Friday, November 03, 2017

Friday Questions

Here are Friday Questions for a hungry global society.

jcs starts us off:

Did you encounter actresses or actors during your career whose solid professionalism just blew you away (i.e. who were always on time, courteous and accommodating or who shined in the face of adversity)?

I was very lucky in my career. Most of the actors I worked with were consummate professionals.

Michael Douglas used to say that the lead actor in a show or movie had to “take responsibility as the star.” In other words, the whole tone of the set is determined by the star. If he’s a real cheerleader the set can be a pleasant environment for all concerned. If he’s an asshole there is a level of tension that is palpable.

I worked with cheerleaders. Alan Alda, Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer, Tom Hanks, Adam Arkin, Nancy Travis.

I remember one time on ALMOST PERFECT with Nancy that we had a very complicated episode. After the audience was released there were hours of necessary pick-ups. We would be shooting until well after midnight. Other stars might’ve balked or been impatient or just generally unpleasant. Not Nancy. She was gung ho and as a result everyone involved got their second wind. I thought to myself, “THIS is a star.”

From Bart:

What do you do when you have an actor who requests a scene in which they sing? I'm thinking of the episode of Halt and Catch Fire, where, for no real plot reason, Boz (played by Toby Huss) sings Frank Sinatra. Wasn't really a part of the story, and could be done without. I'm guessing the actor asked for it? Has this happened to you?

That’s never happened to me personally, but I know when Cybill Shepherd had her sitcom she forced her writers to give her a song to sing, which would still be okay if she could sing.

Not sure what I would do. I guess it depended on the star and the show. I wouldn’t want to turn CRIMINAL MINDS into COP ROCK.

More often than not however, it’s the writers who ask the stars to sing. If you have a star who has a real gift you try to find a way to showcase it. Case in point, when David Isaacs and I were doing that series for Mary Tyler Moore we learned that series regular Katey Sagal had been one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes and could really sing. So we wrote a scene into an episode where she got to sing. It was a fun surprise to the audience. They were blown away and had no idea what an exceptional singer she is.

Now without naming names, there have been a few times when we wrote something into a script requiring an actor to sing (even a few lines) and learned at rehearsal that they just couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. To avoid embarrassing the actors in question we always cut the singing parts.

And finally, from Brad Apling:

Has any TV writer career-wise successfully written for both comedy and drama (e.g. Cheers and Crime Story)? Granted that it's different style of writing & you're likely chosen based on writing a similar style before).

Several of them have. I know I’m leaving out more than I’m naming, but just off the top of my head: Matthew Weiner, Stephen Nathan, Steven Moffat, Phoef Sutton, Janet Leahy, Dave Thomas, Tom Straw, Dan O’Shannon, David Goodman, Jane Espenson, Geoffrey Neigher, Jenny Bicks, Karen Hall, David Fury, Michael Saltzman.

What’s your Friday Question?


Matt said...

"...Has any TV writer career-wise successfully written for both comedy and drama (e.g. Cheers and Crime Story)? Granted that it's different style of writing & you're likely chosen based on writing a similar style before).

Several of them have. I know I’m leaving out more than I’m naming, but just off the top of my head: Matthew Weiner, Stephen Nathan, Steven Moffat, Phoef Sutton, Janet Leahy, Dave Thomas, Tom Straw, Dan O’Shannon, David Goodman, Jane Espenson, Geoffrey Neigher, Jenny Bicks, Karen Hall, David Fury, Michael Saltzman..."

And David Lloyd (insert too long to list comedy credentials here) who also wrote several "Lou Grant" episodes.

Pat Reeder said...

As the co-author of "Hollywood Hi-fi" (see link on my name), I'm going to have to ask you to stop cutting songs for actors who can't sing. For some of us, that's the greatest form of entertainment ever invented.

And yes, "Cybill Does It...To Cole Porter" and the soundtrack album of "At Long Last Love" are both in our book. Cary Grant was pressed to endorse the former and proved once again to be the master of subtle wit when he offered this quote: "I only wish Cole could have heard it."

