Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Questions

Have you submitted your Friday Question yet? Here are four readers who have.

Steve B. is first:

How do you decide whether to make a sitcom pilot single or multi cam?

It depends on the premise, the tone of the show, and how you want to tell the story. Some premises are no-brainers like MASH. You can’t exactly shoot that in front of a studio audience, so you’re pretty much locked into a single-camera format.

But let’s say you’re doing a show about funny police detectives. You could center the action in the squad room and easily shoot it multi-camera. That’s what BARNEY MILLER did.

On the other hand, you could decide to show the detectives at work out of the station. You’d want more flexibility and more sets. Single-camera might be the way to go in that case. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE for example.

And then there are shows like THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS that both started out single-camera and converted to multi-camera.

Sometimes networks will dictate the format they want. Multi-camera shows are cheaper to produce so some networks may favor them. Other networks prefer single-camera shows. Fox has had trouble for years launching a multi-camera show. They’re trying with DADS (and trying is an apt description of that show). CBS, on the other hand, has had great success launching multi-camera show – from BIG BANG THEORY to 2 BROKE GIRLS.

So if you have a premise you think might lend itself better to single-camera you might pitch it first at Fox, and if your show is more multi-camera-friendly, CBS might be your first destination.

Don Graf wonders:

Who would be on your All-Star team of character/supporting actors from the 50's and 60's?

Ed Norton and Alice Kramden from THE HONEYMOONERS. Ethel Mertz from I LOVE LUCY. Eddie Haskell from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Colonel Hall from THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Buddy and Sally from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Maynard G. Krebs from DOBIE GILLIS. Endora from BETWITCHED. And of course, Algonquin J. Calhoun from AMOS AND ANDY.

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

What are your thoughts on how Writers are paid compared to "the on-screen talent"? Writers are generally underpaid and under-appreciated unless they are the creators.

This is certainly true, but audiences don’t tune in to see writers. They watch actors. Actors attract viewers. Actors open movies. Without James Spader there is no BLACKLIST, despite the writing. MASH survived when Larry Gelbart left. I don’t think it would have survived if Alan Alda had departed.

So naturally actors demand higher salaries. They have the leverage. When WEST WING can continue without Aaron Sorkin you know a co- producer of LAST MAN STANDING can’t hold out for Tim Allen’s salary.

That said, I find it heartening that after firing Dan Harmon, NBC brought him back to COMMUNITY. But truthfully, if Harmon had declined to return, NBC would have just found somebody else – probably for a lot less.

If your primary goal in the entertainment industry is to make as much money as you can, don’t pursue writing. Those of us who are writers do it for a different reason. We’re nuts.

And finally, from Carson:

Has modern technology made it easier to write scenes? By that I mean that it used to be that for a character to receive outside news that could be important to the plot, they needed to be by their home phone. Now you can just script that they received a text.

For me, the jury is still out on whether it’s better. Yes, now any character can be reached, and you don’t have to figure out how a character is going to get to a phone in the middle of the desert, etc.

But easy access to communication can sometimes be a problem for comedy. You want characters not being able to get ahold of each other at times. You want confusion, you want mis-information, you want people over-reacting to what they think is the situation. If a quick cellphone call can clear up everything, you forfeit lots of delicious comic possibilities.

I always wonder how they’d do THE FUGITIVE today. Richard Kimble would have a bitch of time getting a new identity every week and getting an apartment and job without having his credit record and job history revealed. Whatever story he told employers could be checked on line. How would he get a driver’s license without submitting to a fingerprint? And today fingerprints can be cross-checked immediately. His face would appear on AMERICA’S MOST WANTED. How would he avoid all the security cameras in buildings and on city streets? We found Bin Laden. We’re going to be baffled by Richard Kimble?

On the other hand, his story that a one-armed man committed the murder could today be checked from DNA samples. The one-arm man probably had a rap sheet and Richard Kimble could identify him from photos emailed from headquarters. Maybe Richard Kimble wouldn’t have to run at all. You’d have no show. Damn this technology?

If you have a question, please leave in the comments section. Thanks.


Bob Gassel said...

No Barney Fife? c'mon!

VincentS said...

You bring up an interesting point about THE FUGITIVE, Ken. That's one of my favorite movies and I always felt how fortuitous it was that it came out just a few years before the Internet, which would have made the story implausible to say the least. I guess timing really is everything.

Stoney said...

Your picks for supporting characters are good but fairly standard! I think something should be said for the supporting cast on Green Acres; Mr Haney, Hank Kimball, Sam Drucker and the Ziffles (especially Arnold)drew the lion's share of laughs.

Clavinator said...

Anyone remember that Fugitive re-make on CBS with Tim Daly and Mykelti Williamson? Nuff said!

Brian O. said...

COLONEL HALL PURSUES THE FUGITIVE. That show could run forever despite technology.

Rockgolf said...

