Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Friday Question of the Week

Based on what you said you wanted to see more of, I’m beginning a new feature today: Friday Questions. Each Friday I’ll try to answer one or more of the questions you guys send in. So keep ‘em comin’.

How much attention do you pay to continuity on a long running show or character? For example, I believe that once on CHEERS Frasier's mother appeared being played by the woman who played Tony Soprano's mother and I think she threatened to kill Diane. In some cases continuity errors between CHEERS and FRASIER were kind of smoothed over, but was this a priority or just something done to shut up nit picky fans?

The problem with long running shows is that there is often turnover in the writing staff. After a few seasons it’s not uncommon for creators/show runners to flee to Hawaii or be admitted to Bellevue. And with new writers on board sometimes things fall between the cracks. Often times a background fact about a character is buried deep within an episode. Names of relatives, number of children, those sort of things are apt to change. But in fairness, who remembers their wife’s name or number of kids they have?

When we wrote the episode of FRASIER where Sam Malone visits we took a few minutes to cover a few inconsistencies (like Frasier saying he was an only child and his father was dead) and update what was going on at Cheers.

Some shows keep “Bibles” – detailed records of each episode. These are great for ensuring continuity. Unless you don’t want continuity.

There are times when writers will purposely just ignore something from years past that gets in the way of what they want to do now. Here’s their justification: Hell, no one’ll remember. Unfortunately, there are reruns, DVDs, websites, chat rooms, and uber nerds who live in their parents’ basement and do remember. Anyone recall that in the second episode of CHEERS we establish that Sam’s divorced and we meet his ex-wife? She and the marriage are never brought up again. This policy of just pretending something never existed is now very popular in politics.

Casting changes also stretch the limits of creative license. Suddenly a different guy is playing Darrin Stevens on BEWITCHED without any explanation. (In that case it would have been so easy to have Sam just say “Mother, what have you done?!”) Harry Morgan first appeared on MASH as an insane general. He was brought back as Colonel Potter. On LAW & ORDER I see the same guest actors playing different characters every season. (Just once I’d love to hear a witness swear in and state his profession as doctor/guy at the deli counter/longshoreman.)

Bottom line, whenever possible we try to keep our facts straight. But it’s not like LOST where every miniscule of information is a clue and has great import. Someone in the room comes up with a great joke about Frasier’s sister. It gets a big laugh. It goes in the script. And we get home before midnight.

What are your questions?


Mike Barer said...

I'll ask one.

What was the idea behind Maris (Niles ex-wife) never apearing?

Anonymous said...

I recall that Frasier's first wife, Nanny G, morphed from Emma Thompson into Laurie Metcalf.

My good friend Martine Beswicke took over a role on FALCON CREST from Sarah Douglas. They explained it with the old plastic surgery ploy. Martine told me, "He must have been one hell of a surgeon. I'm four inches shorter than Sarah."

On DOBIE GILLIS in the first season, Dobie had an older brother who was away in the army. He showed up for one episode, played of course by Dwayne Hickman's real brother Darryl. After that episode, he was never mentioned again.

I've been looking at the BURKE' S LAW episodes just out on DVD. It's just the first 16 episodes, but Burgess Meredeth has already appeared in three of them, and he was murdered in the first one. Cesar Romero was the murder in one, and six or seven episodes later, he's back as a suspect. Well, who could possibly recognize Burgess Meredeth or Cesar Romero?

As for LAW & ORDER, it's merely demonstrating the fact that, though there are millions of people in Manhattan, they only have 67 different faces.

Anonymous said...

When writing a spec pilot, how big should the budget be? I realise spec pilots are almost never filmed, so strictly speaking they don't have budgets. But presumably a spec that would be insanely expensive to film would be frowned upon - it would show you didn't understand the TV business. On the other hand, real pilots are getting pricey these days. So, how expensive can your pilot look, and how does that influence how it's written?

Bitter Animator said...

