Thursday, March 26, 2009


Back to Phoenix for one last weekend of Spring Training. That Cactus League pennant race is really heating up. The excitement is palpable. Anyway, here are some Friday questions. What's yours??

First up, Joe:

What's it like when a guest star comes in and wants to "help" in the episode he or she will be acting. I'm specifically thinking of John Cleese on Cheers.

That episode was brilliantly written by Peter Casey & David Lee. They just perfectly captured his voice and during the week of production Cleese might have offered some minor suggestions and tweaks but what you see is what Peter & David wrote.

When David Isaacs and I wrote the CHEERS episode with Johnny Carson I went to Mr. Carson before the filming and offered to change anything he didn’t feel was right and he said, “Nope. This is great.” And he did it word for word. I love that man.

Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill guested on CHEERS season one. The original scene had him at a urinal next to Norm. He didn’t think that was appropriate (congressmen actually were worthy of respect back then) so we adjusted the scene.

I do seem to recall directing Mike Ditka once and he suggested a couple of joke fixes. I then gave him some coaching tips.

John wonders:

Ken, with the more permissive (and HBO-inspired) rules the networks have adopted for their show content in the past 10-15 years, are there any episodes you and David did from the 70s and 80s that you look back at now and think it could have been done better if some of the gags allowed today would have been permitted by Standards and Practices back then (or would looser rules resulted in the network folks forcing more shows to gratuitously sexual innuendo-up their dialogue and plot lines because they thought it would add a rating point or two)?

It really depends on the episode and subject matter. Yes, there are a lot of shows we wrote that more license would have been appreciated. But there is also something to be said for being able to be funny and sophisticated without having to resort to profanity. Sometimes that added license leads to easy but cheap laughs. It takes a little skill and elegance to come up with a genuine funny response instead of just having the character say “What the fuck?!” Both will get a laugh. Especially if Johnny Carson says it.

Rogers Motley of Richmond Virginia asks:

With all of the hubbub surrounding the changing of the guard at the NBC late night talk shows, what do you think makes a good late night television talk show host?

Most talk show hosts can be funny and spontaneous (to some degree) but the big question is can they connect with the audience? Is there a likeability? Can viewers really relate to this person? It’s a real X factor that doesn’t depend on age or even nationality. Craig Ferguson has it.

The humor can be biting, gentle, sly, topical, whatever – but the key element is this: The audience has to get the feeling that it’s the host and them against the world, not the host against them. I personally find Letterman much funnier than Leno but at times I feel he crosses that line and the jibes are at the audience’s expense. Leno never does that. And for my money, that’s why he beats Letterman even though David has the far superior show.

And then there’s Tyra Banks. What the fuck?!


rob! said...

I feel that Craig Ferguson has the same type of easy charm that Carson had.

No offense to Conan, but I would have loved to have seen Craig get the Tonight Show gig, even though I knew that was impossible.

Anonymous said...

And then there’s Tyra Banks. What the fuck?!

I think she's earthly punishment from an alien force that hasn't yet had the decency to tell us what we've done wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm not offended when Letterman makes gibes at the audience's expense. I'm offended when he makes the same gibes he made the day before. And the day before that. If Tivo were smarter, it would list Letterman as "new with rerun jokes."

Anonymous said...

The worst of the bunch is Fallon. I know he's new, and I hope he grows into the role, but he doesn't have the suaveness that even geeky conan had in his first season.

Anonymous said...

I think Letterman does take the audience onto his side, with the assumption that we share his taste. Whereas Leno nightly insults his audience, by assuming they want the second-rate crap he serves up.

And I remember all too well from the days when I knew Leno that he was then a much smarter, sharper comic than he's been since he took over TONIGHT, and dumbed his act WAY down to go for a wider, dopier audience than Letterman's. Jay figured, rightly sadly, that stupid tasteless people outnumber smart folks who demand sharper material. Jay became all about the numbers, while Dave remained about doing a high-quality show.

It would be one thing if I thought Jay actually thought at the level he now presents, but I KNOW that he is working beneath his intelligence, and the cynical insult makes weak material that much more insulting.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I always thought the repetition on jokes on Letterman was a joke in itself. It always seems to be that it's a wink nudge ha ha thing for the people who've caught it all week.

I can't stand Leno. Don't know why. I like Conan, but I don't like his show. Weird.

Craig Ferguson is damn fantastic though. He has me on the floor laughing sometimes. That's rare for any show, let alone non-scripted.

Max Clarke said...
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Jess Kiley said...

Whatever will we do when all this slang spilling from old people's mouths urges the younger generation to develop new lingo. It will not be pretty. And I'm the last to decide how we'll handle the beligerent nursing home residents.

Not everyone has loyal children with a mother-in-law cozy attached to her now socially-respected badonkadonk, and a mute button that comes in three shades of neon.

Pray for us, kay? And no talk of sunspots until the armageddon.

Aaron Barnhart said...

