Friday, October 19, 2018

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Andrew Morton starts us off:

I've been re-watching a lot of CHEERS on Netflix, and noticed at a certain point that the character of Paul was featured almost as a regular. Was there a reason he was brought in so frequently? He's always fun, but for a show that had so many main characters to service, it had me wondering if there was a behind-the-scenes reason for his prominence.

Paul Willson is one of the funniest people on the planet. I was first introduced to him when he was part of the improv group, OFF THE WALL.

I don’t think there was any conscious effort to make Paul a regular but he always scored so we all just kept giving him more lines and even subplots.

I think part of it was to keep the show fresh. How many Cliff know-it-all and Norm beer-drinking jokes can you do? Paul gave us another option. And like I said, he always delivered.

David Isaacs and I even wrote an episode where a hot woman preferred Paul to Sam. It’s one of my favorite episodes.

From Donald:

Would you consider writing a spec "Bob Newhart Show" script as you did for "The Dick Van Dyke Show?"

No. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was a one-time exercise. Part of the attraction was that I was too young to write a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW when it was originally broadcast. Not so with THE BOB NEWHART SHOW.

When David Isaacs and I were trying to break in we wrote specs for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, RHODA, two pilots, and we were in the process of outlining a HAPPY DAYS script. After HAPPY DAYS our next spec would have been THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. So in a sense I'm thrilled I never did write a BOB NEWHART SHOW because it meant we had broken in and were working writers. 

But you get the idea we were sort of driven?

Janet Ybarra asks:

I would be very interested in your thoughts on why--given the poor performance of so many reboots--why producers and networks remain so fixated on them as a trend?

Well, let’s see if networks continue to have an appetite for them. They might not.

What reboots give the networks is familiarity. With all of the new shows being introduced on all the various platforms, at least people KNOW the reboots. And since a couple have been successful that’s enough for all networks to grasp at that brass ring.

But clearly they’re stunts and a short-fix. If a reboot opens well, even if it then starts to slide – the hosting network is happy. I don’t think they’re looking for a possible nine-year run. They want decent ratings for thirteen weeks and a built-in audience.

And finally, from B. Alton:

Was wondering if writers agonize over the funniest numbers (such as a reference to a certain year in a line of dialogue), that is, a number that sounds funnier than another. An example that comes to mind being in Bob Newhart’s old standup routine where the Codfish’s captain announces to his crew (via intercom) that their submarine holds the record for sunken Japanese tonnage, established in 1954. Would 1953 or 1956 have sounded less funny?

Life’s too fucking short. Yes, there are writers who might spend an hour deciding on a number, but I would submit they’re insecure comedy writers. If I’m depending on a laugh based on whether I choose 1954 or 1953 I’m not delivering the goods.

For me it has more to do with rhythm. If I have to make up a date I’ll generally use a low number because it’s quicker and easier to say. “He hasn’t gotten laid since June third” has a better flow than “He hasn’t gotten laid since June twenty-seventh.” But is 3 a funnier number than 27? That’s for scholars to decide.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


RockGolf (not his real name) said...

I don't know if you intended it, but the "June third" date you chose may indeed be the most effective date in telling a joke.
Both words are only one syllable. "June" is the only one-syllable month that can't be mistaken for a verb ("May" or "March" being the only others), and "third" is among the few one-syllable ordinals. Anything after the 3rd ends in a soft "th" sound that doesn't have the punch (the Don Rickles "Hockey Puck" rule), and the "first" may cause people to overthink that something special happens on the first of the month.
Brevity is the soul of wit, and in this case it might actually be measurable.

Curt Alliaume said...

Here's a good terminology question: reboot vs. revival? I've found people use them interchangeably, but to me there's a difference. A reboot is a new version of a program with an all-new cast (Hawaii Five-0, Magnum, P.I.), whereas a revival is a new version of a program with the same cast (Will & Grace, Murphy Brown).

(There will now be a slight pause while all readers say to themselves "Who the hell cares?")

VP81955 said...

I thought from the outset that a "Magnum" reboot was self-defeating, especially since the actor who first played the role was active on the same network. It would've made far more sense if this was Magnum's son doing the investigating, not the same character.

