Friday, December 21, 2018

Friday Questions

Last Friday Questions till Christmas. Don’t wait until the last minute to read them.

Steve Jay gets us started:

How important is it to have a “Hawkeye versus Frank Burns” dynamic in a sitcom?

Having an antagonist like Frank Burns is certainly an element that works for most sitcoms and gives you conflict, but it’s not altogether necessary. In fact, I’d say most successful sitcoms don’t have that dynamic. From CHEERS to FRASIER to FRIENDS, having characters that all basically like each other creates kind of a “family” that audiences find appealing.

On the other hand, if you have a great antagonist like Louie on TAXI or Newman on SEINFELD you can get a lot of comic mileage out of it. The “Newman” character in particular is interesting because it almost feels like the series was doing a spoof on antagonistic relationships.

Boomska316 asks:

Are cast photos as awkward and forced as they appear? I don't think I've ever seen one that looked natural?

Usually they’re taken at the very end of a long shooting day or night when the cast is all there and in costume. But they want to go home.

They’re forced to stand around while lights are adjusted, the photographer shifts them around, etc.

So if smiles are somewhat forced that’s usually why.

And of course, in some cases, you might have cast members who dislike each other and avoid each other when possible. Yet, here they are, side by side, grinning through clenched teeth.


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?

Generally you have a pretty good idea whether the network wants to order additional episodes. And sometimes they’ll pay for additional scripts just in case.

Scripts are rarely just available in the pipeline. Often you’re budgeted for one or two additional scripts but that’s so you can kill scripts that for whatever reason you just don’t want to go forward with.

But yes, you get to the end of the season and you salivate over that finish line, and when suddenly it’s pushed back it can be a real emotional letdown.

It’s like a pitcher thinks he’s coming out of a game after his team bats only to learn that he’s being sent back out there. The air has been let out of the emotional balloon and now you have to get it back. Ask Boston Red Sox fans and Pedro Martinez about this.

However, it networks order early enough and you’re mentally prepared for it, the additional episodes are not much of a burden. And remember, everybody gets more paychecks.

On MASH though we had this particular situation: The original order would be for 22 episodes. They would increase it to 24 with about a month to go. We anticipated that and were fine. Then, with a week to go they’d order a 25th episode. We would really have to scramble. Usually, David Isaacs and I would write the script over the weekend.

The next year when the network ordered the 23rd and 24th episode we said, what about the 25th? They assured us they would not order any beyond 24.  You know what's coming. 

A week before we wrapped they ordered the 25th. If you ever see the episode “Night at Rosie’s” – David and I wrote that over the weekend and it started filming on Tuesday.

And finally, from Smitty:

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?

I was there that first season. On the set every day, watched every runthrough and every filming. I remember Ted asking the director, Jim Burrows, a lot of questions on his way to really nailing down the character.  But he did not seem uneasy. 

And here’s my opinion:

Ted was never better than that first year. It may have been a struggle for him, and he would probably disagree, but Sam Malone was never smarter, more at ease, and interesting than he was that first season.

But then I’m partial to that first season. I would put the first year of CHEERS up against the best year of any sitcom. And most of the credit for that goes to the cast, Jimmy, and the Charles Brothers.

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


Michael said...

Friday question: I agree that the CHEERS first season stands up to the best season of any series, but was wondering if you think it would be even remembered today if NBC had elected to cancel it after that season due to low ratings? Also would Ted Danson have been able to become the big star he did?

Jason Langlois said...

I'd agree that the first season of CHEERS is one of the greats. I remember watching it with my parents, and all of us recognizing the magic. It started out as just something to watch before we would get to Hill Street Blues, but a few episodes in it became something we just wanted to watch.

404 said...

I would also say that Sam was best in the first season of CHEERS because, shortly after, he started to become a caricature of himself, and his less likable tendencies became more pronounced. This isn't unusual -- as a series drags on, the personality quirks that make a character like that memorable in the first place get exaggerated to the point where they take on a life of their own.

Take Homer Simpson, for example. He was always a selfish blowhard, but if you look back at the early seasons he still had a lot of heart, and showed a modicum of intelligence from time to time. He was, more or less, just a regular guy with a job he hated and a family he tried to do right by. But as the series went on he turned into a complete selfish moron. It was funny, but different than the original Homer.

Pat Reeder said...

To 404...

"The Simpsons" even made reference to how Homer had changed and become more obnoxious, using the term "Jerk-ass Homer" that had been coined by fans online.

