Friday, February 01, 2013

Friday Questions

My posts on writing this week elicited quite a few Friday Questions. Thought I’d answer them while the subject matter is still fairly fresh.

Ron asks:

If you're writing a spec script should you target network or cable and also a specific network, i.e., TBS or FX, etc

Write the best pilot you can and then decide whom it’s best for, not the other way around. Don’t try to outguess the marketplace. Producers and agents are looking for original material, not the next FX show. Write something great and let all these networks fight over you.

The Curmudgeon wonders:

You're in the writers' room and someone pitches a joke and everyone laughs -- who remembers the exact joke and how? Is there somebody there who used to work for the CIA, who's had their sense of humor surgically removed, available to record these pearls as they issue? I mean, the inspiration strikes, you pitch a line, everyone laughs -- but who catches the exact line?

Tom Reeder, one of my favorite comedy writers, graciously answered this in the comments section, but it’s worth re-printing in case there are one or two of you who don’t read every comment.

In response to The Curmudgeon: The writer who pitched the line usually remembers what he or she said, and if not, there are a couple of writers' assistants in the room. It's their job to record the pearls that are produced in the room.

The writers' assistant who is at the keyboard types in the proposed change; everyone looks at it on the monitors, and most of the time it's correct -- as pitched. Once in a while, someone will say, "The way David pitched it, he had 'corn nuts' at the end." That gets fixed, and then the showrunner says the words we all love to hear: "Moving on."

Thanks, Tom. Okay, moving on…

From Wade:

Ken, you've mentioned a number of times that scripts today are by and large developed in the room and that, with the exception of a few rare individuals, no one person could write a script (i.e. from concept to final shooting draft) for shows as they are produced today.

That being the case, how are the scripts written by prospective/aspiring writers regarded when they are being assessed by potential agents, producers, etc? Are they still expected to be as good as a room written script?

Yes. Unfortunately, your spec is expected to be as good or better than the show itself. No, that’s not fair but that’s the way it’s always been.

Although, in fairness, if I’m reading a spec that’s not a home run but detect a real spark – a very funny voice, or terrific banter, or maybe very clever storytelling, that alone could get my attention. I understand that the writer is not seasoned, but if I think there’s some genuine raw talent I might be inclined to give him a shot.

Michael queries:

Do you think being a team made it easier or harder for you and David to get hired for your first staff jobs? Did you get paid less than if you were solo?

It made it easier because the scripts were better. Yes, writing teams have to split salaries but I’ve always believed that, in our case, the quality of the work was better as a result of the partnership and that ultimately we had a better and longer career. Half of something was a whole lot better than all of nothing.

To me the trade-off was worth it. And as you rise in your career you’re able to make better deals than just the Guild minimums so the money improves even if you’re in a team.

I also think that today it’s easier for teams to get hired because shows have smaller budgets and they get two writers for the price of one. 

From Ane:

I recently watched an episode of a series and noticed that an actress name was shown in the beginning of the episode, announcing she would be in it. This was not a regular of that series, but someone who had been in the show maybe 5 times all together in 6 seasons. I only noticed the name because she is the daughter of one of the regular cast members. But then she wasn't actually in that episode. Simply a mistake, or can actors get credited for more episodes than they're really appearing in? Say they're signed up for 3 episodes that season and only needed in two?

Actors who recur in series sometimes negotiate a deal for say 7 of 13. That means that they have to be paid for 7 episodes and get credit on those episodes whether they’re used or not. My guess, in this case, is that the actor was used in the episode and then his scene was cut. (And perhaps in the DVD his scene will be restored.)

In any event, it’s a fairly unusual occurrence.

I love when a character is killed at the end of one episode and then in the next there’s a scene of investigators standing over the dead body. The actor gets paid and a credit for lying still. Where do I get that job?

And finally, Carol has a question on my weekend posts about memorization:

How long does a television actor get to memorize their lines? It doesn't seem to me that they have a large amount of time for rehearsal or memorization!

They don’t. Soap opera actors have new half hour scripts every day. I don’t know how they do it.

Sitcom actors on multi-camera shows occasionally get entirely new scripts the day before they’re supposed to shoot. Occasionally, they get whole new scenes after the dress rehearsal. That can be a seven-page scene delivered to them an hour before they’re supposed to perform it in front of cameras and a live audience.

This happened to me on the very first episode I ever directed. It was a WINGS. I literally got the scene as the audience was being led in. I went to the actors backstage and just sort of roughed-out blocking in the make-up room. I told the cameramen to just get what you can and after the audience was released I’d go back and block and shoot the scene properly. You should have seen the four monitors. It was utter chaos. Camera were practically crashing into each other, swishing around trying to follow the actors. The NBC executive on hand had not been briefed on this new scene. He watched in utter horror. After the scene was over I said, “Great, moving on!” The NBC guy was practically apoplectic. I said I was trying something stylistically and it would look great on the air. The showrunners picked up on this and said they were on board. The NBC guy left when the audience did and I bet he was surprised to see the show on the air with that scene perfectly blocked.

Your questions are ALWAYS appreciated. Just leave them in the comments section. Thanks!


Johnny Walker said...

Re: The NBC Exec.

Ha! That seems like quite a ballsy move, Ken. Could that have blown up in your face somehow?

Stephen said...

Sitcoms have shorter running time than they did in the 70s (a recent Big Bang episode ran 20:03 compared to Mary Tyler Moore's 25:00 average). So does this shorten the time it takes to shoot an episode as well as giving the writers more time during the week to work on the script?

