Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Questions

It’s the rolling craps edition of Friday Questions (7-11).

Covarr asks:

What is a laugh spread?

This applies primarily to sitcoms filmed in front of studio audiences. When a joke gets a laugh the actor with the next line holds so the laugh can play out. Otherwise the audience won’t hear his next line. You put all these pauses for laughs together and you get the laugh spread.

You’ll hopefully get two to four minutes additional minutes of laugh spread. That way you’ll have time to play with in editing to cut out things that didn’t work, trim some things to pick up the pace, etc.

On the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot, our laugh spread was ten minutes, which was fantastic until we tried to edit 32 minutes down to 22.

Eduardo Jencarelli has a credits question:

When multiple writers get credited on the same script, they usually get divided by usage of the "&" ampersand, but I've seen cases where the actual "and" word is used, and sometimes even both with three writers or more.

Ex: Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs

Ex2: Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs

Ex3: Teleplay by Jane Espenson and David Benioff & D B Weiss

Is there a criteria involved in separating multiple writers which requires using both cases? Is there a reason? Were they writing separate scripts that got joined together somehow?

In short, an & means the writers wrote it together. An “and” means two writers wrote it separately. Okay, what’s the difference? The WGA allows for only two writing entities (a team counts as one entity) on any teleplay or story credit (unless there’s a waiver). So let’s say David Isaacs and I and Jane Espenson wrote a script together. If the credit was

                                        Written by
                                       Ken Levine
                                      David Isaacs
                                     Jane Espenson

Then David and I would split half and Jane would get half herself. We had this problem on ALMOST PERFECT when there were three partners – me, David, and Robin Schiff. How would we all get paid equally? We had to get a waiver from the WGA, which they would only grant if the studio paid 150% for the script so we each made essentially half of a normal script assignment.

And in the case of “and,” this occurs when another writer is assigned to rewrite the first and changes enough to warrant credit according to WGA arbitration rules.

An interesting note: You would think a writing team (with names separated by an &) would automatically split their salary 50/50. But that’s not always the case. Again, you have to notify the Guild you’re doing this but you can divide the money any way you choose. Why wouldn’t a team split everything evenly? There’s a husband/wife team that splits their take 90/10. That way the husband makes enough to qualify for health insurance (which covers his wife) and the two share in the money anyway. Pretty clever, no?

From Donald:

I saw 22 Jump Street and laughed, as far as that goes. But a preponderance of the jokes were all pop-culture based; specific references to other movies, TV shows, actors, etc. What's your take on this? Is it lazy? Isn't there a concern that these will date the film?

In their case, I guess that's not a concern. I imagine they wanted to make as much money in its initial release as they could and so what if in ten years the movie is a relic?

Pop culture references are easy laughs but do date a project. At the moment it is a style that is in, and if the jokes are funny and the movie is enjoyable what the hell? 

But it can become a crutch and as a comedy writer, if you're big strength is pop culture jokes you’re going to have a fairly short career. References change and newer, younger writers will have a better handle on them than you, at which point you become merely a reference.  Plus, it is lazy writing. 

The best comedy writing, the most enduring comedy writing comes out of character. Reference real life, not the Kardashians.

And finally, Rod queries:

Have you ever directed a hald hour comedy that did not involve a studio audience and multi cameras? It seems to be popular right now, with Modern Family, The Middle, and The Goldbergs, to name 3. Thanks

Not an entire episode but single camera scenes in numerous show. For DHARAMA & GREG I did a whole crowd scene at Ghiradelli Square and a car chase. For other shows I’ve had blizzard scenes and chase scenes on Paramount’s New York street, horseback riding scenes at Griffith Park, a dog chase scene through the woods, and news crews stand-up reports on the streets of New York and the Paramount, 20th, and Radford streets of New York.

My next directing assignment will be in a couple of weeks. It’s another multi-cam show – an episode of INSTANT MOM written by Annie Levine & Jon Emerson. Please don’t add a skydiving scene.

What’s your question? Leave it the comments section. Thanks!


Scott Cason said...

Hi Ken. I asked this question before, but looking back it may have gotten buried with a whole bunch of other comments. The Frasier and Lilith characters are my favorite of all time. Was their any one person responsible in creating them or was it a collaborative effort?

metsfanatic said...

