Thursday, October 01, 2009

Agnes Moorhead AS Endora

First off, a couple of spots have opened up for the Sitcom Room seminar. If you're interested check it out. Remember, I only hold this seminar once a year. It's fantasy camp for comedy writers except you also learn a lot and get to see your work performed by professional actors. Let's see Robert McKee top that! Go here for details and to sign up.
Now that we've had a word from our sponsor, let's get to some Friday questions and answers.

Matt has a…

QUESTION: From time to time during opening show credits you'll see the list of actors/actresses in the show and there is always one actor (or actress) who is listed along with the name of the character they play. Why is this?

To improve his billing and separate him from the other cast members. It’s all negotiated in advance and can be a royal pain-in-the-ass. If an agent’s client can’t get top billing they want a “with” credit or “as ‘character name’ credit – anything to set them apart from their fellow castmates. This can get very sticky when you have an ensemble cast and every actor wants some special recognition. And it’s one thing if it’s the great stage and film star, Agnes Moorhead playing Endora on BEWITCHED; it’s another if it’s some skeesix who starred in a series of plumbing commercials.

Credit placement is also an issue. You’ll notice on CHEERS that Ted and Shelley share a card. Ted is first (on the left) but in the lower half of the screen while Shelley takes second billing but her credit is higher. I think Paul Newman and Steve McQueen had the same arrangement in THE TOWERING INFERNO (although it might have been Paul Newman and Shelley Long. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it.)

Here’s one from anonymous (please leave your name, folks.)

Since a spec is meant to (hopefully) impress a showrunner with how well you understand and can handle the show, is it better to write a small 'family script' (concentrating on the core characters), or a larger one full of other characters, locations, etc. For example: the Cranes at home, or on the road? Hawkeye in the Swamp, or chasing an ailing soldier all over Korea?

The small family script is vastly preferable. Don’t do anything too ambitious. That’s a huge trap. Keep guest stars to a minimum. You show that you can write the best possible episode within the framework of that show. Leave the “special” episodes to the show’s producers.

We once received a spec of WINGS where the teaser was seen through the eyes of a fly in the room. Shockingly, it didn’t sell.

From Bob Summers:

I know you hate the question at a pitch meeting about "What's the first episode of season 7?", but what about shows like "Lost" and now "Flash Forward"?

When everyone sees six months in the future, how do you even think about how are we going to be relevant in season two?

I wondered the same thing watching the FLASH FORWARD pilot (that and what role will Sonya Walger get next?). Maybe after April 20, 2010 everyone will fall asleep again for two more minutes. I wouldn’t drive or get on a plane past that date, that’s for sure.

LOST has managed to ingeniously find ways to keep the story going forward (and backwards and sideways). But there are a number of recent series whose premises seemed very limited to me. After they break of out prison in PRISON BREAK, then what? The truth is the producers didn’t know either.

Last year there were shows about wedding days and worst weeks. How do you sustain those premises? But networks were so intent on looking for shows with “big hooks” they either didn’t ask those questions of longevity or just didn’t give a shit. Get an 18 share now. It’s not like the executives making the decisions are going to be in those jobs in three years anyway.

A couple of seasons ago ABC had a show about a bunch of idiots trying to rob Mick Jagger. What would happen year two – they’d rob Pauley Shore?

What’s your question?

41 comments :

Toby O'B said...

Most of those premises would have worked in the British TV format, which is at most 12 episodes a series, usually 8. (In fact, at least one of the ones you mentioned - "Worst Week" - was based on a British series.)

US network executives can see hwo great these ideas are, but are unwilling to give up the long-range desire for a mult-year series, in hopes of lucrtive syndication deals. The two just won't mesh.

If a show like 'Kings' had accepted its limited format and had a definitive end, it would eventually be hailed as a classic. As it is, it just petered out and limped off the screen....

Just an opinion from the outside looking in....

Alan Coil said...

Recently I read here (or elsewhere) that there is a specific term for the information dump that sometimes needs to be done during a show to help the plot progress. I can't find that post, so, please, what is that term?

Kate Coe said...

Ken, you're such a tease. I thought you were going to tell us if Eudora ever made a pass at Samantha. Or if Debby Reynolds was ever suggested as a guest star. (Hated her as Grace's mother.)

YEKIMI said...

Could have been worse. Could have been Paul Lynde as Endora and Agnes Moorhead as Uncle Arthur.

mandy & ben said...

