Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Questions

Happy Friday Question day.  Get in on the fun.  Leave yours in the comments section.  Thanks.

Anonymous starts us off (in the future, please list your name):

Who are some of the stars that you have worked with who WEREN'T monsters? The ones filled with grace and dignity? Would love to see that list.

I’ve been incredibly blessed. It’s a long long list. And it’s not complete. I apologize to those other actors I’ve worked with who also deserve to be in this rollcall but whose names have just slipped my mind. I’m too lazy to alphabetize them so here they are in no particular order. My point is that there are many decent actors. There are ways of getting what you want without being a monster. If you're in the industry and have had occasion to work with actors who were menches please share who they are.

Ted Danson
Tom Hanks
Rita Wilson
John Candy
Michael Douglas
Nancy Travis
Alan Alda
Mike Ferrell
Harvey Firestein
Emma Thompson
Harry Connick Jr.
Harry Morgan
Shelley Long
Rhea Perlman
Nick Collasanto
Woody Harrelson
George Wendt
John Ratzenberger
Kirstie Alley
Kelsey Grammer
Steven Webber
Tony Shaloub
Tim Daly
Julie Benz
Crystal Bernard
Amy Yasbech
Adam Arkin
Jane Kaczmarek
Malcolm McDowell
Kurtwood Smith
Kevin Kilner
Patrick Breen
Ed Asner
Jennifer Tilly
Wendie Malick
George Segal
David Hyde Pierce
Jon Tenney
Peri Gilpen
Laura Linney
Aaron Eckhart
John Mahoney
Jane Leeves
Patricia Heaton
Ray Romano
Doris Roberts
Peter Boyle
Brad Garrett
Tracey Ullman
Julie Kavner
Dan Castellaneta
Neil Patrick Harris
Yeardly Smith
Nancy Cartwright
Hank Azaria
Harry Shearer
Laura San Giacomo
Chip Zien
James Farentino
David Clennon
Matthew Letscher
John Astin
Katey Sagal
Tony Randall
William Christopher
Jaime Farr
Jane Seymour
Lisa Kudrow
Roz Chao
David Ogden Steirs
Alan Arbus
Loretta Swit
Gary Burghoff
Allison Janney
Paget Brewster
Marcia Wallace
Bob Newhart
John Cleese
Lisa Edelstein
David Spade
David Morse
Enrico Colantoni
Al Franken
Megyn Price
Miquel Ferrer
Kristen Chenowith
Robert Forthworth
Sanaa Latham
James Tolkin
Kat Denning
Jenna Elfman
Hattie Winston
Terry Ferrell
Alex Desert
Shawnee Smith
Bess Armstrong
Thomas Gibson
Willie Garsons
William Ragsdale
Sean O’Bryan
Mark Feuerstein
Bess Meyer
Nathan Lane
Joan Plowright
Joel Murray
Jack Coleman
Brenda Vaccarro
Tea Leoni
Gilbert Godfried
Mimi Kennedy
Alan Rachins
Susan Sullivan
Bob Elliott
Steve Landesburg
Victoria Jackson
Jon Lovitz
Rita Rudner
Avery Schreiber
Ryan Mitchell
Maggie Lawson
Harriet Harris
Lenny Clarke
…and Moose (Eddie on FRASIER)

While we're on the subject of Ted Danson, Monsterbeard asks:

I was looking at the credits for Becker the other day, which is full of some really talented sitcom writers, including yourself. Yet, despite all the pedigree, the show wasn't exactly a huge hit. Do you think it failed? And do you know why it wasn't as big of a hit as the writing credits would suggest?

Well, it did run for 129 episodes and is in syndication so it did a whole lot better than any of my shows. But BECKER should have been a bigger hit. The problem was that CBS, for whatever reason, never believed in the show. I don’t know why. Maybe it wasn’t sexy enough for them. But then why make it and order it in the first place?

BECKER always outperformed the network’s expectations. It did wildly better than a host of darlings that CBS put in that time slot (Monday 9:30). Then the network moved it, put it in an impossible slot to win and it still surprised everyone with its numbers. The reward for that? Cancellation. And the irony of course – CBS would KILL for BECKER’s numbers today.

