Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Questions

Happy Friday Question Day.

In light of the HIMYM series finale, Charles H. Bryan asks:

Do you think it's time that if a long running show hits a voluntarily final episode that maybe it should just be a regular episode (unless there's a really solid finale idea)? I mean, what's Modern Family going to do? Let us meet the documentary crew?

Personally? Yes. A half hour regular-sized finale would be my choice.  But last episodes usually get big audiences and networks want to take as much advantage of that as they can. They can sell the ad time at hugely inflated Superbowl-type rates. So they pressure the show into doing a longer episode. I should only be a showrunner in that position with a mega hit under my belt. There are worse problems.

But left to my own devices I would wrap up my series in one half hour episode. Some of the best finales did that. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND to name just a few.

Long finales tend to be filled with filler. Or they break the format so much they don't even seem like the same show.

I must say, of all the super long series finales, I think the CHEERS finale was the best. Glen & Les Charles wrote a great script and that last scene where everyone in the bar just sat around late at night talking was brilliant.

ally wonders:

Have you and David been through WGA arbitration over credit? What is that process like? Is it fair? And, just for giggles, have you ever wanted to take David to WGA arbitration?

Been through arbitrations as both a participant and arbiter (not on the same project however).

The studio sends in their proposed writing credit to the WGA. If it is at all different from just the original writer, all the writers concerned are invited to arbitrate it. Should a writer challenge the proposed credit he submits a personal statement, the credit he believes is valid, and all material he feels is pertinent (outlines, drafts, etc.). I believe three arbiters then read the material and evaluate.

The writers involved are only identified as “Writer A,” Writer B,” and so on. They don’t know who their arbiters are. The arbiters don’t know who the other arbiters are.

I was once an arbiter but recognized one of the writers. So I recused myself from the arbitration. The Guild tries to make the process as objective as possible.

There is a Credits Manual that defines the parameters of ownership and contribution. The arbiters must base their decisions on these parameters and not subjectivity. In other words, the second writer may have made the script much better but didn’t change the structure of the script enough to warrant credit. Just writing great jokes isn’t enough.

Sometimes arbitrations can get very complicated, especially with features. For THE FLINTSTONES movie I think there were forty some writers involved. It was insane.

Arbitration is not a perfect system, but there’s nothing better, and the WGA keeps fine-tuning to make it as fair as possible.

And finally, no, David and I have never taken each other to arbitration. Or marriage counseling.

And finally, from Question Mark:

What's the professional protocol for an inadvertently stolen joke? Like, you write or say a clever line that you think is coming from your brain....but after the line airs/prints, someone else clues you into the fact that, "hey, so-and-so used that same line in an episode of X two years ago." (In today's media age, I can't imagine how horrifying it would be for a writer to be alerted of their unconscious plagiarism via hundreds of snarky tweets.)

Embarrassment mostly. You just hope not too many people noticed. It happens. What’s inexcusable is doing it on purpose. Someone will pitch a joke, someone else in the room will say, “they did a joke just like that on THE MIDDLE” and the showrunner will say, “Yeah, well, that’s a different audience. No one will know. Let’s use it.”  I've been fortunate enough in my career to never have worked with showrunners like that.  If someone flags a joke or story idea as having already been done it's discarded immediately.  Happily, I would say the vast majority of showrunners fall into this category. 

What’s your Friday Question? 

PROGRAMMING NOTE:  I will be filling-in this morning for Marilu Henner on her three hour nationally syndicated radio program.  Check the listings in your local market or go here to listen.  


Anonymous said...

Not to split hairs, but the last episode of Newhart was 5 minutes longer than normal.

lack of attention to details like this is why you did not get Dave's gig.

Hamid said...

Forty writers on The Flintstones and not a good joke between them. Best thing about that film was the theme song.

Michael said...

On finales: I was never a big Seinfeld fan, but I checked out the finale. A lot of people hated it. I thought it was brilliant, because it struck me as the classic explanation of a series. In the end, the show was really about nothing and about a group of narcissists, and that's how it ended.

Which brings me to the problem of whether a series finale should be about more than the series itself. The MASH finale was far too long and overwrought, but the line that stuck with me was when one of the principals said that MASH was a show about what war did to people, and the finale showed how scarred some of them actually were.

Unknown said...

I also liked the finale to the Dick Van Dyke show where Rob finishes his manuscript of his life as a television writer. They have flashbacks to various scenes from the show as Laura reads the book. Rob is shown taking it to the publisher.

The final scene is the whole cast in the Petrie living room where Rob tells Laura the publisher hated it - but Alan Brady loved it. Alan will make it into a TV show that he will star in and Rob, Sally and Buddy will write it.

Knowing how the show was created by Carl Reiner based on his own life writing for Sid Ceaser and then closing it with the same concept for Rob, was an intelligent twist. Kind of like looking at two mirrors facing each other with an inifinite repeating reflection.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: Ken, Do you keep a notebook next to your bed or in your pocket for ideas, jokes, thoughts, etc. If you do, how often to you flip through these for ideas?

John said...

Hamid said...

