Wednesday, February 08, 2017

A great Friday Question (even though it's Wednesday)

This is a great Friday Question that I felt deserved its own post.

It’s from cd1515:

Is it important when writing comedy that you actually like the character and/or the actor playing it?

If the person's a douche, is there ever a feeling of "why would I want to make THAT person look good?" and maybe give the funnier stuff to someone else in the cast you like better?

First let me say this does exist. But the percentage of actors who are truly monsters is very very low. The overwhelming majority of actors I’ve worked with (in television, features, and the stage) are lovely hard-working people and are a joy to collaborate with. There are creative differences at times, and occasionally a writer may grumble over an actor note but that’s just the process and human nature. I’m sure your boss or co-workers do things or ask for things that bug you from time to time. But it’s not intolerable. This post centers on those extreme cases when actors are hateful.

And the short answer is you bust to ass to make the script as good as possible, even if that means making the douchebag look better. It kills you but you do it.

You do it because you’re a professional. You do it because it’s your job. You do it because you don’t have “fuck you” money (yet).

But it does take every ounce of perseverance and tolerance you've got.

And it takes its toll, both physically and psychically. Especially if you’re on a weekly series, you just can’t put yourself through that for any extended period of time before you wind up in a cardiac ward or Betty Ford. You will burn out.

There’s a reason there was so much turnover on ROSEANNE, COSBY, CYBILL, and GRACE UNDER FIRE to cite just a few. Writers with any real talent leave.

It takes a lot of fortitude and dedication to your craft to write great jokes for an actress (Roseanne) who made writers wear numbers around their necks at run-throughs because she didn’t want to bother learning their names.

And you can't give funnier lines to other cast members because the star will intercept them and take the lines for themselves (even if the jokes no longer make sense). 

Unfortunately, nightmare stars know that writers will still give their best regardless so they feel they can get away with their bad behavior. Thus you hate them more, if that’s even possible.

The big question writers ask is whether the star is worth it? If your star is beloved and your show is a big hit it makes it easier to suck it up than if you’re writing for Rob Schneider and no one’s watching. Can you at least get a Goddamn Emmy out of it?

One thing writers don’t do, however, is go out of their way for these monsters.

Now, what about when a supporting cast member is an asshole? Then you give him the best material you can but try to give him as little to do as possible. If he or she becomes too much of a problem and isn’t key to the success of the series you get rid of him.

Still, as a writer you do the best you can despite your personal feelings. Remember, the audience doesn’t care.

All that said, after you’ve worked on a show with one of these ogres, when you then work with a lovely cast you are that much more appreciative. And you go out of your way times ten for them. God bless the Ted Dansons of the world.

Meanwhile, when was the last time you saw Cybill Shepherd on a series?  As opposed to say Christine Baranski? 


Peter said...

I saw a rerun of a Law & Order SVU recently that had Cybill Shepherd as the guest star. She played a loathsome bitch. Playing to her strengths, then.

As others pointed out last week, your tribute to Mary Tyler Moore was classy and dignified, given the jokes and references you've made in the past about the headaches you and David endured working on her show.

One of my favourite difficult actor stories is about Faye Dunaway's guest appearance on Alias. JJ Abrams didn't refer to her by name but it's an open secret he was talking about Dunaway when he said: "There was one time on Alias an actress came in and she was very rude to people and literally a couple people on the crew cried". He said a producer called him because he was thinking of hiring her and he told him "You cannot hire this person. She was a disaster. She was horrible" and the producer thanked him and didn't hire her. When she found out, she rang Abrams and said "I’ve heard that you said don’t hire me to this producer" and Abrams told her "You were a disaster! What are you talking about?"

Ken, I still hope one day you'll name the actor you said you fired for sticking his tongue in his female co-star's mouth during a rehearsal! And you're such a nice, pleasant guy, I'd have loved to see what you were like in badass mode firing the dumbass!

Peter said...

By the way, if anyone wants to read Ken's comments on firing the rather too "method" actor, it's here:

404 said...

Uh oh . . . I smell another online Levine/O'Donnell war on the horizon!

Mike Barer said...

I heard that really killed Cybill, when Baranski stole the scenes in her show.

Matt said...

Can you tell the story of killing Carla's husband? Also, what other characters do you know were killed due to the actor?

VP81955 said...

"First let me say this does exist. But the percentage of actors who are truly monsters is very very low."

