Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Questions

Wrapping up the month with Friday Questions. What be yours?

David Goehner gets us started:

Can you or one of your "M*A*S*H" contacts find out if it was Wayne Rogers who does a P.A. voice-over at the military base in the 4th season opener where BJ Hunnicutt is introduced? I've long thought that this briefly-heard announcer sounded a lot like Wayne, and there have been a few speculations about this on some Internet sites in recent years. But can someone who was actually with the show give us the authentic details on this?

You are very astute. At the Kimpo airport the PA voice was indeed Wayne’s. Uncredited. Back at the 4077 we generally used Sal Viscuso. Todd Sussman also filled that role for a few years.

From Michael:

Can you discuss the process for casting single episode guest stars?

For example, how far in advance are they usually cast? Do they usually audition? If so, is an advance copy of the script for the audition used or an old script? Is the showrunner and/or network involved in the final casting decision for the larger roles?

Usually we’ll cast those parts the week before the show goes into production, but that varies with the circumstances.

There are times we’ll have someone in mind when we’re conceiving a story and will ask our Casting Director to check on his availability. Depending on the actor, we might even shuffle some scripts around to accommodate his availability. For example: If on MASH we wanted to use Colonel Flagg in an episode we would see when Edward Winter was available.

Sometimes, while writing a script, we will give the Casting Director a heads-up on what we’ll need, especially if it’s unusual. We’ll say for the first episode in the next cycle we’re going to need a Nordic lumberjack type who can speak Spanish.  We try to give them as much lead time as possible. 

Generally however, this is how it works: We’ll get with the Casting Director and describe the guest roles we have planned for next week. Shortly thereafter they’ll get a script. The Casting Director puts out the breakdown, puts together a list of people he/she thinks might be good, deals with agents, and generally audition anywhere from ten to thirty people for each role. They will then bring in who they believe to be the best five to read for us. We’ll either pick one or ask them to keep looking.

Now that last part of the process has changed. Today, you videotape those finalists and it’s the network that makes the ultimate decisions. Like they know better.

And it doesn’t stop there. Networks now select the actors who have one-line parts. If there’s a waiter who only says, “Ready to order?” the network doesn’t trust the showrunner to choose a decent actor. Only THEY can rule on that crucial decision. And they wonder why A-list talent has fled to Netflix.

Ricky wonders:

If you and David could go back to '95 and do ALMOST PERFECT again, is there anything you guys would do differently, knowing what you know now?

Yeah, take it to ABC or NBC instead of CBS. We were originally going to take it to ABC but they wanted to postpone our meeting for a month. So we took it to CBS and sold it in the room. The day after the pilot aired the president of ABC called saying he loved it and asked why we didn’t bring it to him. I thanked him and told him to check his datebook. I think if we were on ABC they would have been more behind the show. But that’s conjecture at best.

Otherwise, creatively -- no. I wouldn’t change a thing.

blinky asks:

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?

Actors are far more familiar with the process of directing than writing. They feel comfortable talking to other actors. I’m sure they’ve had many bad experiences with inept directors. Some probably see the handwriting on the wall vis a vis their acting future and figure this is a nice transition. And others just have a vision and yearn to be in the drivers’ seat.

But in fairness, there have been a lot of actors who pursue writing. Tracy Letts jumps to mind. Matt Damon & Ben Affleck won Oscars for writing GOOD WILL HUNTING (although William Goldman rewrote the crap out of it). Then there’s James Franco, Danny Strong, Jon Favreau, Emma Thompson, Sly Stallone, and Dan Futterman. On the comedy side, how about Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Elaine May, Steve Martin, Steve Carell, Jason Siegel, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, and Carrie Fisher?  And this is a partial list at best. 

And finally, from Bryan:

Okay, you're breaking a story and it's not clicking. Something about it just isn't working. How do you decide if what you've got is still salvageable or if you're better off just tossing it and starting fresh? Do you ever shelve ideas that aren't working and pull them out again later after you've figured out what the problem is?

Especially early in the process when we’re breaking stories, if we’re really struggling with it for a half hour or so we’ll often just move on. And yes, we do save the notions and sometimes we can retrieve them later. With some distance a solution may appear.

But often a story beat will lead to some other notion. It’s like driving a car through a maze. You hit a dead-end, you turn and go off in another direction. At the outset you need to allow yourself the freedom to consider any and all possibilities. A CHEERS story might start out Sam needing to go to the dentist and end up Norm buying a new car.

