Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Reassigning jokes

Every showrunner has his own set of rules, way of working, etc. When David Isaacs and I were running shows we had our own unwritten guidelines of do’s and don’ts. And one of them was not to give jokes from one actor to another.

There are many showrunners who disagree. And other showrunners who do agree but are forced to do it anyway.

During the rewriting process, especially for a multi-camera show, scripts change frequently. Jokes are added, jokes are cut, scenes are routinely changed or replaced. Sometimes you might think that upon hearing it, a certain joke would work better if one of the other characters said it. So the next day the joke is reassigned.

I think that’s a bad idea.

For several reasons.

First off, your characters in theory should be unique enough that only the character who originally said the joke COULD say the joke. If all the characters have the same attitude and are interchangeable that’s a much bigger problem.

But say a particular line could be said by another character. All that does is generate insecurity among the cast, and worse – competition among the cast. When Actor A loses a joke to Actor B what do you think Actor A is going to think about Actor B? You are asking for aggravation you do not need.

Now, like I said, some showrunners are aware of the pitfalls but are powerless to stop it. Why? Because the star of their show is an 800 pound gorilla and is running the show. And if they have big egos, and if they’re threatened by anyone else in the cast doing well they’ll often insist that they get every funny line. So lines at the initial table reading that go laughs for other actors suddenly turn up going to the star. Cybill Shepherd was a prime offender. There are others.

What they don’t understand is this: A high tide lifts all boats. If everyone in the ensemble gets laughs it only makes the star look better and the show more popular. Dick Van Dyke understood this. So did Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ray Romano to name a few. I won’t call out the other offenders but they’re not hard to ferret out – star of the show, often with their name in the title, manages to get the series cancelled within a couple of years. It’s almost a given. My heart goes out to those showrunners. I’d be fired in eleven minutes.

Here’s what you have to remember: When you’re in the writing room it’s easy to focus on the characters and move the chess pieces around as you wish. But you forget that real people play these characters. And they have real feelings. You need to take that into account. Taking away lines from actors and giving them to other actors is destructive and not worth the value of the laugh. But again, that’s my philosophy, my procedure. There are showrunners who WANT tension and insecurity on the set. They feel the actors give heightened performances as a result. I personally don’t. I want everyone on the stage to be happy, which is hard enough because there is so much you can’t control. Why makes things worse with something you CAN control?

Anyway, that’s my rant. Please don’t assign it to someone else.


VP81955 said...

Anna Faris, a recognized comedic actress (and a very good one), is top-billed on "Mom" and could easily have demanded all the jokes go her way, especially since Allison Janney of "West Wing" fame -- talented though she may be -- didn't really have a rep for comedy. But unlike some past Chuck Lorre stars (one of whom you've already mentioned), Faris remained professional and never gtiped, and so while Janney gets all the Emmys (in contrast, Anna's never even been nominated), Faris will have plenty of residuals from "Mom's" omnipresence in syndication.

Andrew said...

This is one of the reasons I love reading your blog, Ken. I appreciate the insights, and admire your integrity. I certainly prefer your approach, and the shows that you referred to speak for themselves. I remember hearing about both Seinfeld and Grammer, that they were always eager for their co-stars to get great lines, and didn't mind being overshadowed in a scene.

This is interesting to me: "There are showrunners who WANT tension and insecurity on the set. They feel the actors give heightened performances as a result." I'd love to hear more about whether this worked in some cases. Were there some shows that were improved by contrived tensions among the cast, aggravated by the showrunners? Sometimes that approach can work in other creative endeavors, although a price is paid in the process.

It reminds me of band leaders. I'm thinking of jazz and big band, although I'm sure it's true of rock and other genres. Some band leaders went for a more kind and conciliatory approach among their ensembles (e.g. Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington). Others went for a more provoke-and-frustrate approach (e.g. Miles Davis, Buddy Rich). The results were great either way in many cases.

E. Yarber said...

The most extreme case of shuffling jokes I ever encounter was when I had to salvage an animated project. The filmmakers had gotten a loan of twenty million dollars from a bank and had to produce a finished picture within five years. Four years had passed and the script at hand was completely useless. I was sent a group of character sketches and locations to use.

I spent three weeks working from scratch and had a new script ready for the next meeting between the producer and the now-skeptical financiers. The producer told me that the bankers all sat around the conference table laughing out loud reading my work. They were so pleased with my rush job that they extended the deadline a further year.

So far so good, but there was one problem I hadn't been told. When the bank originally paid out the twenty million, the idiots making the deal spent the money on themselves, not the film. My script was not really intended to be made, but merely give these swindlers extra breathing space.

As it turns out, another group of con men had done the same thing in Britain. They'd gotten twenty million to make a film called A LANDSCAPE OF LIFE with Jeremy Irons. When the time to present their project came about, they presented a shot-on-video (and I mean VHS) cheapie called A LANDSCAPE OF LIES cobbled together over a weekend with the biggest name in the cast being a news presenter out for a lark. "Hey, you gave us twenty million for a film," they claimed. "Here's a film." They went to jail and the whole program of loans was called into question.