And based upon the series Ken cited, a disproportionate percentage of them wind up on shows involving Chuck Lorre...which is probably why he loves having "Mom" in his stable. Both Anna Faris and Allison Janney have reputations in the industry as true professionals.

In Cybill Shepherd's case, perhaps she saw Christine Baranski as a deja vu of Bruce Willis ("Moonlighting"). That wouldn't excuse her behavior, mind you -- just an explanation.

VP81955 said...

And that Cybill Shepherd headshot at the top of the entry -- was that from an audition for the role in "Monster" given to Charlize Theron? It certainly looks like a serial killer in training.

Marv Wolfman said...

Ken; I wrote previously, but I was wondering if you were able to learn why, when I try to listen to your podcast on an airplane, later, on my iPhone, it says "Episode Unavailable This episode is temporarily unavailable from (add date)?" It's still a problem. I can listen to it "live" on my computer but not later on. Is there something that needs to be done to hear it?

Andrew said...

"Now, what about when a supporting cast member is an asshole? Then you give him the best material you can but try to give him as little to do as possible. If he or she becomes too much of a problem and isn’t key to the success of the series you get rid of him. "

That says a lot for the shows with continuing casts, like Cheers and Frasier.

@ Matt, I can think of one example. On Seinfeld, Susan Ross (played by Heidi Swedberg), George's girlfriend and fiance, was killed off because the cast had a hard time acting with her. It wasn't that Heidi was difficult, or a pain, only that the chemistry they desired wasn't there. Jason Alexander noticed it originally, and eventually the rest of the cast agreed. Jason has talked about it, but also was very apologetic to Heidi when this fact got more publicity (via Howard Stern). The regular Seinfeld cast supposedly liked Heidi as a person, and considered her a good actress, but still had a hard time with the way she played Susan. To me this is all strange, since I thought she was a perfect foil for George.

Jahn Ghalt said...

From Levine Blog - Thursday, December 19, 2013:

(Larry Lujack) broadcast 2,000 miles away from me. He was on the air every morning, but I rarely heard him. Live at least. But I would pester my friends to make tapes and whenever one would arrive in the mail I would cherish it like 14 karat gold. I marveled at his genius. I would then listen to the show over and over and over again. At the time there were thousands of disc jockeys, but none were more unique or funnier than Larry Lujack on the Big 89, WLS, Chicago.

What are the chances those tapes are still around?

This must be worth 5 or 10 minutes on a podcast....

Peter said...

Just read that Ellen Burstyn is making her directorial debut with a black comedy called Bathing Flo.

Directorial debut at 84 years old. That must be a new record.

cd1515 said...

thanks for answering my Q Ken, here's another one:
saw an old Friends episode where Chandler's arguing with his girlfriend, who says call me when you grow up, and he says don't count on that happening.
and the same exact premise was in the movie Office Space, worded a little differently.

what do you think the odds are that a writer for one saw it on the other and just blatantly stole it?
where's the line on that for writers?
or are you guys even aware when someone else does something similar to what you're planning?
and do you care?

normadesmond said...

disliked cybill before i even knew she was dislikable.

Unknown said...

I was on the staff at "Roseanne" during the numbers incident. We didn't wear them around the neck - they were ptintrd on white T-shirts she gave us. And it was a JOKE. To make light of the fact that we had an unusually large writing staff - 23. And she knew all of our names. Many were stand up pals of hers. By the way, we only wore the shirts to one run-through.

One Who Knows said...

@VP8 1955: Sorry, but the common denominator for all of these shows is Carsey-Werner who always, always, always backed the star no matter what.

Just sign me...

suesea7 said...

Friday question(s): What is your opinion of the new Odd Couple, with Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon? I watched the first couple episodes, and was thrilled to see Wendell Pierce, but I haven't become a regular viewer.

What do you think about The Good Place? I recently binge watched it, and thought it was very good. Ted Danson is wonderful, and I find it witty and fun, even if the plot (being in the afterlife) may pose problems.

Thanks, Ken!

Sue in Seattle

thomas tucker said...

I wonder if Charles Grodin has ever talked about what it was like Working with the young Cybill Shepherd on the original "The Heartbreak Kid", one of the funniest movies from the 1970's. said...

vp81955: You should look up the essay on how to write a hit sitcom on Chuck Lorre's website ( He talks about the many hells he had to go through to get to 2 1/2 MEN. (Written, of course, years before Charlie Sheen imploded.) It's great.


Anonymous said...

