Friday, December 07, 2012

Friday Questions

It’s always extra poignant being in Hawaii during Pearl Harbor Day. As the “Day of Infamy” gets further into the mist, take a moment to remember and give thanks. 

Now then – Friday Questions.

Stephen asks:

Joss Whedon tells writers, "Cut what you love", the idea being that when a story runs into trouble, be willing to remove your favorite scene for the good of the piece as a whole. Do you have any examples of when you have found this to be a useful approach?

All the time. I could give a thousand examples from my scripts alone. “Kill your babies” is another, more genteel expression that is used.

For me, the most extreme example is when the musical I co-wrote with Janet Brenner was in production at the Goodspeed Theater in Connecticut. It was playing okay but felt long.

I suggested we cut an entire production number. This was like a ten minute number with the entire cast, elaborate choreography, orchestration, lighting effects, visuals, and harmonies. It was an impressive piece. But the song was essentially a rehash of everything we had already said. The director was almost apoplectic when I suggest the radical lift but convinced him to try it for one performance. If we all missed it it could return. Losing that number elevated the entire show. And it was worth everyone in the company not speaking to me for two days.

There’s an expression in the theater: make it twenty minutes shorter and it’ll run five years longer.

It's true! 

By the way, that musical starred Andrew Rannells. Whatever happened to him?

From emd9930 (but I'm not sure if that's his real name):

Do the writers have a master map of character quirks / family names / family stories / etc. so new additions to the character's background make sense? I've been on many TV forums where people complain that the "new" writers don't recall this or that trait of a character. The obvious one is the missing oldest son from Happy Days, but other characters have gone to college for a few shows then never talked about it again (Jamie on Mad About You and Carrie on King of Queens).

It depends on the show. Some keep very detailed bibles that get updated constantly. Other shows don’t bother. Generally it’s up to the showrunner and writers who stay with a series for several of years to police that. But they’re only as effective as their memory allows.

Sometimes there’s a big switch in staffs and maybe the show gets better as a result but the continuity suffers.

And here’s the sad double-standard. When you’re on staff writing the show, those details don’t really matter.  Sure, you like to have them right, but other than a few diehard fans, who’s going to know? You can find a thousand inconsistencies in MASH (and indeed some authors have).

Shows will go so far as to bring back actors as different characters. We did that with Harry Morgan on MASH. It was done with Tony Shaloub on WINGS.

And sometimes we ignore previous episodes on purpose. When characters get “sent off to college” they generally disappear entirely from the show’s timeline. In the second episode of CHEERS we make reference to and show Sam’s ex-wife. Then she’s never brought up again for eleven years. As a show moves in a creative direction sometimes you have to alter history.


If you’re writing a spec script, continuity is crucial. Saying a character has a brother back home when he doesn’t or that she loves ice cream when it’s been established that she doesn’t can kill you. The astute reader will accuse you of not really knowing the show. And it becomes doubly tough when you do your due diligence and you discover an inconsistency. What to use? She likes ice cream or she doesn’t? It can be a trap.

Emily Blake queries:

I don't know if this affects comedy as much, but can you talk about how constantly not knowing how many episodes you'll get affects your story telling?

Especially starting out you can’t build a big overall arc. But generally, when you’re a new show you want to leave yourself open to see what works and what doesn’t. You just hope you find the sweet spot in time.

Once you’re established then you have the luxury of being able to map out a season. And having an overall arc helps you in planning stories. You’re not just starting from square one every week.

On the other hand, story arcs can sometimes be dangerous. If the audience doesn’t like a certain creative direction you’ve taken and you’ve got seven more stories in that arc you can really sink yourself. You have to be prepared to abort story arcs, which means double work. You must throw out the episodes you’ve written and quickly write whole new episodes.

THE GOOD WIFE faced that problem this season. No one (myself included) liked the Kalinda/asshole husband storyline. The producers apparently cut it short as a result. I can only imagine the number of late nights and weekends that caused. But for the sake of their show they were willing to “kill their babies.” See how these questions all tie into each other? It’s a beautiful thing.

And sometimes when an arc doesn’t work a character is dropped and never mentioned again and that affects the continuity. Amazing how this all wraps up!

What’s your question that coincidentally will tie in with other questions? Leave it in the comments section. Mahalo.


Mitchell Hundred said...

Did you get interviewed for this? Because it kind of seems like you should've been, but I don't see you in the video.

John Leader Alfenito said...

