Friday, January 13, 2012

Friday (the 13th) Questions

It’s not just Friday Question Day. It’s Friday the 13th Question Day. Don’t read while operating heavy equipment.

Andy Ihnatko starts us off:

Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's book about screenwriting mentions an dirty trick: an unscrupulous screenwriter hired to polish the seventh draft might change the name of a central character, just so that later on, he can claim co-screenwriter credit even though all he did was make some basic tweaks and trims.

What other ways do screenwriters sometimes game the system to either get more credit or even just protect their contributions?

They change genders of the main characters. They change locations. They capriciously change dialogue but characters essentially say the same thing. Most arbitrators easily see through these transparent alterations.  And if not, the original writer is more than happy to point them out in his statement.

Dan Tedson asks:

In general, what months do staff writers work through the year? Is it 6 months on, 6 months off, that sort of thing?

We should be so lucky. Usually the writing staff will assemble around Memorial Day. They’ll work on stories and scripts and production begins around the beginning of August. Depending on the show (half hour/hour, single/multi camera) a full season could end anywhere from March till the end of April.

So it’s more like a month or two off, not six. Think of an NBA season if you go deep into the playoffs. And when shows are in production it’s not unusual for writing staffs to work weekends and late nights.

From Matt:

I'm getting started as a comedy writer and I want to be versatile. One of the things I've noticed is that a lot of comedy writers know how to write everything from one-liners to sketch to half-hours to full screenplays.

A lot of the same rules apply to multiple formats, but I'm wondering, what "rules" do different formats have? How do you view them differently?

The only rule that covers all of those formats is you have to be really funny. Otherwise, I’d say versatility is fine but when starting out concentrate on one format, learn its rules and head in that direction.  Especially if you don't know the rules.  Take classes, read books, and follow relevant blogs. 

It's hard enough to master one format, much less three or four.

Agents, should you be lucky enough to get one, need to know how to sell you. They generally don’t take the scattershot approach. You’re either a TV writer or a screenwriter or a sketch writer. So decide which form is right for you and focus on that.  Once you establish yourself you can spread your wings and show your versatility. 

Collin wonders:

How do shows, once shot and edited, get to the network? Also, do they go to New York or LA? Did you ever have a show you work on have an episode get lost or damaged on its way to the network?

Networks provide very specific formats. They tell you what to deliver, in what format, and how many copies. Likewise, they tell you exactly how long the show can be, and what the delivery deadline is.

Each network has different requirements but I believe you can turn it in to LA or NY depending on where your show originates from. It’s so easy today to beam shows around the world instantly. And because they’re digital, there is no loss of quality from generation to generation. But unless things have changed, someone hand delivers the material to the network. 

Usually the line producer or someone from the production screens the final version one last time before sending it to the network. And every so often a mistake is caught and last minute scrambling has to occur. I remember once on AfterMASH they forgot to include credits and had to race to correct in time (although in this case, we might have preferred no credits).

Line producers do a spectacular job and are usually taken for granted. But they have to check on so many things – sound, color balance, mix, music, and editing.  A million details. 

And I don’t know if this is true anymore but when we delivered a show way back in ancient times (mid ‘90s) we had to leave space for the commercials, so those had to be built in as well.

What's your question? Please leave it in the comment section. And Happy Friday the 13th.


Chris said...

Here's one for next friday: how do new characters that get introduced in later seasons of a show get named and why are those names sometimes changed before the script goes into production?

Greg Hao said...

Sort of a question but Ken has been quite pronounced with his dislike of Whitney (ya, it ain't great but it's not horrible), what his thoughts were of Are You There, Chelsea? The show was so horrible that I couldn't actually sit through the entire episode.

By Ken Levine said...

How's this for a tease, Greg? I'm going to do a whole post on that sometime next week.

Greg Hao said...


ramp26 said...

Just wondering what you think of writing a spec script for a brand new show like House of Lies which just premiered last Sunday on Showtime.

John said...

Now I'm picturing an AfterMASH episode with credits similar to the start of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail".

Tomas Street said...

If I have a question, how do I submit it?

PS: This is not the question I want to submit, it shall be followed up in a subsequent post, once I learn where to send said post. Sorry if there was any misunderstanding. And now I'm feeling like this whole comment is far too long for what I'm asking and I should just give up...
So, to recap. I want to ask a question, about writing sitcoms, where do I submit it?

Eric Abrams said...

When me and my then writing partner wrote the third Crocodile Dundee film, a classic to be sure, Hogan changed the name of all the characters and the lines as well. The lines were just different words to say the same things. He wanted sole written by credit. For him, it was all about ego because the money, while significant to us, meant nothing to him. Fortunately, the arbitration process worked out in our favor. Good times...

Andy Cook said...

A Friday question for you…

When creating a new show to pitch to a network, how do you test whether that idea (the location, situation, characters etc) has legs?

Do you have any techniques to check if you’ll run out of ideas 6 shows in? Is it simply a case of coming up with a long list of ideas and if so, how many would you start with on a show?

scottmc said...

'The New York Yankees have traded top prospect Jesus Montero and right-handed pitcher Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for phenom pitcher Michael Pineda and righty Jose Campos'
Wow. Ken, I don't know how you'll react to this trade but it seems a questionable deal for the M's. A young pitcher with a tremendous up side for a young hitter who might be a career DH, four at bats a game and you still will need to carry two catchers.
The M's can't outslug the Rangers or the Angels, their best hope was to assemble the best rotation.
I guess Felix will be dealt next.

