Friday, September 21, 2012

My most asked questions

But always worth answering. Happy Friday Question Day.

kermit is the latest to ask them:

If I'm a writer who's written for broadcast and print but has no background in show business, and I've written an original script(not a spec)that I think is pretty good...where do I go from here? Is there someone who can look it over and tell me if it's good, or not, or where it might need a nip and tuck? Would an agent ever read anything cold-mailed to him/her, or would the agent send it back unopened?

I would enroll in a writing class at a local university. Most have nighttime extension programs. Between the instructor and your classmates, you will get feedback. Here’s what I wouldn’t do: There are “writers” out there who advertise their consulting services. You pay them a thousand dollars; they read and critique your script. There may be exceptions, but those are a rip-off. You’re paying big money with no idea if the reader is any good. At least a college course is reasonable, the instructor is somewhat credible, and you’ll be introduced to other hopefuls like yourself and can create a network and support system.

You can enter your script in screenplay contests.  If well-received, that will give a leg up when trying to land representation.  

Never send an agent anything that isn’t your very best work. You get one shot at making an impression. You’re not looking at an agent to critique your script; you’re looking at him to represent you. You need to impress him.  Best of luck.

unkystan asks:

When there is a spin-off of a continuing series, is the spin-off cast contractually obligated to do it? I read somewhere that Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were very upset when "The Ropers" was quickly cancelled and they couldn't go back to "Three's Company". Same with Polly Holliday ("Flo"). What if they refuse to do it?

When characters are spun-off into their own series they strike new deals, usually for a lot more money. Sometimes there might be a clause allowing them to either guest on their original series or return to it if the spin-off tanks.

But often times once you leave the nest you’re out. The original series moves on and your character might no longer fit in. That’s the risk you take.

My favorite spin-off story is from SANFORD & SON. It became THE SANFORD ARMS. Neither Redd Fox or Demond Wilson were in it. As someone said, “NBC just renewed the set.”

Brian has a MASH question:

Ken- The show jumps around in time quite a bit. There were episodes where Eisenhower was president and then a few years later Truman is president. There are other examples too. When you and David were working on the show, was there any direction as far as a timeline?

The big cheat on that show was that it lasted 3 1/2 times longer the Korean War. During our years we tread that lightly. After we had left they did an episode that took place over an entire year. It was a clever idea and good episode, but to me it just pointed out the enormous conceit we were asking the public to buy. Not to mention how it screwed with the show’s timeline. Since the episode focused on 1951 that meant that the whole Trapper, Henry Blake, Radar, Frank Burns era (8 or 9 seasons of the show) all took place during a roughly one year period.

But let's face it, by that point in the series run MASH was bulletproof. They could have done a show where the Starship Enterprise landed on the chopper pad and they’d get away with it.  And if the show had gone another two years I bet that idea might have started looking pretty good.  

And finally, from Mike:

I just saw a commercial for a film that gave away one of the funnier bits in the film. Did you ever have a promo for one of your shows that gave away too much and ruined the joke or the show for the viewer?

That was a constant battle with network promo people. My big concern wasn’t spoiling jokes. It was giving away key plot twists.

Now then, movie trailers. I never care if they use the best jokes. For whatever reason, when audiences eventually watch the movie and those jokes arrive they still laugh, sometimes harder. I don’t really know why. I guess that’s my Friday Question.

You can leave yours in the comments sections. Muchas thanks.


Rhonda Crutcher said...

Hey, Ken! I have a question that occurred to me yesterday while watching the wonderful campaign ad for Michigan supreme court that featured most of the cast of the West Wing.

Who owns the rights to characters, like those on the West Wing, which are completely creations of one particular writer (in this case Aaron Sorkin)? I was wondering because Sorkin apparently didn't write that campaign ad, yet characters he created are in it. Would he have to have signed off on them being used? For that matter, Sorkin left the show after 4 seasons and other writers took over. Did he have to give the rights to use those characters over to the show? Does he ever have the rights to use them again?

