Saturday, August 16, 2014

One of the true idiots I've ever worked with

Early in my directing career I did a couple of episodes of ASK HARRIET for FOX. It actually was not a bad show and I worked with some wonderful actors like Willie Garson, Ed Asner, and Julie Benz. But one of the producers was maybe the worst writer I’ve ever encountered in the business. And he really stuck out because the rest of the staff was terrific.

For purposes of this piece let’s call him Shecky because he pretty much embodied the lowest of the borscht belt comics. Loud, lascivious, dyed his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish, always hustling and creeping-out the extras. He was the uncle your parents always kept you away from when you were little.

Shecky only cared about jokes. Usually old, usually off color. Supposedly when he was on staff of an earlier series whenever it was time to break a story he fell asleep.

One week we had an act break joke that was just a vile gratuitous slam on gays. I called and said the cast and I were all extremely uncomfortable with the line. He said he wanted to see it at runthrough. Okay. Fair enough.

I rehearsed the scene and told the cast not to purposely tank the line. They didn’t need to first of all, and secondly, we didn’t want to give Skecky any ammunition for keeping the line.

So the writers all came down, we did the scene, and predictably the joke bombed… except for Shecky laughing hysterically. And this was the conversation that followed, almost verbatim, between me and the Sheckster.

Me: Well, it didn’t work. We could really use something else here.

Shecky: What are you talking about? It worked great!

Me: Huh?   It did? No one laughed.

Shecky: I laughed.

Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.

Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.

Me: Excuse me??

Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that.   Writers are jaundiced.

Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves. Their job is to best determine what others will like. Otherwise, what’s the point of even having a runthrough?

Shecky: To support the actors. Look, the joke stays.

I was just the freelance director. I walked away in utter disbelief. They did the joke on show night and not only did it not get a laugh, it got gasps from the audience.

Later that night Shecky said he was putting in a new line in the scene we were about to shoot. It was an office party scene and one character was trying to impress a co-worker he had eyes on. So another character suggests Xeroxing his ass. Why this would charm a woman I do not know. But there was some lame line of justification. Shecky wanted to change it. When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt.”

Me: No, really.

Shecky: That’s the line.

Me: You’re not serious, are you? I mean, you’re not actually proposing that line, right?

Shecky: Why not? What’s wrong with it?

Me: What's wrong with it?   Really?  Uh… well, for starters -- it’s tasteless and offense and not remotely funny.

Shecky: Well, fuck you! That’s the line.

I refused to give that line to the cast. If he wanted it in he would have to do it. He cursed me out again and stormed onto the stage. Two minutes later he returned.

Shecky: (begrudgingly) Alright, we’ll do the original line.

Me: Let me guess, the actor refused to say it?

Shecky: FUCK YOU!!

By mutual consent, that was the last ASK HARRIET I directed.

But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.

This requires a knack, based on observation, experience, and your own sense of humor. Paying attention to what works. The only true determination is if the audience laughs. So how are the jokes constructed? How dependent is the material on performance? Or reactions?  What about tone?  Timing? Do you have the right target audience? What and exactly when are they laughing?  And then of course, there’s common sense. I’d be surprised if a single one of you thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was funny and appropriate.

Can this knack be developed? Absolutely. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. I went down to my first runthrough, sat on a director chair with the rest of the writers and enjoyed the runthrough immensely. Meanwhile, I’m looking over at everyone else and they’re madly scribbling. I’m thinking “What are they seeing?” But then we’d get back to the writers room and they’d start discussing the script and their concerns. The next day’s runthrough would be dramatically better. By paying attention I began to see what they saw.

So what if you don't have the luxury of being on staff? 

When you go to comedy movies make note of what works and try to figure out why. Same with plays. Sitcoms are harder unless they’re multi-camera and you’re in the audience. Because through editing, sweetening, and retakes they can make shows appear better than they played. But train yourself to study comedy. And when you feel you finally have a real handle on it then learn this cardinal rule:

No one is always right.

I hate to say it and wish it weren’t so but no matter how long you’ve been doing it, how many Oscars or Emmys or Tonys you have, you still may be wrong. That’s why we have runthroughs. That’s why Neil Simon, after all his smash hits, rewrites constantly while his plays are still in tryout. That’s why movies are previewed.

So we never know for sure. But start thinking professionally.  If you do your due diligence, if you begin to trust that you’re right most of the time you’ll have a much greater shot at breaking in. And more importantly you’ll help weed out fucking idiots like Shecky.  Please do it.  For me.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like Billy Riback.