Stu West said...

Does that mean there was a weirdly silent scene in the finished episode? Or did you manage to reuse the audience laughter from the first try?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Ken, your comment about the actor playing a stiff reminds me of a series you've probably never read (books): Simon Brett's Charles Paris detective novels. Brett has done a lot of work writing and producing for radio and TV (IIRC he was one of the producers on the original radio version of THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). I particularly remember a series of his that was first a radio series, then remade for TV, and then a book of short stories, AFTER HENRY, starring Prunella Scales (of FAWLTY TOWERS) as a 40-something widow coping with the demands of her 18-year-old daughter and her mother, both of whom shared her house.

Anyway, in the detective novels, Charles Paris was a perennially broke actor desperately scrounging for any work he could get (and somewhat alcoholic), and Brett always had him doing some ghastly job or another - in one, I remember, he was hired as a contestant for a pilot for a game show. In another - and here is the point - he was in a play where he appeared for one scene at the beginning as a corpse, but had to wait around all evening to appear in the curtain call, by which time of course the audience had no idea who he was. It left him a lot of time for drinking. And detecting, when the inevitable murder happened.

They're good books - funny, all set in various areas of British TV and theater (there's one, in fact, in which Paris is in a sitcom). I think you'd enjoy them.


chris m said...

Hey Ken,
What are your thoughts on Amazon Studios and its recent purchase of nearly a dozen tv comedy and children's show pilots (mostly from industry folks), to be produced for their streaming services?

One thing they will be doing is showing each pilot online, then using audience feedback to help gauge which pilots to greenlight for series.

Here is the link for their comedy purchases.

Micah said...

Do you think shows would be better if they had longer-term commitments going in -- or after say a year? Seems like you'd be able to break story arcs, character development, etc, if you could plan further out. Or does the deadline pressure help create the best shows because they HAVE to do their best or face cancellation?

Larry Hancock said...

A question for your consideration...

When Becker was announced I was looking forward to watching it because I enjoyed both Ted Danson and Terry Farrell. However when it aired, I watched two episodes and vowed to never look at it again (and never did, even in repeats). Why? Because of the smoking. I found the smoking to be very "in your face", enough to believe that there was probably "product placement" funding from the cigarette industry (that is just speculation on my part). When the program was being developed, who would have been developing the characters' traits, their idiosyncracies, their habits. How much of this is from the writers, how much from the actors themselves, and how much might be dictated from on high?

Steve B. said...

Hey Ken, am I allowed a 2-parter? hope so...

1) I was wondering how much your background and interests have played a part in your writing career. For instance, did the "Cheers" room look to you as the baseball guy or the "Frasier" staff look to you as the radio expert?

2) As a radio guy, what's your opinion about "WKRP"? Did you ever talk to Hugh Wilson about ideas for it?

Janice said...

My Friday question:

What is the advantage in casting the actors' relatives for guest appearances? For example on WINGS, Amy Yasbeck's husband John Ritter played Casey's ex-husband in one episode. And in THE ODD COUPLE, Jack Klugman's wife Brett Somers played Oscar's ex-wife in recurring episodes.

Lisa Muldrin said...

Thanks for your friday questions Ken!

I have a Friday Question for you too:

i just read that you have been working on DHARMA & GREG and was wondering, how it must have been to work with Chuck Lorre. Can you tell us something about his process? Is there something special about his approach and did you learn something from him? And what do you think about his recent work? Do you like Mike & Molly or The Big Bang Theory? And what do you thought about his work when you got the chance to write for DHARMA & GREG? Was it like hot stuff back then?


Dan said...

Friday Question for you Ken:

I have the offer to work on a sitcom and the Showrunner is a real jerk. Working with him is a soul-sucking experience and he is like one of the most disrespectful guys I've ever met. Not just to the people he works with, but even to the craft of screenwriting, it's ridiculous. He is a good friend of a big executive, so that's how he got the job... I could need the money and do want the writing credit, because I'm just starting out, but I'm afraid it will crush my soul in some ways. What do you recommend? Sell my soul or look for another job? I have some other projects, but this one is definitively the most promising in terms of money right now.

What do you think?

Thank you for any advice you can give me!

Unknown said...

Question for Friday:

I've worked in television, mostly reality, as a production assistant and have been on a few major studio shows. My question is, having worked with production, how much daily interaction (i.e. script changes, rundowns, etc.) is there between the production office and the writer's room on a sitcom?

Wayne said...

Enjoyed reading THE ME GENERATION... BY ME.
You mention your talent drawing cartoons. How about showing some? I love cartoons. Lots of great writers had talent drawing. O. Henry.

By Ken Levine said...


In the photo gallery section of the ME GENERATION website I have posted a number of my drawings from the period. Scroll down to the bottom. Here's the link:


Dan said...

Hi Ken,

Re: being paid to be dead. You may be interested to read that Michael Biehn, who played Hicks in Aliens, was paid more for the use of his likeness in Alien 3 than he did for playing the live role in Aliens.

Thank you for writing this blog, it's fascinating.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Janice: in the Amy Yasbeck incidence I'd have thought the advantage was *getting JOHN RITTER*!


Joseph Scarbrough said...

If producers and agents are always looking for "original" material, then how come all that's on TV today is the same garbage over and over and over again?

Brian said...

Ken, Have you watched House of Cards on Netflix? What are your thoughts about it? I think the show is OK so far. I heard that the producer's and writers were given a lot of freedom. What do you think about Netflix releasing all episodes at once? What must it be like to write and film that? Brutal?