Happily, once the show got into syndication people seemed to discover it. It’s hard to believe but a highly-rated show on CBS for five years was considered a best-kept secret. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw your name on this new show, BECKER. It’s really good.” NEW show??

Dave Hackel, the show’s creator, put together a tremendous staff of writers and directors. Matthew Weiner of MAD MEN for one. Andy Ackerman (director of SEINFELD) for another. And although you might not be as familiar with their names, here are a few of the other terrific BECKER writers who I would hire in a second: Ian Gurvitz, Michael Markowitz, Russ Woody, Steve Peterman, Gary Donzig, Kate Angelo, Liz Astrof, Bobby Gaylor, Dana Borkow Klein, Matt Ember, Anne Flett-Giordano, and Chuck Ranberg.

But the show must finally be catching on. Ted Danson says more people now stop him in an airport and mention BECKER than CHEERS.

If you’re up some morning at 2 channel surfing, check it out. It’s a damn good show.

And finally, from John:

Since you're flying off for (I assume) some time for relaxation, here's a kind-of related topic -- What's your opinion/outcome of trying to be creative in comedy writing while either having imbibed a little, or under the influence of any other intoxicants?

For the most part, not a good idea. Intoxicants tend to cloud your judgment. All too often something you write late at night when you’re well intoxicated or good and medicated turns out to be something Jack Nicholson’s character would write in THE SHINING.

Yes, there are stories of writers who snort coke and bang out entire brilliant hour episodes over night but (a) I don’t know how true they are, and (b) sooner or later there’s a price to pay.

But before I start sounding like your parents, I will admit a glass of wine or beer won’t kill ya. Just don't drive... although you should never write and drive anyway. 


Stoney said...

First off, regarding anonymous postings; Aaron Sorkin wrote (for Newsroom character Will MacAvoy) "Unless you're Deep Throat or in the Witness Protection Program anonymity is cowardice! You're in a mob, you're lobbing smack from the cheap seats."

One reason more people discovered Becker in syndication may be that, while channel surfing, they may have stopped on the show and said "Hey, that's Hurley from Lost!"

Douglas Trapasso said...

Could be a Friday question or (maybe!) a topic for a full post:

How do you feel aesthetically about using profanity in a script? Do wish you had that option available when you wrote all those great network shows? Sometimes I wonder if it's a writer's crutch to substitute for experience or deep knowledge of the characters. Did Wolf of Wall Street really need 427 F-bombs to make its points?

XantaKlaus said...

I loved Becker, I am not ashamed to say I totally missed Cheers on German television and started watching Frasier on a german TV station late at night while still going to school (so for the most part I recorded those shows on VCR). Frasier was so brilliant and even the dubbing was good. The station then started pairing airings of Frasier with Becker, and like I said, I loved it. My favorite episode was "For whom the Toll Calls".

And it holds up, I have the show in DVD so I could watch it again in english and seeing it a second (and some episodes a third) time is still great. I never understood why it was not more popular.

So I got my dose of Ken Levine by finally watching Cheers, Frasier, M*A*S*H and Becker on DVD.

Paul B said...

Speaking of Alan Arbus, the role of Sydney Freedman was brilliantly written, but he played it so well, that I'd like to believe he brought a huge dose of his own humanity to the role in addition to his acting chops.

Doug Thompson said...


I worked with several people on your list, including the late John Candy.

A truly wonderful man. We were friends for 17 years. I worked for his company, Frostbacks Production (no 's') in LA on a number of projects.

If you were his friend, he'd give you the shirt off his back, even if that was the only shirt he had. I still miss him everyday. We just passed the 20th anniversary of his death on March 4th.

I'd add Henry Winkler to my list -another classy one.

You mentioned Ed Asner as one of the 'good guys'. Although I've never met him, I'm happy he's on your list because I always liked him, from "Mary Tyler Moore", through the "Lou Grant" years to the voice of the old man in "Up", Sometimes the grumpy, curmudgeonly characters some actors portray are really only an extension of their own personalities. Even when he played Santa Claus in Will Farrell's "Elf", his character had a kind of surly attitude. So I'm happy to hear he's one of the good guys.

Stoney said...

