Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Questions

Ten more shopping days, but take a break and check out this week’s Friday Questions.

jcs starts us off:

I'm wondering what happens to the staff of a show that gets put on hold/gets cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances like TWO AND A HALF MEN or HOUSE OF CARDS. What happens when a camera operator, director or writer suddenly finds out there will be no taping tomorrow? Do showrunners retain staff (or part of their staff) until things are up and running again? Is there some kind of severance package? Can you find a new job after all the other showrunners have already completed their hiring process?

Generally, people are screwed. Unions protect their workers as much as they can, but studios (and insurance companies) won’t pay crew members unless they have to.

Writers generally are paid by the episode. So if there’s a forced hiatus they too are somewhat screwed. If the network decides to cut back the number of episodes for any reason then the writer loses out on those discarded episodes.

The contract to get is a guaranteed 13 episodes (or whatever the network order is) whether they’re made, cancelled, or whatever. But those are hard to get. Almost impossible these days.

VP81955 queries:

When an established series prepares its story arc for the upcoming season, do writers already have possible candidates lined up as guest characters for individual episodes, or is casting done as production begins? Any difference in how sitcoms and dramas approach this?


Sometimes a specific actor is in mind and the producers will try to sign him if he’s available. And occasionally juggle production schedules to accommodate his schedule (IF he’s worth it).

Other times they’ll just create the characters and cast them along the way.

The only difference between comedy and drama in this instance is that dramas probably lay out their season arcs in greater detail than comedies. So they may give their casting agents more lead time to fill specific guest star roles.

From Bill Jones:

Have any of the shows you've worked on ever broken the "fourth wall"? Would you have ever even considered that in MASH or CHEERS, or would that have been considered completely bizarre and totally out of the question? And, what's your take on shows breaking the fourth wall--always gimmicky and unnecessary, or sometimes worth the wink and nudge?

The only show I ever worked on that broke the fourth wall was an ‘80s sitcom called THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES. The main character (Martin) would speak to the audience.

Otherwise, no. I generally don’t prefer the convention. Breaking the fourth wall or having narration often leads to sloppy storytelling. Characters can just tell you exposition or how they’re feeling instead of dramatically showing it.

Never on MASH or CHEERS did we consider breaking the fourth wall.   MASH got around narration from time to time by having characters write letters to home and voicing them.  

However, if done well, breaking the fourth wall can work. I like the narration in THE MIDDLE, and I know I’m going way way way back – but the best use of it for my money was George Burns in THE BURNS & ALLEN SHOW from the early ‘50’s. Not only would George break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, he watched the show on television, which was downright surreal. None of the other characters knew they were on television (and of course there were no cameras) but George knew. He’d watch a scene going on in the neighbor’s house then call the neighbor to fuck with his head. Hard to believe that the most innovative fourth wall device in TV history was done almost 70 years ago.

And finally this from an Anonymous reader (please leave your name):

How do actors feel about being asked to do a table read? Do they view it as a chance for increased recognition of their talents (and perhaps a chance to land a part) or is it one of those duties forced upon you that you really can't turn down without seeming difficult?

They all recognize it’s part of the process, whether it’s a TV show, a film, musical or stage play.

If it’s a network table read for a pilot the actors better be on their game. Plenty of actors have been fired after tepid table reads.

Once a show is in production most actors walk through table readings. Many of them are reading the script cold (even though they received copies the night before or even a week before). A few actors give show-night performances but most recognize that the script might change significantly so there’s no need to really turn it on.

Bob Newhart used to eat bagels during table readings and invariably take bites just before his lines. I think it was his way of saying he wasn’t keen on table readings.

But they’re very helpful, and for us writers it gives us a chance to hear what works and more importantly, whether the story works.

What’s your Friday Question?


Matt said...

"Moonlighting" would break the fourth wall from time to time and it was always fun.

I don't give a flying fig (about whatever - I can't remember)

David, what's a flying fig?

It's ok..(looking into the camera)...they know.

Daphne said...

Ken, What your take on this

Google has since removed the answer to that question. Like yesterday's Netflix episode, can you give your take on this issue. Are people just getting worked up over nothing? Or, are they right?

Can you please post it as a blog or as a Friday question.


Unknown said...

