Friday, May 14, 2010

My comedy influences

Time for some more Friday questions. Leave yours in the comments section. Thanks.

From Sally creeping down the alley:

My Friday Question is about influences, when it comes to writing, who were you influenced by and when did you realize they influenced you?

I have always been interested in comedy. My initial influences were disc jockeys. Dick Whittington, Robert W. Morgan, Gary Owens, Lohman & Barkley, and the greatest of them all – Dan Ingram.

I loved THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW as a kid, both for the writing and the lifestyle Rob Petrie led. I thought, if you could get a girl like Laura Petrie by being a comedy writer then where do I sign up? That’s when I first started paying attention to credits. And it always seemed like the best, funniest episodes of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW were written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson so I became big fans even though I had no idea who they were at the time.

I began to read plays in high school and really admired George Kaufman & Moss Hart and Neil Simon. But the play that really knocked me out was A THOUSAND CLOWNS by Herb Gardner.

In 1969 I first saw TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and was blown away. Woody Allen became my idol. I then devoured everything he wrote and did.

There was a real golden period of TV comedy in the early 70s and I became huge fans of Jim Brooks and the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW writers and Larry Gelbart who wrote MASH.

Other influences along the way: Bob & Ray, P. G. Wodehouse, Elayne Boosler, Monty Python, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Bob Crane, Richard Pryor, Billy Wilder, S. J. Perelman, Preston Sturgess, the National Lampoon, and MAD magazine.

unkystan wonders:

I haven't seen "Wings" in years and got season 1 from Netflix and saw the name Roz Doyle as producer (I never noticed that before) and made me wonder, other than using friends and family, how do writers come up with the 'perfect' character names?

Roz Doyle was the line producer on WINGS who unfortunately passed away. To honor her memory Casey, Lee & Angell used her name for a character in FRASIER.

Sometimes we would use names of buddies and old girlfriends. Radar’s love interest in “Goodbye Radar” was Patty Haven, a former flame of mine. The soldier whose eyes we saw through in the “Point of View” episode of MASH was Bobby Rich, a close radio friend. And the blind patient in the first MASH we ever wrote was Tom Straw, another close friend.

One year on MASH for all the patients and nurses and extraneous others we used the 1978 Dodger roster. You’ll find Rau and Hooten and Cey and Garvey, et al.

Most of the time I just look for interesting names. I have a file with lists of names and will refer to that from time to time. And every so often I’ll come across a name and write it down for further use. There really is an Evelyn Dorkaspig.

And finally, from Todd:

What are your feelings about "table writing" vs. having a single writer complete as much of the script as possible (I'm talking specifically about 1/2 hour comedy here)?

Just curious, with all your years of experience, where your philosophy ended up.

I prefer writers doing individual drafts. Table writing is joke writing. I want my staff to exercise more skills -- storytelling, and character development. Writers are much more invested in their work if they write the entire script.

I understand the time constraints and the need for room writing scripts but what you get are always good solid serviceable drafts. When an individual writer turns in a script there’s the chance for brilliance.


Foaming Solvent said...

Supposedly, Herb Gardner based the protagonist of "A Thousand Clowns" on his friend Jean Shepherd, WOR storyteller. Shepherd didn't like it, and it ended their friendship.

Scott said...

In the film version of "A Thousand Clowns," the young boy is played by my father's cousin, Barry Gordon. I've never met him but I love that movie. Never got a chance to see the play though...

Robert E. Graves said...

As a former telephone operator in Bishop, CA, we used to peruse the local directory for odd names during our "down time". Best name ever? W.R. Unfug. Feel free to add it to the file . . .

GRayR said...

First time, long time.
What is your opinion of the writers on the hit cable shows (at least the ones I really like)
Like Royal Pains, Law/Order CI,
In Plain Sight,
Burn Notice ...
It seems to me that cable has gotten the good writers and the networks, not so much.

Kirk said...

You don't realize it, but you more or less answered a question I submitted a while back. I wanted to know exactly what the connection was between your two careers as a radio pesonality and TV comedy writer.

I have another question. You mentioned Mad magazine. I started reading both TV credits and Mad bylines at an early age, and I noticed that a lot of Mad writers (Larry Siegal, Dick DeBartolo, etc.) also wrote for TV. So my question: Have you ever written for, or have been asked to write for, or have tried to write for, Mad magazine?

Todd said...