Thanks. I love your blog.

Curt Alliaume said...

Spinoffs seem to vary in whether characters go back to the original show. Erin Moran and Scott Baio were hustled right back to Happy Days when Joanie Loves Chachi was cancelled.

Sometimes one of the side effects of spinoffs is to get rid of an actor who's caused some problems on the parent show - I think Polly Holliday had that issue with Alice, and I'm pretty sure the same was the case with Abe Vigoda on Barney Miller - once Fish left TV, so did Vigoda. I don't think that was the case with Norman Fell and Audra Lindley, but (a) Three's Company wasn't necessarily the happiest set on the planet, and (b) what would they have done with Don Knotts?

gottacook said...

"They could have done a show where the Starship Enterprise landed on the chopper pad and they’d get away with it."

Now, Ken... this either means that you don't know that the Enterprise can't land on a planet (which is why they invented the transporter "beaming" effect with the aluminum flakes) or that you do know but are pretending otherwise because you don't want to be labeled - as my wife and daughters routinely, somewhat affectionately, label me - a dork for knowing all about Star Trek, which I saw first-run as a preteen along with many other shows of the era.

I still remember many now-obscure pre-1970 shows, too: everything from The Smothers Brothers Show (the sitcom where Tommy's an angel) to The Pruitts of Southampton (with Phyllis Diller) to The Guns of Will Sonnett (with Walter Brennan). I sometimes think my head is full of nothing but useless knowledge.

Michael said...

Curt, as I remember the story I read, Abe Vigoda demanded that they change the name of the "mother ship" to "Fish and Barney." Danny Arnold got fed up with him and came up with the perfect evil solution: he created a spinoff, got the first episode done, and then left it alone to die. Which it did. Later, Vigoda did a guest shot on "Barney Miller."

Kirk said...

Thanks for bringing up the MASH episode that took place during the whole course of a year. If I remember correctly it's New Years Eve 1950 to New Years Eve 1951, with the final cast at both parties. I'd have an easier time buying if it had been 1952.

Dave Arnott said...

Ken, people have *permission* to laugh at the jokes that they've already seen in the trailer. They don't have to worry about being the only person laughing at something, because the trailer has already told them *this* is funny. So there's no embarrassment for them, even if they *are* the only ones laughing.

That's my theory, anyway.

unkystan said...

Whatever happened to the Abe Vigoda/Erik Estrada spinoff, "Fish and CHIPS"?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken, I have a question for you in regards to how things how changed within television production:

Is there still a considerable amount of difference in Executive Medling over a show made by producers working under the network, and shows made by independent producers working for their own company? I've heard the "horror stories" for shows like M*A*S*H or Seinfeld where the network had most of the creative control of the show (in M*A*S*H's case, the forced inclusion of the laugh track, being forced to tone down the humor, tone down the O.R. scenes, et al; or in the case of Seinfeld, the network forcing them to create the character of Elaine Benes just so they'd have a female audience). However, I've also heard stories of independent producers, who seemed to basically have almost all creative control over their own show and hardly any network interference, like with Sid & Marty Krofft. So, in a nutshell, is it the same way today, or is it drastically different than that?

Max Shenk said...

Here's a Friday question, Ken. I found this fascinating:

Do you feel that any project you've been involved with "went on too long"?

Rick Lertzman said...


I'm friends with Stu Shostak and we are developing Classic Television Networks. I am optioning Dobie Gillis from the Shulman family. I'd like an opportunity to talk to you about this Thanks

Rick Lertzman
216 464 1300

Bradley said...

Friday question: You weren't involved yourself, but you were associated with several people who were, so I was wondering if you know anything about the Showtime series "Brothers." It seems the premise was well ahead of its time and might even be one of the first long running cable shows in TV history (115 episodes according to Wikipedia). Apart from a clip or two on YouTube, I've never seen it. Anything with David Lloyd attached must be solid. And apart from his one minute part in "Dog Day Afternoon," I only never knew Philip Charles MacKenzie as a director (and a terrific one at that). I guess this is a roundabout way of asking: any words about this show and was it any good?

