Thursday, August 27, 2009

Who is that guy with the weird laugh?

Greetings from Cincinnati. Here are answers to some of your Friday questions.

velvet goldmine wondered this last week:

I know that even shows filled before a live audience sometimes used to "sweeten" them with recorder laughs. But there's this one man's laugh that you hear on TONS of shows from the 70s, from MTM to Taxi. You know the one I mean? First there's a startled "Haw!" as the setup gets underway, then this extended "Haw Haw Haw..." when the joke reaches its zenith.

Why in the world would they keep using this familiar, even annoying laugh? And if by chance it was the same guy at all the tapings -- say, a superfan, or a self-impressed writer -- why wasn't he muzzled?

This is less of an answer than a confirmation. As several people correctly mentioned in the comments section, the distinctive laugh you hear belongs to James L. Brooks (pictured above). It’s less annoying when you realize it’s genuine. And when he laughs at something I’ve said or written, it’s sheer music.

There are also two very distinctive laughers on the last seven years of CHEERS. Phoef Sutton and Bill Steinkellner. I can’t describe them but watch any episode from those middle and later years and you’ll know what I mean.

Jim Stickford asks:

What's the procedure for deciding what particular line to use. I saw Carl Reiner in an interview years ago and he said one of the reasons he stayed in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows was that he could type, which was a bid deal in the days before computers and photocopiers. When the writers threw out lines, Carl picked the one he liked best and typed it in.

Is there a procedure? Is it decided by the show runner? Do you vote on it?

It’s either the showrunner or the person designated to run the room in the showrunner’s absence. Someone has to have the final say otherwise you have the scene in GODZILLA with all the people running through the streets crazed. Although, wait a minute. It's like that normally.

From Jaime J. Weinman:

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?

Tags are those little two minute scenes at the end of sitcoms. They serve the purpose of rewarding the viewer for staying through the last spot break. Some shows have them, others don’t. It depends on their format and needs of their network. There seem to be fewer today as networks are going more to a three-act format -- again, all in the cause of audience maintenance; none in the cause of better storytelling.

I MUCH prefer writing tags to the teasers we employed on CHEERS. At least with tags you could draw upon content established in the episode and just do a call-back. Teasers were completely independent of the story that followed. The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week.

What’s your question???


Tim W. said...


Could you please be more specific about the scene in Godzilla you were referring to. Also, which Godzilla movie? It would be helpful so as to understand your metaphor better.

As for James Brooks, why isn't his name more well known among the public? The guy has been behind some of the best television programs and films in the last 40 years. Ask your average person who Jerry Bruckheimer is, and they might know. I don't whether anyone would know who James Brooks is. He's one of the few people whose name will actually draw me to a film, because if his name is behind it, it's usually, at the very least, a great script.

wackiland said...

Hey, Ken.

I actually used to have to move backstage during sitcom tapings I was part of - my laugh was too loud & my producers would often complain. :)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

This comes from having watched "The Princess Cruise" episode of Becker last week. First, how many scene transitions were there for "Becker"? And, did you determine which ones to use (hewing to subsequent scenes set at night, of course) or was there a set list for your episodes?

Simon H. said...

Speaking of Cincinnati, I'll be at the Dodgers-Reds Saturday. Should we organize a Ken Levine Blog Readers meet up beforehand? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? :-)

velvet goldmine said...

Ken, Thanks for the confirmation! As I said in the comments, (taking on faith my fellow posters were right) -- it does change my perception to know it was James Brooks. For one thing, what Tim W. says notwithstanding, his name DOES carry considerable weight notwithstanding.

Mostly, though, it's just somehow endearing and encouraging to know that he could be so utterly familiar with the material by the time of the taping, yet so delighted by it at the same time. It must have thrilled the actors as well as the writers.

Rinaldo said...

Hey, when did I (the only person who identified Brooks) become "several people"??? :)

limo bus said...

Life is pretty so fast .. just laugh and laugh... he teach the lesson

Rose Vanden Eynden said...

Hey, Simon, I'll be at that game, too, handing out bags! I thought of Ken being here and wondered about storming the booth!

Welcome to Cincinnati, Ken. Have some Skyline Chili and some Graeter's Ice Cream while you're with us.

stonedog said...

Ken, what's your typical experience when watching TV shows and movies? Do you find yourself dissecting each joke, silently critiquing camera moves and acting choices? Or are you able to shut off that part of your brain?

I'm not trying to suggest one thing is better or worse than the other. I just find that I tend to watch with a critical eye, and it may take more than one viewing before I can relax and let the show or movie happen on its own terms. How is it for you?

Thanks for a terrific blog!

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Of course the laugh that is best known to my generation is that one guy on Night Court whose loud "huh-huh-HUH!" soars above the rest of the audience. I've read in different places that it was either Reinhold Weege or his father.

Michael said...

When I was a kid, we watched a couple of game shows, "The Joker's Wild" and "Tic Tac Dough," both produced by Jack Barry and Dan Enright, two of the figures in the movie "Quiz Show." There was a guy in the audience who didn't laugh, but whenever anything good happened, he would let go with a noise that my dad said sounded like he had hit himself in the crotch with an encyclopedia ... or, if you prefer, it sounded like Marv Albert. Anyway, weirdest sound I ever heard from an audience.

