’s nothing they can do.  Believe me, there are a lot of very frustrated staff writers and low-level producers working for lousy showrunners. 


But I must point out that we’re talking about subpar shows.  There are wonderful, passionate caring showrunners who are turning out amazing work and inspiring their staffs. 


I was so lucky in my career to work for showrunners who set incredibly high standards and produced shows I was proud to be associated with.   They never settled and thanks to them, I learned never to settle as well.  It was a gift. 

And finally, from Kendall Rivers:


One of my favorite sitcoms happens to be Becker so it's great that you happened to have written and directed for it. Friday Question: What are your favorite episodes of Becker if you haven't already answered this question before?


My sentimental favorite is “The Usual Suspects” because I thought it came out great and I wrote and directed it.


My other favorite is also an episode I coincidentally directed.  “Linda Quits” by Glenn Gers. 

What's your Friday Question? 





Lemuel said...

I think MOM has tags, if you mean the short bit after commercials.

Glenn said...

The tags for Frasier must have been tough, because they were all silent (while the rasier theme played underneath).

Kendall Rivers said...

It was me who asked the Becker question. Also, speaking of The Usual Suspects that's one of my favorites as well. I always wondered why after Bob left they couldn't have brought Detective Burkow to fill the void instead that other heavy set dude who added nothing. Burkow's incompetent and hilarious cop would've been perfect addition to the show and to drive Becker up the wall on a regular basis.

Kendall Rivers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Phillips said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: One of my favorite nights performing improv was a night I was doing well and seeing a man I knew that was having marital issues and his Dad had recently passed. He was laughing like mad and I was happy to provide what I felt was much-needed laughter.

It need not be the longest laugh, but what are some of the "meaningful" laughs from your scripts or direction that you have experienced?

Brian Phillips said...

I enjoyed "Becker" enough to buy the series on DVD and I noticed a nice touch. Shawnee Smith over-enunciates certain words, which is a nice way to delineate her character. This tells me that, yes, she plays the "dumb" character, but she must have been educated in some fine schools or came from money.

I'm gathering this is something she or a directos "found" along the way, not unlike Shelley Long's "Norman" or David Hyde-Pierce being told that Niles needs to wipe down a seat in Cafè Nervosa before sitting down.

Ryan E said...

Re: seeing jokes coming, knowing how it's going to end - I know it's not new to praise this show, but Breaking Bad is the most incredible experience I've ever had in that regard. I'm curious if you would agree Ken, but I don't think I've personally seen a better job of surprising you while remaining faithful to the characters. No matter how hard a turn somebody took, no matter how crazy the curveball, it felt right. Even the most irrational move from a character felt honest, not like an arbitrary shocker with post hoc justification.

Paul Gottlieb said...

But sometimes you can see the joke coming from a mile away, and yet when it finally lands it' a moment of comic bliss. Either it lands with a brilliant twist that you didn't see coming, or sometimes the setup was so great that the actual joke is like a comedy orgasm. I'm thinking of the Honeymooners episode "The $99,000 Answer." You could see that joke coming a mile away, but it still kills! I'm sure we can think of many others

cd1515 said...

Friday question:
Actors love to talk about lines, jokes or scenes that they ad-libbed (only the ones that worked, of course).
How does that play with writers who spent hours/days opening up a vein at the keyboard, knowing that many actors apparently think they can just cruise in and wing something that will be better?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Our local CBS has played reruns of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW since before I was born, and while they generally broadcast the episodes mostly uncut, they do always cut out the tags. For the most part, they aren't missed, as Ken says, but there are a few episodes here and there where the tag was among the funniest part of the episode, such as "Opie's Rival," in which during the tag, Opie starts telling Andy's latest flame, Peggy, everything his Pa explained to him the other night about love and companionship, to which Andy starts trying to drown him out by playing an altered version of the folk song "Cindy": "Git on home, Cindy, Cindy, get on home! Git on home, Opie, Opie, and Opie hush yo mouth! Git on home, Opie, Opie, get on home - GIT ON HOME! Git on home, Opie, Opie, I wish you'd close yo mouth!"

Jeff said...

