Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Who is up for some Friday Questions?   I also answer a few on my podcast this week.  Just click the big gold arrow above. 

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or MOM. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.   And Chuck Lorre always tacks his name onto the story credit. 

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 

From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?

What's YOUR Friday Question?


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Quite ridiculous, I'm sure you agree, that writing credits are limited to 2 or 3 people. A writing room is a ROOM. Shouldn't everyone receive a credit IF they contributed?
Today, most hit songs have 6 credits.
Movies seem to have 10 writing credits.

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir.

angel said...

My question is in regard to the helicopter story lines on M*A*S*H. I have heard that it cost a lot of money to call in a helicopter. Were you restricted as to how many stories could involve the helicopter each season?

Stylus said...

Hi Ken, I'm a big fan of your work and this blog.
My question: years ago, I was watching Frasier via a mirror (in the days before smartphones, it was a way to see the TV while having a bath), and I noticed how odd it was to have everything flipped: the front door on the right of the screen etc. Thinking on it, I can't remember a multi-camera sitcom where the main 'point of entry' wasn't on the left side. Is this deliberate design, so the joke 'flows' from left to right, the same way we read? Are there any other common set designs that you would expect to use as a writer?

Terrence Moss said...


And now a potentially explosive question: was there pressure or even a mere suggestion to write George and Weezy any differently than you would any other character because their portrayers happened to be black?

Michael said...

About writing a shorter show ... Mark Twain supposedly was asked to write a 300-word article for the next day. He replied that he could turn in a 3,000-word article the next day, but a 300-word article would take a month. I've found that to be true for me, too, but neither of my articles would be remotely as good as his or yours.

Mike said...

Modern-day Simpsons actually too often makes the mistake of trying to cram an A, B *and* C story into its 20-minute running time. The end result is usually all three plots wind up feeling shortchanged. (Yes, three stories in 20 minutes works on Modern Family, but that's sort of the conceit of the show. I like to think they're the exception that proves the rule.)

Steven said...

My question is when writing characters on a sitcom or drama, is their any discussion or internal debate in the writer's room about how a character with a disability should be depicted?

In the rare cases when a character with a disability is shown on TV, they're likely either shown stuck in a wheelchair, mentally challenged, or they have Autism or Aspergers syndrome. (Speechless and Mom have continued this trend with the main character and the character of Allison Janney's boyfriend respectively.

Now, there's nothing wrong with showing a disabled character in a wheelchair. As someone who has cerebral palsy, walks with crutches and has known plenty of people who use wheelchairs, I can attest that wheelchairs do serve a valuable purpose.

However in the world of TV it seems like the wheelchair--or one of the afflictions mentioned above--has become the universal way of telling the audience the character in question is "different."

Do you think this is just a personal decision by the writers and/or creators of a show, or could there be network pressure invoked as well, encouraging disabled characters to be portrayed on TV in a way that that has already been well established?

I also don't like how in dramas or superhero movies the disabled character is often relegated the role of a glorified librarian. Someone who sits in a chair in an underground bunker funneling covert information to Batman and the rest of the Avengers, but I digress.

Finally, let me just say I was a big fan of Becker when it was on and I really appreciated the way Jake's blindness was handled in the show. It was addressed respectfully but you never felt like he was treated any differently by Becker and crew. The blindness never defined Jake's character.

cd1515 said...

Friday question (and apologies if you’ve already answered it, I couldn’t find it):
How far in advance do writers plan story arcs for smaller characters (ie, non-stars)?
For example, would you introduce someone’s father in season 2 because you plan to give him cancer or something in season 3?
Or do you not even know what you’re gonna do with him when you introduce him?

Michael said...

Friday question: On History In Pictures twitter feed, there are pictures of Ed O'Neill on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN and MODERN FAMILY 20 years apart reading the same newspaper. Do you think this is his doing or have prop departments been recycling the same newspaper mock-ups forever?

Mike Schryver said...


cleek said...

We were watching a first-season episode of Cheers on Netflix last night, the one where Barbara Babcock plays a TV agent who shows up at the bar, flirts and seduces Sam (not that she had to try very hard) and then gets him a TV commercial spot. Eventually, Sam figures out that his getting future spots depends on him continuing to put out for her; this bothers him so much that he decides to break it off with her. He'll take his chances of not getting any more TV work from her - which he doesn't. Sam shrugs it off and goes back to being Sam.

So, it's a nice reversal of the 'casting couch' trope.

And, it's coincidental timing that I should end up watching it this week, given Weinstien et al.

But I was wondering, would you and David write that episode any differently today?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Stylus said...I can't remember a multi-camera sitcom where the main 'point of entry' wasn't on the left side. Is this deliberate design, so the joke 'flows' from left to right, the same way we read?

