Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Questions

As I head down to San Diego for a weekend of broadcasting Mariners games on 710 ESPN Seattle, MLB.COM, and the Mariners Radio Network, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

God Shammgod is up first.

Do you prefer a compact set or a bigger one? Remember when "I Love Lucy" moved the action from the cramped apartment set to the huge farm set? It didn't seem to work as well.

If the show is centered on primarily two characters (like I LOVE LUCY) then I much prefer a smaller set. It’s more intimate. You like to have both actors in the same shot if possible. And as a director, I don’t have to worry about long boring crosses while actors move from one end of the set to the other.

There are times when a large elaborate set will overwhelm a scene. The actors disappear into it.

One mistake production directors make is building giant two-story sets for multi-camera shows shot before a studio audience. They’re so big a camera would have to be in the next zip code to show the whole thing. And you never see the second story unless a character goes up or down the stairs. It’s a complete waste of time and money.

For workplace shows or large ensembles a larger set makes sense. You don’t want all the characters forever on top of each other. My favorite was the CHEERS bar, designed by Oscar-winner, Richard Sylbert. It was roomy yet intimate, interesting yet not busy.

And then there is the lunch counter in Wing's and the diner on Becker. It was like the actors were practically sitting on each other's laps....

I had no problem with the WINGS airport terminal unless everyone was perched at Helen's lunch counter, but I did have issues with the BECKER diner (strictly from a shooting aspect.  Visually it was a cool set.)

But in the diner you had this large set with all the action pushed up against one wall. Actors sat at the counter and that was that. Very static and most of the set was unused and unseen.

When I directed BECKER I did whatever I could to move people around, sit them in booths, have Reggie (and later, Chris) serve tables so there would be movement, we’d get to see the set, characters would have to turn away from the counter so we shot them from different angles.

It meant being creative and finding plausible reasons to move the cast around, but the alternative was just planting everybody at the counter and I just hated that.

On the other hand, Becker's office was fantastic.  Plenty of interesting hallways and angles and the counter in the reception area was in the middle.

From Ted:

All of us loyal readers are in awe that you were able segue into a second successful career. But how much did age-ism in the industry we love contribute to your decision to switch careers?

None at all. At the time I went to the upper deck of Dodger Anaheim Stadium to learn how to do baseball play-by-play, I was in my mid-30’s. So I was still in that eleven minute window when I was my prime as far as Hollywood was concerned. Which is another reason so many people in the industry thought I was completely nuts to go off and broadcast minor league baseball for peanuts when I had such a viable career in L.A.  The truth is I managed both careers. 

But my philosophy is you’re never too old to re-invent yourself. Especially when it involves following your passion.

George asks:

How often do sitcom writers in the writers room talk about theme when breaking stories?

On good shows the theme is ever-present. And when you come up with story notions you see if they fit into the overall theme of the show. This is assuming your show even has a theme. The good ones do. Many don’t.

I’ve found that if you don’t a theme, a real direction, then you have no idea what you’re writing. And this leads to confusion, blind alleys, inconsistent shows, and long nights of spinning your wheels.

On the other hand, if you do know what your series is about, you can select the story notions that work in that framework and discard the ones that don’t. Ultimately, that saves you soooo much time and effort.

What are some themes?

30 ROCK – A woman trying to make it in a man’s world.

THE OFFICE – Average people fighting monotony and trying to make more of their lives.

ALL IN THE FAMILY – A man is terrified that the world he always knew is changing and he has no handle on the new world.

Think about how each episode directly or indirectly leads to its theme.  

And finally, from Steve:

Do you know if there were any discussion about having Sam's ex-wife appear at some point on Cheers? I always expected that she'd pop up at some point; seemed like a built-in way to create some drama somewhere down the line. I assume it's rare (for a long-running show) to have something like that mentioned in the exposition that then never got used at all.

As a reader pointed out, she appeared in one episode – the second. She was played by Donna McKechnie (who was the original Cassie in the Broadway smash, A CHORUS LINE, winning a Tony for her performance). The episode was called “Sam’s Women” written by Earl Pomerantz. Donna was hired to play one of Sam’s dates. It was only during a rewrite did we make her Sam’s ex-wife, and the reason was we simply needed a joke.

But I believe the feeling later on was that an ex-wife would only get in the way, so that little history was swept under the rug. We just proceeded as if she never existed. Don’t you wish you could do that with your ex-spouse?

What’s your Friday Question? Please buy my book. Wait. no.  What I meant to say was please leave your question in the comments section. Sorry. And thanks.


Tom Quigley said...

"Do you prefer a compact set or a bigger one?"

