Friday, December 17, 2010

Debunking Robert McKee

Aloha and mele kameekeiiemaaakaaa (I think that’s how you spell it). Here are some Friday questions you’ve posed over the last couple of weeks.

paul get us started:

I just finished reading Robert McKee's Story, about screenwriting for film. One of the interesting things he instructs is about how in each scene there must be a change of value, from positive to negative, or vice-versa. Do sitcoms follow the same rule?

No. Because it is a made-up, bullshit rule. We try to make sure each scene moves the story forward and is as fresh and funny as possible. I’m not saying that Robert McKee doesn’t provide a valuable service in stressing the importance of story structure, but his dogmatic theories and over-analysis do as much to strangle the process as aid it.

I’d love to be in the room where Chuck Lorre is pitching out a scene and a writer says, “There’s still no change of value yet in this scene”.  Talk about a "big bang"...

Ed Blonski asks:

What is your favorite "era" to write for?

Was it the 50's for MASH? Contemporary for Cheers & Fraiser?

The reason I ask is because I miss the sitcoms or dramadies set in the 30's & 40's. Such as Tales of the Golden Monkey, Hogan's Heroes, Remember WENN, and the Waltons.

Any possibilities that we would see something like that again on TV?

I tend to prefer writing contemporary because there’s more to draw upon, but it depends on the project. The problem with period comedies is that to be authentic a lot of the references will be too obscure.

We had that issue with MASH but honestly, just ignored it. We were sprinkling in Adolph Menjou jokes. We knew most people wouldn’t get them but oh, those that did really got some boffo laughs.

There have been some historical sitcoms including THANKS and BEST OF THE WEST. And so far audiences have had a tough time connecting to them (despite the fact that both were terrific shows). But you know this business – someone with clout will do a period piece comedy. It will be a big hit. And the next year there will be eight of them.

Care to guess how many GLEE-type musical shows are being developed this year?

From Alex:

Back in college I had a Korean friend who hated MASH because, in his words, the Koreans were always played by Japanese actors. I know that wasn't literally always true but a lot of times it was.

So I'm curious if there was any particular reason for this. And secondarily when it comes to casting and the character is presented as a specific race or ethnicity, how much effort is put into the actor matching that.

On MASH we always tried to cast Koreans first. But there just were not that many of them. We were forced to widen our net. What became really tricky was when ywe had two actors vying for a role. One was Korean, the other was not, but the non-Korean was a better or funnier actor. It depended on the case, but sometimes we opted for authenticity and other times we just went with the better performer.

John wonders:

Ken, What's the longest you've ever held a story idea, because the premise/key scene was good, but overall just didn't feel right of flow correctly for whatever reason and required retinkering before it was strong enough to film?

There are movie and play ideas in my drawer that have been there for twenty years. What I do, when I think of a notion, I write it down and file it. Often something will come along months or years later and I will say, “that’s the element that was missing!” And suddenly the project takes shape. The key is to always be on the lookout for ideas, or interesting characters, or stories. You never know when that “aha” moment will hit.

Sometimes movie or play ideas come to you whole cloth. Other times you have to be patient.

For series, at the start of each season, we’ll usually spend a few weeks just spitballing ideas, coming up with possible stories. Some work out, some don’t, some get held over until later seasons.  It took two years to get "Point of View" off the ground at MASH.

And finally, from sjml:

Ken, I notice that the overwhelming majority of How I Met Your Mother episodes are directed by the same person, Pam Fryman.

How common is it in sitcoms to have this level of continuity in the director's chair? Do you think it can adversely affect a show's tone to have too many directors?

It’s more common now that there are fewer sitcoms. Directors used to like the variety and flexibility of working on different shows. Now they’re happy to just lock up a series.

Especially if a show has a very distinctive format, like HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, it’s a big advantage to have the continuity of one director. And in the case of that show, they have one of the very best in Pam Fryman. I love her so much I had her direct a pilot of ours… and I’m a director myself.

The main thing is the director has to get along with the cast. The crew may love him, the writers may love him, but if there’s friction with the cast, it’s just not going to work.

But when there is a director that everybody is comfortable with, it does make the process easier. A certain rhythm is established.

That said, sometimes it’s very helpful to have a different eye and sensibility once in a while. On the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW they had a series director, Jay Sandrich. There was one script he absolutely loathed; to the point where he refused to direct it. So the producers got Joan Darling instead. And she did a pretty spectacular job on “Chuckles Bites the Dust”.

What’s your question, bruddah?


Anonymous said...

