Friday, December 10, 2010

My all-time favorite sitcom scene

Aloha. Here are some Friday questions from paradise. If the answers seem weird, it’s the pina colada talking.

Mark wonders:

Ken, do you (or anyone else) have a single favorite sit-com scene (from one of your shows or not)? I'm not referring to an entire episode, but rather a single scene (of, say, around three minutes or so) than can stand on its own.

It would have to be the "Chef of the Future" scene from THE HONEYMOONERS. Ralph (Jackie Gleason) and Ed (Art Carney) try to peddle a new kitchen device on live television.  This kills me every time.  Check it out.

As for shows my partner and I have written, even though it’s longer than three minutes, the last act of Room Service from FRASIER, directed by David Lee. 

Jon88 wonders:

Is there anyone on the production team responsible for grammar and pronunciation? Is this job description a thing of the past, a victim of current economics? Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear a "you and I" that should be "you and me." On last week's "Terriers," a character referred to a criminal's fiefdom, but made the first syllable rhyme with "life" instead of "thief." Are there no standards anymore?

Jon, not only is there not such a person on staff, when writers try to assume the role of grammar police, they usually wind up dead in a ditch with stab wounds from all the other writers on staff.

Especially when room writing, the goal is to get the scene down, get the attitudes right, find the best jokes. Number one, if a staff member keeps holding things up because of punctuation, it slows down the process. You try to get on a roll and you don’t want it interrupted by someone insisting a semi-colon is needed. Secondly, you’re writing conversationally. Real people don’t speak in proper English and don’t always know correct pronunciations. Maybe the character in TERRIERS who screwed up fiefdom did so on purpose.  

If this bothers you, then you're going to have a problem with every show on network television. For God sakes, stay away from RAISING HOPE.

From Corinne:

Over the course of your career, research would have changed quite a bit. From library and phone calls to internet.

What are the advantages/ disadvantages over time in how access to information has changed things? Does make it harder for plot surprises? Poetic license?

Having the world at your fingertips is a HUGE advantage. And it saves money.

Years ago, each studio had a “research” department. If you needed to know something about the Spanish-American War or who hit the most home runs in 1935, you called the research department. Several hours later, in interoffice mail, you’d receive a smeared Xeroxed article or two that hopefully answers your question.

And your show would be billed $800. 

So for that reason alone, God bless Google.

But the best research is still one-to-one interviews. Nothing compares with first-hand experiences. The interviews that were done with nurses, doctors, and soldiers who served in Korea accounted for most of the stories on MASH. 

Steven asks:

My question is have you ever noticed when a staff writer on a show uses the same plot device repeatedly in the scripts he wrote and the show's quality suffered as a result? In this situation is it more the responsibility if the writer who wrote the initial draft to challenge himself and write something unlike what he's used to, or do the other producers just have to have more of an input on the final draft to ensure it doesn't seem too formulaic to longtime viewers of the show?

Staff writers are usually assigned episodes to write. A staffer may come in with a story idea that gets developed and he is given the assignment to write it, but generally, the entire staff plots out stories together. The showrunner has his thumb-prints on every story, whether he writes the first draft or not.

Sometimes writers excel in writing certain characters or types of stories so they get assigned more of them. Whenever they did a farce on FRASIER they always went to Joe Keenan. He’s a master at that genre.

That might be what you’re sensing. But on sitcoms, don’t pin too much blame, or heap too much praise on the credited writer.

And finally, bevo has a MASH question.

I recently lost some weight rather quickly (it was planned). My clothes are baggy and very loose as a result.

I started thinking about the MASH episode where Charles is convinced that he is gaining weight because his clothes are tight. Who thought of the story? Was it result of the research efforts that have been discussed previously? How did the last line, which is brilliant, come about?

Since B.J. was a practical jokester, we were always on the lookout for pranks.

I had heard of a story about a guy who pulled a practical joke on his neighbor. The neighbor got a new car. For about a week, the prankster would sneak over and refill the gas tank. The neighbor was ecstatic. He couldn’t believe the incredible gas mileage he was getting. Then the prankster switched it around. He began siphoning gasoline out of the tank. Now the neighbor was refilling every two days and mystified why he got 100 miles to the gallon one week and 4 the next.

