Friday, November 18, 2011

Lamest pilot title maybe ever.

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Mr. Ace has two to start us off:

1. How do the show creators come up with the names for their shows?

They get real liquored up and play Pictionary.  Seriously, I don't know.  I'm sure each creator has his own method for coming up with titles the way he has his own way of writing scripts.

I’ve found that either you can come up with a title in ten seconds or it takes forever and often you still never find a great one. Ideally, there’s something in the subject matter that leads to a clever or descriptive title. For my money, the shorter the title the better.

Quite often titles will change between the initial pilot and the final show. The series, UNFORGETTABLE had maybe the worst title ever originally. THE REMEMBERER. Can you believe that? “I’m the lead detective on this case. For this investigation I’ve enlisted the help of a forensic expert and the Rememberer.”

2. I have read that guys like Sidney Sheldon wrote most if not all of the episdoes of his shows. I was wondering how common is that nowadays?

Rarely, but it happens. Aaron Sorkin writes practically all of his shows. So does David Kelley (even when he has two or three on the air at the same time). Larry Gelbart wrote most of MASH for the first four seasons. Carl Reiner scripted most of the DICK VAN DYKE SHOWS the first three seasons (and they did 39 episodes a year). And of course, Matthew Weiner of MAD MEN (yes, that's only 13 at a time but wow-- those 13 episodes). 

My partner and I wrote most of the 7th season of MASH. If we didn’t write the drafts ourselves we rewrote all the others. I look back and wonder: how the hell did we do that?

I’m in awe of writers like Sorkin and Kelley who can be that prolific and that GOOD week after week, season after season. One year of it and I was ready for the drooling academy.

Steve wonders:

Do you have an opinion on backdoor pilots? I remember Golden Girls did one in 1987 to set up Empty Nest, and just a few years ago Grey's Anatomy gave up two episodes of its season to setting up its spin-off Private Practice; but do you think these are cheap cheats at getting a mass audience to sample the new show or is simply a smart business tactic?

Smart business for several reasons. You save a big chunk of money on a pilot and, as you suggested, you have a built-in audience. This practice goes way back. In the early ‘60s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was a backdoor pilot from THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW. What’s interesting about that is that THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW was about a nightclub performer in Manhattan and Andy Taylor couldn’t have been less show bizzy or New York if he tried. Still, that character was cleverly introduced and made the necessary impressive impression.

In the ‘70s, Norman Lear used ALL IN THE FAMILY episodes to spin off both MAUDE and THE JEFFERSONS.  I'm sure there are dozens of other examples.

But to me, the most bizarre backdoor pilot was introducing Robin Williams as MORK on HAPPY DAYS. I’m surprised the expression isn’t “Jumping the Egg”.

And finally, from Andy Cook:

How is it handled when one character has to say something personal and derogatory about the appearance of another – e.g. they’re fat or ugly i.e. some nasty description that actually applies to the actor.

Do writers shy away from it? Does it make the rehearsal process awkward? How do you call for actors for the fat/ugly part and what’s the audition like?

That’s a great question, Andy. Yes, writers do have to be sensitive to actors’ feelings when it comes to slamming their physical shortcomings in front of twenty million people. It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor in question if he’s okay with it. And if he’s not, respect that. On MIKE & MOLLY the series is pretty much built around fat jokes. The actors knew that when they signed on. But on CHEERS we tended to shy away from Norm fat jokes. And we didn’t feel we were losing that much in terms of comic opportunities. There were enough other avenues for laughs that we didn’t need to resort to fat jokes at George’s expense.

On THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW a staple of comedy was Morey Amsterdam making fun of Richard Deacon’s baldness. But Deacon was a great sport.

And it’s important that whoever the target character is, that character gets to give it right back.

What’s your question?


Robbie said...

Among the weird backdoor pilots, "Happy Days" was actually started off as an episode of "Love, American Syle" of all things. So weird.

And check out how long those opening credits used to be!

Interesting stuff this wpost, especially about the weight jokes (or not) and the single-writer shows. Thanks, Ken!

Spock said...

Fun note on question 2; J. Michael Straczynski did this to a crazy level in the sci-fi world, with Babylon 5. From Wikipedia: "Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, notably including an unbroken 59-episode run through the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season."

Richard J. Marcej said...

