Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Questions

So what’s yours?  I answer as many as I can. 

Richard starts us off this week:

While many sit-coms are entertaining with their yuck-yucks, some go above and beyond. Both MASH and Scrubs come to mind as shows that bring death into the mix and let things get real.

My question is, how does a writer's room decide to put the hammer down for such an episode? Having a half-hour of in-law jokes is an ocean away from having someone pass away.

The in-law jokes may get ratings, but the death episodes (not to get too dark) are the ones I remember years down the road.

The key to doing dramatic scenes is that you have to earn them. A tone of reality must be established. Otherwise, the dramatic moment seems jarring and false.

Same for sentimental and emotional moments. WILL & GRACE was a terrible offender of this. 20 minutes of burlesque jokes (many very funny) but then suddenly a big sappy moment that came out of nowhere and always felt bogus.

Shows need to be grounded in enough reality to have the audience believe dramatic moments are possible in that world. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t do a totally silly show, or establish that the biggest crisis your characters ever face is not getting laid and then deal with genuine grief or heartache.

From Steve B.:

Ken, what are the right and wrong ways to give notes to friends on their scripts? Are you ever concerned about being too easy or critical on them? Conversely, what are the rules to accepting notes from friends?

First off, don’t ask me to critique your script if you don’t want me to be honest. If you’re just looking for someone to tell you how brilliant you are, have your mom read your script. I'm doing you no favors by saying your script is great and you go out with it and get rejected all over town. 

When I give notes the first thing I do is point out the things I liked, the areas I thought they did well.   Believe me, when I read someone's script I want to love it.  It's so much easier giving good news.

Next, when I point out problems, I try to explain why I thought they were problematic and if possible offer alternatives or suggestions. Just saying you don’t like something doesn’t do anyone any good.

I try to be as diplomatic as possible and yes, sometimes it’s tough if I really thought the script sucked.

If I start giving notes and the person is defensive, after this happens two or three times I just stop and say, “Well, good luck with it” and that’s it.

I have a small group of writer friends who I really trust, and whenever I write a screenplay or play on spec I always give it to them. And they, in turn, give me work they’ve written on spec.

I value their judgment and appreciate their honesty. I don’t always take their suggestions but I always give them serious consideration. And conversely, when they like something I know they’re not just blowing smoke up my ass.

For my play A OR B? I threw out the entire second act based on a reader’s reaction. And she was right.

As the writer you have to be willing to at least be open to criticism and re-writing. As the person giving notes, you want to frame them in such a way that the writer will be excited about going back in and making his script better.

Cap'n Bob asks:

There was a show called ROLL OUT, starring Stu Gilliam, "from the producers of M*A*S*H." It was about a group of black soldiers in WWII. Did you have anything to do with it? Not the war, the show.

No. That was before my time. Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart were the creative team behind that. You never see those episodes pop up anywhere and I’d really like to. Any show written by Larry Gelbart commands my attention.

And finally, as the baseball regular season winds down, Liggie has a FQ.

The minor leagues have instituted a "pitch clock", where the pitcher has 20 seconds within receiving the ball to set for the pitch. If he's not in the set position in that time, it's an automatic ball. Yea or nay on this concept?

Yea on any restriction that will speed up the game. Eliminate bullshit walk-up music too.

But if MLB was really serious about speeding up the game they could do it in one rule change. Cut out a minute from each inning break. Instead of 2:30 or more of commercials only allow 1:30. Teams could charge more for the commercials and easily make up the difference. And advertisers would be happy because their message won’t just be buried in a long spot break. Bam! You shorten every game by eighteen minutes. Most games would then finish in under three hours.

But will MLB institute that change? What do you think?


VP81955 said...

Hate to toot the horn for "Mom" again, but it's shown a splendid ability to balance jokes and pathos. Last season's passing of Alvin (Kevin Pollak) from a heart attack -- he had fathered Christy (Anna Faris) before walking out on Bonnie (Allison Janney) -- was riveting TV, handled just right, although some fans never fully accepted it. (Of course, given that Christy and Bonnie both are recovering addicts struggling to make ends meet, most viewers of the series are used by now to their emotional traumas.)

Marty McKee said...

ROLL OUT episodes are, or were at least, on YouTube.

John in Ohio said...

