Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday questions

It’s Friday question day. Thanks to everyone who participated in the teleseminar last night. It was fun and you guys had some great questions. If you have any blog questions just leave them in the comments section. Don’t ask why I’m charging for the mp3 of the seminar. It’s because I want to exploit you all and get filthy RICH!!!

Sarah starts us off:

I am almost through re-watching Wings, a show I loved growing up and was surprised at how much I still enjoyed it today. The whole cast is great, but one who really stands out to me is Crystal Bernard as Helen. She holds up against the heavy hitters (Tony Shalhoub, Thomas Haden Church, Steven Weber), and I was really surprised at just how funny that little woman is.

So my question is, who are some actors who have surprised you? (either people you've worked with or not?) People who you watched and thought "Man I had no idea that person would be so funny/talented/able to leap tall buildings/etc?

Nancy Travis for one. I always liked her work, thought she was very solid when I saw her in movies. She was suggested for the lead in ALMOST PERFECT but she was at a career stage where we couldn’t have her read. If we wanted her we had to make a firm offer.

We met her, she seemed absolutely delightful, so we took a flier and offered her the role. A few weeks later we had assembled a few candidates for her love interest so we asked if she’d come in and read with the guys so we could see if there was any chemistry. She was happy to since she herself was not auditioning.

And we were blown away. She was fantastic. Funny, real, adorable. She was so good that the actors she played against (some fairly big names) couldn’t hold a candle to her. We knew we had lightening in a bottle.

Lisa Edelstein is another. We hired her on ALMOST PERFECT for a small part primarily because she had the right look. She hit her lines right out of the park. We brought her back, kept giving her more to do, and eventually she became a semi-regular. By the way, as good as she is on HOUSE, I still think she’s being wasted not being in a comedy. She is an exceptional comedienne.

In similar fashion, on CHEERS, Lilith was just supposed to be a one-time character in a teaser. But Bebe Neuwirth scored so big that we had to bring her back.

And two examples of non-actors who proved to be terrifically funny. Both on CHEERS. Alex Trebek and former Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. We wrote an additional scene for Alex and an additional show for Kevin.

Next is Erika:

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.

If you’re the showrunner you have him change it to your satisfaction. There have been times when I’ve had to re-block whole scenes. In TV the showrunner is king.  It's a beautiful thing.

If you’re just a writer on staff, the best you can do is express your concerns to the showrunner and hope he passes along your notes.

If you’re a freelance writer you can speak up to the showrunner if he seems receptive. Otherwise, you just have to live with it (or die with it).

Sometimes when I’m directing, if there’s something I don’t really understand I will seek out the writer and ask him what he had in mind. On filming nights, after each scene I will always ask the showrunner if he's happy and ready to move on.  And I'll ask the writer if he too was happy. 

I’m not going to say any names but there have been times when I thought the director killed our script. Billy Wilder, who was both a writer and director was once asked whether a director should be able to write. And he said, “No. He should be able to READ.”

Bob Summers must’ve been hungry when he came up with this question:

What is the food service like on the shows? I know they have craft tables, but what do they put out on them? What were some of the must haves and must avoids on the menu?

Depends on the show and the budget. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND’s craft services table was like a Ritz-Carlton buffet. Other shows have peanut butter, Wonder Bread, and a few bagels.

The good ones keep restocking. Breakfast bagel/donut/fruit/cereal fare in the morning, hot lunch entrees then snacks, vegetables, and mostly crap. But it’s the crap that always goes first.

Sometimes the actors will request something specific and as long as it's not ridiculous (endangered species or Spam) the craft-services guy will try to accommodate.  Casts live in mortal fear that their star decides to change his diet and "go healthy".  Suddenly, all the good stuff is gone, replaced by rice cakes and celery.  

I worked on a show where the craft-services guy was just out of rehab. He was terrible and the craft-services table generally consisted of a box of Grape Nuts and four bagels. We suspected he was using some of the budget for drugs, but he was just out of rehab and we thought if we fire him, he might go into a real tailspin. We didn’t want to be responsible for that so we suffered through it.

The guy at JUST SHOOT ME was incredible. Custom omelets every morning. Four-star lunches. How everyone on that cast didn’t wind up 300 pounds by the end of the run I’ll never know.


