Friday, January 08, 2016

Friday Questions

Well, here we go. First FQ’s of 2016. I’m sure one of your resolutions this year was to ask a Friday Question. Go for it.

GS in SF kicks off 2016:

Last night Encore Black aired your episode of the Jeffersons, "Moving on Down."

My first question is do you get some sort of notice (perhaps via app or stork) that your show will be airing on a given channel and date? And if not, perhaps someone can create an app for the WGA or DGA? Or would that allow the talent to keep track of their royalties too closely?

Also, it was interesting to watch a Jeffersons episode from 1975. I started watching the Jeffersons but only toward the end of its run. The show you wrote was actually allowed to breathe, George was actually allowed to be mopey for more than 2 seconds. Was that always the case for the early years and only later did the show become a bit more about quick set ups and jokes every few seconds? "Moving on Down" seems like it could have been an episode of Frasier with just a few tweaks.

To answer the first part of your question: No, no one ever gives us a heads-up on when our shows are scheduled to air, never. Supposedly the Guilds have computer programs that scan TV listings and keep track of when shows broadcast, but I don’t trust them. Contractually, the companies that own the shows are supposed to declare this info, but who are we kidding? That's a joke.  I guarantee you every writer who is owed residuals has been cheated, probably for shocking amounts.

And don’t get me started on residuals from streaming services like NETFLIX. We went out on strike for months for a piece of the pie. How many times has a CHEERS or MASH or FRASIER or SIMPSONS of ours been streamed? And if I’ve seen any royalties at all, it’s been pennies.

In terms of that JEFFERSONS episode, it was made under an old WGA Agreement where residuals were only issued for the first ten airings. So I haven’t seen any pesos for that show in years.

Our episode came very early in the series’ run and had a different writing staff than its later years. During our tenure a lot of ALL IN THE FAMILY scribes were in charge. Don Nicholl, Bernie West, Mickey Ross, Gordon Mitchell and Lloyd Turner. You mentioned that our episode felt somewhat FRASIER-like as opposed to later years. Well, ironically, the show runners those later seasons were Peter Casey & David Lee who later co-created FRASIER.

Chris has a question after watching an episode of ALMOST PERFECT:

Kim Cooper (Nancy Travis) is watching Cheers when Mike Ryan calls her. In the Almost Perfect universe, the writer Ken Levine who works on Cheers and is probably credited as a producer on the screen is the same guy who's now running their lives?

That’s as meta as we got. We like doing (very) small inside jokes. Anytime in ALMOST PERFECT Kim was watching TV she was watching CHEERS. We did that probably six times through the course of the series.

In another of our shows, BIG WAVE DAVE’S, Adam Arkin’s character is on a plane reading my book, “It’s Gone!... No, Wait a Minute.”

On BECKER, we have the Linda character listening to B100 (a station I once worked for).

And on the SIMPSONS we peppered the “Dancin’ Homer” episode with people I knew from my minor league baseball days.

One of my favorite moments from BRIDGE OF SPIES (which I didn’t write) was that a Berlin movie house was showing ONE TWO THREE, the Billy Wilder movie set in Berlin.

These are just little rewards and homages for people who either know us or pay way too close attention.

Peter queries:

This one's a bit of a geeky question but I'd like to know where you stand on comedy movies being filmed in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I've noticed more and more comedies in that format. I've always associated 2.35:1 with epics and action adventures. The scope look just seems odd for a comedy but I recently saw Sisters, Love the Coopers, The Night Before and they were all in that aspect ratio. In the same way that comedies should never really be longer than 100 minutes (another unofficial rule that Sisters breaks, clocking in at 2hrs, which though a funny movie is way too long), I think comedies should generally be 1.85:1.

There’s a bit of a dichotomy here. In general comedy is intimate. You want the audience to focus on something specific. That’s harder to do where there is great scope.

On the other hand, you don’t want to get too close. Have you ever noticed on most sitcoms that close ups are somewhat loose? Tight close ups are jarring. It’s as if someone is invading your space.

But my final word is that if the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is becoming the standard then comedies should probably follow suit. I guess it depends on how you are watching. If you’re viewing a Tina Fey movie on an iPhone then why give up part of the screen?

As for the length, YES.  Most current comedies are way too long.  Another of the Judd Apatow legacies.  

And finally, from Steve:

If you could get one of the writing rooms you've worked on before together again to do a new show, which would it be? Not going back in time, but the same group of writers as they have matured and grown in the years since.

That’s an interesting question and a little tough to answer because some of the writers who were in these rooms who I would use are no longer with us. Give me Larry Gelbart and that’s all the staff I would need.

