Thursday, July 26, 2012

Because you asked for it

Since Friday Questions are so popular I thought I’d sneak in a bonus day. So here are Thursday Friday Questions.

Stephen starts us off:

What do you do with live studio audiences for new shows? I don't mean the pilot, but those first 4 or 5 (or more if it's debuting at midseason) episodes before the show premieres. How do you get them up to speed so that they understand the character humor? For example, was the live studio audience for episode 3 of Cheers made aware prior to taping of the circumstances that put Diane in the bar two episodes earlier?

A timely question since new shows are beginning to go into production right now. Usually, you’ll assemble a ten minute version of the pilot and screen it for the audience during the warm-up. And if there are key story elements the audience needs to know the warm-up guy will brief them.

But yes, certain jokes are not going to work because the audience doesn’t know the references. Yet, on the air, they might, and ultimately you're making the show for the television audience, not studio audience. 

A case in point was the Norm entrances. They bombed continuously until the series started to air. But we kept telling George Wendt not to worry about it. The audience didn’t know it was a running bit. Flash-forward to season eleven:  the minute George enters and says, "Afternoon, everybody" the place goes absolutely bonkers. 

A bigger problem is filling the bleachers with people who would watch this show anyway. Often groups have to be herded in. Imagine a busload of 90-year-old codgers filling the seats at WHITNEY. Or a group of high schoolers in the audience of HOT IN CLEVELAND.

Eventually, fans of a show will write in for tickets so by the end of the first season you can stack the house with ringers.

Mike has a question about the CHEERS spin-off, THE TORTELLIS.

Having never seen an episode, I was wondering: why do you think the show failed? Nick was one of my favorite recurring characters on Cheers. He lifted every episode he guested in. Do you think, though, he was best seen in small doses, and a whole show built around him was too much? Just what do you think happened here?

I may have told this story before, but David and I wrote an episode of THE TORTELLIS. We met with the Charles Brothers one afternoon to break a story. We spent all day trying to come up with an episode. Nothing seemed interesting. Finally, we decided to table the discussion until the next day. I asked Glen Charles, “What number episode is this?” He said, “Four.” And I said, “Four? We can’t come up with episode four? You are in shit shape with this show.”

And in truth they were. There was no real theme or premise. It was just a collection of characters living in Las Vegas. Add to that Nick & Loretta were fairly two-dimensional (funny as hell but two-dimensional) so it was hard to build a show around them. Compare that to spinning-off a far more fleshed-out and real character like Frasier Crane.

I remember there was a married couple who were writers on THE TORTELLIS. One day they got into an argument over a script they were writing for the show and it escalated to the point where they got divorced. They may have even come to blows. Over THE TORTELLIS. That’s when you know you’ve got a show in trouble.

From Artie:

I've been writing professionally in another creative medium for a couple years now, and thinking about trying my hand at writing for TV. One of the skills I've developed is the ability to fix or improve already existing work of other writers.

I hear about people in Hollywood who primarily work as "script doctors," and it seems like that tends to be part of a career as a more generative writer. My question is: Is that the kind of role that someone can legitimately use as an entry point?

Not to be blunt, but no. You don’t get script doctor jobs (“creative consultants”) until you’re a proven writer in your chosen genre. And unfortunately, those jobs are almost non-existent in today’s economy even for seasoned writers. Gone are the days a scribe could command a handsome fee for coming in one or two nights a week. Sigh.

But if editing is your gift I would suggest you explore entering the executive ranks. Networks and studios are filled with people who will graciously give script notes, whether they know shit or not. If you are truly good at fixing existing scripts you would be a real asset.

Johnny Walker asks:

How long do you spend a day (or week, if you don't work on it every day) on your blog? It's amazing to me that you keep coming up with fresh content!

Thanks.  It probably averages to an hour or so a day. Sometimes I’ll be inspired and bang out a couple posts at one sitting. Other times one post will take me all afternoon and then I'll still throw it away because it sucks. The hard part is coming up with topics. Once I latch onto a good topic I can write fairly quickly.  Sometimes. Occasionally.  Once last spring. 

And finally, from Susannahfromhungray:

Do you know if the character of Frasier's agent, Bebe Glazer, was named after Bebe Neuwirth?

I do know and the answer is no.

More questions tomorrow. If you have one, leave it in the comments section. I’ll try to get to as many as I can. Thanks.


bmfc1 said...

Not to kiss your tuchas, but given your incredible track record, why aren't the networks falling all over themselves to get you to write a new show?

Rock Golf said...

It sounds like the cast (at least the adults) on Modern Family are working together (well, actually NOT working together) in an effort to renegotiate their contracts (and did I use enough parentheses in this sentence?).
What are your thoughts? As a showrunner, what effect does this have on planning? Do they get support from the writers?

404 said...

I'm assuming some sort of error here, as this was last Thursday's post? I mean, I know you're a big deal with your TV appearances and your book and everything, but surely there's still time to throw a crumb or two our way, eh?

