Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Sarah has one regarding a recent post on how you don’t have to write jokes to get laughs.

In the second scene, Jen is prattling on and on and on. Two 120-plus word speeches without interruption. So I've got this question in my head now: How do you make this work as comedy? Do you expect to have pauses in there where the audience will laugh? Lots of cross-cuts that show Ben getting more and more nervous? I can see how it works on paper but not how it will work on camera. Thanks.

Yes. We expect pauses and behavior.  So much of this scene depends on reaction shots of Ben. He will get most of the laughs. This is something some actors don’t understand. They will get the script and count the number of lines they have vs. the other cast members. In addition to the fact that they will never work for me, they miss the point that comedy comes from playing attitudes not just firing off one-liners.

George asks:

If writers job is to provide the dialog and to leave the stage direction to the director, then how does a scene which is mostly mime (like this Niles Fire) come about? Do the writers describe the details of the action in the script, or do they put down "Niles tries to iron his pants and sets fire to the couch" and leave the rest to others?

In a case like this where there is a silent physical comedy bit the writer will be as specific as he possibly can. Once the scene is on its feet it will often be modified as the actor makes it his own, but the more detailed the writer can make the description the better. Now I should mention that that’s a general rule. I suppose if you have an actress like Lucille Ball she might just prefer the writers say, “Lucy stomps on grapes” and she’ll take it from there. But how many Lucy’s are there? Or were there?

Actors generally dislike when writers give them a lot of interior directions on what attitude to play in dialogue. (pensive) (angry) (suspicious) They like to find it themselves and believe that if the script is written well the intent of the lines will be clear enough that they don’t have to instructed. How annoying would it be for you if someone sat behind you while you drove and kept saying, “turn on your left turn indicator”, “check your rearview mirror now,” etc. In two blocks you’d be yelling, “I’m not an idiot! I know what I’m doing!” That’s how actors feel and their point is well taken.

From Chris:

Recently 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?

Because it feels like an inside joke that the audience is in on. And who doesn’t love to feel included on an inside joke? It’s also a line the audience sure didn’t expect. The downside is you tamper with the reality and integrity of your show. But you have to decide whether that’s important enough or not.

Janice has a FQ:

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 imbecile.

No, that’s not common. And I imagine it would be quite disconcerting for the actor. Hopefully that laugher was thinking he was encouraging the actors and not just in hysterics because he loved his lines so much. Or has the worst short-term memory ever.

I love when actors make me laugh in auditions. That means they’re nailing it and are genuinely in the running for getting the part.

What’s tough is when an actor comes in and is so off-the-charts bad that you want to laugh at how absurdly terrible he is. I never want to embarrass an auditioner so I have to bite my tongue. But ohmygod is it tough sometimes. There have been a number of instances when an actor will finish, we’ll stoically thank him, he’ll leave, and we’ll fall on the floor laughing.

And finally, one from Patrick:

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?

Part of the problem is that we're always looking for someone fresh and new and these so-called showkillers feel recycled and too familiar. How many times have you watched a show and said, “Oh, him again?”

But as a producer I have to look past that. There are some terrific actors who haven’t broken out simply because they haven’t been fortunate enough to get the right parts. George Clooney did tons of pilots and failed series before clicking with ER. How stupid would a producer have to be to just dismiss George Clooney because he was a “showkiller?” Same with Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston.

The truth is if an actor keeps getting pilots then he must have something. How else does he always get hired? You’ve seen my post on how hard it is to land a pilot. So you have to weigh a lot of factors.

For me? I’m just looking for the best person for the part. Period. Known. Unknown. As I conceived the part. Different but better.

Looking back, I can’t tell you how many times I was casting a pilot and WISHED that George Clooney came in and auditioned. I’d probably be a much richer man today.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks much.


Don K. said...

About Kutcher as Schmidt mentioning Sheen's name- it's fairly obvious Chuck Lorre on many levels has the maturity of a 12 year old and just can't let it go. He's not the first show runner to be in the middle of what he went through with Sheen and he won't be the last. Given Lorre's nature, it might even happen to him again. Him and Sheen together were a perfect storm. There likely would never have been a Two and a Half Men had Sheen not been basically playing himself and going along with the gag. I'd be willing to bet that not only did the audience go crazy at the mention of Sheen's name in that scene, but they would have gone through the roof had Charlie Harper risen from the rubble of that party and staggered into the room. A lot of people would love to see Sheen back on that show somehow, Anger Management or not.

Mike T. said...