Just call a strike a strike and the whole game speeds up. Hits and homers would go down, and the current players would have to be hitters instead of sluggers, finesse instead of power, but it would speed the game up and make a homer something more special again. In a few seasons teams and players would adjust. There would be better baseball players instead of hitters. But a pitch clock would help also. Both would be wonderful.
The pace of the game is one reason I rarely watch it on TV anymore. I want something to happen. When you're at the game, you can watch the fielders shift, or the lead offs, etc, but when you're at home, you are at the mercy of the director. And that is the other reason I don't watch anymore. All they want to do is show a F'in closeup of someones head. I would rather have the old centerfield wide shot split screen with the standard pitcher/catcher shot. No other angle unless there is a play happening. And the centerfield shot should always be there so I can see how the batter is rounding first when his single is bringing in the runner from second. Full time split screen with centerfield camera.
Every sport is guilty of this. I don't need to see what Lebron looks like, I know what he looks like. Get the camera back to where I can see the flow of the game. All those other cameras are just good for replays.
Ok, rant over.

VP81955 said...

John, that's particularly true for pro football. I am so sick and tired of quarterback reaction shots -- particularly when they're not involved in that play! -- that I now only follow the NFL through online score updates and radio broadcasts. It's the National Football League, not the National Quarterbacks League.

Jake Mabe said...

I never really have understood this obsession with "speeding up the game." I guess, as John in Ohio says, it's partially done so with the TV audience in mind (and his critique there is spot-on).

But, when I go to a game, I'm not in a hurry to get back home. I score the game, I know the rules, and I stay in my seat (unless I've had one beer too many), so I guess that puts me in a distinct minority.

The umps haven't been calling the rule book strike zone in years, which indeed would help. And I totally agree with getting rid of the godawful walk-to-the-plate music. Frankly, an old bag banging away on an organ was more than enough.

Now that I'm stuck at home due to a neurological disorder, I can only listen to games on "good" days, health wise. And then I am reminded that baseball is best heard on radio -- when one has a good announcer. (And, I swear, one of these days I'm going to fly to New York just to strangle Suzyn Waldman, to whom I only listen when "scouting" the Yankees. And I do like John Sterling well enough.)

But, everything is geared to the tube and to people with attention spans of less than 8 seconds, so, I might as well go tilt windmills.

Andrew said...

Friday question: Did the cast and crew of Frasier and Seinfeld get along, since they were always in competition for Emmy's, etc.? Was their attitude mutual respect, friendly rivalry, or disdainful competition? What is it like for someone (such as Andy Ackerman) to work on two shows simultaneously with such different approaches to comedy?
- Andrew

Joseph Scarbrough said...

There's at least part of one episode of ROLL OUT! on YouTube:

I feel like CBS having Gelbart and Reynolds make this show in hopes that M*A*S*H would bolster its success would be like if NBC went to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld and asked them to create another show about how a comedian gets his material after SEINFELD became a success.

DwWashburn said...

I watched MLB Network recently and they said that games in 2015 shaved about seven minutes off their average time from the previous year. I don't think anyone, major fan or casual observer, could tell the difference. I also noticed that during the Las Vegas 51s games that I attended this year, the clock was in the outfield but it was usually ignored by the umpires.

VP81955 said...

Now that I'm stuck at home due to a neurological disorder, I can only listen to games on "good" days, health wise. And then I am reminded that baseball is best heard on radio -- when one has a good announcer.

Only Vin Scully is left from my "holy trinity" of baseball announcers; we lost Harry Kalas in 2009 and Ernie Harwell a year later. There are some other fine guys around -- Dick Enberg is underrated as a baseball broadcaster, Jon Miller is solid and Charley Steiner is easy to listen to -- but there really aren't very many good ones left. (I try to watch Angels games, but Victor Rojas' "big fly" home run call is a turn-off.)

(And, I swear, one of these days I'm going to fly to New York just to strangle Suzyn Waldman, to whom I only listen when "scouting" the Yankees. And I do like John Sterling well enough.)

Personally, I would strangle Sterling first -- he is a play-by-play cross between the pompous inanity of Ted Baxter and the ineptitude of Kenny Bania (the comic Jerry Seinfeld described as a "hack," a phrase that also applies to Sterling). His tragic flaw is that once you get him away from his shtick, he can be a pretty engaging guy. But slumming is how he's earned his pay, and to me his hiring in 1989 (replacing a perfectly good radio team in Hank Greenwald and Tommy Hutton) was the single biggest error of the George Steinbrenner regime, a hundred times worse than Buhner-for-Phelps. Derek Jeter deserved a Russ Hodges (for Willie Mays) or Kalas (Mike Schmidt) as his audio career chronicler, not the buffoonish Sterling.

