Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday Questions

FQ’s for U.

The Bumble Bee Pendant leads off.

Multi-cameras have always been my preference for watching a show because it often feels like a play.

That being as a playwright, is there anything you'd love to bring to a multi-camera show that you can only do in a play or vice versa?

I’d like to bring back sophisticated comedies like FRASIER or CHEERS. I’d like to do a multi-cam where a network is not pressuring me to do a joke every second. I’d like the freedom to create characters with dimension and flaws and let the comedy come out of their behavior and struggles.

I’d like to be able to do long scenes. Again, there seems to be this fear that if the audience isn’t whip-sawed through an episode it’s going to instantly bail. I’d want my show to breathe a little.

And I’m convinced you could get MORE laughs and better laughs if you took this approach.

RyderDA asks:

How do you handle it when someone compliments a character for a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you wrote or helped write? "Ted Danson's so funny - last night he said 'You can't HANDLE the truth' I wish I was as witty as Ted."

Lots of people think the actors make up their lines. But as we are learning, there are a LOT of ill-informed people in this country.

When that happens I don’t say, “Hey, I wrote that line.” I gently say, “You do know the actors don’t make up those lines? That writers do?”

But what really pisses me off is ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that has that feature where they have a collage of actors with thought bubbles attributing pithy lines their characters said to THEM. Come on, EW, you should know better.

Dr Loser wonders:

Granted, you're going to want to write 90% of your scripts with David Isaacs, because you're simpatico.

What about the other 10%? Groucho Marx? John Cleese? Richard Pryor?
Is there somebody out there who you would really, really want to have written a joint script?

In a writing room you are collaborating with others so I guess I could say I’ve partnered with Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, the Charles Brothers among others.

But in terms of an actual partnership, I wrote a screenplay with Robin Schiff that we sold to MGM about 15 years ago. Otherwise, it’s either David or I write by myself.

As for a dream collaborator – I’d like to write a musical with Sondheim. I’d like to write anything with Sondheim.

And finally, DyHrdMET wants to know:

Have you ever seen a sitcom pilot which got picked up, but then the series was either cancelled after a few episodes and/or just lost its way that quickly, and you thought that it would have been better as a feature film instead of a TV show?

A couple I can think of offhand. There was a show on ABC about a group of idiots trying to rob a celebrity. How the hell can you keep that going for seven years? And then a CBS show called WORST WEEK about the mishaps leading to a wedding.

Both of those sound like movie premises. Good TV series need to have legs and room to grow. They need to be open ended.   Shows that depend on a narrow narrative often box themselves in. That’s the way I felt about PRISON BREAK. After the first season when they broke out they seemed to flail around looking for story lines. My heart went out to those writers.

What’s your FQ? You can leave it in the comments section. Thanks much.


Anonymous said...

"The Knights of Prosperity"! Funny show.

VP81955 said...

Love that ground-floor wall at the WGA building at 3rd & Fairfax with all sorts of classic lines from films and TV...reminding the public it was writers, not actors, who came up with them.

And one of the reasons I love "Mom" is that the characters -- not just Christy and Bonnie, but their support-group comrades -- have dimension and texture. At times their foibles are played for laughs, but its writers aren't afraid to get serious when the topic demands it. (And with recovery, it often is.)

David P said...

From the men who brought you Mannequin II, Volunteers, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier and Big Wave Dave

And musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim

We're thrilled to present you with the ultimate reboot: Cop Rock!

Anonymous said...

You're convinced that comedy is funnier when it comes out of the characters' behaviors and flaws and struggles? You're convinced that a joke is funnier when it has time to build?

Well, yeah.

The funniest bit ever had the audience hysterical before the punch line came: "Your money or your life -- "

It took the entirety of Jack Benny's career to make his silence in response to this demand so darned funny.

As Benny told the story, his writers set the scene up (I think Jack was supposed to be walking to the Colemans' house at the time) but were having a hard time coming up with an appropriate response. Finally one of them asked, "Well?" and another one, at a loss for a snappy comeback said, "I'm thinking it over!"

The second funniest bit ever was the end of the Newhart show. That joke took the entirety of the Bob Newhart Show and the Newhart show to build -- roughly 18 years.

A little patience can go a long way.

Terrence Moss said...