+1 on "The Good Wife" story arc. The show is consistently one of the best written dramas on TV, but the "Kalinda's husband" sub-plot didn't merit the time they gave it. It went nowhere.

Matthew said...

"In the second episode of CHEERS we make reference to and show Sam’s ex-wife. Then she’s never brought up again for eleven years."

You've mentioned that several times Ken but it's not quite true. I've just watched all eleven seasons in a row (such a good show... not many I could do that with) and I noticed Sam's ex-wife mentioned four or five times, spread evenly over the show's run. It's been mentioned to Diane, Frasier, Woody, Rebecca that I remember and probably others as well.

Kirk said...

Wikipedia remembers. I recently wrote about WELCOME BACK, KOTTER on my own blog, and, in my research, noticed that the site solemnly mentions that Freddy Boom-Boom Washington had a brother named Lincoln and a father named Douglas. In the actual episode, though, Washington seems to just be making a joke, not a statement of fact.

Anonymous said...

Interesting you bring up the "kill your darlings" idea.

I'm editing my spec script and have to decide whether a sequence I'm crazy about should stay, go or be completely overhauled.

John said...

It used to be a pleasant surprise on TV when you'd actually get a continuity call-back, especially from the appearance of a minor character. "Cheers" did it with the return of Bebe Neuwirth as Lilth in Season 5, after her brief appearance as Frasier's date in Season 4, and going even further in the past, "Bewitched" brought back Nancy Kovack and several other characters from the show's pilot episode for a pair of shows in Season 4. Doing things like that makes you feel that someone in the production actually cares about defining the back stories of the characters as much as the people watching at home do, and that their histories (or even in some cases their personalities) aren't something to be changed from show to show just to suit this week's plot point.

"Frasier" also had to deal with continuity glitch from "Cheers", where you had Nancy Marchand as Frasier's widowed mom in Season 3, followed by Martin Crane moving in with Frasier when he relocates back to Seattle for his own show (I believe that was solved by saying Frasier was mad at dad when he made that comment to Diane, though that would assume that the ever-talkative Ms. Chambers wasn't going to ask Frasier's mom about her deceased husband while they were dining at Melville's. But sometimes it's just best to leave the 'what ifs' alone)

Volklfan said...

I'm glad to hear you mention the Kalinda/husband storyline. I love "The Goodwife"but starting with the second or third episode this season my wife and I started fast-forwarding almost every scene with what we called the "secret agent" Kalinda story line. we were happy to see that end last week.
Glad that the producers were willing to kill that baby... or did they?

Jerry Peters said...

PLEASE...Still waiting on some (any) thought on Larry Hagman, one of my favorite actors!!!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Why do a number of sitcoms these days have animated on-screen transitions?

roger said...

I thought Antonio the cab driver on WINGS was the same Antonio the maitre'd from his first one-shot appearance on the show. I figured he'd been fired from the restaurant for the events in that episode. He became the meek loser as a cab driver perhaps because he was humbled. But in a strange bit of (dis)continuity, in a later episode Antonio shows resentment toward another character who used to be a maitre'd because Antonio said he used to be a waiter.

I liked HOUSE as a medical show, but the story arcs really annoyed me. The worst was the whole House-vs.-Det. Tritter storyline. Tritter was so vengeful and bullying that it turned off viewers (certainly me), and the story seemed to sink further and further into a hole that it was going to have a helluva time pulling itself out of. Considering the rather abrupt end to the storyline, I suspect the producers saw it was going off the rails and wanted to end it quickly.

Michael said...

Sometimes story arcs also need to be cut short due to actors' unavailability. I remember in one of "Gilmore Girls" early seasons, a new potential boyfriend for Lorelai just disappeared with no resolution after a few episodes - turned out the actor had booked another a job.

Max Clarke said...

About the appearance of Sam's ex, maybe less is more.

The woman who played his ex was a part of Cheers for maybe ten minutes, but she did it so well, I still remember what she said and how she said it.

"Give me a cigarette?"

"All right, we went to see Star Wars again and I'm glad."

And about Mozart, "He must have been 39 when he died!"

That's pretty good for somebody who got one scene in 11 seasons. Makes her more memorable.

XJill said...

Because I have a reason - Mr. Rannells killing it in Book of Mormon at the Tony Awards:

Chris G said...

A FRASIER question: <y wife and I have been rewatching on Netflix and are up to the point where Daphne is "away at a spa" to lose weight. I know that this was an attempt to deal with Jane Leeves' real-life pregnancy in a creative way, but many of the jokes and references to the weight gain seem really, really mean-spirited and out of character for folks like Martin. Did anyone on the writing staff or cast express these concerns while this storyline was going on?

erich said...