Janet Ybarra said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! Based on your answer, I have a follow-up (yeah, I know, but I used to be a reporter for a living ;))...

Do you think these reboots (even if they have limited lives as you suggest), will be added to the original series' syndication packages?

In other words, will the new MURPHY BROWN be added to the old, same for WILL AND GRACE, etc

Thanks again!

James said...

An FQ: you've told the story a few times of submitting a spec Mary Tyler Moore script and getting it shot down by David Lloyd. When you look back at it now, do you see where the faults are and what you would correct now that you're experienced writers, or were the MTM producers just wrong and passed on a perfectly good script?

Unknown said...

Funny numbers are a topic I have had at 4 AM with comedy writer friends. I always go back to the master Buddy Sorrell in the classic Dick Van Dyke episode "The Curious Thing About Women". Rob, Buddy and Sally are writing a sketch and Buddy wants to change a number used in the sketch:

Sally Rogers:
What's a matter with fifteen?

Maurice (Buddy) Sorrell:
Thirty-two's a funnier number.

Sally Rogers:
Since when?

Maurice (Buddy) Sorrell:
Thirty-two has ALWAYS been a funnier number! I hear thirty-two, I get hysterical! Watch. [turns to Rob] Try me.

Rob Petrie:

Maurice (Buddy) Sorrell:
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooo!

Sally Rogers:
Well, I gotta admit he's right.

To give the actual credit for the dialogue I have to reference the episode's writer "David Adler". David Adler in reality was the blacklisted writer Frank Tarloff, who had to write under different names after being blacklisted during the McCarthy hearings. Carl Reiner has spoken strongly about that time and how he would not cave in to the committee's baiting. Reiner remained good friends with Tarloff and you'll see David Adler as writer of several Dick Van Dyke episodes.

Ken - did you ever meet Tarloff or talk with other writers of that era who worked under other names?

McAlvie said...

I find the reboots both promising and sad at the same time. Promising because it means networks are once again thinking about broader audience appeal, and sad because it makes me think they aren't up to the task of capturing the appeal with original programming.

I was slightly encouraged by this fall's line up. Not saying they are all great shows, but at least I did want to check them out. And while cable and streaming services abound with edgy, dark, anti-hero serial dramas, your basic family sitcom or hour-long pg-rated drama - once network standards - would be a good niche for the networks. They'd only need to compete against each other again. They just have to re-learn how to do this.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Let's face it: we keep getting reboots, revamps, revivals, remakes, etc. because Hollywood would rather play it safe and bank on nostalgia, than the possibility of risking a chance on something new, fresh, and original, and it bomb - because then they'll lose a lot of money, and that's all Hollywood cares about anymore: numbers, ratings, profits, and revenue. This is the same reason so many movies today have so many unnecessary sequels: if they can franchise something, they can milk more money out of it than they can stand-alone features.

But anyway, here's a Halloween-based Friday Question:

When shows do Halloween episodes, or even episodes that take place at conventions, where the characters will obviously be dressing in costume as other copyrighted characters, do the showrunners/producers/studios/whoever have to obtain permission to have their characters dress as other characters, or would that be something that would fall under Fair Use?

Mike Doran said...

I guess you missed my reply to B. Alton's comment about whether 1954 was funnier than another year would have been.

1954 wasn't funny in and of itself.
What made the Newhart gag funny was the overall context.

… the Codfish holds the record for the most Japanese tonnage sunk …
… unfortunately, they were sunk in 1954 …
… but it does stand as the record for the most peacetime tonnage sunk …

Bob Newhart could conceivably have used any year in which the USA and Japan were not technically at war; 1954 just happened to be at a close proximity to 1959, which is when he wrote and performed the monolog (and when the real-life event he was satirizing - a submarine that had sailed around the world for over a year without surfacing - was still fresh in the audience's mind).
Newhart always counted on his audiences being well-enough informed about things to get his references; these days, any standup comic is pretty much on his own in that regard.

Chris G said...

