Friday, January 25, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from Brooklyn, NY where my play UPFRONTS & PERSONAL runs this weekend. If you’re east of St. Louis, come see it. Info here.

But no matter what’s happening in my life I always make time for Friday Questions.

Julie Burlington has the first question.

I love vintage sitcoms. (Rediscovering) so many old shows on Antenna TV, plus all of the shows I've watched over the years, I've watched so many main female characters get arrested mistakenly for prostitution, so many characters get locked or stuck together in storerooms or elevators, or have a ghost of Christmas past visit in a dream, or have an item donated in error to a charity sale that contains that envelope of money ... What do you think has been the most overused story premise in sitcoms?

I would have to say “the dinner party to impress someone and everything goes wrong.” And if I’m being honest, I’ve gone to that trope myself. (No, not on MASH.)

Mark Solomon asks:

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?

Yes, there was a conscious decision.

The tipping point was an episode called “The Nurses” written by Linda Bloodworth & Mary Kay Place and directed by Joan Darling (who also directed the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW).

There’s a famous scene where Margaret pours her heart out to the other nurses that really took her character in a new direction. Here’s Loretta describing it.

YEKIMI wonders:

Do you think it was easier to make a show [less network interference, not as many crew members, etc.] in the earlier days of TV as compared to today or maybe 30 years ago?

GOD YES! The interference is maddening, but that’s a given. (You can probably find fifteen rants about that in the archives.) Having to put everything in writing to be approved by seven different people and then having to wait until you hear back from everyone and often repeating the steps three or four times before you can move on is really what kills momentum, not to mention morale.

On MASH and CHEERS (at the beginning) we had very small staffs. But the work was much more efficient. We didn’t waste weeks going up blind alleys. We knew what we were doing and we did it.

You could argue the value of all this current interference if it meant the ultimate product was better, but it’s not. In most cases it’s worse.

Now it's just layer after layer of suits trying to justify their jobs.  And if they were all swept away the shows would all continue to be produced and aired.  So if someone is not integral to the process, why keep them?  But that's the TV world we live in today.  And why we look back fondly at the "Good Old Days."  

And finally, from Oliver:

How do you shoot reveal gags on sitcoms that are recorded live in front of an audience?

If you want the audience surprised, you generally pre-shoot those gags the day before and show that scene (or that part of the scene) to the audience the night of filming.

Sometimes there are sets you don’t want revealed. Usually rolling screens are set up to block off that set to the audience and they’re not removed until just before you’re ready to shoot.

Hope to see you at the Gallery Players this weekend.  After the Sunday matinee I'm going to do a talk-back.  What’s your Friday Question? Just leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


Stephen Robinson said...

I think the "dinner party goes wrong" running gag worked well on FRASIER because it was so true to his and Niles's characters. I also love the episode that starts at the end of a disastrous one and Martin enters pretending he's a count.

Most of those tropes have a theatrical relevance that proves enduring. I've seen variations of "trapped in the elevator" where two very different characters are forced into a confined space and have to work together. I think even M*A*S*H* did it.

(By the way, I'd argue that M*A*S*H technically had a "dinner party goes wrong" episode of a sort in "For Want of a Boot," where Hawkeye's scheme to get a replacement boot involves having to throw a birthday party for Frank Burns.)

Andrew said...

"I would have to say 'the dinner party to impress someone and everything goes wrong.'"

Literally the first thing that came to my mind when reading this was "The Two Mrs. Cranes" episode from Frasier.

E. Yarber said...

As many writers who managed to live through the studio system into the "New Hollywood" noted, the big change in story development took place when the studios were taken over by conglomerates.

Warner Brothers, for example, had been founded as a movie company, but became a component of a firm that ran parking lots. Eventually the new management got rid of the parking lots (there was a corruption scandal involving them) but continued to run WB as a cash cow alone. That was when the films began to be overseen by business majors with absolutely no training in storytelling regarding them strictly as investments requiring a return, rather than by movie moguls trying to create a yearly block of productions. The old days were certainly mercenary, but at least there was some awareness of trying to reach the audience emotionally. It's very hard to explain nuance to people who think they can break plots down to efficient profit modules.

Wm. Adams said...

For a Future Friday Question: I've seen lots of blooper reals of stars getting the giggles. How do the crews generally react to this Does it spread to them, or is it just a distraction that slows down production

Joe said...