J Lee said...

After having to deal with Rosanne, Brett Butler and Charlie Sheen over a 15-year period, Chuck Lorre probably deserves some sort of show-runner Purple Hart award for the wounds he suffered in sitcom combat. Is that mainly the result of just bad luck or bad choices in picking the shows to work on/actors to work with (i.e. -- if you were asked to serve as a show-runner on a new series, but knew there were warning bells about the actor/actress the network wanted as the star of the show, would you take the job and muddle through as best as you could, or turn it down based on the idea that life's too short to deal with those type of headaches?)

VP81955 said...

Watching the season five premiere of "Mom" last night, Jaime Pressly appeared as Jill, the vacuous wealthy person who's part of Christy and Bonnie's support group (and she's quite funny in the role). The real-life Pressly gave birth to twin boys last week -- it was noted on the show's Facebook site -- but early in season four, Jill's character got pregnant and eventually miscarried. (I'm guessing that was filmed before Jaime became pregnant.) Since the show understandably didn't want to repeat that angle, not just for story but out of respect to Jaime, this time Jill was presented as having gained weight, presumably wearing a fat suit a la Goldie Hawn in "Death Becomes Her." (Earlier in the show's run, Anna Faris wore a similar suit in an imaginary "future" scene.)

It made me think of the various ways series handle actresses' pregnancies. Ken, I recall you discussing how "Cheers" approached Shelley Long's condition when she became pregnant, and IIRC, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was also carrying a baby during one season of "Seinfeld."

VincentS said...

Speaking of actors who can sing, I loved the inside joke in the CHEERS episode of Woody and Kelly's wedding where the minister dies and to stall for time Sam asks the unknowing and ultra-stiff Lilith - played by Bebe Neuwurth, an established Broadway musical star in real life - to sing for the guests, whereupon she responds, "Oh, my God. Someone's died!" and proceeds to sing - horribly - out the door. I'm sure it took great skill for her to NOT do what she is so very good at.

YEKIMI said...

Since you brought up Steven Moffat [and I assume he reads this blog] if he offered you a chance to write a script for Dr. Who, would you take it? It does have a fair amount of comedy in it [sometimes] and it's one of those shows where it could get sorta you'd have to investigate a sudden appearance of billions of Daleks all sounding and acting like Cliff Clavin that have decided to try and exterminate Dr. Who with trillions of useless trivia facts.

Cowboy Surfer said...

I was once lucky enough to go back stage at a CHEERS taping, my girlfriend made a star stuck comment to a certain young bartender. Before it could go too far uncomfortably south, Kelsey Grammer slides and saves the day with some Dr. Crane charm. Total Pro...

ADmin said...

I LOVE Nancy Travis. Is it true she and Michael Meyers hated each other during So I Married an Axe Murderer? (I hope that's not true.)

sanford said...

This is not a star that can't sing. I happened to come across a video on You Tube from Harry Connick's show. He had his youngest daughter on. She sang two songs. I missed the first one. But heard the second. She was just terrible. Hard to believe that Connick did not know how bad she was and still let her on.

Dan Reese said...

Friday question-
Does a show’s creative team ever come to regret establishing an every-episode convention or joke that becomes a pain to have to write into every episode? I’m thinking of the Cheers cold opens, the titles to scenes on Frasier... or Bob’s Burgers writers constantly having to come up with new names of stores next door, exterminators and burgers-of-the-day.

Marv Wolfman said...

And don't forget David E. Kelley who not only won Emmys for writing the drama, The Practice, he also won the Emmy that same year for writing the comedy, Ally McBeal.

Gary said...

Ken, there's a great scene in a M*A*S*H episode where each of the principal characters takes a turn imitating Father Mulcahy ("jocularity, jocularity!"). It's a very sweet moment of good-natured ribbing. I'm just wondering if that scene sprang from the cast actually doing that in real life, leading the writers to include it in an episode. Do you have any insight on this?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Pat Reeder, Tony Randall told a story of making an obligatory visit to an actor's dressing room after an awful performance. "Good is not the word," he said. The actor seemed pleased and their friendship continued.

