Friday, April 04, 2014

Friday Questions

Time for some Friday Questions (make sure they're in the form of a question). Do you have one? Please leave it in the comment section.  And away we go...

MikeN starts us off with a rather unusual one:

Martians have invaded the earth and will take over the planet unless you can beat them in Jeopardy. You have to pick one celebrity you've worked with to play for the fate of the planet. Who do you choose?

Alan Alda. And I hope one of the categories is science.  And that Paula Abdul is the other celebrity contestant.

Douglas Trapasso wonders:

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?

A lot depends on the characters and situation. A gritty cop precinct would probably employ more profanity than a ballet studio. That said, I’ve always felt that too much profanity often undercuts its impact. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET could have cut 300 of those F-bombs. Of course they could have also cut 90 minutes from the whole fucking film.

There are times when I’ve felt handcuffed writing for a broadcast network. You know in real life the frat boys would say “shit” not “shoot.” But for the most part, especially in sitcoms, writing without profanity is very manageable.

And when writing for the stage or screen or cable where I have more freedom I generally resort to profanity very sparingly. If only I could in real life.

From Janice:

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.

That’s a stylistic choice. In general, you like to be close, especially in comedy. But you’re right, a good two-shot, or over-the-shoulder shot that favors the actor who’s talking but also features the other actor he’s talking to are viable options. I also like to have a variety of shots. But ultimately, it depends on the showrunner. Some like straight close-ups, others like variety.

But I agree with James Burrows who says that if the story really works you could just shoot the wide master and the show would play.

Brian Phillips asks:

While you were DJ'ing, did you find yourself listening to more or less music during your off-hours?

More. I was constantly switching back and forth between our station and the competition. And then I’d get home and want to hear any music that wasn’t on our station. Lots of Eric Clapton and Sinatra. Anything but the Osmonds. 

And finally, from Anthony:

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.

Sounds like you’re way ahead of the game. Just keep at it, Anthony. Keep writing scripts.   There are no guarantees, but it sounds like you have way more desire than most people considering a career in comedy writing.

I would stay the course, and as for it being a reasonable goal – I think you have the luxury of time should you decide to pursue something else.

When you finally get to LA, look me up.


Carol said...

I just have to say, your answer to the profanity thing cracked me up, because it really shows WHY you are an award-winning writer. I love how you threw an 'f-bomb' in there. It was just perfect timing.

One thing I never liked about HBO shows is that it seemed to me that they did all the nakedness-sex-bad language thing just because they COULD, not because it really added to the show. I'm sure people could argue the point, but that's how it seems to me.

Finally, do you think being handcuffed to not being able to use profanity, even when it would make sense to do so forced you to be even more clever with phrasing and jokes and things?

Mike Barer said...

I echoe Carol sentiments. Sometimes profanity is overused in movies. It looks like language barriers are being broken in TV though. It would be great if TV and movies could find that happy medium.

ScottyB said...

A Friday question for Ken: My son, a high school sophomore, is really interested in film as a potential career path. Ya, everyone would love to be a director, but I read a piece on Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Martin Scorsese's film editor for the past 50 years), and mentioned that developing your talents in other areas like that might have better odds of getting a consistent (and perhaps a damn good) paycheck.

So, what are some of the more interesting production occupations in either film or TV where, if you're good, you make a decent living yet still exercise your creative brain?

RockGolf said...

In the days before sexting, Canadian author Mordecai Richler once found his teenaged son's incredibly graphic and explicit "love" letter to his girlfriend. While his mortified son watched, Richler read every detail. When he reached the end, he stared at his son and saind "You've used the word 'f***' six times."
Dramatic pause.
"It'll have more impact if you only use it once."

And I agree with Carol on cable series trying to hook viewers with as much unrequired nudity as possible in the first episodes of series. Usually, by the second & third season, the per episode nudity drops. Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under were all guilty of this.

John said...

While I'm not in favor of harkening back to the days of the Hays Code and the pre-1971 TV standards for subjects allowed on sitcoms, there is something to be said for a certain level of self-restraint when it comes to writing.

Absolute freedom combined with laziness results in 'shock' comedy, where it's not so much that the situation/joke is funny as it is you daring to use the situation or say the joke to begin with. The problem is once the shock factor is gone and you know what's coming, there's little or no comedy left (it's why my guess is "Two Broke Girls" isn't going to be boffo in re-runs if it makes it into Monday-Friday syndication).

