Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Questions

Welcome again to that weekly treat --  Friday Questions.

Steve S. starts us off:

Did the writing staff on season five of MASH know going in that Larry Linville was leaving after that year? If so, was that the reason for Hot Lips getting married?

No. This all happened just before I joined the staff, but my understanding was that Hot Lips being married would just provide more frustration for Frank. And it would give Hot Lips something else to play.

The truth is Hot Lips being married, especially to someone off camera, did not give us much to work with, and we split them up in short order. Loretta was not unhappy about that.

From Brian:

After looking at an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, I noticed that the writers were always credited at the end. Now, they almost always seem to be credited at the beginning. Is that union standard or can a show make a choice when to credit writers?

Networks pretty much dictate the format and writing and directing credits now usually come at the beginning. The only union mandate is that the director’s credit must come either last if credits are in the front of the show or first if the credits are in the back. And whenever that is, the writers credit must be included at the same time. You can’t put the director’s credit at the front of the show and the writer’s at the end.

RyderDA asks:

You have repeatedly written how TV comedy writers do re-writes of weak material during the show's actual taping. You have not commented whether that happens in movies (that I can remember). I occasionally watch awful, unfunny movies and wonder how they ended up on screen being unfunny and awful (did no one notice this coming?).

Movies do get rewritten during production. Sometimes writers are right there on the set. Other times re-writers are there on the set and the original writer banished.

My partner and I were offered a rewrite job one time for a movie being filmed in NY. They wanted us for five weeks to be on set and help punch it up. And they wanted us on a plane that night. The only thing is, they wouldn’t send a script for us to look at first.

So we figured (correctly), that the script must be a giant piece of shit and we would be locked in an office 24/7 furiously trying to save this turdburger. So we passed. If they weren’t even willing to show us the script there was no way we were jumping off that cliff.

The movie came out about a year later and was predictably terrible. Who they got to fix it and how much better they made it I have no idea.

And no, I’m not going to tell you the name of the movie, except to say it was a romantic comedy.

Finally, from ADmin:

Just an observation that kinda leads to a question :) The other day, watching an old rerun of Married with Children, (a show I used to like when it was running) I realized that the jokes, in my opinion, weren't all that funny. And yet, I found myself enjoying it. Then it dawned on me that it was the deft and humorous execution of Ed O'Neill. What are your thoughts on actors who have the remarkable talent to elevate or even carry a script? (I'm getting the same inkling from The Orville.)

It’s always great when that happens, but as a writer I never ever depend on the actor to make something funny just because of his gift. I try to write him the funniest material I possibly can. And if he can get a few bonus laughs on straight lines or behavior, all the better. But never do I coast hoping an actor will make something work through his sheer will. Call it a point of pride, but I want my laughs to be earned.

What’s your Friday Question?


Peter said...

"And no, I’m not going to tell you the name of the movie, except to say it was a romantic comedy."

So, basically, it could be any Hugh Grant movie from the last 20 years?

Andrew said...

"And if he can get a few bonus laughs on straight lines or behavior, all the better."

The person this reminds me of is David Hyde Pierce. Of course, the material on Frasier was always excellent. But he could do almost nothing except move his eyes or smirk just a little and it was pure gold.

Covarr said...

"Movies do get rewritten during production. Sometimes writers are right there on the set."

Not a movie, but the play I'm doing right now (directing, co-wrote) has gone so much smoother because I went in willing to rewrite things, an option that directors at community theaters don't usually have because of copyright reasons, even though it's usually a safe assumption that nobody from the licensing company would ever actually see the production to call us on any changes. But rules are rules, so we try to do it right.

One rewrite was to fix a continuity problem that slipped by us through several drafts that became way more obvious with live performers. Others have been to add or change jokes, to make lines better fit the actor's voice, to integrate adlibs that came about during rehearsals, and even rearranging lines to make blocking a bit easier.

To have that option available is quite freeing. Even if I weren't the director, which I initially didn't want to be, I'd prefer to be present at rehearsals for the sake of rewrites. It can be a bit hard on cast sometimes, especially when they forget a rewrite and deliver the old version of a line on show night, but I've found most of my cast to be quite adaptable.

Craig Gustafson said...