Simon H. said...

Rose- Funny enough, the recyclable bag giveaway is what I used to convince my wife to go. She loves them. I'll also have phone book in hand to get that voucher for the game next month. Nice to see the Reds organization do something positive for the environment.

And yes Ken, a visit to Cincinnati without some Skyline Chili and Graeter's Ice Cream is a missed opportunity indeed.

By Ken Levine said...

Hey Simon and Rose,

Let's figure a way to hook up at the game.


Kirk said...

On I LOVE LUCY, the first sitcom ever filmed before a live audience, someone yells out "Oh, no!" whenever Lucy's about to pull some stunt that's sure to blow up in her face. I have to believe it's recorded because it sounds the same each time.

I once heard the same "Oh, no!" on SANFORD AND SON.

AlaskaRay said...

Ken Levine said:
"The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week."

I used to know a woman who liked to pull teasers out of asses, but she was a little too kinky for my taste.


Anonymous said...

The "oh no" lady is genuine--it's Dede Ball, Lucy's mom. She attended every episode of Lucy's three series.

And the weird noise-making guy from Joker's Wild might be the audience warmup guy--signaling the audience to respond. I've seen that rather indelicate method used on other shows--sometimes you can hear Gene Wood aurally cuing responses on the Dawson-era "Family Feud."

Simon H. said...

I believe I remember reading in the book "Hailing Taxi" (about the TV series Taxi oddly enough), that Jim Brooks never really laughed at the jokes so much as he laughed at the performances, because by the time they were taping he knew all the jokes. When I hear that honking goose laugh of his, I register that more as approval of what the actors are doing to bring their characters to life on the stage.

Dana Gabbard said...

Back in the 70s I bought the LP Zingers from the Hollywood Squares. There is this one long drawn out laugh you hear over and over again that sure sounds canned when you hear it 20 different times for every "ad lib" by the various stars.

I know the show had a disclaimer in the credits that a lot of the lines were supplied by some comedy writers that were on the staff for that purpose. Often the questions seemed a thin excuse to be springboards for the "spontaneous" on liners. But I guess doing a daily show you use any trick at hand to keep up audience interest.

Matt said...

Hey, I'm going to be in Cincinnati on Saturday too!

An impromptu hello would be great!

Kathleen said...

Matt, Rose, Simon and Ken - I would love to hook up with you all! And I agree, Rose, Skyline and Graeter's are the best. Ken, have you ever savored Cincinnati chili over spaghetti? OK, so how are we going to arrange this. Such fun!

By Ken Levine said...

I would love to meet all of you tomorrow at the Great American Ballpark. And if you're in the area, come join us. There are probably only 30,000 good seats still available. If you want to meet me email me.

We'll coordinate something. This will be great fun.

LinGin said...

Ken --

As a viewer I am annoyed at the way credits have become squeezed and/or sped up at an episode's end that make them virtually unreadable. (This is somewhat alleviated by the availability of IMDB and various blogs and websites that list full credits.) But if I were involved in the production of a show in any way I would be royally pissed. What is the position of the guilds on this?

Simon H. said...

Rose, Matt, Kathleen and Ken: Can't wait for the Great Cincinnati Ken Levine Blog Readers Meet-up of 2009. Ken you have my contact info, the rest of you, looking forward to meeting all of you if we can somehow get all this organized(and if any of the rest of you want to contact me beforehand, let me know). I'll be leaving Indianapolis around noon to see the Dodgers take on what is essentially the Triple-A squad of the Reds. Hope to see you all there.

Dave said...

Okay, here's a question about the "Frasier" set: Where were the cameras, and where was the audience?

The living room gives the viewer virtually a 360-degree view of the set. There seems to be a small space between the front door and the kitchen, but sometimes we see a wall there. And then there are the reverse angles; sometimes we have setups by the kitchen, sometimes by the balcony, sometime by the fireplace.

Were the walls movable? Was it clever staging? Handheld cameras? Multiple takes? What's the deal?

James M. Tate said...

This laugh is anything but music. It ruins TAXI. I don't care if it's James L. Brooks, it gets in the way and often even ruins the jokes, because the horse-HAW often occurs BEFORE the punchline.

Geoff said...

I'm amazed at the number of comments stating James Brooks' guffaw-style laugh takes away from their experience of Taxi. I actually think it makes the show even funnier, as Brooks' laugh ltself makes me laugh.

It's funny how we are all experience the world in such different ways...

James M. Tate said...

then you must not have thought it was that funny to begin with if you need a gaffaw to find it funny

Unknown said...

Cheers. Taxi. Night court. All had 2 or 3 guys who'd laugh are crazy but I loooove it. I hear 2 men on taxi and cheers. Same guys for both shows. Ones that deep loud laugh. The other a fast high pitched laugh usually at the end of the audience laugh. After night court season 6 u never hear that guy again. It sux