Actually, Lucille Ball needed very detailed stage directions to make her comedy work. She was not a comedienne or an improviser; she was an actress who happened to be good at comedy. The I Love Lucy writers understood this and provided her with lengthy, specific directions. Writers on her later series did not understand it--and she, despite having the power to demand better scripts, did not--and her performances suffered because of it. Those shows (Life With Lucy excepted) were still enormously popular, but they don't hold up nearly as well as I Love Lucy.

Terrence Moss said...

@Mike - she also didn't give herself the benefit of a steady directing/producing partner who understood how to best maximize her gifts as a comedic actress like she had on "I Love Lucy".

She needed another Desi and another Jess (Oppenheimer) for support but people were afraid of her and she didn't trust a lot of people. (Based on "The Lucy Book")

Plus, she was also running a behemoth studio during "The Lucy Show".

Mike said...

"The downside is you tamper with the reality and integrity of your show."

That's the hardest I've ever laughed at anything related to Two and a Half Men.

MomQueenBee said...

I could not even calculate how many hours of television I've watched in my life, and the two scenes that have made me laugh hardest when I first saw them were the Gone With the Wind curtain scene on the Carol Burnett Show, and Niles setting the apartment on fire. Best use of talent ever.

John said...

Mike T. said...

Season 1 of "The Lucy Show" (the B&W season) does hold up about as well as could possibly be expected without Desi or William Frawley there, because the initial season had the exact same core of writers as "I Love Lucy" and they knew how to best use Lucy and Vivian Vance. As that group began to peel away during Season 2, you could see the show start to lose it's edge, despite the next group of writers having some pretty formidable past and/or future credits on their resumes.

That -- and the above-mentioned Chuck Lorre situation -- brings up a Friday question: How do you deal with a star as a writer or showrunner when you can sense things are going in the wrong direction, but the star is the one who controls the production? Do you try to subtly push the show back towards the path you think is best, or do you directly tell your star that their vision for the future story arcs and character development is lacking?

I don't think Lucille Ball thought her show was going downhill after 1963, but even years after that it was clear that what she thought made a great show and what the audience believed were not always the same (Lucy famously when asked on a talk show one time what her favorite episode was, immediately came back with the one with Dean Martin -- which puzzled everyone on the set, because they were trying to remember the episode of "I Love Lucy" that Dean was in. But she was think of an episode with him from one of the later, and lesser, seasons of "The Lucy Show").

Lorre seems to be the No. 1 showrunner when it comes to battles with his show's leads. When you have that many disputes, it's hard to say it's always the actors' fault. But it does seem at least in the fights he lost earlier in his career with Roseanne or Bret Butler, when the star got full control of the direction of the production, the quality of the comedy took a header into the bottom of the pool.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I'm a mid-level writer and have been writing on sitcoms for about six years. Alan Kirschenbaum and Lester Lewis' suicides were chilling because I see how this job may have drove them to it. I see that kind of pain all around me, in other sitcom writers, in myself. How did you keep your head straight when you did your time working on staffs? Yes, I'm aware of how great the WGA's mental health benefits are, but aside from that, did you land upon an effective way to deal with all the lows? Sorry to be anonymous, but I'm sure you understand why.

Telemanas said...

I was always curious - how does a writer know when he wrote a script for a 20 minute show (or 40 if it's a drama)? I mean in length - how many pages you have to write for a sitcom episode?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Cliff Clavin: So, what did I miss? Why is that girl running around screaming at everybody?
Norm Peterson: Well, she's trying to convince them that Godzilla's merely confused, not really trying to hurt them.
Cliff Clavin: Isn't that the part usually played by Akira Nakamura?
Norm Peterson: Yeah, yeah, but she left half way through the Godzilla series.
Woody Boyd: I don't understand. Why would an actress leave right in the middle of a successful series?

Sorry. Couldn't resist. Looking for that line, I see The Last Picture Show was the episode that featured Pat Hingle as the old man who sold Cheers to Sam. One of my favorites. "You must be Coach's boy!"

Cap'n Bob said...

I always thought Desi Arnaz was the funniest cast member on I Love Lucy. I always wanted to give Lucy a swift kick in the ass. And if you ever saw her version of Auntie mame, you know her talent was severely limited.

Mike said...

@Cap'n Bob: No argument on Desi Arnaz. He was tremendously underrated on I Love Lucy. He was the best part of the cast after Lucy herself, and had he gotten more recognition (he was never even nominated for an Emmy -- something I chalk up to the same Latin prejudice at the time that led to CBS initially balking at him being on the show to begin with) his life may have turned out differently.

However, while I admit to have never seen Mame, I found Lucy to be immensely talented. I've seen nearly every episode of I Love Lucy many times over, and Lucy's utter believability in her role and the intensity of her performances still get me. Based on that show alone, she deserved all her accolades.

Nick said...

