Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Questions

Here are this week’s FQ, hot off the presses (which is another one of those expressions we still use but is now obsolete):

Justin Russo starts us off:

Ken, as a writer of comedy, is there any classic film actor/actress that you wish you could have written for and worked with (aside from Natalie Wood, of course - that's too easy)?

Okay, I’m going to list some names. These are based strictly on comedy chops, not looks. Otherwise Grace Kelly (pictured above) would top the list. Note: You may not know some of these names, but they’re worth looking up if you’re a student of comedy.

Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Margaret Dumont, Kate Hepburn, Audrey Meadows, Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Curly Howard, John Belushi, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Hans Conried, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Lou Costello, and I'm sure for every person I listed there are ten I forgot.

From Kayla:

Who decides how extras should or shouldn't react, the director? I understand that most of the time they're just background fill and aren't supposed to be paying attention to the actors, but I've seen scenes where the actors should be paying attention, but they're not. For example, two actors in a restaurant are having a loud argument, the kind of thing that in real life would be drawing a lot of attention, but in the scene the extras remain oblivious to the yelling that's going on a few feet away from them. Things like that take away from the reality of a scene.

You’re right, Kayla.  Background action is very important, and to save money, studios traditionally don’t bring in the extras until the last minute. The 2nd Assistant Director handles all the background action. It’s really a job of choreography and organization.

Not only do the extras have to move and cross, but they must do so at exactly the same point in the scene so multiple takes can match. A good 2nd is a godsend. He/she must also get them to react at times. And things that seem like no-brainers must be carefully explained. Like the restaurant scene you referenced.   Whenever I direct and there’s a background reaction required I rehearse the extras myself.

And if left to their own devices to cross, invariably an extra will cross in front of actor just when he’s delivering a joke. It’s uncanny – like waiters showing up just as you get to the punch line of a long story.

On the other hand, extras are poorly paid and treated like cattle.  My heart always goes out to them.  And I always ask the 2nd AD to place them strategically so that most of them can be on camera.   At least for their time and effort they can get on TV, even for two seconds.  

Johnny Walker asks:

In season 9 of CHEERS there's a series of episodes with cold openings actually set in Boston. How did these come about? Was everyone flown over for them, or was there some event happening and you took the opportunity to shoot something while everyone was there?

To commemorate the 200th episode the cast and writing staff went back to Boston. There was a big parade and dinner.  It was like following around the Beatles.  And since we had the entire cast, we took the opportunity to film a bunch of teasers at the Bull & Finch (which might have been officially retitled CHEERS by then).

We also all went back for the series finale, but it would seem stupid to film any more scenes by then.

Kensi Blonde wonders:

Is there a joke you regret?

Once on CHEERS we did a joke that took a shot at Jan Murray, who was a longtime comedian and TV game show host. We were actually fans of Jan Murray. I don’t remember the context but it was a Cliff line and even at the time we thought we were just on the border here. But it got a big laugh from the staff, worked well all week in rehearsal, and got a big laugh from the audience.

Still, I felt kind of sheepish about it.

The night it aired I cringed when that joke came on.

The next day the writers’ assistant buzzed me that “Jan Murray was on the phone.”

Uh oh.

I walked to the phone like I was heading to my execution. I figured I would get an earful and I deserved every word. Instead, he thanked me, thought the joke was funny, totally got the intent, and was pleasantly surprised to hear his name on CHEERS. I was relieved and very grateful. But that was the last time we ever did a joke like that.

As a coda: In later years when I became a director, Jan’s son Howard was my camera coordinator on several shows. He’s a great guy and we’ve become good friends. But if Jan hadn’t been so gracious I think I’d still be apologizing profusely to Howard every time I saw him.

What’s your Friday Question?


Bill Jones said...

But you know what? Because of that joke--and your reference to it here--I went and looked up Jan Murray, having never previously heard of him (I'm of a younger generation). And now I know all about him and his long and impressive career. Think of all the forgotten comedians and game-show hosts of yesteryear. Your joke ensures that people will remember Jan Murray, even if with a little bit of ribbing.

blinky said...

Why do you think actors want to be directors not writers? Other than Alan Alda who did it all. Like Jerry Paris, Ron Howard and from Animal House James Widdoes and Stephen Furst. Is it like the arrow of time? It only goes one direction?