Even as a kid when I used to watch "The Beverly Hillbillies" I used to wonder how Nancy Kulp felt about all of the jokes that were aimed at her being… well, … homely. All the other actors portrayed characters who's personalities (Drysdale=greedy, Jethro=dumb, Granny=cantankerous) were specifically written in the script, (and I'm guessing were unlike their real selves) but not Kulp.

I often wondered, did she read for the part that asked for an unattractive, homely secretary?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Kelley must be the master of backdoor pilots: all of season 8 of THE PRACTICE was a backdoor pilot for BOSTON LEGAL.

As for snide comments about characters' physical flaws that match the actors' own physiques, I note that Chuck Lorre's shows seem to use this a *lot*. On BBT, there are lot of jokes about Leonard's being short and Howard's being both short and...let's call it petit. On 2 1/2 Men, many jokes about Jake's big, round head (less true now he's an older teen). Though I note that on that show no one makes comments about Berta's weight.


Roger Owen Green said...

Seems that a number of procedurals have done this. Didn't CSI do this at least once? The Law & Harry McGraw might have come from Murder, She Wrote.

Terrence Moss said...

The funniest example was when Lucy Ricardo would make mock Ricky Ricardo's accent on I LOVE LUCY.

Ricky: Oh no you dun't.

Lucy: What dun't I dun't?

If you watch the early episode "Lucy Thinks Ricky is Trying to Murder Her", one of Desi's first lines had something to do with "recognizing talent" but came out distinctly as "recognize Stalin".

Terrence Moss said...

Speaking of I LOVE LUCY and show titles...that is one of the best.

Helder Carvalho said...

JM Straczynski wrote the whole of seasons 3 and 4 o Babylon 5 and those are the best of the series. Also this series was the first to use season long arcs and ple-planned 5 year story that was mapped out from the beggining, something almost impossible in today's TV.

Michael said...

I THINK it's in Vince Waldron's fine book on The Dick Van Dyke Show that they wanted to give Richard Deacon a comeback for Morey Amsterdam, and that's when they came up with "Yeck," or however Deacon said it. So maybe that DID get to him.

Drew said...

I was watching a sitcom, which will remain nameless, from the 1980s a few days ago. It was a big hit, but most of the actors on the show have since vanished. So my question is, how do actors survive after their hit shows go off and nothing comes their way? Do they just live off the money they made while the show was on? Try to get a guest star gig once a year to keep them afloat?

Holly said...

On Arrested Development, the characters repeatedly make fun of how plain, forgettable, and unattractive Ann's character is. She was young, I'm guessing a teenager, when it was filmed, and I've often wondered how that might have hurt her feelings.

Sometimes I like to speculate that the show's creators will say, "Oh it's because we're putting you in ugly clothes, or because we're curling your hair in an unattractive way." to help spare the actress's feelings...

RS Gray said...

Jon Favreau told a great anecdote about George Wendt on Dinner for Four. He said he met George after Favreau'd just had his breakout role in Rudy. And Wendt told him, "If you're going to keep working in this business, you need to either lose a hundred pounds or gain a hundred." So I think Wendt was quite aware and comfortable with his weight. But I admire the fact that you didn't use it on Cheers. I remember watching that awful Nell Carter show in the 80s and it seemed like 90% of the punch lines were fat jokes about either Carter or the policeman she worked for. The jokes were so vicious and mean- spirited that in real life they would have gotten the shit smacked out of them. Man I hated that show.

Vidor said...

TV Tropes has an entire category called "Poorly Disguised Pilot" which includes the examples listed in this thread as well as others.

My question is about the final episode of "Cheers", which aired on WGN just the other day (savagely cut, I'm sure). I have read in different locations that the silouhetted figure in the window in the last scene is 1) James Burrows (most sources say this) or 2) one Bob Broder, agent to Burrows and the Charleses. Which is it?

(BTW, rewatching on WGN reminded me how much I hated it when they decided to call Sam a sex addict in the next-to-last episode).

Paul said...

I thought the one question read "Stevie wonders". Haha.

Chas Cunningham said...

My favorite pilot title wasn't produced. It was to have been a BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER spin-off about the tweedy Rupert Giles character whose backstory nickname and persona were RIPPER.

Curt Alliaume said...

I think you saw fat jokes decrease greatly on television (except, of course, on a show like "Mike & Molly") after Tracey Gold on "Growing Pains" was treated for anorexia; the show actually made fat jokes about her during the run, which may have contributed to her problems.