Greg Ehrbar said...

One of the toughest parts of my job is reminding a few folks with agendas and/or blinders on that we're doing the work for the public, not ourselves nor our superiors in hopes that they shower favor on us.

I worked with a shrieking harridan who was also a horrible writer and would bite off my head (usually in front of people) when I dared to question even the most minor thing. A famous TV personality went on the air and said something inane she had written and incorrect even though I tried to tell this writer about it beforehand.

The sad thing is that person, unlike Shecky, acknowledged the abhorrent behavior -- but always after the damage was done. I take no solace (or more honesty, little solace) in the fact that they are often their worst enemies.

D. Markell said...

I had always heard this as a quote from Lenny Bruce, but apparently it was actually Billy Wilder (which makes sense) on audiences:

"Individually, they're idiots. Collectively, they're a genius."

One caveat to what Ken puts so well - One audience isn't always the best barometer for a joke. In the theatre we knew that certain nights had better audiences than others - a joke could get screams from a Friday night audience and crickets at a Saturday Matinee. We had the rule of threes - if a joke didn't work three nights in a row, it was out.

Tapings are different, of course. I think Ken would be the first to agree that long running shows can limp along with "recognition" laughs - Carla eventually could say anything about Cliff and the attitude would go a long way in getting the laugh - by that time the audience EXPECTED it to be a put down, so it was as much about rhythm as it was about the actual words.

Kramer would get a laugh off of a reaction. Watching the old Seinfelds with my ten-year-old (a dream come true) I'm aware how often they could end a scene on Kramer simply saying "Giddyup" or something like that. I don't think it's exactly Larry Gelbart territory.

Finally, on the topic of Neil Simon (who isn't doing too much rewriting these days, sadly) - I've probably told this story here before - it has to do with not always trusting your individual audience members:

During the tryouts for Sweet Charity, Simon would wait in the lobby to hear what people were saying as they left the theatre. He overheard this exchange:

Wife: So? What did you think?
Husband: It's worse show since My Fair Lady!

D. Markell said...

Oy. Let me try that punch line again.

Wife: So? What did you think?
Husband: It's the worst show since My Fair Lady.


Jim Sullivan said...

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

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

And besides supply of extra footage for editing purposes, how is the directing aspect different?

CANDA said...

Ken, I guess it's a good thing you didn't work on the early episodes of MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, which made gross, over-the-top, offensive comments their standard, and America and Fox loved it.

So, would it be a surprise that Fox would want a comedy that was over-the top, with jokes that might occasionally be crude?

As you stated, ASK HARRIET was not a bad show, and it attracted some good actors. That says some good things about the people who were writing and producing the show, since they obviously had the rapport to convince these actors to work with them, and their trust, as well.

All this leads me to say I know Billy Riback (which ANONYMOUS, the coward who commented, identified as the person you're talking about). I also know people who have worked with Billy Riback, and Billy is a supportive, funny man, who is a true mensch, and who has helped many people when they're down and out. He also has one of the most infectious laughs on earth, and you would definitely want him in your audience if you were taping a show.

He knows many top actors, like Ed Asner, and they love him.

Ken, as you know, the worst thing a director can do is have a bad attitude about the material, which easily infects everything. If you had integrity, you should have asked not to direct, or had the courtesy to tell the writers and producers you didn't feel you could do it justice, and why you thought that. It would have been better for everybody, including you.

No doubt your attitude probably spilled over into the following weeks, and a cast, which was doing a light, sexy show, that could occasionally be crude, may suddenly have thought they were in the worst piece-of-crap ever written. That makes for a poisonous set.

The reason MARRIED WITH CHILDREN worked was that the cast embraced the crudity, and ran with it. If a director came in and convinced them otherwise, the show would have been gone in 13 weeks.

The reason we loved John Ritter on THREE'S COMPANY is because he totally threw himself into the silly, sexy farce filled with double entendres every week, never once giving a sly glance to the camera to say, "Look, this is dumb, and everything is unbelievable coincidence, and I'm better than this, and you know it, and I know it". Instead, he acted (and very well, too) like every single moment was important to him, and real.

I admire your work, and your partner, too, and I don't think it's honorable to write a character assassination about a person who is easily identifiable...and you know damn well you were identifying that person by your exaggerated description, and by identifying the show he worked on.

This isn't one of your better days on the blog.

PolyWogg said...