Glen K. said...

I’ve worked as an extra on a handful films and TV shows. I did it not to break in the business, but for the extra paycheck which was nice to have. My most famous role can be seen here:

Stop it at 0:39. That’s the back of my head you are seeing. This trailer was first shown as the first commercial of the first commercial break of the Season 1 Finale of Survivor on CBS. Survivor was very popular back then, so my claim to fame was that millions of people saw the back of my head for a split second. I’ve yet to be stopped in the street and recognized for it.

Because of my jobs as an extra, I’ve always had an interest in watching the background action of scenes. I totally agree with Kayla- it is ridiculous to have an outburst in a crowded restaurant, and have no one look, but I think 2nd directors are getting better at this. I’m seeing more and more crowd scenes where the extras are reacting to the action (like looking).

I recommend anybody to try being an extra at least once. It’s great for the novelty of it. It was quite fascinating to see the setups and the crew working their magic. Here’s some take-aways from being an extra:

Don’t bother doing it for free (Productions requiring very large crowd scenes, like in a stadium, often ask for extras to work for free. Not worth it IMHO). You should get paid for your time, even if it is just minimum wage.

You might be fed. The food will be lousy, and made even worse as you see the cast and crew eat much better fare, like Sushi. Bring some power bars.

If you happen to be a hot female, you might get hit on by the male actors.

You will be made to sign a document stating that you will be available in case they have to do a reshoot at a later date (I was never called in for a reshoot).

Bring a book. There’s a lot of downtime where you are not needed. Most of my days were spent in a waiting area. Maybe bring a deck of cards and make friends among your fellow extras.

It is surprising how little you hear of the dialogue. Since the actors have microphones attached to them, they don’t have to speak loud.

Have fun watching those extras who take on this job in order to try and break into the business. You will see them trying to chat up the directors, actors, and anyone else who will listen to them. Some of the real clueless ones will talk to the writers :P . They will also try their best to be seen by the camera, such as asking the crew to be positioned up front right next to the actors.

While you may not have any way of knowing beforehand, you might be involved in outdoor scenes. Dress appropriately. Once I nearly froze as I walked up and down a very windy street for a couple of hours.

If you do try it, I hope you have wonderful second directors to work with like I did!

VP81955 said...

The lady in my avatar is thrilled you not only brought her name up, but listed her first. But I'm a bit surprised neither William Powell nor Myrna Loy were mentioned. Anyone who's seen "Libeled Lady" or "My Man Godfrey" is aware of Powell's comedic brilliance; the fishing scene in "Libeled Lady" ranks with the best physical comedy of any classic actor, including Cary Grant. And while Loy is more of a complementary star (sort of a female version of the younger Fred MacMurray), she had a smart comedic approach, just as Rosalind Russell did. (MGM used Roz to keep Myrna in line.) Lombard and Loy were good friends with contrasting comic styles, and it's unfortunate they never teamed up on film (they'd have been great in a '30s version of the SHelley Long-Bette Midler "Outrageous Fortune").

BTW, as I write this, TCM is airing "The Shop Around the Corner," an Ernst Lubitsch gem with my favorite performances from Frank Morgan and James Stewart.

Robb Hyde said...

Ken, I think stories such as this one about Jan Murray are the reason I have enjoyed your blog for so long.

kent said...

I remember everyone on your list but don't recall Stanwyck for comedy. Of what role were you thinking?

404 said...

Ken, I know you're a fan of Ms. Wood, but any time you want to put a picture of Grace Kelly up there, it's definitely okay by me.

Rick Wiedmayer said...

On a show how many assistant directors are there and what do their jobs entail? Who hires them, the show runner or that particular episode's director?

Jeff said...

This article from Deadline says that CBS has purchased several single-camera comedies, but asked for some of them to be reworked into a multi-camera format (or hybrid of both). How hard is this to do? It seems like making such a funcamental change to something you've poured so much effort into would be terribly difficult. And since the projects have already been bought by the network, do the creators have any ability to push back, or even refuse?

Anonymous said...

You BASTARD! - Jan

Michael said...