I have watched All in the Family in reruns so many times since the late 70s that I practically had the episodes memorized. It was such a revelation when they finally put the unedited shows out on dvd to see that they had tags! And yes, some of them are anti-climatic. I always thought the Sammy Davis Jr. episode ended with the big laugh from Sammy kissing Archie, but there was a tag where they receive the autographed photo in the mail that Sammy later sent them.

Mark Little said...

Greatest tag ever - Dragnet. We always waited to see what the bad guy got.

Troy McClure said...

Goddamn it. I've been so looking forward to Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, and now news has broken that the lead actor Ansel Elgort has been accused of sexually assaulting a 17 year old.

One of two things will happen. Either it will cast a huge shadow over the release of the film at Christmas, or Spielberg will do what Ridley Scott did and reshoot the scenes with a new actor. The problem is that Scott only had to reshoot a few scenes. Elgort is the male lead. And the film is apparently already cut and finished.

But hey, if there's anyone in Hollywood with the clout to reshoot an entire film from scratch, it's him. Predictably, lots of jokes already on twitter about replacing Elgort with Christopher Plummer.

Kevin said...

I recently watched a repeat of THE NEIGHBORHOOD that was so bad I couldn't believe it was on network television. Not only were the jokes predictable, the A story was one that has been seen a hundred times and the B story was so bad even a Disney Channel show would have rejected it. Usually, this show isn't this bad, but I was really appalled at how terrible and lazy this one was. It makes me weep for multi cams.

Jeff Boice said...

I always liked the tags on The Avengers- my favorite being the episode where Steed and Peel foil a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister- the tag has them awaiting a visit from the PM...

PolyWogg said...

FQ: Great info about Diane's "Norman" as an ad about a list of other memorable ones?

Phil said...

Here in the UK, we we've always had a very different experience watching US sitcoms. If shown on the BBC (as MASH, Rhoda and Taxi were, back in the day) there were no commercials at all. The ad breaks just appear as dramatic act breaks; the equivalent of curtain down/curtain up.

And if shown on commercial channels (as Cheers, The Simpsons and Frasier were/are) we typically just have one ad break, halfway through the show.

When I have watched sitcoms on American TV, I have been appalled by how frequent the ad breaks are!

Which brings me to a Friday question:

Ken, have you ever caught any of your shows on British TV? Do you find the ad breaks (or lack thereof) kinder to your material? Or are you so used to writing for the US ad breaks that the British screenings seem "wrong" to you?

(Incidentally, as I'm sure you know, MASH aired completely without laugh track during its original run on the BBC. We Brits found it dramatic, but also hilarious - despite not being "told" when to laugh and when not to...)

Kendall Rivers said...

Friday Question: As you know a star of a successful show going on to another big hit that they become equally identified with is rare like Patricia Heaton with Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, Andy Griffith with The Andy Griffith Show and Matlock, Sherman Hemsley with The Jeffersons and Amen etc. what do you think it takes to take a star from such an iconic role on one show and be able to somehow have the audience who very well know them from that role accept them in another role?

Liggie said...

The Chuck Lorre shows I watch, including "Mom" and "The Big Bang Theory", are two-act shows with both teasers and tags. The only TBBT I remember without a traditional tag was Sheldon and Amy's wedding, because they didn't have enough room.

"Superstore" I believe uses three acts, with just a one-minute break after the first act; other than that, the only other three-act sitcom I remember was "Murphy Brown", which didn't have teasers or tags.

An unrelated FQ: Which side, the players or owners, are being dumber or more unreasonable in the baseball COVID-19 laber dispute?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Re: "Becker." Once again I had to go to IMDb to look up those episodes because I couldn't remember anything about them.
In "Linda Quits" I had forgotten that that episode had as a guest star my mentor and friend, the late Avery Schreiber. I will have to try to watch it again. By the way, is this the same episode where Becker learns that Linda lives in a gigantic apartment?
As for "The Usual Suspects," I noticed that the writing credit is for YOU ALONE. Not you and David. What happened? Was he sick? Did he hate the series as much as I do?. I'm very curious.

