Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bonus Questions

The Friday Questions are stacking up so I thought I would devote an extra day to them.  Hope that's okay.

Rashad Khan leads off:

In a previous blog post, you mentioned the pilot episode of "The Phil Silvers Show" to your comedy writing class at USC. If you haven't covered this topic before: which OTHER sitcom pilots would you show to anyone as good examples (provided, of course, they were available for viewing)?

I used to say the COSBY pilot but no more. I didn’t necessarily show pilots to the class, just great episodes. The series I chose besides Bilko were THE HONEYMOONERS, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY, FAWLTY TOWERS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, and SEINFELD. I didn’t show them any recent pilots since I figured they’d seen them already. MODERN FAMILY is a pretty great pilot though. So is 30 ROCK. And MY NAME IS EARL.

From Jack Terwilliger:

Loved this (DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) exercise. Learned so much from it. Mr. Persky's comments on story structure and character raised a Friday question: is writing for the stage closer to writing for television than for film? It seems as if lots of playwrights write for TV. Maybe that's just where the work is, but I'm wondering if their skills transfer more readily to one medium than the other.

Playwrights write for television because there’s way more money in it.  TV tends to be very dialogue-driven. And, I might add, more nuanced and well-written than most features. Hollywood wants comic book blockbusters while television offers sophisticated dramas and comedies that don’t require the Griswolds or Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy.

The irony is in the ‘50s the reverse was true. TV writers all aspired to write for the theatre. That’s where the quality was. Now Broadway means ALADDIN.

Longtime friend of the blog, Howard Hoffman asks:

The DVD experience made me wonder when and why producing/writing/directing credits got moved to the top of the show rather than at the end.

The first credit after the show has to be the director. Or the last credit at the top of the show. If you do the writing and directing credits up front then you can end the show with the showrunner’s card. That’s one reason. Another is that over time front loaded credits just became the standard. VHS won out over Betamax. (I wonder how many readers have no idea what that reference means.)

Glen K. wonders:

If there is a scene where an actor is required to drink or eat something in a large quantity, how is it done if multiple takes are required? Doesn't the actor get full, maybe even sick?

It’s a really good way to get back at actors who are difficult. (Just kidding… sort of) Most times actors will not actually eat much. They’ll push food around the plate or pick at it.

Poor George Wendt (Norm), however, had to down lots of beer on CHEERS. And it was warm 3.2 (lower alcohol) beer. Rarely did we do less than three takes.

Multiple takes also requires multiple portions of food. If someone is eating a three-pound lobster you need three or four three-pound lobsters. What that sometimes means is a feast for the crew when the show is wrapped.

My heart goes out to actors doing food related commercials. They DO have take big bites of those juicy Big Macs take after take after take.  Although, in some cases I think they just spit the food out. In the case of Big Macs that’s probably wise anyway.

And finally, Jon H wants to know:

I've noticed, from attending tapings myself, that a lot of sitcoms now seem to have a lot of prerecorded scenes, a lot of the warmup guy telling the audience to "look at the monitors" for the next scene. Do you find that prerecorded scenes help or hurt a show? Is it hard to get the timing right, in case the audience laughs too long or too short, or can that all be controlled in post-production now?

Here’s how they help a show: The audience doesn’t have to stay there till 2 in the morning. The crew can film outside scenes or scenes with complicated stunts or on sets not visible to the audience. The bad news is those scenes never play all that great on the monitors.

When I direct, if there’s a scene in a car. I’ll preshoot the scene, but for the studio audience, instead of showing that to them, I put two chairs on the set, tell the audience to imagine they’re in a car, and have the actors perform the scene. I don’t film it but I do record the audio. The laughs are always way better when the audience can see the live actors.

What’s your Friday Question or whatever day you want?


Anonymous said...

VHS won out over Betamax even though Betamax was better because Sony held too tight to the licenses. This kept the price up on them, where VHS was available for anyone to make a machine without paying Sony a huge fee. Or make a tape, because they had to pay licensing also.
In the early days, videos were EXPENSIVE. $50+ in late 70s dollars for the movie version of MASH. Rentals were in infancy, so there was very little reason to have a VCR. Except for porn, and Sony wouldn't allow it on Betamax. The real reason that VHS won.

Curt Alliaume said...

I feel badly for the actors in The Big Bang Theory (well, not really, given their success and how renumerative it's been) in that so many scenes take place around meals, which means they eat a decent amount. It seems at least one scene in every season's gag reel features someone blowing a line because they have food in their mouth.

