Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary

It’s Friday Question Day, complete with a special guest expert!

Jim S. starts us off:

How did the guest celebrity callers to Frasier's show do their bits? Did they record them, do them live, some combination of both?

How did you choose them? Were they favors, a cool inside baseball thing to do?

When I don’t know the answer I try to go to the person who does. Jeff Greenberg was the award-winning casting director on FRASIER and handled that aspect of the show. Jeff graciously took time out from casting MODERN FAMILY to answer your question Jim S.

We mostly used good non-name actors to record the callers when we filmed the show in front of a live studio audience in a special sound booth we built onstage and replaced those voices later with our namier guest actors. We often recorded those by phone or at a sound facility at their convenience, but occasionally they'd come to the show and record them live. One I can remember who did it live was Jay Leno. I remember that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio recorded hers from a payphone in Lincoln Center in NY.

Initially we did call in a few favors to get it going. For the pilot, Linda Hamilton did it as a favor to me, and Griffin Dunne was a friend of Chris Lloyd, one of our producers. Other early favors were Patti LuPone and Judith Ivey.

David Lee, one of the creators of the show, and I would decide whom we would ask to be our celebrity callers. We paid them a favored nations $1000 for a few minutes work.

Thanks so much, Jeff. By the way, Timothy Leary was the caller on an episode my partner David and I penned. How many people can say they wrote comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary?

From Michael:

With the recent trend of re-making old dramas such as Charlie's Angels, Hawaii Five-0, 90210, why do you think it has not been attempted with old sitcoms? Or have there been attempts that just never made it to air?

There are attempts from time to time. BEWITCHED is in development this season. There was THE NEW ODD COUPLE in the ‘80s. Also variations of GIDGET, TOPPER, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, and I’m sure you guys can think of two or three more.

It’s harder if the show was built around the star. You’re less likely to see a new ANN SOUTHERN SHOW or TONY RANDALL SHOW.

Jack wonders:

When M*A*S*H was originally aired they always showed the title of the episode. As someone interested in the writing and producing process, I was always interested in those details. I was probably the only 10-year-old who knew directors and writers names. When the show went into syndication these titles were cut off. I am assuming this was done for time considerations; to squeeze in a few more seconds of commercial time. How do you feel about this, as a writer?

MASH rarely put the titles of episodes in the credits. As a couple of commenters pointed out, it occurred a few times for hour episodes. That was because after the show was originally run in its hour form it was split up into two half-hours and we needed a way to connect them. Just saying “Part 2” wasn’t enough. “Part 2” of what? So we showed the titles.

I’m not a fan of showing the title because often times they give away key story points. This is especially true on FRIENDS where every title begins with “The one with (or where)…” “The one where Old Yeller Dies” is an actual episode. You really want that to be shown at the beginning of the show?

And finally, one from Dave Arnott:

Since I've been enjoying post-season baseball so much (and without "my" team in the hunt, even), I was wondering... if you know...

Where do Umpires come from?

Too easy. 

Now that I've likely set you up, seriously... are they mostly old players, because it seems like they aren't, which kinda surprises me. Do you have any inside knowledge in this area? Thanks.

There are umpiring schools. The two I would recommend are the Wendelstedt Umpire School and the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. Jim Caple of ESPN did a great story and video about the experience. You can find it here. The truth is it’s a lot harder and more demanding than you think.

Like players, graduates begin umpiring in the lower minor leagues and slowly work their way up. My feeling is, if want to take that kind of abuse, why not just be a comedy writer?

What’s your question?


LouOCNY said...

I have been a softball umpire for quite a few years now, and help with our high school group's new umpire clinic. It is very funny to see some of the people who have either a)coached softball/baseball or especially b) guys (and gals too!)who have played for twenty years, and think they know it all. With out fail, after our first couple of sessions - especially after we start getting into mechanics - some or all of them will be like, "Wow, I didn't realize how much you have to know/do!" "You have to know THIS??",etc.

And this is just preparing people to work games with 11/12 year old girls!

LouOCNY said...

Oh - a suggestion Ken! Next week Shout! Factory is releasing its BARNEY MILLER Complete Series set (finally!). Since you are acquainted with Tom Reeder, who wrote several classic episodes of BM, it would be nice if you could ask him to expound for a few paragraphs about working on that show. My favorite BARNEY episode of all time was written by him - "Hash", with the hashish laced brownies...mushy mushy!

