Friday, December 02, 2011

Who is that guy?

Aloha. Taking time out from doing nothing to answer some Friday Questions. What’s yours?  Mahalo.

Vidor is up first.

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?

The answer is Bob Broder -- the best agent I ever had. 

David asks:

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!)

As series evolve, sometimes devices they employ like voice-overs get old and stale. Usually, they are reduced in frequency or phased out entirely. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER has drifted from the V.O. frame. On the other hand, the “documentary” format of storytelling is so specific that you’re really locked into it. Although I always thought if THE OFFICE wanted to really shake things up they could drop it. I think it would be fun to see how those characters interact when they know (or at least “think”) there are no cameras on them.

My partner, David and I came aboard MASH the middle of the series run and by that time just felt we needed to continue the legacy. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

However, we did try to do format-breaking episodes along the way just to shake things up. The Point-of-View episode was one example. In “Night at Rosie’s” we set the entire episode in Rosie’s Bar, making it more of a one-act play than short film.

But our goal was not to change MASH. It was to do episodes that even approached the greatness of the Larry Gelbart years.

When there are big stylistic changes, usually it’s the show runner who makes them. If you’re sick of a device he’s probably sick of it ten times as much.

From Wendy M. Grossman:

Why do so many shows fall off a cliff, quality-wise, in later seasons? In some cases (Sex and the City) it seems like they run out of the original material the show was based on; in others, that the original creative team left (Murphy Brown, mid-run); in others that they lost track of their original premise (Mad About You was a close-up look at a couple forming and negotiating through a marriage - and in later seasons the two of them hardly spent any time together on their own).

But what is the underlying cause?

Having to churn out 22 episodes a season, year in and year out. And having to make them in a compressed period of time. It burns out showrunners, exhausts ideas quickly, and sometimes leads to creative mis-steps as writers flail to keep the show fresh. But how great would HAMLET be by episode 87? I mean, Shakespeare was good but he’s no Sorkin.

John wonders:

Here's a Friday question relating to the end credits -- did you write an ending differently if the final scene simply faded to black, as M*A*S*H did in Seasons 1-5, or if you had a 'freeze' on the end shot for the titles (Seasons 6-11), or where the end credits are detached from the scene, as with Dick Van Dyke, or later with Cheers?

No. In fact, until that question, I never even thought about it. I suppose, of the two, the freeze frame provides more of a punctuation to the final joke, but that format change was made not for creative reasons but to accommodate credits.

A finally, from Paul Duca:

I have a rare baseball question... it seems MLB won't approve the sale of the Houston Astros unless the new owner allows the team to moved into the American League. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I hate it. Each team will now have to play something like 70 interleague games since each league will have an odd number of teams (15). In addition to diluting the distinction between the two leagues, what are you going to do about the Designated Hitter rule? The American League has it while the National League does not. The Players Union will never allow the DH rule to go away (it means more money to more players) and the National League has never embraced it. But now what? National League teams are at a distinct disadvantage in AL parks against teams with DH’s. And American League teams are at a disadvantage playing in the NL park where they (a) can’t use their DH, and (b) their pitchers are unaccustomed to batting.

Seems they have to unify the two leagues, but does that mean the NL gets screwed?  Again, don't fix it if it ain't broke. 


joda07 said...

What's your biggest regret in the writing of "Frazier"? What episode are you least proud of (if any) and why?

ElizabethH said...

Re. "Sex and the City," I thought the final, 2-part episode was absolutely brilliant. The storylines had gorgeous arcs & wonderful resolutions.

Some of the silliness I could have done without: Carrie traipsing around NYC on New Year's Eve in the snow in open-toe high heels. Who does this? And anyone who's ever gone to a bar/restaurant/club in NYC knows that no conversation can transpire. The fact that there was any dialogue whatsoever besides, "WHAT???!!!" is pure tv-land.

And don't get me started on the S&TC movies. This was definitely a show that should have stopped at "The End."

Matt D said...