Friday Question Ken: I was watching an episode of Big Bang Theory from the first season and later watched one of the more recent ones and I noticed how the cast has expanded across the years without anyone leaving. Now as well as the 4 leads and Penny you have various girlfriends, comic book guys, people at work and (occasionally) Will Wheaton. My question is this: How do sitcom writers manage to write for an ensemble that keeps expanding like that without drastically reducing screen time for the leads? As as another complication - when one character is a breakout success (ie: Sheldon Cooper) then is there pressure to keep their screen time up - even to the detriment of other actors? I don't envy writers in this situation.

James said...

Claiming that Lucille Ball's talent was "severely limited" because MAME revealed that she was a mediocre singer and dancer is asinine. That's like saying that Tony Bennett's talent is "severely limited" because THE OSCAR revealed that he was a poor actor.

Paul said...

One thing Lucille Ball gets credit for is that, from the early years of I LOVE LUCY and throughout her career, she was always very quick to give her writers the credit and recognition they were due. She didn't have to do that, and lord knows most people in her position don't. Not to play "pity the poor writer," but when a show is good everyone credits the cast or the showrunner, but when it's bad, everyone dumps on the writers.

Maybe she did it because she considered herself an actress rather than a comedienne, and as such didn't have the love-hate relationship with writers that many comics have. They need us. Many of them are just loathe to admit it. Ask anybody who writes for a stand-up comic, where part of the job is that you toil in anonymity so the comic can preserve the illusion that all those funny lines and routines are born out of her own little head right up there on stage.

If you spend much time reading histories of comedy in film, you'll see writers getting short shrift there, too. Comedians tend to want you to think they just went out there in front of the cameras and improvised it all on the spot. For example, if you read latter day interviews with Moe Howard, of the Three Stooges, and Jules White, who produced and directed many of the Stooge shorts, you'd get the impression that the easiest job in the world was to write a screenplay for the Three Stooges. All you had to do is roll a sheet of paper into your typewriter and type out, "The Stooges are exterminators who are hired to kill pests discreetly during a lavish society party," and then pull the paper out of your typewriter. No need to write anything else. Howard and White would have you believe they just went out there on the soundstage and made it all up as they went along. Now, you can examine file copies of Stooge scripts in the Columbia files and you'll see that's obviously not true. Those shorts were very tightly-scripted. But you have that comic's (and comic director's) ego going. That prefer you to believe they create it all themselves.

John Guedel, who created and produced Groucho Marx's YOU BET YOUR LIFE, used to claim that his show's innovation is that it just let Groucho be Groucho, and didn't tie him to bad jokes from writers. Which ignores the fact that Groucho Marx never once sat down to interview a contestant on YOU BET YOUR LIFE without a stack of prepared remarks in front of him suppled by--guess what? Writers! But you weren't supposed to know that. That was all Groucho ad-libbing. Now that's not for one moment to deny Groucho's ability to ad-lib. He could and did. But a lot of what he said on that show came off those little cards in front of him.

And it continues to the present day. I have a friend who wrote for MORK AND MINDY. That was another show where the standard take was that the star, Robin Williams, just ignored the script and made it all up as he went along. Now Robin was always very good to the writers, and always very clear to them that he wasn't saying that, they all knew he needed them. But it was a minor point of irritation with the writers that Williams was largely content to stay silent on the subject to the general public, and let them go on thinking MORK AND MINDY was mostly Robin Williams ad-libbing.

Well, except for the episodes that weren't very good. Those were the fault of those damn writers.

Larry said...

Generally it's a bad idea to have interior directions in a script telling actors how to speak their dialogue. There is an exception, though. When the writer intends a line to be said in an unexpected way, particularly against the normal interpration, then it's helpful, even necessary, to give the actor guidance.

D. McEwan said...

Cap'n, I'd have liked to see you try to kick Lucy's butt. I worked with Lucy once, and that lady was scary. General Patton in a dress and dyed red hair. And there is simply no question that Lucy was highly talented. EVERYONE'S talent is limited in one way or another.

Yes, Mame is execrable. I had the wierd experience of being a guest in Lucy's home one afternoon, and then driving directly from her house to the Cinerama Dome and seeing Mame, in which she looked VERY different than she had half an hour earlier in her living room, where she was in focus, without her faced stretched back and taped or clipped or staple-gunned or nailed or something under her wig.

Mame is, without question, absolutely wretched. She was grossly miscast. Pauline Kael said it best (as usual): "Too terrible to be boring; you can get fixated staring at it and wondering what exactly Lucille Ball thinks she's doing. When that sound comes out - it's somewhere between a bark, a croak and a quaver - does she think she's singing? When she throws up her arms, in their red giant-bat-wing sleeves, and cries out, "Listen, everybody!" does she really think she's a fun person?"