I remember a Sesame Street bit where Cookie Monster demands 87 cookies, and I think in that context 87 is funnier than other numbers because of the rhythm of the words and the specificity of it. Somehow 87 feels more specific to me than 88 or 86 or 97.

Joe said...

Jerry Krull,

I remember that Dick Van Dyke Show scene, and this is probably the reason 32 was chosen:

Even though Frank Tarloff wrote the episode, Carl Reiner must have polished it, and he probably harkened back to this moment in the writing room of "Your Show of Shows."

Peter said...

Ken, here's something that will make your blood boil and should make everyone angry. Screenwriter Terry Rossio has tweeted that he and his writing partner have not received any payment or credit for the forthcoming live action remake of Aladdin even though it's using their story and dialogue.

I was shocked to read that writers of animation don't get the same protection as regular screenwriters.

How has this been allowed to happen for so long? It's disgusting. I already wasn't keen on this remake because it's directed by that hack Guy Ritchie, and as much as I like Will Smith, he's no Robin Williams, but now I definitely won't see it.

kitano0 said...

I submit that "Buick" is the funniest sounding car name, and that Guam is a funny sounding country. To wit:

"Do you have any tattoos?"

"No, but I have a liver spot that looks like Guam"

Barry Gilpin said...

Call me crazy, but I’m enjoying the Magnum reboot. It’s not terrible (like most shows) and it’s a fairly easy watch. It’s nowhere near the original but I didn’t expect it to be.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Thirty-two is not funny. However, 23 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Rick Hannon said...

I smiled to myself when I read your closing line about the humor inherent in certain numbers being a matter best left to scholars ... and then I read the comments. Holy shit, there ARE scholars who look at this! Guys: a cure for cancer, peace in the mid-East, a good 10-cent cigar ... there are other things crying for your attention ...

Unknown said...

@Rick Hannon - I agree with you. When comedy writers start talking about 'what number is funnier' at 4 am, you know you're burnt out! It's more like what Ken described (not worth the time), but in the wee hours of the morning when you're punching up a script or a sketch, you can drift into a discussion about 'is this the funniest we can come up with'? I assure you the 'funniest number' discussion was at best, 2 minutes.

Other comedy questions that are not worth much time are; "What is the funniest name for...(person, pet, street, town, etc.) When I was 10 I wrote a sketch script for the family Thanksgiving show my cousins used to put on for our parents. I wanted a funny name so I grabbed the phone book and looked at page after page until I found "Elmer Shaw". I thought it was hilarious. 7 years later I worked at Burger King and one of the managers was Theresa Shaw - you guessed it - her husband was Elmer Shaw.

I had to shut down a late night writer's conversation about what color was funniest? Really? Purple! No, Chartreuse is funnier! I said it was ridiculous trying to pick the funniest color. Someone agreed. Then I added, "We all know Paisley is funniest." Don't ever try to pass "Paisley" as a color to tired writers - even in jest.

Carl said...

Re : Aladdin story.

They are not getting royalties is more like it, since the original movie's content is being still used for the 4th movie.

But are they entitled to? Do they get residuals from the movie they worked on?

If they get residuals then its alright, if not, it's wrong.

Re: Royalties - No point in crying now, as it was well known at the time they wrote or animated the movie. Nothing out of the blue.

Jon said...

I have a recorded interview with Jack Benny, and one of the things he discusses is his long-running gag about claiming he was only 39-years-old. Benny explains that when that bit started, back in the 30s, he was pretending to be 32. Over the years, they kicked the number up and up, but stopped when they reached 39. The person conducting the interview asked why, and Benny replied that 39 was a funny number, but 40 wasn't. At least as it pertained to a vain man who thought he was getting away with something by claiming to be much younger than he actually was. So as to the question of whether or not a number is "funny," maybe context has a lot to do with it.

Unknown said...

42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.
But what was the question?

Mr. Darcy said...

Jerry Krull
Thanks for the memory! That is a hilarious scene!

Buttermilk Sky
If you think that 23 is funnier than 32, you obviously didn’t watch the clip that Joe shared, which had a whole bevy of great comedy writers on stage and they all agreed on 32. That clip was from a 2 hour show I would love to have seen!

