Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Questions

Beware the Ides of March but heed these Friday Questions.

Jim S starts us off:

You talked about laughter in the writer's room. My question is what was the dumbest argument you ever witnessed. When I say argument, I mean over something dumb like why so and so never wears socks, or the designated hitter rule.

In the FRASIER room there was an argument once over what Eddie (the dog) was thinking over some stunt that was proposed. One writer in particular had to know this information. If this was the army that writer would have been fragged. 

Charles H. Bryan queries:

Why do so many sitcoms feature a character (usually supporting) who is basically an idiot? In many cases a lovable idiot, but an idiot just the same.

Besides the fact that you can always get easy laughs, stupid characters provide a great way to impart exposition to the audience. When Sam explains what’s going on to the Coach he’s also explaining it to the viewers.

So the trick is to find that line that is dumb but you understand why the character would arrive at it. Sometimes it’s a fine line. In the case of the Coach on CHEERS we had a contest in a writers room to see who could pitch the dumbest Coach joke. One day we were faced with the following set-up: Sam is in his office. The Coach comes in to say he’s got a call. Jerry Belson is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He pitched this:

COACH: Sam, there’s a little black man in the bar who wants to speak to you.

SAM: No Coach, that’s the phone.


Liggie asks:

What, and how intensive, is the casting process for a functional, minor character who has one line and almost nothing else to do in the script?  

In the old days (5 years ago) the showrunner could just hire whomever he liked for small parts. The casting director would comb through headshots and auditions and usually bring two or three choices for the role. One would be picked and that was that. 

Or... the showrunner would use this opportunity to give a break to a struggling actor friend.  If there was a maitre ‘d my dad always got the part – and was magnificent I might add.

Now, however, for every part, no matter how small, the producers have to put five candidates on tape and the network selects the winner.   Don't blame my dad.  This happened long after he retired.

Helena wonders:

Because you're so knowledgeable about the craft of sitcom writing, do you think you enjoy watching sitcoms less than a "regular" viewer? (Like being able to anticipate a specific joke, because that's the build-up you would've used for that joke. Or something like that.)

Nothing pleases me more than to laugh and be entertained by a sitcom. I love sitcoms. That’s why I became a writer. So I try very hard not to be jaded because I don’t want to surrender that experience.

But if a show is formulaic, if the plots and jokes are tired or lame then I start automatically critiquing. Ironically, less about the specifics of the writing and more about the directing and editing. I’ll notice poorly composed shots, question whether they should be in a master or a single, wonder if they had other coverage, wonder why they didn't go to a reaction shot, see editing trims the show could use, etc.

But by the same token, I might appreciate more than the average viewer when a show is well mounted.

Here’s one from Ron:

Cheers used to have the best Cold Opens and I was wondering what the philosophy was behind them. Obviously they never had anything to do with the show.

This was a stylistic choice the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows made to just take a moment and put you into the world of the bar. We called these "teasers."

Sometimes, depending on length, we would swap out teasers from one show to another. You can easily tell which episodes we did that. If their wardrobe doesn’t match from the teaser to Act One you know we made a switcheroo. These switches were either due to time or the teaser filmed for an episode tanked and a new one was substituted.

And finally, from Michael:

When casting pilots, do show runners consider an actor's reputation in terms of being able to be a quick study and/or causing problems on the set? Is this information widely shared among show runners?

Yes. If an actor has a bad reputation you have to consider the “is he worth it?” factor. Some actors are difficult but magic on the screen. And usually the showrunner gets pressure from the network to hire a particular actor they’re in love with (that moment).

But I’ll be honest, when me and my partner are casting a pilot and we go through lists prepared by the casting director or network, we’ll cross out names of actors we know to be headaches. Life’s too short. We tell the casting director, "don't even bring them in.  Not interested."

And actors, you should know, there is a grapevine among writers that is the envy of the CIA and all international intelligence gathering agencies. You act like a monster on a pilot and the word is out faster than one can text.

And likewise, if you’re a dream, that intell makes the circuit too.

