Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ready for some Friday questions?

Richard Y asks:

When a comedy show is filmed in front of a live studio audience (the producers hope they are alive) 'Laverne & Shirley', and many others for example. How do they set up the sight gags that one would see coming if sitting in the audience (and not laugh) but when viewing at home the audience laughter is appropriately placed as the sight gag is reveled?

Often we’ll have a riser covering a set until we’re about to shoot. Or pre-shoot a scene up until the big reveal. But it’s hard to really hide surprise-jokes. Plus, there are always re-shoots and pick ups so the audience sees the same joke several times regardless. The real fun is doing complicated stunts live in front of the audience. I talked about the pie fight I staged on ALMOST PERFECT. We did that live. See for yourself. There was an episode of CHEERS my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote where Cliff chains himself to his house to stave off the wrecking ball. Eventually Norm cuts the center beam and the entire second floor crashes down just after they vacate the place. Even a toilet is seen crashing to the ground. That was all filmed in real time in front of 200 startled and delighted people. Kudos to James Burrows for that one.

From Mark Potts:

What do you think about actors writing and directing episodes of shows you work on?

It all depends on the actor. Alan Alda was a good writer and even better director. Other actors we have worked with were not. When they wrote scripts we had to rewrite them from scratch. One actor I worked with got to direct an episode every season. Normally he was the nicest guy. But when he became a director he became a raging maniac It was so bizarre to hear him order around people knowing the following week he would just be one of them again. Often times when actors direct multi-camera shows they just work with the actors on the stage and someone else (usually the camera coordinator) has to do the camera blocking because the actor has no clue how to do that.

But some actors have become so proficient as directors they've become that full-time. Peter Bonerz, James Widdoes, Melanie Mayron, Amanda Bearse, Will MacKenzie, Robbie Benson, Betty Thomas, Penny Marshall, David Steinberg just to name a bunch. There are at least fifty others. And that's just the ones who are still alive.

My problem in general with actors writing scripts is that they tend to give themselves all the good lines and other cast members are given short shrift. In one script by one series regular (who will remain nameless) he gave his co-star six lines for the entire episode. Of course we had to rewrite extensively.

My problem with actors directing episodes is that usually they try to be light in the episode and as good as they might be behind the camera they’re better in front of it.

That said, some of the best directors I’ve ever worked with were (and are) actors. Danny DeVito and Alan Alda top that list.

And finally:

Rob! weighs in:

I was watching an episode of Frasier last night, the one where they all go to a cabin in the woods, intended as a romantic getaway for Martin and Ronnie, and they all have weird dreams.

Martin's dream is this huge musical number, complete with dancing girls, fireworks, etc. Quite an amazing little number.

My question is, in terms of producing such an episode--that clearly busts the budget for that particular episode, doing something so elaborate.

Where does that money come from? Do you go to the network for extra $$ or do the producers take money away from other episodes that come in under budget, to put it towards something special?

Studios are given money by the networks for two prime time airings. This is the “license fee”. It is negotiated between the studio and network. If the show goes over budget the studio is responsible for the remaining costs. But the studio owns the show and can sell it into syndication if there are enough episodes and there is a market for that series (like say FRASIER). Then it’s a license to print money.

But most shows fail. And most of the time the studios lose money on series. Now keep in mind, today the networks own the studios so the lines are blurred over who owns what and who is responsible for what. The network controls everything.

Generally shows have a yearly budget. So if you do an elaborate dance number one week, the next week just have an episode that takes place in Frasier’s apartment that can come in under budget.

You’ll notice that with 24. There will be some spectacular stunts and helicopters and giant gun battles. And the next two weeks Jack will be in FBI headquarters. Another thing, to help pay for the cost of sets and production, usually if Jack Bauer goes somewhere he’s there for at least two episodes. A warehouse, the White House, etc. And you’ll notice a “day” on 24 usually begins around 8 a.m. That allows them to shoot the daytime scenes in the summer when it stays light until 8 and the nighttime scenes in the winter when shooting can begin as early as 5. Lots of little tricks go into getting the most bang for your production buck.

