Friday, December 14, 2018

Friday Questions

Take a break from Christmas shopping to check out some Friday Questions.

MikeKPa starts us off.

A lot of William Goldman's work was adaption. Have you ever done adaptations and did you find it easier or harder to work with an existing narrative?

Have never done an adaptation. In one of Goldman’s books he discussed how he went about that. He would read a book with a colored marker and underline anything he’d want to use. Then he’d read it again with another color pen and do the same thing. After a third reading and underlining he would go through and only keep the things that were underlined three times.

From Rick from Minnesota:

What can you recall from the Cheers episode entitled, Where Have all the Floorboards Gone and how was Kevin McHale as an actor?

Well, David Isaacs and I wrote that episode. And it’s one of my favorites.

The thing I remember the most was how surprised and delighted we were by Kevin McHale. First off, as a Lakers fan in the ‘80s I hated McHale during his Celtic years (and the cheap shot hit he put on Kurt Rambis).

But he turned out to be the nicest guy. And the biggest surprise was how great a natural comic actor he was. We even brought him back.

Usually when you have an athlete guest star, like Wade Boggs or Luis Tiant, you don’t place any real comedy burden on them. As a director I once had to coax a performance out of Karl Malone, Terry Bradshaw, and Mike Ditka. Oy. But Kevin was terrific.

Jonny M. asks:

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?

It’s way easier. As long as the actor embraces playing the character.

We once wrote an episode of FRASIER with Michael Keaton guesting. We wrote his character fun and zany like the one he played in NIGHT SHIFT. He was playing a TV evangelist; a real larger-than-life character. But he insisted on playing against that – very studied and buttoned-down. Our director was Jerry Zaks, a huge Broadway director, and even he couldn’t get Keaton to loosen up. To me the episode never lived up to its potential.

Cleese was totally on board and was a pleasure to work with. He also turned in a spectacular performance. Peter Casey & David Lee wrote that episode and really captured his voice and strengths.

And finally, Pam has a question about our involvement with VOLUNTEERS.

Are writers allowed on the set? Did they invite you to the shooting at Mexico? And were you invited to the premiere of the movie? How was it? Please share your experience.

It all depends on the director whether writers are allowed on the set. Some directors really welcome it and have them available for any last minute polishing. Other directors don’t want writers’ prying eyes.

In the case of VOLUNTEERS, director Nick Meyer did invite us to come watch the filming, but at the time we were rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas on a deadline and were unable to go.

Douglas then wanted us to be on set for JEWEL OF THE NILE but by then we were writing the pilot for the Mary Tyler Moore series we created.

We were invited to the premiers of both films (which we attended), and in the case of VOLUNTEERS allowed to watch the dailies and the editing process. Thank you again, Nick Meyer.

What’s your Friday Question?


Pam said...

Thanks Ken. I also forgot to add another question to that. Maybe you can point to the relevant blog in the comments section. Did you meet and talk to Tom Hanks? How was he? Or was it always Producers, studio executives and the director who were the go between?

Glenn said...

How exactly did Sam, Woody, Cliff and Norm get into the Boston Garden? Did they sneak in? Was security really lax in the early 90s? Or did they get in the best way possible... because the writers wrote it that way.

E. Yarber said...

I've been in situations where I'd receive both a script and the original text it was supposedly derived from, and was expected to judge the quality of the adaptation. The biggest problem I encountered was that the screenwriter really didn't bother to understand the work they were supposed to be interpreting and assumed that they could twist the material into something THEY were comfortable with.

One time, for example, the novel's plot wound up a tragedy because of the lead's Cold War paranoia. The adapter was unable to perceive this nuance and turned the story into a crude piece of commie-baiting. In another case, a racial incident was the precipitating event that led to the characters collecting in an isolated building. Instead of centering the story around the people in the building, as the author had intended, the screenwriter couldn't let go of the framing device and left the characters behind to drift into an elaborate fantasy of race war that had nothing to do with the emotional conflicts of the story or the much smaller event the author had conceived. Anyone familiar with either of these original books would have been amazed at how little these films would have had to do with their content, and the scripts themselves were crude pieces of rhetoric on their own.

The key in working with someone else's concepts is that you have to be able to read as carefully as you can write, and all too often a reader will find that the adapter doesn't put much thought into either aspect.

Smitty said...

I saw an interview recently where Ted Danson thought -- at the time -- that he was terrible as Sam Malone on the first season of Cheers. Because Ted is nothing like Sam in real life, he felt like he came off as a phony. When you were there during that first season, did you witness him having doubts about his performance? Did anyone on the staff ever think he came as phony in his acting?