@Clavinator: Yes. It was on Fridays and I watched, not very impressed, the first episode. Then I stuck around for another new show afterward that I'd never heard anything about. It had this really generic title that made it sound like a second year college course and I only (vaguely) recognized one person in the cast.
But it was terrific! Gory, edgy - at least 3 people used the word "asshole" in the pilot - with a hard rock soundtrack. The pilot used the trope of a new person joining an existing team, so the audience was introduced to the other characters and structure with the newbie. Then in the last scene the newbie was murdered! Whaaaat???

It was called Crime Scene Investigation.

benson said...

Yes, to both Gazzoo and Stoney.

I don't recall seeing too many hybrid shows (both multi and single camera) The only one comes to mind is from the BBC. As Time Goes By was shot in front of an audience, but did do some shots on location.

Richard J. Marcej said...

Technology advances are an interesting aspect to stories, as you pointed out in "The Fugitive" example. But, as in anything else, it's up to the writer to know how to use or not use the technology to the story's advantage. An episode of "The Big Bang Theory" uses current technology better than most new shows. From cell phone texts to, especially, sky ping on their laptops. In fact, TBBT has many scenes with just one actor and a laptop carrying off conversations. On the flip side, the excellent made for TV movie, "Duel" would have been ruined and lasted about 5 minutes had cell phones existed in the early 1970's.

Ben said...

The offshoot of the technology dilemma is that you get shows like Person of Interest, where technology knows more about you than you do.

Anonymous said...

Although the show itself is at best so-so, Believe is dealing with the Fugitive scenario correctly; the father and daughter are constantly being spotted by all manner of technology. The FBI uses it smartly. The only problem with the show is at best it's a mini-series idea set into a regular series format. -MW

BigTed said...

Like on every action or crime-solving show today, Richard Kimble would have a Magic Super-Hacker friend who can change government databases in seconds and make him new credentials whenever he needs them. (Apparently government records are easier to hack into than your old AOL account -- which may actually be true, for all we know.)

Trent said...

Re: Communication (or lack of) as a plot device. Saw a George Burns and Gracie Allen episode the other night in which George, at one point,.disconnects the household telephone, explaining directly to the audience, "If Clara talks to Gracie, she'll explain the mix-up and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, we're only halfway through the show, so we need at least ten more minutes of misunderstandings and plot complications."

That show was ahead of its time in some ways.

jbryant said...

Gazzoo is right - gotta have Barney Fife on any list of top TV supporting characters of that era. I'd add Herbert T. Gillis (Frank Faylen), even if Maynard got all the buzz, and I'll ditto Stoney's mention of the GREEN ACRES cast.

Geoff said...

As Grand Member of the Eddie Haskell/Uncle Fester fan club, thanks for the mention of Eddie. That's a lovely blog you are weaving, Mr. Levine!

Richard J. Marcej said...

I've been meaning to write and draw a comic on my Daily Comic Strip blog listing what I feel were the best sit-com supporting characters of all time. Characters that made me begin to laugh just when the entered the scene) Off the top of my head, some of the best from the 1960's ( in no particular order) are:
Hank Kimball - Alvy Moore
Sgt, Hans Schultz - John Banner
Cpl Randolph Agarn - Larry Storch
Uncle Arthur - Paul Lynde
Barney Fife - Don Knotts
Jethro Bodine - Max Baer Jr.
Grandpa - Al Lewis

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks for mentioning Eddie Haskell. He was my role model and hero, which explains a lot.

Anthony said...

I'm a junior in high school and my dream is to write sitcoms. I've written about ten scripts already in order to practice, learned (to the best of my ability) the format, and am planning on attending a college in the Los Angeles area in order to have more opportunities.

Outside of this, some insight and advice on what my following steps should be would be much appreciated. The whole process seems daunting, and I'm not sure if this is a reasonable goal to even have

Thank you.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Robert: actually, for my money the smartest technology show is THE GOOD WIFE, which had the nerve to do a whole show about who wrote Bitcoin!


Simpsons Already Did It said...

[i]Re: Communication (or lack of) as a plot device. Saw a George Burns and Gracie Allen episode the other night in which George, at one point,.disconnects the household telephone, explaining directly to the audience, "If Clara talks to Gracie, she'll explain the mix-up and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, we're only halfway through the show, so we need at least ten more minutes of misunderstandings and plot complications."

That show was ahead of its time in some ways.[/i]

What Trent said! George Burns and Gracie Allen were doing Garry Shandling's show DECADES before Garry did it.

Mycroft said...

A follow-up Friday question re: single v. multi-camera TV shows:

I recently watched a behind the scenes show about the making of the BBC's Sherlock and was surprised to see that they were consistently rolling 2 cameras simultaneously during each scene - one wider and the other closer. I assume to save time?

We tend to generalize multi-camera TV shows as interior comedies staged like a play in front of a live studio audience. I never would have guessed - based on its feature-film look, style, and loads of exteriors - that Sherlock was actually multi-camera show!

Is this unusual/an aberration? Just a BBC thing? Or par for the course for all the "single" camera shows in the US too?

Anonymous said...

This isn't really a question - but I would love to know your thoughts on the most recent Good Wife episode! I know you are a fan and think it is a great show as do I so I kept checking in to see if you had blogged about it!

D. McEwan said...

"Colonel Hall from THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW."