Ken, you forgot That '70s Show! It ran for 8 seasons, which has to make it the second-longest running period show after MASH. I never got into it but it did pretty well for itself.

Anonymous said...

The Korean/Japanese issue for MASH reminded me of watching an episode of Murder She Wrote years ago. That week's story had a character that was supposed to be American Indian, but somehow they had someone that was clearly an India Indian playing the role. I'm guessing the casting got mixed up and there must not have been time to make a correction.

The actor was fine, but just looked misplaced in a scene where I think he was in full headdress.

Ian said...

Ken, I just read this over at, and I thought you might get a kick out of it:

Some of you might remember that a while back I noted that actor/comedian Richard Belzer has appeared as Detective John Munch on six different shows: Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The X-Files, The Beat and The Wire. The obvious implication of this is simple - via the transitive property, Law & Order and The X-Files exist in the same universe.

Better still, since Law & Order has crossed over with several other spin-offs (Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles and Conviction) and The X-Files crossed over with Millennium and The Lone Gunman, that means that this TV universe contains at least 12 distinct TV shows.

And yet, Homicide has a few other crossovers to add to the mix - notably St. Elsewhere, and here's where things get interesting. See, St. Elsewhere crossed over with Cheers (no, really!). Cheers spun off Frasier and crossed over with Wings, and because of NBC's ubiquitous crossover and cameo stunts in the 90s, Frasier is linked to many other sitcoms.

So in theory, it's possible that Fox Mulder could have stopped into Boston and had a beer with Norm and Cliff, then headed to New York and butted heads with Detective Lennie Briscoe over jurisdiction.

RockGolf said...

Ian: That's hardly a revelation. There's an entire website devoted to TV characters sharing the same universe.

It goes well beyond the examples cited. For example, characters from White Shadow, Mary Tyler Moore & Bob Newhart Show appeared on St. Elsewhere. Munch also appeared on Arrested Development. It goes on and on...

Richard Cosgrove said...

I must say I have a different view of the likes of McKee, Field and Synder. I don't think they strangle the creative process of screenwriting.
That's done by the screenwriters, directors and producers, who dogmatically follow their chosen guru's instructions in the belief they're being creative.
While that works when you're starting out - there's wisdom in "run before you walk" - and structure is vital to a screenplay, writing to a fixed formula does not always make for good writing.

Carson said...

When a sitcom does a two parter or an hour long episode, do you shoot all in one night. Or do you split it up over two weeks? And are these usually the result of a network request?

RDaggle said...

also re: That '70s Show, I believe it had one director for all their episodes - David Trainer.

Can it be the answer for any other of this week's questions, y'know, for the hat trick?

AlaskaRay said...

"Back in college I had a Korean friend who hated MASH because, in his words, the Koreans were always played by Japanese actors."

I must admit that I had the same problem with MASH. Your lack of authentic North Korean actors playing enemy combatants and spys really hurt the show's realism for me.


Neal... said...

So I should wait until next year for my Modern Family meets Mad Men pitch then?

Brian Phillips said...

Regarding "Thanks". I never saw the show, but it does have another fairly prominent champion: actor/author Sarah Vowell. She mentioned it on the "This American Life" radio show.

Have ANY episodes of this been rebroadcast? I can only find quotes.

David O'Hara said...

I took Mc Kee's seminar after I had read his book. It was three days of Mc Kee performing his book. A good performance and that's just that - a performance. Didn't learn any thing that was actually useful - except that I wouldn't pay to do it again.

You can't learn talent - you have it or you don't. Many great movies don't follow Mc Kee's format or Sid Field's format or any other Guru's format.

Just added more fuel to: those that can, do - those that can't, teach.

Nat G said...

For those interested in the inter-series crossovers, a more complete guide is at

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Hey Ian, thanks for the plug. The post he's referencing can be found here.

RockGolf - Ian didn't explain this, but the whole post is actually a plug for that site you reference and link to.

Nat G - thanks for that link. I ran across that page years ago and have never been able to locate it.

Ken, have you ever discussed the Cheers/St. Elsewhere crossover? Was that during your time on the show?

Max Clarke said...

Speaking of directors, Nick Colasanto from Cheers -Coach- directed more than two dozen television episodes. Mannix, Streets of San Francisco, Columbo, etc.

Lantastic said...

I wonder if Germans get in a huff when brits play nazis in old WWII movies?

D. McEwan said...

"Carson said...
When a sitcom does a two parter or an hour long episode, do you shoot all in one night. Or do you split it up over two weeks?"

