Friday, June 08, 2012

Who doesn't love a pie in the face?

Here are some more of your Friday Questions... brought to you by -- my new book. Click here or on the cover and relive the '60s whether you were alive during them or not.

Jennifer starts us off:
As someone who staged a massive pie fight for one of your shows, (you can watch it here) I was wondering if you had any thoughts on visual comedy. The reason I ask is that I've noticed among many aspiring writers a tendency to look down their noses at visual comedy. As if any script that isn't dialogue-dialogue-dialogue is automatically lowbrow.

I’m a HUGE fan of physical comedy. Even sophisticated comedies benefit from physical humor. We use it on every show we’re on. MODERN FAMILY currently does a great job working it in.  So does PARKS & REC. And as a director I’m always looking for physical business to supplement the dialogue.

The truth is physical comedy is the most enduring. I LOVE LUCY will be funny 100 years from now.  Last night's hilarious DAILY SHOW will not. 

The trick is finding the Lucys who can pull it off.

I always invite my younger readers to seek out some of the great physical comedians of the past. Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Charlie Chaplin – any serious student of comedy needs to be exposed to their work.  Plus, you will be richly rewarded. 

And younger readers need to consider this: when you see pie fights and other scenes you’ve seen countless times by countless performers – THESE early comedians INVENTED those routines. They’re not homages, they’re not parodies, they're not Adam Sandler trailer pratfalls – they’re ORIGINAL.

I hold great physical comedians in the absolute highest regard.

Natalie asks:

Say the writing staff is going over a script and somebody finds a plot hole, major continuity error, inconsistency, glaring factual there any discussion about fixing it or is the attitude just "eh, it's TV, the audience doesn't care."

Well, it depends on the show of course, but on shows I’ve been on the answer is: we have those discussions ALL THE TIME. I like to think that we’re much harder on the material than the network and the viewer. Questions like, “Would she really do that?” and “isn’t this weird?” are asked constantly.

From watching a number of current sitcoms I’m guessing it’s less important now – but I was always a stickler that the story work first. Making the show funnier is the easy part. Finding a story that tracks, is cleverly told, is grounded in reality, and draws the audience in emotionally is the hard part (which is probably why some shows don’t bother). 

That said, there is a thing called “icebox logic.” Supposedly this is derived from Alfred Hitchcock. You watch a movie, it all makes sense, you go home, raid the fridge for a snack at midnight and suddenly you go, “Hey, wait a minute. Fred couldn’t know about the heist. He was in the submarine all that summer.” In other words, it’s a logic problem but one most people won’t notice. And there are times in the writers room when we’ll hit a snag that we'll try to determine whether it really needs to be addressed or is just icebox logic.

Sometimes continuity discrepancies are inadvertent. We’ll establish something not remembering that something else was established four seasons ago. But if there’s some question, or it’s pointed out, or easily referenced we’ll always adhere to continuity.  On CHEERS, Frasier established that his father was dead.  Who knew he'd get his own spin-off years later?  In that case, we did explain it away with an explanation. 

From Mahesh:

Why do so many sitcom sets have doors that swing in and out? Is it for cost, and time purposes, so the actors don't have to take a while to open and shut the doors if they're simply leaving a scene?

First off, if you're noticing this, the writers are not doing a good enough job of sucking you into the story.  That's what I mean above.

Those are usually doors to the kitchen and they allows actors to go in and out carrying things like platters without having to juggle handles.

And finally, from ScottUSF :

Once again, I've become a big fan of 2 new shows this year that have now been cancelled - "Alcatraz" and "Awake" - both 1 hour shows that try to tell a long story over a season/series. I was a HUGE fan of "Lost" and lukewarm on "Flashback" but I still enjoyed it.

Neither Alcatraz, Awake, nor Flashback got a chance to wrap up their storylines. How can a viewer find out what the plans were to wrap up the story?

Well, you can't.  Unless there's a final episode that just isn't aired, there generally is no wrap up.  

When a viewer follows a serialized series he assumes a risk. There is always the possibility the show will be cancelled and the story will abruptly end without resolution.

When shows of this genre work they hook the audience in (as with LOST or ONCE UPON A TIME), but when they don’t the networks can’t get rid of them fast enough. The other big problem with serialized shows is that it’s hard for audiences to join in the middle. So it’s hard to pick up new viewers.