Mel Blanc said in his autobiography he kept a bucket handy when doing Bugs Bunny's voice, because he hated raw carrots.

Orwell said...

Very pleased, if a little surprised, to see you list the My Name Is Earl pilot as a favorite. Not surprised because I disagree, but because I haven't seen you praise the show before. I TIVO'd the Earl pilot and saved it, and showed it to quite a few friends. It was a terrific pilot, introducing the series concept and characters. Even better, it was hilariously funny.

The series was always pretty uneven from week to week, but the good episodes were right up there with the best sitcom episodes ever shown on TV. As with many series, it went downhill over the years, but the first couple of years were very good. From a writer's perspective, I would think the ability to bring in a fresh character every week (whomever Earl was apologizing to) is a nice treat. Or is it just extra work each week?

Peter said...

My Friday Q:

What's your opinion on prank based comedy like Bad Grandpa, Borat and Bruno? Are they your cup of tea? Do you think comedy is comedy, whether it's fully scripted or whether it relies on playing a prank on the public?

Breadbaker said...

Last night's Jeopardy champion literally pulled a Cliff Clavin. He had a couple thousand dollar lead on everyone, but bet the whole thing and missed Final Jeopardy so someone else is the returning champion today with $200. The woman in third, who had no chance if everyone answered right, could have bet zero and won about $8000. As someone who also bet wrong on Final Jeopardy, I feel for her more than the returning champion (who had won a lot the day before).

Rock Golf said...

Have you ever had an actor that's been so good at ad libs that you just left a line up to their discretion? Not in the middle of the scene but, say, as a last zinger? If not, which actor's ad lib suggestions did you most often incorporate?

(I'd ask who was the worst ad libber that didn't realize it, except I don't think you'd answer.)

Rock Golf said...

@Breadbaker: Wrong Ken. You want and I'd bet you get a conversation going.

Oat Willie said...

"Except for porn, and Sony wouldn't allow it on Betamax." Porn is the invisible turtle the world economy rests on. Never shows up on Intel commercials.

Michael said...

I read that some rules were put in place about eating and drinking when some child actors threw up after having to eat so many burgers or some such during an ad. This would have been back in the 1970s, maybe. I don't know whether that's true, but I have horrific thoughts of something like that happening to Rodney Allen Rippy.

Canda said...

The difficulty I see in asking an audience to watch two actors in a chair acting out the pre-recorded scene in the car is that
it would be difficult to match the space for laughs from the studio audience on the pre-recorded scene, where there were no laughs. How did you make that work?

Second, the Theo-Cliff scene from the pilot of "The Cosby Show", where the Dad teaches the son the value of money (using the Monopoly dollars) is worth showing to anyone writing comedy. If this is an example of "trigger warnings", it's unfortunate. There are few well-written family comedies, and the scenes from the shows you list, don't sound like they have many in them.

This also goes to the heart of the controversy over "Huckleberry Finn" and the poetry of Ezra Pound. Even Gatsby, now, is being given trigger warnings in college. I worry about this self-censorship.

Jason said...

Just on the Betamax topic, one thing I'd heard looong ago is that Betamax tapes (for home recording) were shorter than VHS, and in particular not long enough to hold an entire sporting event. So people would record a baseball game and the last inning would be missing.

But also porn, yeah. Porn is what drives all technological advances.

Rashad Khan said...

That should have read: " mentioned SHOWING the pilot episode...". I didn't realize until today that I had left out that word. Apologies, hope that clears up any confusion, and thanks for answering the question, Ken!

Rashad Kha said...

One more thing: I agree with Canda's comments regarding the "Cosby Show" pilot. I think that scene in particular (and the episode overall) is probably the best thing Bill Cosby ever did -- and the fact that we know now what we know about him shouldn't diminish its quality or its impact.

Stephen Robinson said...

CANDA: Second, the Theo-Cliff scene from the pilot of "The Cosby Show", where the Dad teaches the son the value of money (using the Monopoly dollars) is worth showing to anyone writing comedy. If this is an example of "trigger warnings", it's unfortunate. There are few well-written family comedies, and the scenes from the shows you list, don't sound like they have many in them.


SER: Bill Cosby is probably an awful human being, but THE COSBY SHOW (especially its first season) doesn't deserve the vanish. I can understand people not wanting to look at the man (although he doesn't seem to resemble the "dirty old" unshaven man in sweats he is now, which is somewhat ironic because it was the younger Cosby who committed these acts). I wonder if they'll be a point when the series can be redeemed (along with FAT ALBERT). Not just for its entertainment value but there are a very small number of black sitcoms that are critically acclaimed (or would be taught in schools). I grew up loving SANFORD AND SON, GOOD TIMES, and THE JEFFERSONS but neither would probably be taught in a college screenwriting class.