So much of what gets picked up these days would be better as limited series or films.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

thank you for answering my Friday Question Ken.

We recently saw a Broadway Comedy, "The Play That Goes Wrong." An extremely laugh out loud comedy that is good for ages 10-100.

Since it's a farce-type show, with lots of pratfalls, it's intriguing that we really don't know much about the individual characters besides their efforts to make the Play go Right.

I encourage everyone to see it.

btw, Knights of Properity was a humorous show that yes...would have been better off as a feature film. But it did introduce Sophia Vergara and Maz Jobrani to many people.

Carson said...

With the series finale of The Middle coming up this Tuesday, I'm hoping you will post some comments on the finale and the show as a whole. Like you, I've always felt it never got the critical praise it deserved.

E. Yarber said...

Even one step further removed from the characters taking credit for a writer's work is my experience of sitting in a movie theater watching audiences laugh at bits I contributed to someone else's script. Usually I was just glad to see the material worked, regardless of who got the credit. I've always preferred being anonymous, though in recent years I have noticed that an invisible resume has not been too healthy for my career.

As far as dream collaborators, I actually can drop a few amazing names. Many great writers have left unfinished projects behind and I've been pulled at times into trying to update some of those screenplays or treatments, meaning that I can claim to have worked in some sense with Herman J. Mankiewicz, Terry Southern, and even Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski. These geniuses were all dead by the time I got around to them, which I suppose would be the only terms under which they'd have agreed to write with me in the first place.

Someone even paid me for a brief time to develop a TV series based on a Preston Sturges script, but I have to admit the story would have worked better as a movie.

Chris G said...

WORST WEEK was based on a British series, where the high concept made much more sense thanks to the shorter TV seasons that are the norm there.

Mike Doran said...

The Knights Of Prosperity was a thinly disguised knockoff of Donald Westlake's long-running series of novels about The Dortmunder Gang.
There are about a dozen of these novels (the first one was The Hot Rock, which became a sort-of successful movie) and an equal number of shorter stories.
The principal difference between the two properties was that Dortmunder came up with elaborate theft plots that went wrong through sheer bad luck; whereas the Knights were all, to a member, simply stone stick stupid.
The series wasn't mounted until after Don Westlake had passed away - but that's probably just a coincidence.

As it was, many of the Dortmunder books were filmed over the years, each new one worse than the last.
The Hot Rock, the first one, was the least worst, kind of by default.
They stuck to Don Westlake's plot, but Robert Redford was totally miscast as Dortmunder, and there went the ball game.
I'll be merciful and not identify the others.
For his own part, Donald E. Westlake took the most sensible route - banking the checks and writing more novels.

As noted above, Don Westlake died before the Knights series came about.
He passed on the last day of 2008; had he lived to see this show, he might have spent whatever time he had left in litigation, so I guess I should quit this comment while I'm still (slightly) ahead ...

Leemats said...

Hi Ken -
Just curious, what is your solution to the "Sound Bites" feature in Entertainment Weekly? Should they remove it entirely, or have a footnote underneath that says something like "Script credited to Joe Blow." I think one of the benefits of this feature is that it exposes their readership to some of the clever dialogue that's out there.

Covarr said...

One thing that British and Japanese television do very right than American television sucks at is being willing to make a show with the intent of it only ever lasting one season. Occasionally we get it right; American Horror Story is built on the idea that each season is pretty much a standalone miniseries rather than a larger continuity. But I can't count the number of shows I've seen where it was too much for a movie, but not enough for a second season.

It goes both ways, though.

I loved Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, but I've long thought it would have been better as three seasons, each composed of eight 44-minute episodes. The content would be mostly the same, but the pacing and structure could be totally different, and several story concessions that were made for the film adaptation would be no longer necessary. Being able to more tightly focus on one segment of the fellowship per episode after the split rather than hopping back and forth between all the divided groups would also be easier to follow storytelling (not to mention a way to save money on some of your main cast members not being in every episode).

Buttermilk Sky said...

I read a lot of political sites that attribute witty comments to Colbert, Kimmel, et al., when you know the credit belongs to a roomful of writers whose names briefly appear onscreen every night. Very frustrating.

I hope you get to write a show with Sondheim. Better hurry -- he's 88.

