Friday, November 09, 2012

More stuff you wanted to know

Here are some Friday Questions as I prepare for this year’s SITCOM ROOM seminar, which begins tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you lucky attendees and causing you sleep deprivation for the next two days. But on to the business at hand. The answer to this one is the shortest I’ve ever given to any Friday Question.

It comes from Steve Murray:

When writing a script, how do you best express an incomplete sentence (interrupted)?

More Friday Questions next week. Leave yours in the comments section.

Huh? Yeah, okay.  Maybe I should answer a few more.

Stephen wonders:

Many shows experience a change in show-runners, COMMUNITY being a recent example. Does the network alone decide on the replacement? Do they consult with existing producers on the show? How do they lure the potential replacement without saying, "Hey, here's a show with so-so ratings that's already been on for a few seasons, with a fanbase that was fiercely loyal to the old guy ... wanna take over?"

Most of the time when a showrunner steps down it’s his own choice. He’s burned out after a number of years of 100 hour weeks. Usually there’s a transition period where he’ll train his successor and start doling out more responsibilities. And when the new showrunner takes over the original will still be available to oversee and consult.

My post tomorrow will be all about what it takes to be a good showrunner.

There have been instances when a showrunner is fired. Actually, it happens more than you think. There are the high visibility firings (Dan Harmon off COMMUNITY, Aaron Sorkin off WEST WING), but also creators who get booted off their shows even before the shows air.  This now occurs once or twice a season. 

When you ask whether it’s the network or studio’s decision, in most cases these days the network and the studio are the same.

So why do these showrunners get canned? I go into this more tomorrow but a big reason is the inability to stay within budget. Creative differences are another – and by creative differences I mean the showrunner won’t just bow to the network and do every note. If the showrunner becomes too difficult to work with and the show is not in the top three he’ll often be asked to step down and spend more time with his family.

And finally, there are occasions when the network looks at the first few episodes, decides they’re shit, and puts the blame on the showrunner.

How hard is it to get a new showrunner? Not hard at all. There are plenty of really good writers who are out of work or just on staff of someone else’s show and would love the opportunity to get back in the driver's seat. Think of baseball managers.

To me the problem comes when networks don’t get the writer/producer who is the best fit for the particular project. Instead they get whatever writer/producer they happen to have under contract.

Carl Tyler is up next.

I am not in the entertainment industry so I have a question for you. Have you ever written a script so that you could screw people up who were playing drinking games? Say for example, you had to do a shot every time someone said Sam on cheers, or every time someone suggested a a disease ended in -osis on House. Have you ever worked in a word knowing that people do these silly games?

Okay, second shortest answer to any Friday Question: No.

From MacGilroy:

Whenever I see a list of "classic sitcoms" that include somewhat recent shows such as "Seinfeld," I wonder what you thought of "Mad About You." Maybe I'm in the minority, but that's always on my list and I rarely see it mentioned. Was that not critically respected? Did it have an attitude or style that didn't click for you? Behind the scenes issues? Seriously curious.

I very much liked MAD ABOUT YOU at first. I thought the writing was smart and Helen Hunt was endearing.  My problem, and I’ll be 1000% honest, is that Paul Reiser ruined the show for me. He never shut the fuck up. He became so annoying that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I have no way of knowing whether the show got better or worse the last few years because I couldn’t watch a second of it.

I don’t think NBC ever really loved the show either. Their perception wasn’t that it was a signature prestige franchise like CHEERS or SEINFELD but that it was something reliable they could plug into the schedule to fill holes. It’s time slot changed almost every week. There’s no way to build a loyal following when you never know when a show is on. And the network knows that.

Kristen wants to know…

At the beginning of a season, was the whole story plot more or less laid out or did it tend to evolve depending on how the audience reacted to each episode. For example, before starting season one of Cheers, was it already decide that Sam and Diane would get together at the end or not?

The first year of CHEERS we really experimented and we let the audience tell us what they liked and didn’t. The Sam & Diane relationship was popular right from the moment Diane first walked into the bar in the pilot. But it was director Jimmy Burrows who came up to the office several weeks in and said, “Sam & Diane -- that's your show.”