Mr. First Nighter said...

Here is a link to a website that shows that Radar was able to time travel and read comics that weren't in existance during the Korean War

Jake Mabe said...

I have sat here and laughed for about five minutes over the mental image of the Starship Enterprise landing on the "M*A*S*H" helipad...

Brian said...

Dammit Jim, I'm a space doctor - not a meatball surgeon.

DBenson said...

Favorite spoiler: Long ago, I caught the second half of a TV movie involving a vampire at a hospital. At every commercial break they showed a bumper with the sexy nurse in full-on Vampira mode.

As the film went on, I realized it was a mystery -- and the reveal of the sexy nurse as the vampire was meant to be a huge, unexpected shock.

Imagining the creators tuning in and seeing that bumper for the first time . . . and the second time . . . and the third time . . .

chalmers said...

There's a "Taxi" episode where Jim is using his psychic ability to help network exec Martin Short pick shows. In it, he shops a MASH script he wrote where Hawkeye has to operate on Col. Potter while being fired on by both the Chinese and a Klingon starship.

Ane said...

No questions today but I'd like to share something. I'm working on my masters in theatre studies and it's lots of long days sitting in a library reading all these dusty heavy books about dorian farce and fabula attelana and commedia dell'arte and whatnot. I was so bored for a while, it being the last day of a long week and all. And what do I find on one of the last pages of a big book about comedy through the ages? A whole paragraph on "Frasier"! About how it's farce-like and deals with social classes, and a list of all the characters and what they bring to the show. Made my day.

Raji Barbir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Raji Barbir said...

Hey Ken,

I'm 33 years old and still attempting to break into the industry as a writer/director, which means that as far as I can tell, I'm already overdue. Way overdue.

With ageism as prevalent as it is in Hollywood (despite a few rare exceptions, and not counting those that are still working in their old age - they still mostly broke in while in their 20s), at what point does it become a good idea to throw in the towel and just call it a hobby?

Paul Duca said...

You have to see this clip from TO TELL TRUTH--check out imposter #2

Roger Owen Green said...

Truth is, as an avid MASH viewer, the years DID distract. Hawkeye and Trapper got into some trouble in Tokyo in '52, Winchester is there at Christmastime '51. I thought that mentioning the year at all, once they knew the show wasn't going to be canceled in 13 weeks, was a major error that took me right out of those latter shows.

In other words, I DIDN'T think the show was bulletproof. I watched virtually all of the first 8 seasons even in reruns, but the last seasons only once.

Andi said...

I'll take this opportunity to ask a question that I didn't ask because I assumed that it would be on this list of regular questions.

It's a celebrity etiquette question.

Say Jack walks into a cocktail party and Clint is there. Do they bother to say "I'm Jack Nicholson" and then "Clinton Eastwood."

Is it rude to assume that you don't recognize someone?

Andi said...

That should have been "I'm Clint Eastwood."

mike said...

No problem with the spinoff for JAG, NCIS, and the spinoff of NCIS, NCIS:LA as there are no repeat characters, just a few episodes to introduce the new guys.

DyHrdMET said...

What are your thoughts on doing a sitcom on live television (even a single episode)? I remember a TV show Roc about 20 years ago that did live episodes on Sunday nights on FOX. Have you ever been involved in that? Would you want to be? Are there any good stories about it?

Euscho 50 said...

Andi--Don't worry, Eastwood's full first name is, in fact, Clinton.

Your question reminds me of a story Joan Collins tells in one of her memoirs, of meeting Harrison Ford at a party in 1979. She had never heard of him but, gathering that he was an actor, she asked if he was working on anything. He said, "We're shooting the sequel now." and she responded "To what?" She walked away unable to comprehend why he was glowering at her.