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to bluntly tell someone "That's not funny"? Several Facebook friends have been sharing doctored pictures and other posts regarding the missing Malaysian airliner tagged with "LOL". I can't "LOL" when I think of what the families of the passengers are going through right now. Sorry to get heavy like this but I'd be interested to hear about your own boundaries.

Kevin O'Shea said...

Re: Becker. My father battled multiple sclerosis for 27 years before his death last June; the last few years he was a pretty much a prisoner trapped inside his body. He had a heck of a sense of humor, but rarely laughed out loud, in the 46 some-odd years I knew him. In those last years, we all watched a great deal of TV together, and he not only loved to watch Becker (by then, in syndication), but he used to laugh out loud while watching—frequently. He particularly enjoyed Becker’s frustration with Margaret and Linda. He laughed so much, that we bought him several season’s worth of the show on DVD, so he could watch whenever he wanted. So, while CBS may have never believed in Becker, our family sure did.

Stephen Robinson said...

Ken --

I've heard a theory that one of best ways to make an otherwise unlikeable character appealing to audiences is to have an obviously talented but, deep down, nice guy play him. His innate goodness will peek through the character and connect with us.

I don't know how mich of that is true, but when I think of characters like Sam Malone, Hawkeye Pierce, or Frasier Crane (the latter introduced to be a romantic false lead and obstacle), I wonder if there's something to it.

VincentS said...

Wow. David Morse must be a nice buy, Ken. You listed him twice!

Ben Scripps said...

Ken—what’s the cheapest thing you’ve ever seen a studio do?

The background to this question: I recently watched “The Money Pit” with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long; the DVD contains the theatrical trailer, for which the VO is done by Richard Benjamin, who also happens to be the movie’s director. I can picture a scenario in which some studio exec says “Hey, I know how we could save a couple of bucks…” (Not saying that’s what happened, just that I could imagine that happening...)

Unknown said...

I loved Becker, easily in my top 10 list of shows ever. Great cast, excellent topics and excellent writing.

chalmers said...

Doug, if you're inclined, you should look at the passage Maureen O'Hara wrote about John Candy in her autobiography, 'Tis Herself.

She didn't pull any punches in the book, even when discussing legendary collaborators like John Ford. But her affection for John Candy and her respect for his work is enormous.

Liggie said...

Writing FQ. If you want to be a screenwriter, are you beholden to the Writers Guild? Especially if you don't live in California and work remotely in a right-to-work state? I was wondering what happens to people who really want to write screenplays but are philosophically opposed to unions; are they in rock-hard place territory? (Insert answer-is-not-official-legal-advice disclaimer here.)

Janice said...

A Friday Question:

With regard to direction, why do so many TV shows prefer closeup shots of individual characters relating rather than a two-shot which would show more chemistry? For example, seeing Niles and Daphne together in a shot reveals so much more than say, an episode of FRIENDS where we flip back and forth between Monica and Chandler until we're dizzy.

45525239 434 said...

I look forward to hearing of a dinner party with Levine & wife hosting Rob Long and Victoria Jackson. You could all discuss "Cheers" and "SNL"..I guess.

Lauren said...

What a great list of actors, Ken. I worked on Becker in 2001 ("Dog Days") and Ted Danson could not have been nicer to me. I was just a one week co-star - but I was blessed with my own joke - so it was a big deal for me, and his attention to me and his compliments (while in the make up room!) were so appreciated. What a nice man! Also Adam Arkin on Chicago Hope and Mansdy Patinkin were lovely, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is very kind and so was Jamie Lee Curtis when I worked with her back in the day. I have found that the really talented actors seem to be the most giving.

Brian said...

Ken, have you seen Sirens on USA? I'm curious what you think. I think its OK to watch if its on, but I won't go out of my way to remember to watch it or DVR it. Part B - why do shows have to have a token gay guy? Seems like that's been done too much.

Keith said...

Surprised to see Tony Randall on the list. I'll use that to balance out my previous conceptions.

Agent M said...

Have to say I never watched Becker in prime time (sorry) but I see it now in syndie and it's a good time. You say they plugged it here and there, it performed, never quite appreciated... kind of reminds me of Rules of Engagement.

Also, in you Nice Guys list, I see every name on Wings except one...hmm

Michael said...

I googled Beth Armstrong and could not find any actresses with that name. Did you mean Bess Armstrong?