We adjusted that story to fit our needs.

As for the brilliant last line, I don’t really remember it. It might be the reference to “Bean Pole Levine”, which was a nod to me (except I pronounce it Le-Vine).

What’s your question?


Unknown said...

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?

carol said...

"you and I" that should be "you and me."

Ken, while I do agree that conversation should be conversational, and it doesn't pay to get too hung up on certain things, that 'I vs. me' thing is a total pet peeve of mine. Whenever I hear it on a show I tend to think, 'gosh, I can't believe the writer got that wrong, he/she is usually so smart.'

DonBoy said...

That gas-tank thing is a subplot in the 1972 movie "Pete and Tillie", with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett. -- I just looked it up, and good lord, script by Julius J. Epstein.

Michael said...

A thought on conversation: Red Barber, who trained that guy Scully with the Dodgers, said the most important college class he took was one on rhetoric. He said from that he learned the difference between being grammatically correct and rhetorically correct. I am a college professor and try to preach to my students that the way we speak and the way we write are not the same, but when their writing is bad, they should try reading their prose aloud to see if it SOUNDS right.

rockgolf said...

Did Michael just raise a rhetorical question?
I don't mind comparatively minor grammar errors in dialogue. I think it would be unrealistic for sitcom characters to all speak the Queen's English.
Yes, the writer might know better but Tony Banta (as an example) would not.

Jim said...

re the petrol story, a similar prank was rumoured to have been carried out by one of the members of the Crazy Gang, a group of six comics who were very popular in Britain from the thirties to the sixties (there are a few clips on You Tube if you want to see them, but most of their best work was done on the stage). He paid his tailor (and that phrase really shos how old the story is) to come in to the theatre every couple of days while his victim was on stage and take up his trousers a quarter of an inch or so.

And when will the self-appointed grammar police realise that the sort of grammar that they learnt at school only applies to the written word. Spoken English has a completely different grammar to it which no-one tries to teach because most of us just learn it naturally.

Rob G said...

I haven't seen that MASH episode since probably 1985 but I remember the last line easily: After a week of having Charles think he lost weight due to them providing larger-fitting pants, BJ deadpans to Hawkeye words to the effect, "Next week, we'll have him grow taller."

Perhaps the best last line ever for a 30-minute sitcom. Can anyone think of others?

RCP said...

Loved these clips - and got a special kick out of "My God." "My Goddess." Great way to begin Friday.

I was lucky enough to see Jackie and Art sometime in the 80s when I was living on the Lower East Side, and they were filming a street scene. Talk about being tongue-tied - so it was a good thing we passersby were kept at a distance.

John said...

Nobody has ever done blind panic funnier than Gleason did in that scene. Runner-up to me was Ted Knight in the "Election Night Coverage" episode from Season 1 of the Mary Tyler Moore show, when he's forced to vamp for 12 hours because WJM's outside lines to get the election returns have been downed by a snowstorm and freaks out about four hours in (ah, for the days before iPads and cellphones...)

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?

Ben said...

On one of the MASH anniversary specials (30th?), someone credited the last line of that scene to Ronny Graham.

Alex S. said...

I posted this as an off topic response to another post so I don't know if it was seen and not answered (which is fine of course) or just not seen.

So to be safe I'll ask it again here.

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. And tertiarily, has the answer to the second question changed much over the years.

I know, blind characters usually aren't. Artie can walk. And John Wayne was Genghis Khan.

thevidiot said...

"Less" when "Fewer" should have been used drives me crazy! Local news would usually say: "Less people are using the mail". I see horrible grammar in sitcoms too... "Me and her were just doing what we though was right". I talked with a professor who was told not to judge doctoral theses on grammar... ignore it! Not a good thing!

Chalmers said...