I will have to check out your book. Does it include Jimmy Stewart's rendition of "Over the Rainbow" from PHILADELPHIA STORY?

Patrick said...

Why is it whenever people are eating dinner on multi camera comedies its always pasta and salad? Is it because its easy to fake eat, doesnt involve more than a fork and doesnt matter if its hot or cold?

Joe Blow said...

Pat Reeder said: "I'm going to have to ask you to stop cutting songs for actors who can't sing. That's the greatest form of entertainment ever invented."

Charming. Your opinion of the greatest form of entertainment ever invented is to see an actor humiliated. I think I like Ken's preference for giving an actor a chance to showcase a real gift, and save actors from embarrassment by cutting songs if they can't sing.

It was wonderful to hear Shelley Long sing on CHEERS occasionally. She had a beautiful voice, and I would have loved to hear her sing more often.

Andy Rose said...

The singing comment reminds me of a Friday Question: There was an episode of Gimme a Break! where (thanks to some major plot contrivance) Nell Carter sings a duet with Sammy Davis, Jr. This scene was shot on location, and evidently in multiple takes because at some angles Sammy is wearing glasses, and at other angles he is not. Obviously most shows have minor continuity errors if you're looking hard enough for them, but have you ever had a show like that where the mistake was glaringly obvious, but you just had to grin and bear it because it couldn't be reshot?

@Bart: Toby Huss' Sinatra impression is pretty well known, so I have a feeling the producers asked him to do it. And I thought it made some sense... his character was supposed to be in his late 40s or early 50s in the 1980s, so there was nothing unlikely about Boz choosing a Sinatra song for karaoke.

There are plenty of examples of stopping a show in order to let a character perform. Jackie Gleason's Crazy Guggenheim bit was built around this (and was repeated later on by Jim Nabors and Jack Prince on The Andy Griffith Show). Maybe the most glaring was an episode of The Odd Couple featuring Roy Clark as an old friend of Oscar. The final act consists almost entirely of Roy in the living room set playing 3:00 minutes of MalagueƱa.

Dixie Carter (a talented singer and a real-life political conservative) reportedly made a deal with the Thomasons while she was on Designing Women: Every time the producers made her character deliver a liberal stemwinder, they would have to pay Dixie back by letting her sing a song in later episode.

Anonymous said...

@Dan Reese, you left out the granddaddy off them all: The Simpsons.

I'll bet the writers never expected they'd have to come up with over 600 things for Bart to write on the blackboard. Or 600+ ways for the family to hit the couch.

Anonymous said...

Mike Royce and Peter Noah move seamlessly from comedy to drama.

Hank Gillette said...

I still remember a Neil Diamond special from the 1970s. Neil was singing “Song Sung Blue” and was moving around in the audience, letting audience members sing a line or two. Then, in the audience, he finds Henry Winkler (The Fonz) from Happy Days!

Very quickly, it is apparent that not only could Winkler not sing, he had trouble even carrying a tune. Diamond quickly said, “Hey, Henry! Show us how the Fonz would do it.” Winkler immediately goes into Fonzie mode and recovers his dignity.

I always thought it was extraordinarily kind of Diamond to rescue Winkler like that.

Hank Gillette said...

The clip of Neil Diamond singing “Song Sung Blue” is on YouTube.

I was mistaken about Diamond going out into the audience, but everything else was pretty close. Pretty good for a 40-year-old memory.

Todd Everett said...

There are plenty of examples of stopping a show in order to let a character perform.

Back in the '60s, a common trick was to have the principals perform a "talent show" -- always for charity, of course. And how many variety shows brought Chico and the Man's Jack Albertson on to sing and dance?

Tom Galoway said...

'Fraid the odds of Steven Moffat asking Ken to write a Doctor Who script are pretty much non-existent. He's stepped down as Who showrunner, and his last episode as such is the upcoming Christmas Special. The new showrunner is Chris Chibnall.

psquared said...

Two more writers who have moved successfully from sitcom to

psquared said...

