Sunday, September 16, 2018

What's it like writing for animals?

A lot easier than directing them. On FRASIER the key to writing for Eddie was not asking too much of him. Moose (Eddie’s real name) had an extraordinary trainer in Mathilde de Cagny. As long as the stunt was quick and doable, Mathilde could get Moose to do it (always through treats and loving care). If there was some question while we were writing we would just ask Mathilde. More often than not she’d say Moose could do it. The dog was a gamer! With actors we had to ask their managers.

Other writers were more of a problem. One day in the writers room I pitched some bit with Eddie and a sock and one of the writers (who constantly drove everyone nuts) asked, “What is Eddie thinking now?” What is he fucking THINKING??! How do someone like that without being brought up on charges?

Moose passed away at 15, which is like 108 dog years. I'm only sorry he never got to be on INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO with James Lipton.

Directing animals is another story.

I directed an episode of JUST SHOOT ME called “Sewer”. The B-story had Nina (Wendie Malick) bringing in an orangutan. I forget why but I’m sure it was for a good reason. He was a little harder to train and was in a good part of the show.

On filming night I said to the actors, if he does anything unexpected just go with it and stay in character. We can always re-shoot the scene. Likewise, I told the four camera operators, if you’re on the orangutan and he does something wacky stay on him. Don’t go to your next shot.

Sure enough with cameras rolling and the audience in place, Wendie steps out of the elevator hand in hand with her furry friend, approaches David Spade’s counter, and has a brief exchange with him. The orangutan, who comes up to Wendie’s knees, lifts her dress a few inches, and peers right up between her legs. God love her, Wendie stayed completely in character and reacted with utter nonchalance. The audience went completely nuts. It was a five minute laugh.

After the show had been filmed and the audience released I went back to do some pick-ups. The orangutan’s trainer tapped me on the shoulder and gently told me it was past his bedtime. I said it would only be about another fifteen minutes. He repeated: “Uh, it’s past his bedtime.” I then asked what happens if he stays up after his bedtime?

“He bites everybody he sees.”

“Okay everybody, that’s a wrap!”

I’ve heard stories of actors who were reluctant to work with animals for fear of being upstaged, but I’ve never personally encountered one. However, I think there was a cat who once refused to work with Dustin Hoffman.


Glen said...

"I'm only sorry he never got to be on INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO with James Lipton." - Glad to know that you too hated his conceited vanity show.

Nancy said...

So only a cat had the guts to stand up to Dustin Hoffman's lecherous paws, huh?

David said...

Can you give your take on this article on Jon Plowman's book where he refused Hoffman's offer to direct a comedy series.

He has a pretty low opinion on Hoffman.

I thought, as someone who has acted in many comedy movies, Hoffman would be able to grasp comedy. But not Jon who says “Think how long it might have taken just to explain the gags to him.”

Ted said...

While I agree with you about Megan not deserving an Emmy, here is an article which blasts the Emmys for her not winning.

And you should see the number of articles bemoaning that she deserved to win. #JUSTICEFORMEGAN is the new hashtag.

And if you thought it's all over then she is coming back for season 2

God save Emmy.

Frank Beans said...

Friday question:

Who do you think would be easier to work with--Dustin Hoffman, or a cranky cat with a SAG Card?

VP81955 said...

I saw Wendie Malick at a "Hot In Cleveland" filming the day she turned 64. (We received commemorative cookies with her picture on them, and she admitted her age to us, unlike many of the characters she might play.) What a pro, and I'm glad to see her in a few eps of "Mom" as Adam's ex.

Craig Gustafson said...

On "My Favorite Martian," Ray Walston was doing a scene with a chimp. The chimp went psycho and ripped Walston's face. Out to the hospital for stitches, then right back to the set.

Janet Ybarra said...

The original STAR TREK series episode "The Trouble With Tribbles" in the '60s introduced a cute new little animal called a tribble.

Tribbles were cute little puff balls and the twist was they multiply exponentially. The episode was essentially a comedy and toward the end of the episode Captain Kirk opens an overhead hatch and dozens of fuzzy little tribbles start raining down on him.

After the episode first aired, the network began receiving angry hateful letters complaining how these little tribbles obviously had been abused animals during production.

The series producers were surprised by these letters but then had the last laugh. Tribbles were never real animals. They were simply inanimate props.

That's always been my favorite "working with animals" story.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Wasn't it W.C. Fields that said, "Never work with animals or children?" But seriously, one of the things I noticed about Eddie/Moose was how little direct interaction he had with the other actors. In other words Eddie was present, Martin would walk him, they would talk to him, but rarely ever touched Eddie. I've heard that some animal trainers don't want actors getting to familiar with an animal because they want to have the animal's full attention. i.e. The trainers don't want the dog or whatever focusing on an actor when he's supposed to be paying attention to the trainer. This is most evident when a dog is obviously looking at something offstage (the trainer) instead of at the actor in a scene. There are exceptions. On MARRIED WITH CHILDREN you would see the actors occasionally petting or brushing or trying to teach a trick to, "Buck." (The dog) As of this writing I can't remember how actors interacted with Lassie or other famous T.V. dogs. Maybe there's a trainer out there who can give us some insight.
P.S. I used to know someone that had a Jack Russell terrier. Not my favorite breed.

estiv said...

