Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Questions

Welcome y’all to Friday Question Day.

Jim, UK starts us off:

What is your experience of trying to pitch films/shows that were completely different to anything you'd done before?

We tend to stay in our lane (comedy) when pitching, but there have been times we’ve been offered feature rewrites on genres we’ve never worked in.

Case in point was JEWEL OF THE NILE, which primarily was an action-adventure film. Honestly, we watched a ton of them and tried to glean what worked and what didn’t. To me that’s the best teacher. We learned more by studying GUNGA DIN than any screenwriting book.

From Janet Ybarra:

Ken, what is your opinion of TRAPPER JOHN MD? I personally never got into it because, to me, the Pernell Roberts portrayal never squared with the Trapper John we were introduced to on MASH.

They just used the name to gave the character a recognizable hook. But as portrayed in TRAPPER JOHN M.D. the character was nowhere close to either the TV or film version of Trapper. Frankly, I never watched it. It was just another formula hour doctor show back then.

I must say however that I have a hard time when characters change genres. I never could get into LOU GRANT even though I admired almost everyone associated with that show. The one hour drama Lou Grant was NOT Lou Grant. The fellow who was Mary Richard’s boss, THAT was Lou Grant.

J Lee asks:

When you were starting out on MASH, did you buttonhole any of the veteran writers who worked on the show (some with credits dating back to radio days) on how they handled script problems or how they worked with a writing partner?

No. We didn’t know any of them then. We met with Gene Reynolds to work out the story but we were on our own when writing our first draft. Later of course we worked with Fritzell & Greenbaum and Larry Gelbart, but at the time we started as freelance writers, we were in a vacuum.

What we did instead was load up on Gelbart scripts and study them for rhythm, tone, joke construction, everything. The only thing they didn’t teach us was how to be as brilliant as him.

And finally, from Michael:

How do you think the trend of Netflix and others to release all episodes simultaneously has changed day-to-day life in the writers' room?

Do writers have more time or less? Are more episodes complete before shooting begins? What about the lack of audience feedback and network input based on week-to-week viewing numbers?

The length of time devoted to producing these series depends on a lot of factors. What is the order? How much time have you been given? Does the platform need it right away or whenever you turn it in? What are the production requirements? How hard will it be to produce? Are there any restrictions on the actors’ availability? Do you lose your star to a movie in four months?

But all things considered, it’s certainly easier to make 13 a year as opposed to 22. You generally do have more time to really polish those 13 episodes. When you’re making 22 or more a season you’re just happy if you can knock ‘em all out on time.

The downside of course is often writers get paid by the episode. So 22 means a lot more moolah than a leisurely 8.

As for producing all episodes before they’re aired, yes, that can be a big problem if an audience doesn’t respond to a major character or story arc and you’re powerless to make mid-course corrections. That can positively kill a series.

Likewise, the audience can tell you which character will be the breakout hit, but if you can’t take advantage of that and suddenly steer towards “the Fonz” you’re killing a potential golden goose.

Again, that’s why I’m such a fan of multi-camera shows. You’re held accountable and you can learn the night of the filming whether an audience responds or not. You don’t have to wait a year until the series airs to learn you went in the wrong direction.

What’s your FQ?


Tom Asher said...

I'm sure you heard that Uncle Ricky of Reelradio fame passed away.

unkystan said...

I was binging Frasier and started thinking about the title cards throughout the show. Any stories behind those?

E. Yarber said...

Before I came to Los Angeles, I spent two years relentlessly studying box-office returns. By the time I got here, I had an inch-thick stack of weekly grosses pulled from issues of VARIETY and could explain viewer patterns the same way a meteorologist would describe cold fronts over Minnesota. A big reason I got as much work as I did was that executives found that I could accurately predict how a project would perform when tossed into the grid. It was almost as much a matter of mathematics as aesthetics.

That skill is far less important these days. Box-office returns and television ratings were built on viewers choosing specific productions and the business had to judge the varying profitability of each item through its individual popularity. Now the marketplace is increasingly driven by people paying for platforms like Netflix first and then choosing what the provider offers within that umbrella. The difference between this and cable providers is that networks there were rated against one another by viewership totals. There's much less give-and-take with the audience from a platform existing on its own. As you noted, there's no room within a binge series for the creators to adjust to the likes and dislikes of the viewers over time.

In a way, this returns to the old block-booking practices of the movie studios, which forced theater owners to take less attractive pictures as part of a package including the major releases. It might be a needed corrective to the current system, in which smaller projects have been largely sidelined now that every film released has to be a tentpole, but it also takes a lot of the selection process away from the audience over to the programmers. The crowd is no longer voting for their favorites with their tickets but paying for a pass and wandering around a virtual fairground seeing what they can find of interest there.

Mike Doran said...


