Friday, September 17, 2021

Friday Questions

Your mid-September Friday Questions.

Ted starts us off.

Hey Ken, I think you might have discussed this before, but what's it like directing child actors? Do you have to make sure they don't have that annoyingly "cutesy" acting style that used to be common on TV shows? And do you find that most comedy writers are good at writing for kids, or are they too often tempted to make them sound like wisecracking junior adults?

Obviously, it depends on the child.  But with kids it’s not only their performance but their ability to concentrate.

For the most part I’ve had good luck.  The key is being patient, especially if they’re really young (5-7). Plus, they rehearse less than the other actors.  A certain portion of the day is reserved for school so 70% of the rehearsal time is dealing with their stand-ins.  

My heart goes out to child actors.  They’re in a world of adults being asked to do things that are difficult for grown-ups, much less youngsters.  My job is to make them feel as comfortable possible. 

And every so often I’ll come upon a kid with impeccable  comic timing — they instinctively in their bones know just how to get every laugh.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with one or two of those.  

As for giving acting notes, I just want them to be real -- not be cutesy to get a laugh.  The more I can get them to just act naturally, the better will be my chances that they really deliver.

Final thought:  Kids aren’t easy to direct but by and large they’re way easier than professional athletes.  

Chris wonders:

Watching old sitcoms I notice that sometimes they'll use a humorous "smash cut," like switching suddenly to a new scene to contradict what a character just said, etc. The thing that surprises me is that the studio audience seems to laugh at these... But how on earth could they see the smash cut to laugh at it? Surely it takes too much time to change scenes in the actual studio to keep that laugh. Same question for camera pullout reveal jokes.

You must be talking about multi-camera sitcoms that are filmed in front of a live studio audience.  Often, to achieve that surprise, the first scene will be pre-filmed the day or two before.  The studio audience watches the scenes on monitors then the flip happens when they turn their attention to the stage and they see what happens after the cut.  

And some shows won’t go to those lengths.   They’ll just lean on the laugh box. 

Jeff asks:

Back in the day, network star(s) would often host these shows or appear in mini-skits to introduce new or returning programs. Were you or any of your colleagues ever involved in any of these (e.g. to write dialogue for an actor appearing in character as their sitcom alter ego)?

No.  To be honest, those big preview shows died out in the 70s or 80s.  Their heyday was before my time.  

Oh, for the days when fall premiers were a big deal.  For NBC Week (as they called it) you could send away over the summer to get a free handsomely mounted program saluting all the new shows.  I wish I still had my copies.  I’d send away every year.  

I think one of the networks did a preview show this year.  I rarely watch network television anymore so I couldn’t tell you which network did it.

And finally, from PolyWogg:

I was wondering about voice direction in TV scripts. For example, in Friends, Matt Perry's delivery of "Could it BE any more (blah)" only works with the right rhythm and direction in delivery. So my Q is if you have similar examples of phrases/lines that were delivered but only work through voice inflection, and how much it was in the script vs. the actor finding a way to say it?

I think it started out with Matt delivering a couple of lines in that rhythm and the producers recognizing its potential.  It’s a mixture of irony and a touch of sarcasm.  And you have to remember, when Matt started delivering lines that way it was a very fresh approach.  Now half the actors on sitcoms adopt that.

I never worked on FRIENDS so I’m hardly an authority, but I suspect when the writers saw how well he scored they started writing to that.  

We had a writer in the CHEERS room named Jerry Belson.  He was one of the funniest writers I’ve ever met.  (At one time he was Garry Marshall’s writing partner.)  He would work one day a week on CHEERS.  And he had a fantastic delivery.  He would pitch lines that had us on the floor.  We’d put them into the script and the next day at run-through most of them came back out because none of the actors could deliver the line as funny as Jerry.  

What’s your Friday Question? 


Brandon in Virginia said...

CBS had the fall preview show.

On the topic of child actors, about 15 years ago there was a show called Back to You starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. Kelsey played a news anchor who returns to his former station, and it turns out he and Patricia's character had a one-night stand resulting in a little girl. It was a breath of fresh air seeing a cute kid simply act like a cute kid, and not an annoying wisecracking brat.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

What are some shows that you feel are underrated, or just didn't enough attention for any reason?

