Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Questions

As I get ready for tomorrow's SITCOM ROOM seminar,  here are this week’s Friday Questions.

GS in SF starts us off:

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.

Actually I did co-write the pie fight episode of ALMOST PERFECT.  Beyond that,  I’m very partial to a FRASIER I did called “Roz and the Schnoz” written by Jeffrey Richman. It was a great script and I’m very proud of how that show came out.  I think it's one of the funniest FRASIER'S ever -- and that's saying something.
But my favorite on-screen directing credit was this one from INSTANT MOM.
Why? Because it came right after this credit:
From Silas:

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?

The episodes were shown out of order. We began filming that season right after the 4th of July and new episodes didn’t premiere until late September. So we had eight or so episodes in the can before the season began. Usually the network determined airdates, not us.

We did do a number of weather-related episodes that year and here’s why:

We were locked into that camp site and felt that after six seasons we needed to find ways to create some variety. Weather was one. That year we also did the Point of View episode, another set primarily in a cave and an episode entirely in Rosie’s Bar.

But it would not have been my choice to air the weather episodes so close to each other.

Moving on to CHEERS, Justin asks:

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

1. Diane or Rebecca

Each brings a different quality and was wonderful on the show. If I had to pick however, it would be  Diane. Shelley Long was extraordinary playing a very difficult character. It would have been so easy to hate Diane. But Shelley made her warm and funny while still keeping her snootiness and edge. She walked a fine line every week and did so with precision and grace. I’m in awe of some of her performances.

2. Was there a favorite guest star on the program?

Hard to beat Johnny Carson, especially since we wrote that episode, and got to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW stage while he did our monologue and it got actual studio audience laughs.
3. Favorite recurring non-lead character or barfly (mine will forever be Al)?

Al (Rosen) would be mine as well. And by the way, he was never billed as “Al.” He was listed in every script as “Man Who Said Sinatra.” (“Sinatra” was the first line he ever had on the show and the name stuck.)

And finally, from SITCOM ROOM alum, Wendy Grossman:

In the Previously TV thread for the latest episode of NASHVILLE (S04e02), a poster indicates that they've been asked to be on an "ABC advisory panel" for the show, apparently to indicate what storylines they like/don't like etc. It sounds like a focus group, but they haven't given further details. Is this a new low for "network notes"? (I imagine something like, "The advisory panel doesn't like Juliette being so fucked up that she abandons her husband and new baby; can you get them back together pronto? Oh, and do something about Gunnar's hair. They don't like it.")

This is just another example of how networks are operating out of fear and desperation. I would pay way more attention to such research if it ever proved to be accurate. But it's not and never has been.  Remember, every terrible new show you see this fall tested well.

As a showrunner, I would use this as one source of feedback, utilize anything I thought was helpful, and ignore the rest.

God forbid creative people and artists determine the vision and execution of a television show instead of focus groups.

What’s your Friday Question?


Mitchell Hundred said...

How do you prevent yourself from overusing a character (i.e. to an extent that the novelty or the thing that made them popular in the first place gets worn out)?

Kirk said...

I have a bit of a problem with that cave episode. No big deal, really, just something I'd like to point out. Hawkeye can't go in the cave because he's claustrophobic. Yet this claustrophobia was never mentioned before that story aired or afterwards. What's more, there are episodes that have Hawkeye making out with a nurse in a closet, which I would think would be a much more enclosed area than a cave. Could it be that Hawkeye's horniness trumped his claustrophobia?

Not really a Friday question, though you can answer it if you want.

Off Topic said...

Somewhat off topic: I actually think Nashville's been better this year. Or perhaps I am more tired this year on Wednesdays and inclined to just keep watching after Blackish. I do feel bad for Hayden P. having to act out on screen the personal drama she's having with her own post partum issues.

Kevin said...

A question about Modern Family - it is obvious that something has changed, the style of the comedy has changed, fewer jokes, it's a very different show now than five years ago. Is the change something that is inspired by Writers, the Actors, Showrunner(s), or Network Execs?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@Kevin. Usually, I notice sitcoms change around the 4th or 5th year, most notably because the writers leave or move their attention to new projects/shows. Unless the newer talent is equally as good, then the shows suffer (or change).

