Thursday, April 12, 2012

A follow-up to yesterday's post

Some follow-up thoughts on yesterday’s post. It generated a lot of comments. First off though, Zachary Knighton must’ve read the piece. He Tweeted these:

@kenlevine never meant to disrespect older scribes in the biz. Only thoughts on what makes HE special and my rapport with the writers on HE

@kenlevine also, I appreciate your response and btw Cheers and Mash were two shows that made me wanna be an actor....

Thanks, Zachary. And like I said, I’m a fan.

Now to some of the comments. Let me respond to a few.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Older writers also can add focus to a show. In my experience, younger writers are all over the place. Like a kindergarten full of screaming kids, indeed.

Then again, isn't that what youth is about? Reinventing the wheel, not moving forward, but doing the same old stuff in such a way that it seems new? Would an older writer not try to add meaning and feeling to a situation and set-up that doesn't deserve it?

No, I don’t think experienced writers would try to add emotion where it’s not warranted. That was always my issue with WILL & GRACE. They’d have 21 minutes of hilarious burlesque and then some overly sappy moment that felt completely bogus and contrived. The key to strong emotional scenes is that they have to be earned. Experienced writers might re-think the basic story you were planning to tell. They’d find a way to ground it, make it more real, find problems that were more substantial.   And if the original story was too inconsequential, they might suggest that you just scrap it entirely.

As to Ger’s other point, that reinventing the wheel is a good thing and produces more original material, I would respectfully disagree. What’s the old expression? Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Producing a show is hard enough without making needless mistakes. You need sound dramatic structure. Once you’re comfortable with the principles of good basic storytelling then you can twist it to make it new and yours. Picasso was an excellent draftsman before making all those cubist paintings where everyone looked like Liza Minnelli with her face smooshed against a window. Yet, with the possible exception of Steve Buscemi, Picasso knew people didn’t have both eyes on one side of their nose. He broke the rules after learning the rules. 

I think of baseball. Experienced managers like Joe Torre had lifelong baseball people like Don Zimmer as his bench coach and right-hand man. Zimmer didn’t have to communicate with the young players (who have no idea who he was other than some old guy who really shouldn’t be allowed to wear a baseball uniform anymore), but just be there to lend his expertise to the manager and give him the benefit of his 137 years in baseball.

Anonymous said:

Speaking of ageism, what do ya'll think about Dan Harmon releasing yet ANOTHER recording bomb of Chevy Chase? Is show-running like being in the Mafia? Sure looks like he's trying to exterminate Chevy.

In case you missed this latest wrinkle, another voicemail from Chevy to COMMUNITY showrunner, Dan Harmon has “mysteriously” surfaced after a year. On the tape Chevy basically tells Harmon that his show sucks. Translation: Chevy Chase wants more lines and screen time on the show. So who’s the asshole in this case (sounds like I have the makings of a great reality show)? Simple. Whoever leaked that tape to the public. And considering it was on Harmon’s voicemail, I would kinda sorta maybe have to point the finger at him, wouldn’t you say? God, it kills me that I have to take Chevy’s side.

From McElroy...

It seems to me that good writing is good writing, regardless of the age of the writer. It's true that younger writers would have a better handle on the dialog of their generation ... but is that all there is to a show?

Actually, dialog is the easy part. People think that coming up with jokes is the real ordeal, when, in fact, it’s structuring a good fresh story that causes showrunners to call the Betty Ford Center their vacation home.

From several readers there was a FRIENDS backlash – blaming that show for starting a genre of attractive young twentysomething pals looking for love and career advancement in glossy urban settings. FRIENDS was a very well-done show, but I must say, I don't quite understand why viewers of these new shows care about these young people. Wouldn’t audiences hate them for all being in the Lucky Sperm Club? They’re gorgeous, they have amazing apartments, they have cool jobs – oh no, they might not win the scavenger hunt! Who gives a shit?

But apparently audiences do care about these pretty people. Maybe it’s wish fulfillment, maybe they have short memories and forgot how their high school cheerleaders wouldn’t piss on their heads if their hair was on fire.  But it's another perk of the Lucky Sperm Club.  If the camera loves 'em then so does America. 