Thanks for answering my Friday question, Ken, about table writing vs. individual drafts...

...and as a bonus, answering the question of why so much sitcom these days feels "serviceable" rather than "brilliant".


P.S. "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW" is one of the few complete series I own on DVD. I think it influenced a generation of sitcom writers. I even have one writer friend who throws "living room talent show" parties just like the Petries, complete with professional accompanist - though no couple yet has nailed "Mountain Greenery"!

Max Clarke said...

Ken, Earl Pomerantz has done a couple of good posts on his favorite jobs.

What was your favorite?

Dave Creek said...

Ken, someone mentioned Law & Order and that reminded me -- was there any consciousness that Cheers/Frasier belonged to the same fictional reality as L&O and its spinoffs, along with St. Elsewhere and Homicide: Life on the Street?

That was noticed by someone a few years ago who noted the Cheers/St. Elsewhere crossover, a Homicide/St. Elsewhere crossover, and the L&O/Homicide crossover episodes. Other shows fit in there, too, but that's enough for now.

Would there have been any hesitation to do an L&O joke on Frasier, since in his world the show didn't exist?

Nancy Beach said...

I loved KMPC's own early morning original: Dick Whittinghill in the 50's -60's +. The "wit" on local radio AM commute.

Sally creeping down the alley said...

Holy Answer to MY Question, Batman!

And all it took was a simple name change ($65 at the courthouse) from "Anonymous" to something just a little bit more palpable, too! Well, that and a question Ken felt like answering.

Thanks, Ken!

Dave Mackey said...

Dan Ingram is the king of em all. Part of the fun of growing up in the 60's and 70's was free access to Dan each weekday on WABC, and he put on a fun show each weekday. Loved em all - HOA, Ron Lundy, Harry Harrison, Cousin Brucie, etc. - an airstaff for the ages. Some could rightly argue for the Boss Jocks of KHJ, or the Good Guys at WMCA, but my heart was always with WABC.

Michael said...

Ken, you might have added Vin Scully. You mentioned in your book how he influenced you as a storyteller.

Also, in the realm of strange names, W.C. Fields had to be the champion. In The Bank Dick, he was Egbert Sousé--as he would add, "accent grave over the e." The scene that floors me is when his daughter introduces her boyfriend, Og Oggilby. Fields says, "Og Oggilby. Sounds like a bubble."

gottacook said...

My favorite real-life name (you can google it): "Spicer Lung Jr." Bad enough to be given that name, but to then saddle your son with it...

I subscribed to Mad in the late 1960s (bar mitzvah age plus/minus a year). What most endures for me are the wonderful Frank Jacobs song parodies, such as Moses' song (to the tune of "Born Free") imploring the Red Sea to part, which ended thusly:

Red Sea, this thing I'm requestin'
will mean Charlton Heston plays
Red Sea!

Likewise I enjoyed Allan Sherman's My Son the Nut, in particular the song "One Hippopotami" (to the tune of "What Kind of Fool Am I"). I owned this LP at age 8, when it had been out for a year or so, and it was excellent preparation for my folks' Tom Lehrer records when I was older, including the original 10-inch self-released first album.

Pat Reeder said...

You list sounds a lot like mine. I grew up on MAD and graduated to the Lampoon in college, collected Bob & Ray tapes, discovered W.C. Fields at around 10, and then the Marx Brothers at 12 with a TV showing of "Monkey Business" and had my eyes opened to just how incredibly funny a movie could be. Found "A Thousand Clowns" in the school library and reread it until I had it memorized. I was also a huge fan as a kid of Bugs Bunny, Bullwinkle, Beany & Cecil and George of the Jungle, as well as Abbott & Costello's wordplay routines. Had all the Allen Sherman LPs before I discovered Tom Lehrer. And discovered James Thurber in 4th grade, read everything of his by 5th grade, and moved on to Robert Benchley, then George Kauffman.

And of course, I never missed "The Dick Van Dyke Show," while was rerun every evening around 6 on Ch. 11 in Dallas. I also wanted to grow up to live his life, and in fact, I ended up becoming a comedy writer and marrying a hot chick named Laura. I even lived in the northeast for a year and made it a point to have a business mail drop in New Rochelle. Coincidentally, my wife/comedy writing partner Laura also loved that show and told me that as a little girl, she dreamed of growing up to marry a tall, goofy comedy writer like Rob. I'm not a Rob, but "Pat" is pretty close. And with my eyesight, I've been known to trip over the occasional ottoman. I just hope Carl Reiner doesn't sue us for copyright infringement.

