Monday, July 13, 2015

TV truths or myths?

Here are some TV truths and myths. See how many you agree with.

Actors who can play good villains are also good at comedy.

In many cases this is true. The first time I ever saw Kurtwood Smith it was in the original ROBOCOP film. There was something so interesting about him that I just knew he could do comedy. I remember thinking, “I want to work with him someday.” Happily, a few years later we were casting BIG WAVE DAVE’S and saw he was available. We invited him to audition for the part of the mysterious expatriate and he just crushed it. Of course we had a fight with the network. They had him pigeonholed as a dramatic bad guy. We finally twisted their arm and Kurtwood was hilarious in our series. Later he went on to play the dad on THAT ‘70S SHOW.

Ed Asner, Nick Collasanto, and Sheldon Leonard are three other actors who excelled at playing villains and thugs. And I think you’d have to agree all three have awesome comedy chops.

Was anyone more deliciously evil than Margo Martindale on JUSTIFIED?  And she kills in comedy. 

TV viewers like watching actors who have big heads.

This is true. The theory is that the camera likes the perspective that a large head gives to an actor. It lets them dominate. Kelsey Grammer will always work. Sure, he’s a terrific actor with great range, but a big factor is still (as we described it once in an episode of CHEERS we wrote) that he has that “canned ham of a face.” Tom Selleck, Kurtwood Smith, Anthony Anderson, Bob Newhart, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan, William H. Macy, Tracy Morgan, Patrick Stewart, Peter Boyle, William Shatner, Lester Holt, John Goodman, Alec Baldwin, Chris Noth, Mr. T. (not that he isn’t a brilliant actor), and Herman Munster are others.

I think it’s less true for women. Michael Caine maintains that if a woman’s head is larger than her male romantic counterpart it looks weird. I dunno. What do you think?  Does size matter in heads too?

Good writing can carry a series.

Myth. Good writing can contribute greatly, but people watch shows primarily because they feature actors they like.  As a writer I wish it were different, but that's the reality. 

Networks now determine writing staffs, not the show runners.

Unfortunately, this is more and more true. Networks ask showrunners to fill their staffs with writers they have under contract, or they approve. Personally, I find this practice reprehensible and I probably would get fired as showrunner in five seconds because there’s no way I’d hire any writer that I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m the one who has to sit in the room until 4:00 AM fixing scripts; not the network. So either I have absolute say in who I hire or I don’t do the show.

It’s insane. Just because some network suit can’t spot talent and signs a terrible writer to a big deal that means I'm stuck with him?   I can't hire a better writer because I'm stuck with this lox?  Not a chance. 

Bottom line: If I’m put in charge of a series, it is my job to turn out the best show I can. I am being paid for my professional judgment. And as such, I choose my writing staff, and directors and crew for that matter.  This is non-negotiable. 

And hey, it’s not like the quality of network television has improved with this new system. If anything, it’s been the opposite.

Main titles are an audience tune out.

This is the biggest myth of all. Networks are so afraid people will flee the nanosecond they’re not wildly entertained, but in truth most people like opening titles. Assuming they’re well done, a good opening title sequence can really set up the audience for the show they’re about to see. And a great title song can help distinguish your show in a very positive way. It’s a signature. “Where Everyone Knows Your Name.”

And seriously, do you ever fast forward through the MASH opening credits? Or CHEERS, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, HAWAII FIVE-O? (Actually I fast forward through everything on that show except the opening credits.)

A number of TV themes have gone on to be Top 40 hits getting tons of radio airplay. Talk about golden free publicity. WELCOME BACK KOTTER, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, ROUTE 66, BONANZA, SECRET AGENT MAN, BATMAN, THEME FROM S.W.A.T, MIAMI VICE, HAWAII FIVE-O, HAPPY DAYS, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE, DRAGNET, PETER GUN, and FRIENDS all hit the charts.

And how many TV theme songs can you sing? There’s a good chance you could sing THE BRADY BUNCH THEME or GILLIGAN’S ISLAND or SAVED BY THE BELL or “Thank You For Being a Friend” from THE GOLDEN GIRLS.  How many ten second music stingers can you sing?