I have also felt that Modern Family is a little more forced for the past few seasons. But that happens in most sitcoms. I'd say 5 years is the life a great sitcom, though with inspired talent by the crew, writers and cast it can go on passed that.

How many shows can last past 5 seasons without a major cast change/addition and still function on a good to great level?
The only ones I can think of are:
Friends (more or less)

just my thoughts....

Stephen said...

Ever written something that, looking back with more modern sensibilities, you wish you had done a little differently? Older films and TV are often full of racial/sexist/homophobic stereotypes that make me embarrassed not just for the writers but for anyone in the original audience that might rewatch an see what they used to laugh at (see: Breakfast at Tiffany's). I'm convinced that ten years from now Big Bang Theory reruns will vanish from the air as people start to realise how much of the humour is at the expense of a character who clearly has a disability. Are there some shows where writers are

Stephen said...

Ahem, sorry about trailing off there. Are there some shows where writers are concerned with how a joke might play in ten years or is that a luxury you can't afford when you have to get a laugh from the audience this week?

Mighty Dyckerson said...
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Mighty Dyckerson said...
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pumpkinhead said...

Kirk, my two cents on your question about claustrophobia. I'm mildly claustrophobic and I find that the environment and nature of the space are as important (to me at least) as the amount of space. I can endure some very confined spaces that feel stable and ordinary, but an unstable-feeling environment like a cave would probably have the same effect on me as it did Hawkeye, and a stable but alien environment like an MRI machine was enough to make me (speaking only a little hyperbollically) run screaming from the hospital. So, I can see where the nature of that particular environment might have had that effect on Hawkeye when more familiar or ordinary confined spaces would not. Of course, that said, I assume the real reason is that his claustrophobia never served to advance any of the other plots.

Terrence Moss said...

The middle.
I love lucy.
All in the family.
Home improvement.

Pinky's Brain said...

Friday question. I've been watching the Donnie/Daphne/Niles/Mel episodes and it seems unusual the lengths the writers went to to set up Donnie as a nice guy before taking multiple opportunities to humiliate him. It almost feels like the writers were taking perverse pleasure in bringing him back for additional humiliation at Nile' and Daphne's courthouse wedding. Usually when a character is about to suffer some nasty fate, the writers seem to expose him as a bad guy to soften the blow for the audience. Seems like the opposite with Donnie. Was it a conscious choice to set him up as a nice guy and repeatedly humiliate him, or did it just happen that way? (Come to think of it, previously unlikable Mel was exposed as truly loving Niles (when Daphne is giving her a massage) right before she gets dumped also.)

Anonymous said...

Can you talk about how you/they came up with the "Jeopardy" episode where Cliff goes on the show ? I can only imagine coming up with questions for Cliff was a fun time.

Stephen Robinson said...

FRIENDS and FRASIER didn't have kids as part of their main cast nor as a major element of the show's dynamic. Neither did CHEERS or MASH (so its cast changes were more controlled). Kids are an unstable element in comedy chemistry -- you can wind up with a teen idol or an awkward adolescent (TWO AND A HALF MEN, for example, which doubled down with a title that would make less sense as time progressed). MODERN FAMILY is desperate to try to figure out what to do with Luke and Manny, for existence, and much of it is dependent on how the actors mature.

BTW, Ken's comment about Diane reminds me of how unlikeable I find Alex on MF. She's arrogant, self-centered, and treats her loved ones with contempt. I am usually confused as a writer as to the show's intent with her. I think what made Diane work, especially as Long portrayed her, was that she was the underdog. She was well-educated but not the best writer, despite her attempts. She was also out of her element. We could root for Diane against Carla because Diane was the underdog in that scenario, despite her own position in society.

Tony said...

I'm convinced that ten years from now Big Bang Theory reruns will vanish from the air as people start to realise how much of the humour is at the expense of a character who clearly has a disability.

Or maybe in ten years sanity will have prevailed and people will have stopped worrying so much that somebody somewhere might possibly be offended by something.

Tom said...

