Friday, October 02, 2015

Friday Questions

The Friday Questions of October begin this week.

Andrew starts us off.

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?

I never got the sense that the actors felt they were a “team” in competition with other “teams” from other shows. I’m sure there are some actors who bristle that they always lose Emmys to some other actors, but for the most part I think actors appreciate the good performances they see from their peers.

It’s the same for writers. When I would watch a “competing” sitcom (notably SEINFELD) I was thrilled when it gave me some genuine laughs.

From Powerhouse Salter:

What current drama series would you say has a good sense of humor? By sense of humor, I guess I mean a relaxed and subtly comic air that relieves the overwrought drama and succeeds in doing so without resorting to one-liner jokes or a wacky supporting character.

THE GOOD WIFE to be sure. I get more laughs from THE GOOD WIFE than most comedies. SUITS provides some hearty chuckles as well. I don’t watch CRIMINAL MINDS but I’m guessing they’re not a laugh riot. In fact, I don’t watch a lot of current hour dramas so I imagine there are a few that do employ humor that I just am missing.  Is WALKING DEAD funny?

In the recent past I’d say JUSTIFIED (Dewey Crowe was the funniest character on television period), MAD MEN, and particularly BREAKING BAD.

Ike Iszany asks:

Watching Cheers on line I notice they put a title card in where the first commercial break would be. When you write and direct a show do you use the breaks to your advantage or are they something that gets in the way? When I watch some sit-coms on DVD I feel like they suffer without the breaks. You can feel the show changes tempo a bit in the second segment without the break.

I finally found a person who likes having commercial breaks.

Actually, we design our stories around the commercial breaks and try to build to our act break. We want the moment of greatest suspense to come right before the commercial. That way we (in theory) hold the audience through the ten minutes of endless spots.

If there were no commercials (e.g. our show as on AMAZON) we probably would break stories differently.

DwWashburn has some observations and questions about MASH:

In my opinion, the only two "missteps" that the series took was the introduction of Loudon Wainwright III as the camp's minstrel and the marriage of Margaret. Since you were there during the latter, can you give any behind the scenes insight for this storyline. Did they know from day one that this was a mistake? Was it dropped quickly because of fan reaction, network notes, realization that storylines were limited, a combination of these or other reasons?

The Loudon Wainwright balladeer idea was an experiment in the early Larry Gelbart/ Gene Reynolds years. It didn’t work but I love them for constantly trying to think out of the box and stretch the form.

The decision to marry off Hot Lips came the year we were writing freelance for the series. So we were not in on the reasons for the decision.

We just inherited it. The problem was we were dealing with a long distance relationship and could only see one side. And it meant Hot Lips couldn’t be interested in anyone else. It cut down on her storylines. 

Plus, any value there was to a long-distance relationship we were getting from B.J.

We tried to do some one-sided stories, and those resulted in Hot Lips screaming at unseen-hubby over the phone. It just made her a shrew. So we quickly abandoned that.

We even brought her husband in for an episode. If memory serves we had to cast a different actor because the original Donald Penobscott wasn’t available. There wasn’t much chemistry.

The storyline just didn’t work so we bailed the beginning of the next season and broke them up.  That was our decision.  We received no pressure from the network or studio. 

Oh well. Some things work and some things don’t. But you gotta try.

What’s your Friday Question?


Jim S said...

It's funny Ken. Vince Gilligan has gone on the record as saying commercial breaks don't bother him. He got his start on network TV (The X-Files) and so he learned to use commercial breaks to his advantage. Each break meant a chance to lose an audience, so he learned to write stories that had people wanting to wait through the commercials to see what came next.

As your friend Nicholas Myers has said. limitations sharpen focus.

MikeN said...

Bryan Cranston at the Emmys, after Brad Gilbert won for Raymond, was presenting. The woman asked him about losing, and he responded,'Yea, maybe if I ' (low loser voice) 'talk - like - this'

John in Ohio said...

I completely get commercial breaks in TV shows, even ones for HBO/Showtime. You may not need them originally, but if there ever is syndication, they will.
What I never understood is theatrical release movies that have obvious breaks. Once upon a time, that may have been to change the reel, but nowadays?

Silas said...

I have a question about the 7th season of MASH. There is an episode titled "None Like it Hot" about a heatwave. It was followed the next week by an episode you and David wrote called "They Call the Wind Korea." It was about a freezing windstorm. Then just two weeks later an episode titled "Baby It's Cold Outside." Why were there so many weather related stories so close to each other?

Brian said...

A great example regarding Salter's question about drama with a comic atmosphere (but not a current show): the original Law and Order. I recently watched some of the episodes again, and I was constantly bursting out laughing. Especially conversations involving Jerry Orbach or Steven Hill. The actual cases could be dark or gruesome, so the humor was a welcome respite. The writers usually found a healthy balance between the drama and the comedy. (Come to think of it, I laughed out loud at L&A more than I do now at many so-called sitcoms.)

Chris G said...