ScottyB said...

I think most times, we can tell whether the profanity is just gratuitous, or it's being used to give a character proper shading/tonality/depth. It's all about content. Tarantino packs F-bombs like cans of sardines into his characters, yet for his movies, it works and I'm not sure his stuff would be as powerful and interesting if he didn't.

OTOH, I'm sure Willie Loman would have *loved* to unload a whole arsenal full of F-bombs, but it would have detracted mightily from his character and the tone of 'Death of a Salesman'.

ScottyB said...

OTOH, I think there's a case to be made for using less profanity in movies. Try watching something on the order of 'Scarface' with Al Pacino on regular antenna-TV where they drop out the audio on every profanity. Totally unwatchable, and you wonder why they even bothered airing the damn thing in the first place.

Michael said...

After Willie Mays hit his first homer, his manager, Leo Durocher, told the press, "I never saw a f------ ball get out of a f------ park so f------ fast in my f------ life." That may be the most perfect sentence I have ever heard, next to the one Red Smith cited from Ring Lardner: "Shut up, he explained."

MikeN said...

I think Becker would have been a bigger hit if the censors at CBS were more active. Conversely other shows would have been lesser hits if the censors were like those today.

MikeN said...

For the Jeopardy question, the correct answer is George Wendt. On The Weakest Link, the other contestants voted him off not because he was weak but because they knew they had no chance of winning the final round against him. The host refrained from insulting him, since he answered every question.

ScottyB said...

Even if profanity (even the light stuff) was acceptable on network TV, I'd imagine the context of the show would dictate the guidelines. While it's easy to imagine Andy Sipowicz saying "She's got nice tits" (and that would be acceptable within the context of 'NYPD Blue'), 'Cheers' was more effective and funnier with Sam Malone simply saying "She's got a nice rack". And 'Little House On The Prairie' would have been horrendous if anyone even acknowledged that women even *have* chests.

ScottyB said...

"That Vera, she's a fucking bitch". Nah, doesn't work for me. And somehow neither would "Cliff, shut the fuck up already".

Accurate and to the point perhaps, but not all that funny.

Artie in Sin City said...


You a GOOD guy...

Your advice to have Anthony look you up when he hits LA just shows your own compassion and caring for others...

Jeez, I'm touched...and keep it up!

Cathy S. said...

The first time I ever heard a curse word on TV, it was on MASH, actually. I don't remember the episode, but Hawkeye says "son of a bitch." I was a kid at the time, so it made a big impression on me, so much so that I remember it all these years later.

Breadbaker said...

The correct Jeopardy! question is "Who is Sam Simon?" at least while he's still alive. He was used many, many times as the "Phone a Friend" on the celebrity version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" And I can tell you from personal knowledge he used to play some pretty high-end online trivia games as just some ordinary guy named "SSimon" for years.

"Anything but the Osmonds"? I believe you have the title for the next volume of your memoirs.

Max Shenk said...

My philosophy as a writer (prose fiction) is that every word has an effect, so the words you choose (or don't choose) need to have purpose and intentionality, and, to me, that purpose is to REVEAL something. So when a character, for instance, goes through 200-300 pages of a story saying "effing" and "freakin'" and "flippin'" and then, on page 312, says "fucking" for the first time instead, you implicitly know that she's upset. For instance.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Personally, I find sort of fascinating the euphemisms network TV writers come up with: asshat (which I heard 1st time on How I Met Your Mother), for example.

That said, I do play tennis with some (English) people who actually do say things like "Oh, *sugar*!" when they mis a shot.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Hey Anthony!

As a junior in high school, you're on your way to doing well. Listen to Ken. He's in pre-law. Or pre-med. What's the difference...just listen to him.

We expect great things from you.

In DJ Gary Owens' book, he shows a photograph of a letter he received years ago from a student in Indiana who wanted to become a comedy writer and wanted Gary's advice.

The advice must have been good, because that aspiring comedy writer just announced his retirement from The Late Show yesterday.

Gary Owens has a heart of gold...and Ken has one to match.

Mike said...

