Friday, July 24, 2020

Friday Questions

Moving through July with this week’s Friday Questions.

WB Jax starts us off.

Recently watched the S5 MASH episode you and David wrote in which Radar seeks to improve his writing skills via a Las Vegas-based correspondence course. In the episode there's a scene where Frank Burns confiscates Igor's tapioca pudding, only to discover, after first bite, a "surprise" in the pudding (you guys must have been proud of yourselves when coming up with the "surprise"). We all know what a talented actor Alan Alda is, but I wondered if there were certain scenes like this where the "payoff" was unknown to the "reactors" in the scene until the cameras rolled (so as to generate on film a seemingly spontaneous reaction) or are people like Alda simply masters at "cracking up on cue" even after a scene is rehearsed/blocked?

The episode you’re referring to is “The Most Unforgettable Characters.”

No, on MASH there were no surprises while the cameras ran. Alan and other good actors have the skill to laugh on command.

The only time the MASH cast was not told of a scene beforehand was the Henry Blake dying announcement scene in the OR. And for that, Larry Gelbart told the cast there was one more short scene to film, get into your OR scrubs, and before the scene was shot they were given the script. Alan was the only one in the cast who knew beforehand.

While the actors were still somewhat shell-shocked they filmed the scene. And actually, they had to film it twice because there was a technical glitch on the first take.

Otherwise, the actors received the whole script before it went into production.

Bob Waldman asks:

Is there a certain length you aim for when you write a one act play?

There seems to be two.

Lots of theatres have ten-minute festivals. That seems to be the rage. I’ve enjoyed some success in this arena.

Otherwise, I’d say between twenty minutes and a half hour. I’ve had one 30 minute play produced eight or nine times.

Good luck.

Michael wonders:

The commercials for the TBS show "The Misery Index" have me hating the show sight unseen. I know one of the issues the broadcast networks face today is to get people to even see commercials for their shows, but in the past do you think they made much of a difference in the success or lack of success of some of the shows you worked on?

In the past, on-air promos were HUGE. Producers fought tooth and nail for precious slots. But those were the days when everyone watched the networks. A lot more people saw the promos then than see them now.

But you bring up a good point. A bad promo can be very detrimental. Promos can scare off people just as easily as they can attract them. So it’s not enough that the network promo’s you, they have to do it well.

That said, when a network doesn’t promo you it means you’re dead.

And finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

Would you advise students and wannabe writers to practice writing scripts for old/classic TV shows to develop the skill? Or should they concentrate on current shows? Or should they do neither and work on their own material?

If you are going to write a spec of an existing show, definitely do a current one. There have been a couple of times when people have submitted specs of vintage shows to stand out, but I’ve never heard of the gambit working to where they got an assignment as a result.

More than anything, the desired script of the day is something original, usually a pilot.

But I say have both. If someone reads and likes your pilot the first thing they’re going to ask you is what else do you have? They want to make sure this sparkling writing sample was not a fluke or took you six years to write.

Again, good luck.

What's your Friday Question?

17 comments :

Lyle said...

Hi, Ken! You are a morning ritual here at my office in home. Love your work, both on tv as well as on the blog.

I greatly admire the writing on Cheers, MASH, and Everyone Loves Raymond. I appreciate the writing talent but,then, I think . . whoa! Someone has to find the right talent who can bring life to these words and make if flow . . and have some special personality to make the show sparkle.

That comes down to the casting director.

Where and how does someone "learn" to be a casting director? Is it an innate talent? You have a reading and someone clicks? Or is it years of experience? I see credits from time to time . . "Casting by the xyz Talent Associates." How does such a company form? Do individuals develop a reputation for being able to spot talent that ties into scripts and story lines so smoothly that they are sought out to cast for shows? And the demand is such that they have to form a company to accommodte the demand?

Would be interested in an insider's look at this world.

Keep up the great work. Have no idea when you sleep. You sure do get a lot done!

Best.

lyle

Mibbitmaker said...

