Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Questions

Heading to Albuquerque to hang out with the Isotopes this weekend. There’s something about minor league baseball that’s so pure. And there’s a Homer Simpson statue at the ballpark! But Friday Questions continue no matter where I am.

From Liggie:

When pitching a screenplay synopsis to an agent or studio, do you give away the ending or not?

Yes. Studios now want the story almost beat-by-beat. And if it’s a comedy then want lots of jokes, five big comic scenes, five trailer moments, and a description of what the poster would look like with the tagline included.

Years ago my partner and I wanted to write a movie about my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. We sold the pitch to Columbia by saying merely this: BULL DURHAM meets GOOD MORNING VIET NAM. After the meeting we went to lunch to celebrate when a stray thought occurred to me: What’s the actual story? It took three years and five drafts to answer that little question.

But in general, you have to now pitch everything. And if you can hum the score that would be helpful too.

Kevin Kelton has a question on a similar topic:

Did you notice that jokes from the trailer (of THE HEAT) were not in the film. The scenes were, but the blows that were in the ads were outtakes from the glass cut scene, the jail cop scene, and others. Feels like cheating to me.

This happens all the time. The goal of trailers is to lure viewers, period.

I’ve told this story before, but my partner and I were once paid a lot of money to write a joke for a trailer after the movie had wrapped production. They assembled the trailer and realized there wasn’t one big joke. So they would go back and film the joke we provided, but they were very clear that it wouldn’t appear in the movie. Now, if you’re saying – if it was a great joke and the movie didn’t have any, why wouldn’t they use it? That’s a good question that we didn’t ask because we were too busy racing to the bank to cash the check.

Mitchell Hundred asks:

Considering that many shows take a season or so to find their feet/voice, at what point in the run would you recommend getting into a show?

I refer here to shows that are now off the air and available for purchase/streaming, not ones currently on TV (and obviously not serialized ones, which you'd have to watch in chronological order).

It depends on the show. I’ve always maintained that the first year of CHEERS was its best. Same with FRASIER and COSBY. But you’re right, shows usually need a season or two to really find its groove. For MASH I would say that was season three and four. SEINFELD’S first batch were very uneven. You might want to start a little into the run.

But even though most hit shows need a little time to develop, they’re still quite good right from the beginning. So I would say start from season one. Sometimes you can pick out the early episode where the light bulb went on and the producers said, “THAT’S what we need to do!”

And finally, from Future Friday:

Ken, what are your thoughts on British/foreign comedy and sitcoms? Have you encountered an obscure country that has such an outlandish sense of humor that our comedy pales in comparison? (I'd say Japan excluded since it's not obscure, but if you firmly believe it's Japan, go ahead and say Japan.)

I have not encountered such a country. It’s not like the Dominican Republic and baseball.  And I've never seen a Japanese sitcom.  The only imports from Japan seem to be really appalling reality game shows and Pink Lady.  If there's a great Japanese sitcom please steer me to it. 

Personally, I love British comedies. Some of my favorite sitcoms are from the U.K. BLACK ADDER, FAWLTY TOWERS, and COUPLING are all in my all-time top ten. If you haven’t seen them you’re in for a real treat.

Has anyone seen a Cambodian sitcom?  Maybe one from Bhutan?   What am I missing? 

What’s your question? Have a great weekend.


Ringo said...

Peep Show is a great British comedy.

Mitchell Hundred said...

The Canadian TV/movie industry is not as vibrant as the American one, mainly because we tend to import most of our entertainment from south of the border.

That said, there has been at least one very successful (and arguably great) Canadian sitcom in the last decade: Corner Gas. It's about life in a small Saskatchewan town, and adopts a kind of laid-back sense of humour. I highly recommend checking it out if you get the opportunity.

KEVIN said...

It would be cool if you could get Annie and Jon to guest blog. They could talk to us about their experiences at being on a Sitcom staff for the First time.

RockGolf said...