We tried to get as much sexual tension mileage as possible that first season, but at a certain point if they didn’t get together it was a little juvenile. So the Charles Brothers decided to make that happen as the season finale.

After that some thought was given each season to a general overall arc. And to my knowledge CHEERS was the first sitcom to do that.

And finally, from Barbara C.:

I always find the dubbing out of curse words interesting. It's obvious that in the original scene different dialogue was used. Do the actors have to re-dub certain scenes during the movie making process for when the show eventually airs on a network television?

In many cases separate takes are filmed in movies to substitute more acceptable words for broadcast television. God, wouldn’t you love to see an episode of DEADWOOD that was cleaned up for general audiences?


Anonymous said...

Best clean TV version of a curse: "Yippee ki-yay, Mr. Falcon" [Die Hard 2]

honorable mention: "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps" [Big Lebowski]

-Sammy B

Johnny Walker said...

Don't forget the classic REPO MAN which was the first film to use "Melon Farmer" in place of... well, you can guess.

I like RoboCop's: "Congratulations, Bob. I remember when I was a young executive at this company. We used to call the old man funny names. 'Iron Butt', 'Boner', once I even called him... 'Airhead'."

Nice to see a post on tips for being a Show Runner coming up. I look forward to reading them.

Friday Question, if you'd be so kind:
I was watching an episode of MODERN FAMILY the other day, the Emmy winning "Caught in the Act". It's a very enjoyable and farcical episode, but I was struck by how simplistic the plot was. In particular, the initial misunderstanding was not particularly original (Gloria accidentally sends a rude email to Clare), but the execution was excellent. This got me wondering about Spec scripts that wannabe writers might put together. Could someone get away with such an obvious plot choice, provided their execution is superb, or is a script you've spent months crafting expected to be brilliant across the board?


Good luck to everyone about to enter the Sitcom Room!

Curt Alliaume said...

Go back and read Top of the Rock again for more details on Mad About You. Paul Reiser was very specific about how bitter he was about the time changes. (I believe it aired every night of the week except Fridays during its seven-year-run.)

My wife and I were huge fans of the show early in the run - likely because a) we were similar ages as the characters and recently married, and b) we were living outside of NYC at the time and desperately missed the city. (Unlike, say, Friends, which never shot a single exterior scene involving a cast member in New York, Mad About You shot the credits and at least a few scenes a year in recognizable New York locations.)

The big problem for us was they were stretching for stories after the first three seasons, the baby born at the end of season five became a nuisance plot point (I assume she was at the same "Get Rid of the Kid" day care place as Avery Brown and Emma Geller-Green), and (for better or worse), the occasional squabbles (and two separations) from the end of season four on may have led viewers to think that this couple didn't even really like each other very much. (It may reflect reality, but sometimes reality sucks.)

Brian Phillips said...

If you watch "Smokey and the Bandit" not only has Jackie Gleason's language been cleaned up, it's being performed by a different actor!

Aaron Hazouri said...

Brian Phillips is right - that dialogue is being done by Henry Corden if I'm not mistaken, who was, at the time, the replacement voice for Fred Flintstone as well (Alan Reed had died).

My favorite TV version of a curse is, no contest, from Snakes On a Plane: "I have had enough of these monkey-fighting snakes on this Monday to Friday plane!"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I loved the first few seasons of MAD ABOUT YOU, and had a number of friends who suspected the show had hidden bugging equipment in their homes. For me, it went off the rails starting in season 4, more to do with storylines and the loss of focus on the original idea of a close-up look at a marriage as it formed and changed. (The other annoying thing about that show that mounted over time was the number of characters that disappeared without explanation. Or were recast - three different sets of actors played Hunt's parents, and as much as I love Carol Burnett, it seemed awfully unfair to the pair she and Caroll O'Connor replaced, who were really good.)

NBC must have had *some* commitment to the show - year 7, they offered Reiser and Hunt $1m each per episode to get them to stay.

Happy Sitcom Room!


Terrence Moss said...

I really enjoyed the middle years of "Mad About You" but watched it through to the end.

Helen Hunt was fantastic in the show. Four Emmys for it may have been a bit much, but that's the Academy's problem.

As for Paul Reiser, he gets dumped on a lot. I thought he was great in the show. He and Hunt had great chemistry together.

