Thursday, August 06, 2009

I almost punched out Thomas Haden Church

It’s Friday Question Day. A common question is where do you leave the questions? In the comments section. Well, that’s all for today. See you next week.

Just kidding. (I wonder how many people still clicked off after that first paragraph.)

Ben K. has two questions:

A lot of hour long shows are incorporating as much comedy as drama these days ("Desperate Housewives," "Burn Notice," "Rescue Me," etc.). Does it make sense for someone who sees him- or herself mainly as a comedy writer to go up for these shows as well? Is there much crossover between writers for these shows and sitcoms?

It makes a great deal of sense. The more buyers you have for your services, the better. Especially today.

Sitcom’s last downward cycle was in the early 80s. There was great fear that the genre would go the way of Westerns and anything with Sonny & Cher. This gave rise to two billion spec MAGNUM P.I.’s – many from established comedy writers. There was some crossover then; there’s a lot more now. Many half-hour writers are drifting into hours. Half the FRASIER staff relocated to Wisteria Lane. Definitely write an hour dramedy… IF you feel you can do it well.

Also, now that there are about to be six major late-night talk shows (counting Leno at 10), are there more opportunities for joke writers on those shows? How do you go about trying to get one of those staff-writing jobs?

According to Mike Sack’s terrific new book, AND HERE’S THE KICKER, submit a 4-10 page sample packet featuring a couple of sketches, a page or so of monologue jokes, a couple of free floating ideas, plus a “bonus” which could be a funny article or story. The good news is you don’t need an agent to get hired on one of these shows. It helps a great deal but it’s not mandatory. Send your submission to the head writer or his assistant. Never send it to the star. Or anyone who ever worked on staff of MAGNUM P.I.

Anonymous wonders:

Does this scenario ever happen -- a writer and an actor disagree over a line, but eventually the writer wins out and the actor agrees to do it the writer's way.

Then, during the actual taping, the actor instead does the line HIS way -- hoping that it will get the desired response, or the director will let it slide?

Do directors automatically yell cut if someone varies a line, or is it a judgment call?

Usually the director will let the scene go but then re-shoot the scene. If the actor’s ad lib gets a huge laugh sometimes the producers will keep it. It’s tough though because you don’t want to set a precedent.

On MORK & MINDY there would be places in the script where the writers just kept replacing jokes all week. On show night Robin Williams would do the most recent version. And then in pick-ups and reshoots he did the discarded jokes. But the studio audience of course thought he was ad libbing and were in awe. It was amazing how quick this guy could come up with jokes right there on his feet! Except that it was a lie and he was really taking credit for other writers’ work.

I had a situation with Thomas Haden Church on the first episode I ever directed, a WINGS. I had been involved with that show since the beginning and had a great relationship with the cast (still do). I was particularly fond of Tommy. But he was testing me, good naturedly, since it was my first time calling-the-shots.

On show night, with a studio audience, he decides to ad lib a line in one of the scenes instead of performing what was written. I asked him to please do the line from the script on the next take. He didn’t. He did a different ad lib. I gently reminded him that I was not leaving that scene until he had done what was on the page. He nodded and apologized. On the next take he did a third ad lib. I calmly walked into the set, took him aside, put my around him like a father giving his son sage advice and quietly said, “Tommy, if you don’t do the line right this time I’m going to punch your fucking face in.” He smiled, we went back to our respective positions and he did the line perfectly on the next take. Of all the actor notes I’ve ever given as a director or producer that is still by far my favorite.

What’s your question?


Mike Bell said...

Dear GAWD! how many times have I (and you) wanted to say something similar to a Program Director?

Richard Cooper said...

So this finally explains the true reason THC's nose was broken in the film SIDEWAYS... he must have ad libbed a fourth time,
and P O W !

Anonymous said...

For actors that want to ad lib: see the post on how to give a note to a writer, that's the least rectal way to get your idea in.

Hugo Fuchs said...

Alas, there are a good number of actors (amongst others) who could use the same notes.