Actually I have a question about the way you and your partner work. The sitcom form is incredibly tight and there are great structure analyses on the form. More than that, when a sitcom fails, often you can just look at a checklist of requirements from someone like Truby and immediately spot something missing.

Well, when you and your partner begin gathering ideas, forming them into stories, how much of a technical approach do you take, if any?

Are you just thinking up what you find funny but have done this for so long that the structure just falls into place naturally, or are you starting with a blank structure and filling in the required pieces?

Anonymous said...

Sam's wife is never SEEN again after the second episode but she is mentioned. Like in a third season episode where Frasier has a pet dog called Pablo and Sam tells Frasier that he had a dog once but his wife took her.

Then later when Rebecca is about to marry Robin, Sam tries to tell Rebecca that marriage is not a good idea and mentions he was married before.

Another one is in the same third season episode mentioned above, Frasier has a pet puppy and seems to like dogs, and wants his pet back from Sam. But a few seasons later toward the end of the series, Woody brings in a dalmation and makes Frasier hold it and Frasier says he doesn't like animals, which of course translats to the series Frasier.

Anonymous said...

I recall watching tv when the Darren switch in Bewitched occured, and impressed that the studio deemed it necessary to also budget for the animation-change of Darren.

How about your opinion on the resulting "Back To You" series? What happened in your opinion?

Anonymous said...

How about when Carla is depressed about becoming and grandmother and it is NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN!? Nor are Anthony or his wife.

Anonymous said...

Soap's bring back people from the dead and do recasts and rewrites all the time.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know how Harry Morgan got cast as Colonel Potter. Was it just"Hey, Harry Morgan's available!" or did it have to do with the chemistry he showed playing the insane general?

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ken,

Can you explain why magnets work?

Anonymous said...

My question isn't much of a surprise: Who is your alltime favorite Dodger, past or present?

Tallulah Morehead said...

Okay, this is getting spooky. An hour after I read this posting I turn on Frasier's late night repeat on Lifetime, and it's the episode where Sam Malone visits Seattle.

Cue Twilight Zone music.

Anonymous said...


Can you explain George Bush's economic policy? Okay, maybe something a little easier to understand, like String Theory. Thanks!

Nat G said...

Airline food... what's up with that?

Mike Barer said...

Richie Cunningham's older brother, Chuck disapeared from Happy Days.

Anonymous said...

Mike, Mike, Mike... Tsk-tsk. Everyone knows Chuck had a sex change and that's how we ended up with the fugly, manish Joanie.


Danielle Solzman said...

Will the cost of gas be going down anytime soon?

Anonymous said...

I'm very forgiving of continuity issues in tv because there are more shows per season writtten, rewritten and shot in addition to staff turnover each season.

In movies, however, I tend to laugh more because they have one script to shoot from (aside from last minute rewrites, one crew, one cast and it's shot done within 3 to 6 months. You would think in that time, with all of the downtime on the set as the crew sets things up and tears them down, the director and his assistants would be able to catch more inconsistencies than they do before they view the dailies. That's where most of the mistakes are first noticed and should be addressed. Movies even employ people to be continuity officers, right? And depending upon the blunder and how big it is, I may dismiss it outright or I may laugh enough that I blog about the mistakes.

Anonymous said...

OK, this question may also be slightly OT, but…. Two cars leave the same city on a cross-country race travelling in opposite directions. One vehicle goes through populated areas and school zones at an average speed of 129 mph. The other reaches an average speed of only 113 mph, but, to be fair, it’s headed directly into the sun while the driver is finishing a Jack in the Box sirloin burger, fries and a shake, but devoting most of his attention to Megadeath’s United Abominations album cranked up to max on his sound system.

We know that in exactly 5 hours the two vehicles will be 1,210 miles apart. The question is, which of the cars is being driven by Nick Hogan and which Wachowski brother is driving the other? Bonus, which of the drivers would benefit least from 8 hrs. of Improv comedy traffic school in Sherman Oaks?