Anonymous said...

My question is if any of the other Cheers writers have blogs/websites or plan on getting them in the future.

Gabe Preston said...

Dave Creek, it goes beyond LAW & ORDER.

FRASIER is a spin-off of CHEERS. CHEERS had a crossover with ST. ELSWHERE. ST. ELSEWHERE had a crossover with THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW had a crossover with NEWHART. The newsman Edwin Newman once appeared as himself on NEWHART. Newman also was once host of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. There was an issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP in which Spider-Man met the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Spider-Man met Superman on a couple of occasions. And an early 1960s issue of SUPERMAN featured an appearance by Pat Boone.

So Frasier exists in the same world as Pat Boone!

MrCarlson said...


My Friday question has to do with Law and order: Do you think it's smart to cancel a television show 1 season short of breaking the all time reccord? Furthermore, is it wise to cancel a "mothership" show, while launching an uncertain Spin off, which some people are already mocking: LOLA (law and order: LA?). Even if the show had seen better days (it had), the reccord breaking season would bring some good PR to NBC, and would allow a 21 year show to have a proper send off. I just can't see the upside on this move, except maybe financially. I'd really love your take on this.

Trinity Moses said...

"I can't see the upside on this move, except maybe financially."

It's easy to be dismissive of this when you're not the one writing the checks. You do realize that you are asking NBC to pay out several million dollars just to give Dick Wolf a place in the record books? The network might reasonably think that is not a good enough reason.

Anyway, there would still be dispute over what series qualified as longest running. Even if LAW & ORDER had a 21st season, it would still have far fewer episodes than GUNSMOKE, which began in the days when a season consisted of 39 episodes.

MrCarlson said...

I realise that a season of television costs millions of dollars, but the network would have made that money back in syndication, wouldn't it? A 20 year show deserved a proper finale, and there's no question in my mind that the extra money would be regained, and if there was any doubt, order half a season. When Law and order started I was 7 years old. Now I'm almost 30, and it's strange that it's no longer there. I know the show was never as good after Jerry Orbach, but it deserved a proper send off, in my opinion.

D. McEwan said...

Gunsmoke is a piker next to Doctor Who, which ran from 1963 to 1989 on the BBC, and then was revived six years ago, and is in it's 5th full revival season now (If you count the year of speials as a season, it's in it's 6th.)

That's 31 seasons!

And these aren't your standard 6-episode BBC seasons. The current version does 13 episodes and a Christmas Special each season. During the classic run, the season orders varied, from as few as 14 to as many 30, with 26 episodes per season being their average.

So could I be considered as one of your influences, since I was writing for Dick Whittington from 1968 on? I wrote for Lohman & Barkley also, but not for their radio show, only for their stage act at the Playboy Club.

To the lady who was the Whittinghill fan, poor dear. Just a button-press away from Whittington and/or Lohman & Barkley, all of whom were funnier than Whittinghill. The real wit on LA morning radio 45 years ago was Whittington not Whittinghill.

Our list of mutual influences is a long one. I'm not familiar with Dan Ingram, and I never listened to Robert W. Morgan, though I was very much aware of him, but Gary Owens was a big influence on me, and obviously, Whittington and Lohman & Barkley actually mentored me, for which they have my undying gratitude and love. (Al Lohman more than Roger Barkley, though, with Roger being a tougher audience for me, when I made Roger laugh, it was always even sweeter.)

I too devoured Kaufmann & Hart. Actually, Kaufmann and ANYONE. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks both in those days. Though I now find Woody as a person distasteful, and his films are not events anymore (They're barely blips), I still have great respect for him as a consummate joke-writer.

From your list of "Bob & Ray, P. G. Wodehouse, Elayne Boosler, Monty Python, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Bob Crane, Richard Pryor, Billy Wilder, S. J. Perelman, Preston Sturgess, the National Lampoon, and MAD magazine," I never read Wodehouse until many years later (and still prefer EF Benson), Boosler was not an influence on me, though I admire her (she's only just become a fan of my work), and I never heard Bob Crane's legendary radio show nor cared for Hogan's Heroes, but all those others were huge to me, and I have to add WC Fields and Buster Keaton as well. (I got to meet Keaton when I was 14, and he was a year from death. It was a thrill.) Also Tom Lehrer.