Michael Green said...

Richard Cooper beat me to it. But the best ad lib story I ever heard was William Christopher auditioning for MASH and ad-libbing, thinking that would make it more interesting, and saying he was called back and told they were going with him DESPITE that.

Joey said...

Not a question, just a rave: Lifetime showed "Roz and the Schnoz" yesterday. TiVo dutifully placed it in my "Suggestions" folder, and I gleefully watched it (again). What a great episode! You caught the actors' reactions very well.

benson said...

Another compliment... Dubya-GN-America is showing Becker reruns at dinner time ET and what a underrated gem of a show that was.

(And they're also showing Barney Miller now on Sunday nights.)

Telecomedian said...

@benson - you're right - "Becker" does indeed hold up well as a show, especially with the jokes, one-liners, and Danson's constant bitterness. From a visual standpoint, however, I never liked how it looked, or how it was shot. I found the camera angles to be off-putting, and the lighting a little washed-out. Take "Cheers" and "Frasier" - both shows featured deep, rich, natural colors - lots of brown and tan made for very inviting sets. "Becker" featured a lot of white and gray - the diner did not appear to be nearly as comfortable as a stool at Cheers, or Frasier's living room. Granted, I'm guessing those were active decisions by the creative staff, further demonstrating Becker's anti-pretty-much-everything view.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so if things hadn't gone the way they you think THC would have fought you fairly...or would he have called for his stunt double to fight you?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken said:

"According to Mike Sack’s terrific new book, AND HERE’S THE KICKER, submit a 4-10 page sample packet featuring a couple of sketches, a page or so of monologue jokes, a couple of free floating ideas, plus a 'bonus' which could be a funny article or story. The good news is you don’t need an agent to get hired on one of these shows. It helps a great deal but it’s not mandatory. Send your submission to the head writer or his assistant."...

Ken, according to a writer I dealt with about two years ago who's on staff at Letterman, you DO have to submit material through an agent to the head writer there. The policy may have changed since then, but it might be wise to check with a particular show first before sending anything directly to that show.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Do you prefer writing sitcom episodes with a tag before the closing credits (M*A*S*H) or episodes that have no tags and end the episode with the second act (Cheers)?

Also what are the reasons for having tags or not having tags: is it usually network policy (like in the '80s when almost none of NBC's sitcoms used tags), or is it sometimes the showrunner's decision?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for speaking out about Robin Williams.

In the world of standup comedy, Mr. Williams is fairly notorious for - ahem - "inadvertantly borrowing" other comic's material.

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

Another story about Robin Williams's "improvisational" abilities:

In the early 1980s, soon after Williams had become famous from MORK AND MINDY, he appeared on Dick Cavett's PBS show. Cavett mentioned having seen Williams perform a night or two before, and being especially impressed by a bit in which he had created a mock-Shakespearean play based on current events suggested by the audience. Cavett asked him to do the same there. Williams asked the audience to name some names in the news, and from these he selected Three Mile Island. He then proceded to perform a very funny bit that he entitled "A Meltdowner's Nightmare."

A year or so later, Williams's first album, REALITY...WHAT A CONCEPT, is released. On it, there is a selection in which he offers to improvise a mock-Shakespearean play based on current events suggested by the audience. He selects Three Mile Island, and then procedes with a bit entitled "A Meltdowner's Nightmare"--word for word, the same routine he had performed on Cavett's show.

Steve Hill said...

Question for a future Friday: On British TV shows, including sitcoms, writers get top billing, ahead of stars, e.g., "Only Fools and Horses, by John Sullivan". Is merely a convention of British TV, or is part of guild agreement or something?

Anonymous said...


On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

- Steve

A. Buck Short said...

So I’m guessing Tony Shalhoub always delivered the lines precisely as written – what with the OCD and all….

