Friday, November 15, 2013

On a very special episode of Friday Questions:

Friday Questions as you book your holiday travel:

Covarr is up first. 

What do you think of "Very special episodes"? Are they good or bad, or does it depend on the show?

Well, it depends of course, but most of the time they're bullshit. There’s something promotable in the show so the network makes a big deal of it.  I mean, how could there ever really be a "Very Special Episode of 2 BROKE GIRLS?"  (Kat Dennings deserves so much better!)

What I really hate is when “a very special episode” means a “particularly maudlin episode.”

Networks have used this gambit so often now that “very special episodes” pretty much mean nothing.

SITCOM ROOM vet Brian Warrick asks:

All of the writers on this year's panel were, at least primarily, part of a writing team. Is there a high percentage of writing teams in writing rooms these days? Does writing with a partner help or hinder someone's chances of being hired?

There are advantages and disadvantages to being in a partnership. It's easier to get hired because the show runner is getting two for one, but you're making half of what sole writers make. That said, just getting the job can be worth its weight in gold.

I've been in a partnership forever.  David Isaacs and I also write alone on occasion -- by design. But we stay together because we think the combined efforts result in better scripts. And better scripts result in better opportunities. Once you're in that place in your career you can negotiate your deal -- so you're no longer making just half. It becomes a win/win.

Also, I prefer the social aspects of being in a partnership. Writing by yourself can be lonely. Especially with comedy, it's great to share the burden with someone who makes you laugh everyday.

Charles H. Bryan has a question going back to a recent post on chemistry.

In addition to chemistry on camera, isn't chemistry also important throughout the production?

Absolutely. When putting together a writing staff I think back to a great line from comedy writng icon, Bob Weiskopf: “What six people would you want to be stuck in a Volkswagen with driving across the country?”

When a show is in production you spend more time with your fellow writers than your family. And always under pressure conditions. It’s a big plus if you don’t want to kill each other.

That’s one of the reasons why show runners tend to hire the same people over and over. Good teams are hard to assemble. People you like, people who are funny, people who bathe – they’re not always easy to find.

On the stage, chemistry is usually determined by the star of the show. Crews take their cue off of him or her. If the star is a monster the set will be filled with tension. If the star is a sweetheart the set will be relaxed and fun. Directors can help steer things in the right direction, but ultimately it’s the star who sets the tone.

Houston Mitchell has a question about the fact that on season 7 of MASH, whenever we needed a name for a patient, corpsman, etc. we just went down the roster of the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers.

While you were doing it, did anyone on the show ever catch on that you were using the names of Dodgers players as the names of guest characters on MASH? If they didn't, do you think they would have made you stop if they had caught on?

No one said anything. Unless we had a big Giants fan in the cast, I don’t think anyone would have objected.

It’s hard to come up with names, and on MASH every week we always had five or six new characters coming through the 4077th. The last thing we wanted to do was spend half the morning coming up with names.

Former girlfriends frequently made their appearance on Levine & Isaacs episodes. The problem there was that between us we had maybe three.

And finally, from Michael:

Of all the shows currently on the air, which one do you think you and David would have the easiest time quickly writing an episode for?


What’s your question?


Andy Ihnatko said...

Is the writing process different when the thing you're writing is actually just a prop for the story or for another character?

Like, when a character is rehearsing a scene from a play, and you need to come up with a scene from that play, or you need to come up with a passage from a fake novel that a character really likes. Do you find yourself intentionally rejecting all of your own writing instincts and "play the part" of a different writer?

And was it more difficult to write Diane Chambers' pretentious poetry and plays? As a professional, I imagine it's tough to steer into traffic intentionally and stifle your reflex to jerk the wheel back towrads decent writing...

Hamid said...

My Friday question - I love that Cheers always kept its title sequence in an era where every show revamped its titles and jazzed up its theme tune each season, so I wondered if the network ever tried to persuade you guys to change the titles over the years? I know it was slightly altered after Nicholas Colasanto passed away but I think that was the only change.

Daniel said...

Are TV shows still advertising "very special episodes"? I haven't seen a promotion like that in years. These days, I mostly see ads that say, "This is the episode that changes everything." And mostly the episode doesn't.

PolyWogg said...

Do you think there are many shows that got their mojo going not just season 2 or 3 but really had a huge game-changing season later on AND without bringing in a bunch of new writers? How does that happen -- were they saving their best powder for later battles? This year's The Mentalist is in it's FIFTH season but is kicking butt, perhaps because it is clearly focused on the end-game storyline that the pilot created -- who is Red John and how do you figure it out?