Mark Murphy said...

Ken: In case you haven't already seen it, here's a story about that sitcom set in Syracuse, which has begun filming....

Anonymous said...

I recall a Cheers episode where the characters were all speculating on how they each would die, and when it came to Norm everyone instantly agreed it would be by heart attack. I wonder if that secretly bothered George Wendt.

Dan Tedson said...

Vidor said...
"My question is about the final episode of "Cheers"... I have read in different locations that the silouhetted figure in the window in the last scene is 1) James Burrows (most sources say this) or 2) one Bob Broder, agent to Burrows and the Charleses. Which is it?"

If you look really closely at the profile, you can just make out the telltale 5 o'clock shadow.

It was Vera.

No, I think it was Brandon Tartikoff. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Keysms said...

I doubt that the HAPPY DAYS episode that introduced Mork was intended as a pilot. I base this on two facts: 1) Mork was actually the villain in that episode 2) the ending reveals all the preceding scenes to have been a dream (uh, spoiler warning), which would seem to leave no room for his return. Of course, he DID return, so maybe that was the plan all along, and the it-was-just-a-dream bit was merely a way to justify the science fiction elements. Still, it feels like it was meant to be a change-of-pace one-off, and the audience reaction convinced the producers to bring the character back.

Mark said...

According to Dick Van Dyke's book, Amsterdam and Deacon were close friends in real life. They used to work together to come up with funny insults for Buddy to clobber Mel with. I believe Van Dyke also says that Deacon was the cast member most likely to break up during a scene.

John said...

11/18/2011 6:14 AM

Nancy Kulp already had played pretty much the same role for producer Paul Henning on "The Bob Cummings Show," so when she signed on for "The Beverly Hillbillies" she kind of knew what she was getting into.

Henning was pretty much the grandfather of introducing el babes fabuloso onto TV sitcoms and contrasting their hotness to someone who elicited the opposite reaction from the males on the show was an easy comedy bit; so much so that Henning supplemented Kulp on TBCS with a younger version, played by Shelia James Kuehl (who would be on that show along with Dwayne Hickman before both ended up on "Dobie Gillis").

Also -- having nothing to do with this thread, but to a few past ones on difficult sitcom stars to work with -- there's a story today that Brett Butler regrets the way she treated her co-workers on "Grace Under Fire". Of course, she had to end up in a homeless shelter before discovering those regrets. Second look at doing a sitcom with Roseanne or Cybil Sheppard, Ken, if either one of them ends up at one of the downtown L.A. relief centers? Syung Myung Me said...

To be fair, "The Rememberer", though a terrible title WAS just a joke title. The creators were just riffing off the standard title for CBS procedurals, of the "The XXer" type.

....that said, I'd probably watch "The Rememberer".

Anonymous said...

Did George W. Bush come up with "The Rememberer?"

Ben K. said...

Dexter = The Dismemberer

The Good Wife = The Defenderer

The Biggest Loser = The Reslenderer

RuPaul's Drag Race = The Regenderer

Prime Suspect = The Won't Make It Past Novemberer

Anonymous said...

What was with all the Kirstie fat jokes on Cheers?

Jack said...

I have been watching MASH on DVD and enjoying the heck out of it all over again. One feature I discovered was the ability to watch the episodes without a laugh track. WHAT A DIFFERENCE! The genius of the writing is even more prevalent when the view is not distracted by the 50 year old laugh track. (Side bar: if you haven’t already; check out the short story “Laugh Track” by Harlan Ellison in which a TV writer finds the ghost of his aunt through a sound sweetener) The first two seasons are so much different and darker without the laughter. Radar is more a conniving little shyster than Klinger would have ever hoped to be as company clerk. Two questions:

What is your opinion of sweetening?

Was there a conscious effort to change Radar into the doe-eyed farm boy he became by season for or five and through the remainder of the show; or is that just my impression of the show and his character sans the laughter?

Kirk said...

I've said this before, but I think Carl Reiner may have overextended himself a bit writing so many Dick Van Dyke Show episodes. In the mid-90s I started watching the show again after not having seen it in, oh, about 15 years. I was quite frustrated that just about every other episode had a "Let's put on a show" story. I think Reiner was clearly coasting by leaving one-third of the show to a musical review. It actually soured me a bit on the show for awhile. I noticed those episodes largely disappear once Reiner handed the writing chores to other writers, usually two guys working in a team. That said, the Reiner episodes that AREN'T musical reviews are very funny.

