Friday, March 07, 2014

Friday Questions

More Friday Questions and questionable answers:

Brian Phillips gets us started.

Every so often, a TV show will run a "live" episode. "Hot in Cleveland" is kicking off this season with one and, of course, at one time, much of TV was "live".

Have you ever directed a live episode or been on set for one?

No. Never have directed a live episode. That takes a different skill than I’m used to. You have to edit on the fly. I haven’t done that since college and I remember it drove me crazy. We were supposed to give prep commands. “Ready camera two? Take camera two.” I never got the hang of that. In one minute I'd be yelling, “Camera three! Now God damn it!”

Live sitcoms are a stunt, and they’re fun to watch. There’s always the element of danger. My favorite was the 30 ROCK live show. In addition to everything else, they made fun of the convention.

The best part of doing a live show though is the taping takes a half hour and then you are done.  No conferences.  No pick ups.  Assuming you aren’t hospitalized for an anxiety attack, you can make dinner reservations the night of the show.

One last note, how amazing that 92-year-old Betty White can still do live shows and KICK ASS!

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

Being a television writer, you're pretty much the real deal, so I'm just curious, what is your overall personal opinion of fanfiction? Have you ever read any fanfics of some of the shows you've written for? I must admit, I've read some that were really well-written and felt as if they could have been actual episodes of the show, but I've also read some that were so bad, I felt as if I needed therapy after reading them.

I’ve been reading fanfiction my entire career. It’s called “spec scripts.” Most are honestly not very good. I’m glad that there’s now a forum for fans to try their hand at writing their favorite shows, and I’m sure a few great new writers will be discovered as a result, but I prefer to read something else.

From another Joseph – Joseph M.:

How do you deal with seeing a bad episode of a show you worked on? I imagine that even the best ones occasionally put out clunkers.

Just like every graduating class in medical school has someone who finished last and that person becomes a doctor – there are going to be episodes of even good series that ultimately came out disappointing. The trick is to have as few of these as possible and then schedule them against the Olympics or Academy Awards.

There are episodes I co-wrote that I wasn’t pleased with the final result – either because it was rewritten or poorly directed or acted or the story wasn’t that great… or it just wasn’t our best work. I merely choose to not watch them again.

A few years ago I was channel surfing and came upon a CHEERS we wrote that I never really liked. So I hadn’t seen it in years. I decided to watch and was pleasantly surprised. There were some nice laughs in there. When it was over I wondered -- did I like it better because it was a funnier episode than I gave it credit for? Or is the bar just so low these days that a mediocre episode of CHEERS gets elevated in comparison?  Probably a little of both.

And finally, from Bob Summers:

Because there are really great shows doing only 13 episodes a season (running 5-6 seasons), should many regular network shows switch to planning to do three or four really good years, then folding? I think it seems better than figuring out how to stretch something like CSI out until it breaks.

Networks feel the opposite. Big hit shows are hard to come by and networks want to ride those nags until they collapse. Many times a show will hit its stride in the first couple years then coast, jump the shark, and get worse. But their ratings those last years are better than when the show was good. So networks can eke out another few years of big profits despite a show’s decline in quality.

I see this is multi-camera sitcoms all the time. Once a show becomes a mega hit they don’t even have to earn the laughs anymore. One of their beloved characters enters a scene, says hello, and the entire studio audience is in convulsions. It’s undeserved laughter to us, it’s “kaching” to the network.

What’s your question?


Hamid said...

So networks can eek out another few years of big profits despite a show’s decline in quality.

Which is sadly what's happened to The Simpsons ever since it jumped the shark around 2000.

Christopher Antonucci said...

The CHEERS episode, "Don't Paint Your Chickens," contains my favorite opening: the hilarious Ingmar Bergman conversation. Do you remember where that idea came from? How hard or difficult did it become - as the seasons went on - to come up with openings, particularly ones as great and really funny, as that one?

John said...