Hi Ken,

I was wondering what your take is on laugh tracks? Whenever I watch old eps of Cheers, Wings, The Cosby Show, MASH etc they don't seem to bother me. However, last night I was really irritated/creeped out while watching Hank and listening to the laugh track. It seemed very out of place. When you contrast Hank with Modern Family there is no real comparison. Do you think that laugh tracks are outdated? What I find interesting is that when I watch older shows I find an odd comfort in hearing the laugh track. In fact on the MASH DVD there is an option to turn off the laugh track and I tried that but found myself missing it. What am I to do?

Ben

P.S. Go Mariners!

P.P.S. Glad I found where to post the question:)

Wojciehowicz said...

YEKIMI: Could have been worse. Could have been Paul Lynde as Endora and Agnes Moorhead as Uncle Arthur.

Don't give anyone ideas for a reboot.

Demetria V. said...

I dread sitcom episodes where celebrities are written in as "themselves" using the premise that they're just passing through the sitcom neighborhood or they're making a selfless visit to help out one of the characters who's a fan of no distinction. I think of Sammy Davis Jr. visiting Archie Bunker's house or maybe pop star Davey Jones appearing on The Brady Bunch to save the day after the oldest girl has lied to friends about having him lined up to entertain at the school dance.

Patrick said...

Strange thing, the line, "...some skeesix who starred in a series of plumbing commercials." made me laugh even though I have no clue what a skeesix is. And Google failed me. Somebody want to bring me to the upper tiers of this classic jab? What the frig is a skeesix? Is this a west coast thing?

Larry said...

The coolest credit goes to Jonathan Harris--Dr. Smith on Lost In Space. Every episode had him listed as a "special guest star."

The dumbest was on Hill Street Blues--"and Charles Haid as Renko." Yeah, so what? We should care more about him than other guys we haven't heard of like Kiel Martin or Michael Warren?

Patrick: You might try googling "Skeezix."

George Freeman said...

It's spelled Skeezix.
The foundling boy from "Gasoline Alley"

http://www.amazon.com/Walt-Skeezix-Book-One-Bk/dp/1896597645

Patrick said...

Skeezix. Got it! Thanks all. Great stuff. I love this site. It's like having a beer with my father. He was an old school sports writer, who hung out with all the comedians in Philly. He would've loved this site too. So funny. So classic ...

cb said...

Alan Coil said...
Recently I read here (or elsewhere) that there is a specific term for the information dump that sometimes needs to be done during a show to help the plot progress. I can't find that post, so, please, what is that term?

laying pipe...

don't giggle.

Anonymous said...

Recently I read here (or elsewhere) that there is a specific term for the information dump that sometimes needs to be done during a show to help the plot progress. I can't find that post, so, please, what is that term?

As you know Bob
Maid and butler dialogue

D. McEwan said...

"Kate Coe said...
Ken, you're such a tease. I thought you were going to tell us if Eudora ever made a pass at Samantha."

Ew. Endora was Samantha's MOTHER! It was a sitcom, not a Greek tragedy.

Jim said...

Ew. Endora was Samantha's MOTHER! It was a sitcom, not a Greek tragedy.

Okay, how about Endora and Serena?

45 is the new 30 said...

@Jim: Ew. Endora was Samantha's MOTHER! It was a sitcom, not a Greek tragedy.

Okay, how about Endora and Serena?


Not much (if at all) better: Serena and Samantha were, I believe, cousins ... making Endora Serena's aunt. Ick, and a co-sign to Douglas' "Greek Tragedy" comment.

After reading today's (terrific) post, Ken, I'm going to be walking around today with a loop of the announcer intoning "And Jerry Mathers ... AS ... "The Beaver" in my head. ("AS" was intentionally cap'd; that guy's voice and phrasing were one-of-a-kind.)

MartA said...

"We once received a spec of WINGS where the teaser was seen through the eyes of a fly in the room. Shockingly, it didn’t sell. "

I don't know how that episode would have been, but The Dick Van Dyke Show once did an episode that was seen through the eyes of a goldfish. It was a very good episode.

Matt Patton said...

Actually, Shelley Long and Bette Midler had something of a rerun of the Newman-McQueen thing on the posters for the movie OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, one of them was listed first in some areas of the country, the other in, well, others (did their agents divide up the top billing geographically?--by the way, the actual movie is a real hoot)

As for INFERNO, McQueen, who had lost the part of Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THEIR LIKES ME to Newman back in the 50's, went through the script and actually counted the number of lines that Newman had and then demanded that his part be re-written so that he had an equal number. I believe that this would be considered "diva" behavior if a woman had done such a thing . . .

YEKIMI said...

I had heard that Jerry Mathers & Tony Dow had quashed a remake of the show where the main players were going to be gay. I think they objected to what it was going to be called: "Leave it, it's Beaver"

Mary Stella said...

I haven't quite jumped onto the Flash Forward bandwagon, but I have a least one foot on the riser.