But if I had to assemble a room from among those still making the world laugh, I would take the CHEERS room. Starting with Glen & Les Charles and adding Earl Pomerantz, Peter Casey & David Lee, Heide Perlman, Bob Ellison, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, and Phoef Sutton. That would be like reuniting the ’27 Yankees. And those were just the upper tier writers. The CHEERS staff writers down through the years were All-Stars in their own right.

Leave your FQ in the comments section. Thanks, and may I be the last to wish you a Happy New Year.


Peter said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken!

I miss the days of comedies being 90-95mins long. Heck, even Disney Pixar movies are now regularly clocking in at more than 100mins. Gone are the days when you could see a comedy or animation that didn't exhaust you or make your mind wander and start thinking about what you're gonna have for dinner after the movie.

As I said a while ago, Airplane was shot in 1.85:1, comes in at 88mins and is still funnier than most of these bloated comedies made now.

JIm said...

Given the level of royalties for some of these old shows, I'd be gobsmacked if anyone thought it worth writing any sort of software for tracking down when they are repeated. Ken's too modest to show his cheques, but another blog I read recently published photos of a couple paid to someone who was an extra in an episode of the Love Boat, and a Cheech and Chong film. I don't know if Donny Osmond who starred in that particular Love Boat episode did any better, but she could have made more by picking up the envelopes by hand and steaming the stamps off.

P.S. the Adult Content warning is because the author is a staunch and eloquent defender of British sex comedies from the Seventies; a genre dismissed by most other people due to their lack of both sex and comedy. Probably not work friendly, but certainly not a gynaecology for the short sighted sort of place.

Steve Mc said...

RE - the length of comedies, rather than a Judd Apatow thing, isn't it the case that movies have gotten too long across the board. It's rare to see a film of any genre now where you don't think you could lose 10 to 15 minutes, or even more and it would strengthen the film.

When I was at film school (I was doing the writing course) the head of script gave us one of the school's most high profile recent graduate films and an edit suite. Another writer and I whittled it down from 85 minutes to 25 minutes, still told the story and resolved the fact that, in the original, the story was really over at the end of the 2nd act! The head of direction was not pleased.

I am not Judd Apatow.

CK said...


Your blog goes so well with my morning coffee!!

Would love your take on the “ethics” of Reality TV, today.

Yesterday’s LATimes had a piece about the genre’s staying power, but the public conversation that follows seems to be focusing primarily on how reality TV is anything but real.

Mark Burnett on the 2015 Reality TV Power List, admits he doesn’t “even know what "reality TV" means.” He prefers, “unscripted drama.” I agree that “reality TV” is an inaccurate moniker, but the “reality” doesn’t come from the drama. The drama is whatever the producers fabricate.

I think LIFETIME’S “UnREAL” has done a super fun job shining the light on the shameful reality of reality TV. But pulling back the curtain on egregious behavior and manipulation of producers and production companies doesn’t seem to diminish our want to watch more of this shit.

Even CNBC, a supposed legit business news channel has jumped in the muck. They have a “reality” show called THE PROFIT, which couldn’t be more hackneyed if it aired on A&E… terrible editing, smarmy host, obvious dubbing, reshoots, etc… creating false narratives to entertain, at the expense of small businesses it purports to care about.

What’s next? I was kind of hoping that UnREAL would be the tipping point for this genre….

CK, coffee drinker and Ken Levine roadie

Unknown said...

imdb lists your upcoming episodes. Just go to your page and scroll down on the right side. I don't know if it includes everything you got WGA credit.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Re inside jokes:

On an episode of BROOKLYN NINE-NINE a few weeks ago, one of the cops deals with a ten-year-old boy (a truant, I believe) named Sam. According to the closing credits the character's full name was... Sam Malone.

In that same episode, Andy Samberg's character discovers in the final scene that the unseen perp they've been chasing is named "Grady Lamont." So that's a SANFORD AND SON reference.

I love jokes like these - they're like little Easter eggs for the viewers. It can be easy to get carried away with them - ST. ELSEWHERE was like a "spot the reference" party towards the end - but for the most part they're fun.

Johnny Walker said...

You'd leave David Isaacs on the bench? Tsk. (Actually, slightly more seriously, there's a few more names I would have expected to see, but didn't!)

I have a STACK of Friday Questions (should one of mine ever be answered again):

I'm watching CHEERS Season 10 at the moment and it's left me with lots of questions. (Although can I just say, did Cheers suddenly get a second wind halfway through Season 10? It felt like they really hit a new stride to me. The show is still working brilliantly (Season 10!), the stories and jokes are still great. Plus with all the characters -- so many great secondary ones opening up stories, and it feels like the writers have a great hold on them all. I digress...)