Now the jerk who had dragged me into a similar mess was faced with having to produce something as well. He started calling me with long monologues, giggling nervously. I'd used seventeen characters... couldn't I winnow them down to twelve? That would save the costs of animating nearly a third of the figures. I had naturally considered each of those characters individually, putting them in groups with various loyalties and relationships. They all had a specific function within the plot that wasn't easy to discard. But I was supposed to be a team player, so I slashed away, blunting the story a great deal. The results weren't great, but they managed to get from one point to another.

Then the producer called again, giggling even more frantically. Twelve characters were still too expensive to afford. Could I tell the story with SEVEN? There could be some generic figures in the background to fill in space. Imagine ROMEO and JULIET with three Montagues and four Capulets... less a blood feud than a clumsy dinner party.

This is where my story finally gets around to connecting to today's blog post. When I expressed doubts about the project, the producer decided to show me how to do it. He took the scenes I had already written and arbitrarily reassigned the dialogue for five or six characters to three, not even bothering to give specific characters lines from the same discarded roles. The speeches simply went in the same order among three now-generic husks. The ingenue would speak the line of her now discarded father one moment, then her former rival the next. The male lead would respond with a line from the ingenue's mother, then her kid sister.

"Take my name off this," I told him. "There is no way this mess can possibly work."

"Of course it'll work," he giggled. "All you need is some brilliant voice actors to sell it. We're going to use Jeremy Irons for the lead."

Suffice to say the film was never made, though there were still a few further outrages along the way. I got stiffed for my pay, along with everyone else pulled into the scam. The funny thing was that this same producer had done a great job on a project that fell through for another reason. I guess that failure turned him into a sleazeball.

Y. Knott said...

Jack Benny routinely gave away the best lines to his cast and guest stars. One guest star (I think it was Ronald Colman) was both pleased and shocked to be assigned some lines that got the biggest laughs, and asked Jack why he gave them away. "Oh, because you should get them," Jack said. "After all, it's my show -- I *know* I'll be back next week."

blinky said...

And then there are shows where all the characters are really the same character, like The New Girl and Always Sunny in Philly.

Cowboy Surfer said...

It's possible the course of television history could have changed dramatically without Frasier Crane saying those infamous words - "Everybody have fun tonight, everybody Wang Chung tonight"...

Janet Ybarra said...

To me, it comes down to the basic human condition of being either secure or insecure.

A producer or actor who is secure in his or her talent and worth to a project is going to be happy to "spread the wealth," so to speak.

Those who are insecure are naturally going to be less generous because their egos need constant stroking.

Come to mention it, that could describe a certain individual at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, as well...

Tom said...

I feel like I heard the story on a DVD extra or elsewhere that there was a week early on where the Seinfeld team decided to give barely anything to the Jerry character as a natural result of the planned story, but the network refused to let the episode proceed as was because it's a show called Seinfeld.

Apart from confirming that Jerry Seinfeld deserves every bit of his success, I wonder whether there are real audience expectations here? Cybil's show was named after her, and her reputation is well-known so maybe letting her steal all the jokes was the proper way to make the thing that it says on the label?

Buttermilk Sky said...

The writing on FRASIER was so good, and character-specific, that I still remember a single instance when it wasn't: Somebody says, "You're just blowing smoke, aren't you?" and Frasier replies, "Like a '56 Nash Rambler." It's a great line, but it's well-established that Frasier knows nothing about cars except that he likes high-end German ones. (The episode where he and Niles take a mechanics class but realize it's more fun to be midlife juvenile delinquents is a classic.) I've always thought that was a joke for Martin, who plausibly owned a Nash Rambler.

Hal said...

Anna Faris and Allison Janney story was nice.

If I am not wrong it was Yul Brynner who recommended Steve McQueen's name for "The Magnificent Seven". But during shooting Steve ruined each and every scene with Yul in order to upstage him.

Craig Gustafson said...

During rehearsals for the Broadway musical "Top Banana," Rose Marie asked Phil Silvers why he was surrounding himself with some of the best scene stealers in burlesque. "They're gonna kill you," she said.
Silvers said, "No, they can only help me. When people talk about the show the next day, they're gonna say, 'Wasn't that guy terrific in the Phil Silvers show last night?'"

Spike Jones had the same attitude. The best and funniest musicians around, in the SPIKE JONES band.


For Bob Hope on radio, the ratio for laughed seems to be Hope 70%, Guest Stars 30%. There's a show from 1947 where Peter Lorre, who was fucking hilarious and had dynamite timing, double-crossed Hope by building his lines to such an over-the-top climax that his final punchline got a monster laugh and an ovation.

DBenson said...

There should be a nod to the actors who know how to react, and are therefore happy to let others give them something to react to. When Jack Benny went to television, he suddenly began getting more of his own laughs when people could see him quietly absorbing a wisecrack with exaggerated dignity.