I’m a Bronx-born, lifelong Yankee fan. As such, I should maintain a healthy loathing for ex-Red Sox star Pedro Martinez. In addition to being a dominant player for the Yanks’ arch-rival, he’s mocked the Yankees and their fans, thrown at their players, and even gotten into a few fights with them. But I like Pedro.

Why? Because once in an interview, Pedro, a non-native English speaker, corrected the American reporter on the less/fewer distinction. It means that much to me, too.

paul said...

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? Is that something the writing staff keeps in mind when constructing the layout of each episode? How closely do sitcom writers follow the guidelines for writing for film?

Anonymous said...

That is probably one of my very favorite 'Frasier' episodes of all time. We live in Arkansas and every time something goes wrong, my mother and I always fall back on our favorite line.

"These things happen. They happen everyday. Everyday in ARKANSAS!"


Cap'n Bob said...

Though not a big fan of the series, I'll never forget the final scene in Happy Days when Richie had missed a free throw in The Big Game. Leaving the gym, his father says a few consoling words and adds, "Want a Life-Saver?"

Grammar? TV commercials are some of the worst offenders, like the beer with less calories? In real life I find almost no one who knows when to use the pronouns ending in "self" properly.

ttv said...

I like that comedy show too.. :-)

Corinne Coles-Mohns said...

Grammar pet peeves:

I seen it at the mall.

Or using "down", "up" incorrectly when referring to geography. Such as being in Canada and "I went up to the States for a visit."

My ears bleed.

D T Nelson said...

@ thevidiot and Chalmers: I got my local grocery store chain (QFC, for you Seattle-area types) to change its express lane signs from "8 items or less," e.g., to "8 items or fewer." I told them they were setting a bad example for the kids and that sealed the deal.

Mike Schryver said...

I was delighted to see Ken mention "Chef of the Future" - it's of the funniest things I've ever seen, especially the way Carney leads up to the line "There. I am done."

Grammar errors don't bother me much, but there was one Frasier episode where Martin said something like "Then it'll be you and I", and Frasier corrected him. "You and me, Dad." Martin was right, though, and it seemed very odd that the Frasier character would get something like that wrong.

Anonymous said...

great Frasier ep. "Food? In the bathroom?" (x2)

Anonymous said...

>My question is have you ever noticed when a staff writer on a show uses the same plot device repeatedly

David Kelley is the master of this. If he does another lawyer show, within a few episodes, expect a scene of the judge calling both sides in, 'the jury is asking me if they can assign manslaughter, which tells me they don't want to let him go, but they also don't want to convict. So the question is who will blink first.'
Also, a lawyer for a rapist is having a friendly chat at some retail establishment, when the person he is chatting with turns out to be the rape victim, and he feels bad.

Jon88 said...

I *do* watch "Raising Hope." It's very funny, and the characters talk, um, in character. But it's different on "higher-brow" shows. When those characters speak solecistically, it's almost never a character choice made by a writer who's trying to make a point. It's just a mistake.

Fraser said...

@Mike: Frasier was correct -- try the sentence after removing "you and".

But this whole peeve is nuts. Language evolves and changes. I want to shoot myself whenever I read "could of" instead of "could have", but maybe that will be correct in 20 years.

What would Shakespeare think if he heard you saying "twenty-five" instead of "five and twenty"? Or using that horrible contraction in "I don't like it" instead of "I like it not."

Kirk said...

For me, the funniest Mary Tyler Moore is not the famous episode where Chuckles the Clown dies, but an earlier show where WJM attempts a happy-talk newscast. Ted Baxter is paired with Gordy the Weatherman. When Ted finds out he's meant to play straight-man for the more easy-going Gordy, he attempts to turn the tables by telling jokes on his own, all of which fall flat. He further keeps interrupting Mary's editorial about overpopulation with some even more stupid jokes ("I better invest in the diaper business"). Frustrated, Mary tells him to shut up on the air. The show had a funny ending tag, too. When Ted finds out Mary's going to get a raise, he complains to Lou, "You're going to give a $20raise after she told me to shut up on the air?!" Lou's reply: "It was all I could afford Ted."

All the above leads me to a Friday question. Is there any particular sitcom episode that you feel is underrated, not as well-known as more famous ones (like Chuckle's dying).

