Friday, August 08, 2014

Friday Questions

As the summer rolls on, so do Friday Questions.

Max gets us started.

Are there any actors you have worked with over the years and were absolutely blown away by their talent...but they never "made it"? Is that common, or do the truly exceptional actors generally rise to the top eventually?

I could give you names but you’ve never heard of them.

Timing and luck does play a big part in success. George Clooney, for example, knocked around doing pilot after pilot. He was lucky enough to get ER and it launched him into stardom. If someone else got that role, who knows?

I’ve always felt that way about Nancy Travis. She’s a truly gifted actress and comedienne and certainly has made a nice career for herself, but I always felt that had Nancy been in a breakout movie or smash TV show she would be fighting Sandra Bullock for Oscar nominations.

Yes, there are performers who are just so spectacular that success is a given – singers like Barbra Streisand – but for the most part it’s a combination of talent and luck. You need that big break. Of course, should that big break come you need to deliver.

mmryan314 asks:

I realize that confidentiality agreements abound in celebrity world. How constrained are you from writing about stars and others that you have personally worked with on shows?

I’ve never been asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. I try to be candid in this blog when discussing industry people I’ve worked with, but if I say something unflattering about someone I either have the facts to back it up or state clearly that this is just my opinion. Bottom line: I’ve never viewed this blog as a forum for getting back at anyone.  And I take much greater joy praising someone than knocking them. 

I also feel it’s important to show discretion when dealing with celebrities’ private lives. So much misinformation gets spread and once it’s on the internet you can bet it winds up on Wikipedia or fifteen other websites.

I always honor anything said to me in confidence. Don’t come here expecting a scoop or anything particularly juicy.

Matt P wonders:

Ballpark -- how many pilots have you created but not had picked up? One a year or something like that?

Jesus, that would be over thirty pilots that got rejected. Happy to say, it's much less than that. Probably seven or eight. But we were paid for all of them so don't feel too sorry for us.

Pilots don’t get picked up for any number of reasons.  Next Monday I do a post about infuriating rejections.

Bad casting choices can kill a pilot faster than anything else. And with networks now pretty much dictating casting, you’re somewhat at the mercy of someone else making the final selections that will determine your cast and your fate. (as opposed to cast your fate to the wind)

Other times pilots don’t get picked up because the network person buying the project is not in sync with his superior. So you do all the work, address all the notes, and then the person-in-charge says “I don’t want to do a show about such-and-such.”  At which point you're dead.

But as the expression goes, “it’s the business we chose.”

From Brian:

How do you feel about watching a program with subtitles on? If you happened to watch a program with them on (maybe with somebody that needed them) would it detract from the dialog of the actors for you?

There are some shows where the actors mumble the dialog to the point where I have no idea what they’re saying. That’s right, Kiefer, I’m looking at you. I need the closed captions just to decipher English.

But otherwise, no. I do find them distracting.

And then you have that NBC summer show, WELCOME TO SWEDEN, that has subtitles right in the show. Personally, I find them annoying.

Ed from South Bend has a question about Brandon Tartikoff.

He is sainted in the industry by many creative. Yes, he stood for quality more than most, yet he also was given a longer leash than most (By Tinker??).

What say you? Any personal dealings you could recount?

I did an entire post about my relationship with Brandon. You can find it here.

What's your Friday Question?


Scooter Schechtman said...

I would have guessed you signed a confidentiality agreement about your "Cheers" producer Rob Long based on your thunderous silence regarding him. And I don't mean "Sullivan & Son".

Jim S said...


Question for next Friday. 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 arguement. 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 judgement that you respect?

Chris said...

Friday question: have you ever worked on a show that didn't have a writer's room? If you did, how did you find the system to be?

Anonymous said...

One day my 4 year old said to me that he knew how to read. I said go get me a book and read it to me. So he did, so I went and got a book that I had never read to him, he read it also.

Turns out he taught himself to read by watching subtitles. He spent a lot of time at his grandparents house and they always had the subtitles turned on since they were hard of hearing.

Dan from WNY said...

Captions in sitcoms can be problematic - captions can kill the timing of a joke.