Little Miss Nomad said:

I don't think catchphrases or crutches are really what Happy Endings is doing so much as developing and depicting the special language any tight-knit group is gonna have. I dig that.

So can I.

That said, "A-mah-zing" is the worst, and I haven't noticed the how-mey/homey thing, but that's irritating as well.

SEINFELD and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER got around that problem by creating their own glossary of expressions. “Spongeworthy,” “Shrinkage,” “Suit Up,” etc.

Thanks to everyone who chimed in.  I love posts that spark debate.  To me, that's a Happy Ending


Richard J. Marcej said...

Am I the only person who'd like to see a new sitcom called "Lucky Sperm Club"? :b

Redhead said...

...based upon the book by Amy Tan.

Johnny Walker said...

I don't know. There's some "happy endings" that become tiresome after a while.

RS Gray said...

Thought of this article while listening to a podcast with SNL's Bill Hader. He was talking about why he idolized Matt Stone and Trey Parker and he said it's because they don't write South Park and The Book of Mormon as comedies. They write them looking for the emotional center and focusing on structure, and then finding the humor from that emotional core, but never sacrificing story for laughs.

Kim said...

A-mah-zing makes me cringe every time I hear it. I hope they stop saying it soon. I haven't noticed the homey thing, so maybe it's not as annoying. I like the show most of the time, but if they continue down this cutesy and irritating road (like the pilot of "New Girl"), I'm out. I don't care how old the writers are.

rainrainrain said...

I think one thing that distinguishes Friends from many of the mimic shows that follwed is that the characters on Friends truly loved one another, were there to support each other, and showed that support and love.

So many shows these days about groups of people are all about the snark, how mean can they be, etc. The ones that end up on my long-term watch list have that same support theme. Snark & teasing is fine on a short-term basis, but an entire show built around it? Nope. Even The Office folks rally 'round each other when an outside enemy threatened.

There are a LOT of holes in my theory (a lot!!) but I know for sure it's one of the big questions of what works for me in with a show, or not.

RCP said...

Great posts from yesterday and today.

I'm also driven up the wall by those "meaningful" scenes tacked on to sitcoms - especially when accompanied by a soft piano. On those occasions when it's done well - as with All in the Family - it can move you from laughter to tears in 30 seconds.

And that does look like Liza.

Volklfan said...

I have watched HE from the beginning and I like it. not the best show on air right now but a solid show that does a great job of not taking itself seriously. I also really do get the sense that the cast has a lot of fun together.
The fact that Zachary Knighton took the time to seek you out and respond in such a gracious manner is impressive and shows gratitude and maturity, he really seems like a great guy who knows that he is a lucky part of a great team trying to make a great show. Respect, I just started liking HE even more.

MikeinSeattle said...

Speaking of happy endings, did you hear the one about the guy who went to the massage therapist? When he asked her for a happy ending, she leans over and whispers, "you blew up the death star."

ChicagoJohn said...

I didn't watch Friends for the longest time because all of the people on the show looked so perfect.
It made the show completely unreal to me and hard to relate to. I pretty much had to be talked into watching it, and I was surprised at how adept the performers were at comedy.

Which is my own prejudice: extremely pretty people are often not good at comedy.... because they don't have to be funny.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

And I love it when you debate back. For the record, I did not intend to say that reinventing the wheel is a good thing. If anything, I was slamming younger writers for being preoccupied with surface stuff, coming up with old conflicts and old ideas and spending all their energy on finding a new form. And after all that thinking they have made a huge leap forward. What I do men is that that is what youth does and it might be redundant to blame them for not carying on where we ended up.

vernonlee said...

Re the Chevy VM:

I'm not clear whether it was on Harmon's home VM. But if it was on his production office VM, a dozen people could've heard/ saved it.

The assistant plays the message (and transcribes it for the phone sheet) but it's the kind of message you want your boss to actually listen to so s/he would save it. And also call everyone in the production office for a good laugh and play it on speaker a bunch of times. Maybe Harmon thinks it should be forwarded to the studio, the VP Current at the network, and Chevy's agent and/or manager ("this is what we have to deal with - get your client in line"). Bunch of ears there, including their assistants.

