Friday, July 06, 2018

Friday Questions

Have you recovered from the 4th? Here are some FQ’s for the 6th.

Chris Dellecese starts us off:

Watching some reruns of Mad About You, I notice that as it gets deeper in the series, Helen Hunt’s name starts popping up in the Producer credits, and suddenly there seem to be a lot more references to how “beautiful” her character is in various episodes.

Can’t be an accident.

I’m guessing you don’t know the particulars here, but in general how do shows, scripts and characters change when the stars become more active in producing, directing, etc?

I personally hadn’t noticed that about Helen Hunt’s character in MAD ABOUT YOU in those later years.  Paul Riser talked so much I pretty much tuned him out. 

Some actors take the credit and involvement very seriously. In a few cases they really contribute positively. Alan Alda on MASH for example.

Other times actor/producers can become the 800-pound gorilla. It depends on the actor. Roseanne was a holy terror.

In many cases however, the credit means more vanity and more money and the actor doesn’t exert himself more into the process.

From Janet Ybarra

Ken, do you ever think about projects beyond your blog and podcast? Specifically, thinking would you want to get into radio via Sirius XM? Or go back to calling baseball for someone?

I would love to call baseball play-by-play again in the right situation. I really miss it. And depending on the project, I’d be happy to do something for Sirius/XM. I love radio (as I’m sure anyone can tell from my podcast).

Besides that I just look for projects that interest me. I have a number of plays I’m either in the process of writing or trying to find homes for. And I wouldn’t rule out TV if there’s an idea that really excites me and a venue that will give me the freedom to do it my way (which might just be wishful thinking).

estiv asks:

Got a question, but I'll admit it's kind of nebulous.

Many nights recently I've watched Frasier on Cozy TV, and I was struck watching an early episode at how well the comedy and the serious moments were blended. As much respect as I have for Norman Lear, one thing that always bothered me about his shows was the way the serious moments were frequently heavy-handed, and there would often be one character who'd keep cracking jokes no matter what. I guess that's a way to make your point and still keep your audience, but it wore thin for me.

This episode of Frasier featured a turning point in his relationship with his father, where Frasier blew up and walked out of the apartment. What stood out was how smoothly that moment followed what had to some extent been a series of jokes. True to the things you say often, those jokes were true to the characters and to the situation, but even so the dialogue was clearly meant to be funny. The moment when Frasier walked out was obviously not meant to be funny at all.

So my question is: how hard is it to do that? If you shift gears too quickly, it feels wrong. If you do it too slowly, things lag. How do you get it right?

You need to establish the tone very early on in the life of the series. You need to make the characters real and you need to protect them. You must never sacrifice your characters for the sake of a joke – no matter how funny the joke is. ALWAYS play your characters to the top of their intelligence.

Characters have to have REAL problems that people can relate to. And they must deal with those problems with behavior consistent with who they are.  The serious moments have to be EARNED.

Showrunners must really be watchdogs. But the results are worth it and at times you end up with sitcom episodes that have great depth along with great laughs.

And finally, from Garrett:

When you direct an episode, how many weeks do you dedicate to that process? Is there a week for preparation, a week for production and week for editing?

Built right into directors’ contracts is pre-production time. That’s more necessary in single-camera shows (i.e. shot like a movie). You need to scout locations, plan your shooting schedule, have a tone meeting with the showrunner, etc.

I’ve directed mostly multi-cam episodes and there is little or no pre-production. On some occasions I don’t even see the script until the night before the table reading.

Usually, an hour before the table reading there is a production meeting where the director will go page by page with various department heads to work out what sets, props, wardrobe, effects, food, etc. will be needed for the episode.

But you’ll notice that one director might direct every episode of a season of a multi-cam show (a la James Burrows) where as different directors are needed for single-camera shows. That’s because single-camera directors really do need a few days to prepare for their episode.

What’s you’re Friday Question?


opimus said...

If you had it your way ? Who would be in booth with you and what teams besides the Dodgers?

E. Yarber said...

Even with Diva territory as it is, I find it hard to imagine a star openly telling the writers to call her "beautiful" more often. There was a case with THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW where the original producer thought it would be funny to offset the singer's iconic reputation by having Jerry Van Dyke make weak jokes calling her a "little old lady" and such. It turned out such gags needled Garland's volatile ego so much that the staff realized they weren't doing themselves any favors antagonizing their key player so gratuitously. In any case, the original producer of the program became the first former producer of the program quickly enough.

In the MAD ABOUT YOU situation, it may be that the writers had become more invested in the characters over the seasons and were beginning to consciously or unconsciously hype them in speeches made on camera. Or it may be that "beautiful" was their way of saying, "Doesn't chew through dialogue relentlessly."