For that matter, are there are any ENTIRE series that you feel are underrated?

(If you only want to answer one of those questions, it's fine with me.)

Mike Schryver said...

No, Martin is correct. Correct usage is that whenever using forms of "to be", you use "I" and not "me", such as "It is I" (not that most people talk that way). It's irrelevant that the word "you" is also in there. If it were any other verb, Frasier would probably be correct.

Fraser said...

Citation needed. Every time a prescriptivist insists on a usage that is not, in fact, ever used, God kills a kitten.

What do you have against kittens?

Anonymous said...

Funniest scene ever? Any one that has Niles with a giant white bird clamped to his head. A little bit of wee came out with that one.

Dave said...

...and this time with a tag. D'oh!

Funniest scene ever? Any one that has Niles with a giant white bird clamped to his head. A little bit of wee came out with that one.

Mike Schryver said...


You're missing my point.
The reason the scene stood out was because Frasier was trying to be a prescriptivist, and was wrong.
I'm not insisting that people begin saying "It is I". The point was that the writer (not Ken, I hope) had Frasier correct Martin, when Martin was right. If Martin had said "It's you and me", and no one had corrected anyone, it wouldn't have been noticeable.
My gripe is that it wasn't in character for Frasier to correct someone about grammar and be wrong.
Now I'm sorry I brought it up.

jbryant said...

Fraser: When you answer the phone and someone asks for you, do you say "This is he" or "This is him"? Same rule Mike is talking about.

Michael in Vancouver said...

Room Service was far better than The Honeymooners' clip. I found the live TV sketch fairly contrived and predictable. Room Service was a fine piece of writing, wholly original with sharp touches, and genuinely funny.

Fraser said...

@Mike: ah, I see your point now. Fair enough. I still don't agree that the subject pronoun is used when it's the object of 'be', but as I noted above, I don't care that much either :)

@jbryant: That's an artificial construction in any case, using the 3rd person personal pronoun instead of 1st.

Consider: "Is that Bob?" "That's he."

Actually, I'm more concerned about the fact that a show called Frasier made everybody spell and say my name incorrectly. Damn you, highly successful and witty sit-coms!

Mr. Snrub said...

Love the Gleason scene. It's up there for me, too.

But, I have traditionally given the nod to Barney Fife "reciting" the Preamble to the Constitution.

Perfect interplay with Griffith and Knotts. They don't make them like that anymore.

Mr. Snrub said...

Just for fun.

Dene said...

Hello Ken

I was wondering if you could name a few of your favourite British sitcoms? And why you like 'em.

[And have you ever seen "Rising Damp", written by Eric Chappell -- Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby is possibly the greatest sitcom star performance ever!]


Carson said...

I've always been a stickler for proper grammar and punctuation (I was brought up by a British mother who was brought up by a governess, so "proper" was the rule of the day), except when writing dialogue.

If the character isn't well educated, or is someone who didn't put a lot of stock in school, chances are he or she will screw up the "I vs. me" thing occasionally, or say "sister-in-laws," rather than "sisters-in-law," or, "Me, Dave and Ken," rather than, "Dave, Ken and I " (or "me" if the sentence calls for it - but you get the gist). To have, say, Brit on "Terriers" speak in proper American English all the time would not fit his character. He didn't finish high school, and he's rough around the edges. Now, if Frasier or Niles on "Fraiser" were grammatically incorrect (unless to prove a point) well, that would be wrong, too.

I've always believed serving the character comes before grammar lessons. I have yet to find an exception.

David K. M. Klaus said...

"Frustrated, Mary tells him to shut up on the air. The show had a funny ending tag, too. When Ted finds out Mary's going to get a raise, he complains to Lou, 'You're going to give a $20raise after she told me to shut up on the air?!' Lou's reply: 'It was all I could afford Ted.'"

Oh, I never saw that episode...! Just knowing the characters, Lou's line had me splitting my sides laughing right here at the computer!

I miss that show. I miss Ted Knight, who I understand actually loved playing Ted Baxter.