I agree with Mitchell Hundred on Corner Gas. It was as if the gang from Seinfeld moved to Mayberry and fit right in. I'm a lifelong proud Canadian, but this show and SCTV would be the only Canadian comedy series I'd include on an all-time best list.

Steely Dan said...

For Canadian comedy series I would add:

-- "The Newsroom" (no the HBO series; this one is more like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" set in a TV news studio) and

-- "Slings & Arrows" (more of a "dramedy" than a sitcom, but my favorite TV series ever).

Hamid said...

Ken, the early years of British sitcom Only Fools and Horses are a gem. There was a recent attempt to adapt it for the States and it was gonna star John Leguizamo and Christopher Lloyd but it didn't get picked up, and I think that's the second time there's been an attempt at doing a US version. Anyway, check it out.

chalmers said...

I think you can get all of "The IT Crowd" on DVD and they just announced that they're bringing back everyone for a finale episode.

I've seen clips of the pilot for the failed American version. It belongs in the Miscasting Hall of Fame, but at least led to Richard Ayaode directing a classic "Community" episode.

Jason said...

Mmm, Black Adder.

(well, except maybe for season 1, which ties in with the previous quesiton)

Shinwell Johnson said...

My favorite sitcom is "Barney Miller," and it undeniably struggled to find its voice during its first year. It played around with the characters (Wojo is mostly just a big jerk at first, and Harris and Yemana are often missing), the setting (there are many scenes at Barney's home, and one episode is devoted to a stakeout), and tone (one episode keeps drawing to get jokes from how many witnesses against a mob boss have been murdered). However, if you skip it, you miss the episode "Escape Artist" with Roscoe Lee Browne, which is one of the series's best.

On the other hand, if you want to start "Dark Shadows" with Barnabas Collins's arrival, no one will blame you.

Covarr said...

Japan doesn't really do sitcoms. They have comedy, but it's virtually all in anime form.

When I want to watch something funny from Japan, I'm partial to the Lupin the Third series. IMO one of the best comedy/action series' of all time, and highly underrated.

404 said...

Speaking of Canadian shows, I was alwaya a fan of The Red Green Show. Not a sitcom, but funny anyway.

chuckcd said...

Best line in "Major League" was in the trailer but not in the film.

"That ball wouldn't have been out of most parks" says the catcher.

"Name one" says the pitcher.


Mitchell Hundred said...

I forgot about The Red Green Show. Hilarious lampooning of male culture. But yeah, it's closer to sketch comedy than a sitcom.

Larry V said...

"Bull Durham meets Good Morning Vietnam" - I'd watch that. Did that ever get made? (Apologies if I am being obtuse.)

Regarding series that needed time to find their footing: seems to me this applies even more strongly to dramas. One prime example is The Wire. I frankly found the pilot borderline tedious, and though the first season improved as it continued, I'd say The Wire didn't really reach peak form until the third season. Of course, when it did, it turned into one of the best TV dramas ever.

I was lucky in that I started watching the DVDs after the series had concluded, so I was aware of the show's reputation at the start. Without that advance knowledge, I might have given up on The Wire after that pilot.

Daws said...

I think you might have answered this previously -- my wife and I were watching "The Americans" and the scene in which Phillip is attempting to seduce the Gaad's secretary brought up a question. My wife observed that the actress was, well, not very attractive. "How do they CAST that role?" she asked. "Do they send out notices for ugly people?" Specifically, she wanted to know if the actresses themselves "know" they're being cast for an unattractive role, or that they were case BECAUSE they're, uh, not so good looking.

Breadbaker said...

Highly agree on Corner Gas. I just finished watching the last (sixth) season and it kept up its quality throughout. One thing it did was to have no story arcs. Its entire theme was that nothing much happens, so they never got the characters together (they came close with Brent and Lacey once and then backed off), no one had a baby, no sharks were introduced to Dog River.

I've only watched a few episodes (and it's not available for streaming or in a Region One video) but the Australian series "The Librarians" is quite good.

iain said...

Be careful Mitchel Hundred & Rock Golf, as I once set off an intra-Canadian flame war in this blog's comments section by recommending Corner Gas. Apparently, there's a seething dislike for the show amongst some of us. & I would also endorse The Red Green show, at least as long as Nephew Harold was around.