The Rob Schneider throwaway line - was it truly just a throwaway or is he a problem? I had always thought he was a decent guy, just not that good at choosing and/or executing his material.

Bill Avena said...

@Wendy: Have you seen the vanity card after Big Bang that talks about Chuck's time on CYBILL? It's short, angry and humorless (which coming from Lorre is strange). Sorry I was unable to retrieve it for quoting purposes.

Andrew said...

"saw an old Friends episode where Chandler's arguing with his girlfriend, who says call me when you grow up, and he says don't count on that happening.
and the same exact premise was in the movie Office Space, worded a little differently."

And at least 25 other movies and TV shows. It's not exactly groundbreaking. Heck, I think I remember one of my high school friends saying that to his ex-girlfriend.

Aaron Hazouri said...

Cybill was on Psych for several guest appearances and I thought she was great. She's shown up in other supporting roles since then, too. Of course we've all read stories about what a terror she was but... Maybe she's approaching it differently now - just grateful to be a 50+ actress still working.

VP81955 said...

If you recall the opening credits of "Cybill," it showed several stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, beginning with the lady in my avatar, Carole Lombard, who apparently is one of Shepherd's idols. (Try using a Lombard reference on a TV series today.) The difference, as anyone familiar with Hollywood history knows, is that Carole -- while hardly a saint -- was one of the most likable, generous and popular people in the movie industry, despite her often inventive invective. (It's why her nickname was "the profane angel.") Shepherd's a better singer than Lombard, but that's about it.

Jackie said...


If you want the story of why Eddie LeBec was killed off, please listen to Gilbert Gottfried's podcast with Jay Thomas.

For Ken's version, please see this blog on July 21, 2006.

Todd Everett said...

@cd1515: back when I was reviewing TV shows, I was assigned a block of new entries on what was then, as I recall, The WB. Three new comedies in a row; each included a variation of the same joke:

"I'm not a waiter, I'm an actor."
"Then act like a waiter and bring me a beer."

I'm assuming it was intentional, a not-so-private jest by the writers. Not that the joke was a new one, even then.

Anonymous said...

@jahn Ghalt
Coming from Chicago but traveling all over, I can tell you the Larry Lujack of the 1960's and 1970's was the best dic jockey in America.
He knew the medium and had an incomparable wit and irreverent attitude- toward everybody. He also knew his rock music (altho he preferred country).
He's gone now, and sorely missed here in the Midwest.
BTW- two guys who not only learned from him and copied his approach were David Letterman who listened at Ball State and Rush Limbaugh who listened in Missouri. I know many followers on this blog hate Limbaugh, if you forget his politics and listen to his mastery of the medium, he is undeniably talented. "Talent on loan from God" and "my formerly nicotine stained fingers" are direct steals from Uncle Lar.
There is a lot of Lujack's Animal Stories on the Internet and some air checks but not as much tape as we should have. i wish I taped LS in those days. Some of their other guys like John Records Landecker and Fred Winston (Ferris Buehler's Day Off) were great talents. And if you ask them they will all tell you Larry Lujack was the best.

Andy Rose said...

One of the most infamous recent examples of bad cast behavior was Chevy Chase on Community. He reportedly wasn't so much a diva on that show as he was a pest... someone who constantly griped about the work, didn't get the jokes, didn't learn his lines, and sometimes didn't show up for work at all. And then would complain about the show in interviews. Dan Harmon responded by making Chevy's character increasingly unlikable, mirroring a lot of the traits he saw in Chevy. Eventually Chevy was forced to leave the series with a severance agreement that included (reportedly at the insistence of the cast) that he never be allowed to return to the set. When Harmon arranged for a parting cameo for Chase in the fifth season, it had to be structured in a way that Chase didn't physically interact with any other cast member and was filmed at a time when they weren't there.

cadavra said...

Waidaminute, waidaminute, waidaminute. Did you just say something nice about The Goddess Christine Baranski?

Barry Traylor said...

I have read that an actor better treat people kindly on their way up because sooner or later your star will dim and don't expect any favors on the way down. I am also happy that I never liked Roseanne from the beginning so I have no problem never seeing her perform again.

Betty said...

Unknown, thanks for the info on the Roseanne number shirts. Funny!

Mike Barer said...

Dear 404
You mean Roseanne Barr-Arnold. It's easy to mix up because they have both lost weight.
Roseanne is Jewish. Rosie O'Donell is Irish. Roseanne, I believe supported Trump. Rosie would never support Trump.