By Ken Levine said...

Oh you crazy kids.

rob! said...

i usually forgive it more during the early years, when a show is clearly just trying to figure out who all these characters are.

in the first 2 years of MASH, Hawkeye mentioned his sister and mother, but at some point someone must have decided that only his Dad is still around, and the sister never existed.

in a 10th season episode, Hawkeye tells a touching story about how his Dad broke it to him that his Mother was dying, and its a truly great episode. i would've hated to lose that moment just because of some errant comments in season 1.

and i like that Harry Morgan played the crazy general, because its the only chance to (sort of) see Col. Blake and Col. Potter next to one another.

Anonymous said...

My favorite example of handling a cast change for a major character was Roseanne. She said to her "new" Becky something like "Watch out, you can be replaced." (And eventually she was!)

Cap'n Bob said...

The foxy daughter on DR. QUINN, FRONTIER LIBERAL was changed. June Cleaver, who was raised by Aunt Martha, mentioned her father. Radar read a comic book that wasn't published until 10 years later. Doc sat in Ed's chair many times. L. Ron Hubbard used Dianetics to cure himself of blindness and crippling even though he was never blind or crippled. It's all too strange.

Anonymous said...

In the case of "Roseanne" and later incarnations of "The Brady Bunch" -- during which which the actresses playing Jan or Cindy decided not to participate -- cute, self-conscious girls were replaced by prettier, more mainstream actresses. (Which isn't to say that Sarah Chalke wasn't good as "Second Becky.")

"The Simpsons" managed to send up this phenomenon pretty well when they did a musical "spinoff" titled "The Simpsons Family Goodtime Variety Hour," and Lisa suddenly became an older, taller, prettier cheerleader type.

Anonymous said...

cybele: and wasn't the replacement Becky later replaced by the original?

I think at least one sitcom should have a major supporting character that's recast every season, with no explanation. Let's call her "Aunt Martha." 1st season: Bea Arthur; 2nd: Katherine Helmond; 3rd: Harvey Fierstein; 4th: James Earl Jones; 5th: Paula Marshall. If it goes to 6: Ted McGinley and out.

Anonymous said...

From 1971-1977, while TV comedy writing, I served in the Army Reserve. Other than basic training, I was never on active duty. And I never was in combat. Am I a veteran?

Anonymous said...

"Radar read a comic book that wasn't published until 10 years later."

Well for that matter, throughout the entire run of MASH, Hawkeye made Godzilla jokes and references, despite the fact that the first Godzilla movie wasn't made until just after Korean war was over. But maybe, on the way to Korea, Hawkeye had been briefly stranded on LOST's Island, and got time-warped forward into the future with the time-hopping bunnies, saw GODZILA, and then was warped back to the past again.

Sorry, I shouldn't try to address continuity logic problems right after watching the LOST season finale.

"I'm very forgiving of continuity issues in tv ... In movies, however, I tend to laugh more"

One of my favorite major continuity gaffes in the movies, detailed in [SHAMELESS PLUG] my book THE Q GUIDE TO CLASSIC MONSTER MOVIES, came in the 1944 Universal film THE MUMMY'S CURSE. In the previous two mummy movies, the mummy had been making a nuisance of himself in Mapleton, Massachusettes, until sinking into a swamp just outside town. (One of those common Massachusettes swamps.) In THE MUMMY'S CURSE, they are draining the swamp when they find the mummy, only now the swamp, the mummy, and Mapleton ARE ALL IN LOUISIANA!!! This HUGE gaffe is all the more inexplicable because the film came out only four months after the previous one, was shot while the previous one was in theaters, had much of the same production team, and even a few of the same actors. I give a couple theories in my book, but now I think that the mummy may have sunk down to an ice chamber deep below the swamp, turned a big old ancient frozen wheel, and moved the swamp 2000 miles.

But for a really unbelievable TV gaffe, how about this one in THE NANNY? In the last season, the leading male character married The Nanny, despite the fact that she was Fran Dresher! Where were their ears?