Michael said...

Jake, over the years, several umpires have said that if they called the rule book strike zone there would be a riot, and not just from the players. I actually called it when I was in 4th grade and umpired a playground game, and was nearly killed. That may not be a very valid comparison, but the real problem is this: the umpires know that if they try to enforce certain rules, the teams will complain and MLB won't back them up. One of Vin's funny moments was more than 50 years ago when the leagues changed the balk rule to a one-second stop, and he got a stopwatch and had the fans guess when a second had gone by; Vin said, "One!" and the entire crowd screamed, "TWO!" It was an entertaining way to kill time during an argument about a balk. But the NL's senior and most respected umpire, Al Barlick, went home and wouldn't answer calls from the league president for two weeks because instead of backing them up, he criticized umpires for overdoing it. In that way, times have not changed.

Apropos of Ken's wise suggestion about the time between innings, Vin's mentor, Red Barber, said late in life that today's announcer doesn't have time to become a personality because his generation had time between innings to tell a story or entertain the fans. The more time passes between pitches, we're reminded that Vin is the last guy who has a personality.

Clarence Odbody said...

17 minutes. There are 18 half-innings but only 17 breaks between them. This is why I have no friends.

Anonymous said...

Wowza. Comedians had so much shit to say about Brian Williams, but they suuuure got quiet when comedian Steve Rannazzisi got caught lying about his adventures during 9/11 for around 10 years. Buffalo Wild Wings just dumped him, but Comedy Central can't make up their minds about his special coming up tomorrow. Why all the creepy silence in the comedy community, I wonder? Does nobody know what to do unless Jon Stewart tells them?

– Martin

Marty McKee said...

I assume it's because nobody knows who the fuck Steve Rannazzisi is.

"Hey, how about that Steve Rannazzisi? Boy!"

David said...

Hi Ken

A Friday question.

Have you ever done any DVD audio commentaries?

Mark Fearing said...

A future Friday question:

What are the positive changes you see in television (you can get specific, say comedy shows on TV) in the past 20 years and the what do you see as the negative changes?

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken.

I read that they could shave 30 minutes off every baseball game if someone would invent self-adjusting batting gloves.

Cap'n Bob said...

Me again. I wanted to direct this to JEFF MAXWELL, since he's a regular reader here. (Jeff played Igor on M*A*S*H.)

Where did they get the food for the mess hall scenes?

Anonymous said...

1:30 is not enough time to get a hot dog.
They could limit warmup time for pitchers, or say the fourth failed pickoff throw is an automatic base.

Dave Creek said...

I'm with Marty McKee. I'd never heard of Steve Rannazzisi until this "scandal" was uncovered. That's one reason for the relative silence compared to "Bri-Wi." Also, there's a big difference between a comedian making up a story (which could, in some circumstances, be called "part of the act") and a journalist doing it.

Kosmo13 said...

What next? Will Bob Newhart admit he wasn't really a security guard at the Empire State Building the day King Kong fell off it?

Jason said...

"1:30 is not enough time to get a hot dog."

You feel that (a) the people in the park are the concern here, and (b) 2:30 IS enough time to get a hot dog?

Jason said...

"Wowza. Comedians had so much shit to say about Brian Williams, but they suuuure got quiet when comedian Steve Rannazzisi got caught lying about his adventures during 9/11 for around 10 years"

Because there's a difference between a newscaster and a comedian?

In other news, Rodney Dangerfield's wife doesn't really sit AROUND the house.

Mike said...

Well, I was going to ask @Joseph Scarbrough the make & model of the laugh track in the Roll Out clip, but instead I found this news item where Fox News has accused Emily Blunt of alienating half the country.
There's a connection: Jimmy Kimmel asked her the meaning of MLB. I got as far as Mother-Lovin'... From the picture, I'm not impressed by the state of the toilets in the White House.

Diane D. said...

Friday Question: I happened on a CHEERS blog that was having a discussion about the first season episode entitled, "Any Friend of Diane's". The debaters sounded smart and knowledgable about television, but they were discussing Sam's reason (in that episode) for not having sex with Diane's college friend, played by Julia Duffey. What struck me was that everything they said implied that this was something they could analyze and figure out (they did not accept what Sam had said was his reason--that she bored him). Not one word was said about what the author (you and your partner) had in mind. Now I understand that they cannot pick up the phone and call you to ask what your idea was, but the entire tone was as if there was no one who could have the final word on the subject---no one (like a writer) who could say definitively what he expected or intended the audience to think was Sam's real reason.