I see this is multi-camera sitcoms all the time. Once a show becomes a mega hit they don’t even have to earn the laughs anymore. One of their beloved characters enters a scene, says hello, and the entire studio audience is in convulsions. It’s undeserved laughter to us, it’s “kaching” to the network.

The 1970s sitcoms from both the Norman Lear and Garry Marshall factories were terrible about abusing the three-camera live audience format this way -- it's also what makes many of those shows problematic in re-runs, because after the show is no longer a cultural phenomena and the episodes have to be judged on actual humor content, the audience going wild for no reason makes the lack of comedy pay-off even more annoying.

(And as for that situation -- When you were working on Cheers and it became something of a cultural phenomena, was they a concerted effort by the producers, writers, directors and/or actors to try and avoid "Happy Days Syndrome" where easy lines that might get a cheap laugh or applause were avoided because everyone knew that would be coasting?)

Aaron Sheckley said...

I wish most shows would end at the five year mark. With rare exception, that always seems to be the point that the writers begin running out of ideas, or else fresh ways to look at old ideas. The worst is when the writers fundamentally change an established character's personality for no reason, other than to make them easier to write jokes for. I for one hated the "dumbening" of Sam's and Rebecca's characters on Cheers in the last few seasons. It's good when characters change because of events that happen to their characters' lives, but personally I'd rather a show end than for the characters be altered for no reason other than the writer's convenience.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken,
I am not sure how to phrase this question, but here goes.

I do prefer my sitcoms but watch my share of dramas (Justified, Americans, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire- give it a go Ken!, etc), however I find that during dramatic moments in sitcoms (e.g. Henry's death on MASH, couple of moments on Scrubs, etc) I tear up easier than similar moments in dramas.

Is this something that is common/well-known, etc by networks/writers/showrunners or am I just an emotional cripple :)?

I find that with dramas, dramatic moments are expected and therefore don't have the impact on me as much as a show were I have a great time 99% of the time and then when that dramatic moment comes, it has a greater emotional impact for me.

Maybe I find they earn them more, maybe I care about the characters more, etc. I just wondered if this has come up on shows before.

Many thanks as always for your great blog! Buy Ken's books, they're just as funny as his blog!

Terrence Moss said...

"How I Met Your Mother" is a great example of a show that was much better when it was struggling in the ratings. Then it went into syndication, people started watching the originals and now it's gone on three or four seasons too long.

Anonymous said...

> One of their beloved characters enters a scene, says hello, and the entire studio audience is in convulsions.

Works for Letterman.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Johnny Walker said...

There's definitely an interesting correlation between have much the audience loves a show and how forgiving they are.

As other commenters have pointed out: Shows usually start off with high ideals. Those ideals are what can help make the show standout and build an audience, but by season six those ideals are starting to get compromised, and usually by season 10 they'll do anything to get a laugh -- but the audience will be there, and sometimes bigger than ever.

I can be forgiving as a viewer, but often I'm disappointed that the things I loved most about the show are being sacrificed for the sake of the network's bottom line/writers' sanities.

I can understand the network wanting to flog the horse until they're absolutely sure it's dead -- it's more money in the short-term, but aren't they hurting the long-term appeal -- and so long-term profit -- of the series?

The release of Seinfeld on DVD was a huge event. The release of Roseanne on DVD, a hit show in its day that later jumped the shark so many times that people lost count, was relegated to several different third parties.

I wish networks would think of the bigger picture -- but I guess that's never going to happen.

Johnny Walker said...

Cheers side note: I've heard complaints about Sam's in IQ in the later seasons many times before, but I'm watching the first seasons again at the moment (season one really is amazing) and Sam was always painted as being, well, dumb. Likeable, yes, but definitely not the smartest pencil in the box. And it wasn't painted as a serious failing, he just always valued other things more -- sports, good times, meaningless sex etc. -- which is what made him such a great foil for Diane.

He's easily manipulated by Carla on occasion, for example, like when she tells him the best way to get Diane back (the last thing Carla wants) is for Sam to take control as the "man" of the relationship.