The truth is people love opening titles. And the other truth is, networks don’t care. You won’t see them return anytime soon.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

A lot of actresses these days have big heads in proportion to their bodies, but it's not because they have big heads. It's because they're starving themselves.


John in Ohio said...

One thing I will say about opening titles.
I agree that when they are on live TV, they have a purpose, and can certainly set up a show, especially if you don't know the show.
However, when binging them, it is a pain when they don't at least set the chapter stops so you can just hit the chapter forward button. Sopranos was good for this, Dexter was not. Netflix is not.
Weeds is set up nicely by the theme song, but if I am watching more than one at a time, I want to shoot myself rather than hear about ticky tacky. Same with many of the "classic" them songs that I know every word of. Once a sitting is enough.

Norm! said...

Kurtwood Smith rocks. "Bitches leave" in Robocop is now a legendary meme. He was also brilliant in Dead Poets Society. I can obviously separate fact from fiction, but it was still a strange sort of relief to see him play a nice guy for a change in Big Wave Dave's.

Ken, you might find this interesting. The Guardian in the UK has done a piece on the former sitcom stars who went on to successful film careers and those who didn't.

Anonymous said...

Good at comedy, good villain: Michael Keaton

Kosmo13 said...

When I was recently marathon-ing through Season 2 of Cheers, after about the 4th episode, I began FF'ing through the opening theme song because I'd OD'ed on it by then.

After 40+ years of watching "The Prisoner" re-runs, I never need to see the opening titles again. They drag on forever establishing the series' concept. The only variation is hearing #2's dialogue re-recorded by whatever actor played #2 in that episode.

rockgolf said...

When binging (bingeing?) on Orange Is the New Black, I jump to 1:04 after the first episode.
Maybe "You Got Time". I don't.

Oat Willie said...

"Networks now determine..." The Corporation insists on a single template for all its product, like franchise food. That new pizza with hot dogs on the crust was a result of Pizza Hut Now Determines...
Theme songs are now usually bits of percussion, made to be cut for syndication and the addition of more commercials. Many of your posts have alluded to the effect of the potential for syndication. This is a big factor.
"Out you two pixies go, through the door or the window! We don't need characters around givin' the joint atmosphere!"

Covarr said...

Regarding that titles thing: There's a few shows that I *always* watch the opening titles for. In particular, DEXTER and PARKS AND RECREATION. I dunno what it is, but those intros really help me get in the right mood to enjoy their shows.

Mike said...

@Anonymous@6:27AM: Is that you, Hamid?

Wizeass said...

I don't know if it's a well-known saying, but I've read that in writing/acting, one should find the tragedy in comedy, and the comedy in tragedy. And I think one of the very best examples of a actor who does that is Bryan Cranston.

Brandon P. said...

Can't forget "The Rockford Files"! BTW, did you ever get a chance to work with James Garner? Always heard he was equal parts charming and cantankerous.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

In regards to #1, this is why CBS was actually reluctant to hire Larry Linville to play Frank Burns, as he was often typecasted in villainous roles, and they were concerned that he would be "too scary" to pull off a comedy role. But let's face it, don't we all love to hate Frank? Nobody else could have pulled that role off better than Larry.

#4 and #5 are more reasons why I feel discouraged about trying to bring my work from the confines of YouTube (which continually sweeps little people like me under the rug) to television: too much corporate influence today. Network notes and such are one thing, but I don't feel these suits should be telling me what my show is, who my characters are, who my characters would be played by, who my writers and other staff members would be, and owning my work to boot. I probably would have been better off if I was born several decades earlier.

Daws said...

I've often thought the death of opening titles was more about money than anything else. That's one less minute spot or one less 30-second spot they can advertise in. A half-hour comedy is already almost down to 21 minutes. An hour drama is hovering around 41-42 minutes now. I recently ripped "The Equalizer" Season 1 and saw that those episodes run 49 minutes.

????? said...


No, that wasn't me, though I'm flattered you remember I'm a big Keaton fan.

But I'm never know when or where...;-)

Anonymous said...