About "ugly' jokes: There's an episode of That Girl where Rich Little is set up on a blind date with Marlo Thomas. Never having met her, Little just has a photograph to go by. Ruth Buzzi, as Thomas's roommate, answers the door, shows Little to a chair, and then walks out of the room. Mistaking Buzzi as his roommate, Little looks at the photo and says, "She must have gone right through the windshield." In an interview Marlo Thomas gave years after the show had gone off the air, she said she was embarrased by the joke, and was going to have it removed from the script. Buzzi talked her out of it, telling Thomas, "This face is my bread and butter." Of course, Buzzi went on to do Laugh-In, where those type of jokes were neverending.

Anonymous said...

Ken: How do writers handle `legacy' themes that have run their course in sitcoms they join in mid-run. I'm thinking specifically about end-of-episode VOs like Scrubs, where the J.D. character wraps up the lessons learned in the previous 22 minutes. That annoyed me (I lasted well past the time JD was a rookie). I also think Modern Family is making the same mistake -- they will have a long run and the ``hugging/learning'' statements are already old. Can writers talk a show runner out of it (and if so, tell your pals on MF to knock it off!) -- David

Anonymous said...

NCIS LA was a cheat spinoff of a cheat spinoff of JAG.

Steve B. said...

Ken, from and writing and producing standpoint, which do you prefer, single cam or multi cam? It would seem like single would give you more artistically to work with, but multi brings that immediacy of working with a crowd that can't be replicated. Also, is one much more expensive than the other?

Mike Doran said...

I was going to mention Nancy Kulp's history with Paul Henning, but somebody else beat me to it.

But I was surprised to see that no one so far has noted the fact that Kulp and James were themselves the Cummings Show's plain-Jane second string - behind Ann B. Davis as Schultzy.
Throughout her whole TV career, Ann B. Davis wore her "plainness" as a kind of badge of honor, first with Bob Cummings's bevy of beauties, and later with the ultra-blonde Brady Bunch.
In this respect she was in a great Hollywood tradition of performers who used their "off-center" appearances to make fortunes of a sort, working opposite the beautiful people.
Several times, Richard Deacon gave interviews in which he cited his role models as Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore, Charles Butterworth, and others of that like.
You can say the same about any other character actor in the business - then, now, or ever.

D. McEwan said...

The writing team of Doug Naylor and Rob Grant wrote every episode of the first 6 seasons of the great British sci-fi sit-com Red Dwarf (OK, being a British sitcom, that's only 36 episodes, not 142 episodes as it would be over here), and only in that sixth season did they start to repeat themselves. (And noticed it. In the shows themselves there are jokes about how could they find themselves once again in the exact same situation. At the end of season 6, feeling a dry well, the ended on a cliffhanger which blew up the ship and the characters, kiling everyone off. Then Rob Grant left.

The show was still a success (And it was s sixth season show that won the series its only Emmy), so the BBC actually increased its episode order, and the last two seasons of Red Dwarfg have 8 episodes each rather than the former 6, but Doug had to bring in other writers to write episodes and to find a way to unwrite that last episode's ending. That shark stayed jumped.

I worked with Nancy Kulp once on the radio. We were doing some improvised comedy involving her, but since improv was not her forte, I was seated next to her, and was scribbling out lines for her, passing them over to her, and she was cold-reading them on the air as we went. (Ah live radio.) She was terrific to work with, and had a great sense of humor. (By which I mean that afterwards she complimented me on the writing-on-the-fly I did for her.)

I found the running gag of her lust for Jethro to be hilarious, once I'd met her, and found she was clearly and unembarassedly the butch lesbian she always seemed to be, the Jane Lynch of her day. (Only Jane gets to be out, and to play actual lesbians.) In a sense, she was a male Franklin Pangborn or Paul Lynde, a butch lesbian comedianne who plays characters whose humor spins off her stereotypical gay charactoristics without her ever playing gay (Just as Lynde never played gay, often playing fathers, while obviously a huge old queen, and Pangborn only played explicitly gay once to my uncertain knowledge, in the hilarious Hal Roach film - from the even funnier Thorne Smith novel - Turnabout.)

mike said...