I wonder if standing next to Coach made him seem smarter, or if I'm misremembering and his IQ really does drop further in the later seasons?

Jay said...

Today's genius HuffPo headline: "Lea Michele's Haircut Is A Bit Confusing"

Peter Ackerman said...

My Question: You can time travel and have the opportunity to write an episode for one classic sit-com, and direct one episode of a television show. For each (meaning you can have two answers here) what time would you travel to, and what show would you write/direct an episode?

benson said...

Friday question:

Lots of speculation floating around the cyber universe that How I Met you Mother will end with the mother dead.

Since two series you've been involved with (MASH and the Korean baby; Cheers with Sam not marrying Diane) had arguably, controversial endings, any thoughts on killing off the person the whole series has been about, just as you pass the finish line?

Aaron Sheckley said...

@ Johnny Walker:

Agreed that Sam was never going to be offered a scholarship at Harvard, but in the earlier episodes he in his own way was a match for Diane's overblown intellect. He certainly lacked an educational pedigree, but he was astute enough of a judge of people to often be able to poke holes in Diane's bombast. When Rebecca started out she was portrayed as a very competent, confident businesswoman. Both characters were gradually dumbed down, which I suspect was to make it easier to write broad based quasi-slapstick type humor. Though it's been years since I've watched Cheers, I do recall that after Rebecca's second or third season I stopped watching, because I found the transformation of Sam's and her characters to be ruining my enjoyment of the show.

Johnny Walker said...

You may well be right, but the episode I watched last night (season two) had a great example of Sam's intelligence in those early seasons: Trying to impress Diane and her PhD ex, Cliff suggests that Sam should read "War and Peace".

After a while Sam agrees, he's going to do it: "What was the name of that book again, Cliffy?"

Cliff: "War and Peace"

Sam, taking serious note, writes it down: "War...and...Peace"

Cliff and Norm look at each other.

Cliff: "Gee Sam, you're going to write that down?"

Norm looks at what he's written

Norm: "And spell it incorrectly?"

Coach suggests the Sam should just talk about something nobody else knows about. Like his apartment.

I can't remember if Sam ever gets dumber than being able to remember and spell "War and Peace", but instances like this have made me wonder. Clearly, from what you've said, it sounds like his intelligence does at least change from the previous seasons.

As for Rebecca, I always felt the "competent business woman" was just a facade -- so her "decline" felt like her true self coming to the fore. That said, I think even Ken has acknowledged that it was a conscious decision to change her personality -- she was funnier dumb -- even though it worked for me.

Allan V said...

Which do you think is a more difficult transition ---- an established sitcom actor trying to make a successful move to serious drama, or an established dramatic actor trying to show he/she can be funny in a sitcom?

Jeff said...

Hey Ken, my question is in regards to spec scripts for serialized dramas. For the sake of this question I'm omitting Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, both of which would be hot choices for specs, but both of which have source material to varying degrees.

When writing a spec for a show that relies heavily on carrying over storylines from episode to episode, how important do you think it is that your script feels "current"?

I think back to a show such as LOST and can't help but to imagine writing a spec for it must have been a nightmare. Characters seemingly were killed off on a weekly basis, plot lines changed on a whim. The "Others" became "The Other Others". You almost needed a notebook to keep track of what was going on.

How forgiving would you be if the spec you were reading either felt dated, or veered into territory that was not explored in the actual show?

Bubba Gurney said...

No rush now, Ken...on my way to Amazon to buy the Kindle version of MUST KILL TV for only $2.99

Couch Potato said...

Ken, I have recently started watching Cheers and noticed that the same teaser was used twice. What's the story behind this?

Linda Martinez said...

Hey Ken,

Would you encourage or discourage aspiring writers from trying to contact working writers to read speculative material? Is it worth a shot or would you stay away from it because it makes the aspiring writer seem somewhat needy and annoying?

Thanks for all the advice in your blog.