Friday, June 26, 2020

Friday Questions

Wrapping up June with Friday Questions.  What’s yours?


Cris43130 gets us started. 


Shows have producers and directors. When did the term "showrunner" come into being and why is it necessary? Wasn't that always a producer's responsibility?


To answer your last question first – yes.  It’s just a matter of semantics. There's always been that one guy or one team that, uh... ran the show. 


Showrunner is just a less-than-fancy way of saying person actually in charge.  It used to be the Executive Producer was essentially the showrunner, but as staffs swelled and non-writing producers attached themselves there would be multiple Executive Producers.  Showrunner distinguishes the real creative force.  Interestingly, it’s a credit that has never been on the screen.

Guess it's not impressive enough.  I would opt for Grand Poobah myself. 


Brian Phillips has a baseball question (it's supposed to start up again -- we'll see):


Have you ever commentated on a no-hitter?


Yes. Every time. I think the superstition is bullshit. 

I’ve called two no-hitters on the air and mentioned it both times.  Like Vin Scully, I told listeners to call their friends and tell them.   

If I was a listener I would want to know.  I'd hate to listen or watch a game for half an inning, turn it off, and find out later it was the eighth inning of a no-hitter. 


My mentioning it is not going to affect the outcome.  I should have such power.


From cd1515:


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?


Oh we just LOVVVVE it.


Seriously, though, it does piss us off.  I mean, it’s bad enough people think the actors make up their lines anyway, without actors unfairly taking credit for them.

Or worse, actors thinking they can do better. 


I’ve had actors pitch a bad joke they’d like to use and I would always say, 200 strangers are going to be sitting up in those bleachers.  Do you really think 200 strangers are going to laugh at that joke?  Invariably they back off. 


Happily, I’ve worked almost exclusively with actors who had great respect for us and our contribution.  And so the respect is mutual. 


And finally, from Gary:


If you and your writing partner were just starting out and desperate to break into the business, would you accept a writing assignment from a show you thought was terrible? (I'm thinking of something like GILLIGAN'S ISLAND or MY MOTHER THE CAR.)

And if so, would you try to dumb your writing down to match the tone and audience of such a show, or would you try to "write up" and create a more clever and quality episode?


First off, if we were starting out, we would KILL to get an assignment on either of those two shows.  To get paid to write a network show – we would be beyond thrilled.   Trust me, we would not just hold out for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. 


As for the actual writing, we would work hard to give them a script in the style and tone of their show.   To do anything else would be to get rewritten.  We would work our asses off to the give the showrunner the best possible version of HIS show in his style.



Tom Asher said...

Ken, I've been watching quite a bit of old baseball on YouTube - partial to the Phillies and Orioles... are you aware of any of your old games for the O's being out there?

WB Jax said...

Hey Ken. Just finished reading your DVD script, which I really enjoyed. Not a Friday Question, but an inquiry: did Carl Reiner ever get back to you?

Speaking of Carl Reiner, I saw where he recently had all his notated DVD scripts digitized(for inclusion in the National Comedy Center's archives). There was an example from one of the very early shows posted online and I was particularly taken with his willingness to heavily edit himself, sometimes scratching out whole paragraphs of dialogue, penciling in its place maybe a single short line. Was fascinating to see a bit of his process.

Kendall Rivers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fed by the muse said...

I imagine in those days one would try to get any 'gig' that was out there. I think of someone like Rick Mittleman, who seems to have worked on every sixties/seventies sitcom from Bewitched to Sanford and Son (including a good Flintstones, a couple of very funny Odd Couples, two DVDs and even a MASH) before eventually transitioning to drama series (also worked on staff of Van Dyke and Company).

Also, I could see you and David writing (and having fun with) Batman, perhaps creating a character original to the series (ala The Bookworm).

RobW said...

As an extremely casual baseball fan ( I've seen about a dozen games live simply to enjoy a summer outing ) can someone please explain the question and answer about the no-hitter ?

Please don't laugh.

Wes said...

