Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Questions

Hello from Peoria, Arizona where spring training continues. People ask if I miss being on a show fulltime. Re-read the first sentence. Here are this week’s Friday Questions. In honor of spring training, the first is a baseball announcing question. The rest are TV and movie related.

rockfish asks:

Chemistry in the booth seems to be pretty key to a great broadcast, would you agree? How big a role does the producer play in that, and how is it tested on the road? I seem to hear Rick (Rizzs) and you among others make sure to mention the producer (Kevin Cremin) a lot last year; I've always enjoyed the Mariners broadcasts and last year was new but quite enjoyable, despite the team.

We’re very lucky on the Mariners to have the best producer/engineer in the business in Kevin Cremin (pictured above).  And I don't just say that so my voice isn't buried under the crowd.   In addition to the technical aspects of the broadcast, Kevin is forever feeding us stats, interesting background on topics we may bring up, and in general making me sound a whole lot smarter than I am.

Here’s how special this guy is: Now of course we have the internet and can look things up in a jiff. But in the dark ages ('90s), Kevin carried around essentially a portable library – a large heavy cabinet filled with baseball reference books, media guides, rule books, etc. This was in addition to all the cumbersome broadcast gear.  You can’t believe what a pain-in-the-ass this bulky cabinet was, and no other producer/engineer bothered. But Kevin schlepped it with us everywhere.  Little wonder that he usually is the engineer for the national radio broadcast of the World Series. And has gotten a hernia.

(By the way, there is a Kevin Cremin who is a line producer.  Worked on THE SHIELD among others.  Not the same guy.)  

Chemistry in the booth does make for a much better broadcast. Again, I’m very fortunate. My broadcast partners, Rick Rizzs and Dave Sims both tolerate me with patience and grace.

But there have been cases where broadcast partners hate each other and don’t speak. For a long time the radio team for the Cleveland Indians was Jimmy Dudley and Bob Neal. They couldn’t stand each other. When one was calling the game the other would routinely eat chicken and toss the bones into a metal waste basket that would clang annoyingly just to piss his partner off.   There are cases of announcers coming to blows.   I'm sure when Al Michaels used to work on ABC with Howard Cosell that there were times he wanted to beat the living crap out of him.   Now THAT I would have liked to have seen. 

From Ernie:

Have you ever worked all night on an episode and you felt it still didn't work but you had to put it on the air? If so, how do you deal with it? Do you doubledown harder on future episodes, brainstorm, or do you just accept there will be hits and misses as part of doing business?

If we categorically know a show just doesn’t work we will take steps to dump it. Hopefully we’ve got another script in okay shape ready for next week. We’ll just grab that and worry about next week later. Or perhaps we’ll shut down production for a day to completely construct something else. That’s a pretty drastic move because it costs the production a lot of money.  Budget is a major consideration here.

One of the advantages of doing a multi-camera show on a Wednesday-Tuesday schedule is that as a God forbid you have the weekend.

Usually when you have a major rewrite, by the time you’re proofing the script at 6:00 in the morning you have no idea whether you’ve helped the script or just written a new bad version. You can go down to the next day’s runthrough and it’s a disaster or magically works like a charm. Trust me, I’ve experienced both.

For a more detailed example of this and the video of the resulting show go here. I’m extremely proud of this episode.

But those are extreme cases. Most of the time we’ll have things in every show that don’t work or could work better. The staff has to have the confidence to assume they can fix the problems. Dave Hackel, the creator of BECKER used to say to his cast on those occasions when a troubled show was on the stage, “Every week we deliver a beautiful healthy baby. Sometimes they just come out feet first.”

That said, some shows come out better than others. If we’re still not happy we will sometimes reshoot new scenes the following week during pick-ups. But at some point we have to live with it. These shows are just too expensive to casually toss out. Every season will have its weaker episodes. We just have to keep them to a minimum and learn from them.

Someone who didn’t leave his name (please leave YOURS) wonders:

When you watch the DVD extras of any current movie, they often show multiple takes of the same scene, with many different punchlines being tried.

How long as this been the accepted way that comedies are filmed? Does this mean that nobody liked the original punch line in the script, or that improvising is more accepted these days?

It's hard to imagine a comedy of the 1960's being done this way. As a classic example, I'll bet the script to "The Apartment" was completely finalized before filming, and it was shot exactly as written, with no alternate line readings or ad-libbing.

