Friday, December 03, 2010

Directing FRASIER

Aloha from Hawaii, where I never stand down from my “Friday Question” watch. Anything you want to know? Leave your question in the comments section. Mahalo.

Katherine gets us started.

Ken, I was wondering if you could give us a full account of what it was like directing an episode of Frasier. You'd written a lot of episodes for the show, but how was that different (or similar) to directing one? Were the actors welcoming to a first time director for their show, or were they already at the point where they knew their characters well enough and didn't feel like they needed suggestions? And last, as a huge fan of David Hyde Pierce, I'd love to know what it was like working with/directing him.

Directing FRASIER was like getting behind the wheel of a Porsche. You had the best actors, writers, and crew in Hollywood. As long as you didn’t have the cameras pointing at the audience instead of the actors, you were pretty much assured of a good show.

Since I had written and consulted on the show for years, the cast and crew knew me very well the first day I stepped onto the stage to direct. I had also directed a number of episodes elsewhere by that time, so the actors didn’t feel like I was a novice.

I always consider my first task on any show I direct is to make the actors feel comfortable; let them know that they’re in good hands (or at least let them think they are). Familiarity and experience come in real handy in that regard.

And of course, I’ve known Kelsey since his first day on CHEERS.

On the other hand, there have been shows where the cast didn’t know me going in. I had to win their trust. Tony winning director, Jerry Zaks, once gave me a great piece of advice. “To win over an actor, lead him to a joke”. Again, it’s all about confidence and trust.

My first day directing DHARMA & GREG, Susan Sullivan just took me aside and said, “So just who the hell are you, and what have you done?” I listed my credits, she nodded, and we were good after that.

The cast I really owe a huge debt to is the one from WINGS. Even though they knew me, too, they had to endure my first directing assignment. Remember all that stuff I said about instilling confidence in actors? That is hard to accomplish when you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. They were incredibly patient and supportive.

By the time I got to FRASIER I knew the difference between “Action!” and “Cut!”

The key to directing FRASIER was being prepared. I was organized, knew how I wanted to block the scenes. And since everyone in the FRASIER cast was so professional and knew their characters so well, shows came together very easily and efficiently. The fun was finding bits of business to add. And I had the luxury of being able to do that since my time wasn’t spent talking actors out of their trailers.

When things didn’t work, the writers fixed them. When things did work, they improved them.

I’ve said this before, but of all the comic actors I’ve ever worked with – and I’ve been blessed to have worked with some of the very best – the all-time greatest was David Hyde Pierce. I could start really gushing here so I’ll hold back. But suffice it to say, I’ve never worked with anyone who had such amazing instincts, and at the same time was as nice and collaborative as David. I put DHP up there in the Chaplin/Laurel & Hardy/Buster Keaton/Peter Sellers category.

rob! asks:

Sometimes sitcoms/movies have pay-offs to a joke that involve someone being revealed as unattractive/fat/ugly, etc. I can't think of an example at the moment but I know I've seen them lots of times.

My question is, how do producers gently cast those parts? Do they give their casting people specific instructions? OR does someone make a call and just say "Round up the ugly suspects?"

There are breakdown sheets that go out to agents and managers. Casting directors try to be diplomatic in describing the purpose of the role. Yes, it could be viewed as insensitive, but hey, there have been actors who have made a good living playing ugly. Just ask Lon Chaney… and Lon Chaney Jr.

And finally, from Lou H:

How did you handle recurring characters like Paul on CHEERS who had a part every 2 to 4 shows? Is it more "Hey, there are some lines this week that Paul would be the best fit for, let's see if he's available, otherwise give the lines to someone else" or did you first find out his schedule and then write him in as often as you could reasonably do so?

Paul is Paul Willson, who is a terrific comic actor, bravura improv artist, and a decent violinist. We tried to find things for Paul because he always scored. If we had lines for him one week and he wasn’t available we either gave the lines to someone else or saved the bit until he was back.

I always felt bad. Paul finally got an episode in which he was very prominent. It’s the kind of episode that helps launch a character from recurring to regular. Unfortunately, it was the last episode of CHEERS ever filmed. But he was great in it!


Jeremiah said...

Hello, Ken. I was wondering if you could provide any insight into what the Writers Guild's position may be regarding the situation involving the writing staff for the show "The Walking Dead" being fired and the Director going to either write the episodes himself and/or hire freelancers? Various articles I've read seem to be hammering the point that this would cause a problem with the Writers Guild, why is that?

Often various shows appear to have an individual writer (e.g. David E. Kelley) rather than a full staff. Is it a requirement that shows have an X-amount of writers on staff? Also, is it required that a certain amount of episodes be freelanced?

Thank you for your time.

Lairbo said...

This article in today's NY Times on depictions of drinking on TV

got me thinking about how it was -- and wasn't -- handled on Cheers.

I can recall few, if any, scenes of someone actually being drunk at the bar. Were there rules or guidelines about this? If so, were they from the network or the creators?

Kevin said...

Ken, You've talked about not liking it when the director of Volunteers broke the fourth wall. What do you think about the practice of putting an "inside" joke into a sitcom? For instance, How I Met Your Mother has done it at least twice: Barney recreating the end of Doogie Howser in one show and recently when Jorge Garcia shouted out the "Lost" numbers in an episode. Even Frasier did it once when Laurie Metcalf as Nanny G asked Fraiser how he'd feel playing the same role for 20 years. For the joke to work, the audience has to know the reference, which can be a big risk.

Mike said...

I just happened to see an episode from season 1 of 30 Rock where Twofer makes a reference to Black Frasier then they do a quick one beat flashback to an episode. And the guy playing Frasier impersonates Kelsey and just nails it.

I just can't stop laughing at that scene when I see it.

I guess that's the highest form of praise, when a writing staff like Tina's makes fun of you.

Breadbaker said...

One of the great regrets of my life is that when we saw Spamalot, it was the weekend of the Emmy and DHP was back in LA presenting something rather than on stage. His understudy, I'm afraid to say, wasn't quite Buster Keaton.

Mike said...

Ken, today is a very sad day in that I lost my boyhood hero, Ron Santo.

Wondering if you'd had occasion to meet Ron?

Katherine said...

Thanks for answering my question about directing Frasier. It's a show I watched growing up, and rediscovered it a few years back on DVD. While I loved it growing up, it is MUCH funnier now that I am older and wiser and can appreciate more of the humor.

To Mike: Just today I was trying to remember what show it was that had Black Frasier. Thanks for the reminder. I'll have to dig out my 30 Rock DVDs.

Gary said...

As Mike just asked...since you've been in baseball broadcasting for so many years, you've likely encountered the fabulous Mr. Santo a time or 12. After the personality question, I'll go to the HOF - why the hell has he been passed over so many times? There certainly aren't many 3rd basemen with his numbers who aren't in the HOF. In fact, I know of none.
Thanks. Aloha.

Anonymous said...

Susan Sullivan just took me aside and said, “So just who the hell are you, and what have you done?”

and...she felt entitled to ask that of you, because of a role in the award-winning high-caliber series "Dharma and Greg"? That IS funny.

Michael said...

I should note that my wife and I saw Spamalot with friends in New York and noted also that DHP played a second role, and in that one he channeled Stan Laurel--I mean, he didn't just imitate him. He was brilliant. Not to mention having what I considered the show-stopping song. He also did a great job hosting the birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

sjml said...

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?

Scott said...

This is for Friday long should it take to write a spec script? What if you work full time while doing it?