Friday, October 08, 2010

Why I never became a comedian

Here are some Friday questions and answers:

l.a.guy wonders:

Did you ever, or were you ever tempted, to try working as a stand-up comedian? Are comedy writers frustrated stand-ups, or is it the other way around? Also, have you ever worked on a show with writers who were stand-ups and if so is it good or bad?

Personally, I never had the desire to try stand-up. Most stand-ups I know tend to be tortured. This didn’t appeal to me.  They're lovely people but generally FUCKING NUTS.  It's understandable considering the years of rejection, knocking around tiny clubs, and the cutthroat competition. At least in the old days Johnny Carson would give them a break and book them on THE TONIGHT SHOW.  Longtime comedian Jay Leno never does.  Way to pay it forward, Jay.  Anyway, between radio and improv I have enough outlets.

Most of the writers I know are not frustrated comics. They’re tortured enough just writing.

I’ve worked with a few comedians in writing rooms. Dana Gould on RAYMOND comes to mind. He was damn funny. I know Patton Oswalt does punch-up work from time to time on movies. I’d love to be in a room with him.

Sally creeping down the alley has a few MASH questions:

1. When a show (especially a hit show) changes head writers or brings in new writers to lead the staff, how much contact, if any, do the new people have with the previous writing crew--is it a pass the torch sort of thing or a complete break from the past?

It was a very easy transition when we left MASH. We knew and admired the new staff coming in and remain friends with them today. We even worked with them briefly on MASH. We wrote the GOODBYE RADAR two-parter after we had left the show.  And they graciously didn't rewrite the shit out of us. 

At the time we had a very small staff so it was really the changing of the guard. Nowadays the staffs are larger and writers just move up through the ranks. The new MASH staff came in from the outside.

2. When an actor (like Alan Alda) gets involved in the framing and writing of his or her show, how does that effect the writers?

I’ve worked on two shows where the stars involved themselves in the writing -- Alan on MASH and Ray Romano on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Both were pleasant experiences.  On the other hand, I understand Bill Cosby was not a dream. Nor was Roseanne.

3. How did you deal with the various egos of the actors on MASH, did it effect how you wrote for those involved?

I know this makes for boring blogging but there really were no ego problems on MASH. No one counted lines. No one had tantrums. Maybe that’s why there’s never been an E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY on MASH.

From A Non-Emus:

I recently watched the Cheers episodes with Boston Celtics player Kevin McHale and noticed what a natural comic actor he was and what great chemistry he had with the cast. One of the best performances I've ever seen from an athlete. Was this just dumb luck or were you guys tipped off that McHale had a comedic talent? Or did you guys put him through some kind of comedy boot camp to ensure that he would fit in with the cast?

I once devoted a post to Kevin and how great he was. You can find it here.

Edem wonders:

What happens if an actor either leaves (Melinda Kanakaredes, CSI: NY) or is sacked (A.J. Cook, Criminal Minds) during the summer, before the new season starts? Is it more of a headache for writers, or par for the course?

It depends on who they are, and when they depart. If it’s last minute and five scripts are written and ready to go, then yeah, it’s fucking hell.

If the actor is a pain-in-the-ass or the staff knows he’s not coming back when they’re planning the season then it’s fine. Maybe preferable.

And finally, from Anonymous – an often asked question.

I'm in my early 40s and I've heard a lot about it being impossible for anyone to break in who is not in their 20s. What's your take on that? Is it possible, if you have talent, to break into the business in your 40s? Or should I try novels instead?

I don’t mean to dash anyone’s dreams but yes, it is much harder to break in if you’re in your 40s. Not impossible but the odds are stacked against you. The only silver lining I can provide is that when you submit a script no one knows your age (unless your name is Grampa Adams).  

I once wrote a spec screenplay that a young studio exec responded to. So a meeting was set. The minute I walked in you could see he was shocked I was an “old guy”. Things got worse. He complimented me on the writing and thought it was a really impressive first effort. Then he wondered what I’d been doing up until then. When I told him he turned red with embarrassment. The meeting went downhill from there. Note to studio execs: Google people you’re going to meet with!

But if you’re in your 40s and you do write a script that’s a great first effort you might buck the odds. Best of luck.

What's your question?


Scott said...

I wanted to send a question, but couldn't find email. It's in part, in reponse to this blog post, so I'll ask here...

You said 40 is a bit old to break into writing. Is that just television writing, or film as well...

Is it easier for an older screenwriter to break into film than TV?

I just turned 30... is this too old for TV?

Anonymous said...

Write books instead. You have no chance over 35 in Hollywood. Once your books are published maybe you can break into movies or TV. But after 35, you're too old.

Amy Butler said...

On the other hand, you don't see showrunners in their 20s. Is it even possible to be a staff writer in your 20s?

Wayne said...

Regarding comedy writers and stand-ups:

I know many of both. In general, stand-up seems to be a young man's game (sorry, ladies, but like poker, the demos are heavily skewed male) and like Ken says, a real grind. It's no coincidence that when they get tired of it and/or start thinking about having a family, many "settle" for a middling staff job on a sitcom, even those stand-ups who have enjoyed a modicum of success (Jeff Cesario of "RAYMOND" comes to mind).

Are there exceptions to this trend? Of course. But as the saying goes, their scarcity tends to prove the rule.

Garrett said...

I noticed this morning that HDNet has started showing Cheers reruns in High Def. It looks good. What do you think about this? Another good reason to have shot the show on film as opposed to tape.

Mike said...

It may make for boring blogging, but I find it very strange how happy I am that there were no ego problems on MASH. I guess it's because I grew up with it and it was one of those few shows that all my family has always enjoyed, so it's like knowing somehow that the cool family down the street isn't creepy-in-a-bad-way behind closed doors.