As for the Darrins on bewitched, I have a theory there too. Darrin was really a Time Lord, like Doctor Who, and regenerated.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious what you think the fresh shelf life of a TV show really is--be it sit com or drama...

For example on MASH, if you watch real closely, after a couple of years (and this is especially true when new characters replaced the original), you can see where scripts are basically re-cycled, e.g. a situation occurs with Trapper and a few years later the same exact situation occurs with BJ and so on with Burns and Charles and other characters. Sometimes the role/words Hawkeye spoke to Trapper end up being the same (or virtually the same) or virtually identical are switched and BJ says them to Hawkeye, etc. etc. etc.

So my question is this: what's the shelf life of a TV show, how long do you think it lasts before it actually becomes redundant?

Not a knock, just curious.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Holy cow, somebody wrote a sentence that began with "My good friend Martine Beswicke..."!! I love Martine Beswicke! She's amazing! Does anyone else here know who Martine Beswicke is?

As for the topic at hand, I can remember how once we saw the book containing Norm's bar tab and it was ridiculously enormous (of course) but another time it was just a normal notebook. And how many times did Jeffrey Tambor appear on Three's Company?

In closing, please give my best to Ms. Beswicke.

Anonymous said...

In the UK sitcom Game On Ben Chaplin left after one season (6 episodes in soft UK sitcom land) to seek fame fortune and obscurity in LA.

He was replaced by Neil Stuke as same character, Neil is nothing like him at all, but was very good.

After the end credit of the first episode the three characters are watching TV. Martin says - Oh look Roseanne is on (channel) 4. I wonder who's playing the daughter this week.
Mandy - Don't you just hate that when they keep the same character but change the actor.
Neil (as Matthew) sits non-plussed between them, but as he has a head wound maybe he's just out of it.

I used to like Game On it was a wackier Coupling with half the budget.

LouOCNY said...

Roseanne also had one of those 'under the credits' scenes with the family watching Bewitched, with pointed comments about the the whole 'which Darrin do you prefer?" thing - Sarah chalke naturally opinin gshe liked the 'new' Darrin better!

One of the most memorable Howard Stern bits was having Dick York on the show (WNBC at the time), and doing endless 'Dick' jokes with him....'Were you the bigger Dick?', etc...

And to stray even further, how about Tattletales once putting together Dick Sergeant and Fannie Flagg as a 'couple'?? Maybe as odd a pairing on a game show as ever!

Anonymous said...

Will this be the first...and LAST Friday, question of the week?? You asked for it!

Anonymous said...

Actually the "Bewitched" writers were doing their tribute to Gary Cooper. How else to explain Sergeant York?

Anonymous said...

This is nowhere near an original line, but remember that Bewitched was the only show in television history to have a Dick replacement.

Michael the G said...

"Someone in the room comes up with a great joke about Frasier’s sister. It gets a big laugh. It goes in the script. And we get home before midnight."

Gee Ken, I thought David Hyde Pierce was always kind of effeminate too but that was harsh.

ajm said...

I remember Hawkeye once sang part of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song on MASH, even though the Mickey Mouse Club didn't premiere on TV until two years AFTER the Korean War ended.

And I once saw Radar or Klinger holding a Hershey candy bar with the UPC barcode (introduced in the 1970s amid great fanfare) clearly visible on the wrapper.

And the episode where they recapitulated 1951 in 30 minutes -- everyone in camp is listening to the New York Giants/Brooklyn Dodger playoff game live in mid-afternoon -- the game actually took place in NYC when it was 3 or 4 am in Korea.

(PS: No, as a matter of fact I DIDN'T date much in high school.)

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

I get the feeling continuity standards are looser for sit-coms. Changing Darrens was no big deal. 30 Rock uses Rachel Dratch like Jose Oquendo, and it seems to become part of the joke. But God forbid somebody overlooks a little awkward Klingon syntax.... Pity the poor slobs working Paramount's call center in Bangalore that night.

