Friday, May 28, 2010

How to become a recurring character

Happy Memorial weekend Friday question day. What's yours?

Steve starts us off:

I'm curious about recurring characters. Do writers have any say over who comes back when, or is it the producers/someone else? Take Colonel Flagg on M*A*S*H as an example. Could you just write him into an episode, or are you instead told, "Hey, we want Colonel Flagg back. Write a story for him."?

Characters become recurring because they really score. The showrunners make those decisions but they’re usually easy ones. The good news for the writer whose script introduced a character who becomes recurring is that they get royalties. We got one for Eddie LeBec. Some great examples of characters who went from day player to recurring or even joining the regular cast are – Klinger on MASH, Reverend Jim on TAXI, Lilith on CHEERS, Bebe and Bulldog on FRASIER, and Bob on BECKER.

Here’s my favorite story: Judith Lowry really scored as Mother Dexter on PHYLLIS. So much so that MTM (the company that produced the show) offered her a ten-year contract. She laughed. Judith Lowry was 88 at the time.

It’s a gift from the Gods when a guest star scores big. Most producers will happily rewrite future scripts to include them.

From David:

What's currently a typical day / week for you? Are you still consulting, meeting with execs, agents, etc.? Does announcing take up all of your time and you just relax in the other hours? How much prep work does announcing take?

Doing Dodger Talk does take up a good chunk of the day. If we have a 7:00 home game I’m at Dodger Stadium around 4:00 and depending on the length of the game, leave around 11:30. I’m there so early so I can talk to players, managers, and of course, rake the infield. I read a lot of stuff online – newspapers and blogs to keep up to date baseballwise but I don’t consider that work. It’s what I’d be doing even if I didn’t have a radio show.

David and I are talking about some future projects and I’m planning on staging my play next winter so I’m meeting with my director, producer, and currently doing a rewrite of the play. Casting begins in the fall and I’m already putting together lists.

I’m also writing that 60s book so usually my mornings are spent in front of my computer either writing that or blog posts. I also write late at night. Most of the jobs I’ve ever had – either in broadcasting , staff writing, or gigaloing – required I work nights so I’m used to the late hours.

When my partner David and I have a project we’ll get together around 10 and write until 1:00 or 2:00. Then we’ll meet the next day appalled at what we wrote the day before.

The rest of the time is spent is spent going to the gym and eye doctors. I lead a very full life.

david russell asks:

Do you find it harder to stay focused on writing now that the pesky Internet is here to distract you with, say, reading blogs? Do you have tricks, like working on a stand-alone, non-web connected computer or are you just that disciplined?

I’ve developed discipline from working in television where you’re always on deadline. So that helps. Once I start writing I generally stay with it, although it’s important to take breaks. The breaks should not last longer than the actual writing intervals however. I check my email too much. I will admit that.

Sometimes for some real concentrated writing I’ll take my laptop to UCLA and roost in one of those cubbyholes in the library. It’s quiet, no distractions, yet there are people around. I don’t feel like I’ve been sent to solitary confinement.

A couple of times when my partner and I had a screenplay that needed to get done quickly we’d drive down to San Diego and lock ourselves in a hotel room for three days. A good portion of VOLUNTEERS was written at the Town & Country hotel in beautiful Mission Valley.

Here comes a short answer to a long question. It’s from Jkessler:

Ken, a question regarding classifying sitcoms. There seem to be three or four general categories: family comedy, office comedy, friends/singles comedy, odd couple relationship.

Most sitcoms fall under at least one of these general categories. But what about a show like "My Name Is Earl?"

None of these categories seem like a good fit. I guess you could argue it's a family comedy, but that's really reaching. Is it a unique genre of sitcom? Redemption comedy? Redneck comedy?

Anthology comedy. (Told ya it was short)

Happy Memorial Day. Drive safely.


Holt Murray said...

- What was that?

- The 'Wind' just broke his arm.

Always loved that one.

Baylink said...

> I read a lot of stuff online – newspapers and blogs to keep up to date baseballwise but I don’t consider that work. It’s what I’d be doing even if I didn’t have a radio show.

And, of course, that's likely a large part of *why* you have a radio show.

This is one of only about half a dozen blogs I keep up with; Ken Rockwell on photography, Ken Jennings and Scott Adams are both read-before-getting-up's, Alan Sepinwall on TV, Jane Espenson (when she writes), my own, of course... and you.

Can't figure out why, but keep it up.

Alan said...

Oh man Holt, you just stole my comment. Col. Flag one of the greatest recurring characters ever.

Unknown said...

Hey Ken,

whats your take on

I'm a little hesitant on calling on on Dodger Talk from Germany that's why I left it here. Which might lead to the question if Friday Questions are only about TV/Sitcom writing/your book or if we can also ask baseball questions.

I saw the White Sox game this wednesday and might as well have asked about what constituates a balk and if an umpire really should call it like that or the Red Sox and Yankees out on their way playing the game.

Ron Rettig said...

Why no BluRay reissue of remastered "Volunteers" with making of and writer & director interviews, etc.?

Unknown said...