Ted said...

To Liggie: I was a trailer editor for many years - here is a possible answer:

Once the film is in a long rough cut, it's immediately shared with the marketing dept. which gets to work on the trailer. Obviously, the best jokes need to be in the trailer - but meanwhile, the same jokes may be cut from the actual movie - maybe they need to move the story along, maybe the jokes play better only in a trailer, but didn't "test" well in the feature.

And in any event, neither the movie people nor the marketing people care which jokes wind up where, as long as it helps sell the movie.

John said...

Thanks to the change from a single-camera to a three camera/studio audience sitcom, "The Odd Couple" may be the best example of not starting to watch the show with the first season. The initial shows lack a certain energy Randall, Klugman and the other performers got from playing off the studio audience, and the scripting is quite often suffering from the residue of 60s single-camera sitcom blandness. Go about a third of the way into Season 2 and you can see the show hitting its stride.

Hamid said...

I have a lot of affection for The Powers That Be. It screened in the UK several years after its original run in the States. I love David Hyde Pierce in anything but it was also great to see John Forsythe in a comedic role.

Foaming Solvent said...

We get the CBC on cable in Seattle, but not CTV, so I have heard of but never seen Corner Gas. But I can tell you that the old CBC series "Made in Canada" (shown on some PBS stations as "The Industry") is perhaps the funniest sitcom I have ever seen.

Steve Pepoon said...

Regarding "The Heat" trailer, I really thought the joke was funny, the girls toasting each other while sitting on the pool table, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy toasting glasses, Bullock's breaks, her hand bleeds, and McCarthy passes out, hitting her head on the pool table lamp. Problem was continuity. Later, they do a tracheotomy on a guy and McCarthy has no problem with blood then. They obviously used a different take in the pool table scene to be consistent.

Frank said...

I won't mention any good Canadian comedies since I still haven't seen one but can also highly recommend the UK comedy 'Only Fools and Horses' as the writing and characters are fantastic.

LAprGuy said...

Good UK recommendations ... FATHER TED is another that makes me laugh out loud. I need to check out BLACK ADDER.

Marty Fufkin said...

I know it would be bad form to name the movie you wrote the trailer-joke for. But you've dined out on that story so many times that you owe us a new twist. If you regale us one more time with that little nugget, you are obligated to give us at least a broad hint!

As for sitcoms from other countries, I lived in Singapore for a while, and their comedies are atrocious. Being funny is against the law there. You get a big fine or caned or something like that.

Dag said...

A nice sitcom from Norway (1st episode, subtitled):

Becca in Seattle said...

We miss you in Seattle Ken, not as much as we miss Dave of course, but you are missed by many a Marieners fan.

Hamid said...

Japan doesn't need to do sitcoms. The utterly bonkers Chi Chi Bui Bui commercials Arnold Schwarzenegger made there during the 90s were comedy gold enough.

Breadbaker said...

Actually, that last comment (and I miss you, too) leads to a Friday baseball announcer question. A couple times I've heard Aaron Goldsmith, the new Mariners announcer, say some things in a tone that indicated he was just learning the Mariners' history and the area and sort of assumed his audience was, too. One of them was that Omar Vizquel had started out as a Mariner and the other was that the University of Washington was "quite near" Safeco Field. This longtime Seattlite and Mariner fan gnashed his teeth both times. What advice would you give to an announcer in a new city as to how much local baseball history and geography to share and how? Honestly, there are a lot of us fans who are insulted by the idea we wouldn't know "Little O" had started out as a Mariner; we remember him as a teenager and we remember that he almost came back for Carlos Guillen but couldn't pass a Mariners physical (and then of course, like Randy Johnson whom the M's traded because their medical folks had "concerns" about his longevity, proceeded to play forever.

Liggie said...

Thanks, Ken. Follow-up FQ: Do you also give away the ending on query letters? That's the hang up I have when preparing to write to or e-mail studios, agents, contests, etc. The question was posed on a LiknedIn screenwriting group, and even amongst the pros, the jury was divided.