It's admirable to be able to write a lot of television episodes; anyone on this blog know how difficult it is. Don't forget Sterling Silliphant, who wrote a lot of Route 66 and Naked City.

Tom Quigley said...

Nancy Kulp's Miss Hathaway was the perfect foil for her sleazy boss Mr. Drysdale, and I can see a lot of Miss Hathaway in the character of Diane Chambers -- the one in the show who felt it her mission to uplift the cultural and moral fibre of those around her (Miss Hathaway's lust for Jethro and Diane's lust for Sam notwithstanding), only to usually fail miserably, which is where a lot of the comedy that was drawn out of those characters came from. Both actresses did a superb job of conveying that element.

Michael said...

About the Carl Reiner episodes being musical reviews, no, not all of them, not by a long shot, but I do think there were a couple of factors at work.

1. Dick Van Dyke came from Broadway and was great at slapstick. At times Reiner would write, "Dick does five minutes," or whatever.

2. Remember that the show was really about the entertainment business. Rob and Laura had been performers--most notably Laura as a dancer, so having Mary Tyler Moore, who also was a dancer, do some of that stuff made sense.

3. The show is about writing a variety show. Part of comedy writing, depending on the show, is the writers doing what the performers will do. Maybe not on MASH, but, for example, on I Love Lucy, Madelyn Pugh used to do most of the stunts before Lucy did them. As a contrast, at Warner Bros., there are home movies of the cartoon directors and their animators acting out gags. So there was a thin thread holding together that idea, but those might be the justifications.

Speaking of which MASH did the one where the film projector keeps breaking down, so Gary Burghoff did impressions, Loretta Swit, sang, and everybody did Bill Christopher imitations. I think that was a nice change.

mb said...

Well, Reiner would never have just written "Dick does five minutes." Garry Marshall has credited Reiner with being the man who taught him how to write visual comedy, when he and partner Jerry Belson made the mistake of writing something like "Rob puts on his tie funny" into a script. Reiner showed them how it is necessary to write out a visual comedy scene in great detail. Everything you want the actor to do in the scene. The "Dick Van Dyke Show" scripts I've been privileged to see are incredibly detailed when it comes to slapstick and visual business. "I Love Lucy" scripts, too. Which is to take nothing away from Dick Van Dyke or Lucille Ball. All the detailed scripting in the world won't help if the actor playing the scene has no talent for visual comedy. Writing visual comedy is just about as hard a thing as you can do, and there aren't that many writers who do it well. (The other side of the coin is that there aren't many Dick Van Dykes or Lucys around.)

Oh, and Nancy Kulp was a very self-assured, self-confident woman, who claimed never to have been bothered by the plain jane, man-hungry types she was invariably cast as. She had hanging in her home a prop photo from her "Hillbillies" days, a "glamour shot" Jane gave Jethro of herself, wearing a bathing suit and posed on a bear skin rug.

Harold X said...

Danny DeVito has never played a "short" man; John Candy never played a "fat" man -- at least to my knowledge. In both cases, the writers might have had to work a little bit, but the results speak for themselves.

(I'm talking about comic actors; not Tom Cruise, Alan Ladd, etc. For fun, take a look at the main cast of The American President, where none of the actors needed to stand on a box.

In fact, the film is worth reviewing on general principles; not least as a sort of blueprint for "The West Wing."

Michael said...

MB, I may have been wrong on that, yes, but I have read that Reiner did occasionally do something along those lines, at least giving him enough room to strut his stuff.

pumpkinhead said...

A few bits and pieces...

I also don't think Mork was originally intended as a spinoff. I seem to recall that, when the ep originally ran, it ended with the revelation that it was a dream, but when the ep ran again during the summer reruns (for you younguns, look up "summer reruns" in the Wikipedia) there was an additional scene added at the end where Mork talks to Orson (who I'm sure was never offended by the fat jokes) and says he has clouded their minds to think it was a dream, and Orson tells him he's been reassigned to 1977 earth.

Also, I think there's something of a distinction between the two kinds of backdoor spinoff episodes. There are those like the Jeffersons on All in the Family where longrunning characters get their own shows, and the ones, like that torturous episode of the the Brady Bunch where Ken Berry adopts three ethnically diverse children who can't act, where characters who've never been part of the show before suddenly become the focus of an episode of an established show. I think both make sense from a business standpoint, but I tend to find the second kind much less watchable.

