Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Questions

The great thing about Friday Questions is I don't have to think of a new subject title.   Here are this week's:

Wally starts us off:

A Friday Question based on what Wikipedia says:

Did NBC only allow Ratzenberger to attend Nick Colasanto's funeral in RI since it occurred during the season?

No. As shocking as it is to learn that Wikipedia is wrong, that is incorrect.

There was a funeral for Nick in North Hollywood that I along with the entire cast, and staff attended.

I still miss him. And as wonderful as Woody was, nothing could top Nick as the Coach.

Brian Phillips asks:

Not a lot has been written about the "Cheers" spinoff, "The Tortellis". I noticed you and David Isaacs contributed a script. What was it like working on "The Tortellis"?

Well, David and I were never on staff. The Charles Brothers asked us to write an episode, which we did.

For those six people out there who don’t remember THE TORTELLI’S, this was a 1987 spin-off of CHEERS centering on Carla’s ex-husband Nick (Dan Hedaya) and his new wife, Loretta (Jean Kasem) moving to Las Vegas.

The pilot script by Ken Estin was terrific.

But the spinoff fell into a familiar trap – making second bananas your stars. Nick & Loretta were funny characters but very broad, so they worked well when used sparingly, but on their own they could not carry a show.

I remember David and I meeting with the Charles Brothers to hammer out a story and it took two days. I asked Glen Charles, “What number episode is this?” He said, “Four,” and I said, “If we’re having this much trouble coming up with the fourth episode there are some serious problems with the premise of the series.” He agreed.

And indeed, the show lasted only 13. I don’t have a copy of our episode so I don’t really remember how bad or good it was.

Random memory of THE TORTELLI’S: it was shot at Paramount in front of a live studio audience. And visible from the living room set you could see a swimming pool in the backyard. An actual swimming pool (or at least a great facsimile) was constructed on the stage. For that alone the series should be considered a classic!

From Laura H.:

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!)

BARNEY MILLER evolved into a one-set show. If you screen the very early episodes of the series, they go back to Barney’s house. His relationship with his wife (played by Barbara Barrie) was originally going to be a major element of the series. But they found their money was in that squad room. Barbara and his home life were phased out. 

The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar. The first time we deviated from that was the season premier of season two when we went to Diane’s apartment. (Remember all the stuffed animals?)

The problem with never leaving the bar was that anything that happened away from CHEERS had to be told to the audience, and it’s always better to see it.

BARNEY had less of an issue with that because their format was bring in three or four different oddballs and have them interact with the regulars. So all the action was right in front of you.

I personally like shows that basically center in one location, especially if the setting is inviting (like CHEERS). In those shows the emphasis is clearly on the characters, their interaction, and dialogue, and if done well you can really mount a smart show.  Also, the location itself almost becomes a character. 

And finally, long time friend of the blog, Johnny Walker wonders:

How do you feel about taking the time to write a character's bio before starting writing? I've heard some people swear by it, but others (including Sorkin) consider it a waste of time. I think I fall in the latter camp now. Provided I know what makes the character tick, I don't need to know what school they went (if the character is well defined enough, you should be able to infer it afterwards - in fact things like that should start to become obvious). What do you think, Ken?

For my UCLA students I recommend writing character profiles. It helps them answer the questions – what do these characters want, what’s interesting or unique about them, what’s funny about them, what are their attitudes, and what are their backgrounds? Answers to all of these questions are a must, whether you write out a bio or not. 

For myself, I do a modified profile. I’ll list key traits, objectives, and generally try to come up with an actor prototype (although I don’t expect to get him).

So bottom line – is it worth doing? Sure. What could it hurt?

What's your Friday Question?  


Wally said...

Thanks, Ken. That's why I asked (and cited the iffy source).

B.A. said...

I don't know that it's better to see it. My mental picture of Cliff and Norm getting tossed from a ballgame because the albedo on their stomachs was blinding the players made me laugh harder than an actual staged scene would have.

Covarr said...

I have a question about purely visual gags. In the 30 ROCK episode "Winter Madness", Tracy can be seen wearing a shirt that says "Impeach George W. Ashington". It's never referenced or acknowledged in dialogue and certainly not plot-necessary, but it's definitely plot-relevant. My question is, would this sort of joke or others of a similar nature typically be written by a show's writing staff and in the script, or is would this be something done by someone else such as costume designers (or set designers, or actors, depending on the type of joke)?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, I found a copy of Larry Gelbart's book, LAUGHING MATTERS at the library, based on your recommendation, and read it on flights back and forth to Dallas.

I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the (writing/thought) process of stage/TV/screen comedy.

Glenn said...

Hey Ken, will you be doing your sitcom seminar this year?

Marty Fufkin said...

Regarding the funeral, Wikipedia is apparently quoting the Associated Press. The story states that the funeral was in Rhode Island. Is it possible that there were two memorial services -- one for family in RI, and one in Hollywood for his colleagues in the acting community?

daniel in cherry hill said...

With the passing of Steven Hill this week, some articles referenced his leaving Mission Impossible over the shooting schedule conflicting with his religious obligations. Have you ever had to reschedule the shooting and/or rehearsal schedule because of a cast or crew member’s religious needs?

Cat said...

Cheers always did such a great job with stuff you didn't see onscreen, I know this must have been difficult to sustain. Who can imagine actually witnessing the scene with Andy Andy on a double date with Diane in the Italian restaurant? It was funnier because we didn't see it.

ADmin said...