That last Baseball question may as well have been written in Klingon. As a Brit, I just don't get it at all. Unless it's Aaron Sorkin putting words into Brad Pitt's mouth, I am lost.

Roger Owen Green said...

Ken - I agree re interleague play. Hate having it all year long. (Hate it generally, actually.)

But what else WOULD be the solution to having uneven divisions, which always seemed unfair? 6 teams in the NL Central, 4 in the AL West, with the winner getting into the playoffs.

The only things I can think of would be expansion to 32 teams (divided like the NFL) or retrenchment to 28 teams (2 7-team divisions in each league, with probably 4 wild cards per league). And THOSE things won't happen anytime soon.

WV: squishes. What MLB is doing to the individual characters of the AL and the NL.

willieb said...

On baseball: While I have no real problem with occasional interleague play during the season, I am having trouble getting my head around the inevitable homoginization of baseball for the sake of getting a few more bucks for teams. Two wild cards with a one-game playoff? Might as well be hockey, where every team gets in the playoffs...
On TV: I know shows shoot for the magic 100 episodes for syndication money, but do you think it's time we tried the British model of a couple of seasons then out? Things might not get quite so stale for the writers/showrunners or the viewers.

Roger Owen Green said...

should be 'with the winner of each division getting into the playoffs.'

Mary Stella said...

I hate the DH rule and never want to see it become the norm for all teams.

wv= berreact. Yogi responding to the idea that Houston might join the AL

Thomas M. said...

Hey Ken I've been wondering about this since you have spend so much of your career with a creative partner.

Has your relationship with David Isaacs been more of the Penn&Teller/ Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman variety, you can hardly stand each-other personally but work well together. Or is it more along the lines of Matt Damon & Ben Affleck friends and co-workers relationship?

Love the blog!

Michael said...

I am with you on baseball. The DH was originally the work of communists. Now it's clearly been passed to terrorists.

A couple of words. One, I thought Roseanne was brilliant with its end credits. Sometimes they just continued the story but at other times they broke the fourth wall, the fifth, the sixth ....

And don't sell yourself short. We get TVLand and METv, which are running MASH at the same time ... but different seasons. The early Gelbart episodes were terrific, don't get me wrong. But the later ones aren't worse, just different. And in my opinion, the show couldn't have worked for 11 years with the degree of hijinks that went on during the Trapper/Henry years.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the fact that both teams in Texas are in the AL. I know it is stupid, but if a state/city is going to have more than one team, it just seems more financially sound to have in different leagues. Arizona would have made more sense to go to the AL West.

I hate the DL and wish it would go away. It won't. The current way of dealing with it is about the only way you can go. St. Louis won at Texas and Texas won at St. Louis. Its about the only fair way to do it.

Bg Porter said...

You've talked in the past about how Lisa Kudrow was almost Roz on Frasier. Were there any similar near-misses on other shows? Who else auditioned for CE Winchester?

Elf said...

Speaking of 'If it ain't broke...' there's this news:

John said...

The other bad part about the new set-up is that since we're going to have 15 teams per league, it means to avoid bye dates, there's going to have to be at least one interleague series at all times. That also means not only will some poor team be playing their home opener against a team not in their league, but you could come down to the final games of the season in a penant race where, say, the Braves are neck-and-neck with the Phillies in the NL East, but instead of playing Philadlephia on the final week, they're closing their season out in Kansas City.

If they absolutely had to go to 15 teams per league, I would much rather have seen Bud Selig's Brewers go back where they came from, since they already have an American League history, than to move the Astros over to the National League (apparently as a 50th anniversary present). And the really bad part is, if the Astros-Rangers series prove to be major box office successes, you know a few years down the line MLB is going to want to move the Mets and the Giants to the AL with the Yanks and A's and move the White Sox and the Angels to the NL with the Cubs and Dodgers, so they can create a bunch of new "rivalries" to try and squeeze additional $$$ out of. That's when the league concept dies for good.