Ha! I thought God Shammgod's question was maybe a reference to asking you who you'd rather work with: Shelley Long or Pamela Anderson.... Shows you where my mind's at this time of day...

Orion Anderson said...

I am writing a pilot, but I can't get enough substance for an actual "pilot." Is it better to write a pilot without an origin and just make it like a regular episode than to make an origin episode?

IW Terry said...


William Jansen said...

Regarding themes; did the writing-staff have a similar "sums the show up in one sentence"-theme for Cheers, Becker or M.A.S.H?

DonBoy said...

I never realize how much Terry Farrell looks like Rachel Griffiths.

David D said...

Why do the networks for the past few seasons seem to be so in love with comedies shot with a single camera vs. comedies shot with multi-cameras in front of an audience? I find my self watching more and more "classic" TV (Cheers, MASH, Bob Newhart, Dick Van Dyke) and yes the writing and style are difference but the 3 camera filming and audience can add so much to the show itself. Thanks.

Johnny Walker said...

Frasier's set was a good example of a spacious area that didn't feel vacuous, IMHO.

Chris said...

They've always said Seinfeld had no theme but do you think that's really true? What would be your take on that show's theme?

cadavra said...

I always thought "Seinfeld" was about food: Big Salad, White Omelet, Twix, marble rye, Beefalo, cereal, et al--and of course, soup ("Soup is not a meal," "No soup for you!").

Chris said...

I asked about the old-movie clips from Dream On.

I know it's far-fetched and you rarely mention Married...with Children but to me that show really stood out and meant alot, is there any chance you can get someone who wrote for them to do a guest post about how it was working on that show and the writers' room?

Ron Leavitt and Kim Weiskopf are dead, Michael Moye is retired, that leaves people like Gerry Cohen, Linda Day, Tory Singletary (directors), Katherine Green, Richard Gurman, Ralph R. Farquhar, Ellen Fogle, Kevin Curran, Pamela Eels, Matthew Berry, Arthur Silver, Stacie Lipp, Russell Marcus, David Castro, Calvin Brown Jr., Eric Abrams, Steve Faber, Bob Fisher, Vince Cheung, Ben Montanio, Marcy Vosburgh, Sandy Sprung, Valerie Ahern, Christian McLaughlin, Gabrielle Topping, Garry Bowren, Fran Kaufer, Jim Herzfeld, Alan Eisenstock, Larry Mintz.

I noticed that many of these writers never worked again after that Married...with Children, could it be because that show was so "un-hollywood" and they couldn't find a place on other shows?


Jennifer said...

@Donboy - Thanks for clearing that up. I actually thought that was Rachel Griffiths and wondered why her picture was with this post.

Tom Quigley said...


Linda Day has also passed away, about two or three years ago. She directed a number of different shows I had worked on and was a real sweetheart. Was sad to find out about her passing.

Oliver said...

I'm not convinced 30 Rock is about "a woman making it in a man's world" whatsoever.

In fact, I'd almost go as far as to say that's the show that 30 Rock deliberately avoids being.

30 Rock's theme is much simpler: Liz getting her life together.

Harold X said...

Chris: Did you check those "non-working" former Married with Children people out? At random, I chose Ralph Farquahr, who turns out to have worked quite a bit since that show.

On the other hand, whatever happened to Doug McIntyre?*

(if this post shows up twice, it'e because I tried a second time after it hadn't showed up once the first time)

*note: joke

Wendy M. Grossman said...

William Jansen: I always thought Seinfeld was about the little things that kill you.


Chris said...

@HaroldX - Ellen L. Fogle, Stacie Lipp, David Castro, Fran Kaufer, Gabrielle Topping, Garry Bowren and a number of others hardly worked after that MwC. Stacie Lipp wrote some of the funniest episodes of that show and she vanished 4-5 years later, I know she had a failed pilot on cable a number of years ago but that's it.

@Wendy M. Grossman - spot on.

Chris said...

Also, Ken, at some point you expressed your concern about Cheers being released on blu-ray.

If you happen to have any knowledge about this: when they went back to the original film source and scanned it for the DVD releases, so they could use the full 16:9 frame, do they scan the film and edit in 1080p/2k, making it easier to get a blu ray release, or do they have to go back and do everything from scratch yet again?

John said...

You could have made Sam's ex-wife disappear by saying she ran off with some guy named Chuck Cunningham. Would have been a nice in-house joke for the other big production company on the Paramount lot.

john said...


This is just a thank you note for your help. I am doing a fundraiser for the fight against kids cancer, and one of the organizations insisted I do a training blog. I don't watch reality tv, blog, or tweet, and I tried to get out of it, however, they insisted.

