Friday, August 14, 2009

"You're canceled! Now get out!"

Would a weekend be complete without your questions and my attempt at answers?

willieb asks:

Any truth in those "everybody has a screenplay" stories ("My hairdresser/valet/dry cleaner gave me a screenplay to read")? Have you been bombarded with sample scripts? If so, what's the weirdest situation you've had to deal with?

I’ve received scripts at my high school reunion, I’ve told the story about getting pitched a movie while making funeral arrangements for my grandmother, and a couple of years ago one of the host helpers during my mother’s condolence wanted to pitch me a pilot idea. When I announced minor league baseball people would come up to the press box all the time with scripts. It's not like there was great security in ballparks in Rochester and Toledo. If someone had the lung capacity to climb those stairs they could get in.

A director I know was attending High Holiday services one year at his temple and a fellow congregate pulled a script out from under his prayer shawl.

I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier wonders:

I just saw a M*A*S*H episode written by MacLean Stevenson. When actors do this are massive rewrites usually required or are they pretty good to start with?

I don’t know about that particular episode but yes, massive rewrites usually are required. One reason: they often give 90% of the good lines to themselves. But in fairness, they’re not writers. If I were to suddenly have a big guest role in a MASH or CHEERS episode I’m sure I’d suck. I’m not an actor.

I will say this though, Alan Alda’s scripts were terrific and we changed very little.

From Steve:

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?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season. Sometimes it’s a five or six episode arc that leads up to the conclusion. For LOST it’s a three year arc.

I still think David Chase doesn't know how THE SOPRANOS end.

Some shows have built in endings. the war ends on MASH. And I would hope that on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER? we would find out how the hell he did already.

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that's one reason why.

My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, "You're canceled! Now get out!" that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

Ask your question in the comments section. Thanks. Have a great weekend.


Mike Bell said...

I still find the whole "Sopranos" ending hubbub very amusing.

Especially that guy that did the in depth analysis about Tony's POV and how the cut to black meant he was dead.

My personal theory? David Chase ended it the way it began. We didn't know who the hell Tony Soprano was prior to him showing up with his ducks at his pool.

Boom! There he is. Doink! There he isn't.

Story's over, I'm done.

Author X said...

Ken, Has there been any backlash from writers, directors, and producers with regard to the way the dvd's of some TV shows are being sold? For example, having the original aired versions replaced with the syndicated version where the music has been replaced with royalty free awfulness, as well as dubbed dialogue, missing scenes, and some really harsh edits.

These versions are so different that they nearly represent a fraud or at the very least false advertising as the changes are not listed on the packaging or anywhere else. The anger from the people who have purchased these facsimiles is pretty evident on Amazon and other sites. Will you and the rest of the power elite rise up against this practice and squash it like an interns will to live?

Thank you for your time, Benjamin.

Billy Van Zandt said...

I don't think anyone will top pitching you at a funeral, but for me..
The cable TV guy smashed in the trunk of my car - in my driveway - as he arrived to work on my line. Once he recognized my name, he literally pulled a spec script out of his trunk and tried to sell it to me as we waited for the police.

dicentra63 said...

I just finished watching the first five seasons of Cheers on Netflix.

For the life of me, I can't figure out what Sam saw in Diane: she was annoying, constantly putting him down, and wasn't even that pretty.

They didn't enjoy the same activities, didn't have anything to talk about, didn't see eye-to-eye on anything.

Sam, on the other hand, was Gorgeous, as Diane admitted.

So what DID Sam see in Diane? Of all the women to walk into that bar, why her?

Anonymous said...

dicentra63, I think you pretty much answered your own question.

I think Sam saw her as his equal and in love, that's generally enough.

Okay, now THAT'S out of the way.

It's a fucking TV show, Sam didn't need to see anything, Ted just had to read a script.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

It's a fucking TV show, Sam didn't need to see anything, Ted just had to read a script.

So Ted's not a cranky bastard in real life as he was on "Becker"?

Great. All this time I thought everything on television was a documentary. ;)

D. McEwan said...

"I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories."