What was the thinking behind the Sam/Rebecca having a baby storyline? It was a cliffhanger from Season 9, but (although it follows the Cheers tradition of giving next year's writing a complex problem to solve) where the writers really thinking of going through with it? It was such an odd choice for two people who weren't in love, or even a relationship for that matter, to decide to have a child together. The stories that came out of it worked well, and it's a testament to the writers and actors that it worked at all, but the fizzling out of their idea seemed like the only possible outcome. Was it always planned this way?

In the best Bar Wars episode (you know the one), I remember "Monster Mash" playing when Gary pranked the bar. It's a memory that's stayed with me since I was a kid -- it just seemed like the perfect song, and was SO funny. But unlike every other song used in Cheers (which is the same as it was when first broadcast), "Monster Mash" has been changed to cheaper sounding alternative for home video (even Netflix). Any idea why? It's maddening when I watch that episode. (Also, if the music wasn't played on set -- allowing them to switch it out, what did the audience react to?)

In Season 10 Kelsey Grammer suddenly has a beard (not that that's a big deal, of course) but the writers felt compelled to have the characters comment on it. Did Kelsey just suddenly decide to have a beard? Was he working on another project that required a beard?

Finally, I'd love to know how the scenes shot in Boston came about. Where they just an opportunity that was afforded you because the show had become so big? Who directed them? When did you find time to shoot them?


Johnny Walker said...

Also, re: the ratio question, I personally think comedies should be 1.85:1 -- they just play better that way at home. That's just my opinion.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've never been a fan of how movies and TV shows keep changing their aspect ratios, and this Ninja Pirate article pretty much vocalizes my main reason why:

People always talk about how you lose like 25% or so of the picture in 1.33:1 (or 4:3), when in actuality, it's just the reverse, as this article points out: I've seen a number of movies in these formats - 1.33:1, 1.85:1, and 2.35:1 - and the "wider" the screen is, the more picture you lose, and it's really annoying than the entertainment industry tries to convince you otherwise: all you have to do is look for yourself and see the real difference. I loathe how now older shows and movies keep being cropped into 1.85:1 for TV broadcasts now, SEINFELD is perhaps one of the worst offenders - "The Checks," for example, crops out the bag of oranges Jerry and George bring to their meeting with the Japanese TV execs, so they had to do a weird edit where they add in what looks like a cut to an insert of the bag of oranges when they're actually mentioned, whereas in the original aspect ratio, the oranges were always in frame.

Somehow, Muppet movies are the only exception to the rule, I've found.

But I hate widescreen so much that even though I have a full 1080p HD camera, I setup and frame my shots specifically for 4:3, so instead of editing and exporting projects with a 1280x1080 resolution, they come out 1440x1080, which I like so much better. I mean, what's the point of showing off empty space off to the sides? Or in some cases, they talk about how widescreen gives us uninteresting background events off to the side, like a random extra staring off into space, or an extra standing around holding a cat . . . why are we supposed to be enthralled by the extras standing off to the side when we're supposed to be paying attention to the action that's playing out in the foreground?

By Ken Levine said...


You can just assume if that I were going to be a showrunner I would do it with my partner, David. It's hard enough with two people!

Steve B. said...

Ken, which do you find more challenging to write: A show's pilot, or episode #2?

Anonymous said...

I just watched the Cheers episode "The Last Angry Mailman," written by you and David. I know you've talked before
about the big stunt (Cliff's house falling apart) was set up and done on-stage for the audience, but where the idea originate? Did you and David come up with the idea, or was it assigned to you? Once the idea was developed, did someone (Burrows? A production designer?) have to do tests to make sure it was feasible? When a show did a big destructive moment like that, did the network have more involvement (in the sense of putting safeguards in place, covering themselves/the actors/audience in case of accidents, etc.) It's just such a fascinating moment to me - it's clear that a ton of work went into it.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I know, I was just being silly :)

Bill Avena said...

Joseph S: You'd be unhappy with my cable provider's latest stunt, which was to shrink picture size and thereby save money (??). Widescreen films, newer TV shows, all are cropped to fit. I'd go on the warpath but there are angrier, crazier people who will light the torches. It's almost Monty Burns-like, leaving us with permanent black bars left and right. "They stole the light from us!"

Stephen Marks said...

"one of the many legacies of Judd Apatow". Here are the others that Ken is too much of a gentleman to mention.

