Thursday, February 18, 2010

The problem with guys wearing dresses

Here are some Friday questions to take your mind off the six feet of snow you have to shovel.

Ref wants to know:

Mine is more general. Are actors who gain success in a certain role usually typecast by their own choice (Comedy's easy for me, so I'll stick with them) or is it done to them ?

An actor never chooses to be typecast. Being a breakout character can be a blessing and a curse, especially for a character actor. Jamie Farr is so identified with Klinger it’s hard to imagine him not in a dress.

Some actors have a schtick and are able to keep getting part after part doing the same thing. Paul Lynde springs to mind. So does Ben Stein.

There’s also the problem that some actors just don’t have much range. It’s all the more reason I admire Ted Danson. After CHEERS he decided he didn’t want to forever play that Sam Malone character. He took the part of Becker precisely because it was so different from Sam. The actor always runs the risk that (a) he won’t have the chops to pull it off, and (b) the audience won’t accept him in a role that’s such a departure. Ted took that gamble and it paid off handsomely. He was fabulous as Becker. And recently as a villain on DAMAGES he was equally surprising and riveting.

From Jim:

Is there an etiquette among scriptwriters, both inside and out of the writers' room, of how to let your colleagues know that you don't get the joke, or even worse that you get it but you think that it stinks? Or does everyone else just quietly move on and let you work it out for yourself? And is there a further etiquette for when you think that you've just come up with the funniest line ever, all these other fools want to move on but you refuse to give up so easily?

Each showrunner is different of course, but I’ve always tried to be as diplomatic I can when rejecting a pitch. I’ll say stuff like, “Yeah, it’s getting there” and “it’s funny but I’m not sure it’s right.” If you really shoot the writer down you run the risk he’ll clam up and then he’s worthless to you. On the other hand, I know showrunners who rule strictly by fear. You pitch something he doesn’t like and he’ll take your head off. You might say, don’t they realize they’re only stifling creativity and shooting themselves in the foot? And I would say, yes, but they’re assholes. I’m lucky. I’ve worked for showrunners who had their quirks and I wanted to kill them but I’ve never served under one of these tyrants.

There was a showrunner who would say, “How the fuck is that funny? Explain to me how anyone is going to laugh at that.” Needless to say the writers’ testicles retreated so far up his body he needed tweezers to find them.

Comedy writers need to develop a thick skin and often times showrunners are under tremendous pressure so they may not be as gracious as you would like. But I’ve always felt one of the showrunner’s jobs was to create a safe fun environment in the room so every writer could produce his best. To me it’s a complete win-win.

As for the second part of the question, this is more than etiquette. This is pretty much a RULE.

If you pitch a joke, even if you think it's the greatest joke ever conceived, if it’s rejected the DROP IT. It makes no difference if you’re right. The fastest way to get yourself fired from a show is to belabor joke pitches. You get one shot. If it doesn’t go in then move on. Don’t pout, don’t bring it up a half hour later, don’t say “we’d be home by now if you went with my joke”. And for godsakes, if the line that did go in didn’t work on the stage DO NOT say your joke would have killed.

And finally, from willieb:

This will probably be addressed in that book you're writing, but I can't wait: how did you make the transition from radio DJ to TV writer?

This answer requires a little more space. Next week I’ll do a couple of posts on just how David and I met and how we got started. I know. I’m a big tease.

What's your question?


Charles said...

Ken, I've got a question that would probably be more appropriate two Fridays from now.

What are the Best Original and Adapted Screenplay Oscars based on? I know that there's a lot of revision that goes on between the sale of a screenplay and the time it hits the screen, often by a variety of writers. Are the Oscars based on the original screenplay, the shooting script, a transcript of the final cut of the film, or something in between?


Michael said...

Here's a Q about serialized shows. I know there's a writing staff and that usually a single writer (or a pair) gets credit for a script. How does the writer write that script, does he get an outline from the staff that says basically "we want you to include X, Y, and Z, so as long as that's in there, whatever else you want is fine"? Is the script then polished by the staff writers to make it "fit" with the overarching story they're telling over the course of a season?

Jake said...

I think people forget and underestimate (in film anyway) how good an actor Ted Danson (though it always helps to have good material from a gifted writer) is. His role as the doomed Ian Campbell in The Onion Filed. Even though John Savage (as Karl Hettinger) had the "meatier" role, Danson's Campbell had to do more with less--and when you look into his eyes just before he's killed, it says everything about that character...

I wish Danson had done more in film.

Roger Owen Green said...

Paul Linde? Do you mean, Paul Lynde of Hollywood Squares, Bewitched, etc.?

Rory L. Aronsky said...

I know. I’m a big tease.

Exactly. You promise and promise and you don't put out. ;)

WV: sheacan - Where donations used to be taken during "Pay for Cursing Night" when the Mets were home.

Brian Doan said...