Has there ever been a more amazing recurring character situation than what happened with "Steve Urkel" on Family Matters? Larry Mintz and Alan Eisenstock cast Jaleel White for the part of an annoying neighbor kid, and I recall them saying they didn't give it a second thought -- he's fine, let's move on... But at the table reading, Jaleel was so funny that the executive producers called his agent before leaving the room, and locked him up for the rest of the season. Urkel scenes were inserted in shows already shot, and the character was added to shows still being written. He was featured in the remaining episodes of that first season, and I understand (I was gone by the next year) that for the second and subsequent seasons the edict went out that all episodes would now be about Urkel. The Executive Producers, Miller & Boyett, had certainly learned this from their Happy Days experience with "Fonzie," but that was a case of an original background character stepping up. The Family Matters situation was a day-player becoming to focus of the show for nine years.

Ben K. said...

Ken, a couple of questions on one topic:

Last night I saw the first episode of a sitcom that NBC is apparently burning off while the rest of its (otherwise excellent) Thursday comedy lineup is in reruns. It's basically a combination of two common formats: "Young woman in the city is looking for love," and "various attractive 30something friends hang out together constantly."

Here's the thing: This show was awful. The situations were ridiculous, the characters had no personalities beyond their stereotypes (the nerd, the hunk, the slut, etc.), and the "jokes" were completely unfunny -- you'd hear the intrusive laugh track on every line and think, "what are these people laughing about"?

My first question: How does a show like this even get made, when dozens of others never even make it to the pilot stage?

And my second question: If you're an inexperienced writer, how do you know if what you're coming up with is actually funny (along the lines of, say, "Friends" or "How I Met Your Mother") or complete dreck -- considering that the format and structure are pretty much the same either way?

Ben K. said...

Sorry, typo -- that should say "various attractive 20something friends hang out together constantly."

Dana Gabbard said...

"How does a show like this even get made, when dozens of others never even make it to the pilot stage?"

Ben K, it might be someone with clout is behind it. Remember Ken's comments about the chances of an ordinary schmoo pitching a series noted who is selling often matters more than the quality of what is being pitched...

Chris said...

Hi Ken, this is my first "love" letter to you, dont worry it'll only be a thousand or so... mmh, no it will only be this one. I never really was into your shows (those that i've seen, haven't seen Mash though); Frasier doesn't click with me at all, Cheers, Becker were fine at some point, but i'm not a fan.
The important thing, i really like your Blog and it's the only one i read (and every day). Now, that's something, isn't it!?
It's always funny and, to me, a look at what's going on on the other side of the planet (i'm german). Always a great read!
So, my favourite show right now is "It's always sunny in philadelphia" and i wanted to know your opinion. So could you write something about it, some friday? I'm very interested in your opinion! (almost wrote onion)
Three years of reading your blog, first comment,


(also i don't like baseball - another compliment to your blog!)

Brian Phillips said...

This is a funny take on a recurring character, with, I gather, apologies to Stephen Sondheim. You will never look at Floyd the Barber in the same way again:

Mike Barer said...

Who are the top unseen characters? I think of Marice on Frazier, Carlton on Rhoda, etc.
What is the thinking behind it?

gottacook said...

Ken, you're not only sharing excerpts from your memoir-in-progress more frequently, you're mentioning working on it more frequently as well. If you're serious about completing the memoir and shopping it around, I'd like to edit it first. I've been a professional copyeditor for several decades, handling scientific material (full-time since '94) as well as a wide variety of side jobs, such as a blog in book form, Recounting Minnesota (see the Amazon listing). That is, I can deal with any level of (in)formality. I've also been interested in the creative side of TV and movies since the 1970s; I used to buy weekly Variety back when it was on newsprint and cost 75 cents. I'm no stranger to this site (I've been a daily visitor for years and have probably commented dozens of times by now). If interested in discussing, how should we proceed? If not, don't worry about it - I'll remain a loyal reader.

Dan in Missouri said...

A Friday question. Why did the Eddie LeBec character get dumped from Cheers? Jay Thomas talks about this often on his radio show. I'd love to hear your version of the story.

Mike Schryver said...

Dan, Ken answers your question here:

Dan in Missouri said...

Thanks for pointing out the answer to the question I asked.
I read Ken's blog daily but had missed that one.
Jay Thomas does tell the same story on his radio show. And contrary to Ken's advice, does take calls. And he still ticks off celebrities - he recently was hung up on by Kevin Bacon.

John S said...

An actor friend of mine was making his third appearance (or so) on a series. He was talking with one of the lead actresses, and said, "I hope they keep writing my character in." The actress said, "If you keep playing him funny, they'll keep writing him in."

WingsFan said...

Ken, were you around when Tony Shalhoub appeared in one episode of "Wings" as a waiter consoling first Helen and then Joe, when they missed meeting up with each other on Valentine's Day back when they were dating? He was such a stand-out he was changed to a cab driver and written in as a regular - Amazing!

Anonymous said...

Wasn't sure how to ask a Friday Question...?

Curious about tv producers.

How many are also writers. How many are "executive" producers, how they differ, from, erm, non-executive producers, for lack of a better term, and how they interact with showrunners.

Why there are so many producers on a show, if the writers are also not producers. How that title/position might also be given to an actor and whether it's in name only.

If non-writing producers are paid from show budgets, ...which might seem curious in itself.

Just seems like there are a substantial number of producers credited on some series, especially on dramas, and wondered what they all do.

PS. I also love when it feels like a recurring character has been unexpectedly and happily "discovered" by a show too, and seeing what happens.

PPS. Colonel Flag was awesome.

MikeN said...

How much influence do the networks have on your plots? Watching Becker, it feels like it was written by the Surgeon General, with episodes about smoking is dangerous, wear condoms, etc.

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