CANDA: This also goes to the heart of the controversy over "Huckleberry Finn" and the poetry of Ezra Pound. Even Gatsby, now, is being given trigger warnings in college. I worry about this self-censorship.

SER: I thought it made more sense for HUCK FINN to be taught in college than in high school. I was taught the book in both places, and the college experience was better: More blunt and accurate discussions of the racial history at the time. In high school, it's just a tedious walk on eggshells. Now, we can argue that it's *good* to crack those eggshells in high school, but my high school teacher taught HUCK FINN as a standard picaresque novel -- no real depth (but this was South Carolina). I think HUCK FINN is far more complex than is given credit and warrants a college class audience. Coincidentally, I'd say that GATSBY is more suited for high school kids. Despite having "adult" characters, the conflicts are far more relatable to teenagers -- probably because the characters *behave* like teenagers.

To your point, though, HUCK FINN isn't a racist book. It actually attacks racism. GATSBY is slightly less progressive -- there's a lot of casual racism and anti-semitism, but that should be confronted when taught. I know there have been some complaints about the violence against women (Tom breaking Myrtle's nose), but that is clearly depicted as a negative act.

Ezra Pound falls into the Cosby camp, in a way: A terrible person but that's not what their work is about. I wish we could more effectively separate the author from the art.

mmryan314 said...

Above posters: I understand what you mean by censoring books, shows, etc. but, in my opinion,once we learn a bit about an author or star that is extremely negative our perception and support changes. I remember reading The Education Of Little Tree many years ago. It was a touching story of a Native American boy being forced to change by compulsory education laws. I then learned that the author, Forest Carter who had proclaimed to be Cherokee was not and he in fact was a White Supremist. I would never have supported the author. let alone read the book, had I known this beforehand. It`s okay to back away from something objectionable. Mini protest if you will.

michael said...

One of the sad part about Bill Cosby story is how quick we have been to grab our pitchforks and torches and storm the castle like some bad monster movie. I was taught in school that the American justice system said you were innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But Fatty Arbuckle probably had a great laugh over that.
There are court cases coming and I have my tar and feathers heating over in the corner, but I am waiting until I hear a guilty verdict before I start burning his work.

Glen K. said...

I worked once as an extra where food was served in a soup kitchen scene. The food had been cooked before hand but was stone cold by the time we got it. We did a lot of "pushing the food around", and lifting empty forkfuls to our mouths. In one set up we lined up cafeteria style and food was dumped onto our plates as we made our way down the line. Before the director went for another take, we had to reverse back down the line so that food could be removed from our plates and put back into the serving trays. It got gross after take number 3.

Smitty said...

Louis CK and FX have a basic agreement: LCK gets complete creative control, FX's budget for his show is peanuts (in show biz terms) and as long as the show gets eyeballs/retains its quality, FX leaves LCK alone. Do you think most showrunners would take trade no network inference for a reduced budget?

DBA said...

Michael, do you understand that for all but one of the accusers, the statute of limitations has far passed? So while he is accused of near 40 incidents of wrongdoing, it's literally impossible for there to be a guilty verdict for all but one? That's why it is still worthy of discussion. We have to judge for ourselves for all the others. Read the story in New York magazine. Then see what you think.

Anonymous said...

@michael: I was taught in school that the American justice system said you were innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Common misconception. No, you are not innocent. You are presumed innocent for legal purposes. This means the State must prove your guilt. The burden is on the State. That is far different from everyone has to believe someone is innocent in the public forum. Someone can shoot another person on television in front of millions of people and those viewers can decide the shooter is guilty of the crime. But when that person goes to trial they are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law until evidence is presented and a judge or jury has decided.
It is very hard to believe given the number of women who have come forward that Cosby is innocent. But it is possible. If and when he is prosecuted, he receives the benefit of presumed innocence.

Peter said...


The fact that Cosby admitted in a sealed deposition which he never thought would be revealed to the public that he drugged a woman for sex and used the death from cancer of another woman's father as a way to get close to her for sex might have something to do with people's disgust at this grotesque man.

While he was condemning Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphyfor swearing, Cosby was raping young women. While he was selling the image of a squeaky clean family sitcom, he was drugging young women. While he was telling rappers to pull up their pants, he was manipulating emotionally vulnerable women suffering a bereavement to get them into bed.