Obviously swearing is "horses for courses", used sparely for effect and usually detrimental. Humour is based on surprise and an unexpected expletive is comedy. (And sadly, I've seen audiences laugh at every use of an expletive for its own sake.)
Perhaps it's psychosis, but I recall two versions of My Cousin Vinnie. The clean version is an excellent family film - the toughest kind of film to make well. The version with swearing fails - it was unnecessary.
But swearing can be necessary for credibility and its absence is detrimental. The UK version of The Shield was clean, maybe the US version wasn't. The graphic portrayal of so much violence & drug abuse without swearing was ludicrous and caused me to miss several early episodes. (Perhaps it's my failing memory but I don't recall any swearing in Oz either. Not even at Toto.)

DwWashburn said...

I've never found a series on premium cable that I have liked and it's mainly because of the gore/language/nudity. As someone has eluded to previously, the Sopranos and Sex and the City have bombed in stripped syndication in large part because they had to be "cleaned up" for broadcast. That's got to tell you why people watched these shows in first-run.

AlaskaRay said...

Clearly Ken, you've never met any ballerinas. Ray

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, your answer to Anthony reminds me of when people find out that I know a lot about computers. The number of times people have said to me, "Oh, *I'D* like to know more about computers..." Or "My son is trying to learn about computers. Got any tips?"

And all I can think is: "Well, what's stopping you/them? Nobody taught me, I learned all I know from jumping in, making mistakes and learning!"

Having a passion for something is 90% of the battle, I think -- so congrats, Anthony, on finding a passion! And good luck!

Friday question that popped into my head the other day:

Ken, of the many TV shows about the behind-the-scenes of television (e.g. The Dick Van Dyke Show, Buffalo Bill, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, something called "Almost Perfect" - whatever that is), which do you feel portrayed the trials, tribulations, stresses and strains of a real TV show most accurately? I.e. Which make you smart in recognition and go, "That's SO true"?

Curt Alliaume said...

You've probably heard this story before - I first read it in umpire Durwood Merrill's autobiograph You're Out, And You're Ugly, Too!:

Once when the Yankee's Lou Pinella was batting he questioned a strike call.

Pinella: "Where the fuck was that pitch at?"

Umpire (dusting off home plate): "Don't you know you can't end a question with a preposition?"

Pinella: "Okay. Where the fuck was that pitch at, you asshole?"

James said...

In movies, at least, profanity is sometimes there merely to draw the desired rating. For example, just enough profanity was added to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT to ensure that it would receive the PG-13 rating Disney and Spielberg wanted. (They didn't want audiences to see it as a kid's movie.)

Steve Pepoon said...

For Anthony. Yes, breaking into sitcoms can seem daunting, but it's done. I grew up in Kansas, had no connections, but had a very nice career in TV, showrunner, won an Emmy. I was always surprised at how lazy most writer-wannabes are, who feel they should only have to write one script "for free" before getting hired and making piles of cash. I once heard a writer say that if a person wrote 12 scripts, he'd guarantee that they'd make it - it took that many to get the bugs out. Me, it took about 26 specs. But the way I look at it, it's like being a musician. The more you practice, the better you get. You already recognize that early efforts are, in fact, practice. Trust me, 99% of your future competition will give up before they get to ten scripts. And when you finally do get hired, you'll hit the ground running.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: The winner by a knockout: W1A. The finest single-camera comedy ever. Bar none. The UK's answer to The Wire.
Now where's Mac, who used to criticise British comedies?

Alan C said...

Regarding Curt's story about Lou Piniella: That rule about ending a sentence with a preposition is bogus, but that anecdote makes it almost worth having.

I'm not against all profanity by any means, but I once read Dave Barry's novel Big Trouble to my wife and skipped over most of the bad words because we had young children in the house. I left a few in just for flavor and was amazed how well the story read without it.

benson said...

Curt, thanks for the laugh. Great story.

Ken, yes, but, Charles Chuck) Muncie's vocabulary and those in his world isn't exactly what you'd hear in church or synagogue on the weekends. BTW, Must Kill TV is available on Amazon for your Kindle. It's a fun read.

Kerrie said...

Wendy-"asshat" is pretty common...we'll before HIMYM.

Ken-How 'bout them Mariners?! Thoughts on their 2014 season so far?

