Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Questions

Aloha. On my way to Hawaii, but while I stand in the endless TSA line I thought I’d answer some Friday Questions.

Stephen gets us started.

Have you ever seen a single-camera comedy which you thought might have worked better as a multi-camera, or vice versa? For example, I think The Crazy Ones is an 'okay' show, but with the large primary office set, the ensemble which is together in almost every scene, and of course Robin Williams' manic energy, the multi-cam/live audience might have served it just as well, if not better - especially as it airs on CBS where it is surrounded by other multi-cams. I am not suggesting changing the format of an established show (we all saw how that went for NBC with Up All Night last season), but I'd like to get your thoughts.

Yes, but if they made THE CRAZY ONES a multi-camera show then they’d have to write actual “jokes” and not just joke-like rhythms. They’d be held accountable to an audience. That said, Robin Williams is always 1000% better in front of a live audience and it would help that show immensely.

Some shows like MASH could only be done one-camera. But if you had to, you could do a version of NEW GIRL or MINDY PROJECT multi-camera. Make no mistake, when a network takes a single-camera show and redevelops it as a multi-camera show it is not to save money in production. It is to make the show funnier. And in most cases it works, a la THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS.

Jim S asks:

Are there shows that you just don't get? I just saw the first two episodes of "Community" last night and while they were, at least to me cute, not the second coming of comedy. I keep reading from critics how it has the Harmon touch again.

I just don't get it. I always thought "Community" was a fairly clever show that all too often became one big inside joke. I didn't think season 4 was terrible. Yet I keep hearing about the genius that is a low rated prime time show and a low-rated show in syndication. What am I missing?

COMMUNITY goes out of its way to not be a traditional sitcom. As a result it has its loyal fans and detractors. There are so many sitcoms on the air that are so bland no one could have an opinion either way. I’d sure prefer to be doing something interesting.

I appreciate COMMUNITY more than I enjoy it. But then it’s not meant for me. They make it very clear by the references that they’re aiming for a younger audience and really don’t care if older viewers watch it or not. So the fact that COMMUNITY doesn’t speak to me, that’s fine. The danger with that approach is that you severely limit your audience and on a major broadcast network that can be treacherous. Especially when it’s up against a show like THE BIG BANG THEORY, which draws more younger viewers and millions of older viewers as well. THE BIG BANG THEORY drew a whopping five times the audience of COMMUNITY for COMMUNITY’S season premiere last week.

So if you don’t “get” COMMUNITY, you’re not alone.

I never got TWO AND A HALF MEN. I don’t get TWO BROKE GIRLS. And as anyone who has read more than two posts of this blog knows, I don’t get GIRLS.

George wonders:

Is there a TV show where you have the sole writing credit? I’ve read 2 of your 3 books (even paid for one of them) heard you on KABC, seen a few of your “Directed By” shows and of course follow this blog. I’ve watched at least one Frasier show written by David Isaacs, but has a TV script been broadcast where you alone have the “Written by” credit?
And finally, from Mike in Seattle:

After listening for so long to Boss radio and WLS, did things change for you when you started hearing stations like KLOS and DJs like JJ Jackson?

For me those changes seem to coincide with changes in the music, too. The end of the Beatles, the beginning of Zeppelin.
One of my first jobs in radio was as a board operator for KLOS so I engineered shows for JJ Jackson, Jim Ladd, Damian, Shauna, Jim Patton, Jerry Longden, Dion, Marc Driscoll. Some great disc jockeys and great music.

But I traveled in both worlds because I still loved that DJ’s in Top 40 radio could have more fun and be sillier. So when I became a disc jockey I was one of those guys who played “The Night Chicago Died” on the air then went home and played Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. Mahalo.


Matthew said...

That was one of, if not *the* funniest Becker episodes.

Jay said...

Hi ! I like this blog and your work but why the covers of your books are so awful? Does your editor have eyes or is he daltonic ? (sorry for my bad english)

Marie said...