Jon88 said...

Captioning has its uses. Besides un-mumbling the actors, it often provides viewers with earlier versions of lines that didn't survive final edit (many of Mary's voice-overs on "In Plain Sight" were completely rewritten post-captioning) or were mixed into near silence. Also, it can be quite entertaining, or infuriating, to discover how much the captioner doesn't know about spelling, punctuation, or the show in general (recently on "Suits," references to the SEC were typed SCC).

Igor said...

Ken, thanks for the shout-out (allusion) to Vince Guaraldi.

And within his part of the business, while I assume he was paid well, he got very little credit. Certainly not by name. Yes, he died very young, but his name is so rarely mentioned.

By Ken Levine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
By Ken Levine said...


What silence? Rob Long is a great friend. And that's even though we are on opposite sides of the political fence. I've also mentioned his radio commentaries "Martini Shots" and book "Conversations With My Agent" often. I recently helped out on a pilot of his. I love Rob.

Tracey Morgan said...

Hi Ken,

I'm writing a book about John Candy.

So I guess my Friday question is this, please would you give me an interview about working with John?

Many thanks,

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Friday Question: Ken, many writers have an issue of writing for the opposite gender. When you and David write does one of you naturally pick up the female character's dialogue? Or do you bounce the "voice" off of another woman to make sure it sounds legit? Additionally, if the 'notes' ask you to add another character with a voice you are unfamiliar with (let's say an Immigrant from Nigeria) do you do research on the tone of the character? Thanks.

By Ken Levine said...


Happy to help. Email me. Contact me via my Facebook page.

Bob said...

Since I became interested in screenwriting, I haven't been able to watch a show without subtitles (as I don't like to miss a word of dialogue). Most of the time I don't really need them, but it is surprising how often a really good joke or a key piece of plot information is lost in the sound mix. The downside, of course, is that they are now a bit of a crutch for me, such that I find it hard to watch something with no subtitles.

It also links in with Ken's post the other day about predictable gags in comedies. It's quite deflating to be able not only to predict a joke but to see it on screen before it's even delivered...

Tracey Morgan said...

Thanks so much Ken, will message you now.

Gordon said...

Other problems with sub titles...

They're too small

They don't stay on long enough to read

Welcome to Sweden was a surprise... We began watching it and when the subtitles began showing up we just turned it off... Good luck to them.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Apologies to Ken. I recently read something by Long that got my dander up and wondered why you weren't fuming and fizzling like I was.
Sullivan & Son still sucks though.

sanford said...

When it comes to show business isn't every thing timing and luck. I pretty much had never heard of any of the actors on on Big Bang. And while 3 of them will be getting a million an episode the other will not be hurting. You could say the same for Friends. I knew Courtney Cox from Family Ties, but had not heard of the others. They all seem pretty talented. but I doubt they would have made it as big if not for that show. It is rare that any tv star has two big hits. I guess Cox did ok with Cougar Town but it won't go down in history of being great tv. The others really have not done anything exciting since the show went off the air. Anniston has not done all that great in movies. Since she is now in her 40's I wonder if she would consider going back to tv.

cadavra said...

Another reason to watch with the closed-captioning on: Sometimes the sound goes out.

Scott said...

I just read that the CHEERS bar set has been sitting in storage this whole time. Why wasn't it used for the CHEERS "reunion" on FRASIER instead of that generic bar set that was used?

vicernie said...

I enjoy "Welcome to Sweden" and I don't mind the subtitles which are necessary since his lack of Swedish is central to the plot. it is filled with chuckles and warm moments.

LouOCNY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LouOCNY said...

Sorry to plug something here, Ken, but this is unique! I am not associated with this in any way, but interested in people knowing about this!

Later on this month the important New York International Fringe Festival will be presenting a revival/reconstruction of the original Broadway hit of the Marx Brothers, I'LL SAY SHE IS! This was the one Marx show never filmed, and was never revived, as the music had been lost. The music and sketches - including the legendary Napoleon scene have been carefully reconstructed by several devout Marx enthusiasts, and promises to be a fairly historical run, as they are hoping to it becoming an official off-Broadway, or even Broadway production. It is at a very intimate (200+ seats) venue, so this is a chance to ALMOST see The Marx Brothers up close and personal!

