Thursday, August 30, 2012


Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post either because the subject matter warranted it or I’m just incredibly verbose.

It’s from Carl:

Ken, what is your opinion of children on sitcoms? I've noticed that the shows you've worked on rarely feature them. Myself, I've noticed that many sitcoms will make an effort early on to give the kiddies screen time, then give up and only trot them out when the plot demands an appearance.

Yeah, not a lot of kids drafted and sent to a MASH unit or hanging out at CHEERS. I did have a running joke though. Remember when there was a show called MUPPET BABIES? I always thought it would be great to have CHEERS BABIES. See little Norm & Cliff ordering beers at the bar. Maybe I should re-pitch it.

But as a director, I’ve worked with kids quite often. They do present certain challenges, which must be taken into consideration.

The first one of course is stage parents. You may get an adorable talented kid but all too often Momzilla comes as part of the bargain. Cruella de Vil with notes.

There are also quite a few restrictions in place that hamper production, but that’s for a good reason. They’re all for the protection of the child. Not that Hollywood would ever take advantage of kids and work them twenty-hour days like mules and force them to take diet pills if they gained two ounces, but just to be on the safe side, kids can only work so many hours and classroom instruction is mandatory. Still, it’s a arduous day for these youngsters, many of whom would rather be playing videogames with their friends than doing planned-pick-ups.

So it means a director only has them for limited periods. We have to work around their schedules. If we’re shooting the show in front of a live audience we have to do it earlier to ensure they wrap at a decent hour.  (Hey, wait a minute.  That's a good thing.)

Generally, kids don’t get the rehearsal time they need. And in truth, they’re the ones who need it the most because they don’t have the experience adult actors have.  Although Kaitlyn Dever can hold her own with Oscar winners. 

So producers have to ask themselves – is it really worth it? More than one family comedy has opted to downplay the role of the children over time because of the obstacles.

That said, I always looked forward to directing the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND where the kids were featured. Madylin Sweeten and her two younge twin brothers Sawyer & Sullivan were a complete joy, as was their mom.

With young kids (like the twins were at the time), it's unrealistic to ask them to memorize a lot of dialogue.  So that cuts down on their screen time. 

I know a number of actors who are in their 20’s and even 30’s who can still pass for teenagers. And believe me, these actors are in greater demand than Meryl Streep.

The other problem with using children is that they tend to grow up. As a director, it’s hard to tell them not to. I believe Disney Channel series usually only go three or four seasons because of this.

Of course, their aging can also be a plus. As they enter new stages of development it can open up new areas for stories. But as the fine folks of GLEE have learned, you can’t keep the same kids in high school for seven years (although they could probably get away with it on JUSTIFIED).

Some children I've worked with are a pleasure and others are world-weary fifty-year-olds trapped in the body of a ten-year-old.  My heart always goes out to children actors, even the successful ones.  It's tough enough dealing with peer pressure, puberty, and pimples.  I can't imagine also being rejected by the producers of THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK.  


Mark Thompson said...

I don't know if you've ever seen "Outnumbered" Ken, a UK sitcom based around a family with the kids as the main characters?

It is excellent and really shows what can be done when approached in the right way. It is only loosely scripted and the kids are allowed to run with things (with the adults improvising around this) and the bits that work are left in. The young girl in it who was only about 6 or 7 when it first started is sensational.

Johnny Walker said...

One of the reasons why I liked Buffy so much: The characters actually grew up and went to university.

Jeff said...

More on Community in case you did not see it:

Max Clarke said...

I'd like to see a director say that on the set, "Kids, stop growing up!"

Anonymous said...

The headline led me to believe you would be writing about another sort of Cheers Babies.

On what was supposed to be Leno's final Tonight Show, he trotted out all the children of parents, who first met each other on the show. There was a crowd of them, and it was quite touching how genuinely proud Leno was of that legacy.

So are there any kids out there, who are a product of parents, who first met because you had them working together?

Michael Fox said...

Interesting post. My own idea for a series revolves around early teens, and one precocious 6 year old. I'll have to look at the dialogue a bit more closely now. Thanks!

Ane said...

I liked the kid who played Frederick on "Frasier", he was a good actor and not too nerdy, too cute, too grown-up for his age or anything like that which is often the case with kids on sitcoms

Cap'n Bob said...

Doris, have you considered a career in copywriting? You're a natural.

As for Frederick, I couldn't stand that kid. There's no way the spawn of Frasier and Lillith would look like that. Bad casting, IMHO.

RCP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ane said...

Cap'n Bob: He didn't look like Lilith, no, but he did look like Frasier IMO.

DBenson said...

There was one episode where they described Frederick's summer camp preparations -- various ointments and sunblocks, plus a hat with mosquito netting. It sounded like he was going to be another Maris, a bizarre creation left to the imagination.

But when he did turn up he seemed to be downright ordinary and even a little punkish -- pretty funny, since his parents led you to expect a high-strung mess.

Greg said...

Love the blog, Ken. Question for some unforeseen future Friday: A lot of your work, particularly MASH and Cheers, have been parodied a lot in pop culture. Any of those parodies you found particularly amusing? I'm partial to the Simpsons scene where Norm breaks his bottle on the Cheers bar and yells at Woody, "Just gimme a beer, you brain-dead hick!" before sobbing pathetically on Cliff's shoulder.

brian t said...

Another chance to mention "The Nanny": the title character (Fran) obviously had to have kids to Nanny, and I think they could have used more screen time. The actress playing the youngest, Madeline Zima, is still acting, and she popped up - and out - on "Californication" a couple of years ago ..!

Jacob said...

Something I liked about the kids on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is that they came off like real children. I hate when sitcom kids are written as 10-year-old borsch belt comics, throwing out bad one-liners and insults.

-bee said...

When I think of kids on TV shows, what immediately comes to mind is Walt on "Lost". I still can't believe the show runners didn't take into account that kids that age start to grow up FAST.

As per some other comments, I liked the actor who played Frasier's son - I think he hit the sweet spot between actorish and amateurish and came of as a 'real' kid (albeit with probably limited range).

I can imagine Kelsey Grammer looking like him when he was a kid, to I always bought him as his son.

Bert said...

Ken- A Friday comment for a future week...

It seems like an increasing number of FM radio stations are turning to a sports format, and some of these (for example KGMZ in the San Francisco area) broadcast major league baseball games.

My question concerns the FM sound quality of a major league broadcast. Having been raised on Vin Scully on KFI, KABC, etc, it sounds strange to hear the much more clear FM sound. Because the fidelity is so much better, it oddly sounds to me less like a professional broadcast.

What are your thoughts?


Rich D said...

I've always referred to seeing actors who were obviously too old to be playing teenagers as "Sweathog Syndrom."

Anonymous said...

I recall reading this story (paraphrashed) about Bob Newhart. He told the producers of The Bob Newhart Show that he refused to have Bob and Emily have a baby. After one summer hiatus he was handed a script in which Emily gets pregnant. Newhart reportedly responded, "I like it. Who are you going to get to play Bob?"

Chris Riesbeck said...

Bill Mumy tells of working as a kid on an episode of Hitchcock Presents. Mumy kept missing his mark and his time limit was approaching. Finally Hitchcock came over and whispered in his ear "If you don't stop moving about, I'm going to get a nail and nail your feet to your mark, and the blood will coming pouring out like milk ...!"

Tedster said...

I liked the Frederick on Frasier who did most of the episodes. But there was one kid early one who played him, and he was awful.