Thursday, October 28, 2010

One of the true idiots I've ever worked with

Early in my directing career I did a couple of episodes of ASK HARRIET for FOX. It actually was not a bad show and I worked with some wonderful actors like Willie Garson, Ed Asner, and Julie Benz. But one of the producers was maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered in the business. And he really stuck out because the rest of the staff was terrific.

For purposes of this piece let’s call him Shecky because he pretty much embodied the lowest of the borscht belt comics. Loud, lascivious, dyed his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish, always hustling and creeping-out the extras. He was the uncle your parents always kept you away from when you were little.

Shecky only cared about jokes. Usually old, usually off color. Supposedly when he was on staff of an earlier series whenever it was time to break a story he fell asleep.

One week we had an act break joke that was just a vile gratuitous slam on gays. I called and said the cast and I were all extremely uncomfortable with the line. He said he wanted to see it at runthrough. Okay. Fair enough.

I rehearsed the scene and told the cast not to purposely tank the line. They didn’t need to first of all, and secondly, we didn’t want to give Skecky any ammunition for keeping the line.

So the writers all came down, we did the scene, and predictably the joke bombed… except for Shecky laughing hysterically. And this was the conversation that followed, almost verbatim, between me and the Sheckster.

Me: Well, it didn’t work. We could really use something else here.

Shecky: What are you talking about? It worked great!

Me: Huh?   It did? No one laughed.

Shecky: I laughed.

Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.

Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.

Me: Excuse me??

Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that.   Writers are jaundiced.

Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves. Their job is to best determine what others will like. Otherwise, what’s the point of even having a runthrough?

Shecky: To support the actors. Look, the joke stays.

I was just the freelance director. I walked away in utter disbelief. They did the joke on show night and not only did it not get a laugh, it got gasps from the audience.

Later that night Shecky said he was putting in a new line in the scene we were about to shoot. It was an office party scene and one character was trying to impress a co-worker he had eyes on. So another character suggests Xeroxing his ass. Why this would charm a woman I do not know. But there was some lame line of justification. Shecky wanted to change it. When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt.”

Me: No, really.

Shecky: That’s the line.

Me: You’re not serious, are you? I mean, you’re not actually proposing that line, right?

Shecky: Why not? What’s wrong with it?

Me: What's wrong with it?   Really?  Uh… well, for starters -- it’s tasteless and offense and not remotely funny.

Shecky: Well, fuck you! That’s the line.

I refused to give that line to the cast. If he wanted it in he would have to do it. He cursed me out again and stormed onto the stage. Two minutes later he returned.

Shecky: (begrudgingly) Alright, we’ll do the original line.

Me: Let me guess, the actor refused to say it?

Shecky: FUCK YOU!!

By mutual consent, that was the last ASK HARRIET I directed.

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

This requires a knack, based on observation, experience, and your own sense of humor. Paying attention to what works. The only true determination is if the audience laughs. So how are the jokes constructed? How dependent is the material on performance? Or reactions?  What about tone?  Timing? Do you have the right target audience? What and exactly when are they laughing?  And then of course, there’s common sense. I’d be surprised if a single one of you thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was funny and appropriate. Earl Pomerantz, by the way, had an excellent piece in his blog on this subject too.

Can this knack be developed? Absolutely. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. I went down to my first runthrough, sat on a director chair with the rest of the writers and enjoyed the runthrough immensely. Meanwhile, I’m looking over at everyone else and they’re madly scribbling. I’m thinking “What are they seeing?” But then we’d get back to the writers room and they’d start discussing the script and their concerns. The next day’s runthrough would be dramatically better. By paying attention I began to see what they saw.

So what if you don't have the luxury of being on staff? 

When you go to comedy movies make note of what works and try to figure out why. Same with plays. Sitcoms are harder unless they’re multi-camera and you’re in the audience. Because through editing, sweetening, and retakes they can make shows appear better than they played. But train yourself to study comedy. And when you feel you finally have a real handle on it then learn this cardinal rule:

No one is always right.

I hate to say it and wish it weren’t so but no matter how long you’ve been doing it, how many Oscars or Emmys or Tonys you have, you still may be wrong. That’s why we have runthroughs. That’s why Neil Simon, after all his smash hits, rewrites constantly while his plays are still in tryout. That’s why movies are previewed.

So we never know for sure. But start thinking professionally.  If you do your due diligence, if you begin to trust that you’re right most of the time you’ll have a much greater shot at breaking in. And more importantly you’ll help weed out fucking idiots like Shecky.  Please do it.  For me.