"Mad About You" is an underrated gem from the 1990s. How I miss 90s television.

Tom Quigley said...

As the person who was responsible for getting the audiences in and out of their seats at every Friday filming the last three seasons MAD ABOUT YOU was on the air, I'll chime in with a word or two about the show's loyal following.

In a studio that seated only about 210 people, we would without exception have 400 fans show up each week at The Culver Studios to try and see the show -- not paid groups or people recruited to be audience members, but real fans of the show, and this was above the 100 or so production guests we had every week whose seats were reserved. We finally instituted a "FRIENDS" -type policy where we would ask people whom we couldn't accomodate at the start of filming to return at designated times later in the evening and have them fill the seats of those who had left before filming was ended (filming an episode usually ran about five hours).

Two relevant points about the audience: (1) the vast majority of them were from out of town, who had either come to LA specifically to see the filming of an episode, or who had included it as part of their plans on their trip, and (2) of the people who we couldn't acommodate at the beginning of the evening, there wasn't a single person who returned later whom we didn't get in to see at least a part of the show.

There were a number of other shows I was involved with where the showrunners and staff acted as if the audience was just a nuisance, but the people running MAD ABOUT YOU (especially the audience coordinator, who I'm still good friends with) knew the value of their fans. Those people absolutely loved the actors and the characters and expressed more loyalty to the show than any other production I ever worked on.

Hope everyone has fun at THE SITCOM ROOM this weekend, Ken!

Ron Rettig said...

Completely off topic I accidentally found a scream better than famous Wilhelm Scream while listening to Old Time Radio. I am sure some screams are used in comedy and some of your readers are involved in adventure/drama writing. Here it is in a 1950 episode of Dangerous Assignment radio show.

Bankron said...

Scream is at 6:40 in.

LinGin said...

I liked MAD ABOUT YOU well enough when it was on the air but it wasn't until the show ended and Lifetime started showing the series that I became, well, mad about it.

As a never married woman I enjoyed the relationship but as a never married JEWISH woman it was the families (particularly the Buchmans) that were important. Particularly Paul's mother who had my mom's name, Sylvia, and was a combination of her and her sister. The Buchman family dynamics rang absolutely true.

Another interesting aspect for me is that the show never celebrated Christmas or any religious holidays. Jamie and Paul were a mixed marriage couple but the show just let it pass. And as someone who remembers the kerfluffle over BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE, I appreciatde that.

Finally, Paul Reiser may have irritated you Ken (and hey, there's nothing wrong with that; there are some characters beloved by others that I can't stand) but there were other in the business who liked him. Carl Reiner reprised his Alan Brady role (and I don't think he ever did that anywhere that wasn't related to the DVD show) and Mel Brooks made multiple appearances as Uncle Phil.

WV: roodona: I'm not even going there.

Slanted Floor said...

Mad About You was terrific for a long, long time. As Tom pointed out, it had a large and loyal following. Paul was exactly who he was supposed to be. Richard Kind was, as always, terrific. The whole cast was terrific, incl. Murray.

Extraneous_Ed said...

One of the weirdest "bleep" things I've ever seen is on AMC. They let their characters swear on the show, and they don't bleep them unless they say "fuck". But in the captions, they turn every word into s---, or b----. I guess the eyes are more sensitive than the ears?

chalmers said...

As someone who needs to locate "Giblets for Murray" every Thanksgiving, I also felt bad when they dumped Jamie's original parents (John Karlen played her father).

I also loved Louis Zorich as Paul's father (or anything else).

My Friday question to Ken is whether you've ever been in a situation where a network or someone else pushed you to revise a show you worked on to highlight a successful one-time or occasional character?

Examples of this go back to the beginning of broadcast history all the way through "Urkel" and beyond. My favorite episode of "The Comeback" dealt with the cast's reaction to a couple of outsiders brought in to revive the show.

Ryan Paige said...

I loved Mad About You until season 4 and only watched sporadically after that.

Seasons 2 and 3 had some really great episodes.

Mr. First Nighter said...