Twintone said...

hey Ken. Have you ever seen the British sitcom, Friday Night Dinner? It's about a family (secular Jewish so they have the traditional Friday night dinner together) but every week it's just putting this same family together and seeing how they end up playing off each other. And of course there's a weird neighbor, etc.

It's an idea that seems like they couldn't do many episodes with it, but it's on it's 4th or 5th season now (though that's British seasons so they've done maybe 22 episodes? :))

Mike Bloodworth said...

Friday Question: As a writer, how do you feel about the movies that tout that their actors IMPROVISE many of their lines? Judd Apatow is one example. Do you think its because the writer's aren't up to the task of writing enough funny lines to fill an entire script? Do they honestly believe the product is better because of the improvisation?
Based on the "deleted scenes" and "outtakes" I've seen that's not necessarily the case. My personal peeve is that a lot of these actors aren't trained in improv. It kind of cheapens what we do. Just curious.
P.S. If you've answered this before I'll accept a posting from a previous blog.

Bruce said...

It begins....

E. Yarber said...

There's no reason to feel the premise of FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER could only be limited to a few episodes. One of the most revered radio shows of the dramatic era was VIC AND SADE, which featured a husband, wife and boy sitting around talking for fifteen minutes at a time about characters who never appeared on air (aside from an abortive 30-minute incarnation). Paul Rhymer managed to keep that one going for over 3500 shows.

Bill Idelson, who played the kid, went on to television fame as Herman Glimsher on THE DICK VAN DYKE show and had an even more impressive career behind the camera as a writer and producer.

Andrew said...

Off the subject, but there's an interesting analysis of Seinfeld scripts here:

Lisa said...

I am looking forward to the day when E. Yarber is invited as a guest on your podcast. Then we can hear his stories and learn his real name.

Mike Schryver said...

Norman Lear did something similar to FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER in the early '90s with SUNDAY DINNER, which starred Robert Loggia and Marilyn Mercer.
It was paired with ALL IN THE FAMILY reruns and the reruns did better than the new series - it didn't last long.

bruce said...

Friday Question: did you or David Isaacs or Larry Gelbart ever think about doing a MASH sequel set in "real time"?

For example, 15 years after Korea and 15 years after it went off the air, Hawkeye and BJ are physicians at a Free Clinic in the Bay Area.

flurb said...

It is somehow gratifying, though not due to anything I've done but be a fan, to have not only the great Jack Benny mentioned in the comments to this post, but "Vic and Sade," the radio show I've laughed helplessly with since it was introduced to me in the early 1980s. It's a treasure box of beautiful writing, beautifully displayed by its cast. And all we have is a comparative handful of episodes, many of them scratchy shellacs, since NBC and/or the sponsor destroyed most of the others. More of the scripts still exist, but I don't think I could bear to hear any of them performed without the fantastic cast: Art Van Harvey, Bernardine Flynn, Bill Idelson, and Clarence Hartzell. Paul Rhymer more or less devoted his life to the show; name deserves to be in the pantheon of great American comic writers.

Thanks to Anonymous and E. Yarber, for causing me to wax rhapsodic. I could throw my shoes over the People's Bank building.

Todd Everett said...

Friday Question: did you or David Isaacs or Larry Gelbart ever think about doing a MASH sequel set in "real time"?

For example, 15 years after Korea and 15 years after it went off the air, Hawkeye and BJ are physicians at a Free Clinic in the Bay Area.

That was pretty much the story of Trapper John, M.D.; without Alda or Rogers or a free clinic, and with Pernell Roberts as Trapper John, working at a hospital in S.F.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Hi again Ken. Been trying to come up with a question for you, but I can't think of anything where it's likely no one's ever asked about it before.

Anonymous, "The Knights of Prosperity" was a great show. As I recall it, and I could be very wrong, it came along just before the great explosion of Netflix, where I think it could have found a future far more quickly than at ABC.

Also, interesting fact about that show: it had an executive producer by the name of Mick Jagger... not exactly the first name people think of when you bring up the topic "situation comedy." ;-)

MikeN said...

While I agree with you about Prison Break, note that the writers intended this. From the DVD commentary, "The name of the show is not Prison Stay, it is Prison Break." The plotline with Michael Rapaport was ridiculous, though it had a nice twist. The comeback special required you to forget everything.

