Friday, August 17, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions everybody. Come and get ‘em.

Dsull leads off with a question about the five sitcoms I listed as my all-time favorites.

With the exception Seinfeld, all your favorite sitcoms come from your younger days. Do you think you have a bias toward that era or do you genuinely believe the shows were just better then? And if that's the case, any thoughts on why? Or is it possible that after writing professionally for so many years, the shows just don't feel as fresh to you? Granted, many lists would have quite a few of your shows on it so obviously your list will look different than most!

Part of the reason those older shows were on my list is because they inspired me and made me want to become a writer. Are they “better” than more current shows? That’s a matter of personal taste. But I will say this. These older shows still hold up some fifty or sixty years later. Will 30 ROCK or VEEP (I selected series that won Best Comedy Emmys) be seen and appreciated sixty years from now?

When I taught a “Foundations of Comedy” course at USC and screened an episode of BILKO to a room of a hundred Millennials, it received uninterrupted laughter. If you are a student of comedy it’s worth going back and watching these iconic series.

SK has a question regarding my recent podcast where I talked about the process of making an episode of CHEERS. Check it out if you haven’t already.

"The Making of CHEERS" podcast had a detail I never considered: there is more time to write (and rewrite) episodes earlier in the season; but episodes written later are sometimes only single drafts. That inspired me to ask ask my first-ever Friday Question (and it's multi-part!): Do those time considerations affect the order that episodes are written? Are episodes written in the planned order of production/broadcast? Or were "important" episodes (like those broadcast during sweeps, or season finales) addressed earlier to provide more time to refine them?

One of the reasons networks don’t like serialized shows, especially sitcoms, is because they like the flexibility of airing them in whatever order they please. This often leads to fights between the showrunner and the network and most of the time the network wins.

Some episodes are programmed specifically for sweeps. Those usually involve stunt casting or weddings. And if filming is subject to availability of the big stunt guest star, those episodes might be filmed early and held back.

Also, holiday-themed episodes are locked into air dates regardless of when they’re filmed.

Personally, as a showrunner I liked the flexibility of being able to shuffle the cards. If we had a show that didn’t come out great that’s the one we would save to go up against the World Series or the finals of THE VOICE. Being able to hide your weaker shows is a blessing.

Tim Cabeen also listened to my podcast about the making of CHEERS.

I have one curious question: Was there ever an episode that was so good from the first draft that little or no rewrites were needed? There are so many good ones that it would be cool to know that any one of them was perfect from the get go.

There was only one CHEERS script that received no rewriting whatsoever, and it was one that my partner David Isaacs and I wrote. Now before you think, “Wow, it must’ve been the greatest first draft ever” just know that the reason it wasn’t rewritten was because there was a WGA strike and no one was allowed to rewrite it. It’s the first Bar Wars episode. It came out okay, but you know what? It could have used a rewrite.

Finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

Have you heard of or seen MASTERCLASS? It’s a series of online classes taught by some really big names. They run the gamut from Comedy with Steve Martin, Cooking with Gordon Ramsay and Photography with Annie Leibovitz. But how its applicable to this blog is they also have writing classes. Including Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes and David Mamet. The reviews I've read have been mostly positive, but not all. And of course it’s not free. What's your opinion of this kind of instruction for T.V./screen/theater? If they asked you and David to do one, would you?

Sure I would. To get folks like Aaron Sorkin and Steve Martin on board you gotta pay big bucks.Sign me up!

Are the MASTERCLASSES good? I’m sure they are. I have not seen one. I suspect some are better than others. The big question, which I can’t answer is, are they worth what customers have to pay to take them? Would love to hear from some readers who have taken one or more of these courses. Thanks.

Please leave your Friday Questions in the comment section.  Thanks for that too. 


Boomska316 said...

I'd say the second Bar Wars could have used a few more rewrites. ;)

Jonny M. said...

Friday Question: Just watched the Cheers episode "Simon Says" with John Cleese. Cleese is hilarious, definitely one of the top five guest stars on Cheers. I have no idea if he was cast before or after the episode is written, but I imagine that once the writers knew it was him they tailored the script to his talents. How do you approach writing for a major talent who you know has the ability to knock it out of the park? Is it more fun? Harder? Both?