I don't know who (whom?) is in charge of editing the shows, the syndicator or the individual stations. But as I've mentioned before a lot of shows seem to have different cuts. Sometimes they include the tags, sometimes they're eliminated. The episodes of "M*A*S*H" currently running on MeTV often include the tags.


Anonymous said...

@Craig Gustafson
"It's one of the classic episodes (based on the writers' experiences writing obscenities into their "Joey Bishop Show" scripts) with a perfect ending."

While it has been said that it was based on how much insiders disliked Bishop, there is no question that it is also very similar to previous Flintstones and Honeymooners episodes ("The Mailman Cometh" and "Letter to the Boss") and was probably done before that on radio. Maybe vaudeville.

Wilma was brilliant in her version.

Gary said...

When the Sammy Davis Jr episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY aired in syndication, it ended with Archie's startled reaction after Sammy kissed him. When I saw the uncut DVD version, I was surprised to see that Archie had a line after that, about Sammy having a kissing clause on his contract. And then the scene ended, and the tag followed after that. This was a rare case where the edited version was better, simply ending on the kiss. Nothing could top that.

marka said...

Thanks for answering my question. It's another one I've spent hours wondering about so I'm grateful for your answer.

71dude said...

The MASH episode "Margaret's Marriage" ends so much better with Frank's poignant "Bye Margaret" than with the useless tag scene. However one of the funniest MASH tags had Klinger pretending to be a civilian in Toledo and almost winning the discharge until Potter trips him up by asking for his rank and he answers "Corporal".

ScarletNumber said...

The irony of Diane calling Norm "Norman" is that Norm's actual first name was Hilary!

@Kendall Rivers

It is an interesting phenomena, but I think the three examples you gave don't apply. Three better examples are Bea Arthur, Betty White, and Larry Hagman. You could also argue for Bryan Cranston and David Hasselhoff.

@Mike Bloodworth

I'm with you. While I enjoyed Becker while it was on and I have enjoyed Shawnee Smith since Summer School, I don't remember any of the episodes in particular, especially not bu their titles. I did enjoy the Becker reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm this year, though.

J Lee said...

IIRC, Cheers had only one end tag during its 11-season run, with the first show of Season 5 fading to black after Diane sneaks onto the sailboat and finds the priest there instead of Sam. Commercial break and then a final scene at the bar where Diane returns and vows to get Sam to fall in love with her again.

Ken, any reason why that show had an ad break between the final two scenes but no other one did? Or did it just seem better to let the audience linger over the idea of Diane in the negligee getting into bed with the priest for a minute or so before coming back with the end tag?

ELP said...

Friday question: I recently watched the Head of the Family pilot, which was the first attempt of what later became The Dick Van Dyke Show. As Ken knows, Head of the Family, which featured Carl Reiner is the Rob Petrie role and different actors from the actors that appeared in The Dick Van Dyke Show in the supporting roles, has the main elements of The Dick Van Dyke Show in place, but the chemistry is severely lacking, the tone of the show is different, and the sets are different. What leads to a pilot getting a second chance at being recast and changed in other ways and being done again, as opposed to just being set aside and forgotten?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Other examples: Bob Denver ("Dobie Gillis," "Gilligan's Island"), Robert Young ("Father Knows Best," "Marcus Welby, M.D."), Buddy Ebsen ("The Beverly Hillbillies,"Barnaby Jones), and perhaps the best-known example of lightning striking twice, Bob Newhart ("The Bob Newhart Show," "Newhart.")

Kevin from VA said...


Another Friday question: Why still Friday? Now that you no longer post on Sunday your Saturday posts feel almost like a "tag" to your Friday questions. If you changed answering your reader's questions to Saturday then we would have all weekend to read, reply, and sometimes even debate each other over your answers.

Mike said...

“Three’s Company” had tags, and the broadcast syndication package edited them out. This meant that you missed most of the Chrissy phone calls to her roommates when Suzanne Somers was being punished during contract renegotiations in season 5. The cable runs have restored those tags.

Good point about the “All in the Family” tags. GetTV’s version of the show has at least some of them. I think they stopped doing them later in the run.

Kendall Rivers said...