I'm thinking of plenty of multi-camera sitcoms where the main point of entry of certain sets were on the right...(at least the front doors)

All in the Family, Seinfeld, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Jeffersons, MTM, I Love Lucy, Odd Couple, Last Man Standing, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will &Grace, Cosby Show...

I guess it's the set director that figures it out for each one...?

Unknown said...

Stylus: Married with Children and the Mary Tyler Moore Show are two shows with the main entrance is on the right.

John said...

Curious your thoughts on "Life in Pieces" which is essential 4 5 minutes episodes each week.

Peter said...

I just read the statement by Louis CK in which he admits the accusations against him of inappropriate sexual behaviour are true.

What shocks me isn't just that what he did was disgusting, it's the way he's written a part of the statement.

He says: "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn't a question. It's a predicament for them".

That reads like he's treating the whole situation as a joke. This guy has serious issues. And now his career is finished, he'll have plenty of time to work on them.

VP81955 said...

To the Mikes:

Might the Ed O'Neill identical newspaper have been an in-joke? Remember, on "Married...with Children," his Al Bundy character was a high school football star who became injured and thus never advanced in the football hierarchy. The real-life O'Neill played football at Youngstown State, was good enough to be signed as a free agent by the Steelers, but was cut in training camp (not sure whether an injury had anything to do with it). Fortunately, Ed's theater training became his career salvation. (Now I wonder if there are any in-jokes from his short-lived Dick Wolf version of "Dragnet.")


In the first season of "Mom," I recall the front door of Christy's residence (where Bonnie soon moved in) was on the left. When the Plunketts lost the house due to Christy's gambling early in season 2, they eventually moved into an apartment complex (where Bonnie is ostensibly the building manager), with the front door on the right.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

On "Happy Days," the front door was on the left in the early, single-camera episodes. The living room set was reconfigured when the show switched to multi-cameras.

On MTM, the front door in her second apartment was on the left.

Norman Lear tried it both ways with his sets.

On "All In The Family," it was kitchen on the left, living room in the center, door on the right.

On "Maude," it was the reverse.

Andy Rose said...

The prop newspaper comes from a prop house that has been selling it decades.

Not much reason to change it, and making a new one would probably be more trouble than it's worth. Besides coming up with new text and layout, you'd have to clear all the names with Legal and buy out all the photos. A lot of shows use the same suppliers for expendable props, like ISS. So you'll see multiple unrelated shows where characters are eating Apple Smacks cereal or Let's Potato Chips.

When it comes to set design, I'm always amused by sets that don't make any physical sense. The interior of The Golden Girls didn't match the layout of the exterior at all. And the hallways of WKRP were like an Escher painting, with one set of windows exposed what on the other side of the doorway was an interior wall. (Part of that was due to the fact that they added a major set piece after the first 8 episodes and didn't have a logical place to put it.)

Mike Schryver said...

Thinking about newspapers on camera, Archie Bunker always used to read the Daily News. On EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, everyone always read Newsday (which Ray Barone worked for.)

DwWashburn said...

I've never understood the logic of "sweep months". Local news agencies run sensationalized stories they will not run the rest of the year, network shows use stunt casting, etc. And yet advertising rates are based on these programs out of the ordinary. Seems like advertisers are highly overpaying since programs in non sweep months will not be hyped up like the sweep shows.

This is the same thing that PBS does during pledge month. Instead of showing Antiques Roadshow or Nova, PBS always plans musical concerts, special programs, etc and tell people that their pledge with insure that programs like these will always be on PBS. Then after pledge month they go right back to their regular schedule of Washington Week in Review and British dramas.

Pledge month and sweep month has the same flaw. Basing either ad dollars or donation dollars on programming that is not consistent during the year.

Oliver Pepper said...

Hi Ken - Friday Question -While we're aware that the "Friend's" sexual harassment lawsuit was rightfully dismissed back in 2006 because "the state high court said the show's writers did not direct their lewd comments at the woman who sued them or at women particularly." And, "State law "does not outlaw sexually coarse and vulgar language or conduct that merely offends," do you think in today's harassment charged atmosphere, creativity will be curbed in the writer's room and drastically affecting the work? Thanks!

Quote source:

Brad Apling said...

Well, speaking of the writers room, I read that the first three seasons of Full House went through a large turnover in writing staff. True or not (leaving the Roseanne show out of this equation), will a show runner or lead writer change out the writing staff often just to keep things fresh and give newbies a chance to gain some experience, even for a season? Or is the norm to use the first season to find the staff that works well together, sort things out and then hold on to them for whatever *hopefully* future seasons there are?

Continuing on writing and newbies, Jeff Franklin (Full House) indicated in an interview that his first break came from Garry Marshall who hired him for fifty bucks a week to be a 'researcher' on Laverne and Shirley before doing any actual writing. Was this a common way for newbies to break in? Are you aware if this happen nowadays?