Another Friday question spurred on from the post today. You were long time writing partners with David Isaacs, how was it suddenly writing with a new partner, Robin Schiff. Did it take awhile to get the same type of flow. You knew each other's quirks and tearing ability, how was it different working with three?

Scooter Schechtman said...

Leopold & Loeb

Kevin said...

Ken, Just a comment on the spread issue: John Cleese was discussing Fawlty Towers (with no offense to you, still my gold standard of comedy), and he said that he had consciously decided NOT to wait for the laughs to die before moving on. That's why it's so fast-paced--and, of course, why the scripts were so long and probably why he and Connie Booth (or should that be "& Connie Booth"?) only wrote 12 of them!

Clark said...

How do you execute episodes of sitcoms where the script calls for a dramatic change in the set during that episode? A few examples jump out to me. Norm paints Frasier and Lilith's apartment. The bar burns down. Frasier and Niles buy a restaurant and redecorate it.

Mark said...

Hello Ken, a question related to your former occupation and the REELRADIO non-profit site for which you have a link on your main page. As you may have seen, the wonderful RIAA has beat its not-so-mighty-anymore drum and decided to basically cripple REELRADIO's ability to present unscoped airchecks, which are the best way to enjoy and preserve radio history. What are your thoughts on this? Do you have some insight on how to help or connections to some pro-bono legal assistance to founder Richard Irwin and the REELRADIO site?

Michael said...

Ken, Friday question: Besides Tony Gwynn, what other baseball players you covered were exceptional good guys?

Pete Grossman said...

Whew! No question, Ken. Just an FYI about a Maron episode last night called "Radio Cowboy." It reflected your attitude towards terrestrial radio. Great characters and attitude. Includes a surprise guest star. See it, it'll be worth your time - unlike the Emmy awards.

Rick Wiedmayer said...

When you are hired for a directing job, how far in advance of the filming are you usually hired so that you can prepare?

Mike said...

I remember reading Bea Arthur didn't like all of the pop culture jokes in Golden Girls, as she felt it would hurt the show in reruns. And, when watching the repeats today, the dated references do sometimes stand out like a sore thumb. But I always notice those jokes tend to get some of the biggest laughs -- so I imagine it must've been tough for the writers to avoid them.

Friday question: Several episodes of Cheers, mostly from the latter half of the run, have scenes (mostly in the teasers, but occasionally -- like the episode Frasier discovers Lilith has been cheating on him while living in the ecopod -- throughout the episode as well) that look just like they were filmed outside the real Cheers bar in Boston. I'm assuming they were? If so, do they film those scenes all at once, and then sprinkle them during the season? I imagine taking cast and crew from LA to Boston is a field trip you can only afford to take once a year.

Chris said...

Friday question: older shows tend to have writing producers under the "produced by" credit which nowadays is reserved for non-writing producers. Do you know how and why that evolved over time?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Enlightening answer, to put it mildly. I should have figured a lot of it had to do with money. Complicated, but it actually makes sense.

Igor said...

There are two kinds of cultural references: Those that are the joke, and those that (if you get the reference) make the joke funnier.

The key is to make the joke funny even if the cultural reference flies past the audience.

The Marx Brothers' movies had cultural references that even the Internet has trouble solving. And one might say that those films still work.

Monty Python's TV shows had UK cultural references that (mostly) none of us got even back in the 70s when those shows were first released in the US on records. (The Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale, were based on two real-life thugs.)

Oh, yeh. And let's not forget Rocky and Bullwinkle. And even the Muppets on daytime PBS.

Breadbaker said...

Re cultural references, what came to mind for me was the film "You've Got Mail". Even though it used a lot of cultural icons that are getting more dated by the minute (AOL, big box bookstores as the behemoth), it was based on a great story from an Ernest Lubitsch film and both the characters and the acting were sufficiently winning that you watch it and think "quaint" but you still watch it.

Anonymous said...

To Igor: As for cultural references, you can toss them out the window regarding the younger demographic. Whippersnappers don't know what day of the week it is without checking their Iphones. There's an old Bugs Bunny cartoon that shows The Paul Revere Institute with the motto "Hardly A Man Is Now Alive". It's when kids had to memorize the Longfellow poem, which you can be sure is never done anymore. In my day we also had to memorize Beowulf in the original Old Norse...

Phillip B said...