Pat Reeder said...

I once wrote a humorous educational video series that starred Tony Randall, and they let me be on the set. That worked out great; whenever Tony had a problem with a line or wanted a change, he'd turn to me, I'd fix it, and we'd go right on. He told me he loved having the writer on set, and he wished that everyone would do that.

BTW, one of my favorite memories is of the way he'd ask for me by calling out, "Rrrreeder the Writer!" in the exact same reading he gave to one of my favorite movie lines of all time: "I'm...King of the Elevator!"

Mike Doran said...

Your mention of Jerry Zaks as a Frasier director raises a question for me:

Late in 1983, Jerry Zaks appeared as an actor on the greatest of all daytime dramas, The Edge Of Night.

His role was Louis Van Dine, a cable-TV mogul who was using his system to take control of the population of Monticello, via subliminal text messaging.

It was as close to a James Bond villain as you could get on '80s TV.

I've been watching some of the episodes on YouTube, and reading your account of the Frasier show, it occurred to me that Jerry Zaks might have been a better choice to play the con-man/preacher himself (he definitely had the hair for it).

My Friday Question, which is more of a request:
You might like to check out YouTube for the October 26, 1983 episode of The Edge Of Night, and see Jerry Zaks as Louis Van Dine, my all-time favorite TV villain.

It's only a half-hour (25 minutes actually); it couldn't hurt …


Mike Doran said...

Quick Correction of my just-posted comment:

The Edge Of Night episode I'm writing about is from October 21, 1983.
(I know, check beforehand …)

Anyway, that's the one I think you might get a kick out of.

Again: The Edge Of Night,October 21, 1983.

Thanx for your attention.

tb said...

You're leaving out the rest of your John Cleese story Ken....He was supposed to do a second episode and blew you off at the last minute? Something like that?

Frank Beans said...

I'll go a step further and say that the "Simon Says" John Cleese episode of CHEERS is not only the best guest appearance of the series, but the the best guest appearance on any show ever. Richly deserving of the accolades it has gotten. And I couldn't imagine any other actor pulling it off in such an effective way, just as Cleese inhabited Basil Fawlty.

I'm gonna have to agree with Ken on the Michael Keaton episode of FRASIER--it could have been much better, perhaps with a more plausible backstory, as well as more over the top acting. Oddball characters like that only tend to work that way.

Frank Beans said...


I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it was the very phoniness of "Sam Malone" vis-a-vis Ted Danson that made the character work. Guys like that are always putting on an act, overcompensating, and I think that came across. So in an ironic, roundabout way, it made the role all the more genuine.

Or maybe I'm just full of shit. Too close to call.

Tudor Queen said...

You must have done a hell of a good job 'coaxing' Mike Ditka, since he's done 'Da Bears' sketch on SNL a few times and he's definitely not awful.

I've believed John Cleese can do absolutely anything since I saw him play a sheriff in "Silverado." Nothing he has done since then has changed my mind.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Re: Adaptations. I wonder if the process is different with one's own work. I made the mistake of reading JURASSIC PARK before I saw the movie. Despite the fact that Michael Crichton wrote both the screenplay and the novel from which it came, they were significantly different. (i.e. The book was much better.)

FRIDAY QUESTION: In a desperate attempt to find new source material, some producers have started turning to podcasts for ideas. DIRTY JOHN is one example. Here's my question. Have you ever considered making your podcast more like a scripted series? Sort of like a radio play? And if a network wanted to make your show into a T.V. series would you give up playwriting and return to television?

Stephen Marks said...

That Frasier episode written by Ken and Mr. Isaacs was very good, nice piece of writing, one of my favorites. But I thought the whole point of Keaton's character not acting over the top was to convince Frasier that he had changed so that he could scam Frasier out of money like he had done before? Regardless, it was nicely done by K & I. Now if they had written him totally over the top, gone completely nuts and had him do a character that nobody would ever believe he could do in a million years, something even an established actor like Keaton could never pull off, like, oh I don't know...........BATMAN!

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: I see that ABC has ordered additional episodes of "Black-ish", "The Goldbergs", "The Kids Are Alright" & "Single Parents". How hard is it for writers/producers/etc. to come up with these additional episodes? Are there scripts sitting around that they didn't get to or in the pipeline for the next season that they just move up? And if everybody's has basically wrapped production for a season and has spread to the four corners of the earth how big a pain in the ass is it to get them back together or are there episodes in the can just in case the network suddenly decided they needed more shows?