Xmastime said...

re: Hawkeye/Frank, I always have a joke that if you look around your social group and you don't know who the Roy Biggins of the group is, you're it. :)

Rick Kaplan said...

Cheers is one of the all time greats
I began to watch it after I attended a taping of the show knowing nothing about it. I was in LA for a few days and wanted to see Taxi but there were no tickets available. Cheers was taping an hour later and I went. It was the Boston Barmaid episode and I was hooked.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Was there ever a reason or an explanation as to why Jerry and Newman hated each other so much? I've always been curious about that.

Tyler said...


I think "Friends", a show I love, is one of the worst offenders of this. Monica's liking to have a clean apartment in the early seasons became something she was borderline psycho about later on.

And as so often happens with such characters, Joey went from someone who simply wasn't the brightest guy around to one so dumb where you wondered if he knew how to spell his name.

cd1515 said...

Great points by 404, totally agree.
As a show ages and seemingly runs out of ideas, you see the characters become caricatures and essentially just keep doing The Thing They’re Known For.
Take Friends as an example; the last few seasons are a LOT of Monica being neat, Joey eating, Phoebe saying something dumb. Etc

By Ken Levine said...

Rick Kaplan,

If you in the audience for the Boston Bar Maids episode you saw me do the warm up.

Tom said...

I started to watch Cheers from the beginning because of its Chicago connections -- I had seen George Wendt a couple of times at Second City and Shelley Long was well-known for TV commercials ("Homemakers: It's not low-priced furniture, it's good furniture at low prices!" and a local talk show ("Sorting It Out" and she had been in SC, but I didn't see her then. Seeing them both On National TV was cool, and the fact that their show was so good just made it that much better.

Sparks said...

It seems like I've noticed a number of variations of the famous "Who's on First?" bit lately. Do younger viewers know the reference, or do they think it's a smart new bit?? Are writers "paying homage" or being lazy when they use a well worn bit like that? It often works well, that's why it's a classic.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Re: Antagonists. I asked Ken a similar F.Q. regarding the character of "Linda" on BECKER. It seemed that she served no other purpose than to annoy Becker with her stupidity and/or incompetence. I'm not a big fan of the "moron" character in general. And I particularly disliked Linda. I much prefer the adversarial type of conflict. e.g. The guy who owned Melville's; the restaurant above CHEERS. (can't remember the character's name at the moment)

Cast Photos. I remember old TV Guide covers and ads with cast photos. Many of them appeared to have been shot with the actors posing in character. Now, however, you've got these artistic types trying to create a mood or an ambiance that may or may not have any connection with the show. The old ads for THE SOPRANOS and other current cable series come to mind.

I have heard that Fred Dryer had been considered for the role of Sam. As an ex jock he had the swagger that the character required. I've also heard that Ted used him as an example of how to play the role. I don't know if those stories are true, but I know that F.D. guested a couple of times. (Coincidently, as an antagonist for Sam.)

Finally, to 404. I also agree. THE BIG BANG THEORY is a current example of how the characters have morphed into extreme versions of themselves. I'm glad this is the last season. It was one of my favorite sitcoms of recent years. I can't say B.B.T. "jumped the shark," but it has been running out of steam for the past few seasons.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@404 There's actually a Simpsons-based term for what you described, it's called "Flanderization," named after Ned Flanders, when he ended up becoming more and more of a caricature of the good-natured Christian man that he is (in contrast to Homer), and you're right, a lot of characters go through Flanderization over time. I was just recently thinking about KENAN & KEL, and how Kel got progressively dumber and dumber each season; watching a first season episode is almost disorienting, because he's actually not the moron that he ended up becoming, but rather, just a little absent-minded and free-spirited.

Brian said...

Ted Danson is great. Been enjoying his latest role in "The Good Place". On an unrelated note: Ken, how about a review of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"?

Curt Alliaume said...

Tyler brings up a good point. In Friends, Joey was not supposed to be the stupid one, but David Crane noted in Warren Littlefield's oral history of NBC's shows, someone noted when the pilot was filmed that “Matt plays dumb really well.” So Joey became the stupider one - which left Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe with less to do, because she'd be written as the stupid one. So she became sort of sneaky conniving, but that was probably harder to write. And Ross became more gullible and more likely to do the wrong thing, even though the first two years set him up and the most honest one (for example, when Phoebe finds a cat that reminds her of her mother, Ross points out there's Lost Cat signs all over the place and the cat should be returned).