While the previous poster seems to think it was a bad post, I disagree. It's exactly the kind of material that people getting into the biz or aspiring to be or even looking to improve through the lessons of others. And Ken tried to keep it anonymous, the poster is the one who made it personal -- the post isn't about the personality of the original person, or whether he's a nice person to his dog, it's about someone who thinks he knows funny but has obvious blinders in certain areas.

We all know people who are similar, and some of us when we're honest with ourselves, recognize it in us too. If you think something is funny, tell five friends that don't work for you. If four of them don't laugh out loud but merely smile and move on, it's not funny.

I have a brother who a lot of people think is a nice guy, blah blah blah. But he also thinks some things are super funny, that no one else does. Usually immature stuff. And he usually thinks he's being witty when everyone else wishes he'd just shut up because he keeps going until it's obvious to everyone but him it isn't funny.

Thanks for the post Ken. And alogn with your original intent, I don't care who the person was really, cuz the "lesson" doesn't depend on his name.

Stephen Robinson said...

MWC is not as over-the-top as you think when you watch the repeats. The jokes from ASK HARRIET still don't work and are still offensive because the are crude for their own sake.

I saw an interview with Ed O'Neill recently and he mentioned that the show suffered when the humor was crude for its own sake. Early in the run, when it was in character , it came across much better -- Al and Peg Bundy were recognizable as the bad neighbors we've all had or the loudmouth vulgar relatives we contend with on holidays.

Making a gay joke or a sexist joke simply because it pushes the envelope isn't always clever or funny. I would point to ALL IN THE FAMILY and SANFORD AND SON for examples of doing it well. I've also noted that effective vulgarity or crudity is often countered so the character doesn't look like a bully or jerk -- Al Bundy makes fat jokes but the women in the shoe store have the true power over him. Fred Sanford insults Aunt Esther but she comes right back at him.

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


I appreciate your note but stand by my post. A) I never specifically said who the person was. Any name is just speculation. B) Everything I said was accurate and witnessed by many people, and C) the point of the post was not character assassination but a lesson in comedy writing.

I needed to specify the show because I needed to specify the joke and its context.

Yes, it was on Fox, but the Fox executive overseeing the show came up and thanked me for taking my stand. That executive eventually moved over to ABC and I got tons of work directing ABC shows based on his recommendation.

And I remain friends with many of the cast members.

So again, I stand by my post and hope the take-away is to judge material by professional standards. But thanks again for the note and not hiding behind "Anonymous." Your comments are always welcome whether you agree with me or not.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
By Ken Levine said...

Okay, I admit it. I'm cranky. I'm tired of anonymous pot shots. Generally I just leave them but why? I'll be deleting a lot more. It just takes a couple of clicks.

Anonymous said...

And yet, you didn't delete the one that NAMED Billy Riback. What a stand-up dude you are.

Dewar S McClerkey said...

So, this is Billy Riback we're talking about? Process of elimination + google image to find that shoe polished head and brow really, really narrows down the possibilities. Besides, that guy really looks like someone that would pay for sex.

D. Markell said...

Definitely Billy Riback. Skeezer creeper.

Anonymous said...

Contradiction Alert!

Ken recounts:

Me: Huh? It did? No one laughed.

Shecky: I laughed.

Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.

Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.

Me: Excuse me??

Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that. Writers are jaundiced.

Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves...

So, first Ken says the material must be bad because none of the writers laughed. Then he says it's not their job to be entertained... themselves.


Curly Sue

Jeremiah Avery said...

"The only true determination is if the audience laughs." - that reminds me of something John Cleese said. In that, no matter what you may think of the material, bottom line, if the audience doesn't laugh then it wasn't funny.

"Shecky" reminds me of those whose sense of humor peaked around 12 and thinks going to the gutter is somehow "edgy". There's "pushing boundaries" and then there's "shock" and he seemed to be going for the latter.

I'll enjoy a good dirty joke but when a show or stand-up is just scraping the bottom of the barrel and it's clear how that's as "high" as they can go, I just tune out and stop watching.

Anonymous said...

Cringe-worthy read of your experiences. That producer sounds like a real prince of a guy.

Dan Ball said...

So much for changing names to protect the innocent!

FWIW, I wouldn't have guessed who Shoe Polish Shecky was based on the clues. Now that the cat's outta the bag, I still have no clue who he is and it really doesn't matter to me. But the point of the post is still valid and valuable.

Johnny Walker said...