Not a Friday question, but I figured Ken (and readers) would get a kick out of the name of a high school football player getting offers from top schools such as Notre Dame:

Robert S said...

Is that baked pears Alicia I smell?

Roseann said...

Ken- You and I are indeed the same generation- I have worked with both Joan Darling and Mary Kay Place. Lucky us.

Jon said...

We're looking forward to your show tomorrow night. But an important question: can you say how long it is? We're making the critical decision of whether to make dinner reservations before or after.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Mistaken identity immediately comes to mind. Believing that a character is someone when he or she is actually not that person after all.
The over use of the "...Wonderful Life" and "Christmas Carol" references in Christmas episodes also irks me. Julie mentioned the latter in her F.Q.
This is one of the reasons I question the value of writing courses, either in college or private. Since it seems that so many shows are basically form letters i.e. just fill in the blanks with different names. One has to ask, What are they teaching?
Finally the dinner party gone wrong did seem to be one of Frasier's go to's. I remember the one where the boys borrow someone's beach house and a dead seal washes up on the beach right outside.

By Ken Levine said...


You'll be out around 9:30. Thanks for coming tomorrow night. Introduce yourself and say hi.

KB said...

I know there are more interesting questions than the weekly deluge of "Cheers" "Frasier" and "MASH" questions I see every Friday. I've seen people ask them in the comments section. I'd like to see more variety. Thanks.

gottacook said...

Around 1992, I decided to check out a new series called Middle Ages, an hour-long comedy-drama in the mode of thirtysomething. And what do I see? The star (Peter Riegert) and a female character trapped in an elevator. This would have been episode 2 or 3. No wonder the series was very short-lived.

John in NW Ohio said...

They don't do it anymore, but many years ago it was a standard...
Somebody gets bopped on the head and has instant amnesia. Sometimes they would get bopped multiple times in an episode and be in and out of an amnesia state. Jeeeeeesh.

MikeKPa. said...

Curious if show creators & show runners like Glen & Les Charles (CHEERS), Reinhold Weege (NIGHT COURT), and Barry Kemp (COACH) chose to walk away from TV series after their hits because they made enough money and/or were just tired of it; or were they still pitching show ideas to network suits, but couldn't get another one on? Meanwhile you have writers like Sheldon Bull (who co-created COACH) still going strong writing for shows like MOM.

DrBOP said...

"Layers and layers of suits trying to justify their jobs" pretty well sums up the entire society today.....universities, governments, militaries, private and public industries of every type.
Unchecked Overhead + Convenience Marketing + History-less Education =

But life is wonderful.

CarolMR said...

Pears Alicia - Sue Ann from The Mary Tyler Moore show?

Coram_Loci said...

Since we are talking tropes...

A Friday Question:
Ken, do you think that a webiste like is a good thing or bad thing?

Do you think it makes writers better? Do you think it makes viewers cynical? If every viewer becomes a critic — someone identifying and reconstructing plot/character elements — then who is left to be the in-the-moment audience?

Coram_Loci said...

Would writing be better and network interference be less if show's had just one or two sponsors?

So, if Alka Seltzer is the sponsor of Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place do the added layers of review eventually get streamlined because the network and writers quickly come to realize what pleases and displeases the 800 pound gorilla?

Diffusing sponsorship means there is no 800 pound gorilla who you need to worry will pull the plug. That should create more artistic freedom today. But does that come at a price of a network bureaucracy, rather than the sponsor, being made a creative guardian and censor?

Diane D. said...

The amount of time spent discussing CHEERS and FRASIER (and MASH for some), is what brings many of us back to this blog daily for years and years. Until their equivalent comes along again, we have to be satisfied with discussion and DVDs.

Wish I could see your play tonight, Ken. Good Luck!

Andy Rose said...

Yes, Frasier did use the dinner party trope a lot, in slightly different forms. "The Two Mrs. Cranes" was probably the third of fourth iteration of it that came to my mind, with "The Innkeepers" at the top of the list.

Speaking of gag reveals, I read an article about the production of the Seinfeld episode "The Barber." It mentioned that Jerry made a mistake early in the filming when he instinctively went out to greet the audience, forgetting that he was already in his "terrible haircut" costume. It blew the reveal that wasn't supposed to happen until later.

Jen from Jersey said...

They still do that. The conk on the head is very common for made for TV Christmas movies. Also there is a new movie with Rebel Wilson (I think that’s her name) where she gets conked and thinks she’s in a romantic comedy. I actually like this trope because it’s so silly.