I myself, as a long time Marxist of the Groucho short, can't wait!

thanks for the space Ken...

Scott said...

How come CHEERS didn't have any characters with a Boston accent?

mmryan314 said...

Ken- Thank you for answering my question. You're right- " dirt" on people is generally unfair- untrue- and quite frankly- mean. I like your positive spin. Makes you more credible.

George said...

One of the funnier bits in Volunteers is where the characters look at the subtitles to see what is being said, so they're not all bad....

Anonymous said...

Really surprised to see Nancy Travis mentioned as a gifted actress. Just watched her in 3 Men and a Baby and she is atrocious. I have never found her convincing in any role.

The Curmudgeon said...

"I try to be candid in this blog when discussing industry people I’ve worked with, but if I say something unflattering about someone I either have the facts to back it up or state clearly that this is just my opinion. Bottom line: I’ve never viewed this blog as a forum for getting back at anyone. And I take much greater joy praising someone than knocking them."

Careful... you can get booted off the Internet for crazy, radical notions like this. (I'd put in a smiley-face here to show I'm kidding and that I'm really grateful for your approach.)

ScottyB said...

I see the point to subtitles, but they're a distraction, at least for me: If I spend time reading the subtitles, I'm missing out on what's happening on the screen; if I ignore the subtitles and pay attention to what's going on onscreen, I have no fucking clue what anyone's saying in some foreign language.

That's the advantage to stuff on DVD and DVR. You can do one thing, rewind the segment, and then watch the other thing.

Liggie said...

I enjoy subtitles as part of a joke. One was Weird Al's parody of Nirvana's indecipherable "Smells Like Teen Spirit" lyrics; the subtitles included a "(?)" at one point. (Heard Nirvana re-released the single after the video, but included the lyrics on the record sleeve.)

My brother mentioned a British comedy sketch parodying the (IMO, annoying) subtitles in news reports of people speaking English with heavy accents. An actor playing a non-Anglophone political radical was being interviewed on the news: "If the government continues treating us like ... [looks down at the subtitles] Hey, why are you subtitling me? I speak fluent English, I studied university here! 'She sells seashells down by the seashore!' Is my accent really that thick that you can't understand me?"

Scott, didn't Cliff Clavin have a Boston accent?

Liggie said...

Costuming F.Q. When characters wear jerseys, hats and whatnot of a sports team, does the studio have to pay a licensing fee to the team/league, even if the team isn't involved in the story? (E.g. The characters wear Orioles hats because the movie's set in Baltimore, but there aren't scenes involving an Orioles game and there's no dialogue referencing the O's.)

Johnny Walker said...

It's sad to say that a lot of TV shows don't require you to understand what's been said to enjoy things. But there's a few shows where you want to savour every bit of dialogue because it's so laden with meaning. MAD MEN and THE WIRE spring to mind in this regard. If you miss something, you want to rewind and hear what the person said, because you know it's going to add to your understanding of the situation or the person who spoke. In those cases subtitles are a godsend.

That said, I have a Spanish girlfriend who requires English subtitles to assist with her understanding with what's said, and you quickly get used to watching something with subtitles, even when you personally don't need them.

Why are we talking about subtitles again?

Matt said...


Cliff had a very strong Boston accent in the early episodes. However, I believe it didn't test well and he was hard to understand if you weren't used to the accent so they had him drop it.

cadavra said...

I guess I'm so used to subtitles that I can read them quickly and return to the action, though it should be noted than when people are speaking in lengthy sentences, they're generally not doing anything else.

I remember a Ken Loach film (RIFF RAFF, maybe?) where the U.S. trailer featured one of the heavily-accented actors telling us that the film would be subtitled "so you lot will understand what we're talkin' about." Hilarious.

Marianne said...

Friday question:
I was just wondering why it wasn't until the later seasons that Cheers decided to film teasers in front of the actual bar in Boston? Also, were those scenes filmed in one hit or did the actors regularly go to and from Boston?

Anonymous said...

Friday question: 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?