Cynthia said...

Ken: I'd also advise young Anthony to keep living a full life--to make sure that he's got a social life and activities and all kinds of other stuff he can experience that he can one day use in his work. And perhaps even journal, so he can record his adventures.

jbryant said...

And of course Anthony should work on his social skills as much as his writing, because the world is full of writers who did everything "right" in terms of working on their craft and generating great material, only to fail because they didn't make good contacts who could give them a break.

Gary said...

I had to laugh at all the fuss about "The Wolf of Wall Street," because the actors say the F-word 506 times in three hours. Here in Buffalo that's known as "watching a Bills game."

John said...

Cathy S. said...
The first time I ever heard a curse word on TV, it was on MASH, actually. I don't remember the episode, but Hawkeye says "son of a bitch."

Third episode, Season 8. Ken and David had just stopped being the show-runners, and everyone just became gutter-mouths after that...

Roseann said...

That's the nicest thing you just did for Anthony. Now I know you're a Mench.

gottacook said...

Max Shulman's 1971 novel Potatoes Are Cheaper takes place around the same time as his 1943 Barefoot Boy with Cheek - late 1930s/early 1940s - and has a protagonist about the same age. The later book features the explicit language that had recently become acceptable. Guess which is funnier?

The most creative edited-for-TV version I've ever seen of a film whose characters often used "fucking" was Bill Murray's Quick Change; instead of unconvincing substitute language or bleeping out, they used "Viking" each time, and cumulatively this became its own source of humor.

Ellen said...

I posted a question a couple of weeks ago, but maybe you missed it ... or thought I wasn't serious.

I'm a veteran novelist and novice screenwriter. I'm working on a high concept story in which the main character undergoes a magical transformation. Think Tom Hanks in BIG. I'm struggling with the name as it appears in the screenplay (as opposed to the dialogue).

I did get hold of the script for BIG, and saw that the character was simply JOSH, whether it was Josh as a child or as an adult. But what if Josh transformed into Jamie Lee Curtis ... or Lindsay Lohan ... or a giant vermin? Would you still refer to him as JOSH in the script?

And in a related question, who would you cast as the giant vermin? (I mean if Mel Gibson wasn't available.)

Rob said...

When I was in college, an acting teacher pointed out the problem with profanity in the script is everyone wants to call attention to it when they act it out, so it sounds out of place. In most Scorsese movies, it has never bothered me. In many pay cable shows, it stands out like a sore thumb.

Another problem is that people DO use other words besides the F bomb, so seeing a movie with just that and no other profanity again seems forced.

I personally find basic cable amusing as to what is allowed and what isn't, as stuff that seems more offensive than an F bomb can make it in, but the F bomb is forbidden.

Mike said...

@Ellen: If I may contribute: Whatever makes it clear to a reader opening the script at a random page. And include an index/key at the front of the script with a character description against each name as used, for reference.
Follow the cast list conventions from closing credits.
For young/old characters: If the character is old most of the time, X & Young X.
For character swaps or transformations: Keep with the inner character, rather than the physical representation. Or X as Y.

pumpkinhead said...

MikeN, I can't believe I'm not the only one who remembers the George Wendt on Weakest Link thing, and I had the exact same thought when I read the Friday question.

The cursing thing is timely. The (spoiler) last line of The Walking Dead this season was something like. They're gonna feel stupid when they realize they've been screwing with the wrong people." I think even the most conservative viewer would agree that absolutely, at all costs, needed to be "fucking with the wrong people."

Cathy S, I also remember that MASH episode. I got to school one day and one of my friends said to, "so did you hear it? The network premiere of 'son of a bitch.'"

Breadbaker said...

@Ellen, FWIW, I read your question to my wife and she was already laughing out loud before the punchline at the end.

Breadbaker said...

@Ellen, FWIW, I read your question to my wife and she was already laughing out loud before the punchline at the end.

Marty Fufkin said...

To expand on the advice to Anthony, some famous writer (I forget who, I think John Irving) said: If you want to have a career in writing, you should write for free for 5 years. If after 5 years nobody pays you, do something else. That was said before the internet. In today's world, that could mean blogging, but I suppose the idea is to just get your work out there, get published, get noticed, and people will start paying you if you're good at it.