The urban legend is that the original design for Walt Disney's The Jungle Book included a song to be sung by four mop-topped British vultures styled as the Beatles. Disney is supposed to have said that by the time the picture was released no one would remember them - and required the song be done in the style of a barbershop quartet.

The vultures in the film got to keep their hairstyles, giving some credence to the legend...

Mitchell Hundred said...

One thing I've noticed about The Big Bang Theory is that while they do include references to nerd culture, they only go with things that are:

a) generally recognized among non-nerds, and
b) well-established indicators of nerdiness (eg Star Wars)

And that seems to me like a good idea. If you have to reference pop culture, go with the stuff that you know has lasted. Going after something just for a laugh of recognition is kind of cheap, and makes me think less of the writer.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mitchell Hundred: THE BIG BANG THEORY is actually quite clever, in that it has a lot of references not everyone does get - my 80-odd friend who knows old comic books gets a lot of things I don't - but you're right that there are plenty of things that get a lot of play that are well-known - and fortunately there's always Penny to explain the more obscure stuff too.

But where the show is really clever is in the subtle stuff you don't *have* to notice - like the in-jokes on the physics boards. So more arcane stuff is available for those who understand it.

As the show has gotten more popular, its comedy has gotten broader and less specialized. Unfortunately. I loved it best in the early, much nerdier years.


DBA said...

Hey Anonymous, you must not have memorized Beowulf very well. It's written in Old English, not Old Norse.

Anonymous said...

"My next directing assignment will be in a couple of weeks. It’s another multi-cam show – an episode of INSTANT MOM written by Annie Levine & Jon Emerson. Please don’t add a skydiving scene."

That is so weird!!

I just watched a TED talk on this subject, but never thought it could go both ways!

Anonymous said...

Pete Grossman said...

"Whew! No question, Ken. Just an FYI about a Maron episode last night called "Radio Cowboy." It reflected your attitude towards terrestrial radio. Great characters and attitude. Includes a surprise guest star. See it, it'll be worth your time..."

I've seen a few episodes of the Maron show. It kind of aspires to be kind of like "Louie."

How to put this... have you ever seen the movie, "Of Mice and Men"?

"Maron" is to "Louie" as Lenny is to George.

VP81955 said...

Ken, have you read "Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll in Los Angeles, 1956-1972"? Saw it at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove Thursday, and it looks as if it has some potential, discussing LA's great stations (KFWB, KRLA, KHJ, KDAY, etc.) and jocks dating back to Hunter Hancock and Art Laboe.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I think your point was that pop culture references are okay used sparingly (and sometimes unavoidable, especially when shows feature guest stars who can be their own reference).

Bugs Bunny's wartime cartoons are awash with things most don't understand but they're still funny. As to Monty Python, "Jack in the Box" is a silly song no matter whether you've heard of it or not. I actually bought a "Best of" Clodagh Rogers CD so I could cherish my own copy always.

D. McEwan said...

I co-wrote and acted in a radio comedy special titled This Here is Your Life, Sherlock Holmes with Daws Butler back in 1976. A few months ago, it got unearthed and released on CD and download. Since it was about a classic Victorian character, most of it is timeless, but then there's the 4 minute Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman parody right in the damn center of it. (Admittedly, a very on-the-nose Mary Hartman sketch; we got the voices and the jokes right.) As topical as you could get in 1976, today it sits in the middle of the show requiring footnotes for anyone under 40 to know what the hell the gags and impressions refer to. Why all the "Waxy Yellow Build-Up" jokes? The uninitianted or under-40 might ask.

Who wrote that incredibly dated, current-as-last-century's-headlines, sketch? Me. I still remember talking Daws around to the idea of including it. Then it worked. Now, it's embarassing. I want to add "Ask your grandmother who Mary Hartman was" on the CD cover.

D. McEwan said...

In a video introduction to a video of one of his stage shows from 1984, Barry Humphries mentions that there are a number of local, topical references in the show: "The meaning of which are now lost even to myself."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I had asked about the use of "&" and "and" before, so I'm glad we got some insight on this, because I really didn't know if there were any real differences or WGA guidelines regarding their usage, but now I do. It didn't even really occur to me that their usage was based on how the two writers wrote their scripts, I was thinking it was based more or less on the basis of their partnership (for example, I figured "&" was maybe used for writers who are officially equal partners, while "and" was maybe used for two individual writers who co-wrote a script).