My suggested comeback for Mel to Buddy: How can you even see the top of my head from down there?

Funny, I watched several of the shows where it is recalled that there were a lot of fat jokes and such, and I don't remember them that way. I must be that jaded a sitcom watcher that I don't even notice. I do remember nonstop fat jokes on What's Happening, however. (And, man, If I were a health ed teacher trying to convince my students to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I would use the unfortunate fates of the overweight actors on that show as a cautionary tale.)

FRIDAY QUESTION - There is that episode of Frasier where Frasier is racing through city streets when he is stopped by the female cop who ends up dating his father... it genuinely looks like Kelsey Grammer is driving a car wildly through city streets. How was that accomplished?

Leo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leo said...

Hi Ken, this is the first i'm posting here. I love your blog, for a comedy aficionado like me, is one of the most fascinating readings around the web.

I always considered the original Simpsons writing staff to be the greatest comedy writing combo ever. As years go by, i remain seeing Sam Simon, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder and Jeff Martin as the 1927 Yankees of television writing, and probably a lot of people of my generation think the same. Having said that i would like to know what do you think is the greatest staff in sitcom history as well as the greatest you've worked with. Really looking forward for your answer!

Curt Alliaume said...

Agreed on "Mork & Mindy." I've got both Garry Marshall's bio and a book about the Paramount sitcoms of the '70s, and both indicate the "Happy Days" episode was written for Marshall's "Star Wars"-crazed 15-year-old son, not as a pilot. Of course, it's possible ABC gave the green light to "Mork & Mindy" to avoid having Marshall present another Las Vegas showgirls sitcom.

Anonymous said...

Helder, the Babylon 5 storyline is not the original plan. The networks messed it up twice. Once they wouldn't definitively tell him if there was going to be a 5th season, so he had to wrap things up sooner than he wanted, which is why the last season is so bad.

The bigger interference is not as well known, and I think it works out for the best. JMS has never admitted this as far as I know, but the public storyline is he always planned to get rid of the captain after one season, but actually the network insisted they get rid of him. JMS then rewrote the story to have the new captain do what the old captain was supposed to do. That's why the wife has the same explorer/science career.

Brian Doan said...

When I was 14, I went to a Christian youth retreat in Colorado, where Ann B. Davis was one of the speakers. More than twenty years later, I don't remember a lot of the speeches and seminars at that retreat, but I remember how kind and funny and generous Davis was-- she spoke for a long time, shared stories and anecdotes (this was before all the books about the BRADY BUNCH and the various movies and spoofs came along), answered many, many questions and stuck around for a long time after the session ended to talk to fans. She just seemed like a really sweet lady, and I was glad to meet her.

Nick said...

Richard Curtis (writer - Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Director - Love Actually and The Boat that Rocked) wrote the first season of Blackadder for the BBC himself. For season's 2,3 and 4 he teamed up with Ben Elton (also writer of the classic 'The Young Ones' - probably the greatest sitcom you've never seen). Probably the greatest British Comedy writing team of all time. Except when the Monty Python crew wrote together. And when John Cleese wrote Fawlty Towers with his wife... sigh....

Anyway I disgress - I have a Friday question but it might be a sensitive one...


Writers obviously feel proud when they do work on classic shows - like the ones mentioned above or like your work on MASH and Cheers. But most sitcoms produced are nowhere near that standard. So my question is - do writers feel pride in all the shows they do - or are there some they'd leave off their resume? The name that springs to mind is Small Wonder from the 1980's?


Do writers sometimes have to curb their best instincts to write for a show that... to put it politely... have a certain style? I'm thinking that a writer from Modern Family would find it hard to write for Two and a Half Men for example? Or do you just swallow your pride and go for the paycheck?

Brian Phillips said...

Strange backdoor pilot: "Cavendish is Coming" from the original "Twilight Zone", in which Carol Burnett plays a woman who has a bumbling guardian angel. TZ was a fine show, however comedy was NOT a forte of the show. The episode in question even had a laugh track.

Even though it had a strange reunion episode, the series "As Time Goes By" went for nine series, all written by Bob Larbey. On radio, the record holder may be the late Spike Milligan for the "Goon Show", which went for 10 series of twenty plus half-hours (the tenth was a short season). A rough 80% of the show he wrote or co-wrote and he also acted in most of them. Sadly, the workload helped end his first marriage and hospitalized him for much of the third series.

