Friday, August 01, 2014

Friday Questions

Let’s kick off August with some Friday Questions, shall we?

Howard Hoffman follows up on my post about our first script:

My very first Friday question: Did you repurpose any of the material from that first script into any of your aired shows? If so, what should we look for?

No. Rarely if ever do we recycle jokes from past scripts. It’s not that we have such high standards; it’s that we have poor memories.

On CHEERS the great Jerry Belson used to come in once a week and help us punch up scripts. From time to time he’d pitch a joke, the Charles Brothers would reject it and he’d say, “Hey, it got a big laugh on THE ODD COUPLE.” Jerry (who came up with more original and hilarious jokes than anybody) would always maintain, “What went before is good too.”

Clark wonders:

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.

Usually you pre-shoot those scenes the day before. That gives crews all night to get things back to normal.

From Chris:

We’ve all seen the pilot where one of the main characters gets in a fight with the others and is about to move away but then they get him to stay and that's the start of the series.

Could this be considered a premise pilot?

No. That’s considered schmuck bait because no one really believes that character will move away.

A premise pilot dramatizes how characters meet or sets up the situation. Darrin Stephens meets Samantha and learns she’s a witch. Diane Chambers walks into CHEERS and by the end of the episode takes a job there. Jed Clampett discovers oil on his property and moves to Beverly Hills, that sort of thing.

There was a period where networks didn’t want premise pilots because they can test better than a normal show. Darrin learning Sam is a witch will test through the roof, but what do you do every other episode when he now already knows this? The trouble with non-premise pilots is that you spend so much time filling the audience in on the backstory and making introductions that the pilot becomes unwieldy and often unnecessarily confusing.

Rick Wiedmayer asks:

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

For multi-camera shows it can be the day before you go into production. For single-camera shows you need several days for pre-production – to scout locations, plan shot lists, work out logistics and any stunts, have tone meetings with the showrunner, etc. But multi-camera shows are mostly shot on the same stage in front of a studio audience all in one night.

On the first day of production on a multi-camera show the first order of business is a production meeting. It is here the director goes over the script with members of every department. Wardrobe, swing sets, props, effects, any pre-shooting or challenges unique to that episode are worked out.

I of course, prefer to get the script a few days in advance so I can better prepare and anticipate possible problems. But the truth is, especially as the season grinds on, lead time evaporates and often scripts aren’t distributed until the day before production. I just roll with it.

But another difference between multi-camera and single-camera shows is that multi-camera scripts tend to change a lot more. After each day’s runthrough the script gets overhauled. It’s not unusual to get entire new scenes or storylines. A director must be flexible and able to re-stage and re-block for cameras on the fly.

Got a Friday Question? I might have the answer. And it might even be the correct one.


Dan Ball said...

After working in TV news, I think it's weird to find out just how similar directing in that environment is to multicam directing on a sitcom. I always thought that directing a news show was its own beast, directing single cam movies/TV was its own beast, and directing TV sitcoms was a whole different beast altogether. Even though I went to school for this, I'm now seeing that it's more got to do with single cam and multicam. (Then again, they only offered sitcom multicam directing AFTER I graduated. Whyioughta...)

I never did really get to direct anything live while I was at the news station. The most directing I did was the local weather "cut-ins" during Today Show. The camera stayed still, I cued our floor guy to cue the weather guy, and worked the switcher the rest of the time. During the actual newscasts, I was the floor/camera guy.

I always hoped I'd get to actually direct a newscast someday, but I left that field before I did. The idea of directing a sitcom seems even more enticing, since you're not coordinating sitting targets/anchors, but moving ones in the actors and the actions/emotions. That's more like camera ballet to me and it sounds like a lot of fun. Too bad there isn't a live studio orchestra led by a young John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith playing along with it like in the early days of TV.

Thomas from Bavaria said...

Many shows employ unseen characters like Maris on Frasier, Vera on Cheers or Howard's mother on TBBT. What do you think about that technique? How hard is it to write only about, but never for someone?

Thanks a lot!

MikeN said...

Plus there is the problem where you drop the premise as the show moves along-- Suits and Psych.

blinky said...

My question is about the evolution of a hit show, in particular M*A*S*H.
When I talk to friends about the show some of them will say they liked it the first few seasons and then it changed so much that they didn't follow it anymore.
Specific example: Hawkeye and Trapper/BJ started out as womanizing alcoholics and evolved into virtual tea totaling feminists.
So do you think the influence of Alan Alda had a huge influence on the change in tone and morality or was it a natural devolution of movie concept to mainstream network TV?

Daws said...

What's your opinion of the movie "Major League?" It's always been one of my go-to movies for when I'm in a bad mood; never fails to cheer me up.

Dirk said...

So you equate being a flunkie at a podunk TV station to directing a million dollar budget Hollywood sitcom? Please go away.

Robin said...

Friday Question:
Say you're pitching an idea for a show and the network passes. Is it possible for you to move on--let's pretend you were able to get a different show on TV--and after you're a bit more well-known try to get your original idea made? Or is it the case that when it's gone, it's gone?

Dave Creek said...


So you equate making a snarky comment on a website with evaluating the importance of someone else's job?

Dan Ball was referring to the techniques involved, not their relative importance in your mind. We can't all work on a network show, and some of us are quite happy, say, writing short stories for magazines and novels for small press publishers (as I do now) or producing newscasts for a local station (as I used to do).

I think Dan should stay right here.

Dan Ball said...