Forty writers on The Flintstones and not a good joke between them. Best thing about that film was the theme song.

A few of the early episodes written by ex-Warner Bros. cartoon writers Warren Foster and Mike Maltese had some bite. Little or nothing over the final four seasons, though.

Friday question time -- Ken, what was the back story behind the development of John Allen Hill as Sam's new adversary in the show's final couple of seasons?

He kind of comes across as the Charles Emerson Winchester of the show (albeit Charles never got it on with Margaret the way Hill does with Carla) -- was it just that Kirstie Alley's Rebecca had been turned into such a flighty head case by that point she wasn't seen as a strong enough counterpoint to Sam? Or was it just that Melville's had been sitting upstairs from the bar for nine years virtually unused in terms of story ideas, and someone decided it would be good to have an upstairs rival owning it who figuratively looked down on his neighbors with disdain?

Anonymous said...

That closing scene in the "Newhart" finale was BRILLIANT, still basking in the "glow" of the "Dallas" season that turned out to be a dream.

Pete said...

Hi, Ken. Friday question:

It's easy for audiences to turn on a new TV show and quickly decide, "Wow, this is terrible." But do actors, writers, crew members, etc. on a bad show also realize it from the start? If so, does it affect the mood on the set? Or is everyone so excited (or in the very least, grateful for paying work) that they just ignore the show's flaws?

Christopher said...

John -- Think Hamid was talking about the Flintstones feature with John Goodman, not the original animated series. Not that I ever liked that, either.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks for answering! I had another Friday Question, but I think Pete's question above is great. Please answer that one. (I bet a book could be filled with the answer to that one.)

Later, if you're bored, please answer this one: Have you ever thought about creating a baseball sitcom? I know the game focus leads to a lot of weak stories -- the winning and losing can't be that important episode to episode -- but something with a lot of character focus? Or should I just follow the Cubs?

An (is my actual name) said...

No offense to the otherwise brilliant Charles Bros., but the Cheers finale is one of my least favorite series finales ever. Everyone leaves that epic conversation and goes home to a loved one and our "hero" Sam is abjectly alone, lovin' on his bar. Depressed the hell outta me. I mean, why didn't they just hook him up with Diane again? No marriage/HEA required, but at least they loved each other. I'd have even settled for Rebecca. I'm sorry, but no one's true love is their property, no matter how awesome it is. What an awful concept.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

n the end, the show was really about nothing and about a group of narcissists, and that's how it ended.
I liked it, too, didn't quite love it, but I liked the play on No Exit with these four people bound together by their narcissistic disdain for everyone else, trapped in a cell, having officially run out of even the most meaningless things to say to each other.

My own idea for the finale was that Jerry dies and has a Wonderful Life-ish view of the aftermath. Newman as Clarence, Elaine obsessing about whether to bring a date to the funeral, George trying to figure out how to tell Jerry's parents that he died owing George five hundred dollars, and Kramer plotting to steal the body for some kind of Kramer ceremony.

And I wanted Frasier to go back to Lilith.

Bethany Davis said...

Hey Ken,

I think I've got a good Friday Question.

Norman Lear and Chuck Loree are purely writers but younger prople like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling are both writer/performers.

Do you think that dynamic of many current showrunners has led to undermining people who are solely writers in favour of hiring stand-ups and sketch performers?

I certainly hope that trend doesn't continue forever.

Bryan L said...

I would have thought the Flintstones arbitration would be a fight to get off the credits, not on.

Steve Pepoon said...

Two comments. (1) On stealing jokes, I once wrote a pilot with two partners but the non-writer producer attached to the project (who had major film credits) wanted to sit in on the final rewrite. He kept pitching a joke that wasn't right for the character and I kept turning it down. He finally exploded "Hey! I heard Rodney Dangerfield tell this joke 20 times and 20 times it got a laugh!" (2) I was lucky enough to be at the final filming of "Newhart," since I knew one of the producers. The show knew they had a mole that was leaking stories to the National Enquirer, so the writers cooked up a bogus final scene with Bob talking to God after getting conked by a golf ball. That was read at the Monday table read. That Thursday, the Enquirer broke the news on the front page "Newhart Talks to God!" Thursday night, trusted crew put up the bedroom set from "The Bob Newhart Show," lit it, then covered it up. It stayed covered up until it was time Friday night to film the final scene, which they set up in total darkness. Best part, the Enquirer never acknowledged that they'd been burned and they never discussed the real finale.

Beth said...

A question for you - after watching the How I Met Your Mother cast on Inside the Actor's Studio, I got to wondering if writers have an opinion when actors answer questions in character. I can see where an actor should know his/her character well enough tot know how they would react, but I also imagine that writers might feel a sense of ownership or something about what the "correct" answer should be. Thoughts?

Chris Muir said...

Even though it was not a comedy, so was playing by other rules, my favorite series-ender was for "Six Feet Under." It was stylistically a little different from the rest of the series, but still clearly cut from the same cloth. It packed an emotional wallop, but did not come across as cloying or pandering.

DwWashburn said...

Most finale episodes are disappointing. I don't think it is directly responsible to the length although possibly the worst finale was the 2 1/2 MASH finale. In my opinion the best have been Newhart and 30 Rock.