Since I read your blog every day, I thought, what would Ken Levine do ? How can I cover 6 months of training without someone wanting to shoot themselves in the head at the end of the second month ?

So instead of prattling on about cycling cadence, miles logged, etc. I talk about things like rattlesnake reflexes, butt butter, and being stalked by a bald eagle.

Shameless plug, also, just like Ken. Climb 4 the Kids is the event where I will be attempting one of the 10 most difficult bike rides in the US, while towing an 11 week old Australian shepherd named Riley. (Future pet therapy dog.) 80 miles of riding with more than 12,000 feet of climbing in the Sierras.

Pictures of Riley @

warm regards,


D. McEwan said...

As I mentioned in an earlier post on Farce, my favorite farce is Joe Orton's masterpiece What the Butler Saw. One way to kill it dead is with a too-large set.

The play, like any really good farce, traps its characters, the situation and the multiplying lies closing in on them until they are strangling on the lies.

I once saw a production of it at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse in Laguna Beach, CA. This is a very good theater to do a huge musical in. I once saw a terrific production of Oliver there, for example. But for What the Butler Saw they had a set big enough to do Phantom of the Opera in. It was gigantic and expansive. There was no feelng of being trapped in it at all. The set was not all that was wrong with this production (The director rewrote and "cleaned up" some of it, claiming that he was just "doing the rewrites Orton would have done himself had he not been murdered shortly after completing it." I witheringly congratulated this egotistical jerk on his ability to read the minds of the dead), but the set was an insurmountable barrier to its ever being any good. The set killed it before an actor ever walked onstage.

Only a few months later, I saw another production of it, this time in a very small theater in Santa Barbara. It had a tiny set. I swear, it was not fully 15 feet wide. And the designer had done a brilliant thing. At the edges of the proscenium, he or she had placed partial fourth walls extending into the set on the apron about one foot. The designer gave the wall sections a serated edge, so it was like vertical jaws biting in on the characters. The sense of the characters being ever-more-trapped was terrific and highly effective. The result wsa a vastly preferable production that really worked. (It also helped that they had not fucked with that perfect script.)

I've seldom seen a more easily-grasped illustration of the importance of appropriate set-size to the work being presented.

Conversely, in 1978, a stage version of Dracula that I wrote was given a spectacular production in a gigantic theater, and featured two really HUGE sets (and one small one for Lucy's tomb and cemetary), a Castle Dracula set and a Seward's Sanitarium set, both of which were two-stories and featured four rooms in the Sanitarium and five rooms in Castle Dracula, with enormous staircases in both. In one highly-effective scene, we had action going on in three different rooms at once, as characters talked in the living room unaware of Dracula's attack on Mina going on upstairs, while high above the set (12 feet above the stage floor) Renfield in his cell paced in an agitated manner because he was aware of Dracula's presence, and the audience had the suspense of wondering how long it would take the good guys to stop yapping and find out what was going on upstairs and rescue Mina. What, in a movie, would have been done with cross-cutting, we were able to do with simoultaneous staging. Here a really big set worked for us very well indeed.

(And I admired the courage of our Renfield. Besides being a very good actor who gave a terrific performance, utterly devoid of camp, he played his entire role in this tiny, tiny cell, 5 feet by 3 feet, whose downstage side was a sheer open drop of 12 feet. And he had to ride the set when it rolled out onto the stage and when it rolled back again, and not fall off that sheer drop whenever the set halted.)

Ryan said...

Will we ever see AfterM*A*S*H released on DVD?

Brian said...

Ken, really good posts last couple of days. My daughter put in an application to be an extra in the Hunter Games (ok, I did too, but I had no idea what the Hunter Games were about at the time, so when they asked for talents, I said "I play the banjo"). Thanks for explaining what it would be like.

YELLOW12 said...


I am starting college at Boston University in the Fall, where I will be studying Film/TV Production. I hope to one day write and produce for sitcoms. Next to I LOVE LUCY, CHEERS is my favorite sitcom of all time, and a great inspiration. I have a few questions that I've always wanted to know the answer to about the series...

1. In Warren Littlefields' book TOP OF THE ROCK, he mentioned that the elderly wheel-chair bound woman cut from the pilot was Elaine Stritch. Being a fan of hers, I can tell you that the woman in the pilot does not look Elaine Stritch. Can you testify to that?

2. When exactly did Shelley Long give notice that she did not wish to return for Season Six? I'm curious as to how the timing played out in regards to the development of her fifth season arc. Did you know this going into the season? Also, how and when were the other cast members notified about this?

3. In a 1993 New York Times article, Glenn Charles mentioned that the original cliffhanger for the seventh season involved Sam marrying a stranger on a whim. The episode apparently didn't work and was replaced with "Sisterly Love." Can you shed any light on this episode and why it never ended up in front of the cameras? (In the long run, it was probably a VERY wise decision to scrap it.)