As for a question -- Ken, when you're helming a new show or even an existing show with marginal ratings, how much effort do you make to try and convince the network not to bury you in some death time slot, like Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. (which was a great time slot 35 years ago, but not now), or pair your show with another half hour comedy you know doesn't lend itself to viewer carry-over.

The Curmudgeon said...

The hard part of MLB realignment will be explaining to my grandchildren (yet unborn) about how excited we all were when the White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series. (He means the ALCS, doesn't he? one will whisper to another. It's not his fault. He's just old.)

I agree the DH is an irritant -- but the rule applying only in the AL parks seems to work well enough.

And don't tell someone from Chicago that you don't like interleague play. We live for the games against the Cubs (as long as the Sox win, of course).

Brent said...

More baseball. Ken, since the Mariners have announced that they will continue last years practice of rotating seven announcers and putting off the unenviable task of naming a successor to the irreplaceable Dave Niehaus for another year, I wanted to let you know how pleased I am (and if other blogs are to be believed I'm not alone in this) that you will once again be calling M's games next year. How do they end up scheduling the different announcers? Since you, Ron Fairly and Ken Wilson are not presently living in Seattle, do you get a bit of preference as to which series you do, and then Hendu, Jay, Dan the Man and Valle get what's left over??

Don't even get me started on more interleague play, the DH, and especially Bud Selig. Worst Commissioner. Ever.

Raymond said...

"I think it would be fun to see how those characters [on THE OFFICE] interact when they know (or at least “think”) there are no cameras on them."

There is already an in-show convention for this: If the camera is shooting from another room through a window, or peering through a cracked-open door, etc., then the characters think they are off camera.

PS: Put me in the "I hate regular-season interleague play" camp.

Sarah Bentley said...

Hi Ken

I just wanted you to ask you a question about script writing but I am unsure how to do thatbon your blog. What inspires the ideas for the script/outline. How do you then go about writing the outline? Do you think about the characters and how they interact? This wouldvhelp me a lot as I am busy writing another script but it is so hard to write comedy. I am spending hours watching Frasier and I am in awe of your ability as a writer. I hope you have a lovely weekend with you family.

Dan Tedson said...

"The answer is Bob Broder -- the best agent I ever had."

Huh, I wonder where I heard Tartikoff. I must've thought that since the 90's.

"Each team will now have to play something like 70 interleague games since each league will have an odd number of teams (15)."

I don't think they'd have to increase the number of games much (if at all), but they'd have to extend it through the season. I don't like that, especially not in the last month of the season, when teams in a tight playoff race don't need to be going without/being forced to use a designated hitter.

Reading up on it just now, if you wanted to keep them all being played in one block, there's a mathematically perfect solution at 30 interleague games per team. (Closer to 40 if you wanted to prevent an increase in squeeze weeks.) Don't like that much either because I don't like interleague play to begin with, so don't want to see the number of games increased.

What I do like is having the same number of teams in each division. You can't have one division with 6 teams and another with 4 and pretend there's parity there.

I'd think you could employ little mathematical tricks that would make things not change at all. Bye weeks. Playing with the overlap of series and off days. Changing the number of games in a series. (How many fans are going to object to a 5 game Bosox-Yankee series in the middle of June?) Besides, what's gonna happen when 2 new teams are added eventually? Jump back to the way it is now? Silly. There should be a mathematical solution to this.

Dan Tedson said...

"The Curmudgeon said...
And don't tell someone from Chicago that you don't like interleague play. We live for the games against the Cubs (as long as the Sox win, of course)."

Yeah, but White Sox fans are the exception. They've got some kind of weird little brother syndrome where they'd rather sweep the Cubs than make the playoffs. I think it's going to be added to the DSM-5.

Johnny Walker said...

David's question has sparked something I've been thinking about, myself:

A show like Scrubs and Modern Family do their "best" stuff when the characters learn something about themselves and life. It's usually along the lines of, "Here I am worrying about all this stuff, when really my life isn't so bad after all". A genuinely heart-warming or moving ending to a show, even a sitcom, is wonderful in my books, but surely the creators are making things extremely difficult for themselves when they set such a precedent in a pilot?

