Thursday, June 18, 2009

No laughing in the operating room

OH BOY!! It’s Friday question day!!

gottacook has one.

What a wonderful thing that MASH DVDs allow viewers to choose to omit the laugh track. Did you ever imagine, when working on the show, (i) whether such a thing might be possible one day for home video, and (ii) whether there might eventually be comedies (such as the "single-camera" type) that were laugh track-free?

At the time we wrote MASH we had no clue the show would still be so popular thirty years later. We were just thrilled when THREE’S COMPANY stopped kicking our ass in the ratings. I also never thought someday you could own the shows for your own home library. By the way, they look better on DVD than they ever did on the air.

But I fully expected that at some point a single-camera show could escape the laugh track shackles. Hour dramas that had comedy sprinkled in like MOONLIGHTING helped the cause.

On MASH at least CBS allowed us to do O.R. scenes laugh track free. “Let it go, Hawkeye. He’s gone.” (ha ha ha ha ha ha).

willie b wants to know:

We're all familiar with how cheap networks and studios are (see: Jay at 10). So why are writing partners or rooms of writers the norm in TV? Seems to me the networks/studios would be happy paying just one writer instead of a whole roomful.

They would. The trouble is very few writers can write 22 episodes of television a year by themselves… and not wind up in the drooling academy. All the more reason why Larry Gelbart, Aaron Sorkin, and David E. Kelley are Gods.

From Brendan DuBois:

On Frasier, at what point were the title cards written, the ones that used puns and such to introduce different scenes? Were they part of the original script, or were they added on later?

Both. They were a stylistic choice from the get-go. In the pilot, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell employed them to help introduce characters. E.G. -- Before Niles’ first scene a card appeared that read “the brother”. For the FRASIER scripts my partner and I wrote we included several card suggestions. Some they used, some they didn’t, some they did themselves that were better.

And finally, from Chris Ayers:

In the episode where BJ is making Charles think he's gaining & losing weight, were you the "Beanpole Levine" whose pants made Winchester think he'd gotten fat?

Even though I pronounce it “La-Vine”, yep. A little inside joke to amuse maybe three people at the time. Now four. Thanks for noticing.

What’s your question?


Geoff said...

You know, it's nice that the laugh track option is there. And I'm sure there were reasonable arguments to be made on both sides of that debate.

But I'm a purist. Once the decision is made, that's how I want to see it. I want it EXACTLY how it appeared in its original run. Heck, if I had the option I'd restore the correct 20th Century Fox logo to the end.

Scott said...

The best answer to the writers room question would be to look at comedy outside the US. In Australia, there is almost zero homegrown comedy shows because networks simply cant afford to pay a dozen writers for a 22-episode season. They have one or two people (like Jane Turner and Gina Riley with KATH AND KIM) write six to eight episodes a year. Same I would guess with England. EXTRAS and THE OFFICE only went to a handful of eps with just two writers.

Anonymous said...

I like when there is no studio audience or laugh track like on Curb Your Enthusiasm. With laugh stracks and audiences, you almost feel like your supposed to laugh at a certain point. Its awkward if you personally don't find it funny.

My question is what ever happened to the Cheers episode filming for the U.S. Treasury called Uncle Sam Malone? I read somewhere that it wasn't even aired. Did they ever show it?

Unknown said...

The thing with MASH is that there never was a studio audience. So I don't see watching them without the laugh track as a big alteration. The show was shot without an audience so I see that as being closer to the original intent of when they made the episode. An besides that, I usually laugh at the stuff that hadn't been decided to be funny by the laugh track operator.

Joe said...

You forgot JN Straczynsky, he wrote almost all 100 episodes of Babylon 5, season 3 was writen all by him, season 4 was almost all written by him.

Jim Lynn said...

Not sure if you knew this, but when M*A*S*H originally aired in the UK, on the BBC, it didn't have the laugh track at all. The omission certainly didn't stop it becoming as popular over here as it was in the US.

Paul Duca said...

Leo...that Treasury Dept. episode was never meant to be broadcast. They were produced to be shown to organizations, workplaces, and the like to promote the sale of U.S. Savings Bonds and related items. I have a tape with similar special versions of THE ADVENTURE OF SUPERMAN, MISTER ED, THE ODD COUPLE, ALICE, TAXI, and WKRP IN CINCINNATI. And other series also did these, like FATHER KNOWS BEST and LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

playfull said...

Laughter tracks right or wrong? Obviously it depends on the program. I suppose they work if you don’t notice them. However once you have ‘noticed’ the laughter track then for me the show is over.
My daughter watches endless back to back episodes of ‘Friends’ in her bedroom and all you can hear from outside her room is the laughter track, much louder than the dialogue and every few seconds. It’s like laughter Hiccups and it’s as irritating as hell. I think Friends is formulaic yes, but also well written and has some very funny episodes. The Episode where Ross gets a spray tan is as good as anything i have seen in a sitcom. The problem is i can’t stay in the room when it is on, all i hear is the bloody laughter track!

