Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Questions

Live from New York! It’s Friday Questions!

Julia Littleton gets us started.

Can you explain something about the art of the setup that won't, as it were, kill the frog in the process? Probably you've explained it before, but I can never get enough of this stuff. The setups on Frasier were so elaborate that the reward, when it came, was truly memorable.

The key to the set-up is providing the information the viewer needs to make the joke work. A Donald Trump hair joke makes no sense if you don’t know that Donald Trump has a ridiculous comb-over. Make sure the audience has the information it needs to know in order for the joke reference to connect.

The other thing set-ups have to be is very specific. You want to lead the viewer down one specific comedy path. If the punch line can be viewed as ambiguous (is the joke about Donald Trump’s hair or his money?) you shoot yourself in the foot.

People underestimate the importance of set ups. Often when a joke doesn’t work the first thing we do is not throw it out and find another joke, it's analyze the set-up. Maybe the punchline was right; the set up was not.  Changing a word or two or clarifying can save a good joke.

Griffin asks:

I'm a crew member on a network show who has been guaranteed a directing assignment. I don't have an agent, and I'm wondering -- is now a good time to try to get one? Should I wait until the episode goes well?

No. Get one now if you can. Strike while the iron is hot.  Hopefully your episode will go great, but you’ll have no more clout than you do now. Agents sign people based on their marketability (and thus commissions), not how brilliant their work is.  The credit is the main thing, which you will now have. Congratulations on the directing assignment. Break a lens.

Jose wants to know:

Ken, not that you would, but at the height of your career (or even now), could you have "blackballed" someone starting out that you didn’t like?

No one has ever asked me that question before. No. I don’t know any writer or producer who has that power. Showrunners do talk and maybe a bad experience on one show could keep a writer from landing on a few others, but it’s not like the blacklist of the ‘50s where certain writers and actors were essentially banned from the industry.

And honestly, even if a writer gets a bad rap, sometimes it’s unjustified, and you put that same writer in a better situation then suddenly he thrives.

For the record, I’ve never tried to get anybody blackballed. Nor would I. Life’s too short to engage in that kind of toxic bullshit.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this further today, I would have to say that I do know some writers who are vindictive and try to derail people.   It's a loathsome practice and regardless of how successful they may be at it, they're still taking advantage of their power position (whatever level it is) to hurt someone who is in a lesser position.   Like I said, I don't condone it and have little respect for those who practice it.

Usually I don’t answer questions from Anonymous readers but this MASH-related one was worth addressing. That said, please leave a name. Thank you.

Winchester's sister was HonORRia, or a something like that (make sure to use the Boston accent). Near the end, maybe even in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (the series finale), someone pronounced her name so it rhymed with gonorrhea.

Was that always a joke in the pocket from when the sister was named, or a happy coincidence? My lowbrow mind thought it was one of the funniest jokes on the show, especially in the last couple years.

The name Honoria comes from a girl I dated briefly in college. She made it very clear that she wanted to be referred to by her proper name, no nicknames like “Honey.” So when we were looking for a name for Charles’ sister, someone rigid and a little snooty, I thought of Honoria.

The mispronunciation by Hawkeye to needle Charles was a happy accident.

I always wondered whether the real Honoria was flattered or pissed that we used her name.

Johnny Walker queries:

Were there any unaired episodes of Big Wave Dave's? Wikipedia says there were only ever six produced. Is it right?

Only six made. All six aired. All six did great in the ratings. Maybe double the audience BIG BANG THEORY enjoys now. CBS cancelled us.  I'm not at all bitter.

From Bert:

You've frequently provided insightful advice for aspiring TV writers. What would you suggest for a young high school kid, a sports buff, who wants to be a sports broadcaster?

Take English courses. Read voraciously. Develop your communication skills and build your vocabulary. It’s not just about “sports.”

Study the sportscasters you admire, but don’t copy their style. And then practice the 10,000 hours. The best way to do that is to grab a taping device, go to games, sit high in the stands away from others, call the game, then listen back and critique yourself, really being brutal. It’s not the same sitting in front of your TV with the sound down. You don’t want someone else to show you the pictures. You want to be able to see for yourself -- check out the defensive alignment, or what’s happening on the bench or in the dugout (depending on the sport). And it’s great to have that crowd ambiance.

It doesn’t have to be a Major League baseball game or NBA or NFL game. Go call a college game or even a high school game. The more experience you get, the better. Oh… and keep giving the score.

What's your Friday Question?  Please leave it in the comments section.  I'll try to get to it no matter what coast I'm on.  


Oat Willie said...

I love to start the day with a picture of Trump.

John in Ohio said...

Thanks for answering my question.
Sorry about the anon, but it was already gone when I realized I clicked the wrong button on my phone. It autofills the name in when I click the Name/URL button, so usually it is Click name, Click recaptha, Click publish. Fat fingers.

MikeN said...