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan said...
the mummy had been making a nuisance of himself in Mapleton, Massachusettes, until sinking into a swamp just outside town. (One of those common Massachusettes swamps.)

Ken, with a kid in Bahston and your wicked professional background I’m surprised you didn’t chime in with qualified support here. D. is 100% correct, Sir. We did not have any swamps in the Bay State. However we did have bogs. We had cranberry bogs. We had peat bogs. And we had peat’s brother, hall-of-famer Wade Boggs who played third base for the Red Sox in the 80’s and early 90’s – and also appeared in a hilarious episode of Cheers.

By mummification standards I don’t know how tightly wound Wade tended to be, but do remember he later claimed his batting average improved whenever the California realtor he was “dating” showed up at a game sans underwear – and I don’t believe he was even going for double entendre.

My only memorable encounter with a cranberry bog came at a distance while in high school. The Ocean Spray growing cooperative finally realized that cranberry juice alone was just too tart and generally shunned by most people who didn’t have a yeast infection. So to move product, a University of Massachusetts professor came up with the idea of combining cranberry and apple juice in a blending process that didn’t wind up having it look like the Mapleton Swamp/Bog. But what to name this fantastic new product? For some reason my suggestion -- Crapple -- was rejected early on, even without the focus group.

One minor correction. Contrary to all logical principals of spelling, there’s only one “e” in Massachusetts . I think the Massachusettes are a drill team.


Anonymous said...

Ken, thanks for answering my question.

And since I asked that question I saw a rerun of FRASIER that actually did kind of address the whole "Frasier's mother trying to shoot Diane" thing.

Thinking about it, the really anoying one is that when Woody showed up on FRASIER they never even mentioned him being elected city councilman.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I believe I've read the producers of Bewitched had thought about writing an explanation for the switch in Darrins into the show. It would be explained away as Endora simply casting a spell on him. But it was decided that Endora going so far as to permanently, and significantly, alter Darrin's looks would cause a huge rift between her and Samantha. So they decided not to go that route....and ultimately, they went no route at all.

Anonymous said...

OK, since we're admitting watching shows we probably shouldn't admit having watched (Roseanne excepted): a couple seasons in, Janet Hubert-Whitten was replaced as Mrs. Banks by Daphne Maxwell-Reed.*

In their first scene together of the new season, Will Smith looked at her, did a double-take, and exclaimed something like "Mrs. Banks, what happened to you?"

* I looked it up.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Peel,

You are right. Martine IS amazing, and delightful. I will send your good wishes on to her in London if you'll give your wife Emma my admiration.

lonestarr357 said...

I mainly know Martine Beswick as Sister Hyde in Hammer Films' underrated DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE.

Does she still look that good?

DwWashburn said...

Observation and a question.

On the subject of different actors playing a role, Carl Reiner mentions on the Dick Van Dyke DVD sets that it was common practice in television to do this until the advent of home video. If you watch Lucy, Van Dyke, etc. you will see one actor come on and play different roles, sometimes in consecutive weeks.

I'm a big Three Stooges fan. You can pretty much consider the Stooges to be television of the 30s, and eventually they became television of the 50s, 60s, etc. They always used a stock bit of players to play a wide range of parts.

Actors playing more than one role in the run of a series, or one role being played by several actors, has never bothered me. Must be the Stooge influence.

Now, a question. We have all heard about table reads going incredibly bad and childish stars and guest stars berating the writing staff. The best story I've heard came from Happy Days when Henry Winkler blew up and was taken aside by Ron Howard. Ron told him that the writers were doing their best, and that that behavior was not helping. MY QUESTION -- how did the average writer or writing staff view these tantrums by actors? Did they absorb all of the complaints or did they dig in their heels and say something to the effect as "We don't tell you how to interpret a scene, you don't tell us how to write it."?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Mr. Mcewan--

You've got a deal. But let's not tell Emma that I've got a framed photo of Martine as Paula Caplan in THUNDERBALL hanging a few feet away from my desk. We should keep it quiet.