Hey, Ken, as far as what happens to staffs in shut downs, I know of one because I experienced it. Grace Under Fire had an unplanned production cessation a few months into our season when I was showrunner. The studio, Carsey-Werner, did right by us (and the show, I believe). Instead of calling force majeure they honored our contracts and said to relax and keep writing and banking future stories. It paid a dividend when we did return to shooting about a month later and is one more thing that earned my deepest respect for Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey.

Orwell said...

Well, you always knew, uh, how Bob... would deliver his lines. Kind of like he had a bagel in his mouth and had to pause to chew.

Not a dig, BTW, at all. I think Bob Newhart has consistently been one of the funniest actors. He's still funny on Big Bang Theory 40 years after his own show.

Andrew said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention It's Garry Shandling's Show, where breaking the 4th wall was routine. In my opinion it never came across as gimmicky, and was usually hilarious.

John in NE Ohio said...

I read an article just before reading Friday questions that caused me a follow up question.
The sentence that triggered it is "At a new startup called Lyrebird, machine learning experts are synthesizing convincing audio from one-minute samples of a person’s voice."

Question - could you see this replacing actors in a table read, especially on a series where the actors are phoning it in anyway? And would you need a true table read, when the writers room could just hit a button and hear virtual actors do all or part of what they are working on at any moment?

Honest Ed said...

Over here in the UK table reads are relatively rare. I used to showrun a series which had mostly teen actors so I was able to insist on it. It really helped the younger actors, one of whom is now a pretty big TV and movie star in Hollywood but could barely act at the time. I've also been a main writer on one of the most popular UK shows and they just don't do it. The writers wanted it and the show saw the value and tried to make the cast do it. But the cast, in particular it's most famous and popular actor, didn't take it seriously. The star never showed up. The regular cast took it's cue from the star, larking about or just missing it altogether. Shame, as the guest actors always took it seriously and wanted to do their best. On one of my eps, we cast a well knows TV comedian. More famous than the show's star. The comedian turned up, no fuss, extremely professional and absolutely nailed it in the read through. But the show didn't think it was worth the fuss and expense in the end.

Anonymous said...

Besides George Burns the best use of breaking the fourth wall I ever saw was on an episode of Dobie Gillis, which was heavily influenced bu Burns and Allen, and Jack Benny.
The episode depended on a character, a visiting muck-a-muck, believing Maynard was Dobie so Mr. Gillis could become the head of his lodge. When the muck-amuck found out , he said Mr. Gillis would not get the position.
Dobie appealed to the guy and said that Mr. Gillis would not get the job in real life, but he would on television. Why do people watch television - so they can escape from real life because television is better. So why don't you just pretend this is television and give him the position. It convinced the man to pretend it was television and give him the position.

Gary said...

The closest M*A*S*H ever came to breaking the fourth wall was in the "Yankee Doodle Doctor" episode, when Hawkeye looks directly at the camera (within the film they are making) and talks about the real horrors of war. I remember reading that Alan Alda thought that would have been a great way to end the final episode, if they hadn't already done it.

Roseann said...

I've been put on forced hiatus many times. Fire on the set? A week off with no pay. Delayed shoot start? 3 Days off/no pay.
Snow/ice storm? Work called off? Np pay - unless you reported to work, opened your trailer and then the day was called. If that happened you got paid for 8 hours. I think that's why pay rates are usually pretty high - because sometimes these things happen.

Wally said...

I think the last questioner was confusing 'table read' with 'audition'. There's a post for you: 'basic' definitions that aren't colloquially known (if I used that 'colloquially' correctly, hopefully without consequences).

Glenn said...

I love the idea of a table read, when you're all hearing a new script out loud for the first time. I guess it can boring and repetitive over time, but I always find table reads one of the best parts of doing a show.

Terrence Moss said...

The Burns and Allen Show was very clever. In one episode, a role had to be recast and in the replacement's first episode, the action broke so that the actor could be "introduced" to the actress playing his wife (Bea Benadaret). They exchanged pleasantries and went right back on with the show. Classic.

Bill Peter David said...

So many years of blogging. So many comments.

Surely it must have crossed your mind --- "Hey, how come so many people who comment have just common first names? Like Bill, Peter, David, etc...."

How many are real names and how many must be just fake names of regular readers, who, just want to troll you for your views but with a fake name.

Please post a blog of how you have been trolled by such names, how many comments you delete per day, or any other similar anecdotes.


Bryan said...

Ken -- the finale of Wings was up the dial last night. Was that you in the background getting up and walking away from the counter?

Anonymous said...