From Jan: And the reverse is often true, too: actors who play good comedy often make terrific dramatic actors. Bryan Cranston springs to mind; he was great in "Malcolm in the Middle" and even better in "Breaking Bad." Who would have thought it? I know there are more examples, but they escape me right now.

Also, while the networks have increasingly short theme songs at the beginning (no doubt to make way for more and more commercials), some of the cable channels are outstanding. HBO especially comes to mind. I don't think I have ever fast-forwarded through the opening credits of "Game of Thrones," "The Sopranos," "Rome," "Deadwood," and the list goes on and on.

Barbara C. said...

One of the brilliant things that Joss Whedon did on occasion with Buffy was actively use the opening titles in conjunction with the episode plot. The adaption for "Once More with Feeling" set the tone for the whole episode, and the premise for the episode "Superstar" is introduced by the changes in the title sequence.

Anonymous said...

I've seen Sean Penn in person, and he has the biggest head I've ever seen!

Igor said...

Ken, I have to disagree with you on opening titles. As a viewer, that is.

Yes, I love the opening of Cheers, maybe because it does have a great theme song, but also because it's become part of the experience of watching _that_ show.

A few days ago I saw that Coach is on Netflix. (Anyone who goes there to watch it, FYI: The episode numbers are screwed up; what's labeled Pilot has his daughter already at his school, and the story's about her dating a prof; nominal episode "2" is about him discovering his daughter is considering coming to come to his school.)

Anyway, while I'd seen Coach first-run, now I find its 1:10 title sequence tedious - perhaps in part because it shows Craig T. Nelson's name, then no other titles for maybe 30 sec, then a few more names, and the visuals ain't great.

When I started watching New Girl on Netflix, I fell in love with that style opening, which is maybe 15 seconds. Then, the actual titles really come over the opening scene.

I've not timed it out, but I have a hunch that if you deduct the opening and closing titles of the shows from the 80s, the "story time" may be almost as "long" as the story time of current shows. IOW, it seems the scripts would be about the same length.

Dave Creek said...

My wife and I watch NAKED CITY on MeTV and Retro TV and we've noticed that it didn't have separate opening credits, either. They did the actor credits along with the writer and director credits at the top of Act 1. And this is a show from the early sixties. I assume it was just the show's particular style, since opens were standard back then. They also had great episode titles: "The Corpse Ran Down Mulberry Street," "The Night the Saints Lost Their Halos," "Today the Man Who Kills Ants Is Coming." I'd be hard pressed to think of a current show that features the episode titles. Why did that stop?

There are plenty of opens I love, the Hawaii 5-0 one (the old one) being particularly great. I showed it to my son, who was only nineteen at the time, and he thought it was great, too. Holds up well.

Certainly if I'm binge-watching a show, even if I like the open, I tend to skip it the second time, etc. Although on Netflix it's often easier to let it roll than wait for the feed to re-stream.

blinky said...

Is this a Friday question?
I think Kiefer Sutherland would have been the perfect replacement for Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men. He had all sorts of personal problems like Charlie and he has the scare-lthe-shit-out-of-you gravitas to mess with the John Cryers character. Plus he can be funny. Do you think the network went with the choice of Aston Kutcher because people will want to watch him.

Unknown said...

The opening of Wings is one of the best.

H Johnson said...

"Good writing can carry a series"
I have to go with writing on this one. Certainly the actors have to be watchable, but a truly good series always has good writing. Just think how many beloved movie stars have had short crappy series. And a ton of favorite characters on hit series have had spin-off series fizzle because the writing blew.

"Main titles are an audience tune out"
I agree with you 100%. Despite all your commentor's remarks, I have to believe you are referring to an episode's broadcast and not when someone is vegging on the DVDs.
The theme not only sets the mood it also gives you a chance to see who created the thing.

And for the record, when I spend the dough for a complete series on DVD, I want the series as it was broadcast originally. I don't want some bastardized version because some suit that had nothing to do with creating the art is pandering to his idea of a hot market. And that includes opening and closing themes.


Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Daws Um, half-hour shows aren't "almost" down to 21 minutes, they've been down to 21 minutes, and even shorter for years now. While an even 20 minutes seems to be the common runtime for half-hour shows at the moment, some are even as short as 17-18 minutes, no foolin'.