One of the things I really liked about Frasier was it avoided some of the most obvious comedy tropes. Nearly every sitcom has one of three character types to raise conflict: a jerk (Frank Burns, Phyllis Lindstrom, Eddie Haskell, Mr. Roper, Alan Brady, Dan Fielding), a moron (Joey, Ted Baxter, Chrissy Snow, Lenny & Squiggy, Potsie Weber), or kids. Frasier didn't have anyone in the regular cast who neatly fit that trope.

Anonymous said...

"A Night at Rosie's" might have been a rush job, but it has a couple of incredible, memorable scenes. The first is Hawkeye dancing with himself, which is quintessential Hawkeye, and his dialogue with Charles ("What do you mean you're not taking OD?" "Just what I said." "None of your long-winded excuses!"). The second is the scene where Potter tells Hawkeye and B.J., "If you take away my whole my camp, I've got nothing left to command." He is firm and pissed, but also yielding. Hawkeye and B.J. are contrite because they love their C.O. And all in all, it's a beautiful example of how to be a great boss. (There was a lot of that with Col. Potter.)

Hope you are proud of that script, that's all.

Steve B. said...

I'm curious about the evolution of Sam Malone on "Cheers". It's been well discussed at how much Sam's character was dumbed down over the course of the series. Was this intentional, or at least, did the writing staff realize how much he had changed? And what was Ted Danson's reaction to it?

Tony.T said...

In 1985 I lived in Perth in Western Australia where the local Channel Nine showed sit-com re-runs like The Odd Couple at 11.30 in the morning. One day Cheers popped up in the slot. I had never heard of it, and assumed it was also a re-run. I mean, who plonks a new show in a re-run slot? Whatever the network's intention, after about one and a half episodes I was hooked and spent the remainder of the show's run telling anyone who would listen about this great show that was on weekday mornings. I was shattered when Cheers finished its run and Nine went back to The Odd Couple.

Mark Solomon said...

Converse to the characters who became
self-caricatures as certain series went on for lengthy
runs, Margaret Houlihan became a much more
interesting, three-dimensional and nuanced character once she was no longer comedically linked to
Frank Burns.
Ken, was that a conscious decision of the MASH
braintrust to humanize Hot Lips at about the same
time that the much more estimable Charles Winchester character effectively filled the vacancy left by Larry Linville’s departure from the show?

Mark Solomon

Michael said...

Friday question: Do you know why Daphne's psychic abilities were dropped on FRASIER? Was it based on network or audience feedback or just something the writers decided to discontinue on their own?

Kal said...

First season Sam was a reasonably smart guy -- just not especially educated or sophisticated. But he was generally comfortable with that, and could be sneaky-smart on occasion. He played it dumb sometimes as a way to fit in with the people he hung out with, but would get in a good line from time to time. You sort of got the feeling that if life had worked out a little differently for him -- had he been injured, say, and not able to play major league baseball -- he would have still found a way to be successful. He was, in short, an interesting, likeable guy.

In later seasons, especially in the post-Diane years, he was fairly shallow and simply not very bright. Because Ted Danson is so likeable, he still retained his appeal, but later-in-the-run Sam was a much more superficial character. And, unfortunately, a less interesting one.

Coram_Loci said...

Frank Burns is a reason I tune out of MASH. He's not a worthy adversary. I never think Frank will "win" anything. He serves up straw-men for Hawkeye knock down with a verbal barrage at hurricane speed.

Consequently, I liked Hawkeye less because it was always set up so easy for him vis a vis Frank. Watching a Seven Footer dunk over a dwarf is neither fair nor fun.

At least Winchester could get in a few good licks and make things competitive. I could like Hawkeye more because his success with Winchester seemed earned rather than handed down from god (or a writer) above.

Roger Owen Green said...

How do you feel about Patricia Heaton not being chosen TIME Person of the Year?

Jen from Jersey said...

My favorite episodes from Cheers were: Candy and Frasier, Cliff’s mailcarrier ball, Frasier’s mother, and Cliff moving to Canada. Sometimes it’s fun to watch the first and last episode of a series to see how much it’s changed. Cheers lost me when they started doing designated driver episodes.

Andy Rose said...

I've always been fascinated by the promotional campaigns the networks used to put together for the beginning of the fall season that included all of the major stars. NBC in particular in the 80s had a knack for ideas that were visually interesting, but made no sense at all.