This week's "New Girl" revealed that Coach's real name is Ernie, which I took as a nod to "Cheers." What's the best pop-culture homage your work has been on the receiving end of?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Yeah, I don't understand COMMUNITY either. My dad and I saw an episode one night while we were stuck in a hotel, and there was nothing else on (because the hotel had a dish service, and it was raining), and when they went to commercials, we both looked at each other and asked, "What did we just watch?" There really wasn't anything funny or humorous about it and left us scratching our heads.

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

I actually disagree about Happy Days. Those first two single camera seasons (technically a season and a half) were subtler and funnier than anything they did after that when they had to play to the back wall and Fonzie (a very funny, and actually somewhat nuanced supporting character) suddenly became a superhero.

Interestingly, many years ago I worked with Tom Bosley. He could be a bit crusty at first and I wasn't sure he liked me. But one day I happened to mention to him that the single camera seasons of Happy Days were my favorite, and we got on like best buddies after that. He preferred them too, and I think appreciated that the father/son dynamic was as much a part of the show as the Arnold's gang stuff. Not to say it wasn't the right business decision -- obviously the later seasons made it the hit that it was -- but those early episodes are a treat.

Grump said...

I love Community and I'm 58. I also love The Crazy Ones and New Girl and think they would be ruined if they went to multi camera. I do tend to prefer single camera shows though.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Oh, Ken. This changes everything to discover you were a willing participant in the conspiracy to foist "The Night Chicago Died" on my delicate ears. It is one of those songs that occasionally gets stuck in my mind and makes me question the value of life in a free society. It also makes me want to build a time machine so I can go back and kill Thomas Edison before he invents the phonograph. Let's hope he invented the light bulb first, or we're all living the Amish life.

On getting TWO AND A HALF MEN: One has to be a misanthrope. At first I thought one only had to be a misogynist, but it's more inclusive than I originally suspected. Every character on that show (when Charlie Sheen was on it) hated/resented every other character and the rest of humanity (which also hated/resented every character on that show). It's an exploration of existential rage, but with dick jokes.

On getting TWO BROKE GIRLS: It's fun to hear girls talk naughty until the commercial at the end of act one.

Did EVERY radio station have an oval bumper sticker with the purplish rainbow border?

Thomas said...

In defence of Community, its early episodes were very good: character led and believable. Dialogue like "Jeff, you'll play my father" "I don't want to be your father, Abed" "Good, you already know your lines" in context had emotional resonance as well as containing an actual joke — The Crazy Ones, take note.

I blame the cancer of ComicCon for its divergence into comic book pastiche of the week: when the only outlet from which you're receiving consistent praise is a bunch of people with opinions no more sophisticated than "haha, I liked the one inside a video game because video games are funny; my second favourite was the puppets because puppets are funny" I guess your creative ambition is blunted somewhat.

Jeff R said...

Ken - I totally agree on your comments on the radio. Growing up it was Boss Radio KHJ, then in the dorms at college it was KMET & KLOS with my boys...but when I was on the air (college and beyond for 25 years) it was the high energy Top 40 personality radio that owned my heart!! Nothing like the old days of "hitting the post" and actually connecting with the listeners by saying something funny, topical or local...that's one reason I will always support!!

Viking_Jack said...

Seriosuly, Ken, get yourself together! Only one interesting Friday Question, the first one... the others are... I don't know... boring... select better friday questions, please! And stop doing so much vacation! It... makes me jealous!

DBenson said...

You've been an on-air radio talent and a television writer & director. But you missed out on scripted radio drama and comedy, all but extinct by the time you saw a microphone.

Did you ever have an interest in "golden age" radio, or a creative interest in writing a radio script?

Here is America it seems to be down to skits on Prairie Home Companion and the occasional stunt like the public radio serial of Star Wars. BBC still does pretty ambitious stuff; dramas that demand close listening for almost cinematically intercut scenes and action.

