Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Questions

In the heat of the summer, cool down with some refreshing Friday Questions.

Andrew gets us started.

The first few seasons of The Office were golden television. But the quality declined drastically in the later seasons, mainly because Steve Carell left. The show then became a shadow of its former self.

My question: Do people working on a show realize when the quality is plummeting, or are they unable to see how everything is going off the rails? Why not pull the plug when it's clear the magic is gone?

Well, first of all, it’s a matter of opinion that THE OFFICE faded in quality, although lots of people share your view.

There are several reasons a series sinks into a creative decline. The showrunner leaves or stretches himself too thin. Writers go off to do their own show and the new writers who replace them aren’t as good. (Example: Me replacing Larry Gelbart)

Key cast members leave and their replacements aren’t up to snuff.

After awhile your cast starts getting bored playing the same characters and you can see that in their performance.

And you start to run out of good stories. So you either concoct lesser stories or start recycling past ones. A sameness creeps in.

Or, you try to really shake things up but the audience rejects the new direction.

And finally, it’s not the quality – it’s YOU. After a number of years you just lose your appetite for certain shows. You’re dissatisfied while others are quite satisfied. It’s like how people feel about McDonalds.

To answer your second question -- sometimes the writers know the show has jumped the shark.  They're struggling with stories, finding it harder and harder to keep the series fresh.  They can see the handwriting on the wall.

And then there are those staffs that think they're comedic geniuses producing brilliant art for the ages (those ages being 12-34).   Single-camera shows allow for more of that self-delusion since the writers aren't held accountable.  The showrunner and staff can watch the rough cut and howl in uncontrollable laughter while America stares at the screen stone-faced. 

ADmin asks:

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?

You definitely have to have thick skin. Larry Gelbart (I seem to mention him a lot) once addressed the entire membership of the WGA by saying, “Everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room.”

He was right. 

It’s just a reality of the business. In TV the showrunner and often the staff will rewrite everything. In features, hiring other writers to rewrite original writers is common.

Do the studios care or have any sensitivity to the writers involved? No, of course not. New writers are paid. That’s that.

David Isaacs and I have rewritten numerous screenplays first penned by other writers. And several of our original screenplays have been rewritten by others. Cameron Crowe rewrote a music-themed screenplay of ours and made it better. I’d like to think David and I improved MANNEQUIN.

What’s tough is when you read someone else’s rewrite and feel your draft was way better. It doesn’t lessen the sting, but it happens to all of us.

You just have to shake it off and move on to the next project. And maybe in the future YOU’LL get a chance to ruin someone’s work.

From Gary:

Ken, did you ever think of a joke for a character that was so good, so funny, that you wrote an entire scene just to make sure that one joke got in? Or did a single joke ever inspire an entire episode?

We did once. It worked out great but was very risky. It’s the episode of CHEERS called “Breaking In Is Hard to Do.” We built the whole show around one payoff gag – that Frasier’s baby’s first word would be Norm. We lucked out. It got a thunderous laugh. But it could have gone the other way. And then we’d have an entire show leading up to a gigantic thud.

I’m glad we did it. I have no desire to do it again.

And finally, from Sherry Niles:

I notice the fireplace in Frasier's apartment is often blazing, and in some episodes there are lots of real candles burning. Were there any regulations about having real fire on an indoor set?

Whenever there is a planned fire on a set a Fire Marshall or Fire crew is present. And there are great precautions taken to ensure the fire will be safe. I mentioned this last Friday – Hollywood studios live in mortal fear of fires. If sets or sound stages are destroyed production comes to a screeching and exorbitant halt.

What's your Friday Question?  I answer as many as I can.  Thanks. 


Terrence Moss said...

Frederick's first word. Brilliant, classic moment. I laugh every time.

Capped off by Lilith thinking he said, "Mommy". Loved it. Major kudos.

Paul Duca said...

Interesting you mention fire...I recently learned some Hollywood history--in 1970 alone there were three significant fires damaging the Columbia Ranch (aka the Burbank Studios/Warner Bros. Studios lot) and an even more devastating one in 1974. Simply put--if you watch a Screen Gems show from the 50's or 60's with non-location exterior footage, a lot of what you see is no more.

Laura H. said...

I have a Friday question:

I have been watching reruns of Barney Miller, a show I loved as a kid. Happily it still stands up. It occurs to me now that virtually all of the action takes place in the squad room - only once or twice throughout the long run of the series did they step out of that setting. Cheers, of course, was the same way, although they left the bar a bit more often.

After reading your recent post about writing sharp dialogue being a lost art, I started wondering about working on shows like Barney Miller and Cheers. Do those static settings make it harder or easier to write for? Clearly you can't slack on character development and dialogue, since the story itself plays out in that one room. (Not that you should ever slack on character development and dialogue!)

Andrew said...