I don’t know how they do it on LOST though. Every week is elaborate and expensive. It’s a mystery – like everything else on that show.

What’s your question? The comments section awaits.


Anonymous said...

How come you and David don't work together any longer. Was there an incident or did you just drift apart. Are you two still in contact?

The Milner Coupe said...

Ron Howard's doing OK as well.

By Ken Levine said...

David and I do still work together. We're developing a few pilot projects.We're not as active (by choice) but we very much are still a working partnership.

Dave Mackey said...

Milner Coupe - so too is Rob Reiner.

Ken - always used to get extra excited in my M*A*S*H watching days when the credits before the episode would come up and Alda's name was on either the writer credit, the director credit, or sometimes both. He always set a high bar of achievement for himself and leaped far over it.

WV: "beguest" - song from Disney's "Beautybeast".

Rob said...

Perhaps this has been asked, but bringing up Alan Alda brought it to mind....

What did Ken think of the M*A*S*H finale? I cannot remember anticipating a finale more and I remember being very moved.

Then I caught it again years later during college and was struck by how completely off the episode seemed to be from the rest of the series and I found it far more preachy than I remembered. It wasn't bad, but it was a bit like ER's season finale being shot as a 3 camera sitcom.

Rinaldo said...

There were several young actors in the Paltrow-produced series (White Shadow, St. Elsewhere) who tried their hand at direction on those shows, and took to it so well that it became their primary career: Thomas Carter, Kevin Hooks, Eric Laneuville.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the M*A*S*H finale, what did you think of Alan Alda's line in 30 Rock last night? I won't say anything more in case you haven't seen the episode yet.


Bill White said...

LOVE this blog!

My question: On M*A*S*H. Where were the cigarettes? GI's in Korea in the 50's must have smoked like chimneys, but, except for the occasional cigar, there seems to be a no smoking policy in place at the 4077th.

Was this intentional, or an oversight, or should I turn off the TV and go think of something useful?

Derek said...

Hi Ken. I have a question for next week (or now if you like).

I really enjoy Lost, but one of my complaints is the numbers of times that the writers have had characters knock each other unconcious in order to incapacitate them. Obviously Lost is not trying to exist entirely in the "real world", but I find it pretty annoying that characters have the amazing ability to use exactly the right amount of force to knock someone out but not give them permanent brain damage or kill them. Plus, once the victim awakes, he is soon perfectly fine with no apparent headaches, dizziness, or other problems that one might expect.

I realise that sometimes it is necessary to incapacitate a character and knocking him unconscious might be the only practical and quick way to do it, but do the writers view it as a necessary cop-out? I think if I was a writer, I would be kind of embarrassed about having to use the knock-out-blow-to-the-head approach to move my story along.

If you agree with me (or even if you don't), are there any other standard story elements that you can think of that are viewed as a sometimes necessary "easy way out" by those in the business? That is, what are some of the situations that writers are embarrassed to include in their scripts, but sometimes need to?


A. Buck Short said...

Thanks for including Melanie Mayron. I am a fan.

Erich E said...

Hi Ken,

I assume based on your recent post that you read the L.A. Times article about Hulu hurting cable channels. Even though I realize that you're not Sumner Redstone (or perhaps because you aren't), I want to ask how you see the television/media landscape changing in the next 10 to 20 years.

As I see it, networks are in great danger of becoming obsolete. As you explain in your Friday questions, studios own and deficit finance all the content on TV, meaning that they lose money on far more shows than they earn money. This system is necessary because (as I understand it) FCC regulations prohibit studios from broadcasting content themselves.

On the internet, however, studios can be their own distributors, and the overhead cost is much lower because the internet eliminates the need for affiliate broadcasters and cable providers like Cablevision and Time Warner. And internet technology prohibits viewers from fast-forwarding through commercials and negates the system of setting ad prices for a given time slot during sweeps when networks often use stunt programming to generate unrealistically high ratings, which would seem to make this whole system more desirable to advertisers.