S. Hecky said...

I actually thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was pretty funny.
The line is so ridiculous and vulgar, I don't know why but it made me giggle.

Aiden said...

Sometimes comedy success can elevate a person to god-like status, and then nobody can tell this person that something's just not funny.

The result?

Mel Brooks' "LIFE STINKS".

Jeff said...

I used to scoff at the adage "writing is rewriting." I don't do that anymore.

As for writers not laughing, I've heard a number of people say that Lorne Michaels rarely laughs out loud. Often people around him are surprised to hear him say he thought something was hilarious because he was poker-faced the whole time.

Sandisan said...

I also thought that line was pretty funny, but only in a "dear jeebus, that is BAD" kinda way...that anyone would think that was appropriate in any way is pretty hilarious and sad at the same time.

Keith said...

Does it become funny if we laugh at the audience's reaction?

Personally, I think laugh, laugh, laugh, GASP, act break is hilarious.

Tom Quigley said...

I feel sorry for the cast, crew and production staff who had to put up with that insufferable boor every day of the week.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I still remember Ask Harriet. I can see why that show didn't survive the first season. It felt like the same plot recycled every episode.

I agree that judging what's funny and what's not is never an absolute. Runthroughs are essential.

Since you were the guest director on the show, this actually leads me to a question. What's the criteria for hiring freelance directors on any show?

RCP said...

Ken - I appreciate it that you and the cast members were "extremely uncomfortable" with the gay joke and attempted to take it out.

While flipping channels some years ago, I happened on a sitcom and the last 30 seconds or so of a scene between a father and son. I had missed most of it, but it ended with the son telling his father, "Don't worry, Dad, I like girls." The son leaves through the kitchen door and his father looks heavenward and mouths "Thank you."

To most viewers, I suppose, that might produce an understanding smile. But I wonder how many gay kids were watching that, or "regular" kids who took it as further proof that bullying was fine because even parents don't like gays. I was an adult when I saw that scene, and it still gives me the creeps.

Hopefully the Sheckeys of the world are a disappearing breed.

RockGolf said...

Decades ago I was at the taping of the pilot of "Sara", another short-lived sitcom with a great cast (Geena Davis, Alfre Woodard, Bill Maher, Bronson Pinchot). Bill's character was (wait for it) a right wing bigot, and Pinchot played an out gay man.
In character Maher (whom I'd never even heard of before this) gave an anti-gay line that even at the time I thought was pretty offensive. I think the purpose of the line was to show how crude the guy was. But instead of being offended, the audience not only laughed, but applauded.
When the show was broadcast months later, I noticed they completely replaced the line.
WV: pnest. Yes, I am.

Steve said...

Jokes are jokes. This country is losing its sense of humor and ability to laugh at ourselves and, yes, others. We're a society that's becoming way too sensitive. People think they have a right not to be offended. Anybody can claim to be "offended" by something, and that's somehow a cue for everyone to conform to politically correct speech codes.

That trend is more dangerous to society than telling jokes.

Mac said...

Excellent post, and very cathartic to read. I had my own 'Shecky' who used to see jokes in a scene that no-one else in the entire cast and crew did. He also never seemed to notice the actual intended jokes. However diplomatically you pointed it out, his beautifully-articulated response was to scream "are you f***ing saying I'm thick?!" Given his own output was largely execrable, it was amazing how much faith he had in his own judgement.
On the (few, sadly) occasions when I've worked for people who've done brilliant stuff, I've found them open to any amount of contradiction and discussion. I might be generalising, but I think the Shecky's of this business know deep down that they're shit, and that makes them defensive and unable to engage in discussions, or concede that they might sometimes be wrong.

John Blough said...

Shecky sounds like a Prince!

Jeffrey Leonard said...

The line about "the way to a girl's heart..." would work better in a stand-up act from someone known for that type of "humor", like Andrew Dice Clay. NOT on a sitcom!

Anonymous said...

tell us how you really felt about Billy Riback.

barnez28 said...

I think he did say how he really felt about that guy. Personally the joke is stupid. I like stupid things sometimes, but I also like to watch ridiculous shows. I don't think the joke is inappropriate, but I don't really know what kind of humor that show was suppose to have on it. If it was the writing staff of Family Guy or It's Always Sunny it doesn't matter about appropriate jokes, but other writing staffs might have certain standards.

Brian Phillips said...