Not only will there come a point when the characters must surely be perfect, well-adjusted, Zen, happy human-beings, but the writing team must also run out of lessons for them to learn.

And considering that comedy is the primary function of these shows, it seems an impossibly high standard to set themselves. (And given how raucous and caustic the inside of a sitcom writing room is supposed to be, it's hard to imagine anything sentimental getting out at all!)

For example, if I was going to write a Modern Family spec, I wouldn't let myself just write something funny for the characters to do, I'd try and write a full-on "heart-warming" episode. Trying to come up with 22 genuine life-lessons a year seems like a task Hercules would happily pass on.

If you can find a suitable question amongst the above ramblings, I'd be very pleased if you answered it. Thanks.

PS - For my money, seasons 6-11 of MASH were the best. Their wry, subtle humour was the stuff I grew up on. When I later saw the earlier episodes, I was shocked at how broad Frank was. I'm still recovering.

Orangutanagram said...

The figure at the end of Cheers should have been the kid with a fake ID from the pilot's cold opening, all grown up and shut off the bar once again.

Marty Fufkin said...

Regarding the documentary format and how you're locked into it: the one show I saw that did make that switch was Watching Ellie, the little-known Julia Louis-Dreyfus show she did after Seinfeld. And boy was that a jarring contrast.

The first season was 22 minutes of Ellie's life in real time, with one camera following her in real locations. It was utterly hilarious, mindblowing, and original (it wasn't really a faux documentary, but just a one-camera story that would freeze at commercials and pick up on the next frame).

Despite the show's rapier wit, it only got about 5 viewers. For Season 2, The network decided to make it into a multi-camera show on a soundstage, killing everything that made the show funny and madcap. I gave it 30 seconds and turned it off for good.

Too bad this show has disappeared into the void. I don't see any reason the network will release it on DVD.

SkippyMom said...

Thank you for answering Mr. Daluca's question regarding baseball [awesome question btw] May I have permission to paraphrase the answer when chiming in to my husband when we have this discussion here? He will be shocked I finally "get it". I try to understand baseball - I do, but wow.

We stopped watching Modern Family and the Middle because it just seems to be the same regurgitated jokes at the expense at the same one dimensional characters on both shows. Watching them you can practically insert the next line of dialogue from the "slutty teenage daughter" on MF or you will automatically put your head down and whisper the last word the weird little kid on the Middle said, just has he does it.

The shows are not that old, but they are already stale to us.

Steve said...

A followup to the "Bob Broder" answer (the person who appeared at the door at the closing of Cheers):

Why was he chosen as this symbolically important figure, as opposed to a creator, director, Ted Denson's father, Judd Hirsch, etc.?

A second quick Cheers question: Was there ever a discussion or thought to have Sam's ex-wife show up? I was sure when she was mentioned in an early episode (Season 1, probably) that some day that would happen. If it was discussed, what was the reason to never have her materialize or mentioned again? Was she abducted by Richie Cunningham's older brother?

Ted said...

Speaking of end credits ...

Last night on "Parks & Recreation" the end credits were played over a short scene deleted from way earlier in the episode. Not an outtake, an actual extra scene.

Never seen that on a sitcom and I thought it was pretty cool.

Mike Schryver said...

I haven't actually tried to write up a schedule, but if you only have one interleague series at a time, the number of IL games could actually go down. As long as the number of IL games doesn't increase much, I think they can leave the DH as is (although I'd rather get rid of it.)
I'd also rather get rid of the wild card, but it seems to be with us for good. I really like the additional wild-card with 1-game playoff. Up till now, there was little incentive to win your division vs. take the wild card, and this should create a bigger incentive to be the division winner.

Kirk said...

