Sunday, October 23, 2016

Working with kids

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post either because the subject matter warranted it or I’m just incredibly verbose.

It’s from Carl:

Ken, what is your opinion of children on sitcoms? I've noticed that the shows you've worked on rarely feature them. Myself, I've noticed that many sitcoms will make an effort early on to give the kiddies screen time, then give up and only trot them out when the plot demands an appearance.

Yeah, not a lot of kids drafted and sent to a MASH unit or hanging out at CHEERS. I did have a running joke though. Remember when there was a show called MUPPET BABIES? I always thought it would be great to have CHEERS BABIES. See little Norm & Cliff ordering beers at the bar. Maybe I should re-pitch it.

But as a director, I’ve worked with kids quite often. They do present certain challenges, which must be taken into consideration.

The first one of course is stage parents. You may get an adorable talented kid but all too often Momzilla comes as part of the bargain. Cruella de Vil with notes.

There are also quite a few restrictions in place that hamper production, but that’s for a good reason. They’re all for the protection of the child. Not that Hollywood would ever take advantage of kids and work them twenty-hour days like mules and force them to take diet pills if they gained two ounces, but just to be on the safe side, kids can only work so many hours and classroom instruction is mandatory. Still, it’s a arduous day for these youngsters, many of whom would rather be playing videogames with their friends than doing planned-pick-ups.

So it means a director only has them for limited periods. We have to work around their schedules. If we’re shooting the show in front of a live audience we have to do it earlier to ensure they wrap at a decent hour.  (Hey, wait a minute.  That's a good thing.)

Generally, kids don’t get the rehearsal time they need. And in truth, they’re the ones who need it the most because they don’t have the experience adult actors have.  Although Kaitlyn Dever can hold her own with Oscar winners. 

So producers have to ask themselves – is it really worth it? More than one family comedy has opted to downplay the role of the children over time because of the obstacles.

That said, I always looked forward to directing the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and INSTANT MOM.   The kids were great, the parents were lovely. 

With young kids (like the twins were at the time), it's unrealistic to ask them to memorize a lot of dialogue.  So that cuts down on their screen time. 

I know a number of actors who are in their 20’s and even 30’s who can still pass for teenagers. And believe me, these actors are in greater demand than Meryl Streep.

The other problem with using children is that they tend to grow up. As a director, it’s hard to tell them not to. I believe Disney Channel series usually only go three or four seasons because of this.

Of course, their aging can also be a plus. As they enter new stages of development it can open up new areas for stories. But as the fine folks of GLEE have learned, you can’t keep the same kids in high school for seven years (although they could probably get away with it on JUSTIFIED).

Some children I've worked with are a pleasure and others are world-weary fifty-year-olds trapped in the body of a ten-year-old.  My heart always goes out to children actors, even the successful ones.  It's tough enough dealing with peer pressure, puberty, and pimples.  I can't imagine also being rejected by the producers of THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK.  


Eric Matthews said...

Odd you would mention Raymond. I distinctly remember Sawyer's mom being criticized for taking to the internet to attack anyone that dared say a negative word toward her child. You appear on an irritating show like Raymond, and someone, somewhere on the internet will say something nasty about you. Milsap didn't seem to understand that you have to leave that alone, you don't get into a flame war with disparaging, anonymous people on the internet! Milsap was obviously breeding child actors, and I lay the blame on her for not just allowing her son to fade away into private life.

AndrewJ said...

And child actors tend NOT to come across naturally before a live audience. Most of the classic parent/child sitcoms of the 1950-1960s were single-camera shows with laughtracks.

Covarr said...

One of my all time favorite shows is BOY MEETS WORLD, one that originally starred child actors, and followed them into adulthood, precisely because they were allowed to grow. Heck, it was built deep into the very premise of the show.

Alas, I don't think most shows could get away with that. Every time someone makes a BOY MEETS WORLD or THE WONDER YEARS (and is THE GOLDBERGS going to do this too?), they have to contest with the fact that this concept has been done before, and people will always compare one to the other. It's one thing to be fighting in the ratings against other shows targeting different demographics, but to fight against comparisons to BOY MEETS WORLD? That's an intimidating battle, and not one most shows can win.

RyderDA said...

Makes me wonder how a series like THE WONDER YEARS could ever happen... then produce Danica McKellar with her degree in math and a mathematical theorem named for her.

YEKIMI said...

I guess a bunch of Friday questions about your play writing: While watching an episode of Johnny Carson on Antenna TV, Woody Harrelson was on and talking about a couple of plays he was in and had written. Pretty funny actually, he plastered a playbill on the front of Johnny's desk, had a T-shirt on with the name of the plays on it and had the plays spelled out in tape on the bottom of his shoes which showed when he crossed his legs. So......Did you ever see the play he wrote? Did you ever discuss play-writing with him or did he come to you for advice or did you ask him for advice? Did that give you the inspiration to write your plays or was it something in the back of your mind that you were thinking about doing anyways one day? Or was this just "The world be damned, I'm doing this on my own!" moment?

