Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday questions about pilots, CHEERS, and where to live in LA

Hello from Arizona, where it turns out it’s Friday here, too. So here are some Friday questions.

Crouch_P gets us started. 

When writing a pilot, do you include a character and set list, and if so, are these generally considered to be part of the page count?

Depending on the project, yes to character descriptions, no to set lists. If you do character descriptions, make them very brief – two or three sentences. And what I like to do is also include a prototype, even if you know you’re not going to get him. E.g. “Picture James Franco”, “Picture Will Ferrell”.

Plus, I would still remind the reader in a sentence or two who the character is the first time you introduce him in the body of the show. Do it in the stage directions. Again, emply the “Picture Natalie Portman” trick. It just helps the reader instantly get what you’re going for.

It's crucial in pilots not to confuse the reader. That sounds like a no-brainer but you'd be surprised.  I know I’ve said this before, but don’t give women characters traditional male names. Alex and Sam are two that spring to mind. Or names that are just initials. J.D. That could be anyone.  Don't befuddle the reader.  You're writing a pilot not a Russian novel. 

I try to choose names that were popular when the characters were born. A mom character might be Deborah. But there aren’t too many 12 year-olds named Deborah these days. Likewise, there aren’t a lot of 50 year-old women named Britney. And I’d avoid Adolph just on general principles.

Speaking of names -- Johnny Walker has a CHEERS question.

I think back to the Woody and Rebecca years, and mingled in with the laughs I'm kind of shocked by what I remember of Sam's womanizing behavior. It was lost on me as a kid, but I was wondering how you feel about this years later?

I haven't seen the episodes in a very long time, so I'm not referring to anything specific (other than maybe Sam's desperate quest to "bed" Rebecca).

I must say I was never a fan of the season arc where Sam went to elaborate and sometimes despicable lengths to get into Rebecca’s pants. Ironically, NBC did research testing on the show at the end of that year and Sam tested the highest of any character. Why? Because the audience perceived him as fatherly to the bar patrons and “protective” of Rebecca. Huh?? What show were they watching? Sam did everything but slip her a roofie.

As for the original womanizing (first few seasons), I thought that worked, primarily because Diane was such a terrific foil. She could really get under Sam's skin and get him to question his beliefs. This created a terrific internal conflict. His brain vs. his crotch (and we all know who wins that battle).

I also liked that we dealt with Sam aging during the course of the series. There comes a point where you do have to grow up. Even Sam -- which isn't to say that he went quietly .

Jim S with another CHEERS question:

I saw for the first time in years the episode where Frederick's first word is "Norm". That was one of the cleverest things I've ever seen on TV. I noticed the credits show you and your partner as the writers. Just how did that really great idea come about?

This is one I addressed before but here’s the answer.

And finally, from Ajjjj:

As a young writer about to move to LA and working with a limited budget, what parts of town would you recommend to live in... specifically cheap enough but still not running to your car and back.
Also, is there an area of town where you'll be closer to where most of the TV writing happens, or is it spread out?

The studios are more spread out now than they ever were to take advantage of cheaper rentals. So it’s not just Hollywood and Burbank and Century City. Now it’s Valencia and Redondo Beach as well. But don’t worry about it. If you get a good writing job you just move to wherever your office is. Unless it’s downtown.

Several areas seem popular with young people relocating to Los Angeles. The West Hollywood area (actually East West Hollywood) around Melrose and La Brea is nicknamed “First Stop L.A.” Housing is somewhat affordable and the area is somewhat safe. Hollywood near the hills is also a good destination. This is where a lot of locations for SWINGERS were filmed. Then there’s the Silverlake District. Funky with a lot of artist-types.

Beware the Westside of LA – it’s expensive. And Malibu is a little pricey, especially around where Barbra Streisand lives.

What’s your question?

For you folks in Seattle, I'll be calling tonight's Mariners-Dodgers game on 710 ESPN radio and   Join me for some thrilling Cactus League action! 


Ed D. said...

The question about Cheers and Sam's womanizing reminded me of the very best moment I ever saw on Cheers... still makes me laugh just thinking about it.

Sam has just finally bedded Rebecca - I think that's right... Rebecca. She wakes up and I think gets up. The camera closes on Sam's face. You see his eyes open wide, realizing where he is, what he's done, in deep now... but his breathing remains the same - to fake that he's still asleep. He's obviously been here before and knows the tricks.

Ref said...

For the record, I believe Norm's actual response to the "What's shakin'?" intro was "One gut, two thighs, three chins and ALL four cheeks!"

Obviously a favorite of mine.

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

A Fan said...

On the topic of gender-bending names or initials: Wasn't the script for Alien non-specific, so we wound up with a female Ripley? Is this a case of "sometimes breakign the rules works, but usually it doesn't, so know what you're doing when you break the rules and PS - it probably won't work?"

vw: smine - what producers say about every new revenue stream

VP81955 said...

Thanks for the neighborhood information. In a few years, once I retire from the newspaper business, I plan to relocate to Los Angeles to do film history research, and it's good to know there are some reasonable areas not far from the Margaret Herrick library that AMPAS operates.

John E Williams said...