That is one of my favorite episodes of 5th season MASH. I especially love the whole Hawkeye having to get the last word running gag. A big chunk of that was taken out in edited syndication, so it's great to have the DVD set (I have 1-7).

Promos: The many promos (or showings of a promo or two) for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT before its initial debut caught my attention. I noticed some good people in the cast - David Cross (MR. SHOW), Jason Bateman ( I loved IT'S YOUR MOVE... until the ruined it mid-season), Jefferey Tambour (hilarious on THREE'S COMPANY on the episode where he played a psychiatrist that Jack thought was crazy). I also liked the premise, so I gave it a try and found one of my all-time favorite sitcom.

Back in 1982, I was barely paying attention to a show called CHEERS, and didn't watch the pilot. The next week, I caught a promo for episode two showing Diane flipping Sam across the pool table. That got my attention, so I tuned in and another all-time favorite was discovered.

Yeah, promos do often help.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Once again, Ken, I must thank you for dating "The Most Unforgettable Characters" June 13, 1952 . . . because that ended up meaning that I share my birthday with Major Frank Burns!

Cowboy Surfer said...

During the launch and the early years of MTV, did you ever give any thought to producing or directing music videos?

Dave Creek said...

Promos don't have as much of an effect on me as they did years ago, because I generally tape shows, then watch them later -- even it it's fifteen minutes later and I catch up before the end.

Take CBS, for instance. The only show I normally watch on the "eyeball" network is Colbert. I often watch it live (an exception to the above), and see some of their promos. But if they don't promote it there, I don't generally see it. So I've seen recent articles about CBS shows that were cancelled -- and I've never heard of them.

Pretty much the same for the other broadcast networks for me. Most of the best material is on streaming, which is where such shows can survive. Certainly THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL and the current STAR TREKs, for instance, wouldn't make it on broadcast TV.

Michael said...

Thanks for sharing this. It's funny that so many people think actors are not really acting. There's a marvelous Dick Cavett story about John Wayne in which Wayne sings a Noel Coward songs and speaks in a perfect British accent, Cavett's shock at this, and Woody Allen's response when Cavett told him was to shrug and say, he's an actor. How good he was at it has been argued, but he did convince people he was something he wasn't. I think that's acting.

I think of the story about how Stan Laurel would hold off shooting Oliver Hardy's camera looks until the end of the day because he knew how badly Hardy wanted to get to the golf course, and how aggravated he was about it, so he got better expressions that way.

Finally, I'll just thank you as a nearly lifelong Las Vegan and say I wish I could have learned some of the tricks of the trade from Ethel Hemingway.

Bob Waldman said...

Hi Ken,
Thanks so much for answering my question today.
Your advice is always invaluable.

Have a good weekend. Stay safe.

Best,
Bob Waldman

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ken, thank you so much for answering part B of my F.Q.

That episode of "M*A*S*H" reminded me that occasionally an author or journalist will use a word I've never heard of. Of course I look it up. Most of the time the word is appropriate if just a little pedantic. Other times they seem to miss the mark or the are on the periphery of correctness. And sometimes a simpler word would suffice.
It's apparent that they're just showing off.
As I've stated here before, I go to great pains to word my comments just right. I have a dictionary, a thesaurus and an A.P. Style Guide next to me as I write. It doesn't always come out perfect, but at least I try.

I agree. Promos can have a detrimental effect. One of the worst was for "Batwoman" on the C.W. It was riddled with so many tired clich├ęs that it turned me off immediately. Even if I was into the superhero genre I wouldn't have watched.
But, even a good promo might not sell a show. I have never really liked "Taxi." I watched it mostly because back then there were only three networks. So when the promo for "Cheers" came out; "...from the producers of 'Taxi,'" I wasn't particularly enthusiastic. Yet I tuned in to "Cheers" anyway and I enjoyed it from the beginning.
On the other hand, because I liked "Two and a Half Men,"when the promos for "The Big Bang Theory" said "from the creators of..." I was really looking forward to it. And I was not disappointed.
Of course I have also been TRICKED into watching a bad TV show or movie by a well made promo. Those guys (or gals) really earned their money.