People used to gather round to hear him tell a joke, just to see how he would mess it up. Thus, in one of those peculiar inversions the human world is full of, by being a terrible joke-teller, he got a reputation as the funniest guy in the school. I won't embarrass him by using his real name. His school nickname was Noddy. Here's Noddy telling a joke:

A little boy got a teddy bear for Christmas. His Mum said: "What are you going to name the bear?" The little boy said: "I'm going to name him 'Gladly.'" His Mum said: "That's a funny name for a bear. What made you choose that for a name?" The little boy said: "Well, I got the idea from that hymn we sang at church last week: 'Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear'." Oh, I forgot to say: the bear was cross-eyed.

Gerry said...

In my mind I'm about 110% sure it was Klinger who mispronounced "Honoria". Am I right? Wrong? I still repeat this line, one of the funniest lines ever in my opinion.

Kevin O'Shea said...

Re: Calling games with the TV sound off.

I was a resident assistant in a former-convent turned single-sex, men’s, jock dorm at a Catholic college; whose idea of an endowment was to field perennially competitive basketball and hockey teams.

Sidebar: As late as the 1980s, this college enforced parietals: a rule that requires all women had to be out of the dorm by midnight. But this dorm building also housed the infirmary, so many a girlfriend of a jock (a/k/a “Hoop Scoops” or “Puck F#$ks) that were found wandering the floors at 3 am and liable to pay a financial fine for their transgressions—were suddenly in need of medical treatment, usually of the kind intended to embarrass a 20 year old Catholic boy just trying to earn free room and board). Hilarity ensued.

The point is that during my years in the late 1980s, there were two or three hockey players who knew that their years in the NHL would be limited, so they focused on broadcasting (mostly as English majors because broadcasting was not offered as major at this school).

These guys would practice calling WWF matches, all the freakin time. Admittedly, the drunker they got, the funnier they were. Last I heard, one of them worked for years as the body-man to the Dunkin Donuts “Time to Make the Donuts” spokesman, made good coin, and played a ton of golf. Many of other guys on that floor stayed in the NHL, college coaching, and I think one is on NPR.

- said...

Apparently the writer of Mars Attacks, Jonathan Gems, was blacklisted because some people in Washington didn't like the scenes involving politicians, and he was dropped by his agency as a result and has never worked in Hollywood again.

Jim said...

What was the worst promotion you encountered while working your way through the minors? Did you have to take a stand against it like he did?

Paul said...

Gerry, I saw an episode of M.A.S.H. last night, "Rally 'Round the Flagg, Boys", in which Col. Flagg produced said mispronunciation. Therefore, it appears, it became a running gag of sorts in the series. So, it probably was Hawkeye who did it first to annoy Charles. Then, other characters (i. e. Klinger) did it later, I would assume, unintentionally. (Intention of the character notwithstanding, it never failed to annoy Charles.)

Michael said...

When I was eight, I wrote to The Vin to ask him how to become a sportscaster. He advised majoring in English. Ken, thanks for carrying on that tradition.

After learning the story behind Beanpole Levine, I've been listening very carefully when I watch MASH ....

Sebastiaan said...

Hi Ken, I love the blog. I've been reading it for a couple of months now and I find it both informative and very entertaining.

I actually also have a question that might involve more red-tape than usual, so please bear with me. As an English literature student at a university in Belgium, I often find that one of the best ways for studying storytelling is to start by analyzing the source material from a formal perspective. When it comes to novels, this is fairly easy to do, as you can reread certain sections to better grasp their significance within the construction of the story. There sometimes even exist annotated editions that indicate where the author has made changes and what these changes are, allowing students to better grasp the writing process by revealing underlying elements of symbolism and structures of tension.

However, when it comes to making a similar analysis of, for instance, a sitcom episode or a film, one generally has to rely on the final product. This is something I noticed firsthand last year. As I was writing a paper on the adaptation processes of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" for both film and television (the HBO version is actually also quite good, but for very different reasons than the brilliant 1940s film version, if anyone here hasn't seen either of them yet), I noticed that it was incredibly difficult to get a hold of a version of the final script, or any script for that matter.

I understand that this is very much a legal issue and that the film studios and networks generally hold the rights to these scripts, making it virtually impossible to legally obtain a copy, even for educational purposes. There are of course university libraries with accessible copies, but these are often restricted to students of said universities. This is again something I noticed last year, as I had finally found a university that has a copy of the original script, but it would have cost me about 70 euros to get a digital version! My later e-mails to confirm that the university I am enrolled in could potentially take care of these costs were even ignored, so to cut things short, I have had some pretty bad experiences in trying to procure a film script for the purpose of writing an academic paper.

On the other hand, I have noticed that certain writers have gone to great extents to make their scripts accessible for those who are interested in studying them. I'm mostly thinking of Bryan Fuller, the enormously talented writer/show-runner, who has put up all the scripts for some of his series (including the brilliant Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls and the still ongoing drama series Hannibal) on his website (, probably after getting formal permission from the people who own the rights.

So, the question I'm getting at is: as a writer and an eternal student of all things funny, do you believe that the magic should remain onscreen only, or that upcoming writers should be given the opportunity to access the original scripts of classic and brilliant series like MASH, Cheers and Frasier (for free or for a small fee)?