My question is: What do you think of that? Do you, as the author, hope people will come to a conclusion that is consistent with what you had in mind? Does it bother you if it is misinterpreted?

By Ken Levine said...


What is the link to the debate? I'll have a better idea after I read it. Thanks.

Chris said...

Friday Question for you:

I've read a lot of authors (usually genre fiction) talk about how they can't read books that are "about" whatever they're working on so they won't "borrow" an idea from someone else accidentally. So (for a really bad, obvious example) if someone's writing a noir mystery in LA, they won't read LA Confidential. Do you ever follow similar restrictions when you're working on a script? No rom-coms if you're writing a rom-com?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Mike ROLL OUT! was from the 1973-74 season, so if you watch any episode from Season 2 of M*A*S*H, you'll hear the similarities in the laugh track.

As for Emily Blunt, I think people should just leave her alone.

Diane D. said...


I'm so sorry! I got there accidentally and now I can't find it. All i can tell you is it was a Tumblr blog and I think it said something like: Also, I think I got the link from the Chambers and Malone blog, but I can't find it there either. I think you know the person who does that blog so maybe she could help you.

Thank you so much for responding!


Diane D. said...


I can't believe it, but I did find the link! (See below) This particular post discusses 2 episodes: "Coach's Daughter" and "Any Friend of Diane's". I thought it was very interesting. Thanks!

cjdahl60 said...

Your idea about reducing baseball commercial breaks is pure genius.

ron said...

Would you have liked to be in the writer's room when they decided to put The Doobie Brothers on the show "What's Happening".

Albert Giesbrecht said...

It would be good if a Baseball game would run under 90 minutes. I went to an exhibition game several years ago in Vancouver and we were in and out in under 90min, but we still can't get a Major League team; lucky we have Single A (short season).

Johnny Walker said...

I haven't read the AV Club link yet, but I personally like to think that the characters don't belong to any one person. Sometimes there's something specific intended by the author, and it can be very interesting to hear that intention, but even so I think the interpretation is open to everyone. To sound pretentious for a moment: I think art belongs to the viewer, not the artist.

There's lots of examples of artists who insist their work is supposed to be interpreted one way, but the public thinks of (and enjoys) it in another.

With sitcoms in particular you have lots of different voices, too: The scriptwriters, the show runner, the actor, the director, the editor.

The writer intended it one way, the actor decided to interpret it another, the show runner decides to edit it another way. Who is right?

With this in mind I can see how people can argue about a character's motivations. (I personally like how Matt Weiner considers himself the first "viewer" of his work: Talking about characters with the same uncertainty as regular viewers.)

byrd said...

Do you know what else is slowing the pace of baseball? Too many foul balls hit by a batter after his count has reached strike two. Many times, he'll hit three fouls in a row before something happens. This can not only lead to a 10-pitch-or-more at-bat, but can also add to a pitcher's pitch count.

My idea? If a batter hits his third straight foul ball after strike two, he's automatically out. If a batter gets ball 1, 2 or 3, the consecutive foul ball count resets to zero. That would make it less tiring on the pitcher.

Diane D. said...

Fascinating, Johnny Walker! I personally cannot imagine a writer (surely the major creator of the character) "talking about characters with the same uncertainty as regular viewers", but you give an example of a writer who does exactly that!

This was not, of course, the first time I had heard (or read) a group of people discussing a character as if the writer's thoughts were redundant, and it always puzzled me. If the author is dead, I could see how it could be debated endlessly, but if he is living, it is still difficult for me to grasp the concept that the interpretation by the actor, the show runner, the editor, or the viewer could have the same validity as what the writer intended. You are a writer so I must assume that it does not bother you when people interpret one of your characters differently than you intended. It's an interesting new insight for me, which is what I love about this blog.

Maybe Ken will give us his thoughts on the subject. One of the debaters on the AV Blog said he thought that Julia Duffey's character in that episode was "Diane lite", and Sam having experienced the real thing in Diane, could not be satisfied with a substitute, so that is why he didn't sleep with her.

VP81955 said...