Jan Murray was another one of those pioneers of live TV we tend to forget. He also got off one of the great lines on the original Hollywood Squares--the funny one, not the one with Whoopi Goldberg (and I like Whoopi, but still ...). Anyway, it went something like this:

Peter Marshall: Jan, Joey Heatherton says, "I am NOT a sexpot."
Jan Murray: "She's right, Pete, but you're still a damn good MC."

His other one was in the old days when Buddy Hackett was in the center square and Murray was asked what holiday sells the most cards after Christmas. He said he wanted the director to focus on Hackett when he said this. They show Hackett and Murray said, "Purim." Hackett nearly died on camera.

Jeannie said...

I think it was Frank Capra's autobiography that noted he always gave extras a back story ("You're hurrying to a doctor's appointment," "You're worried about your job") to make their acting bits more believable. Kind of like how Flo Ziegfeld had his chorus girls wear expensive underwear that nobody in the audience would see, but which made them carry themselves differently, knowing they were wearing it.

Jim said...

No Ginger Rogers? Shame on you. I surely can't be the only person who watches other comedies from the thirties and forties (Bringing Up Baby, I'm looking at you for one) imagining how much more Ginger would have brought to the character than the actress who actually got the part. I'm sure that the writers didn't imagine half the laughs that she wrung out of her mines.

Stephen Marks said...

Bill Cosby said....

I'm going to tell you a story, yes I'm going to tell YOU a story. I was sittin in the room in the house that I own with my wife Camille and I'm readin the diary with the questions and Camille's in the kitchen cookin with the pots and the pans and the thing and putting stuff in that thing you plug into the wall to make the food. NOW! We were going to have a nice dinner at the table in the room and talk about our boy Ennis when I noticed you didn't include me in the list of the people on your diary. I know its because of the stories about the girls in the rooms and pills and the people say Bill Cosby did this and Bill Cosby did that with the Jello pop and the thing with the lawsuits and the sweaters. I know you wrote the stuff for the MASH and the stuff for the Frasier and the stuff for the show with the people in the bar in Houston. So I'm going to ask you, yes I am going to ask YOU to include me in list of the people you would like to write the stuff for so my name is with the Jack Lemmons and the Carl Marxs and Jan Ardens and the Desi Balls. Thank you for not including Whoopi Goldberg in the diary list because she farted and did the thing in front of my wife Camille and because of the incident we don't talk. My wife Camille loves the Almost Perfect show and we watch every night on the TV I bought with the I Spy money.
Bill Cosby

1/15/2016 11:50 AM

TheCroatoan said...

That joke is in the episode 'Mr. Otis' Regrets' and actually it was a pretty innocuous joke. Cliff mentions that the french consider Jan Murray the greatest comedic genius of the 20th century. Frasier says they say that about Jerry Lewis. And Cliff says there wrong, it's Jan Murray.

JonCow said...

re: kent. Check out Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire," "The Lady Eve," "The Mad Miss Manton" to name just three.

Anonymous said...

I remember everyone on your list but don't recall Stanwyck for comedy. Of what role were you thinking?

I can think of two great ones: The Lady Eve and Meet John Doe

sanford said...

I googled Stanwyck and comedies and this is what I came up with. Although there are funny moments in Meet John Doe I don't know that I would consider it a comedy. Any movie where a character contemplates killing himself isn't so funny. Great movie, I just don't consider it a true comedy.

Chris Riesbeck said...

Re Eve Arden: Best way to understand her skills is to find an old-time radio site and listen to the pilot radio episode for Our Miss Brooks with Shirley Booth, then the same thing with Eve Arden. Booth was a fine actress, but Arden just nailed it.

Mike Danner said...

Ken, what are some good radio shows that paved the way for sitcoms (i.e. Fibber McGee and Molly, My Favorite Husband, etc.) that you would recommend for students of comedy to absorb? Also, are there any good books about vaudeville that you would recommend, as well? Thanks!

By Ken Levine said...

Gee, Mike, how old do you think I am? Happily, radio sitcoms and certainly vaudeville were before my time. But I will research them for a future Friday Question. Cheers. Ken

MikeN said...

Friday Question,
What was it like writing for Charlie Chaplin?

I'm surprised to see you've never worked with John Belushi.

Anonymous said...

So the target of the joke is OK with it, but you think it's horrible and wouldn't do it again. Sheesh. No wonder TV is losing ratings.

cbm said...