That said, in the pilot, a kangaroo hopped down the wrecked city street. At the commercial break, the announcer said, "Remember the kangaroo, it could be important."

That annoyed me. Part of the entertainment factor is figuring out what things might or might not mean or what could be significant or be a red herring. (Wonder if it was a red kangaroo.)

Is there an official phrase in the biz for giving big hints to the audience in case we're too dense to figure that a long shot of a kangaroo hopping where it has no place being might be significant?

VP81955 said...

Someone beat me to the punch about "Outrageous Fortune"; I believe the Mississippi River was used as the dividing line (but since the river flows through the Twin Cities, I wonder who got top billing in that market?)

I dread sitcom episodes where celebrities are written in as "themselves" using the premise that they're just passing through the sitcom neighborhood or they're making a selfless visit to help out one of the characters who's a fan of no distinction.

It really only works on fantasy shows, where Sabrina or Samantha can summon people at will. (I presume that's one of the downsides of being famous; you're getting ready to have some lunch when you suddenly find yourself in the home of people who look like doubles of Melissa Joan Hart, Beth Broderick or Elizabeth Montgomery.)

wv: "immicat" -- protecting your feline against H1N1.

Tod Hunter said...

The billing for "The Towering Inferno" is a masterpiece of jigsawing major stars together. The poster had a little mountain of names with Newman, McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and producer Irwin Allen all jockeying for position, along with co-production companies 20th Century-Fox and Warner Bros. (You can see it here using cut-and-paste: http://www.impawards.com/1974/towering_inferno.html)

The movie also betrayed this kind of negotiation, with McQueen's and Newman's close-ups equal down to the frame and ludicrous situations like architect Newman already knowing how to use plastic explosives so he wouldn't have to be taught by fireman McQueen -- a bit of exposition/information that would have been helpful at that point in the movie.

Julian said...

Alan Coil, perhaps the word you are looking for is exposition, as used just now by Tod Hunter

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to a GREAT (but short-lived) laugh track-less social sitcom called "United States?" Was it like "Police Squad" and too hip for the room at the time?
Michael Neff

Alan Coil said...

cb -- thanks for 'laying the pipe', although that didn't look familiar.

Julian -- no, not exposition. That's what it is, not what they call it in the writing room.

Kirk Jusko said...

The classic example of a show that floundered once it's initial premise had been played out was TWIN PEAKS after Laura Palmers' killer was revealed. I've read that it was the network that forced the revelation. David Lynch wanted the mystery to last five seasons or more!

Tom Quigley said...

Demetria V. said...

"I dread sitcom episodes where celebrities are written in as "themselves" using the premise that they're just passing through the sitcom neighborhood or they're making a selfless visit to help out one of the characters who's a fan of no distinction."...

I LOVE LUCY survived on that gimmick an entire season and a half when they came up with a story arc whereby Ricky went to Hollywood for an audition for MGM, and took Lucy, Ethel and Fred with him. The weekly parade of big 50's stars at the time, including John Wayne, William Holden, Tennessee Ernie Ford (during a stop-off in Tennessee on their trip west), Cornell Wilde, Rock Hudson, Van Johnson, Richard Widmark, and (as if they hadn't already gone over the top) Harpo Marx in the famous "mirror image" bit episode, got to be a bit contrived after a while (although I still laugh at the William Holden episode where Lucy accidentally sets her artifical nose on fire with the cigarette lighter when she tries to disguise herself from Holden as the woman who caused a waitress to dump a salad on him at the Brown Derby). I'm assuming someone owed someone else a lot of favors to get a lineup like that.

LouOCNY said...

As far as Lucy and the 'Rickey Goes to Hollywood' arc is concerned, pretty much most of the guest stars were either a) Friends of the Armazs or b) Plugging the hell out of a movie - Holden plugged A COUNTRY GIRL, and Wayne plugged the hell out of BLOOD ALLEY.

As far as line counting is concerned, NObody was worst than Shatner on Trek after Nimoy started becoming the 'hot star' on the show.

And my favorite example of credits is the idea that initially, Ronny Howard got better credit position than Don Knotts - and deserved it, as he was a bigger star at the time.

Anonymous said...

I think it was Freddy Fields who came up with the Towering Inferno billing...

Mark Bennett

jbryant said...

The greatest solution to the equal billing problem is in the opening credits of BOEING BOEING, with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis' names emblazoned on a plane propeller. As it spins, the names continually switch places from top to bottom, I presume for equal amounts of time.

Ben K. said...