--Mr. Peel

Anonymous said...

I've got a framed photo of Martine as Paula Caplan in THUNDERBALL hanging a few feet away from my desk.

So what's your desk doing in "Thunderball"?

Anonymous said...

Mum's the word, Peel.

Tor, given that Martine is 66, she does indeed look spectacular.
If you visit this url

you'll find a piece my Tallulah posted on her, with many pictures, including one of Martine and myself taken just 7 months ago, and you can judge her current appearance for yourself.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Sigh. That was a wonderful piece. Glad to hear she's doing well and yes, please send her all the best from Mr. Peel in Los Feliz. She's long been a favorite of mine.

For the record, my desk plays a henchman in THUNDERBALL. It tried out for the part of the main villain, but the producers thought its performance was too wooden.

Thank you folks, be sure and tip your waitresses.

Anonymous said...

My favorite actor swap was on "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman". Philip Bruns left the show and was replaced by Tab Hunter. In the storyline, it was said that Mary's father had fallen into a vat of acid at the plant where he worked, and had plastic surgery to make him look like Tab Hunter.
When Bruns returned to the show, it was said that he'd fallen into the vat again and was restored to his original appearance.

Anonymous said...

And this prompted the plotline where Mary's younger sister, Cathy Shumway, played by Debralee Scott (Whatever became of her? Oops. I typed that question and then looked her up. She's dead. Now I ran into Mary Kay Place at a theater - I had a better seat than she - two weeks ago. Looked good. She was with Lily Tomlin. Are they dating?) started getting creeped out when she realized she now had the hots for her own father.

If I thought I could be turned into Tab Hunter, I'd dive into the nearest vat of acid. And who knew plastic surgery could turn you gay?

Mr. Peel, be sure and rent or buy the DVD of DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE, as Martine's commentary track is well worth a listen, and gives you a good feel for her charming and mirth-loving personality. She's also in an excellent DVD documentary about Hammer horror movies titled FLESH & BLOOD. It's narrated by Peter Cushing & Christopher Lee (The very last time they ever worked together, recorded in London May 19, 1994. I happened to be in London at the time.), and Martine is extensively interviewed. She's also in making of documentaries on the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE & THUNDERBALL DVDs. I love her story of being paid to lie out in the sun all day in the weeks leading up to the THUNDERBALL shoot, so sh'd lose her London pallor for a Jamaican tan.

For years on her car she had a bumper sticker that read: "Goddesses Unite!"

Anonymous said...

Did it ever bother any of the MASH production staff that seemingly no attempt was made to make the women's hair and makeup seem to be of the 50's era? (Margaret had a Farrah Fawcett hairdo later on in the series fer cryin' out loud - and and Klinger's getups were about the only reliable shout-outs to actual female dress of that time).

I LOVE the show, but this one thing always bugged me.

Anonymous said...

It really isn't that serious either. My wife recently (after both of us watching the show for years and never noticing) noticed that in "The King of Queens" the outside shot of the house, there is NO PORCH...but they spent a good amount of time in the show from the front porch. Also the interior doesn't match at all that exterior shot. Door in relation to windows, etc.

But it doesn't matter. Someone must have just decided..."screw it, who cares?"

Steven said...

Can't believe nobody has mentioned the replacement of the youngest boy on The Partridge Family.

howie14 said...

Boy am I late on this post!

The Andy Griffith Show had a lot of continuity problems; names recycled for different actors, names changed from episode to episode. Were Bobby and Freddy Fleet the same bandleader? Who knows? Was it Clara Edwards or Johnson? Was she a troublemaker or a sweet widow? In some episodes, Gomer was a super mechanic; in others he could only do "gas and oil".

A soap my wife watches (All My Children" recently pulled off a novel recasting. The actress changed in mid-scene. The character hugged someone and when she pulled away it was the new actress.