I thought the first few John Oliver shows needed the break that commercials provided - the tempo of the show just felt off without them. But that quickly changed - I don't know if they started blocking the pace of the show differently, used non-Oliver segments to provide a change of speed, or something else, but it's all good now.

Jim Grey said...

I'm working my way through MASH now on Netflix, and watching them in order one after another I felt like the whole Margaret-gets-married-and-then-divorced thing worked well enough and said a lot about her character. It's not a Story Arc for the Ages but it wasn't bad, either.

TF said...

Here's a dumb question but what the hell:

Do you have a favourite on screen credit "title card" for want of a better name?

That is to say - a favourite broadcast image from a show with your name juxtaposed against something/someone pretty/weird.

Justin Russo said...


Three not-so simple opinion questions as I re-watch "Cheers" for the umpteenth time:

1. Diane or Rebecca
2. Was there a favorite guest star on the program?
3. Favorite recurring non-lead character or barfly (mine will forever be Al)?


Astroboy said...

A drama I always find humor in, surprisingly, is Ripper Street. Originally on the BBC now an Amazon original content show. Mostly for the way it uses the English language, makes me smile and laugh the same way Deadwood did. Deadwood was a miracle of "wordage."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

From what I understand, Margaret getting married was Gene Reynolds's idea: with the departure of Larry Gelbart after Season 4, Gene was now at the helm by himself, and the show focused less on anti-war satire and more on character development. Margaret getting engaged and married was an attempt to give her character development and growth outside her being the army brat that she was and to give her something else in her life other than Frank (who had seriously devolved and Flanderized at this point). I heartell that Gene wanted Margaret to stayed married and was upset that after he left the writers had Donald cheating on and sneaking away from her, leading up to her eventual divorce.

That brings to mind another Friday question: how common is it for showrunners to walk away or leave their shows, and yet still have some sort of input after they no longer work for the show (again, i.e. Gene Reynolds consulting with Alan Alda once a week after his departure, or Larry David still supplying Steinbrenner's voice on SEINFELD)? On that token, when a showrunner walks away from a show he's created, why wouldn't he just want to go ahead and end it if he felt he's done all he could with it since, again, I understand Gene wasn't too pleased with some of the changes made to M*A*S*H after he left, or how many complain after Larry David left, SEINFELD turned into something of a live-action cartoon?

PNW Corey said...

Ike Iszany... isn't he married to the Washington Post art critic, Phyllis Steen or is it Dot Snice?

Charles H. Bryan said...

I enjoy an occasional break from a fine show so that Dennis Leary can read Ford F-150 commercial copy to me while the words flash on the screen. Apparently, Ford is targeting the illiterate segment of the audience.

Bill Avena said...

I don't know how people can praise the utility of commercial breaks when producers have chopped up the timeslot so much there isn't time for ANY sort of story to develop. Even "Louie" ,which I like, is a strung -together bit of vignettes like a series of "Schiller's Reels" from SNL. And Louie follows many other shows regarding long break, then little bit at the end while credits "roll by" at literally lightning speed. This can't be for the benefit of people watching on old fashioned TV sets; maybe it's for Netflix consumers.

Matt Tauber said...

I don't consider Capt. Spalding a mistake. He was only in three episodes. Maybe a mistake if they'd carried on. He's essential to "There is Nothing Like a Nurse" being so effective.

Johnny Walker said...

"Oh well. Some things work and some things don’t. But you gotta try."

The creative process summed up! :)

ScottyB said...

I remember the Loudon Wainright III balladeer mostly because I kept finding his albums in the bargain bin at the Venture department store where I worked at the time and finally had to find out if the songs were as good as their titles. He's an acquired taste.

'Scrubs' also did at least one similar balladeer episode with Colin James Hay, the singer for Men At Work and a notable talent in his own right (not to mention a very amusing fellow and a wonderful interview apart from that).

For me, those episodes are OK as one-offs (and because they add some color and I imagine attempt to make you think "wow, that's some heavy life-song parallels, man"), but mostly, they just strike me as someone with the show just wanting to work in one of their favorite long-overlooked musicians who could use a career boost simply because they now have the leverage to do whatever they like.

Mike said...

@Astroboy: "You and I will be copperin' these benighted Whitechapel streets, Bennett."

ScottyB said...

This was a really good Friday Questions installment. Good picks there today, @KenLevine.

I was thinking about the commercial breaks thing as it relates to a show's writing (or more exactly, the other way around) just the other night. One of the antenna-TV networks (H&I — heroes and icons) has started running 2-hour blocks of 'NYPD Blue' reruns immediately following a similar block of 'Hill Street Blues' reruns every night. I come away thinking writing to commercial interruption actually adds quite a bit to the show's ebb and flow because now those segments are almost like entities unto themselves while still being a part of the sum of the whole episode. And ... it really does work when you're smart about it from the beginning.

PLUS — I believe 'NYPD Blue' and 'Hill Street Blues' would certainly qualify as dramas where the type of humor mentioned in today's blog post was an essential and defining lifeblood part of the show.

Aside from that, it made me remember that 'NYPD Blue' started losing me me when Kim Delaney joined the show as a detective. Fortunately, the addition of Bill Brochtrup ("Gay John") at roughly the same show-arc point tempered her presence.