That Neil Guy said...

Earlier this year I read a great book by Bruce Weber called As They See 'Em ( in which Weber enrolls in one of the umpire schools. It's a really interesting look at the folks who choose to become umpires, most of whom will never make it to the big leagues. I have a lot more respect for umpires now.

LouOCNY said...

Neil - you would be surprised at the attrition in our little school. We usually start with 10-12.....and end up a solid five or six who finish it.

When they find out how much the gear is, how hard it truly is, they start disappearing!

Will Maybury said...

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia frequently uses its episode titles, which are as descriptive as "Frank Sets Sweet Dee On Fire," as an ironic smash cut: "Nothing's gonna go wrong!" "Everything Goes Wrong."

Anonymous said...

Becky Asks
Hi Ken!
I was wondering what Harry Morgan was like in real life? I started watching him on M*A*S*H and Dragnet as a little girl (both well after they we were off the air) and I always kind of wished Colnel Potter was my dad or grandfather (don't tell my real dad or grandpa, please). I was also ubelieveably impressed when I was watching the 30-year reunion special recently and he quoted one of his lines from the show where he was drunk and his reading at the reunion was alomost pitch-perfect to his delivery in the episode. It takes som serious talent to match a delivery with no rehearsal 30 years after the original. That speaks volumes about his talent to me.

Michael said...

Becky, I'm not a comedy writer and I don't know anybody personally involved, but I remember a story David Ogden Stiers told about how he idolized Harry Morgan as an actor and why. He said one time they have a scene in the OR where Potter has to say something dramatic like, "Son, he's dead, you have to let go," or whatever. As they got ready to shoot, he was telling Stiers an old vaudeville story. When the director announced they were ready to roll, Morgan stopped in mid-joke, turned, did the serious scene, waited a second to be sure they had it, then turned back to Stiers and resumed the story exactly as he had been telling it. THAT, he said, was great acting.

About umpires: I may be the only umpire fan in the world. Many umpires tried to play the game, and some in the past even got into the minor leagues (there were a few major leaguers-turned-umpires), but couldn't and felt this was how to stay in the game. The late Ron Luciano once said the only fellow umpire he met who grew up wanting to be an umpire was the great Bill Haller, but he said that since Bill's brother Tom became a catcher, maybe the family had a thing for wearing masks.

benson said...

I always loved the way Police Squad handled it with the episode title card on screen being one, and the vo from the announcer another.

Alex S. said...

I would also recommend the book As They See 'Em.

Quite an eye opener, especially the life of a single-A umpire.

Rays profile said...

Best episode titles today are on Conan.

WV: chevidiv, the part of GM that isn't buickdiv or caddydiv.

Nat G said...

Just to fulfill Ken's promise that we could name a few more, I'll dip into the made-for-syndication pool for three examples, each of which falls into a different category of reviving old sitcoms: What's Happening Now (which is simply picking up with the same characters and actors years later, a continuation rather than a remake), The Munsters Today (made on what looked like a budget of about 37 cents, a pretty straightforward remake - all the original characters, none of the original cast), and The New Monkees (readapting an old concept for a new age, keeping neither characters nor cast... nor quality). If we get outside of made-for-syndication, there's the much-later sequel, Tabitha, a follow-up on Bewitched. Oh, and how can I forget Get Smart Again? Original cast, with the addition of Andy Dick, who makes everything more Andy Dickish.

Kirk said...


Becky, if your a fan of Harry Morgan, you should become, if you're not already, a regular viewer of TCM. Morgan appears in a awful lot of movies made during the the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Obviously, he's much younger than on MASH, but he's recognizable, and has the same distinctive voice. Most of the time it's bit parts, but there's a few movies where he had meatier roles, such as THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) where he plays Henry Fonda's pal. That one's a drama, but if you prefer Harry Morgan the comic actor, watch him hilariously crack up in WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? (1966)

Keep a close eye on the credits. In some of the older movies he listed as Henry Morgan. He later changed his name so as not to be confused with a popular radio comic of the time.

BigTed said...

I agree that "It's Always Sunny" makes the best use of each episode title.