Actors can be more than simple mouthpieces for the scripters, but like everyone else they have to know what they're doing. I once spent a couple of futile weeks trying to deal with a small company that fancied themselves a modern incarnation of the legendary Group Theater of the 1930s, the actors supposedly guiding the creative process behind the show. The problem was that the Group was a GROUP that made collective decisions, while this bunch were all out for themselves. The troupe exploded in outrage, for example, when I nixed the three-page soliloquies they had written and insisted that they act off of each other instead of taking endless solos on stage. This was not just a momentary tantrum... they actually cancelled the opening of the show because they were so determined to grandstand in front of an audience rather than function as an ensemble. That crowd genuinely needed a showrunner's hand at the tiller to put the characters ahead of the performers, but fell apart through self-indulgence.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Here's a Friday question: I understand when Larry Gelbart did the M*A*S*H episode "The Interview," it was filmed with Clete Roberts asking the questions, the actors responding in-character, then Larry sort of building the script around that material, as opposed to the other way around. When you, David Isaacs, and Burt Metcalfe did "Our Finest Hour," did you take that same approach?

Anonymous said...

The first as a kid I was aware of a sitcom doing a "special episode" was on "Happy Days" when a skinny, black character was suddenly becoming a member of Richie's band that never had a name. Because he was the first (and as I remember during the show's run, only) character with that skin color, it seemed an excuse to promote a "Norman Lear" message of how prejudice was wrong and that was how it was like in that '50s time period. The Cunningham family, and especially Fonzie who was a "good" friend of that skinny character, were very much against it and the fact that the Korean-born Arnold was also a good friend and was at the party gathering at the end illustrated how tolerant they were and how other characters in the show, not surprising they weren't seen before or since after that particular show, weren't. There were other "message" shows after that on "HD" but that one stood out for me because of the subject matter.

Shelly said...

This is regarding the lost revenue of your shows and other TV shows and subsequently you the writer.

With so many websites allowing people to upload the clips of TV shows; do networks, studios take any effort to pull them down?

I am asking because some guy sitting somewhere in the world just uploads good parts/theme songs/jokes of many hit TV shows like Cheers and gets so many views and money from sites like YouTube based on those views. This is a loss for all including you the writer (residuals).

But some clever ones like Jimmy Kimmel upload it themselves as many parts and get a lot of views for each part and earn good money from YouTube. So why not studios and networks?

(Hopefully Jimmy pays his writers some money from YouTube revenue)

Here are a few examples:
Cheers theme song uploaded by someone got millions of views and money for that guy:

Another video of Cheers - someone making money off your effort.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Shelly: There are studies that show that the widespread distribution you're talking about actually fans interest in the show, making it more likely that people will watch it on paid services (or buy the DVDs). Only the top handful of YouTube stars/channels really make money from that. (Whether YouTube should offer a better split for artists is a different question. Given Google's revenues, probably yes.)

The one show where the influence of actor-as-producer was really visible to me was CYBILL, where once Cybill Shepherd got Chuck Lorre fired all the other characters got boring (Christine Baranski's character in particular was flattened out) and the title character suddenly got to do stuff like spent an entire five minutes singing to her grandchild and do duets with Tony Bennett.


Mike Bloodworth said...

Helen Hunt won her Oscar© for AS GOOD AS IT GETS during her run on the series. That gave her the cachet to have more influence over her character. And I admit to a small crush on H.H. She was very appealing on that show. The "beautiful" comments may also have been due to viewers' feedback.

Jeff R said...

Was watching an episode of Becker last night with your name in the credits - the one where Becker and Chris were trying to hook up for the first time - near the end on the fire escape there was an exchange where Becker talked about being in the game and up to bat but their connection just not working out - I felt like that was an inside reference to Cheers. I hope it was on purpose because I literally laughed out loud and had to explain my outburst to my wife! hahaha

Mark said...

This is a nice lead in to a question I've been meaning to ask you for a while about television directing. I was watching an episode of Hogan's Heroes on MeTV (say what you will, it was a well-crafted show). I noticed a really well composed shot. Not exactly flashy but very well done. As I started paying attention to the direction, I realized that not only were there more of these, but they were often connected by clearly well thought out blocking and camera moves.

Since I've gotten in the habit of checking the credits when I see a particularly nice piece of direction on a show, I've noticed that certain directors could be counted on to pump out attractive, even cinematic quality. Bob Sweeney, who directed the one I mentioned, was also responsible for a ton of other fine work including some of the best episodes of the Andy Griffith show. Others, like Tom Gries, Joseph Sargent and that guy who directed the first episode of Colombo, went on to do some great movies.

Here's the thing I was wondering about. Network television, particularly back in the 1960s, was done at a breakneck pace. There had to be a trade-off between speed and quality. Obviously, people like Sweeney worked fast, but working out elaborate storyboards and getting every shot just right (not to mention getting the best out of the actors) had to slow things down. What is the calculus on the part of the producers and the studio executives? Are there arguments over picking the director who always comes in under time versus the one who can give you a better product?

Greg said...

Friday Question:

In an ensemble type show (The Office for example), does each actors salary based on how involved they are in the episode, or is it set per episode. Is Creed paid more when he has a few lines vs when he is basically a recurring (background type) character?

VP81955 said...