Trapper John, MD was essentially "son of Medical Center", whose own run ended a few years before.
The TJMD showrunners were Al C. Ward and Don Brinkley, who filled that function on Medical Center for most of that show's tenure.
Whatever echoes of MASH were used up in the first few weeks of TJMD's first season; ultimately, Ward and Brinkley made the formula over, more in the MC style (more than a few of the old MC stories got 'haircuts' for TJMD).
There was a character on TJMD, 'Dr. Riverside', who started out as a 'Frank Burns' type; his portrayer, Charles Siebert, proved to be an adroit enough actor to make Riverside more real.
That's one example; others of you can come up with your own.

Unknown said...

Ken - do you have any background . on this sketch getting produced, apparently by the Paramount powers-that-be for (h/t commenter "Gottacook") for a 'Star Trek 30th anniversary live-from-Hollywood' special circa 1996 on UPN, hosted by Ted Danson?

While its definitely a bit "Vilanch-y", there would also seem to have been writers involved that knew the "Frasier" characters somewhat well AND writers who were Trekkies. Were "Frasier" writer/producers involved in any capacity, giving notes or approvals? Permission to do it (considering Paramount's involvement, that this is just 'promotion', and that the characters are of course never 'named' as the Frasier characters, but their personalities identify them. It's a bit shakey, particularly 'Roz's' lines, but the actors give the material their best efforts - the characterization really comes more from them than the lines. (Gottacook noted that, in the special's credits, it doesn't credit any 'Voyager' or 'Frasier' writers. And it seems Kelsey wasn't involved because he was in rehab at the time.

The whole special:

unkystan said...

Ken, you are right on the money with your Trapper John statement. I remember in the pilot episode we see Pernell Roberts sleeping in the break room at the hospital. We hear helicopters in the distance and he gets up says (something to the effect of), “Hawkeye! Choppers!” That is the one and only reference to MASH. I have the same problem with Elementary. Just because you name a character Sherlock Holmes doesn’t make him Sherlock Holmes.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Friday Question: If I've asked this before I apologize for the redundancy.
What do you feel is the is the biggest difference between writing plays vs T.V. scripts or screenplays? What are the major challenges? And, of course, Do you get the same satisfaction from a seeing your play produced as from watching an episode you've written? They say that in film the director has all the power. On T.V. its the show-runners. But in theater, the playwrite is king. Have you found this to be true?

Grammar Geek said...

Friday question: My pet peeve is when different actors on a TV show pronounce a character's name differently. Is it "JANE-ie" or "JANN-ie"? I feel like someone should be making sure the cast all says it the same way. (This happens a lot on sci-fi shows with weird alien names, too. And half the cast of "Supergirl" cannot pronounce the name of the character "Pestilence." It's not "Pest-you-lence," people!)
Who would be responsible for overseeing this, and why does it still happen?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

E.Yarber: This is especially true of Amazon. Netflix does release DVDs of the shows it produces, so it gets additional market data from that. Amazon (I read) looks at the show people watch *first* after they join Prime. Eventually, that won't work for them as a signal because growth in Prime subscriptions will level off too much, but for now apparently that's apparently a crucial determination. And note that Amazon has now stated it wants blockbusters rather than the niche stuff a lot of us liked.


Andy Rose said...

@E. Yarber: I've been amused by people who get their hackles up over paying for cable packages with "so many channels I don't watch," yet don't notice that with Netflix/Hulu/Amazon, they're paying for 100 series and 800 movies to get the 10 series and 50 movies they actually want to see. Of course, paying for all of those services combined is currently less than a typical cable subscription, but it probably won't be much longer. (If you add YouTube Red and DirecTV Now, you're already getting near cable prices, and Disney's going to have its own streaming subscription service pretty soon.)

ScarletNumber said...

Mary Richards, not Mary Richard

E. Yarber said...

Not that the entertainment industry was ever fair, but at least there used to be a rough justice to it.

I worked with agents and producers who would eat three interns for breakfast, yet turn pale and cross themselves when the overnight Nielsens arrived. From top to bottom, everyone's career was dependent on such numbers. "Venegeance is mine," said the audience.

Now viewers are so used to getting big streaming lumps that they simply hand over their cash and hope they like some of what they get. Seems to take all the sport out of the game.

Cap'n Bob said...

What I like about cable is that it's financed by subscriptions and there are no commercials.

Chris Gumprich said...

Friday Q: I've been watching NIGHT COURT reruns, and despite the unbelievably strong cast, the standout character for me is Buddy, wonderfully portrayed by John Astin. You've mentioned that you liked working with him on MARY, I was wondering if you had any entertaining anecdotes about him?

Terrence Moss said...

"Lou Grant" hasn't been as regularly or as widely available as its parent series, but I have liked what I've seen because the character (and his wonderful portrayer) had the gravitas to pull off an hourlong drama.

MikeN said...

