Friday, January 14, 2011

Free teleseminar on TV writing

A special bonus for Friday Question Day!! Next Thursday, January 20th at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern, I will be conducting a FREE teleseminar, answering your writing questions. It will last between 60 and 90 minutes. And you can get an mp3 of it to play on your boombox. You just go here for more information and to sign-up. Again, it’s free. No obligation. No salesman will call.
If I can't think of an appropriate photo I always just use one of Natalie Wood.
Okay, on to today’s Q’s:

We start with John, who has a follow-up to last week’s discussion of warm up men:

In the role of the "keep 'em warm" guy, was there ever a time when you did that for one of the scripts you an David had written where earlier, but the audience reaction to certain jokes hadn't been what you expected. Did that make you feel like you had to try harder to get the audience in a more receptive mood for the rest of the show, or were you thinking, "These miserable SOBs have no sense of humor, and probably ought to be shipped over to sit in the 'Happy Days' studio audience, where maybe they'll think Ted McGinley is a laugh riot." Or did someone else have to do the rewarming part, because you were in one of those set conferences with the producers on why you didn't get the reaction everyone was expecting?

Well, I wasn’t doing the warm-up this one night on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for a episode that David Isaacs and I wrote that played great all week long. But on show night it died. We were stymied. Turns out, half the audience was bussed in and couldn’t speak a word of English.

We didn’t know that at the time, and neither did Jay Tarses, the producer who was also doing the warm-up. He flat out turned on them. He’d say stuff like, “Hey, your Hearse is outside waiting” and “Raise your hand if you’re awake.” The half that did speak English was pissed. 

Rarely will the showrunner do the warm-up. He has too many other things to monitor and worry about. So any show that I ran, I left that chore to someone else. I was always available for those emergencies huddles to fix a scene or a joke.

The thing you have to remember about audiences: the ultimate quality of a show does not depend on the audience. I’ve seen shows go right through roof on the stage and you look at them in editing and say "what the hell were they all laughing at?  This is awful!"  Likewise, a show that played to a flat audience may come way up on the screen.

Here’s another follow-up to last week’s post by Troy:

So how much does a warm-up guy make per taping?

Top guys in multi-camera can make as much as $4,000 a night. Disney and Nickelodeon pay around $1,500 or less.

I don’t know about talk shows, but I would guess the warm-up guys for Leno, Letterman, and Conan get top pay.

carol asks:

I tried writing a script once, just for fun, and one of the hardest things for me was to introduce the characters and history in the 'pilot' without resorting to the whole 'as you know, Bob' thing.

What kind of 'show don't tell' exposition tricks do you have up your sleeve?

First off, don’t lay out all the exposition at one time. Dole it out slowly. And in comedies, try to weave the exposition into jokes. That’s for backstory.

As for conveying just who a character is, let his behavior, attitude, and decisions do that for you. How he reacts in specific moments when you know he has options informs us as to who he is.

Exposition is the hardest part of a pilot. That’s why I suggest your pilot stories be as simple as possible. The audience has a lot to process. Usually, their first priority is to get a handle on the characters. Then they have to piece together the relationships and decide whether or not they like these fictional fun devils. If the audience is still trying to figure out just who is who then they’re not going to laugh at the jokes.

For that reason, don’t cast two actors that look very similar. And although it’s a popular trend, don’t give girl characters boys’ names. Until we know these people well, when two characters are talking about Alex, and Sam, and Mel, we’re going to think those are three guys.

There’s also a lazy way of getting out exposition and that’s by using a narrator. Or, if you really don’t give a shit, just do the pop-up video thing and use those little cartoon bubbles. Blip!  He has a crush on Sally.  Blip!  She's the stupid sister. 

And finally, from Lou H.:

If the sitcoms you've written had been on networks that didn't run commercial breaks, would this have affected the way you broke the stories into acts?

Probably not to a great degree. You still start with a problem, build to a crisis, and head to a conclusion. Without commercial interruptions though, we’d have more flexibility on when that crisis point would come. On network shows it needs to come right around the middle. On non-commercial shows it could come anywhere. And if the story is better told with two smaller crisis points (a three act format), you’d have that luxury too. Networks generally give you very strict formats to follow. And they can be stifling, but then I see a show like THE GOOD WIFE and it follows all of the network conventions, and has solid act breaks that fall right where they need to be, and still they’re turning out the best written show on television.