C. Warren Dale said...

I am working my way through Cheers again, and the season four episode "Someday My Prince Will Come" reminded me of a question I've wondered since I was a kid - when the script calls for a character to be less than attractive, what are the casting calls like? Are the auditions sensitive or awkward? Do you turn people away for being too attractive? Do you feel the need to scale back some of the jokes at the character's expense once there's a real person involved?

Jonny M. said...

Another Friday question: You often talk about giving writers more freedom from network interference as way to making better shows. After browsing through the list of original content on Amazon Prime and Hulu (where I'm assuming interference is limited), I'm seeing a lot of stinkers. Does this not give some credence to the idea that left to their own devices writers will often stray into vanity projects with limited appeal and questionable quality? I suppose those personal projects have brought us some great shows like Mad Men, but then on the other side you have results like A Crisis in Six Scenes (shouldn't have someone interfered with this one?).

Dene said...

Dear Ken

Re that perennial favourite, the M*A*S*H laugh track: something that struck me recently is how lucky we are that there is the option to watch the show without it on DVD. I can't think of a single other series where that's the case. You HAVE to watch Bewitched etc. with the laughter.

So my question is: hypothetically, would this be the case if AfterMASH ever makes it to DVD? Do you remember if that series was produced with both options?


E. Yarber said...

I once had a conversation with a guy who could not understand PEANUTS. To him, the strip was simple and bland. He felt everyone should be appreciating TUMBLEWEEDS, which had more elaborate dialogue. I tried to explain to him that PEANUTS was actually much more innovative in the long run precisely BECAUSE it was so direct in its visuals and characterization, while what apparently impressed the other fellow was the way TUMBLEWEEDS seemed to call attention to its own cleverness, making him feel it was more sophisticated.

That's why it's good to get back to the iconic early shows, with their non-meta simplicity and understanding of how to make people LAUGH. Kramden and Bilko may have been larger than life, but they were fully alive within their fictional worlds. A lot of later characters strike me as going through the paces of people on television programs.

Matt said...

I've taken several of the MASTERCLASSES (my wife got me a yearlong pass). I've taken the Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet class. They're interactive, you can submit writing samples, leave comments etc. The only thing I wish they'd do is make a Roku app. Otherwise you watch on your computer, iPad or Phone.

All of the classes have a "workbook", and under the resources tab some have have scripts for downloading. Sorkin's class has "A Few Good Men", "The Social Network" and "Steve Jobs". To be fair, these are widely available a hundred other places. Mamet just has the workbook, but Shonda Rhimes has a fair amount of resources:

*Grey's Anatomy Story Bible
*Scandal 301 script
*Scandal Pilot: Alternative Opening Scenes
*Scandal Pilot: Early Draft
*Scandal Pilot: Final Draft

A Ken Levine MASTERCLASS would be pretty cool. The resources tab could have Larry Gelbart's handwritten draft of "The More I See You", as well as the final draft. I've got the final draft and would gladly contribute! With the many hours you and David have contributed to television history, the Ken Levine-David Isaacs MASTERCLASS is needed.


Roseann said...

I second what Matt said.

Lisa said...

If I may ask, how much did it cost? A general idea would be helpful.

Luke said...

Ken not a question but a request. Please can you make a list of the most painful movies you have ever watched.

Seeing 'Dirty Grandpa' and 'Snatched' in the last 2 days, made me ask this :(

Chris said...

Friday question: I've been trying to figure this information out, but it's complicated. When did shows start being room-written? That is, I know I Love Lucy also had a "writer's room" (if you can call three people that, but it was essentially a collaborative effort) but I know you mentioned a bunch of times that back when you started out, a "written by" credit actually meant the writer came up with the story, then went off and wrote it on his own, and re-writes were usually done by the showrunners on their own.

I know Seinfeld was a very bizarre experience since by the 90s it had become the only show not to have a room where writers competed side by side to get the best joke in every line. Everyone involved mentioned it was a unique experience, never to be encountered again post-Seinfeld.

So my question would be, when and why did people start gravitating towards the writer's room for most of the writing (breaking stories, re-writing, etc) and why has that happened, especially considering writing shows became easier since seasons went down from 39 episodes to 23-26, then 22?