Re: ad-libbing actors -- Or you could be like Tom Koch, who wrote thousands of scripts for Bob Eliott and Ray Goulding, but whose contributions to the team remained largely anonymous because Bob and Ray preferred to maintain the illusion that they just went out there are made up all that stuff as they went along. (And to be fair to Bob and Ray, they did write a fair share of their own material and were skilled ad-libbers, just never to the extent they liked their audiences to believe.)

Kendall Rivers said...

I actually have two Friday Questions:

1. This is just assuming you like the tv action show genre but what do you think about the modern tv action heroes are represented today? In my opinion they're either idiot manchildren or broken psychopaths who are no better than the "bad guys" they're hunting. You don't really have these type of male leads who are intelligent, strong, tough, competent, noble, humble and most importantly have a sense of humor. There's less complexity today in these prestige dramas. The last male action lead on tv I can think of that had any depth or personality was Michael Weston from Burn Notice.

2. I have heard many times that writers always prefer the more flawed Tv characters to write for rather than just the "nice" (which means bland) characters. I mean the most popular tv characters are take your pick from Tony Soprano and Archie Bunker to George Jefferson, Fred Sanford, Alex P. Keaton, Dr. Gregory House, Al Bundy, Dan Fielding and Louie Depalma. My FQ is with you and David having written many likeable but still interesting characters have you ever really desired to write for a truly despicable character for the fun of being able to write the most horrible things and get away with it?

TimWarp said...

@RobW (who asked so I didn't have to!):,Superstitions,even%20going%20near%20the%20pitcher).
or if you don't want to click on the link:
"One of the most common baseball superstitions is that it is bad luck to mention a no-hitter in progress, especially to the pitcher and in particular by their teammates (who sometimes even go so far as to avoid even going near the pitcher)"

Canadian Dude said...

There's a long-standing superstition among ballplayers that if you mention that your pitcher has a no-hitter (or, the extremely rare perfect game) going - he'll inevitably go out and give up a hit because you've somehow tempted the baseball Gods.

This probably came about because 99% of the time a pitcher has a no-hitter going, odds are he'll give up a hit or two - whether you mention it or not... I mean, the other team have bats and their job is to hit the ball.

(There's another rule attached to no-hitters - you're never supposed to try to break one up by bunting. Even if you're only down by a run. I think stuff like this evolves when you have the luxury of a 162 game season. But not this year, of course.)

Canadian Dude said...

Oh - about ad-libbing. I once had two guys doing a routine I'd written for an awards show, that was going over really well... then one of them ad-libbed a line that got a groan. He turned to the crowd and said, "Don't blame me. I don't write this shit." Then he went back to the script and started getting laughs again.

Unknown said...

Reminds me of the story line in Friends. Joey is a "brain doctor" on a soap opera, and during an interview he says he writes most of the material for his character. The writers get back at him by having him fall down an elevator shaft and get a brain injury only his character can fix. So he dies.
I'm sure that is a real pet peave for all writers, actors getting credit for great lines of the writers.

Probably the only show that has characters doing their own lines, is Curb your enthusiasm.

RF Burns said...

I used to work for a radio station that was a Diamondbacks affiliate. When Randy Johnson had a perfect game going against the Braves in 2004, it was pretty interesting to hear the D-backs radio play-by-play guy (Greg Schulte) go through all kinds of verbal gymnastics to avoid uttering the words "perfect game".

For the casual fans: a perfect game is one in which none of the players on the opposing team get on base by any opposed to a "no-hitter", in which no player on the opposing team records a "hit" (but players get on base via walks, hit-by-pitch, etc.).

DBA said...

It's funny. I'd read the no-hitter question in the comments when it was originally asked, and even though I am well aware of the superstition about mentioning it outloud while in-progress, I didn't think the question was asking about that aspect? I took it just as wondering if Ken were ever part of the broadcasting team during one and called the game live. I could tell by the answer it's a peeve though given how Ken went directly to the superstition.
Personally I've always been on the "mention it so people see it" train. My sibling always shushes me. Then I laugh.