YEKIMI said...

@ Tudor queen

I didn't know John Cleese was in "Silverado". Now I'm going to have to watch it [or skip through to his part]. Westerns, to me at least, are the equivalent of getting a prostrate exam by using a bowling pin. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, it was agony having to play it at the theater I worked at back in 1985 and sit there when maybe 2 or 3 people showed up for it.

YEKIMI said...

And another Friday question. Ever though of doing your podcast as a "throwback epsiode" as your alter ego, Beaver Cleaver? Don't know if you have the voice for it today [I can summon up my "radio voice" every once in a while when doing announcing work but it gets a little harder every year.] And I know you can't really play the full music without running into royalty problems but maybe do it like you were sending out an aircheck to a PD. Playing clips from those days are fine but it seems like cheating. If I had been smart years ago, I would have made copies of my shows/airchecks, but the last cassette of them got eaten by a tape deck years ago and mangled so badly that there's no hope of fixing it.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Have to side with Michael Keaton regarding his guest shot on "Frasier."

If he had played the evangelist broadly, he would've been a caracature and not very believable.

By Keaton playing it relatively low key, he was convincing, making the payoff at the end of the episode even richer.

A fine effort by all inolved.

Tony.T said...

Now I'm picturing Ken as a member of the Rambis Youth.

Tony.T said...

In Silverado John Cleese played John Cleese.

Janet said...

One of the best examples of an "adaptation" dictated by what the the filmmaker was comfortable with is the film ARGO.

Yes, it was an excellent filmB from a dramatic perspective. But as you dig deeper, you start to find Ben Affleck and his team created a story which did not take a modicum of creative license but rather developed a story which was at such a variance with reality as to offend the governments of Canada, the UK and New Zealand for misrepresenting the roles they played.

The true story of the "Canadian Caper," the rescue of 6 Americans who escaped the storming and hostage-taking at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, was dramatic enough on its own that Affleck et. al could have broken the story in a compelling way and remained much more true to historical fact.

Matthew O'Hara said...

A Friday question follow up: You obviously felt comfortable (but disappointed) in turning down invitations to attend filmings of the movies you wrote. Are there situations where the writers are obligated to be on set -- either contractually or informally?

Wally said...

Actors are contracted longer than writers for a series. Therefore, when new eps are ordered, they are 'standing by' so to speak. I think Actors still sign on for 7 years and would have a commitment for the year. Writers can be anywhere from 13 weeks for a entry level writer, to obviously, locked in for several years for EP/Showrunner level.

As for the writing of said eps, there's always stories that don't make it in previous scripts and arcs the writers would 'like to see' but had to cut from original order. Those are general anecdotes. Ken can surely go into more detail with real-life examples.

Ted McCarthy said...

Having grown up listening to Johnny Most call Celtics games, I can honestly say no member of the Boston Celtics ever delivered a cheap shot. They only defended themselves against the violent thugs on every other team in the NBA.

And Kurt Rambis was a third rate Jungle Jim Loscutoff whose only basketball skill was fouling.

Diego said...

Friday Question: Did Crystal Bernard do her own cello playing on Wings?

Diane D. said...

One of the funniest lines in CHEERS history is from the episode with John Cleese. After Carla says something flirty to the Cleese character, he turns to Frasier and says, “Is she ours?” When Frasier answers in the affirmative he says, “Have her scrubbed and sent to my tent.”

Jonny M. said...

Ken - Thanks for answering my Friday Question. Coincidentally, I watched the Michael Keaton episode of Frasier on the Thursday before you posted this. I thought it was pretty funny, but now that you have suggested it could have been stronger if Keaton had not played it so buttoned up, I have a different take on it. What Michael Keaton reminded me of in the episode was Harry the Hat on Cheers.

Jonny M. said...

@Janet Ybarra - It should be noted that Ben Affleck did not write Argo. It was Chris Terrio, who won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for his effort on it. Just giving credit where credit is due. Although I think Affleck did a good job directing it.

Kevin K said...

One of my favourite lines from Cheers.

"I've grown to hate them"

Jahm Ghalt said...

Kevin McHale worked for the Timberwolves in their front office and coached the 'Wolves on a few separate occasions. He also served as Head Coach for the Rockets for several years.

Since then he has done yak yak for TNT and NBA TV, which shows the winning personality you got for his Cheers work.

As an aside, they rarely show Rambis getting up to clean McHale's clock - good thing for everyone, his teammates held him back.