How I generally approach serialized series is this: I’ll wait, hear what’s catching on, see what folks are talking about and then go to Hulu or On Demand, catch up, and then jump on the train. That’s the way I pick my hockey teams too.

What’s your question?  And thanks for buying my book if you do. 


Brian Doan said...

Not to drag things back to Dan Harmon, but...One contemporary show that does the physical comedy really well is COMMUNITY (which is also brilliant verbally, of course). The "Paintball Wars" episodes seem like modern versions of the pie fight, but there are also great little physical bits throughout the seasons (the Dean's literally touchy-feely desire for Jeff is but one example).

I wonder if there's a connection, in fact, between that kind of verbal dexterity in comedy and also being great in physical comedy. Rewatching CHEERS lately, I'm amused just by how people *move* or stand-- of course, there are larger, more elaborately staged physical gags, too, but there's something about the way Norm walks, or Cliff slumps over at the bar, or the Coach stands there open-mouthed, that makes me laugh, and tells me so much about their characters. It speaks to how well the writers, actors, and James Burrows all worked to know just who those people were, and how to get as much out of them as possible.

Steve B. said...

I was recently watching a marathon of "The Bob Newhart Show," and it got me thinking about whether this classic sitcom about a shrink had any effect on "Frasier." Before "Frasier," TBNS was considered the quintessential psychiatrist sitcom. Did the "Frasier" creators consciously steer clear of the earlier show, or was it not part of the thought process?

Question Mark said...

Steve B, I would guess that the concept of having Frasier as a radio shrink (and not a psychiatrist dealing face-to-face with regular clients in an office) was a way of differentiating 'Frasier' from TBNS. As it turned out, 'Frasier' got even further away from TBNS's workplace-centric comedy when the focus shifted to Frasier primarily dealing with his dad and brother rather than with his wacky KACL co-workers.

Now, if there's ever a third sitcom made about a psychiatrist, they're REALLY stuck for a premise without ripping off one of the classics! The one exception would be a Community spinoff about Britta becoming a psychiatrist, since that would be incredible.

Jim said...

And if you want an example of true icebox logic and of how much you can get away with if you don't give the audience a chance to think then look at Goldfinger, pretty universally considered the best of the Bond films, but a film where the middle third is totally and utterly pointless from the plot point of view. Goldfinger takes James Bond to his US hideout. Then he summons his mafia associates and spells out in full his plot. One of those mafiosi chooses to take cash up front instead, but he is double crossed and taken away to be killed by Odd-job and put through the car-crusher. Then Goldfinger kills the rest of them anyway. Why didn't he just do that half an hour earlier.

ao said...

Fri Q: Who decides on which pilot to pick up? What happens to the ones that were not picked up? Just shove into the dark space of pilot black hole? And will TV networks ever air pilots that were never picked up for us (the audience)? At least show it online. I would love to see it.

jmontyb said...

Really,Ken? You make a post about great physical comedians and pie fights with no mention of the Three Stooges? For shame!

(I suppose the Our Gang kids would count, too, but I'm not sure how much choice they had in the matter.)

Michael said...

As for physical comedy, there's another classic example that deserved citing:

This is from an early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The guest you see is Jay C. Flippen, who plays Rob Petrie's old boss, a great comic who laments to Rob that no one does old-fashioned slapstick any more, leading to this sketch.

Rich D said...

This is for ScottUSF - Ofttimes a series creator who just had his season/series-long story arc show cancelled out from under him without being able to offer resolution will divulge details in interviews after the fact. I remember that Bryan Fuller, creator of PUSHING DAISIES, outlined the season 2 and 3 story arcs he had in mind for his other series WONDERFALLS. Also, sometimes those creators are able to spin off their plans to comic books much like Joss Whedon has done with BUFFY and was also done for the CBS series JERICHO.

Madame Duchery said...

"Icebox logic", I love that...I'm going to remember that for my own writing.

Al said...

As an aspiring writer, I tend to steer clear of physical comedy in my scripts mostly because I feel the point of a spec is to demonstrate how adept I am at crafting story, writing dialogue, following a show's template, etc.

I'm a huge fan of physical comedy, but from my work in community theatre I feel that unless you've got an actor who can pull it off, it's hard to commit to it.

The performance of physical comedy is so much on the actors shoulder that, at least on a community theatre level, we find ourselves finding it in the rehearsal process often coming from an actor saying to the director "Hey, what if I run into the wall here" or something of that sort.