What’s your question? Who knows? It might be one I answer next Thursday night in my teleseminar.


Troy said...

Thanks for answering my question about how much warm-up guys can make (I've always been curious).

Wow, $1500-$4000 per taping. In your original post, you also said, "A top notch warm-up guy can work six or seven shows a week, between sitcoms, talk shows, and game shows."

According to my math, that makes some of these warm-up folks potential million dollar annual babies!

Who's laughing now??


Andy said...

A quick question about your seminar if that’s ok...

I’m in the UK so it will take place in the middle of the night for me meaning I can’t take part in the live phone conversation (not sure if the phone cost would allow me to anyway). I’m also unemployed so I’m very reluctant to spend the $15 upfront on the MP3 recording especially as I have to do it ‘blind’ (without knowing if it would be of use to me or hearing a sample or from having read reviews from others, for example).

So, can you tell me if there’ll be a free alternative such as a written transcript available afterward?

Many thanks.

By Ken Levine said...

Sorry Andy, but there won't be a written transcript.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

So, with a $1500-$4000 per taping, times 22 episodes a year... that's not a bad amount of cash for the warm-up guys.

I'm guessing Modern Family has something to do with that trend of giving boys names to girl characters. Alex Dunphy, for starters.

Ian said...

I have to agree with Andy that $15 is steep for an MP3 transcript, especially for an event that's free to those whose schedules allow them to listen in. I'm sure the information is priceless, though.

thomas tucker said...

Questions- what are the biggest differences in TV comedy writing comparing shows in the 50's-60's, 70's-80's, and 90's- on? Why the differences, and can techniques from earlier decades that have been discarded be "reworked" for contemporary audiences?

By Ken Levine said...

Some of you guys kill me. I do a FREE seminar, pay for the conference set up, pay for it to recorded,and people are bitching about the price of the mp3. Like I stand to make a huge profit on this.

It's a FREE teleseminar. If you don't want to buy the mp3, don't. Listen live. For FREE.

William said...

Speaking as a member of the younger generation, I have to ask: what the fuck is a teleseminar? Can't you just do a podcast or webchat or something for cheaper and easier?

Erika said...

Friday question: Have you ever written an episode for a show and then really disagreed with how a director executed it? As a writer, how do you handle these differences on set? Since you've been on both sides as a writer and a director, I'm curious what you do in those situations.

YEKIMI said...

Sorry Andy, but there won't be a written transcript.

Maybe you could have someone do sign language also......

By Ken Levine said...


Let me offer another suggestion. I do nothing.

Joseph said...

Having attended the last teleseminar I can say that it was very informative and well worth the time. Considering most lectures on screenwriting cost more than $15 and they probably won’t let you tape it, $15 doesn’t seem too expensive.

I love hearing people complain about free stuff. Even people bitching about the price people sell stuff at strikes me as odd considering that besides the basic things you need to survive no one is required to buy anything.

Dimension Skipper said...

Sooooo... getting back to actual friday questions about TV writing, directing, whatever...

"For that reason, don’t cast two actors that look very similar."

That prompts a sort of related question (set of questions really as it turns out) in my mind...

What about scenes where an actor plays him/herself as a twin? (I'm thinking of Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe and Ursula Buffay though of course there have been many other instances.) Have you ever done such a scenario either as a writer or director and what are some special issues/considerations involved? How hard is it to film and what does the studio audience see?

(Or is there no audience at the time and maybe they just see the filmed and edited version to get their reactions to the scene as a whole?)

You may want to enbriefen that "question" should you decide to use it, but I think you get my gist. Thanks.

Dimension Skipper said...

P.S. I'm not a writer or even a potential writer, but I've always been kind of curious about the logistics of doing such scenes for everyone involved.

Thinking about it just a little more I would also imagine maybe a stand-in is used for one character, then the two switch and the scene is refilmed from the other perspective, but I still would think there'd be a lot of tricky stuff and pitfalls involved.

Mac said...

Well I'm looking forward to the teleseminar. If I can't make the live show I can find $15, and I'm less solvent than Lehman Brothers.
I always really appreciate the free/cheap tutorials, Ken - as I'm sure many others do.

Andy said...

