Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Yet more praise for Ted Danson

Okay, here's another one of those ten year old Friday Questions re-post.  Resurfaced  because readers rarely go back through the archives (especially posts from many years ago) and I'm preparing for nine play productions.  My guess is this post is new to you.  Enjoy.

It’s Friday Question Day – my most popular feature, even if it’s my only feature. Leave your questions in the Comments section. Thanks.
Brian Phillips starts us off:

I recently heard the "Fresh Air" interview on NPR with Terry Gross. Ted Danson said that it took him over a year to play Sam properly. Within that year, I would argue, Sam and Diane worked well off of each other. On the shows you have worked on do you find that the cast "chemistry" is something that is pretty much in place near the beginning of the show ("Friends" creators felt this way about their cast) or does it tend to develop over time?

I found it’s often more rare that the chemistry is present right from the beginning. Usually both the acting and the writing evolves as everyone gropes to find that perfect formula for success. Frequently series will need one or even two years before they really hit their stride. I felt that about THE OFFICE and BIG BANG THEORY.

It sometimes is a trial-and-error process in the early going. Eventually you sift through and find the gold (hopefully).

Ironically, I thought Ted played Sam the best that first season. Part of it is our (writers collectively) fault. I think at times in the course of the run we made Sam too dumb. Granted, that made it easier to mine comedy from the character but I love how cool and together Sam Malone was in those early episodes. But that could just be me.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is another example of a show I believe had sensational chemistry right from the pilot.

From Fred:

I was in college in the 80s and had a friend at William and Mary who told a story about a classmate who wrote a spec script for M*A*S*H, submitted it and had it produced. This writer, the story went, wrote at least a few scripts while still a student at William and Mary, and eventually became a regular writer for M*A*S*H.

Is there any truth to this story, and if so is it something that could never happen now?

No truth to that story. Sorry. Of course, I've known of guys who happen to share my name who have taken credit for writing my shows. When someone says they wrote for a hit show ask to see a residual check.

It could happen that you sell a spec but it’s highly unlikely. If your script gets you meetings or an agent or an assignment then you've hit it out of the park.

But there are, from time to time, instances when a show will buy a spec script and produce it. That’s what happened to Sam Simon and TAXI. It’s very rare, but who knows? Producers are always scrambling for good stories.

John queries:

Ken have there been any shows you've written for/been employed by and have left that you looked at in their ensuing episodes/seasons and wondered "Why are they doing that?" or "Why are they taking the show in that direction?"

Yes. But there have also been times when I’d see a future episode of a series I worked on and think, “Damn! That’s a great story. Why didn’t we think of that?”

Gottacook wonders:

Do you see any hope for the return of the anthology series?

Probably not but you never know. Anthologies are very expensive to produce. You need a new cast every week, new sets, new stories. In this economy especially, I don’t think networks are looking to take on that kind of ambitious project.

Plus, audiences become attached to characters. Anthologies introduce you to new ones every week. You have to figure out who they are, whether you like them – that’s way too much work for most people. Much easier to just turn on the TV, there’s Monk, he’s afraid of germs again, I’m happy.

There have been variations of anthologies. One is to have one leading character anchoring the series. QUANTUM LEAP and THE FUGITIVE are examples. The series star meets new people and finds himself in new situations but still, the show is centered around him. To some degree MY NAME IS EARL is structured along those lines (but that show had several recurring characters).

And finally, from Joey:

Episodes are edited for syndication or cable to allow more commercial time than when they were first run. Do writers anticipate this and write scenes that are not crucial to the A story that are, in effect, designed to be edited out.

Generally not. If there’s a free floating tag, that’s easily removed. But here’s the thing – even if we wrote scenes that could clearly be lifted, whoever is editing the shows for syndication would select something else. Some MASH episodes are hacked up so poorly that the stories no longer make sense. Or invariably editors will cut out the best jokes of the show. They have a sixth sense for that.


Chris G said...

There have been a few anthologies since you first wrote this -- Black Mirror comes to mind as the most successful of them, but there's also Electric Dreams and Matt Weiner's upcoming show on Amazon, Room 104 on HBO, and imports like Inside No. 9. Any thoughts on if this is a trend?

Andrew said...

Speaking of M*A*S*H, do you have any thoughts on the developments regarding North Korea? Are you willing to give Trump some credit? It sounds like one of the results will be the return of MIA remains to the US.

tavm said...

On the subject of series that makes one think "Why did they do that?": Why, when Patrick Duffy briefly left "Dallas" did the producers have him killed? After all, he'd return at the end of the following season and that season would be explained away as Pan's dream but why did they even go there? It seems producer Leonard Katzman, responsible for the show's most entertaining eps, also left around that time and that left showrunner Philip Caprice to let Katzman's successor do what he wanted with the characters which didn't please many of the remaining cast especially Larry Hagman. And the ratings were falling. So Hagman campaigned to have both return and CBS wanted to please their biggest star at the time. So the show went back to basics after that and did well enough again. At least until Victoria Principal decided to leave for good...