Lamarr Hoyt Wilhelm said...

Lisa Edelstein is funny. And HOT. Let's hope she never succumbs to plastic surgery. I will grow old with her.

Sonia said...

I am new to participating in the "Friday questions" game so if I am leaving my question in the wrong place, just feel free to send me to delete-ville. How do you handle those days when you sit down to create but try after try and nothing works? Oh, and how many frustrating times does it take to say "I give"? :-)
Luv your work!

chuckcd said...

Ken, thanks again for the teleseminar last night. It is a real treat to pick the brain of a pro.
How so "Un-Hollywood" of you to give of your time and expertise, and to be so generous with both.

-bee said...

Kind of OT, but I thought you and your readers would enjoy this - it is all kinds of awesome.

A sample of Harpo Marx's personal stationary from what I presume is earlier in his career:

chris said...

Just discovered this site - awesome - so was last night's teleseminar. My Q: If you don't live in L.A. or have connections there, what are some of the best ways to get your Sitcom Spec Pilot read by those in the industry? Contests, query letters to production companies/agents/mgrs - advice greatly appreciated.

Craig said...

Hey Ken, I enjoyed the teleseminar last night (as well as a free download of a previous teleseminar which I just listened to). Still looking for an answer on how to get an agent to read my scripts.
I'm an award winning advertising writer who after 20 years is trying to make the move to writing for children's TV. I've written some spec scripts for 'Fan Boy and Chum Chum' and recently completed an original animation pilot aimed at teens.
Regardless of what I write, I'm finding it impossible to get an agent to read anything since I don't have a show credit or a referral. Any suggestions how to get off square one?

Edward Copeland said...

You are so right about Lisa Edelstein's comic gifts. I'm always surprised when I catch her in older things where she was funny such as an episode of Seinfeld or as Ben Stiller's blind date in the underrated movie gem Keeping the Faith.

Chet said...

Hey what's wrong with SPAM? Good stuff. - Chet

Ref said...

Glad you mentioned Lisa. I don't think I've ever seen her that she didn't hit the role out of the park. As I've written of Nancy Travis, what's not to like about smart, incredibly sexy, and funny?

Chris F said...

Here's a blog question:

One of my favorite episodes of CHEERS is the one where Frasier tries to enrich the Cheers regulars by reading them great literature -- but when they start to lose interest, he sexes up the plots by throwing in elements of Stephen King and the Rambo movies. I'm sure it must have been just a B-story, but I wonder if you have any memories of or comments about the episode. As an avid bookworm, it was fun to see a plot with a literary twist.

YEKIMI said...

Well as usually happens, I sign up for something and waited for the email with the number only to get home and find out my DSL modem decided to take a crap. So I missed the teleseminar. Thanks, AT&T! [which must stand for Always Terrible Telephone]

Michael said...

Friday question:

If MASH had never existed and AfterMASH was pitched as an original series, do you think it would have gotten on the air? If so, do you think it would have been more successful, not having the burden of being compared to MASH?

Tony said...

Here's another Friday question:

I recently started watching (and enjoying) old episodes of "Green Acres." I notice that almost all the episodes show to be written by Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. Do you think that these two guys actually wrote all those episodes, or did they take a final polish to scripts that were written by a staff of writers?


Jordan said...

Friday Question - well, a couple actually. Just pick what ones you can:

When you approach a production company for a writing job, how many samples should you have prepared? How many original scripts should be in your samples compared to specs? Is it considered rude to send a quick two-liner to the company asking if they accept writing samples and what kind they are looking for?

Many thanks.

James said...

A question: I've been working my way through the Archive of American Television interviews. Watching actors, writers, directors, anyone whose name I recognize on credits. It's great.

Two names keep coming up very often among so many interviews as people who gathered talent and made possible a lot of excellent (or just plain good) shows. Sheldon Leonard in the 1960s and Grant Tinker in the 1970s.

Partly its the age of the interviewees, but I haven't heard any equivalents afterward. Are there any Leonards or Tinkers out there today, or were so unique we'll probably never see another?

Bill Haren said...

So I've got my specs written and polished, and I'm scrambling for connections, but it looks like I'll have to blindly submit/query agents and producers... When is the optimal season to start the submission process? Is there a time when it's too early in the season to bother the powers that be?