Powerhouse Salter said...

Question: Compared to sitcoms, why are TV drama series never produced for half hour time slots as was relatively common until the early 1960s?

Ralph C. said...

It's not just the bar, the property, for Sam. Think of what the bar has given him. I would say the love one has for possessions isn't just for the physical item, itself. Think about it, won't you?

Thank you.

Gary said...

Bethany, the trend of writers who are also performers goes back to Rob Petrie, Buddy Sorrel and Sally Rogers.

Stephen Robinson said...

I thought CHEERS was always about Sam Malone and the bar. The show wouldn't work without either. That's why Sam doesn't end up with Diane, who even cost him the bar at one point.

BTW, I thought the fifth season finale was a great series finale if CHEERS had ended with Shelley Long's departure. It even felt like a new show the next season.

FRIDAY QUESTION: Was the FRASIER spin-off finalized when CHEERS ended? I'm impressed that there were no backdoor pilot moments in the last few episodes (e.g. David Hyde Pierce appearing and convincing Frasier to move to Seattle). Aside from Grammer's obvious comfort with Frasier Crane, the FRASIER pilot plays like an entirely new show with no links to another longrunning series.

Hank Gillette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pat Reeder said...

I would think that with so many decades of radio and TV sitcoms and comedy movies now piled up in the pop culture archives, it would be impossible to check to see whether a particular joke might have been done by someone else, somewhere at some time. If anyone happens to recognize it, fine, but I give a pass to such things and just assume it's two minds running on the same track, not deliberate plagiarism.

Coincidentally, since you mentioned a joke used on the "The Middle": just last night, I was watching a rerun of "Burns & Allen" from the '50s, and they used a gag very similar to one that's running constantly right now in a promo for syndicated reruns of "The Middle." What goes around, etc.

Howard said...

I was reviewing the rules for NBC's "Comedy Playground" sitcom-pitch competition, and I was wondering about something.
They are requiring sample material, at least five minutes of it, from each applicant.
Now how do you have a contest that's open to the whole nation calling for 'fresh' talent and ideas, but them limit it to people who've already gotten a foot (or a toe) in the door and had work produced?
It's a fine program, if you're looking to go up the ladder. But some of us thought this program might help us get on the ladder. Or even see it.
Just wondering if it's common or not. Thanks.

Allan V said...

You recently answered a question about why some sitcoms are filmed multi-camera and others, single. What do the actors themselves think of multi vs. single, and which setup do they tend to prefer working with?

Ted O'Hara said...

Some MASH questions:

You came on to the staff as Gary Burghoff was cutting back to 13 episodes. Was it hard working around his schedule? Or was it 'Great, we don't need to find a bit for him this week'? More generally, is it harder to write for a character when the actor is losing interest?

By the time Larry Linville left, the Frank Burns character was pretty boxed in. Do you think the character could have been opened up a little more earlier on in the series, and still have been funny?

Ike Iszany said...

A Friday question- On a show like "Taxi" where you make a lot of jokes/ insults about the physical appearance of a character like Louie DePalma, is that hard to do? It would be really easy to cross a line and actually insult the actor playing the character. Obviously they made Louie more unpleasant with ill fitting suits and never combing his hair but any jokes about his physical appearance were essentially a joke about Danny DeVitto.

James Van Hise said...

The problem with the Seinfeld finale was the downbeat ending (they all to to prison). Jerry Seinfeld has admitted that was a mistake and years later came up with how the show should have ended. After they get out of prison, they all meet at the coffee shop, are sitting there in silence, and finally George blurts out, "That was brutal!" The end.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Sorry, but "The Flintstones" was a brilliant series that transcended its resemblance to "The Honeymooners" and was the longest running animated prime time series until "The Simpsons."

It justified its existence as a cartoon with the stone age gags (otherwise why would you animated it) as well as some fantasy episodes later in the run (some that worked, some that didn't).

There were a lot of good scripts on "The Flintstones," some of the best actors in the business doing the voices, and yes, even fine animation considering the extreme budget limits (ABC wanted animation cheap, that's why "Jonny Quest" lasted only one season).

The first movie -- the 1966 feature "The Man Called Flintstone" was the best of the three. It only had two writers. It wasn't as good as the early seasons of the series, but it was great as big screen adaptations go.

As for "Seinfeld's" finale, it seemed a betrayal of the concept of the series (and those who watched it). The finale "wags its finger" at the abhorrent behavior of the four characters, when the whole premise had been narcissism with no messages. The only thing missing was Captain Marvel flying in to tell us what we had learned and a segment of "In the News."

Hamid said...

Greg, the comments were about the '94 Flintstones movie, not the series. I loved the series as a kid. The movie is another matter.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I know, Hamid. You made that clear. Thanks for backing me up on liking the series. I'm not totally crazy. Just sorta.

Oscar Gomez said...


Hey Ken,

Why do you and the rest of America think that The Big Bang Theory is funny?

I'll never understand why it's a hit. Modern Family, I understand why people watch but not The Big Bang Theory.