Two more names....Peter Noah and Mike Royce

Rob W said...

Another name in the comedy-drama writer series...Marc Cherry. Cherry wrote (among other roles) for the “Golden Girls” and would go on to create “Desperate Housewives.” Is that a dramedy? Maybe it’s borderline...

Pat Reeder said...

To Buttermilk Sky: No, that Jimmy Stewart song isn't in it, although some others are. The book is about actual recordings (albums and singles) released by actors, comedians, etc. A couple of singles were released of songs Jimmy sang in the movies "Cheyenne Social Club" and "The Magic of Lassie." We only bring up the on-screen singing as a side note, when it's a big star who didn't record at all or not much and when it's really famous, like Clark Gable's "Puttin' On The Ritz" in "Idiot's Delight" or Jimmy singing "Easy To Love" in "Born To Dance." But an even better song for him from that movie was "I'm Nuts About You," where he not only carries the tune pretty well but does a good job of keeping up with Eleanor Powell and Buddy Ebsen on the dance steps. The book originally came out in the '90s, but we've recently finished an updated and greatly expanded version that should be out soon, and it will include more than St. Martins gave us room for the first time.

I worked with Tony Randall as the writer for an instructional video series when I was just starting out, and he was incredibly nice to everyone on the crew. He was delighted to find out that I had his 1920s albums, "Vo-Vo-Dee-Oh-Doh" and "Warm and Wavery." After he flew back to New York, he mailed me a cassette of dubs from the masters that included some unreleased tracks and rare recordings from another project. I thought it was funny that he'd dubbed it over a tape of opera arias.

To Joe Blow: This isn't about sneering at people being humiliated. I hate those kind of snarky "worst list" books. We genuinely love these records, a point noted by Billboard in the book's first review. Only a handful of the stars were forced to record, such as Patty Duke or Shelley Fabares, while others were eager to show off their musical talents, even when imaginary. Some actually had real musical chops, and we celebrate that as a little-known side of them. Still others knew they were hilariously awful, like Joan Rivers, and had a great sense of humor about it. Try doing what so few Internet commenters do and actually read the book before reviewing it.

Pat Reeder said...

To Hank Gillette: Henry Winkler was one of the few stars of "Happy Days" who knew he couldn't sing and refused to cash in by making an album. Almost all the others released records, but the only album Winkler appeared on was a collection of 1950s oldies with Fonzi's picture on the cover. BTW, I spoke a couple of years ago to Don Most (Ralph Malph) about the teen pop album he released back then. I was surprised when he said he was never happy with it because he really wanted to sing the music he grew up loving: Sinatra-style lounge/swing. Since then, he's started performing that type of music live. He now has an album of it that just appeared alongside my wife's latest album on the first-round Traditional Pop Vocal Grammy ballot.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

J Lee: Chuck Lorre has actually published an account of how it all happened (up to the beginning of TWO AND A HALF MEN) on his website. I highly recommend it, because it is pretty funny but also gives you some idea of how hard it can be for people to break in:

The short version: he worked for Roseanne because he needed a job; Brett Butler was chosen by his producers and he had no say; and he did CYBILL because he was "stupid". DHARMA AND GREG, however, was a happy set.

Charlie Sheen was, I think, bad luck: Sheen was in a sober phase for the first four or five years of the show and was no problem, and then melted down...


Jabroniville said...

Hi Ken- Friday Question

Your interview with Winnie Holzman of WICKED was amazing stuff, and really fascinating. But I was curious at all of the endless praise for Kristin Chenoweth, and why there was almost none for Idina Menzel's part in the production. I know she wasn't the "original" witch in the planning phases, and you're not a big fan (a few too many "belting" performances, though you complimented her Oscars performance), but the lack of mention of Menzel seemed a bit odd, given that she played the main character, and casting was so important for these kinds of things. I mean, she even won the Tony.

Did it just not come up for some reason? Or were you too distracted by how obviously awesome Chenoweth was?

-Grant Woolsey

BruceB said...