BigTed said...

Am I the only one who really likes both "Community" and "Two and a Half Men"? Just because you prefer sophistimacated humor doesn't mean you can't enjoy a well-written sex or fart joke.

David said...

Hi, Ken. I saw a promo for the About a Boy series, thought the lead actor looked familiar, and discovered that he's starred in four or five sitcoms in as many years, all on NBC. I seem to recall this happening with other actors, but I'm drawing a blank on names. Anyway, when something like this happens, is it that he's just really lucky to keep landing TV shows or has NBC determined that this guy is a star and is going to put him on TV until people finally agree?

Jason said...

I don't get "New Girl" at all.. I've never seen even an ad for it that made me think there was something funny in it, and usually the ads show the best jokes.

Oliver said...

I feel Community's "nicheness" helped it survive. In a brutal timeslot facing megahits Idol and The Big Bang Theory, it needed to carve out a die-hard audience just to stay alive. A more conventional sitcom couldn't have done that.

Liggie said...

DBenson, retired Seattle talk host Jim French has had a long-running radio drama series, "Imagination Theater". It's been a fixture on local public radio and has apparently found a national audience. Link:

By Ken Levine said...

Wow. That's a new one, Viking Jack. Complaining about the quality of questions. Hopefully there are other free blogs that will answer more interesting questions. I won't feel slighted if you go read one of those. In fact, I encourage you to seek one out.

Matt said...

Ken, stay above it. Viking Jack might just be having a bad day.

Don't feed the trolls. Me included.

Steve said...

So...apparently Gary Burghoff has a Twitter account. Anyone else seen it? Is it really him? I wasn't aware of it until I saw a thread about it in the visual arts section of the Steve Hoffman music forums. There's a sampling of things he's (again assuming it's actually him)posted and it's, um, quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that you had "to stand in the endless TSA line" on your way to Hawaii. If I'd known, you could have used my plane.

Viking_Jack said...

Ken, why do you use your precious time to answer trolls like me, instead of answering more (and better) friday questions? Ha! Gotcha! Think about it!

I'm just sayin': I see so many awesome friday questions and sometimes, you seem to ignore the best ones. Just my opinion, man!

In general, I love your blog and am thankful for it!

Mike said...

That was an interesting observation about "The Crazy Ones." I've been watching the show all season, and while I like it and it makes me laugh, I often wind up feeling it could be better than it is. Interestingly, this may be an example of listening to the critics too much. I remember when the season started, a lot of critics (who, judging from their comments, had only seen the pilot episode) said the show had potential, but the key would be reining in Robin Williams and letting the ensemble gel and shine. Well, the ensemble seems to have gelled (it's a nice ensemble, I've got to say), but Williams seems to have been reined in a little too much. I mean, I obviously have no idea what's going on behind the scenes, maybe he hasn't been at all; that's just how it seems to me. A lot of the time he's doing what a lot of good comedy actors could do with the role -- which is to say he's being wasted a little bit. The "crazy" seems to have been dialed down a little from the premiere, and that's kind of a shame.

It's not every show that has Robin Williams as its star. So let him be Robin Williams.

Heather Cunningham said...

Hi Ken,

I'm just curious to know when you were coming up the ranks of TV writing, how many people would roughly be on a show's writing staff in comparison with now?

I can imagine the number of people on staffs has decreased but with more networks (other than the big 4) creating sitcoms, the amount of shows has increased.

Dale said...

Ha ha, Ken you are funny. Answering Viking Jack you remind me of a tale Bill Bruford tells of guitarist Robert Fripp. Fripp has a habbit of sitting in the dark while onstage. A concert goer wrote a letter complaing he could only see Fripp 50% of the time. Fripp responded by telling said concert goer not to come again and returned 50% of the ticket price.
Classic. :-D

Andy Ihnatko said...