I understand the list of people you would like to have been able to write for, with one exception: Margaret Dumont.
Seriously? Margaret Dumont? She always seemed like she was one joke away from storming off the set in a cloud of confused consternation.

Mike Danner said...

Hahaha, thanks Ken! :)

Mike Danner said...

Haha, and don't get me wrong! I know you weren't around for those things--after all, the book isn't "The Me Generation... By Me (Growing up in the '20s)". I just figured you might have some thoughts on them.


Terrence Moss said...

Nice shout-out to Hans Conreid. His Uncle Tonoose on "The Danny Thomas Show" solidified him for me as one of TV's great character actors.

Ted said...

I was reading some of Roger Ebert's movie reviews and in one of them he mentions that one of his "pet peeve" comedy bits is when somebody is getting sprayed in the face with a substance -- water, mud, paint, sewage, etc. -- but instead of getting out of the line of fire like any human being on the planet would do, they just stand there, motionless, getting soaked down.

That prompts me to ask if you have any "pet peeve" comedy bits like that?

One of mine is the bit where a person in disguise goes unrecognized by somebody who would have to be an idiot not to know who they are. In a sixty-year-old Lucy episode, it's one thing, but I saw this cliche trotted out very recently on a Disney Channel sitcom my daughter was watching, with a father who failed to recognize his own teenaged daughter simply because she's wearing a wig, despite extensive interaction with the disguised kid. Granted, Disney Channel sitcoms tend, anyway, to be rooted in the idea that kids are super smart, super slick, and super clever, while adults are brainless dolts, but still.

Gary said...

Chris Muir said...

I understand the list of people you would like to have been able to write for, with one exception: Margaret Dumont.

Seriously? Margaret Dumont? She always seemed like she was one joke away from storming off the set in a cloud of confused consternation.

Well, that was what Dumont excelled at: confused consternation. Despite Groucho Marx insisting, in later years, that Margaret Dumont was completely clueless, never got the jokes, and never seemed to be aware that she was appearing in a comedy film, other people who worked with her insisted that she knew exactly what she was doing and what was going on in the scripts.

Al said...

I did a lot of extra work when was living in LA after college in my 20's. If you want to kill your romantic notions of being on a movie/tv set, there is no quicker pathway than extra work. You'd arrive on a lot and be corralled to some non-descript concrete bunker where you were told to sit down and shut up. You'd spend about 7 hours waiting for something to happen (somewhere midway you would be provided lunch, usually a room temperature hot dog, chips and a can of Pepsi). Around hour 7 you'd get excited because if they kept you past 8 hours you'd get a nice bump in pay. Invariably, they'd rush everybody onto the set at the last minute, get the shot and kick you off the lot at sometime around 7 hours and 59 minutes in.

I was substitute teaching at the time which paid about 120 a day vs. the 40 I could get for extra work , so I'd wake up, find out if I was subbing, and if not, try to get an extra gig. The vast majority of the gigs would be filling audiences for shows that couldn't get one. You might get a show in it's first season that wasn't a known commodity so they couldn't fill the audience but might be pretty good (NewsRadio was always a favorite), or a really, really terrible sitcom, usually a Teen NBC show where they made it clear you were being paid to laugh, no matter how bad the jokes were and how many takes they had of the same joke. Hardest money I ever earned.

RobW said...

Love your list Ken, and I know it's not complete. Knowing enough of your work, I suspect you and Thelma Ritter would be a match made in comedy heaven.

Kevin from VA said...

Hi Ken

Your story about Jan Murray reminds me of an episode of what you have said is an old show you enjoyed, Car 54, where are you? The episode was Boom, Boom, Boom, and Jan Murray was very, very funny in it. A previous post of yours asked what shows have we, your blog followers just stop watching now, or in the past. Two that I didn't see mentioned (or maybe just overlooked) were Lost and Boardwalk Empire. I gave up on both shows long before they ended their run. In a similar vein, are there any movies which you watched and enjoyed, up and until said movie completely went off the rails? Two examples for me are Oceans 12 and Seraphim Falls, both of which began with so much promise only to completely fall apart by the movie's end.

thirteen said...

If we're talking Barbara Stanwyck and comedy, there's always Christmas in Connecticut, which is still as fresh and funny as it ever was.