Fallon relates just fine to his audience. That's not his problem; his base likes him plenty. The question is whether he's going to like hosting a nightly talk show for the next 20 years. Say, in about six months.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Ken ... another set of good Friday (as opposed to "Good Friday") questions this week!

I'm off to grab a cup of coffee, because I can't figure out what the heck the comment post above by "growingupartists" means, or how it relates to what you've written. I've read it three times, and I'm still not sure, unless it's a snide comment about your "WTF" reference. Maybe some caffeine will help.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big Fallon fan, but the man can't interview. And as was said before, maybe he'll grow into it. Maybe that's not the point to these shows anymore. Ferguson's show, I think, comes closest to the original late night model in that the people on these shows were supposed to be sitting around having a conversation.

Matt said...

Letterman has an obvious resentment of John Stewart. He, Letterman, wants to be THE political humorist. He just doesn't deliver the lines to attain that status. For example, his bit from a couple of days ago: "George W. Bush: How do you spell incompetence?" All politics aside, that wasn't even funny. There was no cleverness there. It's just childish name-calling. I would spell incompetence "The Letterman writing staff."
And when both Leno and Letterman stop doing Monica Lewinsky jokes I will consider making late night shows more regular viewing.
I agree with the other comments about Ferguson. His is the only monologue worth watching. I just wish he weren't on so late.

Anonymous said...

I have a question for next week. Why on earth do networks bother with focus groups? ( It makes me wonder how many good shows have been axed because a random group of people didn't like it.

Anonymous said...

All the hooplah over President Obama appearing on the Tonight Show reminded me that President Clinton was scheduled to appear on the series finale of Cheers, but canceled at the last minute. I wonder if you know what the scoop is on that.

Anonymous said...

You've got a good point about profanity and sitcom-writers having to come up with something else to get their point across instead of outright swear or make an obvious sexual reference. (There have always been sexual references in sitcoms, even network ones; there were just different levels of acceptability in earlier days. I won't even say stricter, just different. You see a lot of stuff on All in the Family, for example, that shows couldn't get away with in the sensitivity-heightened 2009.)

In fact (and I know you're talking more about shows from the 70s and 80s and even 90s), though I loved Arrested Development, part of me wished the show wouldn't get picked up by HBO or Showtime after Fox canceled it. Because even now, there's things you can't say or show on network TV that you can get away with on premium cable. So the writers would be forced to get around it, or sometimes just leave it up to the viewers' imaginations (such as when various characters would be bleeped, but the swear that was being bleeped wasn't super-obvious. On HBO there'd be no need for bleeping, and I think that somehow that would make things a little less fun).

Fitz said...

For some reason, my Bloglines entries for this blog and Smoking Gun are near each other so I saw this right after reading WTF and thought it would make a good question.

Anyway, I knew Phoebe lived on the streets but one would think that ten years and millions of bucks late things would improve ...

Anyway, how did you handle things the first day after a star or guest star gets busted and has a mug shot entering the public domain, so to speak?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Carson was an incredible judge of comedy material and a man of style and grace. Only a man secure in how funny he is and his own knowledge of funny would be able to say, "Don't change anything. It works". Now, imagine if you gave those exact same pages to one of the comedy morons at any of the studios or networks... you'd get a crapload of notes, and bad notes at that. That's why almost nothing funny ever gets on TV anymore. Johnny Carson was the best and I miss him a great deal.

Fitz said...

I hate typos, especially when I make them and even more especially when they are made on a scriptwriter's blog.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...

Carson was the standard. How many comedians got their break by doing a few minutes on his show? It's a shame he really retired when he retired, but he earned it.

Anonymous said...

Letterman's show doesn't deserve the respect it still gets. Letterman, himself, does - when he interviews. There and in some of the pacing of his monologue, he shows he's the consummate broadcaster. But his show -- Please! The "fun facts," the long since unfunny "top ten," the nonsensical retorts by his grating announcer, the endless repetition (how often are we supposed to respond, like Pavlov's dogs, to a sneezing monkey)... Complete time wasters, which was a funny concept in the '80s, not now. That's why the audience obligingly applauds more often than laughs.

Fallon has no voice. The only time he comes into his own when he does impersonations, because he's such an empty vessel. I've even found him aping Conan as of late.

A lot of Leno's material may be broader-based, and rely on and even champion the stupidity of middle America. But I still think he has funnier, more varied bits than Letterman does.

Ferguson is talented. But at least prior to the interviewing, he lays the merriment and satisfaction over his mutterings on a bit too thick.

A. Buck Short said...

Jeez, Iove the way everybody took all the Cleese, Cheers, Comedic License stuff and just ran with it. And yet, when it comes to cell phone throwing accuracy, I understand the woman leaves Russell Crowe in the minors.