Johnny Walker said...

Friday Answer: Dan O'Shannon would probably say that there was a "recognition enhancer".

Movie trailers are sometimes so incredibly stupid. It's like they noted where the big laughs were during a screening and show pieced them together. The problem with this is that the biggest laughs are usually the ones with the biggest lead up. Or they're pure character moments. In other words, they make no sense to someone who hasn't seen the film. I've seen this a few times and it's maddening.

Brian said...

Roger Owen Green -

They also mention Potter arriving in September of '52, which means the remaining eight seasons of the show would have to take place in less than a year.

I agree that they should've stopped referencing dates once it became obvious the show wasn't going to be canceled. That said, I'm pretty sure the producers and writers didn't expect people to analyze these shows the way we analyze shows these days.

Thanks for answering the question, Ken!

Melissa Banczak said...

Bradley - I remember Brothers. Our whole dorm gathered to watch each week. We thought it was great. I wish it was available somewhere.

Unknown said...

What does a "story consultant" do? Like Jay Folb on MASH.

Ed Dempsey said...

Just curious if you were outside to see this spectacular sight. Looks like it headed over most, if not all of LA.

roger said...

@Andi: Assuming Jack and Clint never met before, I would hope they would address each other as "Mr. Eastwood" and "Mr. Nicholson" and let the other correct them (e.g. "Call me Jack").

On a side note, I've seen celebrities introduce themselves to civilians simply by their first names. It's a simple, friendly gesture that brings them down to our level, as that's how we civilians would introduce ourselves to each other. And it defuses any pretentiousness of the "I assume you've heard of me" variety.

As for THE ROPERS, my understanding was that Norman Fell didn't want to do the spinoff unless he was guaranteed back in to THREE'S COMPANY if the show ran less than a season. He and Audra got screwed when THE ROPERS ran a season and a half, since it debuted in the spring of 1979 and came back for a full season in the fall.

Matt Tauber said...

The famous silent routine by Niles in the opening of the "Three Valentines" episode was ruined for me by the voiceover right before the show - "Stay turned for the funniest 10 minutes in the history of television." How do you live up to that?

My Oversized Cranium said...

I have a Friday question (though I'd be indifferent about the day it was answered).

I'm not in the movie or TV business at all, and have no intention of ever becoming so. That being said, I have an idea for a movie that I would love to share with someone who would write it, as I have neither the time nor the desire to do so myself.

Can you sell a concept, rather than a script? How? To whom? How do you protect yourself from someone saying "No thanks" and then walking away with it?

I know, I know. There are a million ideas out there. But I've shared my idea with a few people who have said anything from "I'd watch that movie" to "It makes me uncomfortable that you even think of things like that?" So I'd love to float it to someone, but have no idea as an outsider where to even begin.


Storm said...

@chalmers: Ah, so THAT'S how Reverend Jim ended up captaining that Bird of Prey in "Search For Spock"! It all becomes clear.

@Bradley; I remember "Brothers", it was funny at the time, because it was considered such a risque concept, to have a show with gay characters that were PEOPLE, living their lives. I remember my gay friends loving it because long before "Will and Grace", it showed that there were not only queeny-queens out there, but regular everyday Joes who just happen to dig guys. The queeny-queens felt represented, because his character took NO mess, and my more "manly man" gay friends loved it because they showed a gay man that wasn't "camp". I also knew straight people who had family members come out to them and found that both the humour and drama of "Brothers" helped them sort it out (Hey, it was the 80's, people were still all weird about "queers"). The only unfortunate part (IMHO/IIRC) was the Archie Bunker-esque oldest brother character that made "fruit" comments ALL the time. One of those two shoulda punched him in the dick.

Wow, now I kinda want to see it again... (Donald voice) Hellooo Netfliiiiiix!

Cheers, thanks a lot,