I remember on one occasion, M*A*S*H did the old subtitle gag because Klinger pretended he had amnesia and could only speak in Arabic . . . I felt like M*A*S*H was too mature and sophisticated for such a gag that you were more likely to see on a show like GREEN ACRES (and you did, quite often).

blinky said...

OMG! I remember George Burns doing that! I must find those old shows.

What about "It's the Garry Handling Show"? He broke the 4th wall all the time. He would walk off the set and take a golf cart to another part of the studio.

Always a treat, Ken.
At the start of every week I think of the old Easy Beats lyric: "Monday I've got Friday on my mind".

Covarr said...

THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR had a habit of breaking the fourth wall for jokes just often enough to keep the audience on their toes. It wasn't a super regular occurrence, but it happened at least three times that I can think of off the top of my head. All of these were among the best moments of the series, but I feel like it's only because they didn't overdo it.

By Ken Levine said...


Yes, I had a walk-on on the WINGS finale. All of the writers did. You're maybe the first one to ever notice though.

Eric said...

I seem to remember on "It's the Garry Handling Show", the other character knew when Gary was talking to the audience (though they couldn't).

Unknown said...

Here's my Friday question:

Ken, you mentioned in a recent podcast that Gene Hackman is one of your favorite actors. Can you talk about a couple of your favorite Gene Hackman films? My personal favorites are The French Connection, Mississippi Burning, and Unforgiven.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Miscellaneous thoughts: I don't know if these qualify as "forth wall" shows, but I remember way back at the turn-of-the-century there was a spate of shows that addressed the viewers directly. Including Malcolm in the Middle and The Bernie Mac Show. Then a few years later was The Office and Modern Family. And I'm sure there were others that I can't think of right now. I'm really not a fan of that from however, some of Bernie's asides were pretty funny.
When you're an extra a production can do what they call a "weather permit call." They can drag you out to a location and if they can't shoot they can send you home without pay. Not the same as having a series in crisis, but it still stinks.
Finally, the reason no one noticed you on Wings is probably because most people had had enough of that show long before the finale. I don't even watch Wings in syndication. (Except to occasionally check out a young, Crystal Bernard and Any Yasbeck.)

Mike said...

@Honest Ed: Thanks for that insightful & entertaining comment. The American approach to sitcoms seems to require a week constantly rewriting & rehearsing a prewritten script, employing a dozen or so writers. And that's just before the first ad break. How does this compare with the British approach?
Incidentally, I'm a big fan of your British comedies. They're much funnier than the ones we Americans suffer.

Mike Schryver said...

One of my favorite fourth-wall moments on Garry Shandling was when his neighbor complained the theme was being played too loud. Later you see the loud theme music knocking things off her wall and such.
One of the episodes nearly folds in on itself when his neighbors win a trip to Hollywood (from Sherman Oaks), and while there they visit a taping of their show where something Garry does upsets them and they have to drive back to Sherman Oaks to confront him.

John Hammes said...

A favorite Bob Newhart story actually occurred behind the scenes, before the premiere of his 1970s series. His character's (Bob Hartley) line of work was originally written as psychiatrist. Newhart strongly requested that line be changed instead to psychologist, as he had no desire to make fun or get laughs based on people in serious trouble. Newhart won the day, and the series.

Steve Bailey said...

I generally agree that breaking the fourth wall is a writing cop-out. But other than "Burns and Allen," a series that did it magnificently was "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which was surely inspired by the former.

Gary said...

Believe it or not, another show that broke the fourth wall was Ozzie & Harriet. At the end of some episodes Ozzie would look at the camera and make a remark to the audience. Kind of a hip thing to do for a show with such a square reputation. They were also the first show to ever feature a music video (Ricky singing Traveling Man), and perhaps the first show to include outtakes of scenes with humorous mistakes. Ozzie Nelson, like Desi Arnaz, is very much underappreciated as an early TV innovator.

ScarletNumber said...

@ John Hammes

I'll do you one better. When the producers wanted to give Bob and Emily a child, Bob asked them who they would get to play Bob going forward.

Andy Rose said...

On an episode of My Name is Earl that aired before most people had high definition televisions, a character silently held up a sign to the camera that said "High Def Rocks." It was done outside of the "4:3 safe" area of the screen so that only people watching in HD would be able to see it.

Steve B. said...

Which is more challenging as a showrunner: writing a pilot episode for a show, or writing episode 2?