Ted (even though I wasn't the one with the trailer question (: ), do you still keep in contact with your fellow trailer editors? One friend has a complaint that too many trailers give away too much of the movie, and he's at the point where he refuses to watch trailers and will even walk into a movie 10 minutes after the show time so he can avoid them. He feels he enjoys movies more when he watches a movie without knowing anything about it and isn't ruined by the trailer. Have more recent trailers been guilty off TMI that have caused reactions like his?

Re: trailer scenes not in the actual films, the classic was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. As Steve Martin and Michael Caine walk along the French Riviera waterfront, Martin pushes an old lay into the water, and Caine shoves an ice cream cone into a little boy's face, without breaking stride.

I've only seen clips, but an interesting past Canadian sitcom is Sophie, about a woman balancing new motherhood and a struggling talent agency. Catherine Bérubé steals scenes as her scheming secretary.

Coupling, my all-time favorite Britcom. Sarah Alexander was one of my biggest celebrity crushes, until she became a wife and mom. Day late and a dollar short, again. Is Kaley Cuoco dating anybody?

Anonymous said...

It's stunning to hear anyone say that M*A*S*H was better without Trapper John and Henry Blake. I'm old enough to have watched the first run in real time, and Trapper and Henry were the best. Some of the later shows are good, but they never reach the level of "The Army-Navy Game" and other inspired episodes from the era. The show became way too maudlin in the later seasons, although some individual episodes are excellent.

D. McEwan said...

Newhart is a great series where you are certainly better off starting with season 2.

chalmers said...

Whenever Niles Crane referred to Maris, I wondered if any other "Powers that Be" fans pictured Valarie Mahaffey like I did.

dBenson said...

I've seen trailers for Jerry Lewis and Abbott & Costello films that had stuff not in the final feature. Gags, hints of dialogue scenes with the romantic leads, and musical numbers. It's one of those things, like a cast credit for somebody you never saw onscreen.

The big budget musical "Doctor Dolittle" had a prologue which included a shot of Rex Harrison riding on a giraffe. That became the signature image for all the marketing. Then the prologue was lopped off. The shot with the giraffe was spliced into a sequence where Harrison, hatless and coatless, walks around an island, implying he stopped to dress up for his giraffe ride and switched back to his other outfit .

Chris said...

Friday question: what's up with the "developed by" and why is it so rare these days?

Leemats said...

Ken -
I'm well aware that it takes a week to make a standard sitcom episode - from table read to filming. Which means that if you're a member of the cast, you work 22 weeks a year on a network sitcom. My question is: how many weeks a year does the average network sitcom writer work? Not a writer/producer, but someone who's just a staff writer. And what do they do with the rest of the time? Do they find other ways to supplement their income, whether as a writer or in some other field? Or do they just enjoy much more vacation time than the average person?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

chalmers: Absolutely. I've also read in interviews that Valerie Mahaffey in THE POWERS THAT BE was David Hyde Pierce's inner image of Maris too.

(I loved TPTB - Holland Taylor, DHP, Mahaffey, Elizabeth Berridge, John Forsyth, Eve Gorden, Peter McNichol, all perfectly cast.) I was sorry it didn't last longer - but I have copies of almost all the episodes.)


Richard said...

Another very good British comedy: Green Wing, with Sarah Alexander and Tamsin Greig. Especially the first season/series.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I know there are a few rules, or guidelines, that weekly programs have to meet in order to be syndicated, such at least 100 episodes, or at least five seasons and such. How are some shows, that don't meet either of those qualifications, able to still be seen in reruns then? Such as THE MUNSTERS, or more recently, SMASH, both of which only lasted two seasons?

Rob said...

All in the Family, Taxi and The Bob Newhart Show all had fine initial seasons and took off in their second and third seasons.

Facts of Life was a mess until the producers pared down the cast and added Nancy McKeon.