Personally, I think we need to stop refering to these shows as "half-hour" shows or "hour" shows when they technically aren't even that long without commercials. Especially so-called "hour" shows which, as you said, usually 41-42 minutes now . . . that's not even 3/4 of an hour! "Hour" shows have suffered even worse than "half-hour" shows, which you consider "half-hour" shows used to be 26 minutes without commercials, but "hour" shows used to be 49-52 minutes without commercials.

Kosmo13 said...

I think great writing can be enough without the characters having to be likeable or even sympathetic. I watched "Lost" every week and was totally transfixed by the excellent scripts and fascinating stories. I didn't like any of the characters nor care about what happened to them; I just wanted to see how the mysteries would unravel.

"Arrested Development" is another favorite show of mine. The characters are such unpleasant jerks and a-holes, that I don't really like any of them. But the writing is so sharp and funny, I find the episodes hilarious.

John said...

That big head thing seems to be very true. After reading years ago that an actor with a small/normal sized head and facial features probably won't become a big star that's all I notice when I see celebrity photos. Man or woman, most successful actors have huge heads! Freaks me out!

Les said...

Here's a related question -- what about child actors? They not only seem to have large heads but seem to be very short people (like Adam Rich, David Faustino, the Olsen Twins, Josh Hutcherson).

Does it just test well on camera? Or do you know going in that the kids are really never gonna grow so that they can stay a certain age longer? Do you look at the parents and see they are 5'1" and say to yourself "jackpot!"??

DBenson said...

Many of my favorite show openings have been animated:
--The openings on "Batman" and "Wild Wild West" explained exactly what kind of shows these were.
-- Likewise the original Edward Gorey piece on PBS "Mystery"; a neat trick on an anthology show
-- Also likewise the old "Mickey Mouse Club". And it did create a sense of occasion, opening with a giant billboard and ending with Mickey onstage doing an intro. with Donald Duck's gong gag inbetwixt.
-- "Monty Python's Flying Circus", of course.
-- Currently, the animated show "Archer" has an inspired mock-Bond opening that manages to be funny and retro-cool at the same time.
-- Always a sucker for cartoon show openings that positioned a half hour of shorts as a live performance. "The Bugs Bunny Show" is still cool, even though they did away with the original format (new animated gags linking cartoons into a single story) when it dropped from prime time to Saturday mornings. "The Muppet Show" tapped into the same vibe.

DBenson said...

A note on episode lengths: Twenty minutes used to constitute a two-reeler, the semi-standard length for live action theatrical shorts. The Three Stooges could now run as a sitcom with one short per episode, without the local live host.

Jason said...

Given that Netflix original content is generally watched in clusters, I find it annoying that they have really long title sequences. If I watch Orange 6 times in 2 days, I'm kinda sick of that theme.

Terrence Moss said...

how could you not mention the openings to THE JEFFERSONS??? and i'll add A DIFFERENT WORLD.

Terrence Moss said...

i love antenna tv, but i hate hate hate the shaft they give to great opening and closing credits.

Tammy said...

On people watching TV for the acting rather than the writing - I imagine most readers here would object to that, but of course if we didn't love TV writing we wouldn't be here in the first place :) For me, the biggest draw to a show is the writing, especially dialogue - be it the super witty type (Whedon, Sorkin etc.) or the opposite - the natural, realistic style you often get in the UK (Jimmy McGovern comes to mind).

Mike Barer said...

Not to mention, Perry Mason, Star Trek, Petticoat Junction, 77 Sunset Strip, Get Smart,etc

Igor said...

It's not just large heads. When I've met actors/actresses in person, often their facial features look much bigger, more pronounced than on TV.

Diane D. said...

I was so surprised to read that good writing couldn't carry a series (or a movie, I presume), but Tammy gave the most logical explanation, I think. The biggest draw for me is also the writing. I guess everyone concedes that Meryl Streep is one of the greatest actresses of the age, but I once walked out of a movie in which she starred, because the dialogue was just painful. The movie was RIVER WILD, and the story was lame as well. This is just IMHO--I don't want to offend anyone who liked it, God knows.