But if six or seven veteran professional writers can’t crack a story problem, the universe is telling them something.


Steve said...

William Goldman said in his book that the only advice he gave Damon and Affleck for Good Will Hunting was to lose the subplot about the government hunting down Damon, and just stick with the characters. It's a good idea but I'm not sure that constitutes rewriting the shit out of it. Something more about it you can share?

B A said...

The guest star question reminds me that Mash occasionally got some bodacious guest stars like Blythe Danner or Terri Garr but they were always wrapped in olive drab. Oh well, if they'd been on some Norman Lear show of the era they'd be dressed in plaid pantsuits.

MikeN said...

I think you missed the question's being about guest stars, like Shelley Long on Frasier or Frasier on The Simpsons(and Niles!).

MikeN said...

On a podcast with Bill Simmons, William Goldman denied the rumors about his writing Good Will Hunting, saying it amounted to nothing more than advising them to drop a part about the CIA "hunting" Matt Damon(explains why Bourne differs so much from the book).

Matt said...

I think there is a more natural progression from actor to director than actor to writer. It is like going from worker to manager. Going from actor to writer is like changing jobs, they may be related but aren't really similar.

I also think writing is more talent driven while directing is more a skill that can be picked up.

Matt said...

I am also guessing that directors get paid more than entry level writers.

Steve Mc said...

A Friday question: I'd love to hear about times when the casting decision affected the direction of the writing. Such as discovering comedic sensibilities of an actor/actress that opened up avenues for the character, or interplay between actors that could be exploited in a story.

Rashad Khan said...

You wouldn't have changed a thing creatively about "Almost Perfect"? Not even Kim and Mike's breakup at the start of season two?

By Ken Levine said...

I would not have broken them up in the first place. That was a network decision.

David C said...

Hi Ken

A Friday question.

Will American agents consider taking Canadian writers? I've had a Canadian agent tell me she liked my stuff but would not sign anyone without a professional television credit. A classic catch 22. Is it the same in the States?

Thanks in advance.

David C

Suzie said...

Can you confirm that you are the voice that takes my order at Jack in the Box? If not, you should be.

Mike Danner said...

Hi Ken, I have a Friday Question for you...I read in a recent Hollywood Reporter article that Tim Allen (a conservative) has a staff of almost entirely liberal writers on Last Man Standing, and he said that it's a pretty healthy dynamic. In your experience, how do one's politics shape the execution of a sitcom? For example, Kelsey Grammar is obviously quite conservative in his views, yet I'd imagine that most of the Frasier staff (including yourself) was fairly liberal. Does that stuff come in to play, or do politics basically get put aside when a show is being put together? Have you ever seen an argument break out in a writers room or on set due to political disagreements?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

So was that line later in the episode "I'm from Vermont!" also Wayne? If so, if Wayne was able to come back to record a couple of lines, couldn't he have also done a quick on-screen cameo, maybe like us seeing him board his plane, maybe take one last look at Korea and say something like, "good riddance," or something?

Diane D. said...

My absolute favorite guest actress during the first 5 years of CHEERS was Carol Kane in Season 3 ("A Ditch in Time"). The way she played that character was amazing. My question is: Did she interpret that character that way, or did it come primarily from the director or the writer?

Peter said...

"But if six or seven veteran professional writers can’t crack a story problem, the universe is telling them something."

Or in the case of The Flintstones movie, 67 veteran professional writers.

Gary said...

Here's a quick Friday question about Cheers. This is my favorite Norm reply of the entire series:

"What's shaking Norm?" "All four cheeks and a couple of chins."

Ken, do you know who wrote this gem (or was it you?)

Breadbaker said...

I'm not sure about the timelines for all the actor-writers, but I'm fairly sure a lot of them, at least professionally, started as writers and then moved into performance, not the other way around. That's fairly standard with SNL. Of course, improv blurs the line significantly, too. And a lot of the people you listed (Rob Reiner, Elaine May, etc.) directed as well as wrote and acted.

And then there's this blogger I know who went from writer to director and still writes. He shares his name with a game designer. I'll think of it in a bit.

D. McEwan said...

"Wrapping up the month with Friday Questions."

Ah, there's two more days left in January.