Putting your wife in every movie you make: This is known inside Hollywood as the "Mann and wife" syndrome. Casting Leslie Mann is one reason Judd's movies have intermissions. You can't leave your wife's work on the cutting room floor then expect her to sweep it up while you're in the bedroom standing on the script for This Is 40 so you look taller then Paul Rudd and wait for sex. This takes "do I look fat in this dress" to a whole new level and the reason why you'll never see "edited by" in any JA saga. Judd aspires to be Orson Wells so his next movie is "Citizen Came", about an unattractive average guy slacker who impregnates a beautiful career minded woman.

Unattractive men attracting great looking women: JA ripped off this idea from Bob Newhart and Kevin James, made the male a loveable slacker, added a Mannhole and became the Shakespeare of comedy, which led to his next legacy.

Being the first guest-editor of Vanity Fair's comedy issue: After putting his wife on the cover AP then increased the size of the magazine to 5,000 pages. He made Adam Sandler comedian emeritus and forced Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to have their picture taken barefoot and pregnant, hiring an unemployable Katharine Heigl as the photographer. The issue, like Pineapple Express and Year One, tanked.

Being named number 1 on the Entertainment Weekly issue of the smartest people in Hollywood: No harm done.

Mike Danner said...

Hi Ken! I have a question about the Season 8 episode of Frasier "Sliding Frasiers", which I rewatched recently. I know you've referred to that episode before on your blog in relation to "A or B". It's a great episode, and it seems to really set in motion Frasier's final arc of the series towards finding love, a theme explored during the final 3 seasons in particular (after Niles and Daphne finally get together and the will they/won't they dynamic there goes away).

At the end of the episodes, the two plots converge as Frasier decides to turn his car around and go meet up with a caller who has a crush on him (as he listens to an episode from "The Best of Crane"). My question is actually a two-parter. First, the end of this episode seems to be leading us to the caller's workplace, and perhaps to a plot in which Frasier attempts to meet her. As it turns out, it's never referred to again. I'm not sure if you were around during this time on Frasier, but what might the reason for this be? I believe that the caller was voiced by Bernadette Peters...might she have had plans to guest star on a several episode arc, but those plans fell through? Or was this episode supposed to be a self-contained story, just giving us a taste of Frasier's journey of eventually finding love (and Laura Linney).

The second (and somewhat related) question is, were any of the celebrity guest callers ever in a discussion to actually appear on the show (as the same character that called in)?

Thanks for the blog Ken, and by the way, your New Years Resolution post inspired me to make some goals for the year, and those goals include to finish reading the archives of your blog (I'm going through them backwards and am currently in May of 2014). :)

Astroboy said...

I'm of the belief all movies and TV shows should be in a 1:375 or 4:3 ratio AND all in Black and White; except for the (very) occasional "Biblical"/"Spectacular" feature, which should be in Widescreen and Technicolor (color-wise they should be like "Black Narcissus" or "Leave Her to Heaven").

Saburo said...

Tootsie (my fave movie of all time) was 2.35:1. I thought it was shot that way cause it was the times. Or was it Sydney Pollack's preferred look? I enjoy the look, nonetheless, and was always a visual travesty on pan-and-scan home video.

Breadbaker said...

I also assumed you included your partner in the "I". I think it becomes second nature after awhile.

This isn't a Friday question so much as just a question: are you considering going to Cooperstown to witness Junior's induction? I'm looking into it.

Tony said...

I'm sorry, but the idea that there is something inherently superior about one aspect ratio over another when it comes to comedy is one of the most ludicrous ideas I've ever heard. It's like arguing that comedy scripts always read funnier if the font used is New Times Roman.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Astroboy I'm not sure if I can agree about everything being in black-and-white, however, I just hate how they keep going back and digitally coloring old black-and-white shows. When BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE were first released on DVD, they offered the b&w seasons in color versions, which I passed on, and CBS has colorized the rare I LOVE LUCY Christmas episode, and keeps coloring a different episode each year. Now they've done the same to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, where they've colorized the Christmas episode and the pickle episode, which is a real travesty: part of the charm of the first five seasons of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was the black-and-white; when the show switched to color (and lost Don Knotts), it wasn't the same.

But aside from that, there are a number of older shows that have absolutely brilliant color that has been preserved well, such as HOGAN'S HEROES, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, H.R. PUFNSTUF, and others. In fact, if 35mm film shows are preserved well enough, they look even better than most anything that's shot digitally or in HD today.

Unknown said...

In response to all the talk of "Mann and wife". There is only 1 response: It's good to be the king.

Andy Rose said...