Well I've never been given scripts, but I once had an actor come up to me while I was dining with friends at The Improv with a headshot and resume because - get this - he thought I was Martin Scorsese. Not only am I younger than Scorsese, but I'm about a foot taller, and have a different face!

On another occasion a middle-aged woman stopped me in a piano bar after I'd been singing, and said, "I just wanted to tell you that I've enjoyed your music for many years."

It turned out she thought I was Stephen Sondheim. He sings so often in piano bars. (I had a beard at the time, and with a beard, I do look a LITTLE bit like him, but to be frank, I sing considerably better than he does.) I was not flattered. "Madam," I said, "It is always a joy to be mistaken for a man who is TWENTY YEARS OLDER THAN I AM! Yes, I wrote WEST SIDE STORY when I was SIX!!!"

D. McEwan said...

But the phenomenon of writers getting accosted with amateur scripts must be a long-standing tradition. A stranger accosting a working writer with a manuscript is a key plot element in both ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, both farces over 70 years old. In ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, a would-be Joe Wambaugh cop finds critic Mortimer Brewster tied and gagged in a chair, about to be murdered by his insane brother, and leaves him tied up, the better to force him to listen while the cop reads his script to him aloud.

dicentra63 said...


I think the proper phrase is:

"Just repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show, I should really just relax.'"

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Ok, a question. This may have been asked by someone else, but I'm going to forge ahead anyway:

What items (of value and of little value) have you taken from the shows you worked on? When "Almost Perfect" was cancelled, did you try to swipe Nancy Travis on your way out?

WV: mooke - Mookie from "Do the Right Thing," but the "i" in his name is out throwing a trash can through a pizza parlor window.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Addendum: Besides the "Wings" jacket.

WV: plegi - Mitch Pileggi, except the "i" and a "g" are at a photo shoot for Ing Direct.

Cap'n Bob said...

Wow. I played Dr. Bradley in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in college and I forgot all about him foisting a script on Sheridan Whiteside. Thanks for the memory jog, Doug.

Last weekend I worked a writer's conference, helping people practice their pitches before they met with an agent ($20 for 10 minutes for the agent session--I was free). It's amazing how few people know the difference between a pitch and a scene-by-scene synopsis. I hope I was able to steer some of these wannabes in the right direction.

D. McEwan said...

"Cap'n Bob Napier said...
Wow. I played Dr. Bradley in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in college and I forgot all about him foisting a script on Sheridan Whiteside. Thanks for the memory jog, Doug."

You're welcome. I also appeared in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in college, only I played Beverly Carlton, one of the finest hotels I have ever portrayed.

Of course, Beverly Carlton is a parody of Noel Coward. (and naming him for an hotel is really funny) Immediately after that I played Tennessee Williams in a play about his life (NOT one of his plays. A play by someone else, about him), so for a while I was typecast as gay playwrights. Then two years later, my first play was produced, and I WAS a gay playwright!

But actually, I wouldn't have remembered Dr. Bradley either, except that I just happened to watch the movie of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER again three days ago. Great play. You can't top Kaufman & Hart for farce. And, considering it's a parody of a long-forgotten cultural figure (Alexander Woolcott), and is full of 1939 topical references, it's amazing how well it holds up.

Actually my new book contains a section where Tallulah pulls a Sheridan Whiteside on a pompous small-town mayor and his family, in a chapter titled "The Slut Who Came to Supper." Steal from the best.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Actually my new book contains a section where Tallulah pulls a Sheridan Whiteside on a pompous small-town mayor and his family, in a chapter titled "The Slut Who Came to Supper." Steal from the best.

You want me to physically or financially threaten your publisher in any way? I don't usually do that sort of thing (in fact, I've never done it), but with that description, I really want to read it.

Paul Duca said...

Since we're discussing our Kaufman & Hart experiences...I played Mr. Stanley in a high school production of DINNER. Te most notable event of that performance was the same person playing both Professor Metz and Beverly Carlton--and did so well most of the audience didn't realize he was the same person.