To Harold X: Danny DeVito for the most part did not plat short in "Taxi" often. The audience roared when he first stepped out of the booth in the pilot (I wonder how he felt about that) and in one episode, he tells a character about having to buy formalwear in the "Husky" boys section (based on a true story, so I have read). Essentially, Louie is an "ugly" role .

In "Twins", the premise of the movie is a kind of short joke (Arnold Schwarzenegger is his twin brother), although, to the filmmakers' credit, it's a subtext, not a vein of humor.

Paul Duca said...

Fat jokes towards Melissa McCarthy on MIKE & MOLLY do leave me a little puzzled. One of the best things about GILMORE GIRLS was how it treated women's size and body images--it couldn't be bothered whatsoever.

Plus size women on the show like McCarthy (Lorelei's friend/co-worker/business partner Sookie), Sally Struthers (next door neighbor Babette) and Liz Torres (Miss Patti, the dance school operator) were never the butt of jokes about their appearance.
Meanwhile, Lorelei and daughter Rory, while thin, ate whatever they pleased (especially off Luke's grill) and never discussed exercise, fad diets, binge and purge, et al. Even the shallower girls at the fancy private school (the pack behind alpha female Paris, Rory's main antagonist) didn't do that.

Paul Duca said...

Some responses to other's comments:

Wendy just KNOW that if anyone made a crack about Berta's weight, Conchetta Ferrell would kick them all over the studio parking lot. She portrays characters who are plus size and absolutely not bothered by it.

TMoss...the writers of I LOVE LUCY found that while audiences would laugh when Lucy made fun of Ricky's accent, they didn't when Fred or Ethel or any other character did, so she was the only one to do so.

Nick...I have SEEN "The Young Ones". It aired on MTY in the mid 1980's, when it was considered a novelty to have a self-contained program tucked away within a string of music videos, instead of the other way around today.

Paul Duca said...

This one is for both Mike Doran and Brian Doan, because I plan to go longer.

Everyone else on THE BRADY BUNCH loved and respected Ann B. Davis, both personally and professionally (she won an Emmy playing Schultzy).

And if we are talking actors and self-image, one of the best portrayals came from that show.

I believe the title was "The Lookalike" (or is that the one about Peter's double?). .Jan finds a picture she thinks is of herself. It turns out it's one of Carol's Aunt Jenny, taken decades before--and the resemblance is amazing. When they exchange photos, Jan finds that Jenny now looks like Imogene Coca, and is none too pleased (presumably she had never heard of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS).
Mike tries to reassure her, saying that genes (in the bloodline) aren't any guarantee that Jan will like Jenny at that age. But Jan reminds him there's no guarantee she WON'T either.

Naturally, who drops by for a visit? Jenny immediately senses Jan's discomfort, and insists Mike and Carol tell her why. She sits down for a talk with Jan and gets her to admit she's bothered about the possibility of looking like her.
Jenny understands..."I always wanted to look like Raquel Welch myself". She even considered plastic surgery--"They can do wonders with chins and noses...they can even put in curves where there was nothing but straight highway". But she didn't bother-- "I never found the time. Besides, there are lots of pretty faces around...but how often do you see a puss like THIS?"

Obviously, Jenny is not someone who spends her time crying in the mirror. Her charm, personality, and life-loving vivacity makes her a busy woman...globe-trotting, intimate (don't even GO there) with the great and near-great, and trailed by a flock of admirers, especially male.

It's clear from her entrance in a limo with police escort that this is no ordinary woman. Who else could share such presents with the family as a sari from Indira Ghandi, a shofar (horn blown on Rosh Hasahana) presented her by Golda Meir, or a portrait of herself drawn on a Picasso? And as one gives, one gets...for her charity work, she is presented with her own llama.

Despite being a guest, she insists on preparing an authentic Japanese dinner, complete with sukiyaki--recipe courtesy of Emperor Hirohito's personal chef, traded for one of Madame Khrushchev's for borscht.
--and presented in proper Oriental style, with a tea ceremony, where she informs Mike that a quiet sip like his from a teacup is an insult to the host.

This get-together does have its calls offering an invitation "on Ari's yacht" (Aristotle Onassis, for those who don't know or remember). Jenny's response is "Him AGAIN?!?", but she still might accept..."that Jackie is a real trip", and from a man proposing marriage (again). That is politely spurned, for as she says "I'm not ready to settle down yet".