Anonymous said...

1. Bob and Ray’s Slow Talker routine was wildly ripped off in Zootopia

2. Charlie Chaplin was MUCH more dependent on staff writers and
musicians than is generally realized, or was known outside the industry

3. A “perfect game” is a misnomer or a near-impossibility or
too poorly defined to make much sense.
Shouldn’t a “Perfect” pitched game be one with only 27 pitches
thrown- with each one resulting in a ground/line/pop/fly out?
Or shouldn’t it be a game with 81 pitches with 27 strikes outs,
with none involving bat and ball contact?
Or, really, shouldn’t the only “Perfect” game be a pre-game Forfeit,
where no pitch is thrown?

4. For Baseball radio broadcasts dating back to the 1930s

blinky said...

Speaking of GIlligans Island, I never watched it because I thought Bob Denver's Maynard G. Krebs character on Dobie Gillis was perfect and he would forever be that character, like George Reeves was Superman. . Maynard was the coolest cat ever, man. "Like wow Mr G!", He was as subversive as any network TV character ever got in the late 50's.

Anonymous said...


Could you elaborate more on the issue of actors ad-libbing? While many or perhaps most actors don't really have comedy chops, I would think that a number of them, especially those coming from improv and stand up backgrounds, may be able to contribute. Or, in the case of MASH, actors that know the characters so intimately that they may have a valid point for something better.

And how and when is ad-libbing acceptable, if ever? At the table read? Or is it always, or generally, best to not ad lib, but to suggest a change? Privately or publicly? And should the actor approach the director first? And if an actor ad-libs say a taping, are they "forced" back to the script for the second taping?

I'm just curious on the mechanics you've noticed and would like more information.

Thank you, Keith in Kalama

MikeN said...

DBA, that was how I interpreted the question as well. I think the questioner was looking for details he remembers about a no-hitter or one that was close.

Jeff Alexander said...

Mr. Levine:

You may know (or at least know of) comedy writer Susan Silver (who wrote the book, "Hot Pants In Hollywood).
I recall reading an interview with her at about the time she was writing for the Bob Newhart Show and the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.
She said that a writer friend of hers (who she did not name) was asked what that friend would do if he got an assignment for a series he hated. His reply was that he would write the best damn Gilligan's Island script they ever had!

Michael said...

About the no-hitter "jinx" ....

The Vin (he is so special that he deserves a special designation) did Don Larsen's perfect game and avoided using those words. He said that was for the same reason that he said so little on TV--he was still a new kid (not yet 29), and afraid of what critics would say). By the time he was doing Koufax's no-hitter in LA, he wasn't afraid and never was again.

His mentor was Red Barber, who never believed in it. In 1947, he was doing the World Series on radio when Bill Bevens was no-hitting Brooklyn. Mel Allen did the first half of the game, when you would be unlikely to use the term anyway, but he believed in the superstition and wouldn't do it. When Red came on, he said Bevens had allowed "no hits," and his line was that "the breath gurgled in Allen's throat like a country boy trying to swallow a chinaberry seed." After Bevens lost the no-hitter (Barber: "Heah comes the tying run, and heah comes the winning run!") there was criticism of Red, and he said he went to the Yankees dugout before the next game, and Bucky Harris, the manager, told him that if he could control what happened on the field, he wanted Red to sit by him in the dugout and he would pay him more than he could make as a broadcaster.

Bob Wolff, another legendary broadcaster, wouldn't say the magic words on the radio broadcast of Larsen and once said there are many ways a broadcaster can inform the listener of what is happening without "beating him over the head" and angering him about superstition. I'm with Red and Vin.

Jon B. said...

I like the superstition for no-hitters. It's fun. I certainly expect the TV/radio guys to get creative in telling us there is a no-hitter going without actually using the words. Perhaps that's what Ken did. If not, he is a dope. :)

Greg Ehrbar said...

"I would always say, 200 strangers are going to be sitting up in those bleachers. Do you really think 200 strangers are going to laugh at that joke?"