Brian Phillips said...

I am not a working writer, but I did have a similar experience.

Jay Leno, in a book called "Comic Lives" says that on many occasions when you tell a person you're a comedian, someone will say, "Hey, I've got a joke for you. You can use it if you like"; the resulting joke is always awful.

I did improv comedy in L.A. during the late 80's/early 90's and while I didn't become a great success at it, I had a good time and was excited to tell people about it. Before the days of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", one had to tell people what improvisational comedy was and that it was not stand-up. As I was telling this to one of the customers of the bank I worked in at the time, he said, "I've got a joke for you. Use it if you like".

I can't remember the joke, but it was bad.

Spalding Gray related the story of his doing a theater piece called, "L.A.: The Other". This consisted of his talking to people on stage that were not involved in the entertainment industry. He found the task of finding people quite daunting. He'd even resorted to standing outside of a supermarket and asking random people, "So, how is your screenplay coming along?" and the answers were variations of "How did you know?"

Karen from Mentor said...

I was once confused with M. Night Shyamalon. Which is surprising since there are few similiarities. I'm tall, he's tall, he has those dreamy liquid eyes, I have eyes. We're both parents, and we both write, but that's about it for similarities.
Yet... I was in the park one day and had a guy pitch me a movie idea as though I were M. Night and could help him out with getting his movie idea onto the big screen.
Here's the story if you're interested.

Ken, I have to say that the person who pitched to you while you were arranging a funeral should be deeply ashamed of themself. But I also have to say that when you tell that story it's hilarious.

Great post.
Karen :0)

Kirk said...

All this talk about THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER reminds of an earlier post.

It's too bad THE CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES wasn't written 25 years earlier. Monty Woolly could have played Ignatius J. Reilly in the movie.

Debby G said...

I write books for teens and children, and it seems everyone has written a children's book or has an "amazing" idea for one, and thinks that it's all about who you know rather than about working hard on craft and revising your work a zillion times.

Anyway, a few years ago, I was at a frozen yogurt place with my 9-year-old and his little brother. My 9-year-old was in a cast and on crutches. We'd just come from the doctor's, who had said my son had to have (a second) surgery the next day for what was probably a bone infection but could be bone cancer. I'd taken my boys out for frozen yogurt to try to cheer everyone up.

We ran into his Sunday school teacher there, and I told her what happened. She said she'd written a novel and asked if I could refer her to my agent. I told her my agent only repped books for children and teens. She asked if I could refer her to my agent so that my agent could refer her to another agent. I told her no.

I hate people sometimes.

After surgery and a long course of antibiotics, my son's fine now. It was a bone infection, not cancer.

-bee said...

To dicentra63:

I thought it was pretty clear in the "Dianne" years of Cheers that what kept Sam and Dianne coming back to each other was great sex.

The tension between sexual attraction and behavioral differences is what MADE for the comedy of their relationship.

D. McEwan said...

"Rory L. Aronsky said...
You want me to physically or financially threaten your publisher in any way?"

If I thought it would help, I'd say yes. But they have to..

A. Love it. (I'm fairly certain my editor will; not so sure about the editorial board which has to approve investing in it.)

B. Love me. (which threats and me nagging tends to vitiate)

C. Believe they'll make money on it. Their exact words were "MY LUSH LIFE didn't exactly set the world on fire." No, but it made its money back and went into profit, just not very far into profit.

Anyway, they haven't said "no" yet, so I am patient, and hope the work speaks for itself. The small handful of people who have read it so far all loved it.

dicentra63 said...

"I thought it was pretty clear in the 'Diane' years of Cheers that what kept Sam and Diane coming back to each other was great sex."

Yes, it was almost entirely a physical relationship, but Sam did not lack for great sex in his life. Why not go out with "Candy" and not be bugged with Diane's insanity?

There was something deeper in it for Sam. He dreamed of them growing old together, but Diane's dreams were much more flaky. she left him as easily as she left Frasier.