"The truth is Hot Lips being married, especially to someone off camera, did not give us much to work with, and we split them up in short order. Loretta was not unhappy about that."

Friday question - What do you do as incoming production staff when the outgoing regime writes in a deliberate Fuck You? I'm thinking of "The West Wing." For Aaron Sorkin's final show, he had the President's daughter kidnapped and Martin Sheen stepping down as president, with John Goodman horrifying the staff as Sheen's replacement.

This could have been a story arc for the first half of the next season -- whose writers obviously sighed, muttered "Goddamn it, Sorkin...!" and wrapped things up in the first episode.

Craig Gustafson said...

"It’s always great when that happens, but as a writer I never ever depend on the actor to make something funny just because of his gift."

I listen to a lot of old time radio shows, and recently found one I'd never heard of before - "That's Rich" - a short-lived sitcom starring Stan Freberg and Daws Butler. It's kind of Eh. Average sitcom, some above average writing, but nothing special except the deathless line, "Remember, Marilyn Monroe wasn't built in a day." So far, the episodes I've heard have cut off the closing credits, so I don't know if Freberg wrote the show.

The interesting part is that Daws Butler, using his Huckleberry Hound voice, gets HUGE laughs on ordinary lines. I wish he could have done more live action TV - he could have been as funny as Mel Blanc on Jack Benny's show.

David Schwartz said...

This has nothing to do with today's post(although the picture of Larry Linville and Loretta Swit reminded me of it). When I was a kid, Mannix was one of my favorite shows. Well... I bought the box set and have been watching old episodes (it has one of the best theme songs ever) and noticed three M.A.S.H. alumni on it. I've only binge watched up to season 3 (which was 1970 - 71)and I've already seen Larry Linville (a semi-regular), Mike Farrell and Loretta Swit (who was on twice in two different roles).

It's interesting watching Mannix to see all of the different guest stars and which ones made names for themselves in the years to come. Robert Reed was also a semi-regular and actually continued on Mannix even after he started on the Brady Bunch! I've been enjoying my summer binge watching of the series (although with the new season starting, I'm likely to binge less). Mike Connors was terrific in the role and it really holds up.

JW said...

Friday Question: Watched the E1, S2 of Great News (didn't watch the first season, hardly knew it existed), but I thought with the hype of bringing Tina Fey on, maybe it was worth checking out.
Horrible. So disappointed in the writing and character development - everyone is so stereotyped and one-dimensional.
In your opinion, is this NBC getting in the way of an otherwise great premise, or just lackluster writing?

Jenna Leigh said...

Did you watch Will and Grace on Thursday night, Ken? Maybe my age (25) is showing, but I found it untethered, opportunistic, and dated. In a world with Big Bang Theory, I shouldn't complain much, but what happens to the two-season pickup if the audience falls off? Do networks pay a penalty, or do they just cancel the show? Seeing as it's NBC, do they just blindly keep it on and then develop awful shows for the next five years again?

gottacook said...

David S.: Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and Star Trek were all launched by Desilu in the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons, just before Paramount bought the studio. There was a huge amount of crossover among these shows, and even when the other two were out of production, Mannix still had many personnel (not only actors, but also directors and writers) who'd been on the other two. As for MASH actors, there was a Star Trek connection for Mike Farrell: the Gene Roddenberry pilot (shown as a TV movie) The Questor Tapes co-starring Robert Foxworth, a variation on the backdoor pilot "Assignment: Earth" (a 1968 Star Trek episode with Robert Lansing and Teri Garr, set in 1968).

cadavra said...

My rule is simple: If someone comes up with a gag or line that's better, we'll try it. And often it gets used. I also like to do wild takes, in which the performers pretty much do what ever they want. Sometimes those end up getting used as well. As Jack Benny always said when asked why he let the supporting characters get most of the laughs, "I just want the funniest show possible, and no matter who gets the laugh, it's still my name on the show."

CarolMR said...

Thank you, David Schwartz, for bringing up Mannix. I've been watching for months on MeTV. The show holds up well and Mike Connors was perfect for the role. Gail Fisher was terrific, too.

Gary said...