This week's "Mythbusters" moonshine special got me thinking about the still on "M*A*S*H." How much thought did the propmaker put into the design? Was it supposed to look like a functioning still, or just "make it so that someone who doesn't know what a still looks like will believe Hawkeye when he refers to this collection of tubes and pipes as a still"?

Ryan Schwartz said...


I'm right with you. I enjoy both "Community" and "Two and a Half Men." The latter has been awful this season, which happens with just about any show as old as this one (I don't agree with the view that Kutcher's arrival was the final nail in the coffin ––– I think the writing has weakened immensely this year after an oddly strong 10th season). At its peak, "Two and a Half Men" did toilet and sex humor better than just about any other show, and while it isn't exactly sophisticated, I don't think those who enjoy it should be ashamed for that.

I can't sit here and compare the two in terms of humor, because they have two very different ideas of what sort of humor makes people laugh, but I do feel that "Community" is a better overall show. However, I did prefer last season of "Men" to last season's Dan Harmon-less 'gas leak year' of "Community."

Sorry, now I'm just rambling.

Kay said...

As part of her comment on the Mamet memo, Wendy M. Grossman wrote about The Big Bang Theory:

"I do not like this current showrunner, who seems set on turning TBBT into an amalgam of early 1990s comedies, mostly FRIENDS."

I've seen similar comments from many veteran fans of the show. Without asking for a critique of TBBT, would you please answer how a showrunner balances his or her own sense of direction for a show, versus what fans clamor for? I suspect it must be like musicians on tour who desperately want to break new songs, while the fans keep shouting out the names of their old hits.


Teresa Hutton said...

Hey Ken,

I've been writing spec scripts for a while now but my script outlines feel somewhat amateurish in Microsoft Word.

My question is: Do you think you can share some advice on writing a solid outline or if possible an example of an outline you have written (preferably Cheers because it was one of the all-time greats)?

Thank you so much. After many years of writing for TV, you're very gracious and kind to share your experiences with young bucks starting out.

Jason Hunt said...

William Arthur Ward once wrote, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

Ken, unlike many teachers in film school, you teach through writing about your significant real-world experiences. Thank you.

VP81955 said...

Ken often talks about his fondness for KHJ in its famed "Boss Radio" era, when the station pioneered the Drake-Chenault "more music" format, tightening the traditional Top 40 sound while allowing the jock to retain his own on-air personality (in other words, a jukebox with heart). Here's a perfect sample of it from May 1965, a week into the changeover -- six minutes of air checks from morning man Robert W. Morgan. (Listen to the ad where KHJ asks its listeners to compare it with KFWB and KRLA, even mentioning those stations by name and frequency!) A fascinating curio for Top 40 historians and Angelenos (or those who wish they'd been). It's at

Storm said...

Wow, do I ever miss Jim Ladd, and That Voice. Now I need to go put on Roger Waters' "Radio KAOS", just so I can hear him again. (He toured with Roger on the KAOS tour, doing his part on the album, "The DJ", onstage, so I can say with great joy that I've SEEN Jim Ladd spin LIVE! :)

Charles H. Bryan said: "...Did EVERY radio station have an oval bumper sticker with the purplish rainbow border?"

You beat me to the question, which came to mind as soon as I saw it! I know that the rock stations I loved in S.F. in the early 80's had them, especially KSFX. I loved that damn station; they went talk radio a few months after I moved there, and the last rock song they played was "Around the Dial" by The Kinks (which is the song I think of/put on whenever Ken does one of his "Why Does Radio Suck SO MUCH Now When It Used To Be SO COOL?" rants).

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Timothy Wintour said...

Hey Ken,

When wring a spec for an existing show, would you recommend writing a very self-contained episode by trying to use only the main characters and main sets (which is very difficult to pull off without it feeling boring) or would you recommend creating new sets and one-time guest characters (which shows often do)?

Ashley Kemp said...

Must Kill TV was great Ken!

Can't wait for the next. You have some really compelling stories, hard to say what is fiction and what are real experiences.