The abusurd length of many movies is sort of a counterpoint to the argument that things work better when auteurs are left alone. No doubt there's too much nit-picking and interference by suits in Hollywood, but a guy like Judd Apatow consistently makes movies too long because... who's going to tell him he's wrong?

There are all sorts of examples of creatives doing their best work when they are fighting against limitations. Some people argue that the reason the original Star Wars movies are better than the prequels Lucas made was that the prequels represented Lucas' unchecked creative vision, and it turns out to be much better when limited. There's the example of the "Ren and Stimpy" cartoon, which was incredibly creative when the show's leader was constantly battling with Nickelodeon. When it was resurrected on Spike with virtually no restrictions, John Kricfalusi turned in episodes that virtually all of the show's fans (who had taken his side in the disputes with Nickelodeon) hated.

Yesterday, I was reading the leaked deposition from Frank Darabont about being kicked off The Walking Dead. While he makes a compelling case about interference from the network, it's also noteworthy that most critics seem to believe that the show picked up significantly in Season 3 (the first one with no Darabont).

George Adelman said...

Friday Question:
I'm curious to know your opinions on the current state of sitcoms. It seems new like shows are popping up left and right on every platform imaginable (I can't wait until my microwave offers original programming). Lots of personalities and comedians are getting their own shows and all of them are being hailed as brilliant, and let's not even mention the obscene number of reboots, revivals, and remakes. I've watched a healthy sample these and almost none have stood out as anything more than bland and forgettable. Do you think the overload of availability is a good or bad thing, and what do you think of the general quality of said shows?

Johnny Walker said...

It's nonsense that the minor roles played by Mann in some of Apatow's movies are to blame for their length. He just likes long movies... to the point of ruining them, unfortunately (The 40 Year Old Virgin longer cut kills an otherwise great comedy). But he's a good force within Hollywood, even if you don't like his movies -- he's opened the door for many great talents, and by all accounts is a real great guy... unless you ask Cosby.

(Is that you, Bill Cosby?)

estiv said...

On the proper screen size for comedy: one film worth mentioning is Jacques Tati's Playtime. He was wonderful with sight gags, and some of the ones that he came up with for Playtime definitely depend on the 70mm format in order to have maximum effect.

Barry Traylor said...

Today's "Pearls Before Swine" might give you chuckle.

Bill Harris said...

Johnny Walker,

Regarding Kelsey Grammer's beard in season 10 of Cheers, Kelsey was playing Richard II at the Mark Taper Forum in April of 1992, which the Times called "a towering performance."

That being said, Mr. Grammer was a last minute replacement for John Glover during rehearsals, as the Times reported on March 22 of 1992. So Richard II doesn't really account for most, if any, of the season.

I think about that every time I see the beard.

Jabroniville said...

One thing that animation has going for it is that animated films really CAN'T go on "too long". Hand-drawn or CGI, that stuff takes FOREVER to get down right, and costs an exorbitant amount of money, so there's absolutely no time to be screwing around with extra-long scenes or one-too-many unnecessary sequences.

So while everything from dramas to romances to comedies is breaking 2 hours and going on for "Director's Cut"-level lengths of time, there's always animation.

Donald said...

Still bummed that Andre Crougher did not receive a Golden Globe nomination for his scene-stealing work on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." He is the best actor on the show and also makes me laugh the hardest. Coincidence? Of the actors you've directed, Ken, who among those best known for their dramatic work, impressed you most with their ability to play comedy?

VP81955 said...

So Leslie Mann is to Judd Apatow what Carol Dempster was to D.W. Griffith? (Those of you into film history will get the allusion.)

Stacy from NH said...

Hi Ken. Possible Friday Question for you. Movies seem to be, in general, about 1 and half hours to 2 hours in length. A single episode of a one hour drama, such as Breaking Bad or House of Cards, would be around 45 minutes in length minus commercials. However, a season of a one hour show can be anywhere from 12 to maybe even 20 episodes (just estimating). At the least, that would be about 6 hours of programming. Regardless of the accuracy of my figures, the point I'm trying to make is that, when adding up hours, a single season of a show is significantly longer than a single movie is. In my view, it would seem that there would be many more successful movies than television shows because all the effort of writing and creating the movie is going towards a single story told in just a short amount of time. The opposite seems to be true. Thoughts?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Spring Training is coming soon to a desert locale not in your neighborhood (and a semi-tropical locale even farther away). So how about a Baseball Question?

List all the terms used to name:

1) An inside pitch meant to "send a message"

2) A shallow fly that drops in for a hit between the infielders and outfielders.