Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Questions

Live from New York – it’s Friday Question Day!

RandomQues asks:

Do you ever think that TV shows nowadays aren't as impressive as before because there has been so much TV? By this I mean that in 50's, 60's etc TV was still a relatively new thing. But now so many shows have been written and done that it gets harder and harder to do something truly original. Do you think this is true?

I think television drama is way better now that it’s ever been. More layered, better production values, more challenging.

For today’s comedies I think there is so much emphasis on not repeating past tropes that in many cases they lose what makes a sitcom great – namely the COMEDY. I’m sure there are great sitcoms to come, but I doubt any of the current crop will stand the test of time the way a lot of previous shows have.

I do feel audiences are more sophisticated these days and their tolerance for by-the-numbers entertainment is much lower than previous generations, but there’s no reason writers can’t come up with fresh takes on subjects or create original characters based on today’s society.

Hey, movies have been around a lot longer and they’re still churning out original product (for two months during Oscar season).

Johnny Walker wonders:

Which episodes of M*A*S*H from the Larry Gelbert era are your favourite?

Larry presided over the first four seasons.   My favorites include: “The More I See You,” “The Price of Tomato Juice,” “Hawkeye,” “The Interview,” “Abyssinia, Henry,” and “The General Flipped at Dawn” (the last two written by Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell). And now that I think about it,  pretty much anything from the third and fourth seasons.

From Ted O'Hara:

When you were developing the character of Charles Winchester, how much of the character was established before production started and David Stiers was cast? Was he pretty well defined, or did you just establish the basics of the character and leave the rest for individual scripts and for the actor to find once he was cast? Did the concept of the character change much once David Stiers was cast?

In conceiving the character we wanted to make him as different from Frank Burns as possible. He had to be an adversary but a worthy one. So the thought was to make him even smarter and more skilled than Hawkeye and B.J.

Executive Producer Burt Metcalfe had seen David Ogden Stiers on an episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and thought he’d be perfect. Based on that he was cast. There were no other choices.

Once David was on board we started defining the character around him.

The first actual script to feature Charles was written by me and my partner, David Isaacs. It was called “the Merchant of Korea” and revolved around a poker game. Because the episode didn’t require any outside scenes we held it back until late in the season when we stopped going outside to shoot (due to the lack of sunlight starting in the fall).

But we gave that script to other writers to use as a guide.

The two-part episode that introduced him was called “Fade In/Fade Out” written by Fritzell & Greenbaum.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before but a few days before we began production for the season we had David up to the office to talk about the character. We asked him to read a couple of scenes of “Bug Out” so we could hear his voice.

At first he did it in a very thick Boston accent. We said it was so thick it was hard to decipher some of the words. He said, “Okay, what if I just backed off a little?” He did it again and we said, “That’s PERFECT.” And that’s the way he did it every single episode.

The character evolved but very gradually.  At least during our years.  I can't speak for the last few seasons.  

One final word, I can’t talk about the character without stating what an absolute joy and brilliant actor David Ogden Stiers is. I loved working with him and would jump at the chance to work with him again. He’s truly one of my favorite people.

And finally, from Charles H. Bryan:

How does a production work stunt doubles into a multi-camera show? I was just watching a MIKE & MOLLY in which Mike's mom got into a wrestling match with her sister (played by Margo Martindale!). Given that neither showed her face during the tussle, I'm guessing that stunt performers were used. Are these scenes pre-taped? Or would the show stop for a setup with an explanation to the audience?

Wait a minute. Margo Martindale doesn’t do her own stunts? Since when?

We generally pre-tape any scenes where a stunt double is required although once on ALMOST PERFECT we had a scene where Lisa Edelstein was in a bridal gown and was supposed to make a big entrance walking down a grand staircase (that we set up was very slippery). Since she wore a veil we switched out the stunt person unbeknownst to the audience. When “Lisa” took one step she slipped and went tumbling down the staircase in full wedding dress. The audience went crazy. It was worth doing live.

But most of the time it’s easier to just pre-tape. Ultimately, the gag is for the viewing audience not studio audience.

I still can’t get over Margo Martindale not doing her own stunts.

What’s your Friday Question?


Unknown said...

Wasn't Winchesters first appearance "Fade Out/Fade In"? I don't remember him showing up in "Bug Out"

ADmin said...

Here's my Friday question: I assume (uh oh) that a requirement of being a television/movie writer is a thick skin. (Yes, no?) And I often hear stories about rewrites and other writers replacing the original scribe. So, how do most writers/you handle these situations? How do the people making the rewrite decisions view the issue?

By Ken Levine said...

Keith. You are correct, sir. I got my one-hour season openers mixed up. Thanks for the catch. At least I didn't plagiarize Michelle Obama's speech. :)

J Lee said...

Ken --

I've read that the last episodes filmed of both "MASH" and "Cheers weren't the last episodes aired; that is, the shows they knew were going to be the last to air were done, and then everyone came back and did 1-2 more regular episodes that would air before the series finale (and since Garry Marshall died this week, I think they did the same thing with the finale on his best series, "The Odd Couple".)