I didn't equate anything. I said they were similar. It's right there in my first line.

TV news directing is the same anywhere, podunk or pro. The number of cameras, remote locations, graphics banks, etc. may change, but you're still giving directions to floor managers, camera guys, talent, etc. At its core, that's what sitcom directing is, from what I understand of Ken's experiences.

Sitcom directing is DIFFERENT because there's much more coordinating to be done. TV news directors aren't usually concerned about makeup, lighting, making set changes, props, the anchor's performance, etc. Those things are usually static from day to day. A sitcom director has to be mindful of all these things in addition to camera movement, audio, coordinating the crew behind that equipment, etc. While you're under a time crunch in news, hitting the breaks and what not, that's not nearly the challenge of coordinating all the moving parts of a sitcom. I was merely saying that while I considered news directing to be challenging, sitcom directing would be a hearty accomplishment to put on your mantle. Anybody who can bring all those parts together and create something coherent and excellent has certainly earned my respect.

Single-cam directing is a piece of cake, comparatively.

LouOCNY said...

It would be interesting to see a history of directing comedy for TV. Perhaps with a special focus on I LOVE LUCY, and it started the whole thing. The first LUCYs are fairly primitive for several reasons.

The first couple of shows were filmed live - and straight through with a single break - just like a stage play. PLUS they used four cameras. This turned out to be VERY awkward, plus it limited the kind of stories the writers could do. The first irector of LUCY was a guy named Mark Daniels, who had pioneered live drama on television. After seeing the first rough cuts of the first shows, Daniels, Karl Freund the cinematographer, and Desi all probably realized they should cut the cameras to three, and take breaks, so there could be costume/makeup/scenery changes. Desi could come out and sing...Frawley and Vance could do a little dance....SOMEthing to pass the 5 mminutes needed.

gottacook said...

That's Marc (not Mark) Daniels, who also directed nearly one-fifth of the original Star Trek episodes for Desilu in the '60s, including some of the best-known ones such as "The Doomsday Machine" and "Mirror, Mirror."

Andy Ihnatko said...

Friday question - When a new director comes in, does the cast and crew appreciate them bringing new energy and effort into the shoot?

Liggie said...

F.Q. I've read about shooting a scene of your spec screenplay/series (a "show reel"?) as an aid to your verbal pitch or written query. Is this an accepted practice? If so, will studios and agents be forgiving if the writer's show reel isn't that polished? (I have friends who are stage actors, but I've never shot video even on my cell phone; if I can't afford an adequate video guy and have to shoot this myself, am I screwed?)

I've also heard about "sizzle reels", where video editors will cobble clips pulled from already-produced movies and cobble them with new narration to suggest what a proposed project would look and feel like. That makes sense for a TV/web series, but would it do likewise for a stand-alone screenplay?

Marty Fufkin said...

I'm a bit shocked that Jerry Belson would pitch jokes that aired on other shows, even if he did write them. It wasn't his name going on the Cheers script, since he was only consulting. If the Cheers script had the names of you and David on it, then you guys would look like plagiarists. he was putting you in a very bad spot. It's a good thing you found out ahead of time.

Geoffrey Vasile said...

Friday Question: My wife and I grew up in the 80s, so we have fond, if not hazy memories of the sit-com classic Cheers. So when all 275 episodes became available on Netflix we devoured them with devotional alacrity. As a result I noticed some themes I wondered if you and other writers made intentionally.
Yosemite Sam: Malone seems to have bad luck with guns. During the series I counted at least 9 times Sam had a gun pulled on him. I'd say its the product of a bad neighborhood, however most of the armed men are "non-criminal" sort (i.e Frasier, Jilted Stock-Broker guy)
Ted eating: In almost every scene Danson is shoving some bar food in his face at a rate that makes Norm look like a wilting debutante. I guess being a recovering alcoholic in a bar would do that to you.
Theme songs (Magnificent 7): My absolute favorite on going joke is the bar patrons' ability to erupt into song, serving as musical bed for plot: Green Beret Ballad for Cliff as he bids farewell to his Canadian expat, Home On The Range--posthumous Coach humanity to settle a quibbling Sam and Woody, and my favorite--Magnificent 7 theme which is used at least 3 times. Were the songs thought out by the writers? Because they seem to be a spontaneous collaboration between talents.
Thanks for your attention to this barrage of questions.

Dan Ball said...


I was wondering if it was the same Marc Daniels that did STAR TREK. Man, working at Desilu must've been the way to get around, if a director could do sitcoms AND dramas. To us, that's a feat. To him, of course, he was probably like, "You mean I get to direct in B&W *AND* color???"

Jim Byers said...

Friday question: How do you feel about premises that, while they work and are time-honored, have appeared on multiple sitcoms. Primary examples would be the awards show setup and the "who will be the guardian of my kids" plotline.

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey, Sam's eating is probably just to have people doing something. Similar to how Giles tends to wipe his glasses on Buffy.
Sam also does a lot of lemon slicing.

Marianne said...

Friday Question:

Hi Ken! In the 'Cheers' finale, we learn that Diane has led a somewhat depressing life after leaving Boston. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her! There are rumours that Diane was written this way out of spite due to Shelley Long's departure from the series. Are these rumours true?


Anonymous said...

Damn, dude.

Maria said...

Friday question:

Hey Ken! Have you ever thought about doing one of those interviews for the Archive of American Television? You seem to have so many interesting stories and insights - it would be fabulous to see you interviewed!