Arthur Mee said...

Ken, I believe you personally wrote a Cheers sequence that broke the fourth wall. Special case, though -- it was in the Superbowl piece with Pete Axthelm!

Also, George Burns used to claim that he specifically remembered how he came up with the brilliant, unprecedented idea to break the fourth wall on his show...he stole it from Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

DougG. said...

How did you feel about the decision to kill off Henry Blake. I know you weren't on the writing staff yet but I wonder what you thought of it at the time and if your opinion changed or not after being on staff later on.

Mark said...

A tangent: I watched the Wings finale yesterday and I did not like it AT ALL. It ends with Brian and Casey being stuck in jobs they don’t like at all.

And did anyone buy that Casey is somehow the sister of southern-sounding Helen?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Tom Straw: it's nice to know some people get fairly treated. Every time another of these sexual harassment stories comes out I think of all the people whose jobs have been put at risk because a few assholes apparently think their workplace is their personal sex closet.


jimmo said...

Yes, Mr. Levine, I agree with you "The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show" was very innovative for its time.

I recall so much was made by television critics and fans of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (one of the then-fledgling FOX network's early successes) when Shandling broke that proverbial "Fourth Wall" in every episode of his series. Yet you are correct George Burns took the whole "Fourth Wall" concept further (and decades previously) by not only having spoken to the viewing audience (by stepping in front of a proscenium arch to comment on each episode and then hopping back into the action), but in later seasons also having watched the proceedings of an episode on a video monitor from the upstairs den of the series' house set while he commented on the episode's action unbeknownst to the characters in the series (and then re-entered the action at will).

Not only was that "Fourth Wall"-breaking by Burns thematically ahead of its time for television, it was also rather technologically prophetic by anticipating the dawn of home video player-recorders.

Hank Gillette said...

Newhart strongly requested that line be changed instead to psychologist, as he had no desire to make fun or get laughs based on people in serious trouble.

Mr. Newhart didn’t believe that psychologists treat people with serious problems? I love Bob Newhart, but that was a pretty ignorant and stupid thing to say.

DetroitGuy said...

I’ve read this story some time ago also but I thought Bob Newhart was referring to the fact that there’s not much gentle-minded humor to be found making fun of people on psych meds.

J Lee said...

There was also one episode of "Burns & Allen" where George attempts to use his TV to look in on the Mortons, but instead tunes in on Jack Benny reading a newspaper in his home.

Who them proceeds to talk back to George through the TV, demanding to be paid for his guest appearance.

(Rod Amateau was the producer/director of the show in the final two seasons where the 'magic television' bit appeared, and would take the fourth wall concept over to 'Dobie Gillis' as its show runner).

Jahn Ghalt said...

Selfishly speaking, House of Cards was running out of steam, so giving Spacey the boot was less consequential than, say, losing Charlie Rose's excellent interview work.

(Wikipedia states House will resume production in January and the original 13 episodes will be cut to eight)

Perhaps worse, a Vidal Gore bio-pic, Gore, despite that it was in post-production when 'the news' came out, has been suspended - apparently because (according to Wikipedia) "Netflix announced that they would no longer be releasing the film".

Further, in the Kevin Spacey entry, it states that Netflix has "sever(ed) all ties)" with him. Does this mean American Beauty is off the table over there?

Janh Ghalt said...

John in NE Ohio asked

"At a new startup called Lyrebird, machine learning experts are synthesizing convincing audio from one-minute samples of a person’s voice."

could you see this replacing actors in a table read?

I'd say "hell NO!" - with an exception.

One could use "synthetic audio" with the "emote knobs" tweaked up and produce the lines for Keanu Reeves - who could then lip-synch along.

Jessy S. said...


Here is another example of production schedules being changed in order to fit a guest star's schedule. The Season Six premiere of "I Love Lucy" was filmed in June of 1956. The guest star was none other than Bob Hope. This was notable not only because he had a tough schedule, but because Bob Hope was in the middle of his famed 60 year contract with NBC.

On that note, here is a Friday Question for you. Have you ever considered Bob Hope for a guest starring role on Cheers? I think he would have been perfect for a storyline where there is a blizzard in Boston and Bob Hope ends up trapped at Cheers with the regular crowd. Maybe there is a scene where Sam reminds Bob of his days as a Red Sox pitcher. Yet, Bob has a major comeback where he saw him pitch against the Indians in Cleveland and gave up the game winning grand slam.