My idea? If a batter hits his third straight foul ball after strike two, he's automatically out. If a batter gets ball 1, 2 or 3, the consecutive foul ball count resets to zero. That would make it less tiring on the pitcher.

Somewheere in baseball Valhalla, Rich Ashburn and Luke Appling are giving your suggestion the thumbs down (or using a more, uh, colorful gesture). Both were renowned for their ability to foul off numerous pitches before coming up with a key hit (or coaxing a walk). In addition. some of the best batter-pitcher matchups I've ever seen have been set up by confrontations that lasted 10 pitches or more. If it's in the late innings with runners on base in a close game, the build-up of tension is remarkable, and the crowd gets into it. That's one part of baseball I wold hate to sacrifice merely to "speed up" the game.

By Ken Levine said...


I read the article and enjoyed it. They way over-analyzed the episode. My favorite moment was being praised for the ORDINARY PEOPLE joke keeping in our subtle theme of hiding or whatever. There was no subtle theme. There was no symbolism. We weren't writing MAD MEN.

As for why Sam decided not to sleep with Rebecca -- uh, he explains why. And when Diane tells him Rebecca has returned to the bar his first impulse is to hide from her in the storage closet. She clearly spooked him with her Russian bullshit and uptight nature. And "players" who aren't desperate to get any woman into bed figure out pretty quickly that if they have a nut on their hands it's not worth the carnal pleasure. Sam could afford to be choosy and was. Simple as that.

As a general rule, you won't find a lot of hidden symbolism in our writing. We tend to find that pretentious. I want you drawn into the story, not playing a game of looking for puzzle clues.

That said, writing anything that someone deems worthy of analyzing is very flattering so I invite anyone to interpret away.

JP said...

Couple of Friday questions:
- Why did Community get so few awards? (compared, for example, to The Mindy Project)
- Six seasons and a movie: how feasible is it to make a movie from a sitcom?
- In Frasier, was the agent Bebe's name chosen to suggest she was the new Lilith, an in joke or because it sounded right?
- How has / will the move towards streaming whole series from organisations other than the usual broadcast networks change the industry?

Cat said...

If you want to get lost in reading for a couple of hours, go ahead and read through the entire AV Club reviews of each of Cheers' season one and two. The critiques are quite detailed and in my opinion, brilliant.

Diane D. said...


Ha ha! You are far too modest considering your accomplishments, but your answer is exactly what I would have guessed. Being "drawn into the story, not looking for puzzle clues" is precisely what I want when watching a sitcom. That's not to say that there is not very delicious subtlety in many scenes in CHEERS that give one the opportunity to ponder motivations and wonder where the story is going. I do find Johnny Walker's thoughts very appealing, however---"that the characters don't belong to any one person."

I have enjoyed other sitcoms and gotten many laughs over the years, but I have never cared about the characters the way I did those in CHEERS; no other characters from a sitcom have seemed so real.

Thank you so much for your very thorough answer, Ken!

MellaBlue said...

Possible Friday question....

Many sitcoms utilize the "unseen" character -- characters talked about so frequently they have a life of their own but whom we never see. Vera Peterson, Maris Crane, Stanley Walker, Lars Lindstrom, etc. are the ultimate examples. My question is do writers purposely set out to make these characters visual enigmas or is it something that happens over time because you have created a character that perhaps defies casting? (I have to admit that I always imagined Julie Haggarty for some reason as Maris.)

Katie said...

Ken, I have a question. It might be too broad, but maybe not. I live in NYC and have always wanted to get into television production, but have no clue how. I'm not a writer, camera operator, makeup/hair stylist, etc, but am quite capable and whenever I walk by sets I see tons of people who must be pa's and other types of jobs one can learn. I don't know anyone in the business or any idea where one would start. What would you suggest?

Ray said...

Episode titles.

Especially among the more dedicated of fans, those titles are known by rote and become shorthand for discussion. Yet not all shows display them at the start of episodes. Some, which have patterns to them (Lou Grant's history of all one word titles, or the Friends "the one with..." conceit) never displayed, best as I can recall. I watched MASH as many times as five a day during the prime time run when the syndication rules allowed such repetition, but I never knew in those pre-internet days what any of them were called.

And thus the question, or series of questions. Who decides whether to display the title of an episode on a series- network, showrunner, someone else? How did you feel about it as a writer? And did the knowledge of its presence before an episode ever influence your writing to even the smallest extent?