There was a showrunner who would say, “How the fuck is that funny? Explain to me how anyone is going to laugh at that.”

Never knew Joe Pesci produced a sitcom.

Jim Stickford said...

who are the writers that just blow you away. The ones who make you go "wow, I wish I wrote that?" and "how did she come up with something that good?"

gottacook said...

I discovered yesterday evening (while taking a much-needed break from NBC's Olympics coverage) that when I don't actually look at the screen, MODERN FAMILY is quite entertaining. Previously I had tried (and failed) to watch it conventionally - I have been among those who've bitterly complained about "documentary-style" camerawork in earlier comments here. As a radio show, though, it's quite enjoyable; it's easy to tell when characters are talking to the camera.

Can't think of a related question at the moment, so one from left field instead: Are you a fan of any of the work of Bruce Jay Friedman (who turns 80 this year)? If so, what do you enjoy best - his novels, screenplays, short stories, perhaps The Lonely Guy's Book of Life? For some reason it seems to me you would have come across his work.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I love seeing Ted Danson play Ted Danson on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think it's got to be difficult playing 'yourself' when the show calls for things out of character or perhaps unlikable.

wv: "ouggenl" -- What's so fucking funny about ouggenl?

Rutgers Theatre Alumni Network West Coast said...

Dear Ken: Okay, here's a question for a future Friday: One day, while falling down the rabbit hole of the Internet I discovered this clip, titled "Mickey Goes to Cheers."

What can you tell us about it, good sir?

Regards, Wally

Anonymous said...

Here's a Friday question for Ken:

Have you ever seen "Caesar's Writers"? This was a 1996 panel discussion that reunited the legendary writers from "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour." It included Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, etc. etc. It has been shown many times on PBS and an unedited version is available on video.

There is much hilarious discussion about the early days of TV, how competitive the writers' room was, how merciless Sid Caesar was in shooting down jokes, and how insane the whole atmosphere was.

I'd love to hear your impressions of this discussion, your opinion of their work in general, and if you ever worked with any of these greats.

Mike said...

If you haven't seen the HBO comedy BORED TO DEATH with Ted Danson and Jason Schwartzmann, do yourself a favor and see it.

Ted is just hilarious as a magazine publisher and mentor to Schwartzmann's character, a writer who can't write so he becomes a private-eye who advertises in Craigslist.

Mike Schryver said...

A follow-up question on the jokes the other writers shoot down:
How much do you have to change the joke in order to try it again? If you pitch the same joke a few weeks later, is that appropriate, or do you have to change enough of it so that the others don't notice that it's the same joke? Have you seen someone who thought they had changed a rejected joke enough, but they were wrong?

Michael in Vancouver said...

The first commenter Charles has a good question, and the 2003 Oscars provide a good elaboration. Gangs of New York was based on a nonfiction book of the same name, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding was first performed as a play. Both were nominated as original screenplays, not adaptations. Yet, Adaptation was in the adapted screenplay category, when in fact it was pure fiction using the source material as comic reference point. How does the Academy parse that?

M said...

Hey Ken,

How involved were you in the underscore music of the shows you wrote for and shows you created? Did you have a big hand in choosing the composer and supervising the creation of the music? Did you prefer to have other people deal with that side of things?

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken:

Can I be a showrunner if I'm not a writer?

@ gottacook agreed with u about Modern Family. I think it will work better as a multi-camera sitcom.


Shae Khan said...

I really love reading your blog. I'm a student hoping to attend Film or Animation school soon and I always love reading your blog. I love this post the most. I agree with you that a breakout character can be a blessing and a curse. I don't have a question for you yet, but I just want you to know I enjoy reading your blog. It's great to be able to read firsthand words from someone who has experience in the industry.

Anonymous said...

Sam and Becker are different characters? I've always thought they were the same. Maybe Ted is a better actor than I thought.

At one point on Conan, they were discussing how people can be dated, and Andy mentioned Ted's Keep on Trucking tattoo,'and that's why in all of his movies.., Ted Danson seems exactly the same."

Michael, Belfast said...

Hi Ken,

On a recent Big Bang Theory, three people were credited with "Story by", and three different people were credited with "Teleplay by". Do the Story and Teleplay people get the same money/royalties for the episode? If the episode wins an award for writing, does that mean the relevant academy has to award six statuettes? With all due respect to the Story people, don't the Teleplay people have a tougher job?


Bob Summers said...

I was inspired to ask this after reading about David's ABC job.

I'm old enough to know why there was such a job and why it was phased out by technology.

Question: What is the purpose of the "wild feed"? I used to love finding the listings in satellite guides or online and check out the shows before anyone else. Yet I know the networks send everything during the regular hours too. What gives?

Verification: pedsfu-what I say when there are too many pedestrians.

Tom Berg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Berg said...

While browsing youtube, I found David Letterman's final Late Night show on NBC.

I completely forgot that the beginning featured a cameo from the Cheers cast.

How did that come about?