4. Bebe Neuwirth was in one episode of Season Four, two episodes in Season Five, and by Season Six became a recurring character. She won two Emmys and appeared in 50 episodes before finally becoming a regular in Season Ten. Why wasn't Bebe officially made a regular before then?

5. I've read that Kirstie Alley miscarried in September 1990, and that there was a possibility of making Rebecca pregnant with Sam's child from their one night stand in the Season Nine premiere. Is there any truth in that? I've also read that the baby storyline from the first half of Season Ten was a result of another miscarriage. Where exactly was that storyline supposed to go, and was it developed because of a (possible) pregnancy?

Thank you for your time!

(Orlando, FL)

Larry said...

Sam's ex-wife got in the way so she was gone, and that was a good decision. You often need to shake out things in the first season. (Remember the bright light when anyone opened the door at Phil's in Murphy Brown? You shouldn't because they dumped that quickly.) But what do you think of characters often referred to but never seen?

For instance, I don't believe we ever saw Norm's wife Vera, and that was the way to play it. I can't recall if Niles' wife Maris was ever shown, but I think that would have been a mistake.

Then there was Buddy's wife, Pickles, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She was in a few episodes then Carl Reiner (or someone) realized she's much better as an offscreen character Buddy can just joke about.

On the other hand, I never really liked how Wilson could be heard but his face not seen on Home Improvement. After a while, it seemed affected. It was like Dick Van Dyke again, where in the first season you could never see Alan Brady's face, but later it was decided if we're going to use the character, let's see all of him.

D. McEwan said...

Maris was never seen nor heard. Vera's ankles were seen, and her voice was heard. There may have been other anatomical bits glimpsed, but never her face. She was played by Bernadette Burkett, a talented comedienne who is George Wendt's actual wife. I've worked with Bernadette, so I know what Vera's face looks like. Norm did well.

Breadbaker said...

Ken, loved the anecdote about why Bud Black calls his injured players the Breakfast Club. Fresh and interesting. '

Note to D. McEwan: my son played the doctor in What the Butler Saw and I totally agree about the need for the set to be claustrophobic. His production was in a college library and was about 15 feet wide and lit to make it sort of creepy. Worked quite well. I couldn't imagine it on a stage where you could stage a full musical.

Lynn said...

When my father interviewed William Asher (who directed those last thirteen I LOVE LUCY episodes with the huge farmhouse set) some years ago, Asher said that set was one of the most impractical he'd ever worked with, and blamed Desi Arnaz for it. Asher said anybody who knows anything about TV direction and staging could look at that set and see the problems, but Desi really didn't and couldn't. He just knew what he wanted the Ricardo's Connecticut home to look like, and he was in charge and no one was going to tell him it was all wrong. Asher did take credit for insisting that another door be added on that set, in the dining room, near the kitchen. He said originally everyone was coming and going through the front door and it seemed to take forever for them to cross.

Kirk said...

SEINFELD was about shallowness.

The show itself wasn't shallow. If anything, it had more depth than much of what was on TV at the time, or since.

Eric.McGaw said...

In an interview by The Hollywood Reporter, they asked showrunners if they always planned on killing off specific characters from the beginning of the series. Have you ever killed off a character? When did you decide this was necessary for the show? And how did the actor take the news?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Maris was never seen or heard - but anyone who ever saw THE POWERS THAT BE imagined her as David Hyde Pierce's character's wife in that show, played by Valeria Mahaffey. DHP himself has said he always imagined Maris that way.


D. McEwan said...

"Maris was never seen or heard - but anyone who ever saw THE POWERS THAT BE imagined her as David Hyde Pierce's character's wife in that show, played by Valeria Mahaffey."

Not everyone. I saw every episode of The Powers That Be, loved it, but DHP's character was so different on that show, I had no carry over, and Mahaffey never occurred to me. Now that you say it, I can see it. (Until Maris became cartoonishly thin, escaping from jail by slipping out between the bars.) And Mahaffey is such a wonderfully funny actress.

D. McEwan said...

PS. The big living room curved stairway on Fran Drescher's excruciating The Nanny was the same stairway used on the main set of The Powers That Be.

Amy said...

Here's a Friday question on a Monday-- when stars get their own sitcoms, why do their characters tend to share their first name, even in cases (unlike Seinfeld, for instance) where they're playing an entirely different person? Do the networks think that we won't recognize them otherwise?

Steve mcqueen said...

what does a partially scripted script look like? is it just seen heading, and then action, and or description, and that's it?