Seriously, a repeat of a Ken Levine blog post is still better than 99% of everything else out there.

Rich D said...

"I remember there was a married couple who were writers on THE TORTELLIS. One day they got into an argument over a script they were writing for the show and it escalated to the point where they got divorced. They may have even come to blows. Over THE TORTELLIS. "

Now that sounds like it could have been the basis for an interesting episode of THE TORTELLIS.

404 said...

ah, wait . . . never mind. I see what happened. You must have posted it quickly by accident and erased it (and it wasn't last Thursday, it was Monday) but Google Reader kept a copy of it in my newsfeed, so it's still there. I didn't realize it wasn't an official post. Sorry. Carry on.

benson said...

Agree with Jeff and 404. This is much more entertaining.

Re what Jeff said though, if it's any consolation, I was just catching up with a British sitcom blog from one of the PBS statons out east and they're bemoaning how Britcoms are not as good as they used to be, too.

Unknown said...

As a follow up to Artie's question, I'm not a "writer." I just write shit for fun. However, I keep a notebook of concepts when an idea hits me. I find I'm good at the "big picture" 50,000 foot level, but get bogged down as I try to cut through the weeds.
If you'd be so gracious, can you share what you'd do with a concept to see how far you could take it? I know there are a million concepts out there, but someone's gotta succeed, right? Oh, and I'm prepared for disappointment. I'm from the Midwest and go to Cubs games.
How do you gauge if an idea is equivalent to a 2 minute SNL skit versus something that can be expanded upon?

McAlvie said...

I remember the Tortellis, and I had the same thought then that I've had regarding several new shows since: There has to be at least one straightman to carry the show or it doesn't work. There has to be someone that the majority of viewers can relate to, someone who centers the show. Otherwise the eccentricities are just annoying instead of being funny.

Tom Quigley said...

Having worked at one time for the company which was responsible for booking the audiences and distributing tickets for nearly all the major TV production companies (with the exception of Paramount) this time of year was always interesting for the very reason in the first question. Since the pilot was usually filmed back in the spring, a finished 22 minute pilot could be screened for the audience on the studio monitors before they started filming that night's show. That, along with the info supplied by the warmup comedian usually gave the audience attending early episode filmings an idea of what was going on and what the show was about.

It wasn't until the show actually was on the airwaves and viewers had had a chance to see it that the producers felt they could dispense with showing the pilot. In addition, from an audience being filled to capacity point of view, which producers would always insist upon (usually it was part of their contractual agreement with my employer), it became easier to distribute tickets and book audiences, as by that point, the show was a known commodity and people would actually be writing in or calling to request tickets to a show they wanted to see.

By Ken Levine said...


This is not a repeat. What happened is this post went up accidentally for a few moments on that day (because I pushed the wrong button) but pulled it a few minutes later. So unless you were logging on to my blog during that five minute period you never saw this.

Scroll down and you'll see it only appears here.

Harkaway said...

Thanks for this on the Tortellis. I doubt if you ever thought that show would afford you an opportunity to talk about the problems of writing a sitcom.

Some readers of the blog may be interested to seek out a half-hour program which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this morning: Raising a Glass to Cheers. This link should bring you to the right page on the I-Player:

It is fronted by Stephen Merchant (Ricky Gervais's writing partner) and features George Wendt and Rob Long.

One more note to 'Benson' about the declining quality of Britcoms. It isn't so much that Britcoms are getting worse, but that far more of them are being exported. It is no surprise that they aren't all as good as the cream which used to rise to the top for export.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Ken! I'm now wondering if you see writing on your blog as good "exercise" for your writing skills while you're not working in TV? Coming up with snappy ways to express things, or structure an opinion, or just make wry and sarcastic comments about something, seems like good practice.

Of course, you probably spend part of your week writing a new book, too!

MBunge said...

Ah, the lovely Harriet Sansom Harris. I know she's had a pretty good career, but what they could have done with her back in the days of the studio system.


Sean in NoCal said...

Hey Ken,
In your career as a baseball broadcaster, have you ever gotten fairly close to a player only to see him traded? I know as a fan, having a favorite player trades mid-season just kinda sucks.


Carson said...

I have always wondered why, in the 5th season of Frasier, there were back to back episodes with a party premise. Those would be, "The Life of the Party," and "Party, Party." That just seems odd.

Ray Morton said...