Astroboy said...

Funniest number, today I would ask Jerry Seinfeld. He has to be the master technician when it comes to jokes. I don't think I've ever heard him use the wrong word or even have an extra syllable in his entire act, every word or pause is perfectly placed.

Anonymous said...

"The Curious Thing About Women" is the script Tarloff/Adler wrote that was a reworking of an I MARRIED JOAN episode Tarloff had co-written in the early 1950s. The details were different between the VAN DYKE and JOAN scripts, but the basic story was the same. Tarloff also carried over the bit with the self-inflating raft from the JOAN episode.

Always wondered if Carl Reiner knew the origin of Tarloff's "The Curious Thing About Women" script.

Unknown said...

I just discovered the Carney Awards - an annual award show recognizing the character actors. The 4th annual Carney Awards are taking place in a couple of weeks. They list you as being on the board that chooses nominees/winners. Care to share any thoughts? I see it was aired on COZI TV last year.

Greg Ehrbar said...

In the Honeymooners episode in which Ralph though he had Arterial Monochromia, Ed Norton pretended to be a doctor and said he was educated at "P.S. 32, Urster Bay." I have a feeling it's a vaudeville thing. Numbers that end in two seem funny.

While it's not worth spending too much time over, saying a number is still saying a word and worthy of some consideration. I'll bet 87 was chosen for Cookie Monster because it sounds higher. Kmart used 88 after their prices because is seemed lower.

B. Alton said...

Mike, Yeah, of course I realize that the point of the Newhart Codfish Japanese ship reference was that the record was established after the end of WW 2. I was just wondering if Newhart, when writing the monologue, took pains in thinking a postwar year that sounded funnier (to him) than others (1946, 1949, 1955, etc.) as, on the record, the line gets as big a reaction as his follow-up line about the peacetime tonnage sunk (which is redundant because the audience members are, of course aware, that 1954 is postwar), It wasn’t the best example for the funniest number question, I know, it’s just that I couldn’t remember the Woody Allen film where his character is asked how long it has been since he’s been on a date and he says something like ‘what’s today?...Monday, Tuesday...two years.’ I’m guessing it’s from either Take the Money and Run or from Bananas.

Ken: thanks for answering my FQ.

Frank Beans said...

Daphne: Miss Venezuela's skirt is cut so short you can practically see Caracas!

I love it, but how did FRASIER even get away with that?

Maybe this is a Friday question of sorts--where have networks historically drawn the line between "obscene" language and innuendo?

Jeff Boice said...

To Jerry Krull: W.C. Fields agreed with you about Elmer being the funniest name for a man. He thought Clarence was #2. You can find an article he wrote in 1934 that was reprinted in the Films of W.C. Fields book.

In the case of the number, it was the way Imogene pronounced "thirty-two" that made it work. Or the way Carl imitated Imogene saying "thirty-two" in the clip.

Wally said...

Ralph C. said...

Clerks and a certain number...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

All this talk of names and such, has anybody else besides me ever noticed that, in fiction, the same names tend to be used for the same kind of characters?

For example, notice how a lot of arrogant and petty guys are named Frank? Frank Burns (M*A*S*H), Frank Costanza (SEINFELD), Frank Barone (EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND), even in real life Frank Oz has been noted to be like this at times.

Or, how about a number of simple-minded, absent-minded, or no-minded characters are named Ed? There's Ed from ED, EDD N EDDY, Ed from GOOD BURGER, Ed from THE LION KING . . . and, to a lesser extent, some of these kinds of characters seem to be named Clyde.

Johnny seemed to also be a common name for mobsters or rebels in decades past.

Sometime brought up Jerry Seinfeld, I remember he did a bit about this on his show: does Bozo the Clown really need "the Clown" as part of his name? Are we going to confuse him for Bozo the District Attorney? Similarly, all butlers seem to be named Jeeves, and when you name a baby "Jeeves," you've pretty much mapped out his whole future - no chance he'll end up being a hitman or anything.

John H. said...

"David Isaacs and I even wrote an episode where a hot woman preferred Paul to Sam. It’s one of my favorite episodes."

I love that episode.