It usually encapsulates a a ridiculous situation set up by the teaser, so the title itself (accompanied by the old-fashioned theme music) is surprisingly funny.

Anthony Strand said...

Re: Remaking Star-driven shows -

The only exception I can think of is the remake of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW as a Steve Martin movie.

D. McEwan said...

Oddly enough, the only book on baseball I've ever read (Not counting the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop, which was the basis for the musical Damn Yankees) was Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball by Dave Pallone, which was the autobiography of a gay major league umpire writing about how the closet extended to the umps as well as the players, and about life in the baseball closet during his career in the 1980s. At this point in time (I read it 20 years ago) I do not remember his account of how he happened to become an umpire, except that involved loving baseball, but not playing it well enough to play it. Those who can't - tell others when they are out. If you want a full account of how one becomes an umpire, I would suggest reading it. Amazon has used copies for $0.01.

D. McEwan said...

"Nat G said...
The New Monkees (readapting an old concept for a new age, keeping neither characters nor cast... nor quality).

Hey Nat, thanks for remembering. I shot four, count 'em, four episodes of The New Monkees back in the summer and fall of 1987. I played three different characters over those four episodes, and in two of them, my scenes ended up being entirely cut.

Man, that show was shit. I remember that we started out on the air at 7:30 PM on the station that ran it in LA, and after about five weeks, were moved to the Tiffany timeslot of 1:30 AM.

The three best things about working on that crapola show were:

1. On the day of my first shoot, I met Ray Walston. Two other actors and I were outside the soundstage (in Valencia) being covered in Fuller's earth for a scene when Ray Walston came peddling up on a bicycle. He was shooting an episode of Sledge Hammer, a much-better show, on the next stage. The other two actors had no idea who Walston was, but I was in Heaven talking to this man I so admired. Coincidentally enough, we were shooting a scene taking place in a parallel Universe of Evil (that old sci-fi wheeze of a plot), and were all supposed to be these Hellish, demonic characters, and here I was talking to Satan himself (in, once again, Damn Yankees). Talk about role research!

2. They kept asking me back to work more.

3. The checks never bounced.

Of the four "New Monkees," only one had any sort of show biz career after that show went belly-up, 13 episodes in. Nice boys, but not talents.

Bob Claster said...

If you're going to send BARNEY MILLER some much-deserved love, I recommend that you go to my website (click on my name here) and listen to a half-hour KCRW radio program I did in which I interviewed the legendary and unique Danny Arnold, who was the driving force behind that amazing series. He's got a lot to say about what makes television tick, and a lot of it is still relevant.

Anonymous said...

Man, if ever there was an audio file needed of a rimshot after your last line...

Larry said...

There's a great story that Carl Reiner tells. He produced The Dick Van Dyke Show, of course, and every week he'd see these clever titles on the scripts. And he said why are they just on the scripts, we should let the audience see them. So starting in one of the later seasons, all Dick Van Dyke shows have the title during the credits.

I love seeing the title and I wish more shows would do it.

Pat Reeder said...

They already attempted to recapture the magic (sorry) of "Bewitched" with a sitcom that wasn't a remake but a sequel. It was called "Tabitha," and started Lisa Hartman. It was yanked after a dozen episodes.

Speaking of yanking, the sole reason I remember it is that during the title sequence, to get across the idea that Tabitha is now all grown up, they had a clip of Lisa in a tiny bikini applying suntan oil to her exposed parts, which was most of them.

This might not be as meaningful or evocative as the story of the old man still remembering the girl with the white parasol in "Citizen Kane," but you pick your indelible memories from when you were young and I'll pick mine.

SkippyMom said...

Funny Pat! What I remember from the opening sequence of "Tabitha" is the fact she had a really cute, convertible VW.

I think that is because I am a girl. heehee

I like "Tabitha" - I don't know why, but was sad when they cancelled it. Maybe it was because I was 11?

Pat Reeder said...

To SkippyMom:

Back in my college days, girls always loved VW Beetles because they were "so cute!" My writing partner George's girlfriend had one. He was constantly having to rescue her from the roadside and repair it. We used to say that you could always spot a VW Beetle by two things: its distinctive body design and the scorch marks on the rear from all the engine fires. Great idea: put an air-cooled engine in the trunk. On the plus side, it was definitely the cutest thing Adolf Hitler ever came up with.

