Thursday, March 05, 2009

nice = death

Hi kids. It’s time for some Friday questions. What’s yours?

Reader John asks:

Ken, what's the hardest type of character for you to write for while making them sympathetic? To me, it seems as through character like Becker, or going way back, Phil Slivers' Ernie Bilko are more difficult to handle, because you've got a character who's jammed full of bad personality traits, but who the audience is still supposed to be rooting to succeed (as opposed to the bad personality trait character in the Frank Burns mode, who's going to get his by the end of every episode).

Actually, the hardest characters to write are the ones who are intrinsically good and have a minimum of flaws. When characters are duplicitous, conniving, lascivious, cowardly, vain, self centered, overly ambitious, lazy, or a Scientologist – now you’ve got comedy gold. Case in point, in MASH it was infinitely easier to write Frank Burns than Father Mulcahy. And if the flawed characters are funny that really takes the curse off of them.

Most actors get that. But some don’t. They’re always lobbying the writers to make them nicer because they constantly want to be seen in a good light. What they can’t seem to comprehend is that “nice”= death in comedy.

From Brian:

What exactly does a show runner do?

He oversees the entire production and essentially provides the voice and creative direction of the show. He hires the writing staff, the crew, the directors. He is in charge of the show’s budget. He approves and breaks the stories, assigns them, rewrites them, and decides when the scripts are ready for distribution. He does all of the casting. Deals with the network and studio. Approves sets, wardrobe, music, the Christmas party, opening titles, webisodes, and in single-camera shows tells the director the style he wants.

During runthroughs he has final say. He can ask for scenes to be re-blocked and override a director’s acting notes. He then has final say on the rewrites. If an actor isn’t cutting it it’s his call to fire him.

During filming of a multi-camera show he determines whether a scene still needs more takes or they can move on. On single-camera shows he is either on the set to make that call or can demand a re-shoot if he’s not happy with the dailies.

He also oversees the editing. The editor and director put together their first cut and then the showrunner is in control. He can change that cut at will, if the show is long he determines what gets cut. He then supervises post production – sound, color correction, music.

If the show has a laugh-track he oversees that process as well.

On the one hand you’re thinking, “Wow! How great! He has tremendous creative control.” On the other, you’re thinking, “Jesus! That sounds exhausting. And he has to turn out a show a week? How the hell does he have time to do all of that?”

Answer: He doesn’t. And that’s the real art of showrunning.


Anonymous said...

My Friday question:

In Season 2 of Frasier, you and David wrote a two-parter where Lillith and Frasier end up taking their new beaus to the same romantic hiding spot. Were those episodes designed to bring Bebe back as a special guest star or was that a moment of inspiration that just happened in the writing?

Anonymous said...

Sweet Dick Whittington used to have (Well, still has) a saying about comedy: "Nice pays scale."

I never thought of Reverend Mulcahey as a good, let alone flawless character, and I always hated how he was played in the TV series. (Not William Christopher's work, but the concept and use of the character)

He's a priest. He sells the worthless blather which is religion to men who need actual medical aid. And because it was TV, he had to be seen as virtuous, because if there is ever a point-of-view never to be expressed on American network TV, it is the fact that religion is a croc.

One of the things I loved most about the movie M*A*S*H was its open contempt for religion. Father Mulcahey in the movie is played as an ineffectual, useless nothing, who has nothing of value to offer the patients, a relic of a superstitious age, and Frank Burns is called a "Sky Pilot" and openly mocked by the film's heroes for praying; prayer itself being portrayed as worthless. It was, I believe, the first big hit American movie to have a character ridiculed BY THE HEROES (Doctors, i.e., men of science) for being religious. There was never a chance that attitude would survive into the TV series. The network would just barely allow saying "War is bad;" it wasn't going anywhere near "Religion is bad."

So writing Father Mulcahey so that I didn't want to see him shot was, well, impossible. So I always hated Mulcahey-centric episodes. Still do.

But while good characters are hard to write and make work and be funny, writing goody-goody characters as funny is a snap.

I recently leant my Bilko DVDs to a friend, and was flummoxed when he said he didn't enjoy them because Bilko was too unlikable. I said, "Watch them closer." After all, Ernie Bilko was shown, again and again, to have a heart of gold under it all that he tried to hide. How many times did he find himself unable to make that final killing because teh innocent he was going after made mush of him. Like that great episode where Joe E. Ross is leaving the army, and Bilko tries to make sucker bets with him so he can lose to him the money he's won from him over the years, so Ross will have a stake to open his own business, and Ross just can't believe he'll ever beat Bilko. How loveable can you get?

And even if he hadn't had a heart of mush, Bilko's blatant scheming was always hilarious. I was reminded of all the network resistance to keeping Dabney Colman's Buffalo Bill a total stinker, even though he was extremely funny.

But I admit to often finding Becker off-putting. For me, he often came across as merely nasty rather than funny. I've loosened up on him in recent years, but I was not a fan during his network run.

It's a tightrope walk when it's your lead who is a crook, con man or just plain asshole, rather than lovably foolish. Of course, in a supporting character, the more foul, the better.

And who, after all, was the most popular TV character throughout the whole of the 1980s? JR Ewing. Larry Hagman will tell you: Nice pays scale.