Matt said...

Not to be a suck up, but my question involved "Must Kill TV." I see that, on my Kindle, I can "borrow" your book from Amazon, for however long I want (or until I want to "borrow" another) for free (unless this is a Prime-only membership perk). I can't imagine it counts as a sale, but I would be reading it. So my question is, would you prefer people actually buy a book, or because this is a smaller scale passion project, are you more interested in just getting it out there and seen?

By Ken Levine said...

I would prefer people buy the book. It helps the rankings, which generate more sales. And at only $2.99 I'm selling it very cheaply.

So yes, please, everybody. Buy the book. Thanks.

DBenson said...

"A Very Special Episode" lives on as a riff in old Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets.

"All-New Episode" was also big for a while, as TV seasons went wonky and you could no longer rely on new episodes up to the summer reruns. The "all" part always made me think of those late Three Stooges shorts that recycled whole sequences from older films. Was Star Trek TNG worried we'd think they were doing the same?

Phillip B said...

Wikipedia actually has an article on "very special episode." The article is on public probation because it is not written to form, but is actually funny as is. This example made me laugh -

The Simpsons – In the 9th season episode "Bart Star," Joe Namath addresses the camera at the end of the show, in a manner parodying many Very Special Episodes, to "talk seriously about the problem of vapor lock," which he says is the "third most common cause of engine stalling."

Anonymous said...

Worst was probably the very special episode of Boston Public, where they had an after show online chat to discuss the episode, which centered around the use of 'Nigger'.

Paul Duca said...

LUCY: I hear your friend (Woodstock) has a vapor lock

SNOOPY: He does NOT have a vapor lock! He has the vapors!

(LUCY leaves)

SNOOPY: Now I know why hospital visiting hours are so short

Klee said...

Sorry if it's been asked before. My question is a two-parte, regarding Norm's wife, Vera. Was it ever considered showing her face on an episode? If so, who do you think they would have cast? (personally I'm not a big fan of those "invisible" characters on sitcoms). What do you think of this sitcom technique and do you think it can become tiresome or repetitive after a while?

Anonymous said...

I got so tired of the Red Jonh plot that I stopped watching "The Mentalist". They kept promising the end and then it wasn't the end. That becomes tedious after a few years.


Rob said...

The "Mr. Belvedere" producers admitted to writing the "very special" episodes for the purpose of getting a TV Guide close-up box, which they never got.

"All-new" was also a trend in 80's movie advertising for such things as "Friday the 13th" sequels and Richard Pryor concert movies.

Hank Gillette said...

I agree with Julie that The Mentalist stretched out the Red John story way too long. The longer it went, the more powerful he had to become and the more pervasive his influence within California law enforcement had to become.

No matter who they designate as Red John, he can not live up to the expectations built up and I really don’t think it is possible that the remaining suspects could have done all the things and been all the places that Red John has supposedly done and been, as most of them are pubic or semi-public figures. Furthermore, at this point I no longer care.

Bones has done the same thing, creating a villain who essentially has super-powers.

Kay said...

A Friday Question:

It seems (to generalize greatly) that the characters on long-running sitcoms go in one of two directions: They either become more nuanced or more exaggerated. All too often, the exaggerations yield much meaner jokes; characters who once teased each other now aim to draw blood.

First, do you agree or disagree with this observation? Second, if you agree, any thoughts on why? Does meanness happen because after years of trying everything, put-downs are just easier to write? Or has everybody in the writers' room just gotten sick of both the characters and the stars who play them?


Rich D said...

OK, I have a question brought on by the subject of "Very Special Episodes" and if I am mis-remembering things please correct me, but I don't recall an episode of CHEERS where Sam had struggles with his alcoholism or relapsed back to drinking. Was there a conscious decision to go down that road?

Pamela Briggs said...

Ken -- I've enjoyed your blog for years. What do you think of this?

Tyler said...

RichD, Cheers did at least 2 episodes that dealt with Sam's drinking problem. The first one was the one where a Red Sox pitcher was in a slump and Sam gave him the bottle cap from his last bottle of beer. They teased that Sam would start drinking again through the episode, but at the end he didn't. Then there was the season opening arc of season 3 or 4 where Sam started drinking again because Diane had left. It also was used to intro Frasier Crane to the show.