I co-wrote an episode of THE TORTELLIS and it was a fascinating experience. On CHEERS, the character of Nick Tortelli was not a good guy -- he was a (comedically) sleazy, scheming con man who had no problem using the people in his life to get what he wanted. When my writing partner and I pitched our story to the producers, it was built around this version of Nick -- the character used his son to hoodwink his wife in order to get away with an indiscretion. We went to script with this story and it seemed to turn out okay. But somewhere along the line, someone (I'm assuming the network) decided that Nick couldn't be a bad guy; that he had to be nice and "lovable," which, of course, totally gutted the character and left us with nothing to write for him. Our script was rewritten to turn the scheming Nick into a Nick who was a hapless victim of a series of contrived misunderstandings and the result was just awful -- it wasn't about anything and it wasn't funny. And I think that that -- along with the hiring of some showrunners who were much more comfortable with softer, "family" comedies rather than the sharp-edged humor that would have been appropriate for the characters as originally conceived -- was the reason that a show that could have been a fun "dark" comedy into the vanilla nothing that it became.

Jon88 said...

BBC4 has just posted their "Raising a Glass to Cheers" radio documentary, available to "listen again" for seven days.

Anonymous said...

Why don't the Mariners ever bunt? It seems Ryan and Kawasaki should be doing it nearly every at bat.

tb said...

On Married with Children, I remember Matt LeBlanc was Kelly Bundy's boyfriend and there was an episode that was clearly intended to start a spin-off series - his character was Vinnie Verducci I think. I always mix up the Tortellis with the Verducci's for some reason

Susannah said...

Thanx for answering my question. Nice pic of Harris. I like her, allthough I know her best from Desperate Housewives.

Bill McCloskey said...

It would have been interesting if The Tortellis had been done in the style of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although I thought Always jumped the shark in its last season, for a while there it really made having no likable and very 2 dimensional characters work. But that was then and this is now and that was then, as Nick would say.

Anonymous said...

Why was Carla becoming a grandmother never mentioned again after the episode she found out about it? We never saw Anthony and his wife again either.

MG said...

tb said...
On Married with Children, I remember Matt LeBlanc was Kelly Bundy's boyfriend and there was an episode that was clearly intended to start a spin-off series - his character was Vinnie Verducci I think

There were actually two spin offs with that character. The first one was called "Top of the Heap" and the second was "Vinnie and Bobby". The best thing about either show was Joey Lauren Adams, who played Vinnie's neighbor.

cadavra said...

Speaking of CHEERS, this has been bugging me for a bit. Does anyone remember which episode has the teaser where Diane complains that nobody yells when she comes in like they do with Norm, so Sam tells her to come in again, she does so, and everyone yells, "NORM!"?

pumkinhead said...

The one thing I remember from Top of the Heap... "Son, I always wanted to see you working in the lap of luxury, and here you are right in the crotch!"

Brooke McMaster said...

Hi Ken,

I'm looking to break into the comedy writing business, but I live in Australia. Should I aim to go for a writers assistant position to learn the ropes or perhaps an internship? And also what is the best time to contact people in regards to coming on board with this? I'm particularly interested in animation (adult swim type shows)

Thanks Ken!

- Brooke

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

I'm going to differ with the claim above that you have to have some normal person for the weirdos in a sitcom to bounce off of. While that is certainly a viable structure (Judd Hirsh in Taxi, Gary Sandy in the early WKRP, Eddie Albert on Green Acres, Bob Newhart in various things, etc.), where's the sane Munster? Who is the audience-matching reactive on Addam's Family? Even Jason Bateman's character on Arrested Development is mere less nuts than his family; he's still clearly coo-coo.

As for what happened to Carla being a grandma - relatives often had an episode built around them and then were never heard from again. What happened to Coach's daughter, to Sam's ex-wife and brother, to Rebecca's sister (my favorite Rebeccacentric episode)?

Cody said...

Have you ever missed a deadline because you just couldn't get the episode to gel no matter what you tried? What does the studio do when this happens? Does the show runner plod ahead with your script at the behest of the studio and tell you to fix it during production or do they switch to a different script in development and hope for the best? If they tell you to fix it during production can you usually pull it off or does it end up being a nightmare? If you miss the deadline are you put on the sh*t list and phased out or do you get a talking to, cold shoulder, death threats...what do they do?

Nevin ":-)" said...

I just found a BBC audio program called Raise a Glass for Cheers at . I haven't yet had a chance to listen to it. Were you involved? Is it accurate?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Why was Carla becoming a grandmother never mentioned again after the episode she found out about it? We never saw Anthony and his wife again either.
IIRC, Carla became a grandma pretty early in the Rebecca years, Eddie was still alive, and when Sam and Rebecca rehearsed as parents (penultimate season?) with Carla's kids, Geno mentioned that Anthony was doing time. so presumably his wife and baby moved in with the in-laws when Anthony was sentenced. Anthony wasn't at Serafina's wedding, was he? Which, btw, is one of my favorite Cheers episodes. "HUGO! My Beloved!"

Haim Yonkel said...

I still have about 6 episodes of the Tortellis on VHS. I haven't watched it in years, and yes, I still have a VCR.

Unknown said...

What was the rationale for giving Hunnicutt a mustache on M*A*S*H? And what was behind the recharacterization of Hot Lips?