Maybe it was just the first time that a non-airhead turned him on. She certainly was more cultured than he.

OK OK OK! It was a sitcom! No depth intended!

Rory L. Aronsky said...

dicentra63, follow your own advice:

I think the proper phrase is:

"Just repeat to yourself, 'It's just a show, I should really just relax.'"

It'll help. ;)

Anonymous said...

Question for Friday:

Years ago I noticed you wouldn't see Margot Kidder in a movie without Michael Ontkean showing up in the same movie. There was another actress, Kaki Hunter, who also showed up with both Kidder and Ontkean in movies at this same time (thanks to IMDB for her name).

Just this week I saw an episode of Psych with Christine Baranski as a guest star. Cybill Shepherd has also guest-starred on Psych. Do I need to mention that they were in a situation comedy together a few years ago?

Perhaps some of these were coincidences. However, I wonder if agents make package deals for their clients. Nowadays you couldn't imagine someone saying "if you want Margot Kidder, you also have to take Kaki Hunter," but there was a time when Kaki Hunter wasn't the box office poison she is now.

Does this happen, or am I a conspiracy theorist in need of a much better conspiracy?

I am signing as "anonymous" but you can indicate that the question comes from Fred. That would be my name.

rhl123 said...

This may be a question you've answered in the past, but I've wondered why the jokes about Diane became so sharp in tone and more frequent after Shelley Long left the show. Was it a personal thing against Shelley, or was it just a source of easy laughs?

Now that I think about it, has there been another show that joked so much about a character that left?

Kirk said...

Why did Sam want Diane? For the same reason, as Cliff once explained, that the coyote wants the roadrunner. Since Wiley E. Coyote has enough money to buy ACME traps (as Woody once pointed out) he could easily buy himself food. So hunger (nor sexual deprivation, in Sam's case)is not the answer. The coyote just wants that particular roadrunner, just as Sam wants that particular woman. Very existential.

mark said...

Hi Ken,

As far as making a sitcom believable, could you comment on filming vs. taping?

Is the technology advanced enough to make a four camera show look real with tape?

Just curious,

Unknown said...

2 questions.

1. Is there compilation of questions so we don't ask an already posed question (with answer)?

2. It seems "Push" is the theatrical version of the failed series "Heros" (yes I know it is still on, that does not mean it has not failed) and the upcoming "The Time Traveler's Wife" looking to be the same for "The Journeyman". Do you recall this occurring before? A movie based on a television shows concept.


Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

LeeFranke: A word of advice: If you have a question, spend a few seconds on Google before you post it in a public forum. You can often spare yourself some embarrassment that way.

In this case, you might have learned that THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE is based on a novel that predates the TV series JOURNEYMAN by a few years.

As for the relation between PUSH and HEROES: I would think it is less a matter of one being based on the other, as of the people behind both reading the same comic books.

Jeff said...

Ken, whatever happened to shows having episode titles?, i.e. This week on Star Trek, "Arena"

Guy Nicolucci said...

Have you read Nicholas Meyer's new memoir? It includes a section on "Volunteers." Curious about your reaction.

dicentra63 said...

As painful as it is to admit, Clavin's explanation, about Wile E. Coyote, is no doubt correct.

Thanks all for your indulgence.

Curt Alliaume said...

I agree that many "last episodes" go on too long -- "Goodbye, Farewell & Amen" seemed okay for length then, but it seems interminable now.

Most of the other final shows you list, however, were one-hour episodes (well, Seinfeld was 75 minutes). But what made them longer was the network (NBC in each case) stringing out the night by putting in a clip episode, or an after-episode celebration (such as the Jay Leno show with the Cheers cast) to dominate the entire night.

Imagine, however, the last episode of a popular show running at this time of year, as ABC did with The Fugitive in 1967. Never again, I'm afraid.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Have you read Nicholas Meyer's new memoir? It includes a section on "Volunteers." Curious about your reaction.

Finally it's out! Now I have to figure out how to turn over the huge hourglass in my living room to gauge how long it takes my local library to get it in. ;)