As a WINGS expert myself-- or maybe I tuned in to USA all too often growing up... I can say with confidence that Tony Shaloub played the same character. In fact there is a later episode in which Antonio refers to the restraunt he used to work at, telling a story about a man who did not like his steak and was very kind about it... the only thing i can't say with confidence is whether or not his character had the same name.

On the subject of continuity, i find it important! I just saw an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer says "I take baths" which, if you're paying close enough attention Kramer had already made a speech to Jerry about how he hates baths! but i guess maybe the joke worked better than continuity.

Bmcthomas said...

I don't mind a continuity error if it leads to something bigger and better - like the example of Frasier's father being resurrected from the dead. Or in a comedy like Seinfeld, where absurdity and incongruity is the norm. Or if it's a discrepancy between the pilot and the actual first episode, because sometimes things in the pilot just don't work out.

But when writers disregard continuity for the sake of a gag, or they ignore it because it's too difficult to explain, or they ignore it because they have a hardon for a particular plot or set piece - that's not okay. It's disrespectful to the audience and it's lazy. There is always another joke you can tell, it's the writer's job to problem-solve, and as you said yourself, Ken, you have to kill your darlings.

Harold X said...

I just "got" why Melville's was so named.


LouOCNY said...

Sad news - Reinhold Weege, creator of Night Court, and and a big time contributor to Barney Miller as writer and producer has passed away.

His Barneys are all classics, and you can always tell his Barney Millers from Tony Sheehan's - Weege's were more based on odd situations, while Sheehan's were more character driven.

I am pretty sure you have crossed paths with Weege, Ken, and offer early condolences.

Anonymous said...

This is off-topic, but I just got The Me Generation on Kindle. Your book is a really fun read. I am enjoying it very much. Julie Burlington, IA

John said...

Speaking of story arcs, when you and David began working for MASH, the show was in the process of phasing out Larry Linville, and already had changed things up by ending his affair with Margaret after her engagement to Donald. Was it different/harder writing for 'loner' Frank Burns in Season 5 than the way you had seen the show's story line coming in off Seasons 1-4, with Frank and Margaret basically as a team against Hawkeye and Trapper/B.J. (to me, there's almost something depressing at times about Linville's character in Season 5 -- without someone to conspire with, Frank's just kind of pitifully lost out there in some Season 5 shows, without the intellectual heft David Ogden Stiers' character would be given to battle Hawkeye and B.J. on his own in Season 6).

Johnny Walker said...

Continuity was never really an issue with old sitcoms, though, right? I mean there was an episode of CHEERS where Cliff meets his perfect partner.

Then she's never mentioned again.

There was an episode where Sam had raise funds to keep the bar going and was forced to sell his Corvette. It was a huge deal. Except two episodes prior Norm won a stack of money and bought him a boat... but it was never mentioned again.

Hell, even TV as "recent" (ok, it feels recent to me) as The X-Files had huge continuity issues: Scully would witness the most incredible things in one episode -- stuff that would be thrown out of a Ripley's Believe It or Not for being too ridiculous, and return to being a complete sceptic in the next.

Saying that, the only *sitcom* I can think of that really comes close to being truly "serialized" is ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

Are there any others?

Kate said...

Are we sure TGW wrapped the Kalinda/husband storyline early because of negative feedback? Because from my perspective, it looked an awful lot like a pre-planned end-of-act-I cliffhanger.

(I have no evidence that this is deliberate, but most seasons of TGW fall into three clear chunks: An overture/act I, a lengthy 2nd act where the previous characters and themes come back and complicate themselves, and then brief act III where things both wrap up and unravel -- note that in S2, Alicia kicked Peter out with still 2 episodes left in the season.)

Cap'n Bob said...

Do non-actors like Judge Judy have to belong to an actor's union?

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Serialised sitcoms: The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin (UK 1976). Soap (US 1977).

@Cheryl Marks: Try this.

XJill said...

@Weaponized Awesome -

Harold X said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

@Cap'n Bob: I know absolutely nothing about any of this, but Google tells me the following (which may be rubbish):
Judge Judy is a principal television performer, which is an actor. She's retired from being a judge.
There are unions to cover all jobs in television. The unions offer health cover, pension plans, union rates, legal services, etc. Union productions are effectively closed shops. How many programmes are union productions (ie. how effective is the closed shop)? No idea.

Janice said...