Andy Rose said...

Even on non-serialized shows, airing out of order can cause problems. On the second season of the Dukes of Hazzard, the producers decided to change one of the signature vehicles at the same time they were dealing with temporary walkouts by two cast members and the extended illness of a third. They concocted cover stories for everything, but CBS decided they didn't want a lot of consecutive episodes without the full cast and shuffled the air order. So in one episode, Sheriff Rosco is away for police training, then he's back in the next episode, then he's inexplicably in training again in the following episode. Daisy gets a new Jeep after her car is destroyed, then is seen driving the car again two shows later, etc.

For the old British show The Prisoner, there is a production order, an air order, and at least two different fan-preferred sequences for the episodes. Unfortunately, none of them completely eliminates plot continuity errors.

Jake said...

I know Aaron Sorkin wrote a couple of good movies and TV shows but why is he always considered the term of reference for a good writer? There are so many who have a bigger better body of work like yourself Ken, but why is he always mentioned whenever anything related to writing is spoken about?

I was watching this clip of Family Guy and the "Family Guy writer" shown in the episode injects himself with 'Sorkin Genius Juice'.

Rich said...

Why 1950's and (earlyi) 60's sitcoms were superior:
1) Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason were seasoned, world-class comedians with plenty of experience in every kind of venue (movies, radio, Broadway, vaudeville) in getting laughs. Nothing like having a real comic at the center of a show.
2) These shows were written by (again) seasoned, veteran comedy writers who were used to writing 39 shows a year for great radio comics like Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Burns & Allen, etc. The breadth and depth of their experience was invaluable.
3) Many fewer network execs back then, with almost no idiotic demographically-driven criteria other than, "Is it funny?" Imagine that.

Nobody looked at Sgt. Biliko and said, "Is this going to appeal to 18-34 year olds who consume at least three fast-food meals a week? What if we gave him a long-lost 7 year old daughter? Would that make him more likable?"

Stu West said...

So far I've started the Mamet, Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes Masterclasses and I was impressed by two of them.

Sorkin starts by talking straight to camera and giving advice on everything from his working method to tips on writing good dialogue. Then he gets a group of young writers together, critiques their spec screenplays and gets them to work on writing a resolution to the cliffhanger he left when he stopped writing The West Wing at the end of season four.

I thought the part where he was giving the writers feedback on their specs was just going to be filler but it is actually really interesting. For example, one guy in the group has written a piece of straight-to-video trash, something that doesn't even rise to the level of a Jason Statham vehicle, and instead of telling him it's total junk Sorkin manages to give pretty constructive pointers on how to make it better. That impressed me.

I've found the Shonda Rhimes class really interesting. A lot of the early videos are her giving advice on how best to approach running your own show. Which, fair enough, she is maybe the best-qualified person in the world to talk about that but I did find myself wondering occasionally how useful it's going to be to the people watching. At least some of the audience is going to end up writing for pay (I know I have) but how many of them are going to run their own show?

On the other hand, if Netflix keeps commissioning series at their current rate maybe the answer is that in the future everyone will get their own show for 15 episodes (but not be picked up for season two).

I haven't got very far with the David Mamet class. I admire a lot of his (earlier) plays and screenplays but he mostly comes off as a crank in what I've seen here. One of the videos is taken up by a diatribe about that time Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway and the cast made a speech. (Mamet thinks they should not have made a speech.) As someone looking to improve my craft, I didn't find it tremendously useful. I'll probably go back to it eventually. Maybe it improves.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ken, as always, thanks for taking the time to answer my F.Q. And thanks to Matt & Roseann for responding.

gottacook said...

Andy: Even more oddly, the two Prisoner episodes that are without a doubt sequential - the last two in air order, "Once upon a Time" and "Fall Out" - were written and produced many months apart, such that Leo McKern (the Number Two for these episodes and an earlier one) had to shave off his beard for another ongoing role in the meantime. This was dealt with by showing McKern apparently being "shaved" as part of his "resurrection" scene near the beginning of "Fall Out."

Matt said...


An all access pass for a year is $180. Considering that one class is $90, take three classes and you're ahead of the game!

VP81955 said...