M.B.

P.S. Sorry for the length of today's comment.

Liggie said...

For your lengthier plays, how much time do you spend delineating the set's appearance? I remember studying "Death of a Salesman", Tennessee Williams and other classic American drama plays, and the first two pages were detailed descriptions of the set. Even Neil Simon comedies had some long set descriptions. Since I'm now used to reading screenplays which use very little set descriptions (writers are advised that's the job of the set directors, let them do their job and worry about the story), it's a little bit of a transition for me to read the long play set descriptions.

Troy McClure said...

Lyle

Ken wrote a blog post on this a few years back. I remember it because he entertainingly tore into Taylor Hackford for his comment that casting directors shouldn't be called directors!

http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-unsung-heroes-of-hollywood.html

Kevin B said...

Friday Question:

What 1980's sitcom did you like that would surprise your friends/colleagues? Like "I Married Dora" or something.



mike schlesinger said...

IIRC, Allen's reply to Cavett about John Wayne was, "Dick, you have to remember, he's not a cowboy. He just plays one in the movies."

Re promos: A frequent problem is what they don't tell you. When the CW premiered "iZombie," I thought, oh swell, yet another damn zombie show, and ignored it. Then during the summer, I chanced to notice in an article that it was being run by Rob Thomas. My curiosity was immediately piqued. Fortunately, the entire season was still available On Demand, so I started the pilot and about 15 minutes in I was completely hooked. I burned through the rest of the season and thereafter watched it "live" or the next day for the remainder of its run. But how hard would it have been at the start to have promoted it as "From the Creator of 'Veronica Mars'?"

Houston Mitchell said...

Hi Ken,

I happened across a "Happy Days" rerun the other day, and I had forgotten how annoying the live audience, particularly in the later seasons, was. Every cast member got a huge ovation on entrance and the crowd seemed to think they were part of the show. Did you ever have this trouble on any of the "live in front of a studio audience" shows you wrote or directed? Did the audience ever try to say "Norm!" when George Wendt walked in for example? And if so, how did you combat that?

Thanks!

Houston Mitchell

Stuart Galbraith IV said...

That episode has what, for my money, is the funniest exchange of the entire series -- Frank's "amusing anecdote" about a neighborhood boy in a wheelchair, Frank giggling with laughter all the while:

FRANK: Well, one day while he was waving, he lost control of his chair, and it rolled down the stairs, across the lawn, and crashed into my dad's car. Boy that was funny!

B.J.: That must have been awful!

Frank: No, just scratched the paint a little.

What's so wonderful about that it so nails Frank's cluelessness. He's incapable of empathy, entirely self-involved, and can't fathom why such an amusing story might make him appear so thoughtless.

He could have been -- and, in the early seasons, largely was -- a typical sitcom buffoon/adversary, but the writing and Linville's performances really shaped that character into a sad, funny jumble of mental illnesses.

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

Ken,

A Friday Question and a recommendation (albeit with reservations) of Justine Bateman's book--FAME.

First, the question: What is your view of how fame distorts people or reality in Hollywood?

Second, the recommendation: I've been reading Joan Didion's non-fiction (pretty much all of it) during the lockdown and her GUTs are what stand out. I've found that same quality in Justine Bateman's FAME. She lays her insides bare in this book. It made me think about a few things in entirely new ways. Daring. Well worth the read.

Thanks and "nice to have talked to you".


Sean

Kendall Rivers said...

FQ: Seems like Tv titles can have a way to affect a show either positively like Everybody Loves Raymond which sounds weird but is interestingly provocative and unique enough to give the show a look and then people see what the title's meant to mean or negatively like the Blackish and Dear, White People titles caused huge controversy and turned a lot of people off the shows before they came out. I remember so many black people like myself weary of Blackish just by the seemingly offensive suggestion of the title. What are some of the worst tv show titles you have ever heard and with a few of your bomb pilots do you think the titles had something to do with them bombing?