BigTed said...

To quote a great philosopher on physical comedy, "Barney's movie had heart, but 'Football in the Groin' had a football in the groin!"

Anonymous said...

Re: the "Goldfinger" car crusher scene: where a 5500 lb. Lincoln Continental is crushed and placed in the bed of a 2500 lb. Ford Ranchero.

JB said...

Another couple of problems with physical comedy are finding the writers and getting a script through the various layers of network authority that exist today.

Finding the writers, because like just about any skill in this world you only get to be good by doing lots of it. Keaton and Lupino Lane (check some of his stuff out if you get the chance - not that there's a lot around) grew up in stage families and had physical gags in their blood. Sadly you don't even seem to find that in circus clowns nowadays.

And getting it through the network is a problem because physical gags just don't read funny. You need lots of words to spell out what may only take a few seconds on screen, and all it takes is for one of those network bods to not get it and out comes the big blue pencil.

I can't see the US network system ever originating something like Mr Bean, because someone like Rowan Atkinson will never get to a position where he can get the degree of control needed.

Anonymous said...

And I assume the cast likes physical comedy too since I've heard the cast of Cheers fave episode was the thanksgiving food fight. Personally I crack up everytime I see the Clavin has psychiatrist shock him episode.

Breadbaker said...

Seriously, Ken, you mention physical comedy and you don't mention Harpo Marx?

jbryant said...

I, for one, forgive Ken for not mentioning every great physical comedian EVER in a brief blog post.

Michael: I haven't watched that particular clip yet (and don't recall the episode offhand), but Dick Van Dyke is arguably the greatest physical comedian to grace the small screen. Of others yet unmentioned, I guess John Ritter deserves a shout-out, too.

Brian Phillips said...

Another "Icebox Logic" case would be "The Big Sleep". The denouement is so convoluted, Raymond Chandler, the author of the book said HE didn't even know "whodunit"!

As for greatest physical comedian on the small screen, I won't rank them, but I would put in a bid for Sid Caesar, physically and verbally.

The biggest plot hole for "Goldfinger" is Oddjob. That's a Basque name.

Kirk said...

As long as everyone's dissecting GOLDFINGER, how about the villian's sinister plan to radiate all the gold in Fort Knox? By 1964 we were only a mere seven years away from going off the gold standard, anyway. So the timetable would've been rushed a little bit, that's all. Also, this was supposed to give China an economic advantage because their gold would still be "good". Well, Mao might have been too busy to notice, seeing as he had a Cultural Revolution to attend to and all. Also, it turns out China is pretty good at currency manipulation without any help from SPECTRE.

Anonymous said...

I'll add that there is also a whole visual cinematic comedy language that seems to have been lost. The way a shot is framed can be funny. A properly timed edit can be funny. The last master of this language was probably Blake Edwards.

Kirk said...

Someone mentioned clowns. I know a lot of people who can't stand mimes, but I personally find a mime 10 times funnier, or at least 10 more watchable, than a circus clown. The only circus clown that didn't bore me was Emmett Kelly, and, guess what, he MIMED.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken: you forgot the Marx Brothers. Even Groucho, primarily known for his spontaneous quips, was great at physical comedy. ISTR that Alan Alda had a fine line in imitating Groucho's walk and way with eyebrows.

I think one reason today's actors don't have the same schooling in physical comedy is that - duh - they don't start out in vaudeville any more. The stars who started there - people like Milton Berle, Rose Marie, the Marxes, Maury Amsterdam ("the joke machine") and, tangentially, my grandfather, who toured the world with trained dogs
who acted out scenes from plays in *costume* - had to be able to do everything and do it live. Today, actors specialize a lot more, and don't spend grueling years on the road honing their act in front of live audiences.


RCP said...

Aspiring writers who look down their noses at physical comedy might want to check out films like “Bringing Up Baby” which successfully blend both physical comedy and witty dialogue without detracting from either. My all-time favorite physical comedian was Buster Keaton - whose genius not only has me laughing but wide-eyed at times in near disbelief - I mean, it’s remarkable he lived to a ripe old age.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

" grandfather, who toured the world with trained dogs who acted out scenes from plays in *costume*..."

Wasn't this the basis for The Barkleys of Broadway?

Brent said...

If you want to see the best pie fight of all time, watch The Great Race. No contest. Since it has Natalie Wood as one of the stars I'm surprised Ken didn't mention it.

