Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the six-day Labor Day weekend, here are some Friday Questions:

Longtime reader and Sitcom Room vet Wendy M. Grossman leads off:

Amazon is moving into commissioning its own streamed series, and has posted the pilots for public voting. What do you make of that as a way to eliminate some of the expense of failures?

I like the idea but only as one indicator, not the sole determining factor. Only a small very vocal portion of the audience will respond. They don’t necessarily reflect the general populace.

But at least your pilot gets a shot. Now that networks no longer air failed pilots, you can work for a year on a project, it gets screened by ten executives and then thrown into a drawer never to be heard from again. It’s nice to know going in that actual people will get the chance to see your hard work.


The pilot turns out to be a total piece of shit. In that case, the last thing you want is to have it unleashed to the unsuspecting public. But hopefully that won’t be the case… too often.

ashes1998 asks:

Ken, you often speak of single camera and multi camera sitcom shoots.

Beyond the (fairly) obvious technical differences, how is the approach to writing different?

Multi-camera shows are shot in front of a studio audience (like a play). As a result, the writers are held accountable. Your jokes have to be good enough to make two hundred strangers laugh.

In single-camera shows, the showrunner has to only please himself. It’s easy to settle because nothing is ever put to a test. And since writing something really funny is hard it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that quirky behavior, catch phrases, and quick cutting is good enough.

Please note that I’m not saying single-camera shows can’t be genuinely funny. They can. But unfortunately, they rarely are.

And multi-camera shows are not bulletproof. Just because you have to make a studio audience laugh doesn’t mean you have the chops to pull it off. It’s easy to resort to cheap sex jokes and stale rhythms. Cue the laugh machine.

Bottom line: get the best writers. Shows should be single or multi depending on their premise. But success will have more to do with “who” rather than “what.”

From JB:

How do you feel about cable channels that squeeze or speed up final credits so much they're not readable? Since your name is in there occasionally it has to sting a little, right?

I find it deplorable. I wish the unions had more clout and could halt this thoroughly insulting practice.

Think of all these network executives in their large offices. What if the parent company said “Here’s your value to us – effectively immediately all of you will work out of one stall in a public restroom.” To me, it’s the same thing.

Jim S wonders:

How do you deal with disagreement? In the past, you've written that if you and your partner disagreed about a joke, the joke was gone. No argument. First, let me say that's really grown up.

But what about a casting director who honestly believes that actor x is right for a part? What about a director who has a vision for how a scene has to be staged? A suit who not only fancies herself creative, but in the past has shown judgment that you respect?

Here’s the reality: the person with the most power wins. Directors are kings on a movie set, but they are hired hands in television where showrunners rules the roost. Writers are usually subservient to everyone. (That’s why they become showrunners or film directors.)

Dealing with suits can be extremely frustrating because now they have more power. I would just say you have to pick your battles. And it seems to me at the end of the day you have three options. You can somehow bring yourself to tolerate the interference, you can reach a level of success where you’re allowed to ignore the notes (you have the most power), or you can leave because the system is not going to change.

And finally, from Tolouse:

In the MASH episode The Light That Failed, they never agree on who the murderer from A Rooster Crowed at Midnight is. Do you know??

Yes. O.J.

What’s your Friday Question? And drive carefully.


Jim S said...

Thanks for answering my question Ken. It could be argued that it's a mistake because it only encouraged me.

So, here goes. Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job? If so, what's the protocol. I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

Thanks in advance.

Michael said...

Ken - you've mentioned in the past you know the author of the "Richard Castle" Nikki Heat books. With a new book being released soon, any chance you could interview him for the blog - curious about how much creative freedom he has in writing them.

Carly Kepner said...

You're adorable, Ken.

Can't wait for your thoughts on the 2014-15 Fall sitcoms.

The McCarthys
The Odd Couple
A to Z
Bad Judge
Mr. Robinson
Marry Me
Mission Control
One Big Happy
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Untitled Bill Cosby Sitcom
Fresh Off the Boat
Manhattan Love Story
The Last Man on Earth
Weird Loners

You always have a funnier take on a show, than the show itself!

Thomas said...

"In the MASH episode The Light That Failed, they never agree on who the murderer from A Rooster Crowed at Midnight is. Do you know??"

That might be the best question ever asked here.

John said...

Single-camera sitcoms from the 1960s-70s tended to run astray due to forced wackiness and a hyper-active laugh track that attempted to convince the audience they were seeing a totally madcap situation. Today's single-camera shows eschew the laugh track, but tend to wade into 'naval gazing' comedy situations, where the show-runners do seem to be more focused on trying to be quirky than funny (and if you don't like it, change the channel).