There really was no reason for the producers or writers to shake up MASH's format. I think all the cast changes during the show's long run kept the show from going stale. Still, I often wonder, suppose the original cast had stayed the full 11 years? What would Henry Blake be like after all that time? Hot Lips broke up with Frank Burns in season 5. Had Larry Linville stayed, would they have gotten back together again? Also, had Liville stayed, would Frank Burns eventually have become friends with Hawkeye, as Charles Winchester more or less did? Any thoughts about this, Ken?

WV hesse: He wrote Siddhartha

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for the reply. Another Friday question (answers by Dec 12, please!) since you seem to know Hawaii: I need recommendations for restaurants and unusual but interesting things to do in Honolulu (where I've never been). NOT involving 1) getting wet; 2) watching sports; 3) car rental. Science-related is a bonus. Are the Honolulu Zoo and Aquarium worth visits? Any options for seeing volcanoes?

Much obliged.


Deanna said...

While we're talking about mysterious people in final episodes, I've always been curious about who all those folks are with the main characters outside the control room window as Frasier makes his final radio sign off. I've tried doing a little research about this on the internet and am surprised that I can't find anything about it!

mike said...

The noted sportswriter Red Smith called the DH 'a loathsome ploy' and I believe that is quite correct. Similarly, ownership, in equal parts greed and panic, foisted this interleague foolishness on fans to squeeze a few extra bucks out of the grand old game. Get rid of the damned DH, it won't be that hard. Simply grandfather a few players who are allowed to do so, like the spitballers in 1920, or agree to add one roster spot per team in exchange for the loathsome ploy being relegated to the ash heap of history where it belongs. As for the wild card, all it does is delude mediocre teams into thinking that they are of championship caliber. Sure, some wc teams get hot at the right time and win it all, but is that really what we want to reward? A timely winning streak, or season-long excellence?

gottacook said...

With respect to "the freeze frame ... that format change was made not for creative reasons but to accommodate credits" at the end of each MASH episode in later years: This is illuminating news. I found the freeze frame increasingly irritating - chiefly because the accompanying music was nearly always the same - to the point that it ruined the foregoing episode somewhat. Being able to end episodes in different ways, with correspondingly different types of music cues, was (by comparison) a distinct creative advantage during the series' earlier years.

I know many series with long runs get into ruts of one sort or another, but for MASH this was a self-created rut, one that evidently began as the most expedient choice for resolving the too-many-credits problem. I wish an alternative had been tried.

SK said...

Having to churn out 22 episodes a season, year in and year out [...] burns out showrunners, exhausts ideas quickly, and sometimes leads to creative mis-steps

Given this, do you think the British system of producing series of six to eight episodes, when the scripts are ready (as opposed to on a strict yearly timetable) and (hopefully) stopping before the ideas run out (so three series of Black Books and Father Ted, four of The IT Crowd, two of Spaced and Fawlty Towers) is (ignoring the different economic models) more likely to produce artistically superior results?

Would you have liked to work under the British system (including the greater emphasis on creators working on their own, individually authored programmes) instead of the American one?

Rob said...

With respect to Mr. Gelbart, even he regretted the sexism and rape jokes of those early MASH episodes. One awful episode had Hawkeye unjustly punching out Frank, Trapper lied to protect him, Hawk is treated like a king, Mary Wickes hits on Frank and then falsely accuses him of rape. And for me, Harry Morgan for Mclean Stevenson is one of the best cast changes in history.

Kevin Joyce said...

I smiled when I read John's question about the freeze frame -- I instantly recalled all the fun "Police Squad" had with that technique at the end of their episodes.

Orangutangram, that is an awesome idea! If they invent a time machine, I hope you get to go back to the "Cheers" finale and add that one in!

Anonymous said...

"It burns out showrunners, exhausts ideas quickly, and sometimes leads to creative mis-steps as writers flail to keep the show fresh. But how great would HAMLET be by episode 87? I mean, Shakespeare was good but he’s no Sorkin."


One big difference between Shakespeare and television writers is when Shakespeare had nothing left to say on a dramatic subject, he ended the play.