Yes, and all the rest of that cast as well. The entire platoon was great.

I know that in general audiences don't tune in to a TV show or go to a movie because of the author, but I certainly do.

The actor who played Doberman on BILKO was originally cast as Uncle Fester. Photos can be seen online of him in the make-up and costume. Unfortunately for all except Jackie Coogan, Maurice died shortly after being cast.

chalmers said...

Jack Klugman said that multi-camera suited "The Odd Couple" much better because he and Tony Randall had extensive theatre backgrounds.

You might draw a parallel to "Happy Days." I know several people who prefer their single-camera era, but the show exploded when they went to three cameras and shifted the spotlight to a Yale Drama graduate.

Anonymous said...

The Bourne Identity is interesting. Almost half the book (1980) is spent on getting from the Mediterranean to the Swiss bank due to needing identity and passing through borders. In the film (2002) they show a TGV for about 5 seconds since Schengen means all that is moot.

Anonymous said...

It's easy to get to a phone in the middle of a desert or vast snowy wast land. Just put a phone booth there. See "The Grand Budapest Hotel". Worked very nicely there.

LouOCNY said...

No love for Fred Mertz? Bill Frawley got more laughs with just some looks, than Vivian Vance got trying to keep up with Lucy's physical shtick. The first season of Lucy, the producer Jess Oppenheimer put up a poster on the set, and would award each cast member a gold star everytime they did something during a show which would cause the studio audience to have a spontaneous laugh. They had to abandon it about halfway through the season, because Frawley had more than the rest of the cast combined!

Mike said...

One of the things that's hurt The Crazy Ones in the ratings this season, IMO, is that it's on CBS Thursday; the only single-cam comedy, surrounded by three multi-cams. It just stood out. Although I actually think The Crazy Ones would be better as a multi-camera piece; let Robin Williams be Robin Williams.

That said, it's been good this season, and has earned a renewal for next year. It'd be a shame if CBS let it go, and if it does hopefully someone (ABC? I could see it working there) could pick it up.

Nobody Will Read This said...

D. McEwan,

Jackie Coogan was a much better actor than Maurice Gosfield, and played Fester brilliantly. What do you mean "unfortunately for all..."

Storm said...

I've been re-watching "The X-Files" for the first time in years, and all through the first two seasons, I found myself giggling at the tech-level of the time: "Oh, a fax machine! And a beeper? How quaint!" And when they finally got cellphones, they were bigger than my TV remote and had honking great antennas. I just watched an episode where they go online and the old familiar, annoying modem connect tone went off; hearing it took me back farther than I thought, back to when you were The MAN if you were modeming at 2400 baud. And people called it "modeming".

My, how 20 years flies!


Albert Giesbrecht said...

...naturally actors demand higher know a co- producer of LAST MAN STANDING can’t hold out for Tim Allen’s salary.

Not too mention Ted Danson's ;)

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Storm, I was a background actor in one of the first season episodes, and those cell phones...they didn't "work", the director would call out "ring ring" and the actor would "answer" the phone.

Klee said...

What??!! no Paul Lynde?!!!

Jasmine McArthur said...

Hey Ken,

Oscar Award-Winning writer Paul Haggis said that he made a good living as a bad writer when he started out writing for sitcoms but he gradually got better. I wonder, if talent does exist, how do you think bad writers are hired through pure luck in this business?

Thanks, and your books and blog are really entertaining and helpful!

D. McEwan said...

"slummingitforthelord said...
D. McEwan,

Jackie Coogan was a much better actor than Maurice Gosfield, and played Fester brilliantly. What do you mean 'unfortunately for all...'"

Obviously, I mean just what I wrote, that I think I'd have liked Maurice much better in the role. Jackie was certainly a more versatile actor than Maurice, but I never really liked his version of Fester, or that squeaky, high-pitched voice he did as Fester. Maurice's Fester would have been sweeter, more loveable. I'd have liked to have seen Maurice's Fester in more than just photos.

Andy G said...

Hey Ken, I was wondering if you've seen the show "The League" and, if so, what are your thoughts? I think one of the creators had something to do with Seinfeld - but I find that the show tries too hard to be like Seinfeld and most of the characters are unlikable. I'm not sure if it's the writing or the actors or both. A friend of mine is a huge fan, so I've seen more than I care to of it - and while it occasionally has some good moments, I think the characters are just too unlikable. Any thoughts? This could also relate to Carla on Cheers - she was mean, but ultimately likable. Probably superior writing and a good job by Rhea.

Thanks for reading my long post and keep up the great work!

Garrett said...

With "How I Met Your Mother" ending Monday night I'd love to hear your thoughts on writing a series finale. Have you written one? What are the pressures involved? In your opinion what makes a good finale?

Tess T. said...

Just for the record ... West Wing didn't survive after Sorkin left. There was a show of the same name, sure; but it wasn't actually West Wing any more. Despite having the same actors using the same character's names, the characters were completely different people than Sorkin's. How the hell do you go from, "Do you have a best friend? Is he smarter than you? Would you trust him with your life? That's your chief of staff." to what came out when Sorkin wasn't there? I stopped watching it at that point.