Friday Question:

I think in the past you have suggested that you always try to put as many jokes as possible into a script. (Make it a funny a humanly possible) At least that's the impression I've gotten reading your blog over the years. But what I'm curious about is: Is there a tempo or (for lack of a better term) cadence to the placement of punchlines?

Watching old sitcoms - and new ones - it sometimes seems like there's almost a beat or a rhythm to the timing of the jokes. Like an "even spacing" of the gags that you can anticipate. Is that intentional, a coincidence, or is it simply a subconscious trait of certain directors/show runners?

Have you ever held back a joke waiting for the perfect situation?

Steve Lanzi (aka qdpsteve) said...

Another great Friday questions Mr. Levine, thanks!

Of all the sitcoms I've watched over the years, Barney Miller stands out; it had a look and feel that I personally can't recall ever seeing replicated in any other show. Besides being surprisingly gritty and un-Hollywood, it could be called one of TV's first 'dramedies' in that there seemed to be more going on than just getting the laugh, as in too many sitcoms today IMHO (Two Broke Girls, anyone?).

Micah said...

Ken, I'm sure you've seen the Seinfeld 9/11 script getting passed around the Internet. What do you think of it? Do you see any merit for others to try to take that route to get noticed?

Liggie said...

I saw that pilot for "The Tortellis". Didn't realize that was Dan Hedaya as Nick Tortelli. Talented actor; besides "Blood Simple", he was fantastic as Richard Nixon in the comedy movie "Dick".

The pool was a necessary part of "The Tortellis". Womanizing Nick's first view of his sexy new sister-in-law (Carlene Watkins) is of her in a swimsuit and stepping into the water. Instant plot point.

Segue to F.Q.'s about clothing. 1) For baseball games, how do the producers decide whether to have the broadcasters wear formal suits and ties, or casual polo shirts? 2) For newscasters, game/talk show hosts, and other presenters, are those suits or dresses they wear provided by the networks, or are they the talent's own clothing?

Jay said...

Ken, this may be one of the stranger Friday questions you've been asked, but, do you know what happened to the Frasier set? I worked as a writer for a show that shot on Stage 25 at Paramount and when I found out that was the Frasier stage, I went full fan boy. The show is my absolute favorite sitcom of all time, partly because my girlfriend and I share a great love for it. That being said, I'm planning on asking her to marry me, and in spinning the wheels of crafting a creative proposal I've been looking into seeing if it would be possible to find a piece of the set to propose on. I know typically those sets go into storage or are broken down, but being the iconic show it was, I wondered if any parts of the set were preserved (i.e. like Warner has done with the "Friends" set) and where those set pieces may be. Bizarre question, I know. But, as an avid reader and big fan of yours, I figured I'd give it a shot.

Thanks so much!


Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Ken! Interesting answer. I guess it's a balance. I think some schools of thought make you list their favourite colour and other miscellany, but I think everyone agrees that you need to know what makes them tick. Or really, their flaws.

Great tip about an actor reference.

Devin McCullen said...

I just watched the season finale of Nashville, which wrapped up all of the season's arcs...and then dropped a contrived cliffhanger at the end which just felt incredibly lame.

I know sometimes these sorts of things happen because the show thinks that it'll help its chances at renewal. My question is, why do the networks let them do it? I know they meddle, so why do they let these tacked-on endings by?

Unknown said...


When writing for Cliff Clavin, how much research was done about the various bits of trivia he thought he knew?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Curious how writing credits are decided in a writers' room, knowing that everyone usually has a hand in the final script. Do they just rotate credits or does the credited writer actually come up with the premise?

Diane D. said...

The character, Nick Tortelli, was so awful in every way that I could barely take even his brief appearances on CHEERS. I couldn't believe it when I heard there was a spin-off show about the Tortellis. However, I did think the scene where Carla showed Diane a picture of Nick and Loretta naked, and Diane said she thought he had on mohair pajamas, was hilarious! It was also very funny when Frasier asked him if he was the bogus "missing link" exhibited at the World's Fair. That is exactly what he looked like.

That Guy said...

@MikeK.Pa. In case Ken doesn't respond I can tell you from my experience as a TV writer that the credits generally rotate. Again, from my experience which is now and not 30+ years ago when Cheers was on. But it's usually from the top down. The creator/showrunner will get the first (few) and then trickle down the ladder from Exec Producer, to Co-Exec, down to Staff Writer assuming the show gets enough episodes to even get to them.

Greg Ehrbar said...

I find it interesting that, while there are some other sets used, THE ADDAMS FAMILY often had events and effects take place off camera -- outside a window, in another room, etc. -- rather than on the set. It saved money and also heightened some of the comedy by allowing the viewers to picture it. So many of the staff of the show started in radio, it was a throwback in a way. Just a random thought. Move along now, nothing else to see here...

Andy Rose said...

Sometimes having absurd or slapstick events happen off-camera works better, either because the picture drawn in the mind's eye is more absurd than you can actually show (like some of the old Stan Freberg radio ads) or because the joke is more in the surprise of the absurdity than in the actual event itself.

The Jack Benny Program had an issue with this when it transitioned from radio to television. On radio, Jack and Rochester could have a conversation about how bad the ride in his car was, and then toss in a line revealing that they were actually pushing it to their destination. On radio, the surprise would get a laugh, but then Jack could say, "Oh, never mind that..." and move on. On the television version, if they did a gag like that, they had to commit to it for the entire sketch, long after it stopped being relevant to the scene.

Unknown said...

Ken - My Friday question. There is "Cheers - Live on Stage" about to be done in Chicago. They are using scripts from the first season. Your thoughts? Do you get paid in any way if you wrote the original script?