Ken, this isn't really a Friday question, just an observation. When watching NBC's big hit THIS IS US (and enjoying it as much as anyone), I've noticed the show's writers break one of your cardinal rules: they often have the characters delivering long, long speeches during their conversations. The speeches are beautifully written, and the acting is excellent, but once you're aware of it, it seems unrealistic -- these people never say "um...", they never stumble over their words, they never lose their train of thought, etc. It's just total eloquence. Exactly like real life, right? I'm wondering if you've also noticed this, and whether it affects your enjoyment of the show.

Frank Burns Eats Worms said...

Ken - You have indicated that you and David left MASH was the lack of developing interesting ideas for new stories, recycled plots and lucrative writing opportunities outside the show.

Question---For the 3-4 seasons that MASH ran after you and David exited, are there any episodes that really stand out (excluding the finale) that make you guys say "Why didn't we think of that!"

Donald Benson said...

Were there ever jokes that had to go because they were TOO funny? Not because of actors' egos or anything like that, but because they broke the pace of a scene or diminished a climax?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Regarding good actor's with lousy scripts: I believe this is a lot more common than anyone realizes. e.g. After Seinfeld went off the air Michael Richards and Jason Alexander got their own shows. Both were pretty bad. But with M.R.'s show especially, it was pretty obvious that somebody somewhere said, "Michael's so funny. Just let him do 'Kramer'and that will make up for the poor writing." I can't say if those words were actually spoken, but obviously that was the mentality.

Chris said...

Add me to the list of those disappointed in the WILL AND GRACE reboot with Trump jokes I've literally heard elsewhere. The Pat Nixon joke was genuinely funny, but otherwise, so, so, so lazy. Getting to Jenna Leigh's question, do you think if it tanks, that NBC will cancel it? I know they've already said yes to a 2nd season. Any inside info or thoughts?

Karan G. said...

Loved Will & Grace. Felt a bit like an SNL skit rather than classic comedy that might stand the test of time, but that might actually be the right tone for the current climate and a good jumping off point. I have no complaints, but am curious whether they will settle in to a more traditional approach as the season progresses.

Joe said...

Friday question following up this week's Friday question: Do you think, in a way, you and David were lucky that Larry Linville left MASH before you took over as great writers?

Larry Linville was a great actor, but it seemed like the character became more creepy and even disturbing in some Season 5 episodes. The Frank of the first four seasons were great, but I felt the character jumped the shark in Season 5.

And it opened the door for Charles Emerson Winchester, who might have been the best -- and certainly most complex -- character in the show.

kanana said...


Seems all of tv writing starts with a problem then a solution then a problem in the solution.

big fan of you
i have dancin homer and saturdays thunder also your mash pov episode

kanana said...

ken, big fan of you, mash pov episode, i own scripts for dancin homer and thunder saturdays

seems all of tv is a problem in first act a solution in second act and a problem in the solution in third

E. Yarber said...

The Michael Richards show mentioned above began as an idea Richards had to break from sitcoms entirely and do an hour-long mystery series as a Columbo-like character. The networks broke this down into a half-hour comedy with him as a detective, then said, "Well, maybe we can get away from the detective angle some episodes and just have him do what everyone already knows." Thus is a flop born.

John J said...

Who are the funniest actors/actresses you have not had the privilige to work with?

Bob B. said...

I'll add my two cents to Thursday's Will and Grace. I'm holding off on a flat negative opinion because this episode had a lot of wrap up from the series (kids, getting married, etc.) that slowed it down.

I thought the last two or three seasons of the original were nearly impossible to watch because all of the characters became one dimensional. So with that said, the first ep of the reboot was better. But the directors have got to reign in Messing. Much like season one of the original, she is tremendously overacting which makes her character the most annoying of the four. And that's difficult to do with the stereotype laden character that Sean Hayes plays.

mbk said...

Ken -

A Friday question: Love your blog, and even though I think I've read all your pieces, I don't remember that you've ever commented on "Episodes" on Showtime. It seems like something you would relate to, with commentary on writing TV comedy, showrunning, dealing with network suits, actors and their egos, agents, hack writers, backstabbing, Hollywood hypocrisy, and on and on.

I thought the most recent episode was particularly well written and acted, with elements of farce that you have done so well (except with multiple cellphone conversations instead of people popping out of vacation cabin doors).

What's your take on Episodes?