Ken, you mentioned millennials and "Bilko." In the mid-'80s, I had a similar experience when I attended grad school at Iowa State and took a course on writing for broadcast. Early in the semester, the instructor brought in a VCR with a tape of a "Dobie Gillis" ep, about 20 years after its last episode aired. ("Dobie" was the first prime-time series I regularly watched.) The students were about a decade younger than I was, and initially didn't think much of a black-and-white show, but the pace was so fast and the writing and actors so good -- to heck with Gilligan, Maynard G. Krebs remains the definitive Bob Denver character -- that they got into it. I later interviewed Dwayne Hickman and the dearly missed William Schallert, and both asserted that breakneck pace (think "His Girl Friday" as a sitcom) made the show such a success.

Matt said...

Stu West,

I found the Mamet class to be a lot like seeing one of his classic plays for the first time: "what the hell is going on here?"

I had to watch it twice.

VP81955 said...

While many series have a season arc, showrunners also create a few episodes that don't have to air in order of production. I attended the first "Mom" filming of the third season ("Sawdust And Brisket," July 31, 2015) and at the time didn't think it was strong enough for a season opener. When the season began in early November (delayed by CBS Thursday night NFL coverage), the premiere ep starred Ellen Burstyn as Bonnie's dying, estranged mother (and Christy's grandmother). The "brisket" ep didn't run until Thanksgiving night,

Mark said...

Coincidentally, we did a post on shows with legs as context for our Netflix thread.

but it was mainly just an excusse to embed some MeTV promos (particularly the Kirk and Spock visit Mayberry massh-up).

Anonymous said...

And Dobie could be as meta as they come.
Broke the fourth wall as well as any show ever (with the possible exception of Burns and Allen).

Janet Ybarra said...

Although it's underrated, I think the Burns and Allen show was one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

And where did they hone their craft? Vaudeville. On stage. They had their own set of skills.

I think that is one of the biggest drags on most of the current sitcoms... the idea you find attractive "celebrities" who simply can be fed canned lines.

That's why so much stuff out there just sounds canned.

Mark said...

Depending on your tolerance for Anthony newly, you might check out Gurney slade which starts with the lead character getting bored and walking off the set in the middle of a sitcom

CarolMR said...

Janet Ybarra, thank you for mentioning the Burns and Allen Show. I watch it on Antenna TV all the time and laugh out loud at Gracie's antics and George's expressions. And look forward to the times when George speaks directly to the audience.

Lorimartian said...

The genius of Mamet and Sorkin is economy of language, although Sorkin can get carried away with long speeches (still generally economical). Aspiring writers should study their work. The broader your vocabulary, the more words from which to choose, depending on how your character speaks.

Justin Piatt said...

I am taking the Steve Martin Masterclass. I would say it's worth the money for it. I've learned a lot. It seems silly to think you could teach comedy - and really, his class is more about honing and developing comedy than out and out teaching it. Some of what he teaches is developing a stand up act, characters, editing, scripts (it includes a copy of his screenplay for Roxanne). It's a good class.

K said...

In a number of series I see many performers sharing the stage with other performers they have appeared with before. BBT at times seemed over run with roseanne refugees. On MOM I have seen "Chelsea" and "Candi" appear not to mention Jon Cryer etc.
The question is does this occur because the shows are using the same agents/talent reps as the previous shows or do the performers make recommendations ( i.e. "Hey so and so worked with me in the past and they were great") and/or do ensemble teams grow out of this? As an example it seems James Gardner had an ensemble he brought with him.
So is this planned, serendipitous, performer driven or agent driven? Or some blend of all above.

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: Do you think it was easier to make a show [less network interference, not as many crew members, etc.] in the earlier days of TV as compared to today or maybe 30 years ago? And, I guess this could be a second question: What shows from radio [pre-TV] do you think didn't make the transition to TV very well and should have remained on radio or relegated to the dustbin of history? (Yes, I know you're not THAT old but you seem more qualified than others to answer that question.)

Roger Owen Green said...

A Friday question for September. John Ritter would have been 70 on September 17. He died on September 11, 2003 (age 54). Any thoughts on him generally and specifically on MASH. Also, thoughts on incorporating his character's death on 8 Simple Rules.