To anonymous: If Ken deleted the post that named the person in this story, it would be a confirmation that the poster had guessed correctly.

Arthur Guest said...

One of the real problems with so-called popular fare like the example of Married with Children is that these are machines churning out "dirty" juvenile one-liners to get a laugh, and that hardly ages well, so dated in sensibility and "daring" tastes etc.. and so they don't offer long-term re-run syndication, while many, many other well-written sitcoms do.

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker writes: "To anonymous: If Ken deleted the post that named the person in this story, it would be a confirmation that the poster had guessed correctly." But to whom, Johnny, to whom?

Johnny Walker said...

Curly Sue: I don't think there's a contradiction. The writers should have laughed AND felt it would work for their audience. If they did neither, or one, then that would surely be an indication of a problem?

Re: Ken's post: I'm no expert, but I think the "write what you think is funny" may be good advice for finding your own voice, but there's obviously a lot more to being a successful writer than just writing down what you think is funny...!

I think a big part of being a good writer is learning to want to entertain people, not just share your ideas with them. Obviously not to the point where you lose your own voice, but rather so you can share the things you care about, and which drive you to write, through something enjoyable and entertaining.

(Conversely, if you just want to be liked by people, and are prepared to say and do anything in order to get their approval, with no real interest in retaining a voice of your own, you may want to consider a career in acting :)

Johnny Walker said...

PS - No offence to any actors who read this!

Mitch said...

I don't know if it's still done, but in the early days of theatrical short subjects, some studios, Hal Roach in particular, would preview the short at a suburban theater and "clock" the laughs, to see how many times the audience laughed during the two-reeler. That's roughly 18-20 minutes -- the length of today's half-hour sitcom. If they got a low laugh count, they'd do some editing or sometimes shoot additional material.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Let's go 90 degrees off topic: Ken: Can you recall a scene that wrote/rehearsed "funny" but just didn't connect with that one-chance live audience? Conversely, can you recall a rush-written scene that was viewed as an afterthought, just simply killed live?

CamiOcam said...

Based on his picture(s), he was probably Andrew Dice Clay's understudy before he got into producing, "OHHHHH!" That would explain the raunchy sense of humor, "OHHHHH!"

Scott said...

Mark Twain said that sorrow is the secret source of humor. So I'm guessing everyone who's ever been married to this Scheky guy is a succesful standup comedian by now. *rimshot*

Johnny Walker said...

Anonymous: You're obviously pretty ignorant of how these things work. Each day Ken's posts get thousands of views, probably high 10s of thousands, or even high hundreds of thousands on a really huge day.

LOTS of people will have read a comment before Ken can delete it. And one of those people would undoubtedly post again, if he did delete it: "Well we know who Ken was referring to now..." And thousands more would see that before he could delete it, too. And so on.

Before you try and tell me I'm exaggerating, let me just let you know that I've been reading this blog on a nearly daily basis for several years, and I've seen what I've just described happen before. No matter how quick Ken is, someone will see the comment.

Additionally, if it was a really big post that got picked up by news sites (like the Roseanne series), the fact he'd deleted a name would become part of the story, preserved for all time elsewhere on the internet.

People can speculate all they want, but as soon as Ken gets involved in that speculation, in any capacity, there is confirmation.

The only other option would be for Ken to manually vet each and every comment manually before they're posted, which isn't realistic for such a busy guy, and would stifle conversation here even if it was.

Orleanas said...

I've been obsessed with your site since I found it last month, Ken, so it's with a bit of disappointment that I ask, What's up with the re-post of this blog entry?

David said...


Ken writes for TV, and you're asking why there are reruns?

jbryant said...

Why on earth would someone who's only been reading this blog for a month be disappointed by a repeat of an entry from four years ago? If you've read that far back already in the last month, you weren't exaggerating when you said you were obsessed! But I never understand this complaint anyway; Ken is juggling at least two careers -- we expect him to generate 365 original blog posts a year on top of that? Ask for your money back. Oh, wait...

Orleanas said...

@David: Great response!

...I only asked because in reading the archives, Ken is proud of the fact that he's posted everyday for all these years (impressive!) because he hasn't run out of things to say. I hadn't come across a repost (since I haven't yet gotten through all the archives), so cynical me wondered whether there was an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes.

D Markell said...

It's been brought to my attention that there is a post above which names the writer in question and calls him a rather unsavory name. This was posted under MY name, which I fine even more unsavory. I didn't write that comment. I would ask Ken to delete it please.

Denis Markell (the real one)