I heard somewhere (it may have been on a studio tour) that they had a thirteen second rule on Friends. The writers had to put in a ‘gag’ at least once every thirteen seconds. That might be untrue but are writers ever given a gag quota?

Griff said...

This question occurred to me while watching a rerun of TWO AND A HALF MEN a few weeks back. In the episode, an wealthy, elderly man arrives at the house to confront Charlie, who is sleeping with the man's trophy wife. [Almost all of the humor of the episode comes from the fact that the elderly guy has a certain wry attitude and no small dignity, is given many smart lines, and is very well played by Orson Bean.]

Anyway, he does try to communicate with Charlie, and seeks common ground with him by asserting, believe it or not, he also once was a real player. The guy reels off a list of actresses (real names) that he slept with, saving the best for last. [Dialogue approximate.]

"Anne Francis."

Charlie and Alan look blankly at him.

"Anne Francis! TV's HONEY WEST!"

It means nothing to them. He is very frustrated.

"Anyway, I nailed her."

The still powerful iconic touchstone of Anne Francis for people of a certain age made this very, very funny -- in the show's darkly perverse way, of course. [Bean's performance made it work, really.] But it got me thinking -- what was the procedure that gets this kind of strange gag, involving the names of real living people, approved? [More to the point, what kind of legal paperwork would the still rather wonderful Ms. Francis have to sign off on in order to give TWO AND A HALF MEN the right to, well, make fun of her salad days? Or do even they bother any more?]

cuttybob said...

During an ad taping at a car dealership I worked at, I found myself as background pretending to sell a car to the office manager while the talent stood 10 feet away doing his thing. I did everything I could to keep the "customer's" back to the camera so I could face it.
The question is, is it up to the actors to overcome the other actors attempt to do this or does the director control this?

Yeti said...

I come from Winchester, a town just outside of Boston. Given Charles E. Winchester's Boston Brahmin backstory, I always wondered whether, in casting about for the character's name, someone happened to be looking at a map of the Boston area and "viola."

Ref said...

When I look at a map of the Boston area, I'm more likely to say "ocarina" or "hurdy-gurdy."

Tallulah Morehead said...

"what kind of legal paperwork would the still rather wonderful Ms. Francis have to sign off on in order to give TWO AND A HALF MEN the right to, well, make fun of her salad days?"

Like she hasn't been bragging for decades about doing Orson Bean. (Who wouldn't? They don't call him "The Beanpole" for nothing.)

But for me and many others, her performance as Altaira Morbius in FORBIDDEN PLANET trumps her Honey West credit. And THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW immortalized that credit in song for future generations.

WV: reada: most of some good advice, as in "reada book."

Ben K. said...

I was under the impression that writing partners are actually a bargain, because they're usually paid about the same as a single writer.

Doug R said...

Speaking of writers rooms, here's my question:

How often does it happen that someone is hired onto a writing staff, and it turns out he or she isn't as good as their spec script or other sample indicated? How long are they given to turn it around before they're given the boot?

(This is motivated by a recurring nightmare I used to have where, even though I'm not a writer, I'd dream that I was hired by SNL out of college, proceed to have every sketch idea shot down, and at the end of the season, Lorne Michaels suggests I find another career and then has security escort me out.)

Cap'n Bob said...

For even more primo Anne Fracnis see SO YOUNG SO BAD, in which she plays a teenage reform school girl. One of her co-stars was Rita Moreno, another beauty.

WV: proles. What prisoners in Dixie get.

Matt said...


I've noticed there is an O.R. sfx loop that runs about 20 seconds before it repeats. You can clearly hear Wayne Rogers, who is the dominant voice on this loop, saying "ok cut that" and "is that it?"

I believe this loop was used through the entire series.

Has anyone else ever said anything to you about it?

TimmyD said...


I love the stories you share from your book about growing up in LA. I was recently wondering where you went to college and figured it was either UCLA or U$C. I've always had the feeling you were a Bruin and after searching your blog I found out I was correct (I'm a good judge of character). Will your time in Westwood make it into the book? Into the blog? Any stories about classic games in Pauley or the days when we shared the Mausoleum with Figueroa Tech?


Bob Summers said...

Have you ever been forced to write an episode based on a real current event? (WKRP Who concert trampling episode, for example.) Also, have you ever been on a show where the premise was the victim of bad timing? (ABC's "Invasion" in 2005 about the strange aftermath of a hurricane debuts weeks after Katrina.)

Do networks really buy shows that they know are only going to make it four or six episodes? Is that one reason shows have to take three month breaks now, accidental success and the need for more production?

What kind of Mac and software do you use?

WV: Upere...Got to be somewhere close to Ryecheer.