Frank Beans said...

The dinner party gone wrong.

The mistaken identity.

The farcical situation steadily going out of control.

The three most used FRASIER tropes. The thing is that when they work, they work brilliantly, and when they don't, it feels like a record skipping, because it's just the same joke over and over and over and over until you just want to scream.

Kyle Burress said...

This is completely random but I have been rewatching a lot of shows recently that feature the great Norman Lloyd (I am currently binge watching'The Practice'). I have always had a great appreciation for his acting and admire that someone his age is still currently acting (I haven't watched 'Fly' yet but it's on my list). The man went 91 years between attending a World Series games (I have to believe that's probably a record) and saw Babe Ruth play. That's incredible!

Have you ever met or worked with him? If so, what are your thoughts on him? He is someone I would love to meet and would be honored to get an autograph from.

Hogne B. Pettersen said...

Loretta Swit played two different characters on M*A*S*H. She first played the hilarious character Hot Lips. Then she had a complete personality change and turned into Maaaaargret. It wasn't even done slowly, it was like someone turned on a switch.

And I disagree completely that Hot Lips she wasn't a nuanced 3D character before this. Watch seasons 1-4 again, and just see how much there is bubbling under that surface. All those contradictions of a character who wants to get by on her own merits, but at the same time has no problems sleeping with men who are her superiors. She craves order and disiplin, but is herself a chaotic mess underneath the yankee-doodle-exterior. She wants to be independent, but clings to Frank, even if she deep down knows it's a dead end. And: She's also deriding other people's sexual escapades, while being animalistic with Frank.

But despite it all, she's a darn good nurse and an efficient and competent leader. All this is perfectly summarized in the episode Hot Lips and Emtpy Arms from Season 2. Written by Linda Bloodworth and Mary Kay Place.

VP81955 said...

It's called "Isn't It Romantic," from Warners, set for release next month just before Valentine's Day (of course!). Have seen signs for it in downtown LA.

VP81955 said...

Where he is re-teamed with Nick Bakay; both were on the staff of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

VP81955 said...

Wrote about Norman Lloyd and his memories of that first World Series game at

DwWashburn said...

Friday question about Dancin' Homer. How did Tony Bennett get inserted into the script? Were you told before you wrote the episode that Bennett was doing the episode or was it disclosed later in the process? Did you and David write (words and / or lyrics) the "Capital City" song or was it written by others and inserted into the story? Did Bennett make any edits to the song?

Joe Smith said...

Wish I would have remembered to buy tickets to your play--it's sold out for Sunday (congrats!) so I can't make it. Hopefully you come back to NYC sometime. For my question: what do you think works better for popular/talented actors in long-running shows, a spinoff of the show or a new series for that actor/actress? I ask because of Eden Sher from The Middle. The studio/network toyed with spinning off Sue. As much as I love The Middle (I grew up in the midwest, it felt very honest), I'm glad they didn't go that route. But I wish ABC was more like CBS, who always seems to find homes in new shows for popular actors. Thoughts on this?

Jen from Jersey said...

I watch The Middle repeats on Freeform every day. It’s one of the only shows that makes the entire family laugh out loud for different reasons. They really captured the middle class life. I feel like the cameras are in my house, although we’re not “Heck” poor. Eden Sher was great as Sue but what made the show work was the entire family. I don’t want to see Sue take on the city or whatever premise. Thoughts?

Andrew said...

Speaking only for myself, I think TVTropes is a wonderful site. I'm not a writer, however (but I play one in my fantasy life). What I enjoy the most is looking up a classic movie I've seen a hundred times, like "The Godfather" or "Casablanca" or a Hitchcock film. There are always new insights and discoveries to learn, because many of the tropes are not obvious.

David in DC said...

Ken: what's your take on the stone-cold free agent market in baseball this winter?

Leen said...

Hi Ken-Love your blog. What I was wondering is if you have ever worked with Craig T Nelson. I loved him in Coach and re-watch it all the time on Antenna TV. He seems like such a nice guy and would be an awesome person to talk to. Thanks!

Scottmc said...

I was wondering about your experience watching Upfronts and Personal. Did you treat the script as sacred or did you tweak it? Did the Sunday sold out performance play better than the others? Any thoughts on why few playwrights direct their own plays; I know Edward Albee did and maybe David Mamet does now.Did any of your readers win the 50/50 at intermission?