Anonymous said...

spot on, Kenny...

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan missed the point of why Father Mulcahy was actually useful to the unit in the TV series vs. the movie. It had nothing to do with TV’s viewpoint about religion (although he is right that TV wasn’t quite ready for religion as a bad idea in 1972) but had to do with how the characters could be used.

In the movie, Father Mulcahy was there to show the uselessness of religion as D. points out. But in the TV series, the writers needed a character that would allow the other characters to say what was bothering them. Over time, Mulcahy became less of a religious figure and more of a lay councilor/red stripe nurse. In fact, all of the major characters sort of compromised their points of view to work together except Frank Burns.

Anonymous said...


Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Personally, I think the former is the one with more longevity. Sitcoms are rewatched endlessly; comedy-dramas on the other hand tend to disappear when they go off air.


Mary Stella said...

So, to put it more succinctly, show runner = god.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Ken. Also, when you noted this --

Most actors get that. But some don’t. They’re always lobbying the writers to make them nicer because they constantly want to be seen in a good light. What they can’t seem to comprehend is that “nice”= death in comedy.

-- I immediately thought that once the show-runners from Season 7 of M*A*S*H departed, the designated "mean" people on the show, Charles and Margaret, started getting a lot nicer, to the point that any serious conflict by the final 2-3 years had to be provided by the guest a-hole of the week, who did the heavy lifting that Hawkeye, B.J. and the others could react to.

Was that due to the problem you mentioned, or did the new show-runners/writers just want to take M*A*S*H in more of a dramedy direction, with the emphasis on the "dra" instead of the "medy"?

Anonymous said...

It's a tightrope walk when it's your lead who is a crook, con man or just plain asshole, rather than lovably foolish.

Heh. I'm looking at LEVERAGE, where that pretty much applies to the lead character. His behavior is objectively assholish, he's an alcoholic and he's in denial, but viewers seem to root for him...(helps that he is a stand in for the viewer, who are looking for revenge against villains who have analogs in the real world....)

Tom Quigley said...

Although writers love to write for (and create) bad characters, one of the biggest hurdles they face is how to still make the main character in a show sympathetic to the audience, even if he or she is totally repugnant. With sitcoms, I found more often than not the use of another character's affinity (one that the audience already likes or identifies with) usually is the strategy employed. In ALL IN THE FAMILY, Archie Bunker would never have held on to his viewers, except for the fact that for some reason Edith, who didn't have a mean bone in her body, still in her child-like innocent way always found something in him to love.

I think BECKER was the same way, in that no matter how badly Ted Danson's character came off, office manager Maragaret (who I think was the most likeable character in the show), never just up and quit, walked out the door and shouted "John, you are a complete neurotic maniac! Go to hell!" As long as she could deal with his personality and find something redeemable in him, the audience found it also. In addition, when the character of Bob was brought in, the show had someone who at times was even more obnoxious than Becker, so all the negative energy was no longer directed at him. I never did however, find the romances between Becker and Francis Fisher's character or Nancy Travis' character all that convincing. I never thought he offered enough of himself to either one for them to be that interested.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the show runner used to be called "producer?"

Unknown said...

I never cared for Father Mulcahey much, either. At the start he was relegated to grabbing things "for the orphans." It reminded me of some kids in sitcoms who spent all of their air time being sent to their rooms.

Anonymous said...

Here's my Friday question:
Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

blogward said...

Laurie Hutzler writes that audiences decide about a character within two seconds - it's part of our survival mechanism. It's easier to decide about an out-and-out good or thoroughly bad character, so good-with-a-flaw (House, Don Draper) or bad-with-a-heart-of-gold (Dexter, Sipowicz) are much more fun and interesting to write, act and watch.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, the word producer has been so devalued that showrunner was created to denote who actually handled day to day oversight of a show. I've heard of people listed in credits as a producer whose contribution never got beyond signing their name to the back of the checks they got as a producer.

Anonymous said...

The dictum my writing teacher at USC (a crusty fellow from the studio days named Ken Evans) had was they don't need to be likable but characters must be engaging. If their behavior makes sense and keeps your attention, they don't have to be nice (e.g. Paul Newman's character in HUD).

Dave Mackey said...

Aren't what are called "producers" now what used to be called "writers"? Ken's mentioned on here that no more than two writers can be credited on a show, so the rest of the writers who sit around the table and come up with stuff on a weekly basis get "producer" credits.

Also, Ken, can you please explain the distinction between "Producer" and "Produced by" credits? I've heard that there is a shade of difference, and I've always noticed that the "Produced by" credits come after all the "Producer" credits. Thank you.

WV: "duces" - what it means, devils in Italian.

Anonymous said...

@ Dave Mackey:
'duces' is what an amateur producer does.

Anonymous said...

Follow up showrunner ?:

How do you know who a showrunner is for a show if it's not included in the credits?

Anonymous said...

I know it's unbearably esoteric to those living outside a ten mile radius of Century City, but I'd still like to know; What do you think of a possible Endeavor-WMA merger?

Anonymous said...

I just noticed that David Isaacs is a producer on Mad Men. How do you decide which projects to work on as a team and what you do solo?