McAlvie said...

I did notice that Sam was a little less dumb as Cheers progressed. I think it made the chemistry with Diane a little more believable and a more worthy foil for Diane. It also served the show well because Sam became a better anchor character. A show that is all quirky misfits can quickly become annoying. The audience needs someone at least a little grounded to relate to. Mind you, I think Ted did just as great a job in the first season, but the way the character was written after that might have given him more to work with.

I think it made The Big Bang a more stable show, too. When the show first aired, I didn't like it. I thought it was going to be "let's make fun of the nerds." But Penny, while still being flawed, had social skills the guys lacked; and without ever becoming superior, she still became the den mother. There was a season or so in there where they tweaked her character to be less sympathetic, but they seem to have corrected for that. And bringing in Bernadette grounded the show even further. Even Raj and Howard were allowed to grow up a little bit. For all the criticism the show gets, its actually well done given the premise.

Janet Ybarra said...

Just an example of a writer submitting a spec script which not only sold, became one of the most beloved episodes of series to the point where it spawned not one...but two sequel episodes in spin-offs.

David Gerrold sold "The Trouble With Tribbles" to the original STAR TREK as a college student during the '60s. The episode was so popular he wrote a sequel for the TREK animated series in the early '70s. And it became the subject for one more episode during DEEP SPACE NINE in which DS9 characters were added to the classic TREK episode a la FORREST GUMP.

The Tribbles were so popular when the episode first ran that the Humane Society received complaints that the actors and crew were guilty of cruelty to animals for scenes such as when Captain Kirk accidentally sat on one. Only problem, the Tribbles were props...they were never real animals!

Gerrold went on to a successful career as a sci-fi writer.

Anonymous said...


I believe that the spec q and a may have been referring to Karen Hall. I don't recall the details, but I think she had a college prof that pushed her to write a complete spec and one thing led to another.


Andrew said...

Another show where the chemistry among the cast took at least 1 or 2 seasons to develop: Parks and Recreation.

Danky Lankers said...

Wow, nine productions that nobody will give a shit about! Impressive!

Mike Bloodworth said...

Your "...this post is new to you." comment reminded me of the old promos that NBC(?) ran many years ago for their summer reruns. The slogan was, "If you haven't seen it its new to you." I remember there were lots of jokes about it. I wish I could think of an appropriate adjective to describe how those adds made me feel. Yet, it is essentially true. I suppose that could aLao apply to movies, classic literature, T.V. shows, and yes, even blogs. Personally, I don't mind repeats. After all, it is "summer rerun" season.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

All this talk of getting permission and stuff has got me to wondering . . . a show like I DREAM OF JEANNIE established a majority of the main characters worked for NASA. Like with product placement, would a show need to obtain permission to infer their characters are associated/affiliated with an existing, real-life organization such as NASA?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Oh, BTW, Ken: I'm watching the M*A*S*H episode "The Most Unforgettable Characters" you and David wrote. One of the subplots of the episode is Frank's birthday, and Radar's duty log dates the episode as 13 June . . . so, I thank you that I ended up having to share my birthday with ol' Ferret Face.

gottacook said...

Janet Y.: Funny you should bring up Gerrold's tribbles, because they relate to the previous topic of unintentional copying versus ripoff of someone else's ideas. Tribbles were essentially the same as the Martian flat cats in Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, one of his so-called "juvenile" novels of the 1950s. I think Wikipedia's facts are correct here: "David Gerrold, the author of the episode, claims that he had read the Heinlein book years before writing his screenplay and was not consciously aware of the similarities until Desilu/Paramount conducted a routine studio clearances review following an inquiry by Kellam de Forest, its primary in-house researcher. This prompted a contact with Heinlein who admitted the similarities but also graciously waived all rights, Heinlein asking only for an autographed copy of the script."

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question. I could never get into "How I Met Your Mother". The cast was likeable enough and I am huge NPH fan but for some reason the cast just didn't click for me as being ones that would be all buddy-buddy in real life and it just felt artificial to me so after a month or so I just quit watching. Then again, "Friends" and "Cheers" seem pretty believable [even though I may have punched Mr. Know-It-All, Cliff Clavin in the face after a few weeks.] Is it just me or do others possibly feel that way and how, as a writer or casting agent, do you try and avoid that "turn-off" factor? Or do you even bother knowing that there's going to be a few people like that?

The only show where it seemed to go off the rails for me was "Enterprise" [Later re-titled Star Trek: Enterprise]. Struggling in the ratings, they bring in a race the destroys a large chunk of Earth and Capt. Archer is sent out to locate and destroy them. Now when the show started Capt. Archer was your "friendly neighborhood ambassador" whose mission was to meet and greet new alien races and be wary of ones that might not get along with humans. Then towards the end of the series, when they bring in The Xindi, they turn him into a flaming, raging asshole out to destroy anything not human, especially Xindi, or friendly to humans. This 180 degree turn in
a character just seemed so artificial to me that I eventually stopped watching, plus the fact that they serialized the whole third season. If I missed a week or two of the program, I was lost because I didn't know what had happened in prior weeks. I did eventually finish the series by watching on DVD. I cannot believe that Scott Bakula [another actor I'll watch in just about anything] didn't throw up any objections to this change in his character, but who knows, maybe he did any was overruled. Of course, most of the changes took place after the 9/11 attacks so maybe they were just reflecting reality.