Pat Reeder said...

PS to SkippyMom - If you really miss "Tabitha," you can get the entire series on DVD for 17 bucks. Or $5.91 used.

VW: Dioluchi - The new supergroup formed by Ronnie James Dio and Susan Lucci.

VP81955 said...

Harry Morgan also occasionally appeared on the radio "Dragnet," playing a variety of roles, and his close ties to Jack Webb was probably why he got the Gannon part when Webb revived the TV series in the late 1960s.

I always envisioned "Tabitha" as the result of a couple of drunken TV writers discussing what Mary Richards would have been like if she possessed magic powers.

H. Joical said...

By the by, Mr. Morgan is still living. Age 96.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I also like seeing the episode titles - but at least now you can always find them at

"TOW Old Yeller Dies" is actually not at all a revealing title for that Friends episode. After all, there *was* no Old Yeller Friends character. Granted, it could be a problem - but if the writers know viewers will see the title they won't give away the plot points in it.


Matt Patton said...

I think my two favorite celebrity call-in voices were Art Garfunkel (nicely creepy) and Sandra Dee (brilliant rant--pity she didn't work s she got older, but I under stand the poor woman had a lot of health issues).

Dee was one of those actors who got better as they went along. I remember she was the subject of one of Stanley Kauffman's more withering put-downs in THE NEW REPUBLIC, when he complemented her courage for "demonstrating her incompetence" in the company of Rex Harrison and his then-wife Kay Kendall in the film THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE

Michael said...

I thought one of the great "call-in" sequences was when Frasier winds up hosting the sports talk show and Bob Costas and Marv Albert are among the callers.

Naz said...

I'd like to see a new version of Make Room for Daddy.

One show I'd never ever want to see remade was the awful My Mother the Car.

ChicagoJohn said...

My question:
What's your favorite baseball field, and why?

Kirk said...


MY MOTHER THE CAR may haved indeed been an awful show (I've never seen it, but have read enough bad things about it), but it was produced by Allen Burns and Chris Heywood, and James L. Brooks was one of the writers. Burns and Brooks went on to produce THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and Heywood was a producer on BARNEY MILLER.

I guess when you're starting out in the TV, you take work where you can find it.

Robert Sanders said...

A question for consideration --

IMHO, some of the weakest shows in sitcoms are when second or third string characters are given their own episodes. Examples -- Rizzo and Nurse Kelly in MASH, Cliff in Cheers, Ralph Malph in Happy Days, etc. In this same vein is when characters with very little in common are paired up. Examples -- pairing Will and Karen or Grace and Jack in Will and Grace. It seems to occur after a sitcom has been on a couple of years.

Is this done because of actor ego, agent ego or a combination of the two?

And why, oh why, would the Simpsons writers give entire episodes to moving props like Comic Book Guy, Ralph, and Lenny to name a few? It can't be either agent or actor ego since the vast majority of all the characters are voiced by a half dozen people.

Buttermilk Sky said...

You got a bargain with the FRASIER callers. Most actors charge a lot more than a thousand dollars to phone it in.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Wendy M. Grossman said...
"TOW Old Yeller Dies" is actually not at all a revealing title for that Friends episode. After all, there *was* no Old Yeller Friends character. Granted, it could be a problem - but if the writers know viewers will see the title they won't give away the plot points in it.

Also, Old Yeller dies in the pre-credits sequence of that episode, so it really wouldn't have given anything away. (The episode begins with the cast watching "Old Yeller" on TV.)

I like it when they show the episode title, especially on hour dramas. Makes it seem substantial, like I'm about to see something important.

June Sullivan said...

I'd love to see a Q&A with another expert or just with you Ken on the topic of casting. For example, I was amazed that the team or company that did the incredible casting for The Closer didn't seem to have other big shows in their background. When I think of its star Kyra Sedgwick and JK Simmons, Corey Reynolds, Robert Gossett, GW Bailey, Jon Tenney, Michael Paul Chan, Tony Denison, Raymond Cruz, even their guest stars, how well they work together, to me anyway, its the best cast I've ever seen -- although you'd never know it by any awards they've won as an ensemble. Lack of recognition aside, what makes a casting director good and how would someone come up with a winning cast like in The Closer or say MASH or Archie Bunker or Parenthood.