Jay Leno... never mind. Your blog is too nice of a place to share my (admittedly very out-of-the-loop) theories why he wouldn't have other comedians on.

Dana King said...

Re: studio execs. Mystery writer Robert B. Parker used to tell the story of pitching a Western movie to a young female studio exec. She politely listened to the entire pitch, then said, "That all sounds great, but who's this Wyatt Earp guy you keep mentioning?"

David Schwartz said...

I'm a writer who works in advertising and I haven't had an outlet for the comedy material I've written. As a result, I found myself performing a one person show mainly because I wanted the material not to just sit on my dresser for the rest of my life. No real aspirations to be a standup comedian, but a definite desire to express myself. If you click on my URL you can see a trailer for what I did. Not exactly a conventional way to have your material seen, but one that I had available to me.

l.a.guy said...

Thanks for answering the question about stand-up comics.

Incidentally, what prompted me to ask was watching the documentary I Am Comic which is currently running on HBO. Dana Gould is one of the people interviewed, as is recently deceased Greg Giraldo.

Anyone interested in the life of a comic should check it out.

Anonymous said...

In addition to my above remarks (in the second post):

I failed at writing for TV. That means all of you have to, as well.

Give up hope. Stop trying. Just find a dark corner somewhere, crouch in it, and wait for death.

The taste of success is for others. Your only hope is the dank taste of ash. All is lost.

Mac said...

I hooted at your brutally honest answer to the first question.
Stand-ups are barking mad. They spend their whole day angsting about the evening show. If they don't get laughs they're in agony for days. If they bring the house down they're still in agony for days over the one punter who didn't laugh. Or the one gag that didn't fly like all the others. If they're not batshit crazy to start off with, they always end up that way.

Max Clarke said...

Great set of questions and answers.

To anybody worried that being over 35 makes you too old for tv, why do you want to work in a profession where senility apparently starts sometime after you turn 35? Ken Levine can write circles around 95 percent of the people writing tv comedy today, and what are his chances?

There is a tide in the affairs of men....

Anonymous said...

Friday Question (that may be so dumb I'm posting anonymously):

I've noticed a lot of people with ADHD tend to be really funny, and a lot of comedians seem to have ADHD. Have you noticed a correlation between humor and ADHD?

And what's going to happen to comedy now that so many people with ADHD are being treated for it?

littlejohn said...


Just wanted to say thanks for 2 things:

1) A great blog; I rarely miss it.

2) Recommendation of Modern Family. My wife & I love it and think its one of the best shows in awhile. Up in the class of Frazier.


Paul Duca said...

About M*A*S*H....I have heard the claim that McLean Stevenson had gotten a little too full of himself with the success of the show, and may not have appreciated the staff as much as the other cast members, even when they did things like work around his outside the show activities (such as doing the original HOLLYWOOD SQUARES).
That was why the writers killed off the character of Henry Blake when Stevenson left the show...the only one to suffer that fate.

scottmc said...

I recall that you are a fan of George S.Kaufman. Dick Cavett tells this story:

Kaufman was one of three panelists on a live, black-and-white TV show called “This is Show Business.” A performer would come on, tell the panel a problem of his, perform and then return to sit before the panel. Each panelist would then comment on the person’s “problem.”

On the memorable night, Pfc. Eddie Fisher — in uniform, looking about 16 — laid out his problem. He said he was appearing at the Copacabana night club and because of his extreme youth and boyish looks, none of the gorgeous showgirls would consent to go out with him. Then he sang and sat down to receive the panel’s remarks and advice.

At a measured pace, Kaufman began:

"Mr. Fisher, on Mt. Wilson there is a telescope. A powerful telescope that has made it possible to magnify the distant stars to approximately 12 times the magnification of any previous telescope. [pause]

And, Mr. Fisher, atop Mt. Palomar, sits a more recently perfected telescope. This magnificent instrument can magnify the stars up to six times the magnification of the Mt. Wilson telescope.
As improbable as it would doubtless be, if you could somehow contrive to place the Mt. Wilson telescope inside the Mt. Palomar telescope, Mr. Fisher . . . you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in your problem."

Kirk said...

@Paul Duca--McLean Stevenson may have indeed been a pain in the ass, I don't know, but I don't beleive his character was killed off out of spite. Larry Gelbert once explained on a MASH documentary that the final Colonel Blake episode, as originally written, had him surviving the Korean War. At a meeting that took place after the script was already turned in, one of writers mused, "Suppose Henry Blake's plane ended up at the bottom of the Sea of Japan?" Once Gelbert heard the writer say that, he realized that's how it had to end, to make a point about war in general. This is why you don't find out Blake died until the episode's final seconds. It wasn't so much for shock value as there just wasn't enough time to re-write the script!

Jim said...

so the story about Jamie Farr popping Alan Alda in the jaw--and the cast and crew all but applauding-- isn't true?

CJ at Creating a Comic said...

Some things I've observed during the hundreds of evenings I've spent backstage in comedy clubs with other comics:

1. Comedians in general are indeed more neurotic / crazy / tortured / desperately needy than the general public. Like everyone in the creative arts!

2. This includes writers, whose tendency to be even more introverted (i.e. socially retarded) than comics -- than EVERYONE -- just means that their festering emotional sores are less transparent. But writer brains are just as much an oozing pussy vat of neuroses / bitterness / crazy. I am sure Ken knows this.

3. Actors, on the other hand, really are clownshoes fucking crazy. Just giant bundles of exposed nerve endings animated by panicky childish neediness.

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