E. Yarber said...

There were guys who grew up with radio drama, loved it, and went off to WWII hoping to come back and become part of it, never guessing that it would be a dying species once they returned because television had been on hold the whole time.

I once spent an hour talking to one of those diehards, who eventually went into TV but hung on in radio for the transition. He told me he did a show with Bernadine Flynn, who was treated as royalty by everyone in the studio Idelson had been one of his neighbors and he said that you could hear Bill's V&S character "Rush" in his voice no matter how old he got.

Bryan Price said...

Ken - I was curious about your baseball announcing in the minors. Seems like it took you a couple of years prior in the stands at Dodger Stadium and then but a few in the minors before you were hired by the Orioles. I'm guessing that is considered a fast route? How did you do it?

flurb said...

E. Yarber -

Thanks for your follow-up. I am glad to read that Bernadine Flynn was well-regarded, because she deserved to be. Her Sade, as written by Rhymer specifically to her talent, is the definition of a great character (one of four on the show). She was everything Ken was wishing for in his first Friday Answer today: fully-dimensional and flawed and - as a direct result of those, not in spite of them - completely relatable. There's not a mawkish moment or an unearned bit of sentiment anywhere, though you never doubt that she and the characters care for one another as best they can.

And each episode of Vic & Sade is an uninterrupted scene of ten minutes or more, so there's that part of Ken's ideal checked off too. Let me stress that: every weekday afternoon, Rhymer provided an excellent ten-minute scene in real time - no musical numbers, no fadeouts, no cuts to "Later that day...", and used only four actors to do it. Where can you find that kind of writing in American entertainment now? On the stage, sure, but only rarely in movies, and practically never on television.

There was a lot of cheap dreck coming out of the mono speaker eighty years ago, but oh, the great stuff...

Mike Bloodworth said...

"The Knights of Prosperity" is one of those shows I'd never heard of until today's blog. And I'm certain I never watched it.

Ralph C. said...

One example of a one-season show is Harper’s Island.'s_Island

Ralph C. said...

Judd Apatow has had a career of funny writing. The Larry Sanders Show alone would prove the point of his talent. Christopher Guest had a series of improvised movies, Waiting For Guffman/Best In Show/A Mighty Wind, that were well-received that included experienced and non-experienced improvisers who were found to be great improvisers. Spinal Tap is a classic movie based on improvisation. I don’t feel these movies cheapen the work of those who are spontaneous improvisational performers. Of course, what someone to your left might think is funny or not cheapening might not be funny and cheapening to the person on your right. Your mileage may vary.

DyHrdMET said...

I have a million-dollar idea for you. Tell me if this has legs.
A feature film that is written and shot as a multi-camera comedy, in front of a live studio audience (probably a few of them).
Since multi-camera comedies are usually the best comedies, why not apply that concept to film. It would be the equivalent of 3 to 4 episodes of a sitcom (without the commercial breaks, but still written with the act breaks), but with a start AND an end. It would be shorter and easier to shoot than a real film (3 to 4 weeks). We'll know if it's funny because it will have real laughter. And some of these show creators who have good ideas for shows that lack the longevity can still execute their ideas while giving it a natural ending.
Could the idea work? Has it already been done?

Kaleberg said...

I think the reason people remember the actor and not the writer is that when they or one of their friends says the line, it just doesn't have the same resonance. Sure, it might be a good line, but that's only because everyone involved remembers the actor saying it. Anyone who hasn't seen the movie, show or episode is usually just baffled. The line wouldn't be there without the writer, but the line as people know and love it had to be filtered through an actor.

Yes, it's stupid, but how many people can even make sense of a screenplay?

Stuart said...

Disagree on the EW "Sound Bites" comment. It's funny for the same reason the sitcoms themselves are funny--we're watching the characters say lines that have humor, related to their situations. If there was a picture of you with a witty line, it would have no context, and not be humorous at all. But a pic of Frasier with the same line... and we crack up, because it means something to us.

Tim said...


In the 1990-91 TV season, NBC ordered a sitcom centered around this kid, Will Smith. I know you weren't involved directly but you were working back then. I wonder, what was your initial thought of him, if you had any thought of him at the time?