Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday questions on Friday

Since I already answered Friday Questions on Wednesday and Thursday I thought I should probably answer some Friday Questions on Friday.   Thanks again to Jeff Greenstein for his fantastic post yesterday.   If you have a Fri Q, I’d love to answer it (or find somebody better). Just post it in the comments section. Thanks.

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or TWO AND A HALF MEN. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 

From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?

And finally, LaprGuy has a question about announcing baseball:

How much does the highlight package (and, maybe moreso, the demo reel) come into play when you are announcing a game?

I don’t think about it at all. As for highlights, I’m just trying to capture the drama of the moment and be accurate. I have no catch phrases.

Re: demo reels, I don’t think about that either. I just try to stay in the moment. Over the course of a season I figure there will be one or two demo-worthy innings somewhere along the way. But my main focus is on the listener and the game at hand. I’m trying to do an informative, entertaining, and descriptive broadcast, not impress.  By the way, I'm back on the air not impressing anyone starting Monday night when the Mariners host the A's in Seattle.


Jim McGrath said...

I truly enjoy reading your "real world" experiences. Particularly enjoyed your take on the Cheers/St. Elsewhere collaboration. Although I'm a Nats/Orioles fan (and have heard your broadcasts), I am happy to see the Mariners end their losing streak. Best wishes!
Jim McGrath (Newport News, VA)

John said...

Ken, you may not want to be specific here with names and dates, but as a contrast to your "Advice to Show Runners" post from a couple of days ago, what was the worst-run (or the least enjoyable) show you were involved with as a writer or director, due to on-set problems? And did it negatively affect the final product of what you were trying to turn out?

Michael said...

About credits, if you are a fan of the old Warner Bros. cartoons (isn't anyone with taste), until the late 1940s, each cartoon's credits listed a director, a writer, an animator, and a musical director. The animators' credits were rotated, although each unit there had four or five animators. Finally, I believe in a union contract negotiation, they got the full credit.

RCP said...

Great questions and answers.

Barbara C. said...

I am a huge Joss Whedon fan (even though I don't always agree with some of his philosophies), and I feel like I have learned A LOT about how television is made from listening to his commentaries for Buffy and Firefly.

Have you ever done any video commentaries? Do you wish that was something going on during your MASH, Cheers, or Frasier years or are you just as glad not do have to deal with that bother?

ernie said...

how are you able to keep positive and up when the team's hitting is horrible and in a seventeen game losing streak?

Brian Butoli said...

Welcome back - almost - Mariner broadcaster. What will the winning streak be when you switch on the mike, Monday. Is there a switch?

Sort of an off the wall question: did you ever get to work with Sid Dorfman? Just wonder what he was like and how he was able to stay in the game so long, making the transition from Burns and Allen to MASH; Bing Crosby to Crazy Like a Fox, and so many other credits. And did Tim Conway's character, Dorf, spawn from an association w/Sid?

Larry said...

Is there anything more screwed up in Hollywood than writing credits? I compare it to a child from a woman who sleeps around--no one may be sure who the real father is, but someone has to get the credit, or blame. (I guess that makes the director the mother. There's never any doubt about that.)

BigTed said...

Re the George Burns and Gracie Allen writers: Back in the early days, didn't the same writers tend to stick with a comedian over time? I think I remember hearing that Jack Benny's writers were with him for decades, going from radio to TV. And I think "The Jack Benny Show" still holds up as one of the best sitcoms ever -- it was sort of like a scripted version of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with a kind of jerky Hollywood insider hanging out with his real-life friends. I wonder if having writers so familiar with Benny's comedic voice was one of the reasons for its success?

While I'm sure the best writers can handle many different kinds of comedy, I think there's something to be said for a team that works well together sticking to a single show over time.

Jeff said...

Lucille Ball's writers stuck with her for a long time. Her radio writers followed her to "I Love Lucy", and most of that team did the first few seasons of "The Lucy Show" with her (arguably the best years of her follow-up series). Then after they all left at once, she coincidentally hired some of Jack Benny's writers (his show had just ended). A few of the "I Love Lucy" writers eventually did some episodes of her sitcoms in the 70s and 80s.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I always wondered about the Two and a Half Men complex writing credits. Now I know.

Reminds me of one of the Futurama DVD films that came out a couple of years ago. The third film was a Dungeons and Dragons parody. Parts 3 and 4 had arbitrary writing credits.

According to the commentary, they basically threw a dice to assign credits during the last half of the film. Michael Rowe and Eric Kaplan got credited for part 3, while David Cohen and Patric Verrone got credited for part 4.

Simon H. said...

Hope Ken doesn't mind, but the episode is on YouTube for all you Levine/Isaacs TV historians

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Simon H. said...

And by the episode, I mean "The Jeffersons" Movin' On Down.

Cap'n Bob said...

I've always wondered how they have enough Emmys or Oscars on hand to cover all the winners. When 35 people mob the stage after a winner is announced, especially for writing, are the people running the show prepared to give all of them a statuette?

@IFeedUrTV said...

You answered some of a question I've meant to I have more incentive. That whole "story/teleplay" credit always confused me. I assumed "story" meant "written by" and "teleplay" was a synonym for "directed by." But I've seen shows with a "story/teleplay" credit AND a "directed by," but not necessarily an accompanying "written by." Is the difference between "written/directed" and "story/teleplay" legitimate or is it strictly union?