Very interesting topic, Ken Levine.

Tom Quigley said...

I hope as many people as possible listen to the theme from THE GOLDEN GIRLS. That's my cousin's voice you're hearing, Cindy Fee.

Pumpkinhead said...

Igor, re the Coach episode numbers. That's the order the episodes originally aired in. I still remember my wtf reaction at the time. The network must have decided that episode with the daughter already at school was a better introduction to the show, like when Ken talks about a pilot being an episode seven instead of an origins story. I just accept the origins ep as a flashback.

Dave Creek said...

Sometimes episode numbers are screwed up, though. I started watching a CHEERS the other night and it was listed in the Dish Network guide as episode 22, which would have been the first season. Then I saw Frasier and Rebecca in it and realized it wasn't.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Dave Was a season number not shown as well? Usually guide listings like that will identify an episode by both its season number and episode number, like so: S#E##. Maybe the episode you saw was the 22nd episode of a later season.

But yes, episode numbers for any show are almost always inconsistent. The problem is there's at least three different sources: some sources number episodes by their original airdates, some sources number them by production order, and some number them according to whatever the network says is the right order. For instance, "Male Unbonding" is apparently the second episode of SEINFELD, but it was the fourth aired, so some sources (including Comcast's guide) list it as S1E04.

Tammy said...

Diane D., re: The River Wild - writing shmiting, that film has Kevin Bacon shirtless! You don't walk out on that ;)

Johnny Walker said...

I would have thought that these days, with the sheer number of adverts, you need every available second to tell your story.

I love the opening sequences of MASH and CHEERS, but I've seen them a bazillion times and would quite happily skip them at this point. (Let's put it this way, if Netflix skipped the opening music of CHEERS, I wouldn't take the time to remind the episode.)

Also, Kiera Knightly has the largest, most angular head I've ever seen in real life.

Flesch said...

Sorry, but I don't like opening titles. If you watch a complete season on DVD it really gets annying to hear and see the same thing again and again and again. I skip them all the time (until somebody has the great idea to put an intro before the opening title, so you are forced to watch everything from the beginning...).
I love what they did on Breaking Bad. It doesn't pull you out of the story, there just a short fade-in.

charlottesometimesnot said...

Re: "TV viewers like watching actors who have big heads."

The term I've always heard to describe this physicality of certain actors is "Lightbulb head." And yes, it is a desirable quality to have onscreen.

Anonymous said...

TV themes? Don't believe what you read about the best.
Clearly late 1950's early 1960's Westerns (with detective shows second)
Find a genre of TV music better than this, in no particular order:
Have Gun Will Travel
Bat Masterson
The Rebel
There are probably a couple of others I'm forgetting. Most of those became top 100 records back in the day.

Norm! said...

There are a number of theme tunes where I love the full extended versions. The full versions of the Hill Street Blues theme, the Taxi theme and "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" are wonderful.

Diane D. said...

To Tammy:
LOL! Shirtless and riding gorgeous white water rapids--I should have just put ear plugs in!

Unknown said...

I went through the entire list people sent in of great TV themes but was shocked I didn't see the current best one: Big Bang Theory.

Anonymous said...

The fastest way to get lean muscle and low body fat is to take steroids. Many actors will do this to play particular roles. It usually takes years to gain muscle mass, as well as low body fat, and a lot of time to maintain it. Any actor you see who was usually skinny or fat, and six months later looks like he can tear telephone books in half, is using steroids, no matter what he tells you.

Some actors believe regular injections of steroids leads to a younger look and longevity. Also, if you're the lead a series that requires you to look amazing, it's very difficult to maintain. Steroids allow minimum workouts for maximum effect, as well as helping tremendously with mental acuity and endurance. Quite a few actors heading towards middle-age will tend to start on the regimen. Actors who believe steroids keeps them young will tend to keep doing it.

One of the irreversible side-effects of steroid use and/or abuse is it reactivates genes that will make your skull grow larger.

Danny Bonaduce and Sly Stallone are a good example of the skull exploding effects of regular steroid use. There are many other examples. I believe steroid use is rampant amongst lead actors trying to keep their edge.