Friday Question,
Do you think you could have made Cheers if it was like Sherlock- 3 episodes a season, 90 minutes each(about 12 episodes in runtime, so maybe 6 episodes)
I don't mean network issues, but in terms of writing.

Janet Ybarra said...

The problem I forsee with this proliferation of streaming services is that we are going to be expected to fork out $10 a month here and and $20 there to access them all. Soon enough that will add up to real money....on top of probably a cable/Internet provider bill. Soon will be gone the days of an option of free or even reasonably priced television viewing.

Even though we are big STAR TREK fans,we made the decision not to pay the monthly fee to access the CBS streaming service to continue watching the new series after the debut teaser on CBS broadcast. We already have our Comcast bill and we're on Netflix too so we just had to draw the line somewhere. Plus, to be honest, I was not totally thrilled with the "reimagining" the TREK universe got in that new series. The Klingons don't even look like Klingons anymore....

Janet Ybarra said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken!

Ralph C. said...

If you want to see the closest television equivalent to the M.A.S.H. character Trapper John, go find episodes of House Calls.

gottacook said...

Terrence M.: It looks like the entire run of Lou Grant (1977-82) is on YouTube. Not necessarily the best picture quality, but still enjoyable and, of course, extremely well-written and acted.

Kirk said...

On St Elsewhere, someone once asked of Dr. Daniel Auschlander if he could be any TV character, who would it be. Daniel replied Trapper John MD, because his patients never die.

What I like about that line is that St. Elsewhere was a lot closer to the TV MASH than Trapper John ever was.

That Guy said...

For me "Jewel of the Nile" feels like an unnecessary sequel, largely, I think because it suffers the problem that most sequels to movies with a romantic comedy underpinning do - once you've got the couple together, the only thing the sequel seems to want to do is split 'em up and put 'em back together again. Repeatedly. And the splitting comes across as kinda contrived, as does the putting 'em back together again.

The obvious exception to the rule here is the Thin Man series, which kept Nick and Nora together. Of course, to do that you have to have the red hot chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Does nobody else really trust that they have that?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I've been a "Lou Grant" fan since the show first aired in 1977.

My favorite episodes were less issue-oriented and more day-in-the-life-of-the-newsroom stories. "Hostages" and "Airliner" are two examples from the first year.

True, it was difficult at times reconciling the gritty world portrayed in this series with the cartoonish existence of Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens that Grant left behind in Minneapolis.

But it was a brilliant idea to do a spin off expanding on Grant's newspaper background, and James Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds, and Ed Asner executed a challenging transition flawlessly.

Mike Doran said...

One odd Lou Grant observation:

When the series premiered, the whole family watched as a group, curious about how a comic character would turn dramatic.
(Side note: When Mary Tyler Moore first went on in '70, my dad observed about Ed Asner, "I don't think I ever saw him do out-and-out comedy before - he's really good …"
Which shows you how times change.)
Anyway we're all watching as Lou arrives at the LA paper to see his old pal Charlie, and they start chatting back and forth -
- and my brother suddenly pipes up, "That's what he looks like!"
Referring to Mason Adams, who played Charlie - and who, up to this point, had rarely if ever appeared on camera.
But the voice of Smucker's was unmistakeable, and in the ensuing years Mason Adams became as familiar a face as he had been a voice - and good for him.

Possible (if belated) Friday Question:
Were - are - there any people you know of who mainly do voice work, who might just as well have had on-camera work if they'd chosen to?
I know that there were quite a few performers who worked both sides of this street; I think I'm referring to people like Daws Butler, Paul Frees, June Foray, and some others who almost never were seen as their own selves on screen.
Just askin', is all ...

Anthony said...

Ken, I'd like to mesh two of your favorite things together - baseball and Cheers - for this question.

Maybe you've answered this in the past, but have you ever thought, or even outlined out in your head, how you think the Cheers gang would've reacted to the Red Sox finally winning the World Series again in 2004? Especially, given how it happened with the historic ALCS comeback over their arch-rival Yankees? It was such a big event in Boston's modern history, that you can't help but think what the characters would've said or (foolishly) done to celebrate. Would love to hear your thoughts, assuming you've ever thought about it. Thanks.

Ted O'Hara said...

Friday Question:

I just saw the season 6 episode of M*A*SH where there is an exchange with another MASH unit and Hawkeye was sent away and replaced with a cowboy surgeon played by George Lindsey.

Alan Alda is only in the first and last scenes in this episode. Do you know if this was done because of real-life reasons, to give Alda some free time, or was it felt that having Hawkeye out of the picture would contrast the exchange surgeon better with BJ and Charles?

Unknown said...

Maybe asked a zillion times before, but why didn’t Radar and the girl from the Tokyo airport storyline carry over to AfterMASH when Burghoff guested?

Were any other MASH characters considered for a guest shot?

Ever thought about creating a FAQ section for questions like these?