I also have to note that whilst looking for the Mildred Pierce script, I found a number of other scripts, including eight Frasier scripts. Some of them are stamped "For Educational Purposes Only", so I assume that these are legal and posted online at some point by someone who was allowed to do so. One of the scripts is actually written by you and David Isaacs ("The Show Where Sam Shows Up"), just so you know.

My apologies for the somewhat long question, but thank you in advance if you find it interesting enough to reply to.

Kind regards,

Igor said...


Hope you don't mind someone other than Ken offering an answer/POV to one of your questions.

If you go to Youtube you can find all sorts of clips from TV shows and movies, and sometimes entire TV shows/movies, as well as songs and entire albums/CDs... that technically should not be there - i.e., they were posted by people who don't hold the copyright nor do they have permission of the copyright holder.

Scripts that you find on-line that are stamped "For Educational Purposes Only" have the same legal status as those videos & music posted at Youtube. In other words, they are not "legal".

There is an exception within US copyright law for educational uses. But to the extent that that exception could/would apply to entire scripts, it would only apply as to limited distribution to students in a class - i.e., not to posting on the Internet for the entire world to access. In other words, stamping "For Educational Purposes Only" on an entire script and then uploading it to the net absolves no one.

So if they're not legal, why can you find them? Because the copyright owners don't know they're on-line, or do know but don't have the means to go after them, or just don't care (enough to do anything about it).

Chrissy said...

So I suppose the chances of a BIG WAVE DAVE'S: THE COMPLETE SERIES on Blu-Ray or DVD is even more remote than the chances of getting ALMOST PERFECT: THE COMPLETE SERIES. *Sigh*

benson said...

FWIW, the original Police Squad series that led to the Naked Gun movies was all of six episodes. All fit onto one DVD.

I wonder if there would be any money to be made for some distributor like Rhino to do either of those series. Though I have been saying for years, with these limited series, why not just sell the video file, no packaging or frills, no added costs.

Julia Littleton said...

Thanks so much for answering my question about the art of the set-up. After reading your blog post yesterday, I watched "Breaking In Is Hard to Do" on Netflix. The wonderful part of it is, even after getting to the punch line, I would never have suspected that the entire purpose of Norm's parking problem was to set up that joke. It was a stealth move, and yet it made the meaning immediately clear. Brilliant!

Patrick said...

What do you think about Rose Mcgowan getting dropped by her agent because she blasted Adam Sandler's sexist audition wardrobe note?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Sure, I know what most of the country is talking about on this day, but Ken, I felt that it was very important for you to know that there's a twitter feed called @History_Pics and in a tweet with a timestamp of 1:02 AM - 26 Jun 2015 there's a photo of Natalie Wood after the pie fight in THE GREAT RACE. It's sort of adorable. Correction: It's every sort of adorable.

Oh, by the way, might there be another reading list soon? I can't remember if the last one was a summer list, but it included MAD AS HELL, which I really enjoyed.

Gerry said...

Thanks, Paul, that's pretty funny!

Liggie said...

Baseball F.Q. What do you find the worst transgression, Pete Rose's betting on games involving his team, or the myriad players taking steroids/performing-enhancing drugs?

Steve B. said...

Ken, when I was in Kauai last year I couldn't help but notice an actual "Big Wave Dave's Bar and Grill" ( So, which came first, the chicken (your show) or the egg (the place in Kauai)?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks! A damn shame.

Mjke Doran said...

I don't pretend to be an expert on M*A*S*H, and I'd have to chain myself to a DVD player to be sure.
But METV is about midway through the Winchester years, and I'm reasonably sure that Colonel Flagg was the one and only character who mispronounced Honoria's name.
And that it only happened that one time.
And that was Flagg's last appearance, which I don't think was a coincidence.

I think I said in an earlier comment that Flagg was a "strawman" character - the kind I hate in a show like this.
Getting rid of him was a wise move, as was removing the "straw" qualities from Winchester and Klinger.

Bitchy said...

Season 7, Ep 22 M*A*S*H* - BJ Papa San - Opening scene, about 1:30 in on Netflix, you can see the tent roof of the Swamp, and blue sky beyond it. It is as if the tent only has walls 3/4 - 1/2 of the way around. I suppose doing this made it easier for the crew, cameras and lighting, but is this a visible goof due to the higher quality of Netflix, or something that also showed up during original airings?
Also, the Netflix title says "B.J." if the name wasn't short for anything, there should be no periods. Netflix error or continued style error from the M*A*S*H* staff?

Bitchy said...

Mike Doran, I just saw the episode where Flagg mispronounced Honoria's name. 7x22 Rally Round the Flagg, Boys. It stuck out because I had just read the claim on here and then happened to watch that episode. It also makes sense that Flagg would mispronounce it, since he read a file about Winchester and then mentioned her to him, having not heard the name pronounced you wouldn't know any better. If you only heard the name and never saw it, would it really occur to you to say it any other way? Flagg & Winchester were alone when this was said, it couldn't be a running gag because they weren't there to witness what Flagg said, AND probably only heard the name and never read it.
If you actually watched the episode, you'd know the gook bigwigs Winchester set Flagg up on vowed revenge against Flagg, which would explain why that was his last appearance.