Alas, her visit is cut short by a birthday party she MUST attend--in Paris. As she leaves (again with entourage), Jan proudly states her admiration for her and that "When I grow up I'm going to be just like her". Again Mike tells her there is no guarantee she will, but she makes it clear "There's no guarantee that I WON'T, either"

Epilogue...after the birthday bash, Jenny decided on some skiing in Switzerland, which results in another gift--a celebrity-autographed leg cast.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mark: I have read that Richard Deacon was also one of the nicest, kindest people in show business. Apparently at his funeral many many people told stories of how he'd quietly helped them (often but not solely financially) when they needed it.

D. McEwan: pretty much all British series are written that way, a style that HBO and Showtime have copied. Yes, Minister was entirely written by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, The Good Life by Esmonde and Larbey, Coupling by Stephen Moffat, The Office and Extras by Ricky Gervais and his writing partner, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, The IT Crowd by Graham Linehan. Even The Prisoner was originally conceived as a seven-episode series to be written by McGoohan (the situation changed when the commissioning British channel demanded many more episodes so it could be sold to US TV, and even then the best episodes are the ones in McGoohan's original concept). They just wait to film the series until the whole set of episodes is ready, and then shoot them all together.


Johnny Walker said...

Yes, British shows tend to be written entirely by their creators. We don't have many "room written" shows that I'm aware of, although I don't know why: They could produce a lot more episodes if they did.

Some corrections:

Re: Red Dwarf. I don't think the BBC specifically asked for more episodes, I think it was Doug Naylor's attempt at getting the show count to 52, so it could be syndicated in the US.

I recently met Danny John-Jules, who played Cat, at a party in London. Apart from being a really incredibly nice person, he also told me that nobody on set knew why Rob and Doug stopped writing together. "Not even we could find out!", he told me.

Re: BlackAdder: Richard Curtis actually co-wrote the first season with lead actor, Rowan Atkinson.

Interestingly, BlackAdder came pretty close to being "room written", as rehearsals turned into re-writing sessions with the actors. According to producer John Lloyd, it was during these long and difficult sessions that a lot of the strong characters were set.

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question, if you wouldn't mind, Ken:

One of the discussions that sparked in our writers room during the Sitcom Room was the importance of likeable characters. Specifically that Jeremy's character not be portrayed doing anything that could make him look like a jerk. Also, the importance of making the audience "root" for the character.

Where do you sit on lead character behaviour? Can they act like a jerk in a "traditional" multi-camera sitcom, provided a good explanation is given? Or must the audience always be rooting for them?

Rob said...

I recall one "Cheers" joke about the floor sagging under Norm's barstool.

Bea Arthur must have been a hell of a good sport considering how many "Golden Girls" jokes - coming from her own mother! - revolved around her being unattractively masculine.

Lou H. said...

Reiner showed them how it is necessary to write out a visual comedy scene in great detail. Everything you want the actor to do in the scene.

I've been meaning to ask a related question. Sometimes I'll see a chase scene where there's no dialogue for several minutes and nothing is done to move the story forward except for one thing, typically "bad guy gets away" or "good guy gets injured during the chase". Is this something that the writers will write out in some detail, or is it left mostly to the director's discretion?

Unknown said...


True, the network did insist on changes to Babylon 5 up to and including introducing "a Top Gun type fighter jock" character in season 2, which JMS killed off as soon as he saw an opportunity (and built a whole plotline for that character leading to his death).

However, he has also said (in his script books) that every character had a "trap door", that if an actor left the show (or was fired, or died, or other things that happen), they could be replaced with another, similar (but different enough) character so as to not interrupt the main arc.

Sinclair/Sheridan is one example of this, but a better one is Lyta/Talia. Patricia Tallman was in the pilot (and "touched a Vorlon's mind") but was unavailable for the series, so in comes Andrea Thompson (who was "given a gift" by Ironhart when he "became"). If Tallman had been available from the start, the Ironhart story might not have been necessary. Similarly, if Thompson didn't quit the show, the "gift" would've built up until she was the psi weapon they needed in the Shadow War.

This became an expression. While working on a Web series I was writing for, an actress was AWOL on shooting day and after a few hours where she hadn't contacted us at all, my co-producer/director Paul turned to me and said, "I think it's time for one of those Straczynski trap doors." I replaced her with a pug.