For those of you in SoCal trying to beat the heat tonight and not planning to watch the Freeway Series opener from Anaheim, a suggestion. This evening, UCLA begins an Ernst Lubitsch retrospective -- a legendary director and a major influence on Billy Wilder, who co-wrote "Ninotchka" for him -- at 7:30 at the Billy Wilder Theater. The silent "So This Is Paris" will be shown, and guests include Nicola Lubitsch (his daughter) and film historian Joseph McBride, who's just written a new book on him. For tickets, more info and a schedule for the 16-film festival, visit

Janet Ybarra said...

Mark, I agree with you, HOGAN'S HEROES was a well-crafted comedy, particularly because you had some really good actors there.

The only real downside to the series was a real lack of character development.

And you wouldn't know the final episode of that series from any other episode. It was a story and plot similar to any other, so there was also no capstone to the series, either.

Loosehead said...

A producer credit also makes you eligible for producer Emmys, if your show is any good. Just sayin'.

Angela said...

I fully agree on how Frasier balanced the funny moments with the more serious ones. It never felt unnatural or awkward. And the more serious moments gave us some lovely, touching insight into the characters, too.

On the note of Frasier, I have a question related to that show I've been meaning to ask. I notice, in the credits for the episode "Moon Dance" (one of my favorite episodes!), there's eight writers listed for that episode. That seems an unusually high amount for one episode. The collaborative effort clearly paid off, but I was just curious as to why and how it came to be that there were so many writers involved on that particular episode. And now I'm also wondering just how often it is that that many writers will work on one episode together on a series.

Angela said...

I fully agree on Frasier being able to balance the funny moments with the serious ones. They made it feel so natural, and the serious moments did a lovely, touching job of giving us some deeper insight into the characters and their close relationships with each other.

My Friday question also relates to Frasier: I was watching "Moon Dance" recently (one of my favorite episodes), and I noticed in the credits that eight writers were listed as working on that episode. The collaborative effort by all those people clearly paid off, but I was curious as to why and how it came to be that that many writers worked on that particular episode. I'm also curious as to how common it is for that many writers to work on an episode of a series in general.

Don R said...

Always wondered about your take on WKRP. It seemed to stay true to the problems of working in radio, but the characters were very real and seemed to have some depth. I remember reading where a few ex jocks were on the writing staff. Did you ever get a call or contact them about writing a script?

Y. Knott said...

"Moon Dance" was a special case ... they had to get Writers Guild clearance to make that happen. Normally, the WGA does not allow more than 5 names (6 in more recent years) to appear in the writing credits of a single episode of a sitcom or drama.

Same thing happened with the final ep of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. By prior special arrangement, that episode was credited to 7 writers (i.e., the entire full-time writing staff).

As for "how often it is that that many writers will work on one episode together on a series?" Well, every single episode of any Chuck Lorre show is group-written by the entire writing staff, usually 10+ people. However, the WGA will only allow a certain number of names in the credits, so in the writing credits the producers will just rotate staff writer names from week to week. (It's not quite random, as Chuck himself, and I believe one or two others, are in the official mix of on-screen names pretty much every week.) But every single episode of a show like Big Bang Theory, regardless of on-screen credit, is written in a room with the entire writing staff present and contributing from page one.

Liggie said...

"Mom" is a sitcom that gets the tone between comedy and serious right, from when the recovering addict characters make huge mistakes and especially in the episodes when important characters pass away. In the latter, they save jokes for a couple of scenes after or simply let the episode play out as serious, and the studio audience keeps a respectful silence.

@Don R, a classmate in my journalism classes worked in radio, and when the professor asked him if "WKRP" was pretty accurate, he said yes. The professor was genuinely curious, as her only radio experience was at a news station, where the talent and staff wore office attire and behaved seriously.

Liggie said...

"WKRP" also had one of the most serious episodes ever for a sitcom, produced in response of the deaths at a Who concert in Cincinnati. The show was written as a straight drama, with the characters discussing the tragedy, and there were maybe two jokes with audience laughter in total.

Jabroniville said...

I noticed "Actor/Producer" stuff more frequently in SEX AND THE CITY, where, of course, Carrie Bradshaw was repeatedly referred to as an extremely sexy, desirable woman with a great body. To say that most men I know had a different opinion would be a drastic understatement (SOUTH PARK called her a "transvestite donkey witch", for comparison). Also, she was the one actress who never had to get naked on the show, while the other three (especially Samantha) did -- Carrie even had sex with her bra on! Who in the hell does that?!?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Don R,
Ken actually got a similar question abt this not too long ago. Here’s the response

Carson said...

I notice that HULU now has all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H. By the way, it's in 16x9 HD and it looks great. I was wondering, do you get residuals off of this? I don't care to know how much, I'm just curious if you still get some type of compensation or if things in the 70s were just structured much differently.

Larry Commons said...

Friday question:
Ken, are there any sitcoms you feel have gotten an unfair rap over the years? Some first-season episodes of "The Partridge Family" and "Alice" had scripts & directing that actually were quite good -- but both of those series are often relegated to the TV junk heap.

estiv said...

Embarrassed that I didn't say this sooner: Thanks for answering my question, Ken.