I suppose it's worth noting that OJ's first acting scene was him being recruited by Joe Friday to join the Los Angeles Police Department. His final scene was him being chased down a hallway by Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Frank Drebin. God does have a sense of humor, even if it is a bit on the morbid side at times (as was Bill Maher's joke on Thursday about OJ converting to Islam....)

Bradley said...

Friday question: Is there a particular script from one of your shows that you knew going in was not up to par, but had to move into production anyway? I'm thinking a situation like this is more likely toward the end of a season, when time is running short and you have to deliver an episode even if the script is not the best. Every show, even a great one, comes up with a dud sometimes, so I was wondering if anything of yours comes to mind.

I can think of a couple from other shows. Much as I love The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I can't imagine Mary's Three Husbands is among Bob Ellison's proudest moments. There's a crazy-weird Kate and Allie with Andrea Martin that I'm not convinced was even written on paper. And there are even a couple Frasiers that seem like time may have run out. Mind you, weak episodes of these shows are still superior to most others.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Bradley: As much as I loved NEWSRADIO, the writers admit on the DVDs that the fantasy episodes (the Titanic, the space ship) happened because at the end of the season they were pretty much out of ideas.


Master Shredder said...

The reason that movie credits are shrunk down and speeded up, is twofold: 1. There is a contractual obligation that the station/network show the credits; 2. However, NO ONE other than the people named in the credits is interested in sitting through them, especially at normal speed

Scooter Schechtman said...

No, Master S., the reason is onefold.
That rant should hold me till lunch.

Derek said...

I remember working in a movie theater, as soon as the credits started to roll, 99.9% of the audience was out the door. There was always those couple of guys, though, who stayed through them. Wouldn't budge until he'd seen every frame of film there was to see.

Jack said...

I am among the great unwashed who don't give a single shit about who the Best Boy is and skips the credits.

However, I understand where Ken's coming from -- these are actual people who contributed to the show; 30 seconds for a scroll doesn't seem out of line.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

To add to the whole cable/credits thread:
I can't stand it when they start showing the next episode with the screen split between the credits and the 1st scene of the next episode. Not only can't you see the credits (and sometimes the epilogue) but you can't see the 1st scene either as it's in this much smaller box.

And don't get me started on previews or sublines that block the whole lower half of the screen.

Anonymous said...

I know it happens in film shooting all the time, but as a TV director can you change dialogue on the spot or does the script have to be followed exactly?

Mike Botula said...

I disagree with MASTER SHREDDER. I'm one of those who tarry in the theater at the end of the movie, or linger at the end of the TV to watch the credits. Before I retired, I used to watch carefully to see what my friends in the business were doing. Being able to link the productions with real people helped me judge the quality of them. From a social standpoint, I always the credits helped tell me which of my friends were working and how their career is progressing. Now that I'm retired, I look to see who's still active in the biz. If you've ever been to a SAG-AFTRA screening, you'll know that one of the high points of the whole show is the credit run at the end. Best rating system I can think of.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"I like the idea but only as one indicator, not the sole determining factor. Only a small very vocal portion of the audience will respond. They don’t necessarily reflect the general populace."

This is exactly what I've been saying for years now. Everybody has this belief that the future of entertainment (especially when it comes to episodic series) is going straight to the internet, and that television will soon be dead/obsolete as a result. The problem is, in spite of how common the internet is, there's actually still a number of people out there without regular access to it, or even still have slow and outdated connections (yes, believe it or not people, there are still some out there who actually use dial-up... perish the thought).

On top of that, there's a lot more people out there than you may think who simply aren't computer literate and wouldn't even comprehend or understand how things like this even work.

So basically, making shows like this internet-exclusive may offer some creative freedom that networks today apparently don't offer, but at the same time, the audience your garner is only a small percentage of the general populace.

Dan said...

It would be interesting to see a script from a three camera show shot with 1, or vice versa. (Scrubs did 3 camera once, but it was a satire). I would assume that the jokes would play much different in the other format.

Dan Ball said...

For movies with good music, that's reason enough to stay for the credits.

If I'm watching credits, I like to see if there are any familiar names. At the end of SUPERMAN, I'd always see my dad's name because George Ball was the property master.

Cap'n Bob said...

These days, there are sometimes extra features at the end of the credits. It's worth sticking around to see them.

Todd Everett said...

Anonymous Jack said...