Most television writers will go on writing another 3 years.
This is why, a hundred years from now, Shakespeare will still be studied and performed around the world, and nobody, a hundred years from now, will know who the flip Sorkin is.

It's okay to have some pride as a successful television writer, but don't be arrogant. Most television writers are hacks, by definition. Making a lot of money as a television writer is something to be proud of. BEING a television writer, in and of itself... not so much.

-Jim D

Dan Tedson said...

Anonymous said...
"This is why, a hundred years from now, Shakespeare will still be studied and performed around the world, and nobody, a hundred years from now, will know who the flip Sorkin is."

I refuse to believe you can miss something so obviously tongue and cheek and still work your keyboard. I'll give you one of them. I'll even let you choose. The other I keep. You'll get it back at the end of term.

Johnny Walker said...

Jim D, I think Ken was, you know, making a joke.

Lou H. said...

I think the worst part of the Astros deal is that most of their in-division away games will be on the west coast, meaning the only hometown fans able to watch them on live TV will be insomniacs and inmates.

About deleted Parks and Rec scenes: once in awhile on Hulu (and presumably on the DVDs) they'll have a Director's Cut of an episode, with a few extra minutes of stuff that was either not as strong or perhaps wouldnt get past the censors. I wonder how widespread this is. Do most shows shoot more than they need and then edit down to their allotted time?

VP81955 said...

MLB probably has two ways to set up the schedule with two 15-team leagues in three 5-team divisions:

* Play 72 games within your division (18 x 4), 60 versus the rest of your league (6 x 10), and 30 interleague games -- 15 against your mirror division (3 x 5), 15 against one of the other two divisions, alternating years. (A slight variation, to keep home-and-home for White Sox-Cubs, Yankees-Mets, Orioles-Nationals, Angels-Dodgers, etc.: 18 games in your mirror division, six against one rival, and then 12 games against four in one of the other divisions.)

* Play 84 games within your division (21 x 4), 60 versus the rest of your league (6 x 10), and 18 interleague games -- six against a traditional rival, 12 games (3 x 4) against four other teams, rotating over a three-year span.

Not sure which one I like better, though traditionalists might say the latter at least makes a team play a majority of games against division rivals.

jbryant said...

The 13-episode season seems like a nice middle ground to me. Doesn't wear out its welcome, whets your appetite for more (if it's a good show, of course) and gives the writers lots of time to prepare for the next 13. Many, maybe most, of the best shows on cable are doing this, but I suppose it doesn't work as well for the major network model.

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

Lou H.--I am not in the business, and so have no personal knowledge of this, but I take for granted that TV shows do usually shoot more footage than they strictly need. After all, each show has to be a certain length, which means that its makers need to have something available if, say, the actors get through the dialogue more quickly than expected, or if a scene just absolutely does not work and has to be junked.

Word verification: "undedge." How to describe the zombie Matt Drudge.

Liggie said...

Thought re: Interleague play. Someone proposed that the games be played by the visiting, not home, team's rules. This would expose AL fans to pitchers at bat and double-switches (like when Florida played a "home" game vs. the Mariners at Safeco due to stadium issues), and give NL fans the chance to see notable DHs like Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz play most of the game instead of one pinch-hit appearance at most.

Frank Artrage said...

Frank Artrage:

Ron Santo. He was the answer to my made up trivia question, to wit:

Who holds the home run record for diabetics?

Though I was raised a Cub Fan, I am still not sure RS is HOF worthy -- Riggs Stephenson, yes, Harvey Haddox, maybe.

Interleague play -- how about a moratorium for five years?

Stephen said...

Once Shelley Long announced her departure from Cheers, how long did it take before the writers decided to end the season with the wedding being stopped and Diane leaving "for six months"? Also, in light of you saying how difficult it got to be to come up with fresh ideas for the Sam/Diane storyline, was Season 5 any easier to plot once you knew that you were writing towards Shelley's exit?

Vidor said...

I am both delighted and surprised at the answer to my question re: the man in the window in the last scene of Cheers. I would have bet money on Burrows.