You get the picture.

Takeaway: Harmon's a jackass, Chevy's a jackass, lots of people could've leaked this, and I'm a pedant.

Uncle Jimmy Brosnan said...

Zimmer was Torre's bench coach? And all these years, I thought he was Torre's enforcer!

Anonymous said...

Re: Chevy

It brings up another question regarding young people writing for older people. If "Community" is anything to go by, it seems younger people not only can't write for older people, on that show, they have absolutely no interest in it.

At the beginning, I thought the writers were simply struggling with the challenge (for them), and didn't have the writing chops to create more than a sad cardboard character for Chevy. Then, in one episode, Pierce went to Annie's house, saw her sad living environment, and offered to cut her a check to help her out. At that moment, I thought, "even though it's kind of a hack off of the Dangerfield character in "Back to School," it's still a far more satisfying situation to highlight Chevy's character, i.e. the old wizard who can change circumstances with the wave of his American Express card, than what they had before, which before was a weak cardboard character only around to service some lame throwaway joke, by some overworked hack 20-something writer eager to please Harmon.

I liked the idea of a constant conflict due to an age gap between Pierce and the others that would be filled by Pierce's or a groupmember's humanity. At least it was a relationship I could understand and even get behind as a viewer.

But... no. They simply didn't have the writing chops.

In any case, Chevy's concerns as recently noted are absolutely valid. I was amazed after season one that he chose to stick it out. After all, they can be as lazy or incompetent with the writing as they want, but at the end of the day, it's Chevy who must say those terrible lines, and try to make them better than the crap it is.

I think the pressure was building, morale was sliding, and Harmon did nothing until the inevitable explosion.

Harmon's the show runner. A creative show is his responsibility, and regardless of how Chevy finally erupts, it's Harmon's failure. He can write as many loose parodies based on some movie or television show that he likes, and call it brilliant. His own character doesn't change.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The thing I think a lot of people - certainly in the UK - missed about FRIENDS is that despite being pretty and having great apartments and having great joke writers the friends all had some pretty difficult life problems to cope with: crazy and/or difficult/demanding parents, personal losses, difficulties finding and keeping jobs, and so on - all the things that go with being in your 20s and trying to find your place in a scary world. So there was a lot of reality underneath the polish that I'm not sure is there with some of the show's recent imitators.


Johnny Walker said...

I've heard so many people say they've witnessed Chase being an asshole, but I've never seen anyone actually give an example.

The closest I've gotten is an interviewee noting that he's got a remarkable talent for insulting people, even when he doesn't mean to.

Anyone witnessed something they'd care to share?

Anthony Strand said...

To the show's credit, they hardly used "A-mah-zing" at all in season 2 except as a specific joke about how silly "A-mah-zing" is.

I'm thinking of things like the flashback to Penny as a kid and the scene where she says that it's "more of a summer word."

pumpkinhead said...

Johnny Walker, there was an episode of Politically Incorrect from (obviously) years ago where Chevy got into it with Stephen Bochco that I wish I could find on Youtube to show you.

Damian1342 said...

I asked a question last week, in regards to getting a writing job using only a Sitcom Pilot as a sample, as opposed to a traditional Spec. Assuming it's good of course. I wanted to know if I really had to go the spec route or if a funny pilot would work for a freelance or staff job instead. Now, I'm not even talking about an unknown writer getting to create his own show just an entry level deal - but that brings me to David Caspe. How did he get that gig? The story I heard was he had a meeting with someone and they asked for another idea, and he pitched Happy Endings. Does anyone know the full story? Based on IMDB, he seems like he got a deal as an unknown? Thoughts? Thanks!

Nick said...

The King of Catch Phrase Comedy was Full House in the eighties and early nineties. By season 9 I'm not sure that there even were writers working on the show. Just a collection of set catch phases that a computer would spit out in different order every week.

Of course Full House ended right as the Golden Age of Comedy (Seinfeld et al) was beginning.

Thank God

Carol said...