Might be a chicken and egg thing to a degree.

- Dr. Roberts

Igor said...

@Pumpkinhead - Thanks. Of course, that happened well before twitter, etc., so there was no way for the country to join in saying "WTF?!" Funny how dismissive it is to the audience. Seems they could have recut it in a way to actually say, "One week earlier". Regardless, thanks for solving that mystery.

I also recall it seemed odd seeing Shelley Fabares' name in the opening credits, and then she was not in that episode. I mean it made sense her name was there in that she was (to be) a costar of the show.

Again, thanks.

SharoneRosen said...

I am ashamed and pleased to share that I can still sing all of the lyrics to the Mr. Ed theme, including the bridge. I believe, if pressed, I could do the same for the theme for It's About Time.

And for real entertainment, I can sing you the "Dr. Ross dog food" and "Mission Pack" commercials!

DBenson said...


Scary is how people can remember a good chunk of the "It's About Time" theme while barely recalling anything of the show itself.

Now and again an adult trying to coax a "please" out of a kid would say "What's the magic word?" -- I think Captain Kangaroo started that. The wiseacres would answer "Mission Pack."

"Car 54 Where Are You" flummoxed me with "Khrushchev's due at Idlewild". It was the early 60s version of "Gee, our old LaSalle ran great."

Diane D. said...

Agree totally, Anonymous at 3:51, especially RAWHIDE AND PALADIN! And I had completely forgotten about them; thanks for the reminder.

Igor said...

@DBenson - An explanation for your "It's About Time" example: It seems memory for music is not engaged and stored the same as memory for other things.

You can say, "Repeat after me: One, two, three." - and some people (typically who have suffered traumatic injuries that destroyed a certain part of their brains) will only be able to repeat back to you "three". And yet they can sing a song/lyrics. I recall years ago seeing a documentary about this produced in the 1960s. IIRC, some of the people had been injured in WWII. Funny... THAT I can remember.

Mark said...

I could sing the theme song to "Golden Girls" before it was the theme to Golden Girls.

Diane D. said...

Igor, the same is true of Dementia patients. Some who haven't spoken an intelligible word in years, can sing a song (from their youth) from start to finish.

Their response to music can also be heartbreaking. There is a video of a Dementia patient who hadn't spoken in years, and who was in a continual state of agitated anguish. When a young woman with a guitar came and sang to him one-on-one, using his name in the song several times, he calmed down and listened to her intently. When she finished, he said, "I LIKE IT!" A testament to the power of music.

deanareeno said...

Even thought Ken hates the title of the show, the opening credits to Halt and Catch Fire are a recent favourite of mine:

Jillian said...

Christine Baranski -- so, so good at drama, and has me rolling on the floor in comedies.

Johnny Walker said...

A very late addition to the discussion, but this has been percolating in my head for the past few days: I don't believe that people tune in for the actor (although they might be what Dan O'Shannon calls an "enhancer" to the viewer's experience, and indeed the initial reason somebody tunes in to begin with), I believe you're selling yourself short as a writer: I'd argue it's the CHARACTER that people stick around for.

If you made Sam on CHEERS an asshole, nobody would keep tuning in just because it was Ted Danson.

I think the reason that stars end up with so much power is because people intertwine the character with the actor. They fall in love with the character while looking at the actor, and suddenly the character IS the actor. You couldn't just replace a beloved actor with someone else, because that wouldn't be the same "character" anymore -- even though it is. Obviously an actor does bring something to the character, though. They can turn good writing into great writing through performance, but I'd still argue that writing is just as important as the person playing it.

Unknown said...

Big head leads to popular actor status? Damn, now you tell me! My melon is naturally large (no steroid enhancement). In high school I was with a group of students buying cowboy hats in Colorado. The store owner measured our heads for a right size hat. I was last and after measuring me he loudly exclaimed, "You have the biggest head of everybody!" Didn't exactly cause the girls to fawn all over me then. Maybe if it was on TV... Look at my photo with this post, my head doesn't even fit in the picture.

Unknown said...

I can sing HOT IN CLEVELAND'S theme song.