Ted. said...

Hi Ken, thanks for answering my question! I think if professional athletes want a TV outlet these days, they can just go on "Dancing With the Stars."

Re preview shows: I think both Fox and CBS had them this year. They both reminded me about how few network series there are now that I'm interested in watching.

Re "can you BE any more..." Although it started with Chandler, apparently all the "Friends" characters started using it at some point. The satirical "Honest Trailer" for the show on YouTube has a cut of it happening over and over.(Along with several other language tics the show used, such as "I KNOW!")

tavm said...

One the subject of kid actors acting naturally vs. being cutesy-That's the difference between Hal Roach's Our Gang vs. studio M-G-M's version. Hal Roach created the series when he was in charge of auditioning some child performers in his office and was appalled at the way they were coached to perform a certain by their stage parents. So he took a break and watched out of his office window some kids fighting over stick. He watched for so long he realized he could do a series of short films of children doing what came naturally to them. That was his method from the early 20s to when he sold the series to Metro in the late '30s. But the studio of Leo the Lion was very much a regimented place like the other major studios of the time. So the kids weren't allowed to offer their contributions as before and as a result, the series seemed more contrived. Also, it was leaning to teaching lessons instead of simply being funny. Robert Blake suffered under these circumstances but it probably made him more rebellious as he grew up to be a more outstanding actor later on. Of course, he suffered a little more later on but that's another story...

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ricky Schroeder with the Saturday Morning NBC Yummy Awards preview show. Variety TV at its Peak.

KB said...

I've written on a lot of tween/teen shows, and I've found it very easy to work with child actors. They are very professional and eager to please. It's the parents that typically can be the problem. Also, unlike a lot of adult actors, kids are very open to suggestions and line readings. To your point, Ken, in your story of Jerry Belson pitching laugh out loud jokes in the room only to have them cut because they weren't delivered the same way, with many of the child actors I've worked with I have been able to suggest to them how to deliver the joke as pitched and they are almost always agreeable. Most adult actors don't want to hear it. Or the director would be offended, etc...

Hamish said...

Friday Question: In nearly all backstage or paparazzi photographs, David Hyde Pierce is wearing glasses. Yet never once was Niles filmed wearing them on Frasier. Do you know if he wore contact lenses during the shoot or simply memorised his blocking enough to not need them while on set?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Since the first question was about child actors it was a perfect opportunity for you to slip in one of your Natalie Wood photos.

JAHN GHALT said...

In the Jerry Belson vein (as a guy who could deliver his own lines funnier than the actors) - did he ever work as a comedy actor?

To your knowledge, which writers did work as a comedy actor?

(Tina Fey, Conan O'Brien excepted)

Liggie said...

Great idea by CBS to feature Annaleigh Ashford in its fall preview show. Her Broadway chops shine in those (purposely corny) musical numbers, and it's good for "B Positive" fans to see there's more to her than Gina. I'm also intrigued to see how well she does drama, as she's playing Paula Jones in that miniseries about the Clinton impeachment.

I also can't wait to see "Ghosts". Rose McIver was fantastic in "iZombie", as she had to play a different character each week, and I'm happy she's getting an opportunity with a network sitcom.

ReticentRabbit said...

Friday Question (sorry, it's a long one): I've always been fascinated with the character of Father Mulcahy. It seems like most "religious characters" on sitcoms are either hypocrites (like Frank Burns) or sporadic in their faith, with religion only getting mentioned when it's convenient (like Carla Tortelli). Mulcahy was like most people of faith I know: devout, serious, and consistent in his faith, not averse to a few drinks or a hand of poker, and apt to get angry or prideful occasionally (but not one who would break his vows--in his case, chastity). He wasn't perfect, but he was also neither flippant nor overly pious in his faith.

What was it like to write that character--was there a trick to making his faith consistent but not irritating? Why is it hard for TV to avoid caricatures of "religious people?" Was there anything odd about writing a priest when you're Jewish, or was it no different from writing a doctor when you hadn't been to med school? And how much of making the Father Mulcahy character work seemed to be in the writing vs. William Christopher's performance?