Other performers who also wrote: Mae West, WC Fields, Groucho Marx. And of course, sometimes writers become performers: Mel Brooks and Buck Henry among many examples.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Love hearing in-depth description of behind-the-scenes processes such as casting. Invaluable reading for those of us on the fringes. Regarding Goldman re-write, I found this on Wikipedia (I know it's not the World Book, but ...)

"Goldman has consistently denied the persistent rumor that he wrote Good Will Hunting or acted as a script doctor.[3] In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, Goldman jokingly writes, "I did not just doctor it. I wrote the whole thing from scratch." before dismissing the rumor as false."

And then, according to, there was Terence Malick.
"Malick happens to be best friends with Affleck’s godfather, so Damon and Affleck visited the director in Boston while they were writing the film. Damon recalls:

“We had it in the script that my character and Minnie’s left together at the end of the movie. Terry didn’t read the script but we explained the whole story to him, and in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her.’ And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that ‘s better. He said it and he probably doesn’t even remember that he said it.”

And this from Goldman himself, from GoodReads.

"They gave it to Rob [Reiner] to read, and there was a great deal of stuff in the script dealing with the F.B.I. trying to use Matt Damon for spy work because he was so brilliant in math. Rob said, 'Get rid of it.' They then sent them in to see me for a day - I met with them in New York - and all I said to them was, "Rob's right. Get rid of the F.B.I. stuff. Go with the family, go with Boston, go with all that wonderful stuff." And they did. I think people refuse to admit it because their careers have been so far from writing, and I think it's too bad."

Rashad Khan said...

I had forgotten that Kim and Mike's breakup had been a network-dictated decision.

If you had to do it all over again, though, would you (and Isaacs and Schiff) have put your foot down on the network's suggestion? Even if it meant cancellation?

By Ken Levine said...

No. We had a cast, staff, and crew of over a hundred people in our employ. We were not going to cavalierly walk away and let all of those dedicated employees lose their jobs.

Lauren said...


Could you explain sometime what a "show bible" is and how it is used?



euphoria0504 said...

I was Head of Development at Miramax when we made "Good Will Hunting," and I can testify first-hand that William Goldman is telling the truth in his book. Matt and Ben got smart notes from Goldman, Malick, and Gus Van Sant, but they wrote the screenplay, every word of it. In addition to being excellent actors, they are two very smart dudes. Ken, as a writer yourself, please don't perpetuate an old, malicious rumor that refuses to die!

Mark said...

I'm really surprised to hear that Wayne Rogers did a voice cameo for the season 4 MASH opener. Hadn't he just left the show in a contract dispute?

Andy Rose said...

John Goodman had a multi-episode role on the second season of "Community" which was basically a waste. When fans asked about why it had such a convoluted arc, Dan Harmon said they were so desperate to get Goodman to do the show, they agreed to be in last position for his services on a week-to-week basis. Goodman committed to do x number of episodes, but they wouldn't find out until week-of whether he'd be available for a particular episode. So some planned stories had to be chucked or assigned to a different character when Goodman was suddenly unavailable. Other times they'd hear "John is free... he has to do it this week," and they'd have to find a way to write him in to an episode he wasn't intended to be in.

Have you ever heard of a show having to write around a guest star's availability to that degree? Harmon admits it turned out not to be a very good idea (and he emphasizes that was NOT in any way the fault of John Goodman).

Mike said...

Newsflash: Hollywood addresses diversity: Idris Elba wins SAG award for England.

MikeN said...

This millennium I count 9 blacks winning out of 60 awards.

This year could just be statistical variation, even if you account for 2001's awards being pushed on the voters.

MikeN said...

Euphoria, I don't think Ken is willing to credit good writing to mere actors.

If it makes you feel any better Ken, the works of Shakespeare were probably written by the Earl of Oxford, Edward DeVere.

Adie Turner said...

Hi Ken, would be really interested to hear your thoughts on Louis CK's new "thing", "Horace & Pete", which came out in the past few days with no publicity whatsoever except a 10-word email from Louis himself, and which he's selling on his site for $5... it's set in a bar _and_ it features Alan Alda (as part of a pretty great cast), so there are 2 touch points for you straight away...

Mike said...

@MikeN: No doubt. The joke was that an Englishman had won. Hollywood awards are insular, like baseball's world championship series.