I'm very impressed that the actor didn't do the usual internet thing, which is to misinterpret what was said and turn it into a big flame war, so well done him.

As far as older people not being able to write 'young slang' and all, I think many writers get around that, and avoid dating their show, by coming up with their own slang. Buffy Speak comes to mind.

And I liked Friends and watched it faithfully, but if I had to pick my favourite members of the Lucky Sperm Club, it would be the characters in Coupling.

nairam_tdlowneorg said...

Maybe this could be a friday question for you Ken: what do you think about Cougar Town? I know it has changed a lot and blah blah blah, but i really don't understand why it's still on. It's so unbelievable dull and narcissistic. I love Scrubs, but Cougar Town is crap. Nevertheless i made it till season 3, just in hope it gets better eventually. But it only got worse. I think Bill Lawrence got really lazy. He just wanted to make more money while having fun(at least in his eyes) with his rich actor-friends. He gives a shit about good gags or any emotional stuff, that made scrubs so awesome.

Patrick said...

I personally love when Penny uses Amahhhzing, I think its funny. All friend groups have words like this. I dont get why people hate it so much

Anonymous said...

Question for Ken

Do you ever consider it appropriate behavior to attack actors on your show by humiliating them via obnoxious script choices you prescribe specifically for that purpose?

If not, what should an actor do if, in the middle of a show's run, a show runner calls a personal jihad against him, and attempts to initiate underhanded, passive-aggressive schemes even to the point of diminishing himself, and his own show? Also, at what point should network execs step in with authority and forcibly impose sanity into the mix?

By Ken Levine said...


I answer your question first thing tomorrow morning.

-bee said...


Don't know if Ken is a fan of Cougartown, but I am so will speak up for it.

Coincidentally enough, in the discussion of Happy Endings it came up how the familiarity between the characters has bred a 'language' between them that is specific to the group.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that Happy Endings got this from Cougartown, which I would describe as a show about a group of people who on the surface have little in common but have bonded over the private rituals they have devised over the years to entertain each other.

Not that all the 'explanations' in the world will make you find the show funny - but it IS a show with a point and I personally think it's great.

Oddly enough, while I kind of liked Scrubs, I got tired of it after a few years. What I like better about Cougartown is the characters are not so relentlessly emotionally needy and don't trade on being adorable and precious. There is a refreshing streak of melencholy that is not glossed over as it might be in other shows, like even though Courtney Cox is great friends with her ex once in awhile a line is thrown in about how hurt she was about his philandering when they were married. Its a great trick to believably portray affection mixed with sadness at the same time.

IMHO some of Cougartown's virtues are pretty subtle. I actually think Bill Lawrence took what he learned from Scurbs and polished it into a thing that is really quite beautiful at times, and that 'earns' its emotional moments more honestly than Scrubs.

I will say this though, Cougartown is a bad title. I know people who refuse to watch the show based on the title alone.

nairam_tdlowneorg said...


Thanks for your answer. I think you are right about this one "and that 'earns' its emotional moments more honestly than Scrubs." I think Scrubs had a few moments, where the emotional moment was not honest, but a lot of good music. ;)

Maybe it's just my taste. I just can't stand these characters. Bobby is the only one i think is funny, because he can do something stupid from time to time. When i watch the rest of the group, i think i'm watching some middle aged bored rich people who desperately try to kill some time. and i'm trapped with them.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks. Maybe one day when I'm ready I'll track down that video.

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

Johnny Walker - I'm loathe to admit I watched it, but find Jane Curtain's interview with Oprah from the last year or two. She gives specific examples of Chevy's extremely bad behavior from 35+ years ago. That man is a blight.

In terms of the Harmon vs Chase, it's like choosing sh1t vs diarrhea. While I have to admit it's VERY bad form to leak private voicemails (cough Kim Basinger cough), I have to come out Team Harmon only because he at least seems to care about the show and its fans, whereas Chase cares ONLY about himself.

Unknown said...

Hey Ken - great posts/discussion about Happy Endings. I work for a social media marketing agency, and I would like to invite you to a special Happy Endings press event on Thursday. I am sending an invite to that is correct?