You could even take this blog as a good example. Even though Ken doesn't need to get noticed at this stage of his career, he does this for free and in turn it's another medium that keeps his talent visible and known within the writing community.

Rita B said...

Hi Ken,

Friday question: What are your thoughts on the creators of HIMYM deciding to put an alternate ending on the dvds to be released of the final season after all the backlash from the finale? I get that there is a financial incentive to satisfy fans by making them spend a buck to see it. Also an incentive because their next show is essentially the same premise, with role reversal, and angry fans have already stated they aren't going to even start on this new show after chains were yanked here. And while they "stand by the ending" they showed, it feels like a cave on their vision based on bad reviews.

Johnny Walker said...

@Ellen Just to offer another bit of unsolicited advice following Mike's: I wonder if you might hunt down a script from many of the body swap movies? (Eg. Freaky Friday, Vise Versa, etc.) You might see how they tackled this.

But to be honest, although your script is a blueprint for a movie, it still has to be read by someone, and I personally think that reading JOSH (OLDER) every time Tom Hanks's character had a line would be annoying.

If you're reading the script, and it's clear that the characters have undergone a transformation that underpins the entire story, I don't think you need to keep reminding them.

Even if someone on the production team is going to turn to a random page to look something up, they will know the story, and so don't need to be reminded, either.

That's my unqualified 2c anyway.

Johnny Walker said...

@Mike Wow, really? That's some kind of praise, and as a fellow Brit, I've never even heard if it. I'll look it up.

(Of course, if you've not actually worked as an EP, it's only of your impression as a viewer of what's accurate :)

Huh. Having just looked it up, I see it's only three episodes into its first season... Erm. Do you work on W1A, Mike? :)

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Watch & report back. It's still on the iPlayer. Or for those in foreign climes, here.

Ellen said...

Great advice here from @Mike and @Johnny Walker. Thanks, guys. Much appreciated!

@Breadbaker, I'm delighted your wife got a chuckle out of it! And are you really a baker? As it happens, that's what my main character does for a living.

Anthony said...

Thank you so much for the response, Mr. Levine. You and your blog are an inspiration.

Johnny Walker said...

@Mike I watched the first episode. Good gravy, that's close to home. I feel like I know all the characters and the situations. The BBC head office is just around the corner from where I used to work, and I've been in so many meetings like the ones depicted! (Although not at the BBC.)

It's like a cross between "The Office" (the awkward cringiness), "Nathan Barley" (very specific London-ness), and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (the suffocating bureaucracy - surely no accident they use the same song).

It feels like it's hitting the nail squarely on the head with some smart, observant, biting satire, but... I didn't laugh much.

On to episode two. Thanks for making me aware of it!

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: I found it hysterical, but then I'm angrier and more bitter than you. As someone that works in manufacturing, I'd like to see it extended to cover the whole service sector, a la The Wire.
Are those comedian-themed goldfish bowl meeting rooms real? Holding the Daily Crisis Meeting with Frankie Howerd looking over your shoulder and Titter ye not! Nay, nay & thrice nay on the walls? I took it as satire but supposedly they're real. Then some Welsh people complained that the Communications Officer wasn't Welsh. Where does the show end and reality begin?
Episode 3 has a 36-year-old first time writer pitching a TV series. By the episode's end, my heart was broken.
The theme is from zoo programme Animal Magic (UK, 1962-83). Those meeting rooms again.

Johnny Walker said...

I watched episode two (which really felt like the second half of episode one). I can't say for sure, but everything in it certainly *feels* achingly real. (I could easily believe they used the real BBC HQ -- if the logistics of shooting a show in a working office didn't nix that idea.) Maybe that's why I didn't laugh so hard, but you also have to remember that you set it up as something as strong as THE WIRE. Expectations! :)

That said, it's growing on me. I can feel it burrowing into my subconscious, like other shows I love did (eg. BRASS EYE). I may end up completely loving this, too.

Thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

Whereabouts in the UK are you based, btw? I felt sure you were about to tell me you worked at the BBC, and this was exactly what it was like there!

Megan said...

A Friday question for Ken: I can find lots of scripts online for live action shows, but have a much harder time finding animated scripts. Since you wrote for The Simpsons, does writing an animation script differ from writing a live action one?