Ken, your Tip O’Neill/Cheers vignette reminded me of two things. 1) Is it just me or does “urinal” sound Catholic? 2) One Fourth of July I found myself at a urinal next to Sid Bass of the famous oil billionaire Ft. Worth Bass family. When I came out, I told my wife, “Hey, I just took a leak next to Sid Bass.” She replied, “I hesitate to ask, but how did you know it was Sid Bass?” I had to explain, “He had a name tag. He was obviously coming from some social function.”

D. McE., the thing that drives me crazy about the way Leno’s writers feel, probably correctly, that they have to coddle down to a broader audience is when he has to completely destroy the pacing of a punch line in order to make it perfectly clear who or what he’s talking about, or why it should be funny. For example, on Letterman the punch line might be Larry Craig. With Leno, it’s “Disgraced Idaho Senator Larry Craig.” Letterman: “Botswana.” Leno: “The African country of Botswana.” Other than that, I’m frequently surprised how I enjoy Leno and his monologue professionalism.(Incidentally, I know you are going to make me sorry I asked, but, does anybody ever coddle up to anything?)

As for le nouveau regime, that Triumph insult dog does get me all Smigelly most of the time, but something tells me I’m nowhere near that masturbating bear’s adolescent demographic. I picture O’Brien’s mom calling up and complaining, “We sent you to Harvard for that?” And then there’s the elegance of getting off with a golf swing, vs. yanking your knees up in a spin like somebody just gave you a hotfoot. ‘Nuff said. I know they’re perfectly capable of getting to me; they just don’t necessarily want me. And Fallon knows that too, and I’m OK with that. Wait, no I’m not? It will be interesting to see how C.O. adapts to an audience that doesn't consist entirely of people able to stay up past 12:30 EST.

Ferguson has got to be the hardest working man in comedy since Buster Keaton. My God, that’s not a monologue, it’s an entire act. He's gotta know he can get away with so much less. They ought to walk him off stage every night with a cape, as he keeps trying to come back for one mo’. And apparently the guy even operates his own prompTer.

I love Letterman, but I’m with Bob. How can the guy poke fun at the CBS demos, when he assumes the Alzheimer audience won’t remember he told the same joke the previous night. I know sometimes it is with a wink and a nudge. But some sh_t just isn’t that nudgeworthy. And I don’t mean the engaging familiarity of monkey on a rock. I think the man has more than earned a pass on most of this, but he’d still be a lot funnier if New York had fewer squirrels. Speaking of that, did you enjoy Paul Giamatti discussing his nuts on the Tonight Show as much as I did?

g.u.a. We gotta stop meeting like this.

jbryant said...

Fitz: Are you saying the Florida hooker that got roughed up by the Sham-Wow guy used to be an actress? Or are you saying she resembles an actress? By "Phoebe" do you mean Lisa Kudrow? I'm totally confused.

The Kenosha Kid said...

I think what really kills these late night talk shows is the pre-interview. I hate when the host cues the interviewee "I understand you had a little driving incident the other day..." Why don't they just read off a script and be done with it.

Fitz said...

I am assuming some cultural knowledge and a sense of humor. Somehow the moment is lost when a summary is required.

jbryant said...

Fitz: All I'm saying is I didn't recognize the woman pictured in that link, and there was no accompanying text that explained it. Do I really have to read The Smoking Gun every day to be considered culturally literate? If the average reader here saw that picture and immediately thought, "Hey it's that prostitute that took a beating from the Sham-Wow guy," then I guess I'm guilty of being out of the cultural loop this week. Somehow though, that doesn't exactly make me feel like a dumbass.

Anyway, I wasn't criticizing -- I honestly didn't get your post. Even after figuring out who the woman is, I didn't (and don't) see any resemblance between her and Lisa Kudrow, so I thought maybe I was still missing an aspect of your comment.

Of course you're right to assert that nothing kills a joke faster than having to explain it. But forgive me if I persist in thinking that my sense of humor will recover from this bizarre lapse in my ability to recognize mug shots of Florida sex workers.

Rob said...

My wife and I went to see an Elvis impersonator in Gatlinburg. The preshow entertainment was a Carson DVD on an endless loop. It had everyone in the audience in stitches.

The problem with every one of these late night hosts is that they feel the need to inject themselves into the proceedings no matter what. Leno is just horrid no matter what, from his monologues full of flop sweat and repeated punchlines (Larry Craig... Larry hehehehehe Craig. Larry Craig ladies and gentleman) to his inability to conduct an interview, he is painful to watch during normal talk show duties, although some of his other bits can be amusing. Letterman seems tired most of the time, but he's done some fine roasting of people that deserve it recently. Ferguson is hit or miss for me, and Conan can be quite good except when he's turned on the super hyper act.

But none were like Carson, a man who could make a boring person interesting, let an interesting person be interesting without his input, and take down or bring up someone sitting next to him whenever necessary. He's certainly missed.

Anonymous said...

A good friend of mine said this recently (and I paraphrase): Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon both had rough starts on Late Night, but when Conan started he had already written some of the greatest TV episodes ever, while Fallon was best known for doing Dave Matthews impressions.