Friday question: Have you every done or been asked to do any DVD commentaries?

Klee said...

Nice to see Shelley (Long, not Winters) made the list. To me she always sounded like a true professional and perfectionist but somehow the media painted her as "difficult".

Pat Reeder said...

I've already written about this before, but both Tony Randall and Steve Allen were incredibly nice to me when I was young, and went above and beyond to help me break in. I worked with Tony Randall on a home video shoot, and he was wonderful to everyone on the cast and crew. He even declined the private lunch we offered in his dressing room because he wanted to eat in the cafeteria "with the gang."

I'm one of those rare people who watched "Becker" when it first aired and followed it around the schedule. I think the creators of one of all-time favorite shows "House, MD" must've cribbed a lot from it. Here is my favorite "Becker" scene, with Ted Danson decimating one of the professionally-offended PC crowd on a talk radio show. Watch this and just try not to think of Hugh Laurie:

Hank Gillette said...

I watched the first episode of Becker because I loved Cheers (I was one of the few who watched the first season), but all the Ted Danson character did was sit around and bitch about things. I decided that wasn’t entertaining and never watched it again. Perhaps I should give it another try.

Gary said...

I remember a great inside joke on Becker's last episode. Becker is looking at the medical chart of a Mr. Nielsen. He sighs and says something like, "I don't know, these numbers don't look that bad..."

Ken, did you have any part in crafting the last episode?

D. McEwan said...

Regarding writing inebriated: Now I'm not a drinker. Haven't consumed a drop of alcohol since high school, over 40 years ago. I am, however, a devoted pot smoker. I found pot to be great for Idea Bull Sessions, and if it's a Sativa, I can and often have written first drafts somewhat stoned.

But I NEVER rewrite or edit stoned.

One person I've worked with, not on your list, who is, in my opinion, The World's Greatest Mensch, is Carl Reiner.

"Keith said...
Surprised to see Tony Randall on the list. I'll use that to balance out my previous conceptions."

What were your previous conceptions based on? My one experience with Tony Randall came when he was a guest on a radio show I wrote for. On the air, he talked a good deal about fine wines. (Very Niles and Frasier's wine club.) After, I was chatting with him (Mostly about 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, one of my very top favorite movies), and he noticed the pack of cigarettes in my pocket. Being an avid anti-smoker, Tony expressed his disapproval of my cigarettes (Just the pack. I was not smoking around him), and started to give me an anti-smoking lecture when I stopped him. I said: "You talked a lot about booze in there. I don't drink alcohol at all. Not a drop. Tell you what, when I'm in the hospital, dying of lung cancer, I'll be happy to chat with you in the next bed with cirrochis."

Now this was a chancy tact to take. A real jerk of a celebrity could have responded badly, very badly.

Tony laughed, shook my hand, and said: "Deal!"

Tony Randall struck me as a good guy. (BTW, I haven't smoked a cigarette in 24 years, unless it was a joint.)

Tallulah Morehead said...

How, and more to the point, why would you write sober? Or do anything else sober? I'm glad to say I have never written sober, nor done much of anything else sober. I've had so much vodka this afternoon that I'm typing this with my nose.

DBenson said...

Ancient joke:

A writer wakes up in the middle of the night. The greatest idea of all time came to him in a dream, and he stumbles around the room desperately seeking pen and paper to scribble it down before it gets away. After painfully stubbing several toes, he does so and goes back to bed, confident the world is his.

Next morning he grabs the slip of paper from the bedside. Three words.

Boy meets girl.

Guessing similar things happen with chemically-induced inspiration.

Mary Tyler Moore said...

LOL why am I not on the list?

Mary Tyler Moore said...

And you spelled "mensch" wrong, dipshit. Go back to writing mediocre failed sitcom pilots, you washed up two-bit hack. said...

Dear Ted Baxter,

No matter what Murray may have told you, posting crank comments from MTMs private account is never funny.

Mr. Grant

mmryan314 said...

@tallalah- Hilarious. Love it.

D. McEwan said...

After posting above, reading some other stuff in a book this afternoon, I came across this quote from Hemingway: "Write drunk; edit sober." Makes sense to me.

Lorimartian said...