Janet Ybarra said...

Wow, you are very rude. One wonders why Ken even posted your heinous comment. Goes to prove who the better person is.

Mateja Đedović said...

I was watching a 90s British sitcom called "Old Boys Network" yesterday and ran into this amusing incident. When one character gives a punchline to a joke ("Your chocolate, sir") you can clearly hear someone in the audience repeat it whilst laughing (ha-ha, his chocolate, ha-ha etc.). A similar thing happened in one episode of "The Odd Couple" in which Murray the Cop retraces the leaps of a frog up to a window. You can hear someone in the audience shout "Oh, no!". So my question is this: What is usually done in these instances when the audience is more verbose than your standard ha-ha? Are they usually cut out, left in, or does no one care?

Todd Everett said...

Tribbles were essentially the same as the Martian flat cats in Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, one of his so-called "juvenile" novels of the 1950s. I think Wikipedia's facts are correct here: "David Gerrold, the author of the episode, claims that he had read the Heinlein book years before writing his screenplay and was not consciously aware of the similarities until Desilu/Paramount conducted a routine studio clearances review following an inquiry by Kellam de Forest, its primary in-house researcher. This prompted a contact with Heinlein who admitted the similarities but also graciously waived all rights, Heinlein asking only for an autographed copy of the script."

I wonder whether either Gerrold or Heinlein ever hear from Al Capp

Mark said...

Bobby Ewing was killed off at Patrick Duffy’s request. He said he would never return to the show and that Bobby’s death would ensure that. Of course, after a year where his career was going nowhere, he was ready to overlook that.

It was very foolish of the producers to grant that request. Of course, a year after Duffy’s return, they wrote out Pam in a very awkward way hoping to leave the door open for Victoria Principal to return. She never did.

Unknown said...

Ken - how in the world did this get produced - the Paramount powers-that-be?

While its definitely a bit "Vilanch-y", there would also seem to have been writers involved that knew the "Frasier" characters well AND writers who were Trekkies. Was it maybe writers from both shows?

thirteen said...

The first show I think of when people talk about anthology series is Route 66. That's primarily because it was on just before The Twilight Zone. (My mom let me stay up for TZ. My mom was great.)

gottacook said...

I just saw that sketch myself for the first time, within a much longer Star Trek 30th anniversary "live from Hollywood" special that I've never heard of before, circa 1996, which apparently aired on UPN:

Hosted by Ted Danson and featuring Kenny G, of all people. The end credits list the writers, who I don't believe worked on either Voyager or Frasier.

Janet Ybarra said...

I had never never heard that story before. Despite the fact his politics ran toward the fascist, Heinlein apparently was personally quite a nice guy. He also notably loaned fellow sci fi writer Philip K. Dick (you would know Dick for the story which would become BLADE RUNNER) money often as Dick did not make big money for much of his life.

gottacook said...

Janet Y.: I know this is getting farther and farther off topic (if there indeed was one), but "ran toward the fascist" vastly oversimplifies Heinlein, just as "drug-addled freak" vastly oversimplifies Dick. I happen to be rather well-versed in both authors' lives and work; I'm the one who added the long quotation from Dick about Heinlein's generosity to him to Dick's Wikipedia entry, some years ago.

Tom said...

I also found it impossible to enjoy How I Met Your Mother. Ted was neither likeable nor — more importantly — someone I could identify with, Barney was a cartoon character and not an interesting one, and both the female parts led to my assumption that the team was primarily male writers. I spent every episode feeling sorry for Jason Segel, seemingly taking whatever work he can get.

That's without even talking about the tired third-hand attempts at non-linear and subjective narratives. Things you can see from space: the Great Wall of China, upcoming plot twists in HIMYM.

I think the pitch probably went like this: how about a cut-price Zach Braff encounters various rejected episodes of Coupling, while the support characters are also often present?

Mike Doran said...

To anyone whose interest is piqued:

Some years back, I read something that Isaac Asimov wrote, about how his friendship with Robert Heinlein ended when Mr. Heinlein, who'd been politically liberal during his first marriage, married a conservative woman and changed his politics accordingly.
If this is what Janet Ybarra refers to when she says Heinlein's politics "ran toward the fascist", that to me defines 'oversimplification'.

This is one more reason why I hate partisan politics in all its forms - and it's only going to get worse.
No matter which way the midterms come out.

Some time after that first reference, I read something Harlan Ellison (who was to Isaac Asimov's left politically) wrote, indicating that although Robert Heinlein's politics changed, these two men remained at least cordial towards each other.
Something to think about …