What’s your Friday Question? And again, stay away from those Ides today.


Michael said...

Ken, thanks for answering my question. So I guess this means so-called show killers like Paula Marshall must be easy to work with or else they would not keep getting hired.

Carson said...

Can you explain "Two Broke Girls?" I just do not get this show. It's seems like the writers just string together sex jokes for a half hour with no substance. Are the showrunners/writers happy with this product? A 9th grade boys P.E. class could write this stuff.

Dana King said...

My first glimpse of CHEERS was in the pilot, and it hooked me forever on the show. (yes, I was one of those 20 people who saw the first episode.) It also combines the dumb character with the tease, so it fits well here.

(Ringing phone.)
COACH: Cheers. (Pause, puts hand over phone. Yells.) Is there an Ernie Pantuzzo here?"

SAM: That's you, Coach.

COACH (into phone): Speaking.

I knew I'd love that show right then.

Anonymous said...

I read online that Joel Hodgson was considered for the Woody role on Cheers. I always had the sense it was written with Woody Harrelson in mind, maybe it was the name thing,but Joel Hodgson also could have potrayed a naive, kinda hazy guy from the midwest.Were you involved in that casting decision?Hey nobody could've done it better than Woody, just curios about how that casting came about.

Mac said...

Very interesting, Ken.

Did you see this in the Onion;,31642/

It's a subject you've written about a few times so you might be interested. I'd imagine it must have been run past a lawyer, although I still don't know how they can get away with publishing it.

Patrick said...

Thank you for taking the time to do this every week, Ken! I do have a question actually, following on from Michael's comment above - as a showrunner how much stock do you put in the so-called "showkiller curse"? Some actors get stuck with the nickname but is there any truth in that being part of the equation when casting? Or is the "showkiller" title purely a fabrication of the media?

John said...

Speaking of Jerry Belson, one of the things that was interesting about "The Odd Couple" and its switch from a single camera to three camera/studio audience format in Season 1 was that Al Molinaro's Murry the Cop character got notably dumber. When the show was done without a studio audience Murray was naive for a police officer, but he wasn't in the memorably dumb range. By the middle of Season 2, the writers apparently had found a dumber Murray as a good way to not only get expository stuff to the studio audience, but also to goose the live audience's laughs a bit via a series of easy gags.

Mike Botula said...

ingesFdLove these "inside baseball" insights you bring us, Ken.

KGHanson said...

I appreciated your traditional 'Beware the Ides of March' intro for today.

However, I prefer the more contemporary 'Happy Back-Stabbers Day!' salutation.

Murray said...

It's my understanding (borne out by viewing experience) that when a show goes to syndication, they take an editing cleaver and remove chunks to better fit in more commercials.

I always assumed such opening teaser segments were primarily there as sacrificial goats to these syndication cutters. They could be removed without damaging the main plot.

Kitty said...

You wrote, if you’re a dream, that intell makes the circuit too.

Q: What makes an actor a "dream"?

Btw, this is one of my favorite CHEERS openings.

Kirk said...

I have an AFTERMASH question for you. I feel one reason that show didn't succeed whereas the program it was spin off from did, is that while both obviously took place in the 1950s, MASH didn't remind you of it as much. Because it didn't take place stateside, and the characters all wore army green, MASH might has well been World War II or Vietnam. AFTERMASH, though, seemed very much a period show, very much rooted in the 1950s, and not the nostalgic-HAPPY DAYS 1950s either. As a result, was it harder to write and produce such a show, and do you agree that's why it didn't click with audiences?

tb said...

I'm reminded of Elaine on Seinfeld discovering "difficult patient" written on her medical chart.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, thanks for the answer! I honestly hadn't thought of the expository function (ew - that doesn't sound healthy).

And what you say about a grapevine of information on actors holds true for other writers and directors, too, I'm guessing. That's a basic life lesson for everyone: Don't be a pain in the ass.

David Das said...