My wife and I loved Mad About You during its original run, and watch the repeats on WGN (the show runs for about a week, then disappears for 4 months). I always wonder about what happened to Paul's best friend Selby, who disappeared from the show after 6 or 7 episodes. The supporting cast was great, except for Hank Azaria who always irritates me.

Tim W. said...

My wife and I would watch Mad About You religiously, as we both completely related to the characters and their situation. It was one of my favourite shows, at the time. I agree with most of the others, though, that season four was when it started to lose me. It just got too serious, trying to show the problems between Paul and Jamie. I stuck with it until the end, but I thought having them split up was kind of a screw you to the fans like us who saw themselves in the two characters.

gottacook said...

The most amusing instance I ever saw of alternate dialogue for broadcast was Quick Change, the Bill Murray picture (he also co-directed). Every instance of a certain word was changed to "Viking." It really worked, at least in that movie.

With regard to showrunners breaking up with networks, Stephen Bochco's departure from Hill Street Blues at the end of the 1984-85 season was the first such case I ever became aware of; I guess it was the subject of a lot of newspaper TV columns (in an era when many more TV columnists had jobs). I always assumed that the point of disagreement was the regular cast getting uncontrollably larger each year; by 1984-85 the number of actors in the opening credits was enormous (with the addition of Ken Olin, et al.).

Curt Alliaume said...

chalmers said...
As someone who needs to locate "Giblets for Murray" every Thanksgiving, I also felt bad when they dumped Jamie's original parents (John Karlen played her father).

Actually, John Karlen was father #2. In one episode in the first season, Paul Dooley played Jamie's dad, and Nancy Dussault played her mom. (No, I'm not obsessive; why do you ask?)

Janice said...

I didn't mind the drama of Paul and Jamie separating for a little while. It gave depth to the characters, like in those very dramatic episodes of "All In The Family". But while I was able to tolerate the pregnancy episodes, I really didn't like the episodes after their baby was born. Still, I endured through the whole series, up to and including that terrible final episode.

gottacook said...

Janice: I was never a Mad About You fan, but was reminded by your post that Reiser took advantage of the show's popularity by writing a book that was a big success for its publisher ("Couplehood") followed by one that was quickly remaindered ("Babyhood") - not that I ever picked up either book, but who could forget titles like that?

warlen presh said...

after reading the interview about Top of the Rock, it got me wondering, could you give us a list of recommended books about sitcom writing, or sitcoms in general?


Mike Schryver said...

Re-dubbing has occurred for TV series as well.
One of the oldies networks just showed the episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY where Mike's draft dodger friend comes to visit at Christmas. At one point, Mike asks Archie to admit that the Vietnam war was wrong, and Archie goes off in a much more violent and severe way than we had seen before, yelling "I don't wanna talk about that goddamn war no more!!!"
The version sometimes seen in reruns, and that was shown the other day, has him saying "I don't wanna talk about that rotten damn war no more!!!" Given the ferocity of O'Connor's delivery, "rotten damn" really doesn't work at all.

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Kveller said...

The mention of the awful series finale for Mad About You brings me to a Friday question - series finales. How does a good show go bad with its series finale?

I'm sure it has something to do with the pressure to do something "special" to end the series, but, still, why do these people who have just spent seven years successfully separating good ideas from bad ones suddenly lose that ability when they hit that finale?

A_Homer said...

With overseas syndication, especially to German television which loves American sitcoms, Mad About You, seems to be also dissed. I don't find it the worst sitcom, and having Helen Hunt - I mean, an actress during a sitcom going to receive an Oscar is pretty rare. Watching tv while in Germany, all the well-regarded 90s/00s sitcoms run twice daily (dubbed of course) from the expected Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier through Tooltime, Golden Girls, as well more vintage Full House, Family Matters, and the occasional Becker but hardly Cheers (and when so it looks like a dark copy on vhs.) Then, oddly, appear mild hits (Til Death) or this years still unproven sitcoms, like New Girl etc. But in all this time I never saw Mad About You offered in re-runs.

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

I remember the first time I noticed re-dubbed dialogue in a TV broadcast of a movie. It was during the NBC premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's final film, FAMILY PLOT. I had seen it in the theater just two or three years previously, so it was reasonably fresh in my mind--but even if it had not been, I probably would have guessed that something had been changed when a character responded to a long series of annoyances with an angrily shouted "SHUCKS!!"