I'd like to be a fly on the wall when the stars were told what they were in for on this particular filming day.

<a href="></a>

"Okay, William Daniels, try you to walk through a door, but Richard Moll from Night Court is hanging from the ceiling. Merlin Olsen, you just pull on this yellow lace thing until Cloris Leachman comes out in a tutu. Michael J. Fox, you try to grab a newspaper that's blowing away, and you end up falling off the roof of an apartment building. Trust me, guys, it'll all make sense in the edit!"

Bob Paris said...

Ken: When a pertinent illustration is not available, you run a random picture of Natalie Wood. Assuming that there is a finite supply of random pictures of Natalie Wood, would you consider running a random picture of Claudine Longet? Bob Paris

Stephen Robinson said...

RE: Antagonists on sitcoms. I think those are ideal for shows set in a workplace, or a school, or any place where you can't just avoid or stop seeing the Frank Burns character all together. Carla and Diane worked for this reason, as well -- though I think CHEERS never took a side with those two.

Although generally played for laughs and presented as a buffoon, Frank was a dangerous man, one capable of pettiness and cruelty. When the show played that up -- when it gave us a glimpse of the hell hole the 4077th could be if he were in charge, not just from the obsession with military regulations but the medical incompetence leading to loss of life, there was a darkness and stark reality that was often missing. Frank was usually just an easily overcome jerk. He could never win.

Stephen Robinson said...

Re: The change in Sam's character post Diane years.

Maybe I'm pushing for a "no prize" in Stan Lee's memory, but I thought that the Sam we saw over the course of the Rebecca years was a logical reaction to what had happened after Diane essentially walked out of his life and never came back. Sam was basically ready to marry Diane. They had bought a home. This had to have devastated him at a point when many men are already facing a mid-life crisis.

Fortunately, Sam retained his sobriety, but I'd argued that he channeled his addictive tendencies to sexual promiscuity (arguably equally self-destructive with the specter of AIDS). The Peter Pan syndrome was running from a shocking personal set back.

But Sam still grew -- becoming friends with Rebecca, getting his bar back, and the Sam we see at the end of the series has not just put Diane behind him but he's embraced his life and his completely happy ("the luckiest son of bitch in the world"). This is a big change from Season 1, where Sam was striving to be "more" than just the owner of Cheers.

Anonymous said...

All this about the Frank Burns made me think of a moment that "tried" to humanize him.

Or did I imagine the scene where he calls home to his mother and admits to her "they" don't like him here either?

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: Was watching a M*A*S*H* marathon on one of the cable channels and noticed one of the co-writers of that episode was Mary Kay Place. Checking IMDB shows she wrote for quite a few shows other than M*A*S*H*. I knew her more as an actress and didn't realize she did all that writing. Any other writers on M*A*S*H* [or other shows] that went on to become more recognized as actors than writers?

Jen from Jersey said...

Question: Do you think Fraser could have done without Daphne? There didn’t seem to be a use for her character and she was written completely different after she married Niles.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Anonymous You're thinking of the scene from "Margaret's Engagement," where Radar had placed a call to his mother, and he tells her, "I have this friend, and this friend just pretended to like me, the way dad used to."

But a real human moment for Frank comes from "Sticky Wicket," where Hawkeye obsesses over a patient whose condition isn't improving in Post-Op - and this after he attacks Frank over his lack of surgical skills. Finally, after Hawkeye opens the patient again and discovers what the problem really was, Frank actually says to him, "Anybody could have missed that."

Ben Varkentine said...

In "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind" there's a moment I've long wondered whether it was improvised.

When Klinger is leading the blind Hawkeye out of the Swamp, Alan Alda bumps into the stove and Klinger just says "Don't hit that," and Hawk replies "I'm sorry."

It just seems like such a real moment.

Michael C said...

Hi Ken, Friday Question for you.

I was watching a Dennis Quaid movie called Frequency recently and there are a lot of clips in the movie from the 1969 World Series. One of the clips is from a game at Shea Stadium and you can clearly tell the Announcers are Lindsey Nelson, (Mets announcer) and Curt Cowdy, (NBC). I was too young to appreciate (remember) this at the time, but in 1972 you actually had Al Michaels teaming up with Gowdy, and the 74 series had Vin Scully with Gowdy. What did you think about local accouncers getting to call the series with the Networks and would you like that same practice being done today?