Basically, you're using the brilliant Ed Norton grounding method. A brash, overconfident Chef of the Future is reduced to ol' homina-homina-homina Ralph by reminding the person of his vast audience. What an effective, empathetic and gentlemanly thing tew dew!

There's a business book on management waiting to be written, Ken.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Eve Arden has such class and finesse in the way she handled a line change request. She would approach the writer and say something like, "I think I can really make this work just fine, because I want to perform this the way you wrote it. Perhaps you might think over a few thoughts, though?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've made similar comments before, but reiterating them seems appropriate.

When I first heard the term "showrunner" I thought it was similar to "gofer." That is, you run here or you run there. I had no idea that it meant the person that runs the show. I'm just glad I learned the definition before I insulted anyone.

On many DVDs, especially Judd Apatow movies, in the outtakes you'll see the actors ad-libbing different lines in quick succession. Most of which are pretty awful.
There's an improv game called "new choice" (name varies by region) where in the middle of a scene someone calls out "new choice" and the improvisor has to come up with a different line. They do this over and over with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it's hilarious. Most of the time it's not. The exercise is primarily to help actors learn to think on their feet.
Not only does actors ad-libbing lines piss-off writers, but it pisses-off improvisors as well. We study and rehearse for years to hone our craft. As Ken can attest it requires a certain skill set to improvise well. So, I get angry when actors with no improv training think they can just walk on to a set and start improvising dialog.

Finally, I had asked a similar F.Q. that was never answered.
If you could only chose one for your legacy, would you rather write for a show that people loved, but the critics hated such as the afore mentioned "Gilligan's Island?" Or would you prefer to write a show that critics and intellectual snobs loved, but no one watched?
Personally, I think I'd chose the popular show.


Anonymous said...

When "Mork and Mindy" premiered, quite a bit of the press was claiming star Robin Williams would just throw away the script and go out there and improvise the whole episode.

Williams wasn't saying he did that, but he wasn't going out of his way to correct anybody who was saying it, either.

So one week the cast sat down and scripts were distributed. Robin's was thirty-five pages that read, "Robin ad-libs."

Liggie said...

I saw a behind-the-scenes special for "The Big Bang Theory", and Johnny Galecki said that when he got the script, the day before the table read, he always read it as a nod to how hard the writers worked in putting together the episode. He might be one of the few who read the scripts beforehand; an "Orphan Black" actress said that when she read her character's final lines for the series in the table read, and understood the character's fate, she broke down crying.

Other than Judd Apatow, I wonder how much improv plays a part in forming a film's plot and storyline. Francois Truffaut used improv for his French "New Wave" films, and it seemed to have worked out for him.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

That exemplifies Denver's range as an actor. Unfortunately, after "Gilligan," Denver was mostly typecast playing mostly dumbasses ("Dusty's Trail," "Far Out Space Nuts.")

Fed by the muse said...

Jackie Gleason once said in a "60 Minutes" interview that once your audience likes your characters your 'two-thirds of the way home.' People can deride "Gilligan's Island" all they want but there's no denying that Sherwood Schwartz assembled for the series a fine cast of actors. Why does this show retain it's popularity fifty-three years since the last episode was filmed? Because the public "bought" those characters (same goes for Schwartz' other creation, "The Brady Bunch").

For my money, Bob Denver, who IRL was actually quite reserved and erudite (and who never intended on being a TV star), and Alan Hale, who had done a fair number of dramatic roles prior to "Gilligan," were hell of a good actors.

Mike Doran said...

Am I the only one who's noticed this?

If enough time passes (usually a number of years), a show which was initially despised by "critics" of its own time eventually picks up a following of sorts among what passes for the "intelligentsia".