Filming multiple punchlines has become a popular trend in studio comedies. Judd Apatow is a big proponent of this. For his movies, he shoots lots and lots of film with different options. In one sense it’s smart because when you finally do test a movie and something doesn’t work you can’t just go back and try something else. That’s the luxury we have in multi-camera sitcoms. If a joke doesn’t work for an audience we can rally the writers, come up with a new line, and just shoot it.

The key to all this improvising is you need actors, a director, or on-stage writers who can pull it off.

Still, there’s a part of me that misses those fine-tuned comedy screenplays like THE APARTMENT where every single word is there for a purpose.

And finally, Chris weighs in:

Why do they say Whitney is TAPED in front of a live studio audience? Do they still use tape in 2012?

Multi-camera shows are taped in High Definition, but they look like film… or close enough. And it’s much cheaper.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


Todd Ayres said...

Every Friday morning this column is part of my spring fever ritual where I don't get anything done. Just surf the net for a couple hours until I'm ready to do minimal work until 5:00PM. So... thanks?

Jee Jay said...

"As a classic example, I'll bet the script to "The Apartment" was completely finalized before filming"

that may be true for The Apartment but there were plenty of classic Hollywood movies that were built, torn apart, and rebuilt before the final version. Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz for examples, had multiple directors, multiple shooting scripts, test screenings, re-shoots, etc.

Let's not romanticize the past. They called Hollywood the 'Dream Factory', for a reason.

Michael said...

As I understand it, one time, Jimmy Dudley had to use the bathroom and asked Bob Neal to do an extra half-inning. Neal told him to ... well, never mind. But Dudley really had to go, so there was no play-by-play for half an inning.

Then you had a team like Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett, where their joke was that somebody needed to pick out the silver because they might as well get married.

Fangry said...

I think Chris' question was looking more at "taped vs stored on a hard drive" rather than "taped vs filmed".

Many people have a tapeless video camera in their pocket these days, but I worked at a mid-market TV station for a few years, and I'd almost be surprised if they had even moved up to digital tape yet. They weren't spending any money on upgrades until they had to.

kjmac said...

I know you are all about being a sportscaster now. However, what would it take to draw you back to the writers room on a show?

jbryant said...

Jee Jay is right about GWTW, Oz and the like, but I doubt there was much improv involved in those shoots. However, it's certainly something that goes back in comedy to the silent era. Mack Sennett's bunch was among those who used to make stuff up on the fly. And when a scene wasn't working for director Leo McCarey, he would play piano on the set and brainstorm until inspiration struck. Every now and again you'll read about how some line in a classic film was an actor's improv that got kept. But there's no question that it's more common now (in TV as well), since we have so many working actors who came out of the improv world.

Kirk said...

According to a biography of Cosell I just read, he and Michaels didn't come to blows but did get into a heated off-mike arguement which climaxed in Michaels accusing Cosell of being drunk. Afterwards, a stressed-out Michaels went to the bar at a hotel where both men were staying and ordered a straight vodka in a tall glass. The bartender could only fill the glass halfway, explaining that Cosell had been there earlier, and had pretty much cleaned him out.

LouOCNY said...

On the other hand, everybody always ASSUMED that the Marx Brothers made it up as they went along, but, of course, the opposite was the truth. the original script of the play version of ANIMAL CRACKERS exists, and it is said the dialogue matches the dialogue in the movie almost word for word (excepting name changes and certain plot deviations.). In fact, the brothers WANTED everything on paper, so they could make sure the blocking, timing, etc, would be perfect. The idea it LOOKS extemporaneous is a tribute to the brothers' genius. One of the few exceptions to this are the scenes in DUCK SOUP with Chico and Harpo, peanut sellers and Edgar Kennedy, lemonade vendor. DUCK SOUP, of course being directed by (surprise!) Leo McCarey.

Paul Duca said...

My question is...Ken, what did you do to your hair?

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting stuff about the Marx Brothers. I'll have to check out that script! Could it not be possible that the stage script evolved over performances of it? It's hard to believe that some variation and experimentation wouldn't sneak in eventually.

Also, it's extremely difficult to believe that the vendor stuff from Duck Soup was improvised... It was just so perfect! Have I understood correctly? If so, it's astounding!

Breadbaker said...