I loved that series – especially (although not exclusively) Rebecca Schull. Here’s some trivia I’ll never get a chance again to weave into casual conversation: The first film to win a Best Picture Oscar (1927) was the silent film “Wings,” shot down here in San Antonio. It was a WWI fighter pilot pic from a story by Fay Wray’s husband – John Monk Saunders. Right, I could never get girls with these types of awkward double segues either. Oh, I forgot. Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln….

Now was "I’m going to punch your fucking face in,” adlibbed or rehearsed over and over again on previous series and episodes?

Ken and Tom, my experience with Letterman also seemed to be that you need an agent – although my situation was slightly different. I sent samples of sketches and monologues as part of an inquiry as to whether or not they accepted topical monologue material from non-staff writers. It seemed to me, if I could just get an email address for the writers, I’d be happy to regularly send them stuff they could use or not. On the advice of a friend who was, at the time, president of the WGA, I funneled it in through the writers’ assistant (with a stop along the way at a Letterman producer I’d worked with once).

The response “Sorry we’re not hiring,” never really answered my question – although I was left with the impression all there comedy is strictly staff stuff. So here are two questions:

1) Is the head writer’s assistant of whom you spoke the same as the writers’ assistant (i.e. the one guy who assists, takes notes for, etc.) all the writers -- or are they different people?

2) What’s your guess as a pro with a trained eye and ear? Letterman used to do a lot of sketches from his desk on the phone with people like his “assistant” Stephanie and Art (who really actually is the guy who answered the phones there). Their responses always seemed very natural. How much of that stuff is usually scripted or rehearsed? Or are the other participants just given something like a general idea, maybe an “attitude,” and the caveat “let the boss play off you, not the other way around?” Thanks for taking my call. I’ll take my answer off the air.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see that Thomas Haden Church story again. You've told it before and I swear I must have read to quickly because I didn't see anything about good relationships and all that. My image since that old read was that he was an arrogant asshole and you were someone not to be toyed with. Now I know he's a nice guy and you are tall and thin.

Jim Stickford said...


You mentioned the great sitcom drought of the early 1980s, (though to be fair, looking at the quality of those sitcoms, that wasn't a bad thing).

I've been reading about today's sitcom drought, but what has struck me is that many of the great sitcoms of the last 10 years - Malcolm in the Middle, My Name is Earl (Maybe not great but a good and original show), Scrubs, Better Off Ted (A newcomer, but to my mind very funny show) are one camera shows not filmed in front of a studio audience.

So my question is how difficult is it to switch from the older sitcom style i.e. three camera in front of a studio audience to a one camera film anywhere you can type of show? The natures of these shows are very different, the rythms are different and the limitations are different, so I imagine not everyone can make the switch.

Or is it that a good writer adjusts to circumstances and funny is funny no matter the format?

Anonymous said...

OK - I'm only asking this because I'm pretty sure one of you regulars can help me out. Ever since I heard Jermaine Jackson sing "Smile" at the MJ tribute thing, this has been bugging me. In my head I can hear it clearly: a fast, instrumental version of this song was used as the closing theme for SOME TV show.(I'm thinking variety show, but not sure) But which one? Youtube has failed me. Everyone is clapping,"Wardrobe by Botany 3000"scrolls by, "See you next time!" says the host. It's driving me nuts, who knows the answer? Thanks, sorry to go off-topic.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Lewis uses "Smile" as his theme song. You're probably thinking about his TV series' and MD Telethon.

tb said...

That's gotta be it! Thank you!

Bob Oscar said...

Hey Ken,

You used to be in music about a Friday question critique of a new Internet Oldies Station, 147KXOA (Oldies format)?

This will probably be bigger than Music...Just For You and Your Monkey, or the dreaded Jack FM.

If nothing else, you can make your usual comic remarks if you hate it.

Pat Peters said...

Here's another radio question for you, Ken...on your Boss Jock did 3 college kids with, shall we say, not exactly Boss Jock pipes, happen to form the KLA trio of....Ken "Truck Ken Stevens", Billy Pearl, and Tom (Tom Clark) Gleenleigh back in those days?