I am among the great unwashed who don't give a single shit about who the Best Boy is and skips the credits.

And you can do just that, even if they run at full size and a readable speed. I'm one of those who follow credits; if only to learn the names of supporting players -- IMDB often doesn't catch up for quite a while.

Terrence Moss said...

People's families, friends and those who follow TV and film or just genuinely want to know who did what might be interested as well. The simple fix is to run an ad, outtakes or a tag scene under the credits. That at least shows a modicum of respect to the craftmasters behind the scenes.

vicernie said...

I watched the final two episodes of Welcome to Sweden last night. what do you think are the chances of it being renewed?

Anonymous said...

That's not all they are skipping. I'm convinced they are speeding up the laugh tracks and maybe even the jokes themselves to get another 30 sec or so. There just doesn't seem to be a pause in syndicated TV, particularly on Friends and The Simpsons. And of course they edit out lines and even whole scenes.

MikeN said...

Also feels like they are doing that on Becker.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm not in the business but I have always stayed to the end of movie credits (to the vast annoyance of much younger friends), in part because the credits I'm most interested in - locations and music - are typically at the end, and in part because I really like to hear the music score *finish*.

Also, in recent years I've begun to be intrigued by the array of names - it's where you really get to appreciate the melting pot that is America.


iconoclast59 said...

Like Wendy and others, I stay for the film credits to get the names of the supporting players, the locations, and the music details. My mom and I went to lots of movies after she was widowed, and she said the same thing every time the credits rolled: "I can't believe how many people it takes to make a movie!"

Ken, you wrote: "Think of all these network executives in their large offices. What if the parent company said 'Here’s your value to us – effectively immediately all of you will work out of one stall in a public restroom.'" Hey, same output with less overhead!

Oliver said...

There's definitely an abundance of unfunny single-camera comedies lately, especially on NBC. It's down to showrunners to show clear leadership and push the writers into adding jokes. Network execs really need to ensure their comedies have actual jokes.

At least unfunny single-camera shows can be somewhat watchable. It is completely excrutiating when you have a horrible multi-camera sitcom where the audience is practically rolling in the aisles in laughter. Whitney stands out as being horrible for this.

Anonymous said...

I love end credits on movies and TV. I also love reading names of session musicians on albums.

For the end credits, it's not only about seeing what actors were featured but also a chance to spot the names of writers and directors that would go on to other shows I would love.

Who knew that Pamela Fryman directed some great "Frasier" eps and then went on to HIMYM?

Great blog Ken! Keep uo the great work.

jbryant said...

vicernie: Welcome to Sweden has been renewed for a second season of 10 more episodes.

Anonymous said...

In a follow up to Amazon putting their pilots on line, why don't the networks air their pilots? They have the internet, On Demand and a whole summer of reruns. They have plenty of ways to show pilots and get public feed back. Why go to series with a show that doesn't last longer than two week?

Bob said...

The "melting pot" experience always gets me too, and it's the same over here in the UK. I watch a lot of TV, but recently I watched a show from the 1980s and was amazed at how lacking in diversity the names in the credits were. Fast-forward a few decades, and there are names from every corner of the world.

There are some names in credits that always make me smile, like the infeasibly long name at the start of Family Guy reruns, or the writer/producer of Frasier named Saladin.

Unknown said...

Here is my Friday question.

With the recent passing of Robin Williams it brings to mind so many of his movies. My question is how much of his riff's are scripted.

Thinking back to Good Morning Vietnam or the Beverly Hill's Cop series, those two seemed to share a similar type of comedic genius that I don't remember in anyone else.

Those riffs fit their screen personalities so well that they could not have been written for anyone else, if they could be scripted at all!

Does the script just say, "Que. RW to say something funny."?


Marianne said...

Friday question:
How come Ted Danson and Shelley Long shared top billing on Cheers but Kirstie Alley didn't have top billing during her run on the show?

typ said...

Hi Ken. I suppose I have a rather unusual question for you. I think it was two or three years ago when you wrote a blog article that covered a highly skilled hollywood stunt helicopter pilot whose talent got him many movie roles. (Maybe it was James W. Gavin?)
In said article, you linked a Youtube video to a helicopter car chase scene you particularly enjoyed. In this scene, the helicopter chases a car and the chopper is flying crazy low to the ground and also takes the turns on the road with impeccable precision.

If you remember this, can you please say what movie that was?
Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

>How come Ted Danson and Shelley Long shared top billing on Cheers but Kirstie Alley didn't have top billing during her run on the show?

Just read the question again, and the answer will reveal itself to you.

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