Paul Henning's "rural" comedies are a good example: When The Beverly Hillbilltes was introduced in '62, it was immediately denounced as the low point of its season; the spinoffs were similarly scorned in their turn.
Nowadays, it's another story: I keep seeing learned essays about how "subversive" these shows are, which the earlier pundits somehow failed to notice …

I can still recall my surprise at reading praise from Tom Shales, as snooty a 'cricket' who ever wrote a TV column, for Gilligan's Island, and in particular for Bob Denver and Alan Hale as a 'classic comedy team' - of course this was years after the show's original run, but hey, you can't have everything …

Lately, here and there I'm seeing the seeds of an ex post facto critical cult for My Mother The Car (anything is possible, right?).

The great reevaluation of Camp Runamuck can't be far off … can it?

scottmc said...

Antenna TV just aired the BECKER episode 'Drive, They Said', which David and you wrote. The description of the show indicated that 'Becker finds three men(Bill Cosby,Ray Romano and Kevin James) side by side in his waiting room". A couple of questions; were you on the set when it was taped, had you worked on Everybody Loves Raymond prior to this? The scene with Cosby, Romano and James was cut. At first, I just figured it was cut so the station could add commercials. But I read that the scene isn't included in the DVD. Any insight connected with this Becker is appreciated.(Were you responsible for the description of the poetry of baseball. Was the opponent always going to be McGuire and the Cardinals?)

benson said...

I have a fun question, based on Mike Bloodworth's FQ.

Assuming there was a TV writers wing of a Television Hall of Fame and it was similar to baseball's, on you plaque, which "cap" would you be wearing? MASH, Cheers, Big Wave Dave's?

Stay safe, all.

Mike Barer said...

I listened to ONE no-hitter on the radio. Dwight Gooden of the Yankees threw one against the Seattle Mariners. Once it looked like a no hitter might happen, I found myself rooting against my most favorite team, and for my least favorite, for just one game of course.

Michael said...

Apropos of actors and lines, I read that on Law & Order, Steven Hill once told the writers something like this: Never give me a paragraph when you can give me a sentence, never give me a sentence when you can give me a word, and never give me a word when you can give me an expression. And Hill was, I thought, a magnificent actor, and he did so much with that role.

I think some actors do know their roles or characters well on some shows. A newer writer might come up with something and the actor might reasonably say, I don't think he'd say that. Is that reasonable or am I off on that?

Kyle Burress said...

This may or may not be a tough question for you but, if you had to choose your five favorite television episodes of all time from any show, what would they be and why? Feel free to divide this up into top five of different categories if need be. I know your specialty is comedy so they don't necessarily need to all be in that genre.

Honest Ed said...

Coming to this one a bit late, but RE - showrunner credits. We're now seeing the occasional show where there is a show runner credited. But not in the US. All over the world, people look to the best US TV, realise there's a showrunner and try to emulate that. (ignoring the fact that a lot of dross on US TV also has a showrunner). So for a couple of decades there's been an effort to adopt that model without really understanding it. And usually in auteur film cultures. So we see a few shows like Marseille on Netflix, which was written and created by one person but the director has himself credited as showrunner. Mind you, the mere credit of director wasn't enough, instead it was 'une creation visuelle de...'

mike schlesinger said...

In my Biffle and Shooster scripts, I often left spaces for them to ad-lib, and they often came up with very funny stuff. On occasion, another actor might rephrase a line; if I liked it, it stayed; if not, I asked them to do it as written. And if we had time, I'd ask if anyone wanted to do a wild take. On occasion, I even took suggestions from crew members. I have no ego; as Jack Benny famously said, "I just want the funniest show possible, and I don't care who gets the laugh, because it's still my name in the title."

Chad Holmes said...

A which of your jobs did you feel the most pressure? You talked about how Cheers was a low rated show in the first season while you knew it was good material. What kind of pressure was that? Or taking over as the lead people at MASH? Or the struggles with a new show with a big star like Mary? Where did the pressure really hit you the most?

Bob Paris said...

What is your opinion of openings ofshows such as Andy Griffith or Dick Van Dyke where the announcer exclaims, "The Andy Griffith Show, starring Andy Griffith." Did they really think the audience would not know who the star of a self-titled show is?