Any specific reason why this would happen? Logistics, or did everyone just not want to end their associations with a 'Very Special Episode' that's out of the normal routine?

Andrew said...

One of my favorite episodes of Frasier is the one where Stiers guest-starred. He played a kind of Winchester character, an alternative father-figure to Niles and Frasier.

(Ken, did you have anything to do with casting Stiers in that episode?)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

It's interesting that you cite "Hawkeye" as being one of your favorite episodes, as it's considered by many M*A*S*Hers to be one of, if not the worst episode of the entire series. Larry Gelbart had an interesting experiment to see if just one character could carry the show himself (I know COMBAT! did a similar experiment, where both Rick Jason and Vic Morrow were absent from one episode to see if the supporting cast could carry the show without the leads), but it seems like to me with Hawkeye already being the unofficial star of the show that any of the other castmembers should have been chosen. Like, perhaps, B.J., giving us an opportunity for further character exploration, since he was still relatively new to Korea. Or maybe even Potter, and see how his experiences as a careerman would serve him in the same situation. But then again, I had nothing to do with the show, so who am I to say what they should have done?

On another note, I can agree with you whole-heartedly, from the Gelbart Years, Seasons Three and Four were definitely the best. The first season was interesting to see how much the show struggled to find its footing, and not much stands out for me with Season Two (then again, for some reason, I find the second season of a lot of shows tend to be boring: M*A*S*H, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, HOGAN'S HEROES, all their second seasons fall flat, IMO).

As for Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum, I was just reading about them recently in the new book ANDY & DON: THE MAKING OF A FRIENDSHIP AND A CLASSIC AMERICAN TV SHOW. They ended up becoming personal favorites of both Andy Griffith and Don Knotts in terms of scripts for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, and as such, Don often turned to them to pen the scripts for his movies (THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, etc.). I almost feel like they brought some of their Mayberry senses to M*A*S*H at times, particularly Season Four: there's something about that particular season, I can't quite describe it, but it has sort of a simple, homey feel to it (perhaps with so many episodes where letters are written home), and I see they wrote a majority of the episodes that season.

BA said...

Stiers was a great actor on MASH but it was a little discombobulating to hear him on other shows without his Boston accent ("Does he have a cold?").

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Merchant of Korea. Best covert description of the Kennedys evahhhh! "perpetual game of touch football on their lawn".

Would have loved to meet/see you in NY! Hope it was fun for you.

I'm headed to Long Beach in September...can I buy you lunch??

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks, Ken! I, too, was surprised because I'm sure she performed the poisonings on JUSTIFIED.

And we're waiting for your stories of New York. Hope the week was a good one.

Andy Rose said...

Here's a completely out of left field question: Do you know what the inspiration was for the Cheers cold open that is just Paul Willson singing the Bonanza theme song?

It's basically a blackout gag, but it doesn't seem like it would be that funny on paper. Was there somebody on staff who was bugging other people with the Bonanza song that led to the bit? Paul's earnestness really makes the scene, but why was he (who didn't appear very often at this point in the series) written to do it instead of Cliff?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@BA David Ogden Stiers is great at doing accents: his Russian accent is really convincing, and likewise in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, he gave Cogsworth a very similar, stuffy, uppercrust accent to emphasize the character's snobbery, much like his motive behind Charles's Boston accent.

Cap'n Bob said...

Anent stunt doubles, I've seen episodes of Bonanza where Hoss was doubled in fight scenes by a guy 50 pounds lighter.

Anonymous said...

As part of the package of scripts I'm submitting to agents, I have a pilot for a drama based on historical events. Recently, it came to my attention that projects around the same set of events are in the works at various studios already. Obviously I don't have hopes of competing against established producers working on the same material, but is it worth submitting the script anyway as a portfolio piece?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Ken! I'm watching early M*A*S*H at the moment, and I was keen to know what a fan like yourself thought of those early years.

Incidentally have you seen Aaron Sorkin's MASTERCLASS? It's $90 for six hours of video of him sharing his thoughts on writing. Although some of it will be obvious to a pro like yourself, I'm sure there will be some fascinating insights into his approach. As a Sorkin fan I thought you might be interested:

Maybe they'll do a sitcom writing class, too :)

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Ken, I have an idea for a family sitcom set in Vancouver, titled, Here Come The Bhinders. The show is about a proud Sikh family named The Bhinders as the make their way through like in an area of Vancouver known as Little India. The opening shots have the Bhinders patronizing the merchants on Main Street's Punjabi Market when a car slows down as it approaches the family, and one of the passengers of the car sticks his head out and yells, Bhinders! And the family look at each other and starts laughing under the titles.

What do you think Ken?

Doktor Frank Doe said...


Ken, have you seen the MasterClass program? I thought you would find this incredibly interesting if not,..

Unknown said...

Where in the credits is the showrunner mentioned? Is showeunner more or less a colloquial term not used when the credits appear during the show?