I went to a Will & Grace" taping once that turned out to be the first half of a two-parter. They only shot the one episode that night. The second part was shot a week later. I don't know if that's industry standard, but that's the answer for Will & Grace.

St. Elsewhere turned out to be all in the imagination of an autistic child, so I guess all of those crossed-over shows were imagined by that autistic child. What an imaginative child!

Yes, I was always being jolted out of M*A*S*H by Japanese (and Chinese, I'll betcha) actors playing Koreans. It ruined it for me! And worse, even though Hawkeye is supposed to be from Maine, they used an actor from New York City to play him! What sham! How can anyone watch such an inauthentic show? Am I supposed to accept a lame excuse like we had no actor from Maine that was right!

And what about all those actors playing killers when they've never killed any one at all? More sham! And you know what? Bela Lugosi wasn't even undead when he played Dracula! "Oh, we couldn't find a real vampire who could do day shoots," they lamely defended themselves with.

And now they're casting The Hobbit, and there's not one real hobbit in the cast! I say, boycott it!

Nino Mojo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nino Mojo said...

Ken: I want to play devil's advocate and propose that maybe each time the staff room thinks "okay, this scene is moving the story forward", there has indeed been a change of value.

McKee says it himself, it's not a rule, it's a princple, which means you don't have to do it but if you're stuck it'll help. I've now watched hundreds of movies with the "value change" principle in mind, and in my viewer experience it holds true most of the time. Same with the "a character is how they choose under pressure" principle.

I find those two "guidelines" to be really helpful in general and you can see them at work in many many shows and films.

Edit: Oh, also, because you recommended it on this blog I bought and read Bill Idelson's Writing Class, and I was riveted by it! Although Idelson has a totally different disclaimer as to what his class teaches, I feel the core principle in it ("makes the juices flow") is actually similar to McKee's "value change" principle. To me they're the same thing, the same advice.

Gary said...

Ok, Ken, I just saw a Becker episode that you directed - Toast - I think it was called. I'm sure you've been asked about the orange many times, but not by me and not recently. For those who don't know...Liz goes to Becker's apt. and he offers her "something." He opens the fridge and we can see (from left to right) one orange and 3 beers. The camera goes back to Liz, then back to the fridge. The orange is gone. Becker removes 2 beers and as he turns, it appears that the orange is on the far right hand side of the fridge. Is that a prank you play w/the audience, a little self-entertainment?

Mele Kalikimaka - from Don Ho's Xmas album, so we know it's right! Aloha.

Paul Duca said...

Max...Nick Colasanto also directed episodes of HAWAII FIVE-O. Ken...was he the one who got you interested in spending time in Hawaii?

(or was it Ron Jacobs)

Futoshi said...


You can feel like you're getting your revenge now, because out of 10 Japanese characters on TV now, 5 are played by Koreans. It used to drive me nuts to listen to that Korean guy on "Heroes" speak Japanese.

And @Anonymous, why is it okay to call Ken a "dumb haole?" Would you feel okay calling him a "dumb (choose your favorite anti-semetic term and insert it here)" or if he were black would you let the the "N word" fly?

Ken, I think it would be appropriate for you as the moderator of this blog to delete that comment. If you want to apologize for misspelling the Hawai'ian holiday greeting, that is your preroggative, I guess. I would accept it as social commentary on the Christian hegemony of Hawai'ian culture. After all, why should Hawai'ians need to say "Merry Christmas" if it weren't for the missionaries who brought Christ to the islands?

Anonymous said...

The movie Adaptation confused me about McKee. I am sure that Charlie Kaufman thinks that he is a joke an tells him so in the movie but then resorts to his method when he is stuck. I guess Kaufman confuses everyone.

Dave from Athens

Chris Anton said...

I'm currently watching the "Oops" episode of Frasier. In the third act a wall hole is used as a plot point, with the wall prominently displayed. I noticed defined shadows on the wall. The shadows were a result of the angle, with no relation to the story. Shadows are typically a taboo in television, with multiple lights used to eliminate them.

My question is: Have you ever been inspired to use shadows/special lighting to tell a story? And, if so, how did you accomplish it?

David Russell said...

A next Friday question: you've often talked about "breaking down the story" in the room or with your partner. Can you talk a little about what that entails? Is it just fleshing out the idea? Finding specific lengths or number of scenes?

Thanks! Hope Hawaii is treating you well. It's raining in Vancouver. : (

Philippe said...

Hey Ken -

About your comments regarding Robert McKee; you've seen instances where applying his structure elements was definitely detrimental?