Chris said...

Two part question:

Related to your Big Bang Theory/Two and a Half Men thing about the credits. I've noticed that on Chuck Lorre's series (it's starting to happen in Mike & Molly too), what do you mean by saying it's a joke? Did those people not contribute to the script or do they story/teleplay credit just for contributing when pitching ideas for the episode?

Do the other shows give "producer" credit for this type of contribution? I've seen quite a few defititions on the Internet where "producer" is "someone who made a provable contribution to the final script" and they usually have one or two writers on each episode and 6-8 "producer" credits.

Why does WGA forbid 5-6 shared writing credits? (Sorry, 3 part question, this just came to me now).

Rob said...

A question for Friday (but first, some background):

This morning someone who works for my company mentioned flags being lowered in Wisconsin for a former Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of staff. That reminded me of Admiral William Crowe, another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was born in the town where I lived for a large portion of my life. I looked him up to confirm that he was indeed born there and saw that he was in an episode of Cheers written by...

How in the world did you come to write an episode including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

jbryant said...

@IFeedUrTV: I don't think we need Ken for this one. "Teleplay" has nothing to do with directing. A teleplay is simply a script written for television, just as a screenplay is a script for a theatrical film. "Story" generally refers to plotting. Whoever comes up with the storyline may or may not be the one who then writes the teleplay. And a director's credit will always be "Directed by."

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Chris: The usual process on a sitcom is for a first draft to be written by one writer (or team), and then the entire writing staff rewrites that draft. Lorre has apparently cut out the first draft stage for his shows, so they assign story and teleplay credit to as many of the staff writers as they can according to a system I don't really understand. So "story by" and "teleplay by" doesn't mean one group of writers wrote an outline and the other group wrote the script - they all worked on the outline and the script as part of the writing staff.

Some shows have occasionally gotten special waivers to credit all or most of a large writing staff for an episode, but those are rare. Frasier's "Moon Dance," The Simpsons "22 Short Films About Springfield" and the Mary Tyler Moore finale are examples of episodes with a big writing credit.

Stephen said...

So far on Hot in Cleveland: Jane Leeves has had her Frasier co-stars John Mahoney and Peri Gilpin guest star; Betty White has had Mary Tyler Moore guest star; and Wendie Malick is coaxing her Just Shoot Me co-stars to appear. So I am curious - if you were making a new television show or film and had complete control over the casting, which actors/writers/directors from your list of past colleagues would you be most eager to work with again?

Anonymous said...

A colleague sent me "Exporting Raymond" as a kind of gag gift since I'm to some extent going through what Phil Rosenthal experienced, but not in showbiz. During the documentary I also remembered your posts about dealing with TV executives and couldn't stop cringing while watching it. Now, knowing that you worked on Everybody Loves Raymond and presuming that you know about the Russian "remake" or that at least had the chance to see the documentary, what's your take on it? More importantly, did you and your partner went through anything similar with your other shows or had a company involved with the show (like Sony in the case of Everybody Loves Raymond) approach you to help sell a show to another country?
Thank your for your time,

chris said...

Thank you, Jaimie.

JOV97 said...

I am unsure as to where to post the questions for Mr Levine, so if I put it here, if that okay?

I'm fourteen, and have an idea for a sitcom which I think is quite unique. Because of my age, any spec script will no doubt be taken with a biased view. But what time did you start writing, and when did you decide you wanted to pursue that sort of career? Do you have any advice for somebody who is looking for a future job in this field? Thanks

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting stuff, Ken! Surely there has to be SOME correlation between credits and what you see on the screen? Right?

Sarah said...

I was watching the final episode of Cheers on Netflix the other day when I noticed a joke had been taken out of the episode. I have the original episode on videotape and after Sam announces to the bar he and Diane are back together, the whole bar freaks out. Sam says he knows that he and Diane have had their fair share of problems and Norm says, "No, Sammy, no. Northern Ireland has problems...." The joke, however, is missing from the version I just saw on Netflix. Any idea why?

spreng said...

Friday question:

Just over a year ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit rejected the FCC's general policy regarding broadcast indecency as unconstitutionally vague. ( and What are you thoughts on that?

Michael said...

I've always wondered: How does a new show work out its contracts with its stars? If the show is a success for its first season, you obviously want to keep the stars on for additional seasons. If they were not already signed, they could hold the show hostage for a huge payment. Does the contract have options to sign the stars on for additional seasons? If so, what is a typical length of these options?

P.S. I love hearing you back announcing the Mariners again.

Anonymous said...


I love the fact that you're back with the Mariners. I was also happy to be able to acquire and read your hilarious book. As an occasional visitor to Safeco field, is there a good time that you'd be able to sign the book at the ballpark when you're in town? Or do you have an armed security entourage to prevent such intrusions?


Joe (who is NOT a stalker despite what my ex-girlfriends will tell you)

Sebastian said...

Okay, my randon question: Who is, in you opinion, the most annoying character ever written for a sitcom? I'll go for David Leisure in Empty Nest, as well as French Stewart in Third Rock From The Sun.