If people are referring to me when they mention people ‘bitching’ about the cost, then I’m sorry I gave that impression. I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say in the seminar especially as you seem to have chosen my question as one of the ones you’ll cover. There was no subtext (see, I’ve been reading the blog) in my question – it was as on the nose as I could make it. In my current financial situation $15 isn’t an insubstantial amount of money for me to spend ‘blind’ especially if I later discovered there was a free alternative, hence my (what I thought to be very reasonable) question.

I don’t know what’s involved in setting up and running a ‘teleseminar’ but I do have to say I agree with William that a podcast would probably be easier and cheaper for you (zero (or close to it) cost to you Ken) – something to consider next time perhaps?

Anyway, I meant no bad feeling and hope this doesn’t put you off doing the seminar or more in the future.

Max Clarke said...

Ken, thanks for doing the FREE teleseminar. The first one that I caught was outstanding.

You do this great blog for free, you offer us goodies such as the Natalie Wood photo, and the teleseminar. I don't know anybody with your credentials who shares his wisdom so readily.

Anonymous said...

Just for the sake of balance, I'd like to say that this blog and Ken's seminars have a great deal of value. They are funny, informative, intelligent, and entertaining. Have you found value in the blog? Then you will definitely find value in the seminar. There's your review.

Formerly Your Biggest Fan said...

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, Ken, but I agree with some of the other comments: Charging $15 for an mp3 recording is OUTRAGEOUS!

How the hell dare you rip us off like that?

If you weren't such a jerk, you'd have the thing videotaped and mail each of us a DVD. Really, it's the least you could do.

And I totally agree with William: A teleseminar is so much more difficult to participate in than a webchat. You think we all have telephones or something?

You shmuck.

Anonymous said...

Dammit Ken, I only have $25 to spend on getting my writing career off the ground and this mp3 is going to take up 72% of my budget. This was my fall-back after losing my job as a math teacher!

Jim s said...


You've mentioned in the past that it's a huge mistake to sacrifice a character for the sake of a joke. Could you give us an example of that?

te said...

Speaking of exposition (as a questioner did): you can't go wrong with something like:

MAN DRESSED IN WHITE LAB COAT AND WEARING A STETHOSCOPE AROUND HIS NECK: Bob, as you doctor, I must tell you that you have a serious case of the hives.


MAN DRESSED IN SUIT: Bob as your accountant, I can't advise you to buy more than you can afford.

It must be good: you see it done so frequently!

Note to those who I haven't reached with my point: Bob would know it was his doctor or accountant without any explanation, right?

Sunshine Vitamin said...

I live in LA and have occasional opportunities to attend screenings with scriptwriters who discuss their works afterwards. It is a rare and lovely thing to hear the thoughts and the craft that come into such a constrained, collaborative piece of artful entertainment.

Not only that but Ken, as a radio guy, has a delightful voice. I bought the previous "teleseminar" and play it now and then just to hear that cheerful, ironic, enthusiastic encouragement. Dan O'Day is a fun counterpoint too.

Ken, thanks.

Ian said...

Sheesh, Ken. Sorry if you thought I was "bitching" about the cost of the recording. It's extraordinarily generous of you to offer a teleseminar at no cost to the partipants. My hat's off to you for that. On the other hand, I'm sure there are many people who cannot listen in live, not only because of scheduling conflicts but because they have yet to discover your blog - or even develop an interest in writing. Thus the potential audience for the recording is huge. I don't know what percentage of that potential audience will be put off by the $15 price, but I would imagine it's substantial. What is striking to me is the differential between the free access for those who will listen live and the $15 for everyone else. If your objective was to make a profit on the sale of the MP3s, I think you'd do better overall at a lower price point. I can sell ten times as many chicken dinners at $5 than I can at $15. Of course, this is entirely your baby, so it's your call to make. Best of luck with the seminar, and thanks for a great blog.

Stan said...

@Jim s:

I can give you an example of sacrificing a character for a joke.


The most famous scene. The biggest laugh. Meg Ryan and The Deli Orgasm.

IMO, this was so out of character that I lost interest in the rest of the movie.

On the other hand, it's the most famous beat in the entire movie.

So, was it worth it?

For the studio accountants, yes.

For me an audience member, no.

Guess which wins every time?

Cap'n Bob said...

There was occasional mention of the Crane Brothers (or Crane Boys) adventures--stories Frasier and Niles wrote as kids. Was there ever any attempt to have someone write and market such a series?

Jeremy Dylan said...

Being in Australia, I plumped for the MP3 version, as I will probably be asleep when this actually happens.