DyHrdMET said...

Is there anyone that you've worked with in your different careers (say as a radio DJ and then in television)? And was it an intentional choice or just a coincidence? I'm not counting the Zoom readings of CHEERS from last year towards this.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

Re: Jerry Belson, I'd like to mention a couple of his contributions to cinema. He wrote the 1975 beauty pageant satire SMILE (a terrific film) and contributed, sans credit, to the writing of Spielberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

Philly Cinephile said...

I miss the days when all three networks had full line-ups of Saturday morning shows for kids, and would air preview shows on the Friday before the new season started. Now there are only weekend editions of their morning shows, with a few E/I-compliant shows about animals thrown in.

Marv Wolfman said...

Friday question. Comedy shows as far back as Dick Van Dyke, right up to the Big Bang Theory, often didn't do well in the beginning. Sometime it took an entire season of 22 episodes for them to find their way, juggle the cast and click with the audience. But now with streaming, some shows only get 8 or so episodes per season, hardly enough time for them to course correct the show and find their direction. Dramas can do a short action-packed 8-10 episode series but what do you think the future of comedy shows is going to be? Are shows going to be cancelled long before find their way? Are we ever going to see 10 season hits like Cheers, M*A*S*H, Friends or the Big Bang Theory ever again?Marv Wolfman

Kyle Burress said...

Unfortunately, the death of an actor/actress or someone at any level of a series or movie happens. Of the many productions that you've been involved in, what person's death has had the greatest impact altogether on what you were working on and how was it dealt with?

JS said...

My Friday Question - No-one really broke out from MASH No-one became a big movie star or had another successful tv show, especially the secondary actors. What do they do for money? Do residuals pay that much?

JS said...

Another Friday Question - have you watched "Murders in the Building" and what did you think? I'm on episode 3 - I think like a lot of these shows 2 episodes and done - it is great. 3 and more is stretching it.

Oliver said...

Friday Question: Watched the first episode of the second season of THE MORNING SHOW, and since there were two years in between seasons, I realized I didn't remember half of the plot points, characters and story arches. Seemed to me the writers didn't bother too much with getting their audience up to speed, so my interest dwindled soon.

My question: Is this a new problem? Because it seems to me, some shows overestimate how much we, the audience, still know about the shows details after months or even years with different shows and movies in between. Did you sparkle some information about what changed last season in the first episode of the new series? Or didn't you have that problem since there weren't too many changes in sitcoms?

Stephen Cudmore said...

An FQ: Sometime you hear about somebody doing an "uncredited rewrite" on a movie script. Doesn't that run afoul of union rules about how credit is supposed tk be divided?

Bob Paris said...

I've always assumed that crying on cue is one of the hardest things an actor can do. Can you share any experiences you have had where actors have to perform very emotional scenes, regarding their preparation or actual performance?

Russ DiBello said...

We insisted on being happy! We were Hippies and Yippies. We had “Love-Ins”. Look at the cover of the “Woodstock” album and see the young couple hugging beneath the blanket, among all those thousands of free and happy souls…

... know what? THEY HATED THAT, TOO! They resented that regardless of anything they did to them, their kids were happy! They considered that Woodstock photo an attack on all they held sacred (whatever the hell THAT was).

Ours was the only generation that had the word “Baby” in their name. And to our elders, we were “babies” into and beyond adulthood. And then the subsequent generations would also spit the word out disdainfully, even as they were blaming US for the world our own forebears had established.

We’re condemned to taking the word “Baby” to our nursing homes and our graves. Everybody hates us, and always will. And as for us? We laugh. We dance. We’re happy. We still get high (oh, you thought you INVENTED weed? Yes, that’s it…). Because, what else can ya do, hah?

So now you know why disc jockeys were our Thing, and why they didn’t suck. “OK Boomers” are entitled to their own thing. Everyone is. Your negative opinion about Top 40 Radio, something that was never designed for you, means zilch.

(Look up “zilch”).

p.s… Click my HTML link and Enjoy!