That "butt" line MIGHT work if it were on "Friends" and if Chandler were saying it to Joey, however, I don't think that Joey would do something as asinine as a gluteus photostat.

Friday question: While watching episodes of "Becker" and "Frasier", I noticed a few scripts credited solely to David Isaacs. Have you ever directed one of his scripts? If so, did you find it any easier or harder directing your writing partner's scripts?

daniel in cherry hill said...

did you ever write something that you felt was funny and got good laughs, but were not sure why it was funny?

Sally creeping down the alley said...

Aww Shecky should be run out of town on a rail (possibly on his back) for being so lame. Mr 10% indeed.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I wikepediad the show and saw only five of the thirteen shows that were taped were actually broadcast. Was yours included? And was one of the writer's names really James Aleck? And was his nickname Smart?

Kirk said...

If I was drunk I'd probably laugh, and then vomit on myself.

te said...

Jimmy Aleck was a pretty well-known standup comic for a while.

Anonymous said...

Hm.. I was once sitting in the booth on a Friday night, and a joke at the act break just bombed. Not a big suprise, it had bombed all week, and I had BEGGED the EP to switch it up. It was the act break, after all. She said all week she just wanted to see it in front of an audience. Well, by 11PM, the last time the joke was told and there was dead silence, I turned around in the booth to look at the EP, and she yelled, "it will be funny in post!"... I fired her Monday AM.

gottacook said...

In a sitcom or a comedy movie, isn't some substantial proportion of how well a joke works dependent on who's delivering it? When I wrote about seeing (entirely by coincidence) Mannequin 2 the other night on TV, I mentioned that some of the department store manager's lines might have been a lot funnier had they been delivered by someone like Larry Miller (who had a similar sort of featured role several years later in The Nutty Professor).

Of course this doesn't mean that I think anyone could have delivered Shecky's "butt" line and gotten a laugh - from me, anyway. Well, Michael Emerson, maybe.

YEKIMI said...

Wow, you are ahead of the curve, Ken. Even though this should go in your "airline rant" post, I figured I would put it here so more people might chance to see it: This was posted on Yahoo yesterday: America's meanest airlines>

Anonymous said...

C'mon, you goota tell us the other offensive joke that didn't get included. Full disclosure!

Anonymous said...

Would the standards folks have allowed an anal sex joke back then?

Kelly B said...

Sorry Ken…

I am a disciple of Larry Gelbart school of funny, like to think of myself as somewhat sophisticated about this kind of fine line, and the truth is, I laughed.

Point being – and something I think we may have overlooked here – is I never saw the line coming. I was waiting for the predictable:

“…. Wow, if it works out, maybe she will frame it and put it on her desk….”


“Gee, I can’t wait to tell this story at your wedding…”

But the frat house boy response? Gotta tell you, caught me off guard. Truth be told, I laughed when I read it a second time too!

So either we change our definition slightly or I am not allowed to read your column any longer.

Miker said...

For a little balance (not that it is wanted or needed), but I know "Shecky" and find him to be a damn funny guy. Abrasive? Sure. A rigid comic sensibility? Sure again. Definitely, not everybody's cup of tea. But an idiot? No, not at all.

Pamela Jaye said...

so, completely off topic, I'm telling a friend about Almost Perfect over on Z on TV's Facebook page. She never saw it, never heard of it. Okay, no problem.

She looks it up and gets this

Almost Perfect starred Nancy Travis as Kim Cooper, a television writer on the (fictional) hit show Blue Justice (a parody of NYPD Blue)

could you tell me - if there was any parody at all - it was a parody of the title, not of the show itself, yes? (I don't think parody is the right word, here, but this makes it seem as if Blue Justice was a show like Police Squad. And as far as I remember (when Mike was not being an extra and Gary was not invoking NOW) it was a straight cop drama.

I have my old tapes of Ally McBeal. They have promos in them for Ask Harriet. I wouldn't even bother to watch it.

Omnibabe said...

After seeing this, I'm convinced that Bill Cosby knows what funny is!

Baylink said...

Apparently, the way to a girl's heart *is* through the butt:

Baylink said...

> People think they have a right not to be offended. Anybody can claim to be "offended" by something, and that's somehow a cue for everyone to conform to politically correct speech codes.

It's much more dangerous than that.

Most of political correctness is not "please do not say that, because it offends *me*". It's "you should not say that because it offends *somebody else*".

Pamela Jaye said...

so, basically, they are "Scott Mommies"?