Admittedly, the influence of MAD faded as I outgrew it, and The National Lampoon, and in particular Douglas Kenney and Michael O'Donahue, were GIGANTIC influences on my work. Really, their influence on me can not be overestimated. I got to meet Doug Kenney once. Fascinating man.

And then, of course, the king of comic novelists, Patrick Dennis (Edward Everett Tanner III). I've loved a lot of comic novelists, but Patrick Dennis is the once and future queen. Some people have Bibles. I have Auntie Mame, Around the World with Auntie Mame, First Lady, The Joyous Season, and Little Me, all of which I possess first editions of.

And Stan Freberg and Daws Butler were without doubt my earliest influences. In 1975 I got hired to write on a radio project Daws Butler was directing, head-writering, and starring in. Daws and I got on like crazy,and he mentioned how well our styles meshed. I said to him, "Of course they do. You and Stan, on Time for Beany were my earliest influences, practiallly pre-natal. You taught me what humor was." Daws and I stayed dear friends until his death.

These days Barry Humphries is a big influence on me, and I'm proud to have his friendship.

jbryant said...

Michael: The full Bank Dick quote is much better: "Og Oggilby. Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub."

Annieofbluegables said...

I have a question. In the opening credits of Cheers are all the old fashioned pictures. Do they have any significance or history?

Nancy Beach said...

To D. McEwan -- Respectfully, back off -- all hail spirit of Priapus! Sorry you couldn't resist the reactionary impulse to pontificate to a chastened, sheepish "poor dear" from your dizzying perch atop Mt. Nostalgic Comic Olympus, the plush velvet bunny room of the Playboy Club. My apologies, I thought comments were invited: To each his/her own. It doesn't make the medley of your greatest hit any funnier by flaming me personally or disparaging my recollection of Dick Whittinghill.

Nancy Beach said...

And P.S....

For the record, my greatest comic influence -- the man who set the 24-carat solid gold standard in every medium where laughter is welcomed -- is Larry Gelbart.

sophomorecritic said...

Ken, my question is with pushing daisies, dollhouse, firefly, my name is earl, arrested development, commander-in-chief, aliens in america, ugly betty, and a number of others being cancelled so early in their run when they're clearly good shows, it's hard not to admit that the entire system is broken.

Why doesn't it discourage smart people to enter TV when the good shows don't get rewarded?

Stephen said...

Do commercial breaks ever irritate you as a writer? Like,"Okay no matter what's going on with the story we have to get it to a mini-cliffhanger by the act break so the audience will come back!". I watch a lot of BBC shows where there are no breaks so the stories can develop at their own pace and I would imagine it is far more freeing for the writer.

D. McEwan said...

"Nancy Beach said...
To D. McEwan -- Respectfully, back off -- all hail spirit of Priapus! Sorry you couldn't resist the reactionary impulse to pontificate to a chastened, sheepish 'poor dear' from your dizzying perch atop Mt. Nostalgic Comic Olympus, the plush velvet bunny room of the Playboy Club. My apologies, I thought comments were invited: To each his/her own. It doesn't make the medley of your greatest hit any funnier by flaming me personally or disparaging my recollection of Dick Whittinghill."

And I expressed my opinion (a fairly informed opinion, since I lived and worked for years in the very heart of the Whittington vs Whittinghill rivalry) that Whittington (and Lohman & Barkley) did much better shows than Whittinghill, as well as being much nicer people.

I didn't "Flame" you, I pitied you for never discovering back then that just a short distance away on your radio dial were radio comics much better, funnier and wittier than Whittinghill was on his best day.

Obviously any one who thinks Larry Gelbart was a comedy gold standard, which he certainly was, can appreciate the best in comedy, and I merely expressed how sad it was that you got hooked on the B team, when there were better choices.

And, having been on Whittington's payroll for years, as well as being mentored by him, obviously I'm a bit prejudiced. Be glad Whittington himself didn't chime in. Oh, how he disliked his rival, whom he has had the pleaasure of outliving. Whittinghill, Al Lohman, and Roger Barkley are all dead. Though retired, Whittington is alive and very well.

Don't be so sensitive. Jeesh.

Dana Gabbard said...

I just caught the pilot for Cheers which reminded me of a question I have long had. John Ratzenberger's Cliff during the first season or so seems to have a much more pronounced New England accent. Is the change to being less nasal deliberate?

Stevie Buckets said...

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."?