Wow. Ken, every time you answer one of my Friday questions I feel like my life has meaning. I'm a man on fire. I can make it another year... I'm weeping as I type this.

Thanks in particular for such a long and thorough answer.

By the way, "scenes" in my question should have been "seasons."

Final note: There is no question that The Office declined dramatically in the later seasons. "Of this, there can be no debate," as Pappy on Seinfeld would say. This is not a matter of opinion, this is Gospel Truth. Anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot and has no comic taste.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"The first few seasons of The Office were golden television."

No they weren't. Golden television ended long before THE OFFICE ever came about.

David Schwartz said...

When I started writing animated cartoons in the 1980's, I was very insecure about how I was doing. I was always questioning whether or not I was doing a good enough job and if I belonged in the industry as a writer. After one particularly brutal rewrite where the story editor had changed significant portions of my script, I asked my friend Mark Evanier (who is a hugely successful writer in the animation field as well as being a really good guy) how you can tell if you're a competent writer or are just deluding yourself. Mark said something I found very significant. He basically said, "The way you know you're doing a good job for the person hiring you, is not how much they rewrite you, it's whether they hire you again." I found that bit of information extremely valuable, as it made me more confident (well, at least somewhat my confident) and I tried not to let my ego get bruised as easily!

Greg Ehrbar said...

On the famous "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP, the entire script was a build up to Gordon Jump's last line: "As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

Matt said...

About "The Office":

I think The Mary Tyler Moore Show staff had it right ending the show when they did. It seems like "MTMS" ended just as they were creeping toward the end of stories. On the other had, "M*A*S*H" felt like it could've continued on. I know it was 11 seasons, but there were a lot of new viewers coming to the show in '79, '80 and '81 who were first exposed to syndication episodes (for me I found the show after school during afternoon syndicated viewings - fell in love and never missed a Monday-CBS-9:00pm airing). It felt like M*A*S*H was going strong when it ended.

Paul V. said...

Dick Van Dyke told a story on Inside Comedy that Carl Reiner made the decision to end the Dick Van Dyke show after five seasons, because Reiner felt that if you went longer than that, you ran out of stories. I thought that was very interesting. It may not be five for every show, but most shows do seem to hit a wall at some point.

Mad Men, for example, fell off a cliff after Don told Betty about Dick. The entire narrative momentum of the show disappeared once he wasn't hiding his true identity anymore. Then it became just another show about office politics, and everything that was stylistically fresh about it became stale and overbearing.

The Sopranos was never really the same after Nancy Marchand (Livia) died. Tony's fight against his mother, what she represented to him, was such a major part of the show. After that, it became just another crime story, with a new villain-of-the-day brought in every season.

Happy Days was never the same after Fonzie jumped the shark. Because it was Fonzie...jumping over a shark...on a motorcycle.

Chris G said...

When SCRUBS did its seasons with scaled back participation from the original cast members, Bill Lawrence said part of the reason he did them was because he had dozens of crew and staff employees who he was not going to leave without jobs during an economic collapse. I'd never heard that justification for keeping a show going before, but it's a good one.

Gary said...

Fonzie was actually wearing water skis when he jumped the shark. His motorcycle was not involved. However he did have his leather jacket on. So the whole thing was totally believable.

qdpsteve said...

Hi Mr. Jacobs, and it's an honor to get to chat with you here...

Re your final reason why shows decline, "everyone on staff thinks they're (still) a genius." I'll get in trouble as I'm sure there's people here who disagree, but I strongly believe The Simpsons suffers from this condition in spades. Not to sound like Pauline Kael but there's *nobody* I know who enjoys new episodes anywhere near the level they did at the beginning... yet every time I see or hear the producers/writers interviewed, they seem to just be loving their sweet never-ending gig and relishing everything they do.

It especially annoys me that after spending the first 10 seasons of The Simpsons setting up the family's backstory (1974, how Homer and Marge met, etc etc)... they've gone and completely blown all of that up with a bunch of 'alternative' stories (later episodes have Homer and Marge meeting in the early 90s (!), Homer had a grunge band, stupid crap like that). I'd have more respect for them if they just admitted they don't care about story anymore, they just want the freakin' laugh at this stage.

Anyway thanks for the opportunity to vent, and I *never* get tired of some of those classic episodes of M*A*S*H; sometimes I really wish the show could come back somehow. (But then it could also end up like Simpsons did, sigh.) ;-)

Cap'n Bob said...

Poppy on Seinfeld, not Pappy.

Picking nits. It's what I do.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Paul Vigna: The amazing thing is that DVD's five seasons would be over seven today (22-24 episodes a year instead of 39)! I disagree about MAD MEN, however, largely because for me that show was about so much more than Don Draper's identity story. I would hate to have missed Peggy's walk down the hall her first day at McCann, Joan giving Greg his comeuppance, everyone's experience of the moon landings, or Roger's acid trip.