As yet another Wings expert, for the record Tony Shalhoub is indeed listed in the credits of his initial episode (where he was a waiter) as "Antonio". So another vote here for same character, different job.

R's Woman said...

Hi Ken,

A sort-of follow-up to Emily's question, and not sure you've been asked (and you've answered) this before, but when you're a new series whose fate is determined mid or late-first-season, do you have 2 or more endings prepared? So 1 ending is if you're not renewed, another ending is if you are, a 3rd maybe to make it interesting. And you film all of them?

Homeland (my favorite show now) comes to mind. Two-thirds through the first season, it was announced that it would be renewed for a second. Did they have more than 1 ending prepared and filmed in case it went either way?

Thank you!

VP81955 said...

Becoming a different character on the same series was nothing new for Harry Morgan. He did occasional work on the radio "Dragnet" in the early '50s, long before he became Jack Webb's sidekick on its late 1960s TV revival.

Anonymous said...

When writing a spec script and you run across an inconsistency in the show continuity, does it help to send a note citing the episode that conforms to your version of the story?

Myrna said...

I also was fast-forwarding through the Kalinda/ ex-husband storyline on "The Good Wife." But this show still has a problem: too many many subplots and too many guest stars, all of whom need their moment in the sun. There has been such a profusion of characters and subplots that I don't see enough of the characters I do care about, such as Cary. Btw, it was ridiculous that Cary was severely beaten one week and then on the next episode showed up at the office with merely a shiner.

My question is how much should I blame the writers for stuff like this? Is the profusion of subplots their idea? Or are they stuck having to come up with storylines for what I perceive as stunt casting?

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks, Mike, for the info.

Jon said...


The late Tom Cheek, the original voice of the Blue Jays, after years on the final ballot, was named the winner of the 2013 Ford C. Frick Award on Wednesday. As I grew up in Toronto, he was my voice of summer.

Do you have any stories or had any interactions with him?

Mark P said...

The Kings said they cut the Kalinda/Nick arc short because of the reaction from critics and fans. Back in the stone age before the Internet - or even now, when there are shows on cable that shoot an entire season before the first episode is aired - what do the show runners use to get independent feedback on whether they need to do a mid course correction?

myrna said...

Does anybody answer the questions posted here?

Scott said...

Aside from Harry Morgan (previously a crazy general) returning as Col. Potter, the biggest lapse in continuity on M*A*S*H that I recall is the latter-day status of Hawkeye as an only son of a widowed father. Upon viewing a re-run from an earlier season, in a trans-Atlantic (actually, probably trans-Pacific) telephone conversation with his dad, Hawkeye concludes by saying, "Give my love to Mom and Sis."

Scott said...

Aside from Harry Morgan (previously a crazy general) returning as Col. Potter, the biggest lapse in continuity on M*A*S*H that I recall is the latter-day status of Hawkeye as an only son of a widowed father. Upon viewing a re-run from an earlier season, in a trans-Atlantic (actually, probably trans-Pacific) telephone conversation with his dad, Hawkeye concludes by saying, "Give my love to Mom and Sis."

Shai said...

Have you ever been given notes (from anyone) that make perfect sense and would likely improve the screenplay/teleplay/book but are not necessarily in line with the current tone nor do they fit in directly with your writing style? What happens in such a situation?

Unknown said...

I think there's a distinction between writers' writing out a character due to a decided change in direction vs. their carelessly mentioning family members early on that they later disregard to fit this week's episode.

For example, on How I Met Your Mother, Ted mentions in an early episode that his sister married a guy that wears socks with sandals. But in a later season, we meet Ted's sister and she's young and single. (The writers on this show actually have SO much attention to detail that they explain that she once got impulsively married for a short time. Still, I would count this as an inconsistency because I really don't buy that the irresponsible girl elopes with a man that wears socks with sandals).
At the end of that same episode, Ted consigns his sister's lease because he wants "to get to know" her better. Then, we never see her again. I don't see this as a careless inconsistency, because obviously this arc didn't test well and they made a conscious decision to abandon it.

Scott said...

Hawkeye Pierce's family background was never an integral part of any story/episode of M*A*S*H. The discrepancy with regard to the later nonexistent mother and sister was clearly a lapse in the maintenance of a character/story bible.

On a completely un-related note --and this may be a faulty memory-- I've always sworn that when the character of Georgette on "The Mary Tyler Moore" show was introduced, she was the daughter of Chuckles the Clown. Later in the series, in their most celebrated episode regarding Chuckles' demise, that reference was lost. Again, that may be my faulty memory.