Mike said...

Joe, read The Odyssey, the ending scene with the Cyclops.

What is the point of being a supervillain if you don't get to tell people what you are doing?

Anon, so what? Trucks can haul above their weight.

Mike said...

I'm going to go with the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. Or at least what I thought was the final, but then they added another half season.

Xena says give me the Final Five, and I'll do such and such. They finally bring her to their ship, and say, OK who are the Cylons you want? She says, they'll come to me, I'm telepathic.

Later in the episode, she starts killing hostages, saying she;ll keep doing it until you hand over the Final Five.

At this point, someone should have said, but you're the one who won't tell us who they are!

Michael said...

Brent, the funny thing about that pie fight is that Blake Edwards dedicated The Great Race to Laurel and Hardy, and Stan Laurel tried to kill off pie fights. They decided to do a pie fight in one of their silents, "The Battle of the Century," and Laurel said if we HAVE to do it, let's go all-out. They ordered something like 4,000 pies, a day's output of the biggest local pie company, and just went crazy.

JBryant, the Laurel reference is also in honor of Dickie, as he used to call Mr. Van Dyke, who, I agree, is the greatest physical comedian in TV history.

cadavra said...

No one's yet mentioned Harold Lloyd and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle? Sheesh!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

about physical comedy - it always gets the big laughs as well. Even when you have a good line, it helps if it is underlined by some bit of action. Like Kelsey Grammar doing one of his poses. In the book on Murphy Brown (a show ultimately not as good as the book about it) there is a bit about one of the actors trying to find a bit of business to make a one-two-three line work. James Burrows was/is a master at that.

But physical humor to me is more than just slapstick. It is anything that physicalizes the action. In the pilot for a series I wrote this year the biggest laugh was when a character was hiding under a table, because she wanted some guy not to see her. She wanted to crawl to the kitchen and asked a guy at the table: "Is he looking?" "No, he isn't." She starts crawling, he looks, she stops. "Now he is." Big laugh. Bigger than I would have thought.

Maureen said...

ScottUSF: Sometimes you can Google the show name and "finale" to find interviews where producers tell you where the story would have gone. Here's one for Awake:

I also remember seeing one for Terriers, a fabulous show that should have gone more than one season.

Johnny Walker said...

Wendy, I'm currently reading Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up", and he came exactly from the background you're talking about. He performed vaudeville style comedy for years and years before he hit the big time.

Gareth Wilson said...

My question: actual working screenwriters seem very skeptical about the relevance of film school to screenwriting employment. I gather that a diploma from even the best film school is meaningless when trying to get work. So is it possible to design a course that actually teaches you to write sellable scripts, and what would it look like?

olucy said...

I don't think we can sit on Ken's porch and talk about physical comedy without remembering a certain 5-minute wordless scene where Niles Crane has trouble ironing a pair of pants.

chris mcdermott said...

Jay C. Flippen - one of my favorites, and I don't think I ever knew his name. Loved the "Dick Van Dyke" clip...but I think Jay C. Flippen has just become my newest "clean" replacement curse word.

For example, "when in the Jay C. Flippin am I going to finish Ken's latest book so I can go back and buy the first one?"

Paul Duca said...

Ken...I happened to see the CHEERS episode "The Cranemakers"--was any of this inspired by what happened when Debbie was great with Matt and Annie?
At the very least, did she say "Touch my breasts...I'm lactating"?

Paul Gottlieb said...

You know who was one of the great physical comedians? Cary Grant. Do yourself a favor and watch "The Awful Truth" again. Grant's pratfalls and double-takes were graceful,elegant, and hilarious.

Terry T said...


Just how are you supposed to shoot a "spit take," take after take without making a mess? Is this why they are rarely done? Any favorites?

As you may have guessed, I am a) not in the business and b) setting up for a favorite "The Odd Couple" tv series "spit take out take" (it starts at the appropriate spot):

odd couple outtake reel

I honestly wasn't expecting this in the outtake reel, and the now-coffee-sprayed condition of my keyboard prompted me to ask.

ROR said...

Always hoped you'd bring this up. I've always wondered what prompted the writers on a long-running series to reach for the pies. Star being a jerk that week? Option for an otherwise slow week? Series has finally established its creativity and now can have some fun? As a child of the '70s, I never minded seeing it. But it did seem that a lot of unlikely sitcoms went for the pies around season four.