Peter said...

I know I've said this before but it has to be mentioned in any debate about shows that are well past their best that The Simpsons is just an embarrassment now. I'd love to know what the table reads are like. Do they howl with laughter at dreadful lines like "I once read a book that changed my life. It was called Lisa is Stupid"? Or do they politely do the read without forced laughter, comforted by the big salaries they're all getting? Because at this point, the money they're making must be the only thing that motivates them to keep doing the show. And I don't blame them. As Richard Pryor apparently said of Superman III: "The script is a piece of shit. But with the money they're paying me, it's one piece of shit that smells great."

As I've also said before, the show took a dive not long after Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein left as writers and showrunners. The episodes during their time were pure gold. Nothing was dumbed down, guest stars were used smartly rather than just as gimmicky stunt casting, and pop culture references were clever and not just something like Bart randomly and arbitrarily doing an imitation of Gollum.

On a different topic, Ken, I urge you to check out Suicide Squad. Ignore the critics, the movie is a riot. It's not quite as good as Deadpool but it's very funny and Margot Robbie steals the movie with her performance as Harley Quinn.

Earl Boebert said...

Twin Peaks should have quit when the perp was revealed.

Andy Rose said...

@Chris G: When Jay Leno decided to do the 10:00 show for NBC -- and eventually go back to the Tonight Show -- he said a big reason was because it gave him a chance to keep his staff together and working. He took a lot of grief for those decisions, and maybe he was just making excuses. But after personally seeing the way Jay interacts with people, it seems plausible that he really didn't want to let people go.

Andrew said...

Cap'n Bob, I appreciate the correction.
For some reason I confused the character of Poppy with the "Happy, Pappy?" line George hears from his girlfriend.
No excuses. I hang my head in shame.

DBenson said...

What's really tricky is shows that require time to stand still. MASH was initially about civilians just recently plucked from comfy 1950s white America and thrown into a war. Then, as the show outlasted the real Korean War (and the Vietnam War, the real subject of the show), the characters were more like lifers for whom civilian life was a distant memory. Did you find yourself writing to that, or not writing stories that emphasized recent civilian roots or Vietnam-era topics?

Patrick said...

With all the amazingly talented writers out there who are trying to make it into the business - how is it that there are still sitcoms out there that are painful to watch? Jokes you can see from a mile away - one liners that hurt to listen to - characters that are stereotypes ect...Is it the network that is looking for the lowest common denominator or is this really the best they can do? I long for the 90s in terms of smart multi camera shows that actually made me laugh out loud...

Anonymous said...

Any comments you can make on the Criminal Minds fiasco?
Chet - Everett WA

Alan Iverson said...

Turns out we're in a very small minority when it comes to the opinion over whether MASH should have continued. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Plots were becoming trickier to come up with, I'm sure, but when push comes to shove, I'm sure there ample stories around the corner.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The answers are usually: 1 money, 2 money and 3 someone who is stupid thinks they can get power or money. 😌

Buttermilk Sky said...

I just read that Thomas Gibson was fired from CRIMINAL MINDS for kicking a writer. Were you ever physically intimidated by an actor?

cadavra said...

Andy: You're absolutely right about Leno. I have a friend who was on his staff, and he said Jay kept everyone on full salary for six months after the show ended, and out of his own pocket. He added that it was a lifesaver for quite a few of them.

Question Mark said...

I'd chalk the Office's decline up to a few reasons....

* Greg Daniels leaving as showrunner after four seasons
* Michael Schur leaving to create "Parks & Recreation," which created another big hole in the writing and production staff at the same time as Daniels' departure.
* Lack of a post-marriage gameplan for Jim & Pam, as the show seemed to struggle at finding ways of making them continually vital characters once they finally got together.
* Some weak story arcs for the sixth season. You could argue that 'story arcs' in general were an issue given that one wrong-footed idea could set back an entire half-season, though this wasn't a problem in Season Five (since the arcs of Michael courting Holly and then the Michael Scott Paper Company were both hilarious). The Sabre buyout in S6, however, just seemed like a misfire.
* The show really should've ended once Carell decided he was done. The eighth and ninth seasons really suffered without Michael Scott, as the Andy character was both not ready for a larger role and/or the writers ruined what was good about him.

Allan V said...

I was browsing through YouTube and stumbled across the hilarious sketch --- apparently from an Emmy Awards show during the 1990's --- of the Frasier cast auditioning for Star Trek: Voyager. Were you involved with this in any way, and what did you know about it?

Dana Gabbard said...

Now I have seen it all! Chhers Live on Stage??? Any thoughts, Ken?

Bryan Thomas said...

I just happened to rewatch “Breaking In Is Hard To Do” today and then read this. LOL It was a classic CHEERS moment so well played.