Thanks for your words about Kevin Cremin. He's a hero in our family, both for the great job he's done and because, as my son would say when he was very little, he's not just a producer, he's an engineer!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My guess is that someone transcribed an Animal Crackers performance. There is no question that Groucho was a genius at coming up with improvised lines.

In fact, there is a famous story about The Cocoanuts, which was co=written by George S. Kaufman, who also directed the Broadway veresion. gsk was at the back of the auditorium talking to a friend and suddenly stopped mid-sentenceand whirled to look at the stage. 'What is it?" the friend is supposed to have asked. "I thought I just heard one of the original lines," GSK replied.

Sp.ues, the Marx Brothers improvised a lot, but I think more on stage than on film. Tjat was the famous legend of Irving Thalberg - they had a period of some not-so-good movies, and told Thalberg, when he asked, that it was because they hadn't been able to test the material and hone it in front of a live audience. So Thalberg arranged a road tour on which they performed the comedy scenes with some storyboards to make the links for the audience. The resulting movies were A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races(which has admittedly dated badly).


Al in Portland said...

Speaking of Jimmy Dudley ... he was also the play-by-play man for the one and only season of the Seattle Pilots.

Dave Olden said...

"Why do they say Whitney is TAPED in front of a live studio audience? Do they still use tape in 2012?"

Wow, you're right.

A more accurate way would be:

"Whitney is captured to a proprietary digital media format in front of live studio audience."

Much better. :)

Paul Duca said...

I apologize for my previous question...I didn't realize that was Kevin, your producer. There is a superficial resemblance--thin, glasses.

Jake Mabe said...

Ken: Do you remember Lindsey Nelson? He's from my hometown and the worst thing I can say about him is he called Mets games. Seriously, the guy was a pro's pro. Longtime sports viewers might also remember plaid sports jackets, his work for NBC, at the Cotton Bowl, and for Notre Dame football. His "team up" with Curt Gowdy for NBC during the 1969 Mets/Orioles World Series was a classic.

Nonchalant Savant said...

"Why do they say Whitney is TAPED in front of a live studio audience?"

Habit. Folks still say "Dial 1-800-XXX... etc"

When is the last time you dialed ANYTHING? Children don't have a clue as to what a telephone dial is.

I work with digital audio, and yet still occasionally ask "Are we rolling?" Again, NOTHING is rolling.

jbryant said...

Nonchalant Savant: Yeah, when I'm writing a script, invariably there'll be a moment when someone pulls out a cell phone, and I'll start to write: "He dials a number..." I'll usually change it to something like "taps out a number" or "makes a call," but it annoys me.

Michael said...

Kirk, Cosell had the habit of having a drink before a Monday Night Football game at the party they had in each city for affiliates and the like, but, unfortunately, now and then, he overdid it before airtime. Whether that's why he and Michaels had so much trouble, or Cosell by then was simply out of control on every level, I don't know.

Jake, you are a Tennessean if you're from Lindsey country. One of the greatest announcers I've ever heard and from what I've read, one of the nicest and most respected guys in his profession. As for those jackets, when he got the award at Cooperstown, he announced he was giving the Hall of Fame a "Lindsey Nelson working jacket," then said, "In fact, this one," took it off, and handed it to the head of the Hall of Fame.

Johnny Walker said...

Great to know. Thanks, Wendy!

Rich Norton said...

It is odd that no new term has come along to replace "filming" or "taping". "Recording" doesn't really work, because it is so closely associated with sound/music. Likewise, "Photographed" doesn't sound right, either, and "captured" sounds too accidental.

Anonymous said...

My question is -

Have you listened to Bill Lawrence's interview with Marc Maron? If so, what did you think of what he said about show running? He talks a fair bit about the process. I especially enjoyed his story about not asking actors about their characters.


Mark said...

A question:

For the occasional plot point where a character has oodles of cash, how is this done? Is it real, fake, or some mix, like green paper wrapped in real $100s?

William C Bonner said...

I've got a general question, that might fall into your Friday Question genre, or might just be a simple answer.

One of my favorite shows over the past couple of years has been Archer. I've described it to friends as a cross between Get Smart and South Park. It's seasons seem to be 10 episodes long.

For a season like this, is itt most likely that all of the season will be written and sold, then the voices and animation done in one block, or is it likely to flow in a weekly timeframe similar to other longer running US series?