Hey Ken, here's another laugh track question:

I'm not much of a Jay Leno fan, but I'll TiVo him if there's a guest I really like. And I could swear that his new 10 p.m. show uses a laugh track -- or at least heavily sweetens the audience's laughter. The laughs seem too loud, too sudden, and sometimes weirdly timed, especially during the monologue.

I could be wrong about this, but to me it sounds much less natural than on Leno's "Tonight Show."

So my question is: Do talk shows or variety shows filmed in front of an audience regularly soup up the laughs? And if so, doesn't it defeat the "live" feeling of the show by making it seem artificial?

D. McEwan said...

"Mary Stella said...
I haven't quite jumped onto the Flash Forward bandwagon, but I have a least one foot on the riser.
That said, in the pilot, a kangaroo hopped down the wrecked city street. At the commercial break, the announcer said, 'Remember the kangaroo, it could be important.' That annoyed me."

Well why are you watching commercials? That's so last century. DVR EVERYTHING, and never watch ANYTHING live. Fast-forward through all commercial breaks. That's what I do.

The stupid "The kangaroo is important" announcement is just the network being insecure. They want the viewer thoroughly hooked right away. Too many serialized, LOST-influenced shows never even made it through their first seasons. So they slam you over the head with gratuitous stuff.

Like there was a chance in hell anyone would forget that kangaroo, my single favorite moment in the pilot.

Pete C. said...

Hi, Ken. One of my all-time favorite sitcom moments is in the Cheers episode in the last season where Sam reveals to Carla that he wears a toupee.

And it got me thinking: What happens when an actor on a TV show starts to lose his hair? Especially one who's the lead and/or considered a sex symbol? Is he given the option of having it written into the show, or does the network force Rogaine or plugs on him?

And how often does this issue come up? Given all the 20/30-something actors on TV, I'd think it'd be a fairly regular occurrence, yet no one's hairline ever seems to change.

Tim Dunleavy said...

The performer I always felt deserved an "...and..." credit but never got one was Amber Tamblyn, who played the title character on "Joan of Arcadia." Here are the words that appeared onscreen during that show's opening credits:

Joan of Arcadia
Starring Joe Mantegna
Mary Steenburgen
Amber Tamblyn
Jason Ritter
Michael Welch
Created by Barbara Hall

I didn't mind that she didn't get top billing - Mantegna and Steenburgen are stars, and Tamblyn was an unknown. But since she was playing the show's central character (and her face dominated the opening credits sequence), wouldn't you think her agent could have negotiated billing that acknowledged that fact?

Dana Gabbard said...

Thanks for the comment on premise fatigue. Toby, I feel American network TV primetime fiction programming has a conflict between the underlying financial structure and the storytelling style that has emerged over the past 15-20 years. Show used to consist of standalone episodes, with little continuity even if a show lasted decades. Now programs are very much about character growth, life changes, etc. but the need for 20+ episode seasons and being open ended undercuts that.

BTW, about that show ABC had about bumbling crooks trying to rob Mick Jagger--it had an aborted second season and they had decided to instead try to rob Kelly Ripa and then Ray Romano. You can't make up stuff like that!

David said...

Ken:

Since "Frasier" seems to be a hot topic - my question dates back to the beginning of season 4 of Cheers - after Diane leaves Frasier at the alter at the end of season 3 --- what was the thought process in keeping the Frasier character around past the first ep of season 4 when he comes back to say Diane left him. He certainly was expendable at that point. Glad you kept him, but wondering what led to that.

DwWashburn said...

We hear that stars of programs, especially ensemble casts, start working like “well oiled machines” after a while. I’m just wondering how do actors, either unknowns or big stars, that come onto series like these fit in? Isn’t it difficult for them? Don’t they feel like outsiders? Do unknowns seem to fit in better than well known actors, or vice versa?

DwWashburn said...

As a matter of clarification to that last post, I'm referring to actors that come on for one episode or a limited number, not actors who are hired to become ensemble players themselves. Sorry I didn't add that previously.

Mel said...

I agree with Toby in wondering why some shows don't take that British approach and just do limited series that have "expiration" dates from day one. I quite enjoyed watching Harper's Island this summer and knew that I wasn't committing to seasons and seasons of show but just a fun, summer diversion.

The trend towards "out there" plots is really kind of wearying to me, and I often wonder how many of those shows we'll even remember a few years from now.

Kirk Jusko said...

American TV shows don't have expiration dates because the networks and/or studios that own them want to squeeze every last bit of profit out of them.

Why don't the Brits want to do that? I don't know. Might as well ask why do they have national health insurance.

mings: multiple Chinese dynasties.

Alan Coil said...

Just a follow up note about "laying the pipe". I finally found where I has seen it, at Mark Rothman's blog.

cb was correct, even though I said it didn't sound familiar.