Question for a future Friday Questions:

In a previous Friday Q&A you said, "If an actor has a bad reputation you have to consider the “is he worth it?” factor. Some actors are difficult but magic on the screen."

Ken, if there is one criticism of your blog, it's that there's an invisible line that you can't cross while you're still working in the industry -- some things you still can't say. Please assure me that all those things are written in your will and will be released upon your passing so I can finally read all the stuff you WANTED to say but couldn't.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"Now, however, for every part, no matter how small, the producers have to put five candidates on tape and the network selects the winner. Don't blame my dad. This happened long after he retired."

Is there ANY show on television today where the network DOESN'T call all the shots and make all the decisions? I mean, I'll be real honest with you Ken: I admire your work as a writer, and you always post really great insight into television on your blog, which is why I continue to follow it; though your anecdotes about networks pulling all the strings on programs is always making me reconsider my desire to break into television myself. I GET that networks like to have a say in goes into the production and all, but I really would not settle for a network basically taking MY OWN SHOW away from me, and massacring it before my eyes just so they can shape it into the show that THEY THINK they want.

Chris said...

Friday question:

This week on Two and a Half Men Ashton Kutcher, after a wild party, says: "Uh. This looks like Charlie Sheen's house".

The studio audience went crazy.

Why do you think breaking the fourth wall and going a little surreal like that usually gets such a warm response from the audience?

Nathan said...

RE: How involved is the casting process?

I worked on a movie in the early nineties that centered on a kid growing up with his widowed father. The art department wanted to have a photo of (dead) mom on the kid's night table.

The director (someone you'd all know), looked at hundreds of head shots. He had 15 or twenty of them come in to meet him. (Obviously, nothing to read.)

He had callbacks ferchrissakes!

Yeah, it's involved.

Roseann said...

I'm a firm believer that Dick Wolf of L&O fame successfully killed the "I'm and actor and I'm God's Gift......" Syndrome.

He let actors go left and right over the years....and they could leave as they wished (albeit contract negotiations honored), too.

I think that has made every actor I've ever met since that time be VERY grateful to have a job. Very few of them pull the 'I'm staying in my trailer till he(my co-star) leaves his trailer......It doesn't happen any more. Now the actors are the first in and van and they are waiting for a crew person or two to hop in. (They also will ride in the very back seat if they have to-no saving the front seats for "the Actor".

I think it makes a huge difference in working 'with' someone as opposed to 'for' someone.

I've been a NYC Union Wardrobe Supervisor for years and have seen the best and the worst behind those closed dressing room trailer doors. It's getting better

Janice said...

My Friday question:

I was recently watching on YouTube the auditions of several cast members for "Freaks & Geeks". During the auditions there is a person in the room laughing incessantly after each line is read - whether it was funny or not. Is this common practice during a reading? I would imagine the laugher must feel like an imebecile.

Janice said...

(Only an idiot would misspell imbecile.)

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

I remember some of the Buffy/Angel writers talking about a pointless argument that took up most of one day. Apparently it dragged on for so long, and became so heated, that it still makes people groan when it's brought up.

The argument? A disagreement about who would win in a fight, a caveman or an astronaut.

Also, regarding dumb lines, I remember hearing that The Simpsons writers had a similar competition for Homer. I think the competition ended when one of the writers made Homer plead, "Save me, Jebus!", in time of need.

chuckcd said...

I used to practice writing "teasers" for Cheers.
My fav was when Cliff tried to convince Norm that a 12 oz glass could actually hold 12.05 ounces of beer because of the "tensile strength" of the rim of the glass.

Predictably it did not go well for Cliff...

Jake Mabe said...

Coach is my favorite "Cheers" character. It's a close race between Coach and Norm, but Coach gets the nod. I loved him with an capital L.

Ed in Cleveland said...

Another Friday question following up on Michael's from The Ides...

Ted Danson never stops working. He must be a pro's pro, ready to work, and easy for the cast and directors to get along with. True? Where does he rank on your list of Best Actor Teammates? Thanks!

Helena said...

Thanks for answering my question!