I haven't let any of this change my opinion about the man or his show. I've always found him and his shitty sitcom unfunny. But I guess the fact it was "clean" is all that matters for repressed prudes.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"My heart goes out to actors doing food related commercials. They DO have take big bites of those juicy Big Macs take after take after take."

Reminds me of the two old Alka-Seltzer commercials: one of an actor blowing take after take filming a "Speecy, spicy" meatball commercial; the other of a man in obvious digestive discomfort sitting on the edge of his bed moaning to his wife, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."

michael said...

DBA, you are right but there is civil action that can be taken (much like the OJ case). You admit there is one case and that is what I am waiting on. I am not in a hurry for instant judgment, just judgment one way or another.
I think there should be more attention to changing the laws so rape can join murder as crimes with no statue of limitations.

Anonymous, read my post. I didn't say I thought he was innocent I am just waiting for him to be proven guilty by a court of law rather than the media.

That sealed deposition had Cosby admit to getting a party drug of the era (there is even a Shel Silverstein song about quaaludes). He comes off as a creep and scum but nothing he admitted to was rape (which is why he was not charged with rape after).

But this is not about Cosby the man but Cosby the comedian. I would hate to think how much of entertainment and other accomplishments of Man would be rejected based on a moral code for the human behind it.

iamr4man said...

The comments regarding food remind me of that Alka-Seltzer commercial "Mama Mia, that's a spicy meatball". It's available on YouTube. Still funny after all these years.

Alan C said...

The bit about George Wendt drinking beer reminded me of seeing Christina Applegate on Kimmel last night. There's a scene in the new Vacation movie where she chugs a whole pitcher of beer. She said that they actually CGI'd the beer. She still had to sell the swallowing action, though.

Johnny Walker said...

It's so disappointing when our heroes let us down.

Mike said...

@Smitty: That's a good point. Keep pressing it and you may get an answer. My guess is that, for all the moaning about interference, most producers & writers are chasing the money.

Diane D. said...

S. Robinson: The problem with redeeming the series (The Bill Cosby Show) is that the "man" benefits financially, and that would be a betrayal of his victims. They don't deserve that.

michael said...

Diane D. many people get money from Cosby's TV series (he had more than one), is it fair they are punished financially because you don't morally approve of him? And while he has a major cut for the Cosby Show, shows such as I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show he was just an actor.

VP81955 said...

Good question about pre-recorded scenes on sitcoms -- especially since I'll be at the filming of the third-season opener of "Mom" at Warners tomorrow night. At the ep I attended last year (the one the aired the week after Kevin Pollak's character Alvin died), the only pre-recorded scene that didn't involve a juvenile (who by state law are prohibited from working "live" in the evening) was an Allison Janney dream sequence where her Bonnie is reunited with Alvin on a beach (think "From Here To Eternity"), only to have his ex (portrayed by Beverly D'Angelo) run over by a train speeding out of nowhere. (Hey, it was Bonnie's dream.)

D. McEwan said...

Regarding actors who have to eat in a scene: In Hello Dolly on Broadway, Carol Channing had to eat like crazy. Part of the joke of the scene was that she was cramming a good meal down her face as fast as possible before the farce-situation blew up in her face and she'd be deprived of the food. I remember finding hilarious the rhythm she established of that fork going down to plate, stabbing bit of food, and then up into her mouth, repeat ad infinitum, seemingly as fast as she could move her arm. Supposedly it was a whole meal of steak, potatoes and vegetables. It was actually cotton candy, colored and shaped to look like steak, potatoes and vegies, so it basically disappeared when it hit her tongue.

I attended a taping of Murphy Brown once that had one pre-taped scene. For the show's button, Murphy looks out her window at the neighbor, guest star Tom Poston, with whom she'd been battling over some home improvements she wanted to make, and sees him on his new deck, an improvement he'd denied her, sunning himself nude. It had been shot in the studio, and Could have been shot with the audience there, but I think we were all really fine, really really fine, with Tom shooting his nude scene privately first. I assure you, when they ran it on the monitor for us, they got the laugh they wanted, and then some.

Hamid. said...
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Anonymous said...
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By Ken Levine said...

This Cosby discussion is OVER. It has turned ugly and I won't have it. Any more Cosby comments here will be deleted. If this keeps up I will change the comment feature to where I have to approve all comments before they are posted. That means your comment could sit for hours or days before I get to it. Is that what you want? PLAY NICE KIDS. I mean it!

The Real Deal said...

I see my stalker is still posting under my name. Thanks for deleting his post, whatever it said (I didn't see it before you removed it).

And to my stalker: keep living the dream!