Ted Danson and David Morse did a pilot for us titled "Our Family Business." As the lowest level executive on the planet, I had the pleasure of chatting with Ted on set. He was very nice. When he debuted on "Cheers," I wrote him a congratulatory note, and he sent me a personal reply. I was thrilled to receive it. I met David Morse once during the shoot. He was also very pleasant, and greeted me with a big smile, though I was surprised by how soft spoken and shy he seemed and how tall he was. I've been a big fan ever since.

I'll also add Howard Keel, who played Clayton Farlow on "Dallas," to the list. Very kind, in my experience, as well as charismatic. It is truly surreal to be in the presence of someone so versatile with such an amazing career.

I'll also add Linda Gray as well as Gary Cole, who we enountered outside a hardware store in Studio City. He helped my friend get out of the car, and was very gracious when we recognized him. Nice guy.

Jaimie Parker said...

You're right Ken, New Girl, The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are mediocre comedies. They satisfy and entertain a specific fan base.

You can throw Zooey Deschanel, Mindy Kaling, and Andy Samberg into the Super Lucky Club until FOX develops something impressive on their comedy slate.

D. McEwan said...

Lori, I was in an acting class for a while with Linda Gray's son, and Linda used to come hang out with us after class, upstairs at The Improv (Often with Yanni in tow, whom she was dating at the time.) Linda was unpretentious, warm, and very, very classy.

Steven Jarrett said...

Very pleasant to work with:
Dan Aykroyd, Queen Latifah, David Hyde Pierce, Robert Picardo, and Ben Stein come to mind quickly.

Todd W said...

A friend asked me this week what happens when a TV actor/actress gets sick? Other than toughing through it and possibly dubbing some lines later?

My best guess is that it depends on the schedule the show's on. If they can shift some scenes around to accommodate the person who is ill, it would seem to be that would be the best option.

In your experience, what usually happens? Have you ever had to rewrite something because a cast member couldn't work due to illness?

Johnny Walker said...

So what you're saying is... ENZO was a pain to work with?

Unknown said...

Can you tell us about the experience of writing The Bay City Amusement Company? How did writing a TV movie affect your career?

I can't seem to ever find this movie on cable.

Rod R said...

Friday Question-- You comment about some of the drama shows you like--The Good Wife, The Americans-- have you ever been approached to direct an hour long drama, and would you do it if given the opportunity?

chuckcd said...

I always liked Becker.
I like the fact it was a very different role than Sam Malone.

Stephen said...

I'd just like to get your thoughts on The Good Wife pulling the mother of all surprises in Sunday's (March 23rd) episode. It is rare today to see a show execute such a major twist without any details getting leaked, and I must say it was refreshing to see CBS pass on the opportunity to milk a "Who dies???" promo (Hi, Scandal) despite knowing about this departure since last summer. Did you ever experience a situation where you or a show runner asked the network to keep quiet about a major plot development?

Alicia said...

Hey Ken! A major upset happened on The Good Wife this week, that very few people saw coming, and it got me thinking, what goes into the planning and writing of a tv episode in which a character is killed off? I know it was done famously on M*A*S*H, with Henry Blake's sudden death, and fans were shocked. What's it like for the writers and cast to create such on episode?

Abby said...

This isn't really a Friday Question, but what did you think of Sunday night's The Good Wife? Everyone on the show apparently had to keep Josh Charles's leaving a secret for a year, which is amazing to me. Have you ever had to do that on a show?

D. McEwan said...

"Todd W said...
A friend asked me this week what happens when a TV actor/actress gets sick? Other than toughing through it and possibly dubbing some lines later?"

There's an episode of the original Star Trek (Can't recall the episode title. It's been a few decades since I last sat through the old STs of the 1960s, having seen them all 6 or 7 times back in the 1970s) where Bill Shatner clearly has a bad cold. You can hear his cold-ravaged scratchy, congested voice throughout the entire episode. Apparently there was either no money or no time for him to redub all his dialogue after his cold cleared up. He sounded normal and fine in the next week's episode.

Diane said...

Hey Ken! A major upset happened on The Good Wife this week, that very few people saw coming, and it got me thinking, what goes into the planning and writing of a tv episode in which a character is killed off? I know it was done famously on M*A*S*H, with Henry Blake's sudden death, and fans were shocked. What's it like for the writers and cast to create such on episode?