Ken, thanks so much for addressing the Sam and Rebecca situation. I've wanted to ask you about it for some time but I wasn't sure how to approach the question. I recently re-watched several later seasons of the show (it was a slow period at work, whaddaya want from me) and I'm not an easily offended guy, and I was just appalled that Sam became essentially a stalker and a harasser to a really ugly degree. It was not just morally repugnant (nor terribly funny), it was a degradation of Sam's character. Being a womanizer and being a harasser are two different notions, and I can only guess that whoever guided this arc didn't really think it through.

Tim T said...

Love hearing you call M's games. It has been fun hearing all the voices out of the past, I just miss DAVE!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Okay, I have a more "serious" question this time...

Why is it that Jewish writers almost always write their religious characters as Roman Catholic?

Charles H. Bryan said...

"Picture Natalie Portman" is just plain good advice for a variety of situations.

Anonymous said...

Love hearing you on the radio. Will definitely be listening tonight. You're doing a great job. So nice to have you back. I know you miss Dave too.

Jkessler said...

It seems like nowadays Hollywood expects you to do everything: write, perform, have a million Twitter followers, etc. But even if one specializes in, say, writing, there are expectations to do everything within that subcategory: where's your half hour spec? Drama spec? Feature? YA book proposal? Etc. If my goal is being really great at writing half hour comedies, how am I supposed to succeed if I'm juggling all of these other things? How do you do it?

te said...

I wish you'd been there to advise every writer through the years who's named a female character "Sydney" (don't know why, it's always "Syndey").

And I can picture them congratulating themselves on their cleverness.

wv: "cabless." Damn! Time-Warner's down again!

Corey said...

Ken can be heard in Portland, OR on KFXX 1080 AM

Anonymous said...

Friday question:
Before this week's Community ep Dan Harmon did some tweets "warning" us that what the episode was being promoted as was not actually what it was. Would you have taken advantage of "new media" if it had been happening during the run of one of your shows?

Laurel said...

Hi Ken,
I’ve got a Friday question for you:

In the last episode of series 5 of Cheers (I do and adieu) Sam and Diane don’t get married so that Diane can go and finish writing her book. In reality was the episode filmed exactly as it was broadcast or did you film a different ending in front of the live audience so that they wouldn’t know the real ending and the fact that Shelley Long was leaving the show?

Krris Mandt said...

Here’s a “future” Friday question for you:
When That 70’s Show struck their set for the last time certain bits and pieces of that set went to the long term cast members. Did they do the same thing for the cast of Cheers, Frasier, Wings, etc?
Thanks – Kris Mandt, Des Moines IA

Johnny Walker said...

Hey! Thanks for answering my question! It's much appreciated.

Now I want to watch all those episodes again.

Johnny Walker said...

It's crazy that Sam tested so highly, btw. I can only think that they liked Sam so much (and never thought he'd do anything _seriously_ wrong) that it came across as playful to them. Or they were morons.

I liked that you showed Sam maturing, too.

Anonymous said...

Here's my question: About 12 years ago, my wife and I enjoyed our final pre-kids vacation to southern California. A few doors down from the Kodak Theatre was a museum that claimed to feature the Cheers set. We plunked down our money and went on the tour...but in the years since, I've always wondered if it was the actual set that was used on the show. So, uh, is it?

Simon de Waal said...

Hello Ken. I really love your blog, very entertaining and insightful. Here's a question I hope you will answer. I'm a successful scriptwriter in the Netherlands. I've written over a hundred produced scripts, and won several prices. Now I have two scripts that I think would do great in the USA. you think a scriptwriter has any chance of getting noticed, if he doesn't live in LA or NY (or in the USA, for that matter...)?

ajjjj said...

Hey Ken,

Thanks for answering my questions so far. You've been super helpful - and more so than I've any right to hope for. I just want you to know I really appreciate this blog - and all the other work you've done over the years.


lucifervandross said...

Hey ajjjj,

YOu may also want to check out

it's written by an aspiring TV writer who recently moved their with his wife (well 2009). he has some really good tips, I kind of know him personally (we met at Austin Film Festival, have exchanged scripts and talked a lot). He will reply to you if you contact him with any questions and try and be as much help as possible. He is a good guy.

Hope that helps at least some.


Dana Gabbard said...

You can also search for apartments in L.A. via Craigslist. The current owners of my building post a message every few days. Plus the rental market has had a big shake-up with rates going down about 1/3 from the mid-decade highs. Koreatown has become the spillover for pricey Los Feliz and westside. You can find reviews by current residents on

Jamie said...


I recently moved back to New York and loved living in the NoHo Arts District. The "Valley" has some cheap places to rent. My building had a $50 deposit on the 3 bedroom townhouse and split 3-ways with my roommates was about $600. We had a pool, gym and grill deck on the roof. Not bad for the price.

Matthew said...

I have a question about Cheers & Frasier. I've recently watched them through on DVD and one thing I noticed was that every now and again, the subject of rats would show up - always in a positive way! The obvious example is the episode where Lilith carries her dead lab rat around, but there were a handful of other examples as well (Daphne's pro-rat rant in a late-season Frasier, for instance).

This is very unusual for TV shows, which usually portray rats as horrible little beasts (which is absolutely not the case). I keep pet rats, they're wonderful animals, and I'd love to know who is the pro-rat writer on the staff.


VB said...

Would love to know what you think about UK based comedy ideas being pitched to execs in the US?