Tom Quigley said...

chalmers said...

As someone who needs to locate "Giblets for Murray" every Thanksgiving, I also felt bad when they dumped Jamie's original parents (John Karlen played her father).

I also worked on that show (from the third season), although I wasn't in charge of audience seating that year, and the studio audience was in stitches during the filming. I always make a point of watching it each year too, and will make some time during Thanksgiving week to pop it in the DVD lpayer.

David Baruffi said...

This is secondhand info I'm presenting here, from somebody who knows somebody who worked on "The West Wing," so I'm not gonna pretend it's ultra-reliable, but the version I heard of the Sorkin tale was that he quit as showrunner of "The West Wing". The main reason was that, unlike other network, and this really might be the only example that I know of off-hand, Sorkin wrote almost every episode of the series, the first four years, and frankly the network was on him, because shows would continually go overbudget, and over hours, because he often didn't finish writing his scripts on time, and in many cases, episodes were shot, before a script was entirely finished, and while NBC still liked him a lot, and wanted him to stay on (Evidence by them trusting him with "Studio 60..." a few years later), Sorkin chose to quit, but he didn't want to deal with the pressure of having to write a new script every week, and have the network on his back. Again, this is secondhand info, but if you know of any other story regarding Sorkin's exit from "The West Wing," I'd like to know, but everything I ever heard, was that we quit the series, was not fired, and had actually informed NBC weeks ahead of time that he would be leaving the series.

Greg Ehrbar said...

My wife and I were mad about Mad About You also because it seemed to be mirroring our lives in some ways.

When Jamie had the baby, my wife went into labor within days of the broadcast. Even though I missed the earlier parents, we loved how Carol Burnett played Jamie's mother.

During our real life delivery, we had the same issue about and epidural delivery, and quoted the scene in which, when Jamie changed her mind and was told, "The window is closed," she screamed, "Well, break it!"

They lost us with the "real time" Ferberizing episode and the subsequent breakup stuff that really went into the weeds and lost the essence of the show.

I liked the fact that Paul Reiser, a major Gleason fan, had as a recurrring character, a film editor, the great George Petrie, who played dozens of roles on The Honeymooners and other Gleason shows.

Sometimes I wish American series would be more like British ones, that end when the story is over and don't out stay their welcome. Mad About You, like Murphy Brown, would perhaps be more acclaimed in hindsight if it gone out a winner.

Lionel Henry said...

Hey Ken, I was wondering which screenwritng software do you use and which ones would you recommend

Brian said...

Was William Shatner ever proposed for a guest spot on Cheers? I think it would have been funny.

yatesy said...

Up until they had that baby and all the breakup stuff happened, Mad About You was really a pretty funny show. The supporting cast was great, especially the woman who played Helen Hunt's sister. In fact, the one thanksgiving episode where they go thru like 8 turkeys is a classic! Unfortunately, I think they wanted to shake it up and that's when it fell off the tracks. When will they ever learn: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Bruce said...

Hopefully you can answer this in your next Friday's section. Please tell me that this is the last year for How I Met Your Mother. That show is getting so inane I cannot take it anymore and am only suffering through it to see who it ends up being.

Bruce in Phoenix

Liggie said...

F.Q. What procedural/contractual/legal issues should writers look at before submitting work to a non-American studio? I recently heard about a Europe-based studio that is looking for scripts from anywhere, Europe or not. I would assume WGA and US copyright registration wouldn't mean much over there. Should I need to send a release form before I send them my script, or even my logline/synopsis?

W.V. "Edsocar" -- what a talking horse rides in.

Brian said...

Ken - been watching old Cheers shows on Netflix and wondered how the Harry Anderson appearances came out, first just for teasers or bits, then as part of episodes.

Dave Logan said...

Perhaps the reason Paul Reiser could never STFU on "Mad About You" was due to the fact he was creator and producer of the show. That dual designation probably give him a lot of latitude with scripts and improv moments on the set. As maddening as he could be, it was the constant whining of Jamie (Helen Hunt) that made the show unwatchable for me. Toward the end of the series, they stopped being a cute couple and just became annoying. Your results may vary.