I think Modern Family had a good bounce-back season last year after a very poor season the previous year. Unfortunately, so far this year has been a clunker.

I think a big problem is when they pick a poor overarching theme. Two years ago it was the wedding (and while gay weddings may be pretty new, wedding planning sitcom tropes aren't), and this year they're back on the financial instability for Cam and Mitchell theme. It just ends up feeling contrived and forced.

MikeN said...

I think you are being too harsh on focus groups. I participated in such a group once, with the director in the house. One guy made a recommendation that drew lots of derisive laughter. When I saw the finished product I was surprised to see that this was the only change made, other than changing the title from The Country of my Skull to In My Country.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to say that the "Roz and The Schnoz" episode of "Frasier" was, indeed, one of the funniest of the series. It is a credit to your entire team that you could pull off topics such as this with ease, while others stumble.
That kind of comedy is not easy; there's a fine line between funny and silly.

Belle said...

Just a quick question for you Ken. Throughout the course of MASH Hawkeye has a habit of sniffing his food before eating it, something which seems to have started quite early in the show's run. By the time it was actually acknowledged properly, it had been happening for a while. Do you know if that was something that was written in and just not used straight away, or if it was something Alan Alda started doing and the writers eventually decided to use?

Andy Rose said...

I think choosing a virtual focus group the way they're doing with "Nashville" sounds a little odd, but may be a result of the smaller audiences TV shows are drawing these days. If you're not going to get a wide audience, maybe you just focus on the interests of the people who already are devoted to the show? Not saying that's a better way to run a show, just that maybe that's what they're thinking.

You can't make the claim that changes coming from audience testing always make a show worse. It's one of those things like having tons of rewrites, recasting from a pilot, or having a studio demand character changes or a certain actor. It's not a good sign, but occasionally it works. And not "every show" that got on the air tested well. Seinfeld famously tested at historic lows, but got on the air anyway. While that show turned out to become extraordinarily popular, there are others that likewise get on the air despite bad testing, and just end up being bad shows. Network execs will brag about the risks they took on a "Seinfeld." They won't put in their memoirs "I'm the guy who greenlit Chicken Soup!"

I've found Frank Oz's thoughts on testing very interesting. He's as proud a director as you'll find, but he has forthrightly said that a major change to the end of "Little Shop of Horrors" as a result of a test screening prevented that movie from being a box office disaster. He has argued that it's no different than any Broadway play -- doing previews and adjusting lines, songs or even entire acts based on audience reception. You could argue it's also not much different than a multi-camera sitcom redoing a line after the original joke bombs in front of the audience.

ROGirl said...

Friday question: I'm curious about Alan Arbus, given his background as a photographer who was married to Diane Arbus, and ended up playing a shrink on MASH. Did he discuss his career change, his former life, etc.? He seemed like a mensch.

KG said...

Hey Ken,

You mentioned several times how much you liked "Roz and the Schnoz" and I honestly don't understand why. I don't want to sound rude but I was completely baffled and shocked when I watched the episode for the first time. In my opinion it is the single worst episode of Frasier – which is really surprising because I agree with your "taste" in literally 99 percent of the time.

Again, I apologize if this sounds rude but I had to comment on this.

micncue said...

Hi Ken,
Cheers is one of my favorites of all time. I'd put up some of the writing as the best ever built. Early on in the series, right around the time it was at the bottom in viewership, a friend of mine received what I'd assumed was a spec script written by her friend Russ Woody. From my cursory investigation, he was not a writer for the show. And the show from that script never materialized. I read the script and I laughed and laughed. I knew the characters and I could buy each of them speaking each of Russ' lines. I assume somewhere along the line the script was rejected by the showrunners. If that's an example of what was rejected on Cheers, I want to get my hands on all of those rejects. I'd make that required reading if I'm ever feeling down. I'd hazard a guess that you probably have a closet full.

Justin Russo said...

Ken, thanks for answering my questions!! LOVE your blog :)

Joe Blow said...

Stephen R.
The Diane character was not only the underdog; she was also kind to everyone, even Carla who was horrible to her all the time. That will make many people root for a character, even if she can be a little snobby and annoying at times. Long played her to perfection.