Yes those are three other great examples as well as Marla Gibbs, Michael J. Fox and Tom Selleck but idk how the ones I mentioned don't apply? How do they not apply when those choices very well did have two hit tv series. Hell, Andy Griffith is as well known for Ben Matlock as he is for Andy Griffith lol.

@Kevin Fitzmaurice

Other great ones, and ironically Newhart turned out to basically be still The Bob Newhart show.

Greg Ehrbar said...


It can depend on the episode. The All in the Family about Edith's change of life was significantly (and largely eternally) changed in tone by removing the tag scene. As it ran endlessly (and currently) in syndication and cable, Archie thinks he has figured out how to "fix" Edith's problem but moments later she yells at him again. Fade.

As written, the tag shows them arriving from the front door wearing Mickey Mouse hats. They have been to Disney World and have lived through the change. (I think Archie was also wearing "the good shirt he got at Disney World" mentioned years later when he met another woman and got dressed up to see her.

Norman Lear was furious at the edits and had his name removed from the initial syndicated episodes.

maxdebryn said...

Friday question - I have vague memories of watching a similar-to-MASH sitcom featuring African-American actors, called ROLL OUT back when I was about 12 or 13 years of age. I was thinking about the show the other day, and thought that Scoey Mitchell was the lead actor. I looked the show up on IMDB and was surprised that both Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were involved (creator/writers). The lead actor was actually Stu Gilliam. Do you have any memories of the show ?

Unknown said...

Jay Moriarty said...

TAGS - Most half-hour scripts are written without a tag, unless the story calls for it. If a show needs a tag, it usually means it came in short. Sometimes, after an episode is edited, it could, for various reasons, be anywhere from 30-90 seconds short of the network's delivery time, which is usually around 22 minutes. It takes at least a few days following shoot night for a show to be edited and an accurate timing to be determined so a tag can be written. A tag then could be shot at the end of the next shoot night after the audience has been released and after all necessary pick-ups for the current show have been completed. Tags are tricky and, as Ken says, a "pain in the ass" because they have to be timed pretty much exactly and should end with a show-ending joke. In the early days of All in the Family, writers Mickey Ross & Bernie West would type up a tag and take it to director John Rich on the set, where John would often read the tag then tear it up and tell the writers to keep writing. Mickey & Bernie then started putting dotted lines on the tag pages with instructions to "Tear Along Dotted Lines."

Anonymous said...


Every once in a while, we see a sitcom episode where one of the actors clearly has a serious head cold, and is hopped up on enough decongestants to get them through the taping.

It is so obvious that the actor is sick- couldn't they just let the character be sick? People in the real world have colds all the time, but characters in TV only get sick when it serves the plot.

I'm sure this is because you want to eliminate anything that might be a distraction - if a character is sick, then the audience will be wondering *why* the character is sick. Another example might be the weather - you never have a lightning storm unless the script calls for one. But have you ever been tempted to infuse that kind of realism for no reason other than the fact that its realistic to do so? Or is it simply not worth the distraction?

I suspect I may have answered my own question...

- Matt in RI

Griff said...

@Greg Ehrbar

That tag -- with a rested, refreshed, grinning Edith and Archie coming through the front door laden with Walt Disney World paraphernalia -- was perfect. Watching the show back in the day, our family living room exploded with laughter. It represented a great and welcome release of tension for both the characters and the viewing audience; as you perceptively note, they've managed to survive and "lived through the change." The show itself is easily one of the four or five best AITF episodes. Mr. Lear is correct; without the tag, it's a very different show.

Rocketman said...

Holy smoke, I've been watching Cheers for 20 years and never picked up on Shelley Long politely saying Norman after the rest of the gang. I had to watch a couple of episodes to confirm. It's the show that keeps on giving.

Anonymous said...

Just as a side light.
Recently for nostaglia's ske watched pilot episode of Newhart ( psychologist/ Chicago series) and saw a young Penny Marshall in very minor role as airline stewerdess.
This is one of the things I am beginning to enjoy is seeing early versions of actors before they became identified with specific roles (DeForrest Kelly in western before he became "Doc" on Star trek)
Sometimes they are uncreditted and require a visit to IMDB to ensure that my eyes were not tricking me.
To be able to see and perhaps track an actors development appeals to me.