McAlvie said...

It must be getting harder to write around or for those breaks. With far more commercials, the breaks are either longer or more frequent. There have been a few shows, mostly network 'specials', which felt more like a string of commercials interrupted by a plot line. I get that they have to finance the show, but there is a point where you lose the audience.

Friday question, I guess, and if you know the answer: How much thought goes into the number of commercials and the frequency of repetition for any one sponsor? Or are they just happy to get as many as they can? I have turned off the tv because an ad repeated too many times during a show, which may be extreme, but it makes me wonder if they worry about viewers reaching saturation point.

Dave Creek said...

Bill Avena -- it's not the producers who "chop up" the timeslot. They're given running times for each commercial break and have to live with them.

McAlvie -- I know what you mean about commercials repeating within a show. It drives me nuts. I'd like to find out if that's really effective. It just turns me off of the product.

Another peeve is promos for a show within a show. NBC Nightly News does this about every night, with a promo for Lester Holt and Nightly News within the broadcast itself. If we're seeing this, we're already watching!

cadavra said...

Comedy has always been a part of TV drama, from the jaunty detective shows of the 1950s to the Kelley and Sorkin "dramedies" of recent years. And we now have a entire new subgenre some have dubbed "crimedies," which are procedurals played largely for humor, such as BONES, CASTLE, RIZZOLI & ISLES and THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA, which takes it a step further by being an outright mash-up of cop drama and family sitcom (though they seem to be backing off that somewhat this season). Since these shows are by design locked into a specific plot formula, the banter and character development is what keeps them lively.

Mike said...

Just think. Less than two months until the 'War on Christmas'.

GS in SF said...

Maybe you've answered this question before. A few weeks ago you wrote about the favorite episodes you wrote -- what about the favorite episodes you *directed* without writing? I know pie fight may be number 1, so please start after that -- show, episode, and perhaps why.

Anonymous said...

NCIS has their own black and white fade act breaks when going in and out of commercials.

Diane D. said...

I loved HILL STREET BLUES (including the splendid title), and although it was drama, it had one of the funniest lines I have ever heard. It starts out like it's going to be the biggest cliche there is, but turns into something absolutely hilarious. Veronica Hamil and Daniel Travanti had split up for a while and were getting back together. In the bedroom scene, Veronica said it had been so long, she wasn't sure she remembered what to do. Daniel said, "It's like riding a bike; just get on and start peddling."

cd1515 said...

I'm amazed at all the people here who apparently watch commercials.
I DVR everything and haven't seen an ad in years.

also Dave Creek reminded me of something I hate, though it's not really an ad.
it's when live sports games start with 7-10 minutes of meaningless hype-riddled BS, with a lot of flashy graphics, flashy effects, flashy music, etc, all designed (I guess) to convince me what a great game this is going to be, except I'M ALREADY WATCHING, you don't have to sell me anymore.

that should all be running somewhere else, well before the game, to convince people to tune in.

Albert Giesbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albert Giesbrecht said...

Sometimes the commercials are more entertaining than the actual programs.

"I'm a fan of Cold and Hotta!*" How can any modern day sitcom beat that?

*If you don't get the reference, Google it.

Liggie said...

Directing F.Q. Say you're helming something intentionally bad like "Sharknado", and you know the audience's main goal is to enjoy just how intentionally bad it is. Which way would you direct the cast, who is also in on the joke, to maximize the entertainment value: Play it straight like a regular movie (tell Mark Cuban to play the president); or ham it up and go overboard (tell Mark Cuban to play Mark Cuban playing the president)?

Scott said...

Friday question, Ken: with the proliferation of promo bugs (those extremely annoying graphics for other shows on the network), do TV directors try to keep all the action in the upper two-thirds of the screen and let the lower third be wasted?

New Amsterdam Storyteller said...

When you sell a script, do you basically hand over the right to every idea within said script to the network, forever? Someone once came up with the 'we're on a break'-line for Friends, just as someone else thought of Married With Children's 'Psycho Dad'. Do you get paid once for a joke like that when you sell your script, and then have to grin and bear it when said joke/idea becomes a running gag for years to come, in scripts made by others?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@New Amsterdam Storyteller In many cases when you sell a script, yes, the material you send in and the content of said material becomes the property of the company you sell it and they can do with it as they please; however, often the case is you have to sign a release form that basically says you give them permission to use and/or distribute your submission, otherwise if you don't sign, they won't accept your script at all. When I wrote a spec almost a year ago, I had to sign such a release form, mainly because I was submitting it on the condition that it was unsolicited work (I wasn't selling it).

i could be a bob said...

Saw something over the weekend on facebook about Whitefire and the short failed sitcom/ plays. I missed your earlier work, will that be repeated? Or will it be newer pieces? Hope to see if you'll have anything to do with this.

By Ken Levine said...

New pieces and yes, I have a one-act that I wrote and am directing. We open Oct. 19.

Baylink said...

For ScottyB et alia (Colin on Scrubs):