Mame struck me hard because the novel is one of the ones I love the most. (I have a first edition, and other editions of it also.) Patrick Dennis is an idol of mine, and a major influence on my own work. (I also have first editions of Around the World With Auntie Mame, Genius, The Joyous Season, First Lady/, and his masterpiece, Little Me.) Seeing the horror she made of it, particularly after Rosalind Russell's movie was so perfect, was depressing.

In the trailer for Mame, the voice-over announcer calls her: "The Most-Versatile Actress of All Time," an insanely over-the-top bit of hyperbole that has not a quark of truth to it.

But in her element, she was great, truly great. And though she was not at all as good a producer as Desi was (Few are), there's two accomplishments on her resume, little recalled, that mark her as remarkable in other areas beside slapstick acting: She greenlit Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. That showed a talent utterly absent from the entire current cadre of network suits at NBC.

She was as in-charge as ever Roseanne was, but she did indeed always credit her writers. (She did so to my face. "Without my writers, I'm nothing.") No one was ever fired gratuitously, or for fun. (There's no way around the fact that Roseanne likes firing people.)Lucy had a deep need to have things her way, but she did not have a pathological need to hog all the credit. And if she liked them, she could be highly supportive of her fellow performers, to whom she was very loyal. (Only loyalty would have cast Gale Gordon in (After)Life With Lucy when he was - what? - 150?)

The only prima donna action of hers I know of that ever really hurt a project was her firing Madeline Kahn on the first day of shooting on Mame. "There's only one funny red-head in this movie!" Firing Kahn, of course, meant there was no funny red-head in the film. But then, had Kahn stayed on as Agnes Gooch, she would have improved the film, but not saved it, just as Beatrice Arthur's rich performance as Vera Charles (Kael praises her, and accurately describes her as being "like a coquettish tank") improves but can not save the film. And poor, magnificent Robert Preston's role gave him no chance to save it either.

Pamela Jaye said...

the other day my brother told me Big Bang Theory is the number one (show? sitcom?) in first run, prime time, now and also #1 syndicated reruns. If this is true, he wants to know whether this has ever happened before.
Someone argued that rerun never used to overlap first run (but I can disagree at least back Family Ties in 87)
Our best wild guess on this would be Friends. (I had some reason for not picking Cheers or MASH, but bother *were* mentioned)

Ubu said...

I wondered if you were aware of the Cartoon Network show "Adventure Time" and its recent use of the theme song to "Cheers," and, if so, if you had any thoughts about it.

For the poster calling dr crane. said...

Dear anonymous mid level writer. I hope I am wrong but thought it worthwhile to reply even if I am because your post seems like a cry for help. I have no training in this field so I have no answer other than to encourage you to take an hour or a day and talk to a professional mental health person. I once read that there is a spike in suicides when someone famous dies because it validates the option. But just because a colleague or someone in your field did so does make it the right choice. Hang in there.

By Ken Levine said...

To the anonymous writer,

I will write about this more at a future date, but talking to someone will be a big help. And also a little perspective. I have had some enormously tough times with major disappointments and I always step back and say this:

It's just a stupid television show.

Other things in your life are vastly more important. There was a writer who killed himself because the table reading of his pilot of the reboot of MR. ED went poorly. As tragic as his death was, it was compounded by the absurd circumstances.

It's just a stupid television show.

Things will improve or there are other more fulfilling things to do.

You are welcome to email me at if you'd like to talk further.


Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Will internet radio ever overtake broadcast radio? The Syracuse Chiefs have decided to go with their own audio webcast instead of radio play-by-play. (

Also, I'd be interested on your take on all the tough talk coming out of North Korea.

Mark in Auburn, New York

Dale said...

Actually, I am keen to see this answered. I am a drummer. Many drummers suicide. I have known seven. Tragic losses all.

Writing is not my life. I am a sideman/teacher professional musician. I have seen the comparrison made, artist/craftsman. I suppose I am in the latter catergory. There have been ups and downs... 30+ years as a professional musician offers all kinds of ups and downs. The magical moments, the tragic...

Ken, being an admirer who has read your blog for some time, your insights into remaining positive and dealing with rejection would be compelling.

With much respect. Dale

Dale said...

For those curious about drummer suicides, Google Carlos Vega as one example. Amazing musician...why???

He just leapt out a hotel window.

By the way, I am not planning any leap.

Also, Anon, there will be better days. And worse. :-D

That's life.

Stephen said...

Bill Lawrence has used a lot of the same people in front of and behind the camera for almost 20 years, from Spin City to Scrubs and now to Cougar Town. So, when you ran shows did you make a point of bringing on actors or crew members you trusted from previous projects?