Bob Newhart is the modern master; much of his sitcom work consisted of quiet reactions to other characters' big laughs. A favorite gambit was somebody saying something outrageous and expecting him to say something. Newhart would be visibly struggling to find a safe response, or deciding whether he really wanted to ask the obvious question ("So ... Where's your brother Darryl?"). Kelsey Grammar could definitely do broad comedy, but he was also great at slow, patient (at first) reactions to madness around him. Frasier's (often misplaced) gravitas was a perfect complement to Niles's agitation.

For classic reactions, go back to Oliver Hardy. He would stand, or sometimes lie, and not say a word while sarcastically waiting for Stan Laurel to realize he'd just caused damage to Ollie's person and/or dignity. It was usually a long wait; at least as funny in itself as the initial slapstick and the inevitable explosion.

Mike Bloodworth said...

1. I see your point. However, with many sitcoms, especially if they have a large cast some actors have very little to do. Haven't there been times when you said, Maybe we should give "Joe" a few more lines this week? If I understood you correctly you would prefer to write new jokes than give "Joe" a line from a character that is dialog heavy.
2. This is NOT a Friday Question, but did you watch THE NEIGHBORHOOD last night? I went back in your archives to re-read your July 3rd blog, "Dump Network Trailers." The version that aired Monday night wasn't any funnier than the preview trailer with the original cast. I can't see any advantage to recasting the new neighbors. You did a blog about that too. But, I couldn't find that one. My favorite character was the youngest son played by Michael Spears. His character has the greatest potential for good laughs.
I also watched HAPPY TOGETHER. It was a little funnier. Not because the writing was so much better, but because Damon Wayans Jr. has good comedic instincts. He can take a so so line and give it a little more umph. If you watched them, what did you think?

Peter said...

Why can't all stars be as gracious and kind as Ted Danson?

Jeff Ross had some hilarious digs at Cybill Shepherd during the recent Bruce Willis Roast on which she was one of the guests. He said "Like most shepherds, Cybill hasn't worked much in the last two centuries".

On another topic, Ken, if you haven't seen it yet, I strongly recommend you watch Lucky, a truly beautiful and moving film starring Harry Dean Stanton in one of his last performances before he passed away last year. It's a majestic performance and it shocks me that he didn't even get a posthumous Oscar nomination.

Mike Doran said...

I'm a bit surprised that nobody so far has told the classic story about Andy Griffith:

About two weeks into the production of the Mayberry show, Griffith took Aaron Ruben aside and said to him:

"Here it is - from now on, Don (Knotts) gets the laughs and I'm the straight man."

Ruben took it a step further: he made Andy the hub of Mayberry, reacting to everybody around him, being the voice of reason.
This worked, for all concerned - and no one really noticed until after it was all over.

Mike Bloodworth said...

P.S. At first I has no idea that the blog photo was Cybill Shepherd. I thought she looked familiar. But,then only after I studied it for a while I realize it was her. She was virtually unrecognizable.

Andy Rose said...

Interesting perspective just out today on whether broadcast television is still relevant... or at least how it's able to stay in operation despite a dwindling audience. A new LA Times profile of Tucker Carlson says that his show (which on many nights is the highest-rated non-sports cable show in terms of total viewers) is able to charge just over $12,000 for a 30-second ad. The *lowest-rated* primetime show on a broadcast network (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW) is still able to charge almost $16,000 for a 30-second spot, according to the latest Ad Age chart.


KB said...

I always worked with showrunners who knew better than to switch out jokes. And I agree. If I wrote it for a specific character, that's the voice of the joke. Sure, someone else can deliver it but it's tainted and also can easily lead to an actor doubting themselves. Why bother?

I recently heard a story about the lead adult actor in a sitcom that just couldn't handle one of the kid actors getting huge laughs at the table. The actor, also an EP, had the joke removed. Pathetic.

DBenson said...

Regarding big cast shows: The original version of "The Office", just 12 episodes and a holiday special, kept a very tight focus on a few characters. The American version had a mob of people from the get-go. Some of them only slowly emerged as real characters, and I don't recall any special hurry to introduce everybody, but all were evidently cast with an eye towards eventual use (and some were already there as writers, which was handy). Thus, as they proceeded to crank out dozens of episodes, they had a deep bench of characters to mix and match for new stories and arcs.

Tony said...

In her book, Cybill Shepherd "claims" she only once asked for another character's line to be given to her. The example she cited I remember perfectly: she and Maryann (Christine Baranski) are out on the patio sunbathing, but completely covered from head to toe. Cybill was supposed to deliver the setup line, "I miss the ozone layer," and Maryann would reply, "It's the price you pay for decent hairspray." Shepherd wanted the punch-line for herself, even though it was tailored to Baranski's character and not hers, but the change was made anyway. Being the talent she is, Baranski delivered the ozone setup line so humorously that it generated a huge laugh, completely drowning out Shepherd's response.

mike said...

I've heard it said that Bill Shatner stole lines from castmates on numerous occasions, generating much enmity in the 23rd century.

rockfish said...

Jack Benny's whole schtick -- and it still makes me laugh today -- was how other characters were so much funnier than him, and pointed out his foibles. I'm not sure if anyone did it before him, but no one imo did it better.