I remember being a huge fan of Jan Murray's when I was about five and he was hosting Treasure Hunt. There was something kid-friendly about him, I guess.

Andy Rose said...

I've done some extra work in-between jobs. I enjoyed it, but a big reason why background often underperforms a scene is because the PAs tend to drill fear into you. They are the most expendable members of the crew, and they are afraid that if an extra does anything that distracts or annoys the director (or a mercurial performer), it will cost the extra's job AND the PA's. So you're told DON'T improvise a reaction. DON'T look at or talk to the actors, not even between takes. DON'T stand out in the crowd. In dialogue scenes, you're not even allowed to make any sound at all. Background conversation is "mimed."

So unless the 2nd specifically directs you to react naturally to the events of a scene, you tend to be afraid to do it. On blooper reels, you may notice that even when a main performer cracks up, the extras usually stay fairly stone-faced. It's one thing for a take to be blown by an actor... it happens. But if a take is blown by an extra, God help you.

Anonymous said...

Hans Conreid - very funny as Uncle Tonoose
Hilarious as host of Fractured Flickers

Barry Traylor said...

"Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Margaret Dumont, Kate Hepburn, Audrey Meadows, Spencer Tracy, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Curly Howard, John Belushi, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Hans Conried, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Lou Costello, and I'm sure for every person I listed there are ten I forgot."

I'm showing my age I suppose, but I am familiar with all the actors above. Thank goodness for Turner Classic Movies as we get to watch them time and time again. In fact, just seeing the name of Margaret Dumont makes me want to watch one of the Marx Brothers films. She is a gem.

Gary said...

If I'm not mistaken, I seem to remember an episode of Taxi where Louie DePalma calls someone "a regular Jan Murray." I wonder if those writers had similar guilt feelings?

John Hammes said...

Some of us whippersnappers at least know Jan Murray from the Chabad Telethons, dutifully hosting during the 1980s-90s. Nice program. Fond memories.

Trivia Tim said...

Hans Conreid - very funny as Uncle Tonoose
Hilarious as host of Fractured Flickers.

Hans Conried trivia: Conried provided the voice of villain Snidely Whiplash in the Dudley Do-Right cartoons on the ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW. Voice artist June Foray said that while recording voice tracks for the Do-Right cartoons, the cast wasted a great deal of time and recording tape trying to make Conried break-up while he was working and "in character." A stage trained actor, he had disciplined himself not to do that. Foray said they never succeeded. Conried would have made a lousy partner for Tim Conway.

Canda said...

I saw Jan Murray open for Sinatra at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. At the end of his set, he said, "I have a surprise.
I brought a singer".

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for answering that, Ken. I thought there might be a reason!

KC said...

Hans Conried was also the voice of Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan.

Dene said...

Dear Ken

My question is: as TV episodes are usually made one after another without a break, how does that work with regards the lead actor sometimes directing? Don't they need prep time?

When for instance Alan Alda directed M*A*S*H, which he did often, did he work his prep around acting in the previous ep, or would there maybe have been a production break of some kind beforehand so that he could prepare for directing?


Jabroniville said...

It was the father- dads are ONLY simpletons in those shows. Some even make it a plot point.

Justin Russo said...

Ken, thank you very much for answering my question and sparking such a great debate over classic comedians! You listed my utter favorites (EXCEPT I was hoping you'd be up for the challenge of making Garbo laugh again!).

Adie Turner said...

Hi Ken, I very much enjoy your blog, thanks for taking the time to post so regularly!

My own Friday Question (if it hasn't been covered before) would be about your opinion (or visibility) of some British comedy institutions from the past who seem never to have "translated" abroad... I'm thinking especially about The Goons (absurdist radio comedy with Spike Milligan & Peter Sellers), Tony Hancock (street-emptyingly popular sitcoms on radio & TV in the 50s & 60s), Morecambe & Wise (their 1977 TV show remains one of the most-watched TV shows of all-time here), Ken Dodd, a stand-up still performing marathon 150-minute sets at 88 years old (some of his singles outsold the Beatles in the 60s), and the "Carry On" films, a series of over 20 movies (of frankly very variable quality) which are endlessly repeated on TV...

Thanks again, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

On set, they are always called background actors or background artists, NOT extras.
Poorly paid if they are non-SAG. SAG background pays pretty well. Especially in overtime.