Night Court was closer to Barney Miller for the first two (Selma Diamond) seasons and then they went to zany broad farce, which is what everyone remembers.

Everybody Loves Raymond was also more subtle and low-key for the first two seasons as well.

Greg Blount said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Blount said...

A great Canadian comedy is Trailer Park Boys

Hamid said...

Liggie - When I was on holiday in LA a few years ago, I was at a theater and saw the trailer for Obsessed. That is hands down the most TMI trailer ever made. It literally reveals all the dramatic beats of the story from first act literally straight through to the climax, even showing how the two female characters played by Beyonce and Ali Larter have their climactic fight. As soon as the trailer was over, one guy in the audience said out loud "Well, I don't need to see that movie now".

Johnny Walker said...

Two of the questions here tie together perfectly: The first season of BLACKADDER (known as THE BLACK ADDER) is really bad. Everyone involved appreciates that they truly were finding their feet back then, and watching it first may put you off it completely, so just skip it. Start with BLACKADDER II and work forward.

When you're done you can go back and see the shaky beginnings if you wish.

Interestingly, although BLACKADDER is credited to just two writers, seasons 2 to 4 were actually pseudo-room-written. When the cast assembled for a read-through of the scripts, they ended up taking it to pieces and re-writing it. Normally this might spell disaster, but luckily the cast of the show was incredibly smart and funny.

As you can imagine, it was a painful process, though. One of the credited writers (Ben Elton) stopped attending the "read throughs" as he couldn't bear watching his work savaged.

Out of all that pain and friction came one of the smartest TV shows ever, though. And if you want to see the difference for yourselves, just compare it with dubious fifth installment, "BACK AND FORTH". Not only did the writers finally get their way (thanks to a new producer preventing anyone from getting the opportunity to rewrite things) but it's so bad that many people (including certain cast members) don't even consider it canon.

I guess the lesson is: It may hurt your ego, but letting your script be torn apart by talented people will often improve it. What's more important. Your ego or the quality of the script?

Johnny Walker said...

It's hard to account for everyone's taste, but here's a list of British comedy shows that have things to recommend them:

RED DWARF (seasons 3 to 6 only)

And, for completeness, the obvious ones that haven't already been mentioned:


It's interesting. After making that list, I can see a through-line in much of the shows: Issues of social awkwardness and class. None of the shows portray "successful" people, apart from YES MINISTER, and the politicians in that are as awkward and bumblings as everyone else.

There's a definite British taste for "realism" in our fiction.

Johnny Walker said...



cadavra said...

As it happens, there were so many complaints that the Yellowstone joke had been cut from MAJOR LEAGUE that they actually refilmed it for ML2, and this time it stayed in.

Two of my favorite deleted lines from trailers:

Alan Rickman: "Are you an American?"
Bruce Willis: "Only if New Jersey counts."

MURDER AT 1600--
Daniel Benzali (VERY threateningly): "You were born to be a chlak outline."

cadavra said...

That, of course, should be "CHALK outline." Grrrr....

D. McEwan said...

Johnny Walker, while I agree that Red Dawrf's seasons 3-6 are their strongest, one of their best episodes ever was season 7, episode 1, and the episode in season 10 where they meet Jesus is one of their best. A few months ago I rewatched all 10 seasons, and at its worst, its still worth watching and better than most. (That said, Season 8 really does suck.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny, a little before DROP THE DEAD DONKEY (which was a newsroom sitcom and was known for technical cleverness in dropping the broadcast day's real news into the show) was HOT METAL, which I thought was brilliantly funny: John Gordon Sinclair as a cub reporter on a tabloid. Among other things, I remember the major baby giveaway when the paper bought up a set of sextuplets.


Mike said...

I think they dropped from Not Another Teen Movie, the Bring It On parody, 'you stole our routine' 'we do all our own stuff' 'We have big butts and we like to show it.'

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Basil Kiva said...

Hi Ken

How close was Cheers in renewing for a 12th Season and do you think that all shows should die a natural death at seasons 10-11 if they make it that far (except for animated shows like Family Guy, Simpsons and South Park)