On Dustin Hoffman: supposedly the mostly polite but still megalomaniacal character played by Danny DeVito in Get Shorty was based on Elmore Leonard’s experiences with Hoffman, while planning a movie project that never got made. The scene where DeVito meets John Travolta and Rene Russo at a restaurant for breakfast, arrives late, convinces them to cancel what they’ve ordered and instead get a special dish that isn’t on the menu, then leaves before the food arrives, all without ever stopping talking, is a minor classic. I’ve watched it and tried to imagine Dustin Hoffman doing that. It seems completely plausible.

I really hate saying this, because I remember when he was still a New York theater actor who showed up on public television regularly, and seemed to be an egoless chameleon, totally dedicated to his craft. Then the first years of his fame as a movie star followed that trajectory. Now—jeez mareez. I guess fame can be a slow-acting poison.

Janet Ybarra said...

Children still need to be reunited with their parents after being legally kidnapped on orders of this president.

People presently are barred from entry from the US due their religion... again due to this president.

Journalists are being murdered (ask the people of Annapolis MD) due to this president stigmatizing the press as "enemies of the people," once again by this president.

I'm sorry, there are many, many, many more people who require justice much more seriously than some poor screenwriter who got her feelings hurt that she didn't win an Emmy.

It's a shame Megan Amram doesn't put all this energy toward helping one of the truly vulnerable groups targeted in our country right now.

VP81955 said...

The great William Schallert guested on that tribble ep.

Nickname unavailable said...

I was the warmup guy for 200+ episodes of Frasier, and let me tell you -- Moose (Eddie) was always a treat for the audience. His little animal antics were such a wonderful complement to the whip-smart writing and acting. It was brilliant to write that dog into the show.

I told sooooo many Moose jokes. And Mathilde would bring him out and run him through some tricks in between scenes. That dog loved performing. And treats.

- David Willis

Matt said...

I think this is from a previous post, but I love it. It is stories like these that bring me back everyday.


Mike Barer said...

In answer to VP81955, I checked Wendie on Wikipedia and they list her age at 67.

Gilligan said...

Ken, I've been reading your blog for a few years and have grown to respect and treasure your insights about the process of comedy (and drama) writing. Thanks to you, I've watched shows and read reviews that made me appreciate the nature of theatre and personal relationships from a much more natural, plausible point of view. I just saw an episode of Bojack Horseman that made me think of you, called "Free Churro", in which Bojack delivers the eulogy at his mother's funeral. Everything you've written about seems to be there, including "Becker". You helped me look at the show from a lot of angles I wouldn't have otherwise, and enjoy it and be affected by it on a lot of levels I didn't understand before. Thank you. And just because I'm a dick, the word for nature's fast, visible electrical flashes from the sky is "lightning". "Lightening" is what d-bags do for their hair on the beach.

Missy said...

I'd like to mention the Phil Silvers episode, "The Court Martial" that stars a chimpanzee.
May be the greatest adlib and staying in character in television history.

E. Yarber said...

One time I was at the Jerry's Deli by the Beverly Center for lunch. A man and woman were in the booth next to mine. When the waiter arrived, the guy decided to impress his companion by showing how the elite did things. Setting the menu aside, he said, "You know, I have a feeling today for something special... could your chef put together a salad like SO?" He then proceeded to go into an elaborate description of what he wanted, delivered in tones of disinterested grandeur.

I thought for a moment of explaining to him that the Danny DeVito bit in GET SHORTY was not meant as a how-to guide but a satire on how the character had enough status in the business to get away with such nonsense, but this fellow really seemed to enjoy delivering a summer stock imitation of the scene.

The server came to me next. I ordered one of their regular sandwiches. It arrived and I had a cup of coffee afterward while polishing off three essays by Montaigne over the course of the meal. As I packed up and left my tip, the guy and his date were still sitting at the next table waiting for their order.

"This place really has terrible service," he explained to her.

Villagedianne said...

Anyone could see how cheap the props were in Star Trek TOS. How could anyone think the producers would spring for real animals?

MikeN said...

Dianne, what are you talking about, low-budget? The show paid for aliens!

msdemos said...


"However, I think there was a cat who once refused to work with Dustin Hoffman."

But that was ONLY because that was the play that he was portraying a sexy, juicy, BEEFSTEAK tomato......and as we ALL know, when Dustin Hoffman is doing his "tomato", ESPECIALLY his BEEFSTEAK tomato, he is almost always VERY difficult to deal with....