ScarletNumber said...

@Eric Matthews

You realize that all three Barone children were real-life siblings, right?

D. McEwan said...

I've been watching and LOVING the repeats of Our Miss Brooks, but I have noticed that Harriet Conklin seems to be the only student at Madison High who looks to be under 30. Miss Brooks ought to give up on Mr. Boynton and just date Richard Crenna's Walter Denton, who looks to be the same age as Mr. Boynton. (For the record, Crenna was 26 when he began playing Walter Denton on TV, 30 when he finished.)

Danny said...

I've been watching and LOVING the repeats of Our Miss Brooks

Me too. Funny thing, when I was a kid (in the '70s) a local station had that series on forever, running it late nights, as a weekend filler, or in occasional weekday afternoon slots. I never paid any attention to it back then, though, because (a) it looked old, and (b) it was black and white. Funny how you get more appreciative of these things are you get older.

Eric Matthews said...


Did you miss the part where I said "Milsap was obviously breeding child actors"?

MikeN said...

This prompts a Friday Question,
With the current TV landscape, and networks desperate for shows with a hook, do you think Cheers Babies would get an instant greenlight?

Carol said...

Late to this thread, but anyway...there was a British sitcom called 'Outnumbered' where it was partially unscripted, because the creator didn't want the children to sound like over-rehearsed child actors, so basically they would say 'okay this is what this scene is about' and then just let the kids react naturally, so the kids really talked and acted like actual kids, not precocious little darlings. AND they let the kids age naturally, so the eldest, for example, wasn't a 17 year old still in primary school.

Totally hilarious show and there's a Christmas special of it this year, so I am totally excited.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

MikeN. That's funny! Lots of Shirley Temples to be ordered at the bar?
Carla had enough kids/grandkids to populate the entire bar.

Ken, Agree with you on Kaitlyn Devar. She is outstanding on her timing.
Actually a shout out to writers, makeup artists, and cast/crew to the latest Halloween episode of "Last Man Standing". Extremely funny. They did a heck of a job finding humor THROUGH their characters.

Sometimes Child actors go on to bigger things... Take for instance the cast of BIG BANG THEORY. 3 of the main cast were child sitcom actors, (1 of whom was a child star).

Of course, the children on Raymond had a minor role (which was a welcome respite from the other television shows about families). And the sadness about the Sweeten twins...

The BIGGEST problem with Child actors is that they were often picked for cuteness, ability to learn and their comedic timing. But as they grow up, their bodies/voices change and sometimes that timing is gone. Props for the MODERN FAMILY kids for still retaining the timing. Especially the young man that plays Manny.

Jahn Ghalt said...

While not a situation comedy, Mad Men featured an actress whom I hope to follow for decades to come - Kiernan Shipka.

As Sally Draper she could well have languished in oblivion - much like her brother Bobby. As it turned out they found out what a gem they had and her growing up became an asset as the period piece progressed through the sixties.

Before we knew it she was smoking with her mom (even as she took every chance to bust her chops) and getting booze for her boarding school roommates. By the time she (the actress and character) turned ten in Season Three, she appeared in every episode to the end in Season Seven.

Smoking and drinking don't begin to cover Sally's various character arcs - in one she walked in on her father trysting with the "woman next door", then froze him out, later caught him in a big lie, and eventually forgave the wretch.

By all accounts her mom and dad were model "stage parents", who would not let Kiernan watch the show until she was thirteen and who, I am sure, were kept fully in the loop for all of the more questionable "exposures" that Sally experienced.

Her fellow actors are unanimous in their praise of young Kiernan, which is why I expect to see more of her on screens big and small.

Who knows - maybe she'll act in a sitcom?

Justin Russo said...

Little Ricky: the ULTIMATE plot device. Trotted out whenever you needed a reminder of Lucy and Ricky's parenting skills. Then you have poor Mrs. Trumble, the quintessential excuse for not needing the baby around!

Katie G said...

I think Modern Family and the Middle have a done an excellent job of growing the kids up, and making the shows still work. I could see each of those shows still coming up with good story lines when the kids are all grown up with their own kids.

Unknown said...

I would love to see toddler Norm and Cliff nursing juice in sippy cups.

Klopfer said...

I think a big problem is that many writers just can't write good dialogue for children. Often too much artificial teen speak, 12-year-olds are written as if they were 6, often they have to act as too dumb to live or they have to play an obnoxious wunderkind.