By Ken Levine said...

Afraid it's hard to determine who got the best of the trade at this point. Let's wait until after the physicals.

Anonymous said...

I found your site a few weeks ago when Alan Sepinwall linked your tribute to Harry Morgan. Your blog has given me a lot of entertainment. I've enjoyed this blog even though I never watched Cheers or MASH and I don’t generally watch any sitcoms. My enjoyment of the website is a tribute to your abilities as a writer.

Now onto the questions. I have a multi-part union question

1. To be a staff writer on a network or cable does the writer have to be a WGA member?

2. Will producers only buy scripts from WGA members?

3. Is it possible for a non-SAG actor to get cast in a TV show or movie?

4. Are auditions for actors generally limited to SAG members? Are there any open auditions?

I have one last question about casting on a TV show. You have said in the past that a show will audition about 100 actors for each role. How would someone get to the point where they could be one of the 100 people called in.

Thanks for any information you provide. I am asking all these questions because this is the only place I can think of to ask these questions. Keep up the good work.

Sam King

Chris said...

Here's a friday episode question: Since they used to do 39-episode seasons, why did that stop and who decided it would be around 22-23 episodes/season? Who decides how long is the season order (sometimes 21, 23, 24 episodes) and based on what factors?

71dude said...

Can we also expect reviews of "Rob" and "Work It"? If you managed to sit through them, that is. I personally think "Rob" is salvageable, but "Work It" is an abomination.

Gwen said...

Friday Question:
I recently sent out a couple of scripts to a contact I have out in LA. He offered to read them, and I trust/value his opinion, but there's a part of me that's totally petrified that I'm going to get a note back that just says: "Try another career." It's gotten to the point where I'm practically afraid to check my e-mail, because I don't want to know.
How do you/did you deal with the killer anxiety that comes with getting notes? Or was that never a problem for you?

Bob Gassel said...

You've been dissing AfterMASH for years here...please stop. Perhaps it wasn't the rousing success you had hoped for, but creatively it was definitely more worthwhile than the last few seasons of M*A*S*H. Hey, anything that gives us more Larry Gelbart is ok in my book.

Bob S said...

Is a pick up a pick up? If you have a pilot and Nick At Nite decides to run it, is that a "win" in your book, or does it diminish the achievement?

Nick said...

Friday Question:

In American the TV seasons seem to be set in stone (September - April; is that right?). Two questions to ask - when was this decided, who decided and why and - secondly if the summer season is the non-ratings period because it's off season then how to networks determine how much to charge for advertising during shows that run during summer? Or is the idea of a non-ratings period more a label than an actual fact.

Sorry - that was like five questions. I'm curious though because here in Australia we start playing all the high rating shows in early February (rule of thumb says they all premiere the week after the Australian Open (Tennis) finishes) and they run to about June. Then we enter a non-ratings few weeks... but it includes some very high rating sport events, before a second season of shows that weren't played in the first half of the year (generally the CSI's are played in the 2nd half of the year) runs run like July - November. December and January are completely dead TV wise. Hence I am writing this instead of watching Ice Road Truckers :)

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

Chris's question at the top reminds of an old story about the series THE YOUNG LAWYERS, which ran circa 1970. When it began, the Young Lawyers were played by Zalman King (very Jewish) and Judy Pace (very black). The network was nervous about that, and after a few episodes ordered the producers to add another lawyer who was a WASP. A script was written that did this. The new character was named Chris White, and it was mentioned in passing that the first name was short for "Christian." The script, and the character, were approved. It was literally only a day or two before shooting began before someone among the powers that be caught on, and the character was hurriedly renamed "Chris Blake."

Dan Tedson said...

So it’s more like a month or two off, not six.

Thanks for answering that. I was hoping one wouldn't have to live in L.A. year round if they were ever lucky enough to land a staff gig. Seems necessary though.

Dr. Hfuhruhurr said...

Related to the post you are going to do on Are You There, Chelsea? I always wonder when watching a show that bad what the cast and crew are thinking. Do they believe they are putting out a decent product, or are they spending half their time checking the want ads? Do the writers realize it isn't very good and they just don't have any time left to make changes, or have they deluded themselves into thinking it is the next coming of Seinfeld?

Anonymous said...

Friday Question: How does a show like ABC's "Work It" even make it onto the air in the first place? There HAS to be better ideas out there! It was possibly offensive, and most definitely terrible. You've written in the past about how incredibly difficult it is to get a show on the air that when giant stinkers fall through the cracks it's always surprising. Any thoughts? (Cancelled after two episodes) Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Friday Question: In the Frasier episode "You Can't Tell A Crook By His Cover", after getting into an argument with Martin and Frasier, Daphne says she is going to her room but goes down the wrong hallway. Frasier makes a comment about how that would have been a dramatic exit had her room been down that hall. Do you know if this was scripted or did Jane make a mistake and Kelsey did some improv to cover it up?

Do any other scenes come to mind where the actor makes a mistake but it is incorporated into the final show?

- Grant, St. Paul, MN

David G. said...

Speaking of "AfterMASH", are there any stories you can share about Harry Morgan's work as the lead in that show?