"Portly Sam, the word is portly." Gets me everytime.

Cap'n Bob said...

Catch 22 was originally titled Catch 18. The publisher thought 22 was a better number and changed it. I think he was right.

Joey said...

VP81955 said… “I thought from the outset that a "Magnum" reboot was self-defeating.... It would've made far more sense if this was Magnum's son doing the investigating, not the same character.” In fact, John Rogers and Eva Longoria were tasked two years ago with writing such a sequel. “‘We knew no one could replace the iconic role of Thomas Magnum, so John decided to make the reboot a sequel and continue the adventure of a Magnum — his daughter, who was established in the original series,' Longoria...told Deadline.’”

Unknown said… “42 is the [ultimate] answer to life, the universe and everything. But what was the question?” It was, “What do you get when you multiply six by nine.” Because Adams was a genius.

Unknown said...

So long and thanks for all the fish...

mandy said...

not really a question, but how annoying is it that:

on certain streaming episodes of cheers, they've replaced songs that are really integral to the joke- two that i can think of off the top of my head are 1) "bar wars V" when gary arranges for "monster mash" to be playing all over the bar and 2) in "grease" when sam plays "i fought the law" to taunt rebecca who is distraught at robin having to pick up trash...

there's also the opening where carla originally dances to "shout" but the streaming version has swapped it out for some generic weird song. i assume this is due to licensing issues but it's such a bummer!

Oriole Adams said...

Unsure if this question is appropriate for publication, but I'll take a chance anyway. I am fairly certain that many years ago (probably in the early 1980s...?) that I read an article in TV Guide or some other source that mentioned that Alan Alda was in some dire financial straits at one time due to some bad investments and that's why he started writing episodes of M*A*S*H. That way he not only collected his regular acting paycheck, but the writing credit gave him additional income. Any truth to this story?

By Ken Levine said...


That's complete and utter fiction. Alan has always done very well. He wrote because he had the talent and passion.

Unknown said...

There are also funny places. Scranton. Not just "The Office," but the episode of "All in the Family" where Edith has The Change. Archive wants to go to Disney World and Edith wants to visit her cousin in Scranton. Granted, it helps if Jean Stapleton is the one yelling, "I wanna go to Scranton!!!" but still. I'm also thinking of a Honeymooners where Trixie explains to Alice why she and Ed can't go on a European vacation; she says that Ed believes in "See America First." Trixie: "So far, we've been to Yonkers, Bayonne, and Scranton." The trifecta of what I recall as comedy-punchline cities.

Johnny Walker said...

I've had this Friday question for ages, but I've never posted it:

I've seen this a million times in sitcoms: One characters says to another, "My god! You look terrible! White as a sheet! Are you OK?" CUT TO: Actor looking perfectly tan and healthy, groaning, "Yeah, I think it's that fish from last night" (or whatever).

Why don't they ever make up the actors to, you know, ACTUALLY LOOK ILL?

Johnny Walker said...

Joey said:: It was, “What do you get when you multiply six by nine.” Because Adams was a genius.

Actually that was the WRONG QUESTION to the right answer, thanks to Earth getting infested with humans and ruining the results.

JAS said...

Hi, Ken! I just discovered your blog a few weeks ago, and I'm working my way through the archives (I'm back in 2009 at the moment!). There's so much gold on this blog. Thank you for writing it! Here's my FQ for you:

As someone who has built your career as part of a writing team, but also as someone who has gotten into directing solo, do you have any thoughts about this:

Would you be able to direct a show with David, if he were interested, or is really more of a one-man operation? Do you agree with the DGA's decision? Are their rules too restrictive? Why does it matter to the union if both members of the team have already agreed? Why do you think directing partnerships aren't more common?

Okay, that was a lot, but I'm just curious for your take. I saw this story and it struck me as a really strange situation.

Pat Howard said...

Hey Ken what are your thoughts on the Detroit Tigers opening for a new announcing team are you sending your tapes? Pat Howard Bad Axe, MI.

By Ken Levine said...


They never should have let Mario go. The fight was not his fault. I feel bad for Tiger fans -- they're losing a top flight announcer.