On the subject of comedy writers who can also write dramas, I'm always amazed when I think about William Peter Blatty, the comedy writer that authored The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and some of the best comedy ever, is the man who wrote The Exorcist.

Frank Beans said...


I want to second the question that @Gary asked about the creation of a show that involves lots of (seemingly) spontaneous singing and comedic acting. It's specifically in reference to the MASH episode from season 5 called "Movie Tonight", one of my all-time favorites. Basically, do the actors come up with the material themselves, or do the writers, or some combination?

As an aside: Was this MASH episode the last time Gene Reynolds ever wrote for the show?

Kirk said...

In regards to writers working on both sitcoms and dramas, Gene L. Coon wrote the premier episode for McHale's Navy. Note I didn't say pilot. The actual pilot was an episode of the DRAMATIC anthology series Alcoa Premiere, in which Ernest Borgnine first played Quenton McHale. Coon's job was then to turn the drama into a comedy, which, in my view, he did reasonably well. Coon later in the 1960s became the line producer, or, as you've call it Ken, showrunner, for Star Trek (creator Gene Roddenberry having promoted himself to Executive Producer) about a third of the way during that show's first season. Not coincidentally, Coon added humor to what had been a rather humorless series, including the wonderful and often hilarious Spock-McCoy quarrels.

Liggie said...

This reminds me of the time "Married....with Children" wrote in Katey Sagal's real pregnancy for Peg, and the other Bundys created an "anti-baby" movement. Then Sagal tragically miscarried, and when she returned from bereavement leave, the show wrote off Peg's pregnancy as a bad dream of Al's. I personally would've dropped the pregnancy storyline and carried on with the stories as usual, but admittedly that was a tough situation for the showrunnera and ataff.

Hank Gillette said...

Henry Winkler was one of the few stars of "Happy Days" who knew he couldn't sing and refused to cash in by making an album.

It didn’t help poor Henry in the Neil Diamond special that he had to follow the wonderful Helen Reddy. If fact, it sounds like after he sang a line or so, and Neil tried to get him to sing some more, he says “Bring back Helen.” It was at this point the Neil throws him the lifeline of performing in the Fonzie persona.

You would think that before calling up celebrities from audience, someone would have asked “Can this person sing?”

Hank Gillette said...

Only a handful of the stars were forced to record, such as Patty Duke or Shelley Fabares, while others were eager to show off their musical talents, even when imaginary.

Shelley Fabares may have been forced to record, and her singing talents may be limited, but she still managed to record one of the iconic songs of the era, “Johnny Angel”.

Add Dwayne Hickman to the list of stars who were more or less coerced into recording. He said in his autobiography that with numerous takes and cutting in the studio, he managed to release an acceptable album, but that he was totally exposed as not being able to sing on his one and only appearance on Dick Clark (he may have been exaggerating, since I was under the impression that almost everyone lip-synched to their records on Bandstand).

Unknown said...

Friday Question (sort of):

Actually, this isn't a question so much as a request.

What I'd like you to do, Ken, is take a half-hour and go to YouTube.

Once there, I'd like you to watch the October 21, 1983 episode of The Edge Of Night.

Having watched it, I would then like you to write your reaction to what you've just seen.

Just one little half-hour - actually, without commercials it's just over twenty-two minutes.

Even if your reaction is to make fun of me for bringing it up, I can take it; I'm a big boy.

Similarly, anyone who reads this as a comment and decides to follow up yourself, by all means do so.

Watch it with family and friends; make popcorn and other treats; make an evening of it.

All I'm trying to do is satisfy a long-standing curiosity of mine.

The Edge Of Night, October 21, 1983, on YouTube.

Thanx in advance.

AndrewJ said...

As for TV writers who've done comedy and drama, I think Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson wrote for I SPY in the 1960s...

Edward said...

Henry Winkler was one of the few stars of "Happy Days" who knew he couldn't sing and refused to cash in by making an album.

There was no need for Winkler to record an album as he secured a huge salary and profit participation (from what I have read) on the show when the "Fonzie" character broke out.