Of course, studios already are distributing original content online, and none of it has really caught on yet. But I imagine that, as technology like Roku and Apple TV improve and become more popular, viewers will become more comfortable watching a whole series that isn't available on broadcast television.

One executive in the L.A. Times article said, "We have to be mindful of the fact that we have a good business that works for all the players." But I don't see how the current system works any better than the one that I just outlined except that it keeps a lot of networks and affiliates in business. Is it possible to imagine that networks will disappear and, as a result, a few more of the barriers between content producers and viewers will fall?


Joey H said...

Question: Episodes are edited for syndication or cable to allow more commercial time than when they were first run. Do writers anticipate this and write scenes that are not crucial to the A story that are, in effect, designed to be edited out.

Toni Pope said...

What is with sitcom kitchen set design? After Family Ties and The Cosby Show hit it big in the ratings, each show featured an elaborately remodeled ktichen. In the case of Family Ties, the transition of the actors from the kitchen set to offstage often seemed awkward.
Also: who determines the actor's "business"? Sam Malone was always slicing lemons. Didn't bother me, seemed natural. But Michael J. Fox seemed to be addicted to orange juice. Every time he entered the kitchen he poured a glass.

BigTed said...

On "Lost," they'll claim to have a long-term budget at the start of each season, but really they have no plan at all -- they'll just throw money around every which way, the crazier the better. Then, if it all somehow happens to work out in the end, and the finances make some sort of weird sense, they'll say, "We meant for it to happen just like that all along!"

Oh, wait... I mean, that's how "Lost" is written.

Mike from Atlanta said...

What do you do when the supporting character begins to overshadow the main character? Examples: the Barney character on How I Met Your Mother, Christine Baranski's character on Cybill, Dr. Johhny Fever in WKRP and even the Steve Urkel character in Family Matters (he wasn't a regular until later in the season).

gottacook said...

Rob - I recall that in the weeks leading up to the MASH finale in February 1983, there were news reports (maybe in the general press, maybe just in weekly Variety) that the show's length was being repeatedly stretched to allow for more and more commercial slots - CBS knew that the finale would draw a huge audience and the show suffered accordingly from bloat, such as Nurse Kellye et al. sitting around blathering meaningfully. The result was, I thought, an unpalatable 2.5-hour mess. The impact of the Charles/musicians storyline, the best part of the episode, was blunted.

The question remains: How did the (eight!) writers on the episode feel about the need to repeatedly increase the script length? How much time did they have to put it together? Were any of them happy with the result?

Michael Green said...

I was working at a newspaper when the MASH finale aired and we decided it would have to be the banner story. The National Enquirer had gotten a script draft and I was sitting there watching it with the Enquirer in front of me. When I saw the Enquirer had it right, we approved the story and went ahead with putting out the paper.

I didn't think the finale was bloated--I cried with everyone else and was deeply moved--so much as too much of an effort to show that the war scarred almost ALL of them--Hawkeye finally going over the deep end, B.J. going and coming, Klinger's marriage, Mulcahy's injury, and, especially, Charles with the musicians. As moving as all of it was, especially the last one, in a way it was a little too much.

Tim Susman said...

I want to second the Alan Alda/30 Rock question. Thought of you right away.

Bob Summers said...

What are your thoughts on turning movies (theatrical releases) into a series? "M*A*S*H" and "Alice" work, but I'm frustrated watching the first season of "The Paper Chase" on DVD. It was a great movie. The series just doesn't come close.

Cap'n Bob said...

Alice worked? Not for me. I stopped watching after a couple of episodes, but was subjected to a few more over the years. When Flo advertised every punch line with that horsey grin I wanted to toss a boot through my TV screen.

bettyd of MA said...

I was reading a brief interview with Michael Ausiello and Bill Lawerence of Srubs. This is his quote about coming back for another season after quite a few leads will be part-time or even not there.
"The one promise I would make to people is that if this does suck, it won't suck in a lame fizzle-out kind of way," he says. "It will suck in a huge way. It will really, really suck."
Does this remind you of Joey or at least After M*A*S*H. I really can't believe he said that going into the new season, not after.

Do you think he is setting himself up for failure or just lowering expectation?