Friday, February 01, 2019

Friday Questions

Welcome to February. What better way to kick off a month than with Friday Questions?

Donald Benson gets us started.

Recalling an interview with Gene Wilder. When Mel Brooks came aboard "Young Frankenstein" as director, he not only co-wrote the script with Wilder but made him sit in on the editing. Brooks was emphatic that Wilder needed to learn this stuff, because sooner or later he'd want to direct to protect what he'd written.

Was your own interest in directing driven by some of that thinking?

I’ve talked about this before, protecting my work was certainly a factor but not the primary one.

I was just looking to have more fun and better enjoy the process. Being on the stage, playing with the actors and crew was more fun than sitting in writing rooms till 3 AM at that point in my career.

Not that directing doesn’t pose its own challenges, but I thoroughly enjoy it. And so far no actor has locked himself in his trailer.

Next challenge is directing a full-length play. I’ve directed one acts and studied terrific theatre directors. I’m probably ready. Anybody need a guy to stage ANGELS IN AMERICA for you?

DyHrdMET asks:

I'm watching the first season of CHEERS on Netflix (I feel like you once recommended it). How do you and the other writers write a uniquely funny character like Coach? It feels like only a certain type of joke would work on Coach, and those jokes wouldn't work on anyone else (such as "they called me 'Red' because I once read a book"). Was it difficult to continually come up good lines for him?

No, it was easy. In most cases you don’t write these characters “dumb,” it’s just that they take everything literally.

I loved writing the Coach. Nick was an absolute master at comic timing. There’s a true art to playing “dumb.” You'd swear he never saw the joke coming. 

Michael has a question about my first book.

I read this book years ago from the library and my wife bought it for me for Christmas. It's called "It's Gone ... No, Wait a Minute." I enjoyed it then and enjoyed it now. But I wondered: since you were still broadcasting when it came out, did you get any reaction, pro or con, from anyone, especially the people in it?

At the time I wrote it, during the ’91 Orioles season, I didn’t tell anyone I was preparing a book. I didn’t want anyone treating me differently (or stuffing me in a locker) as a result.

When the book came out I never caught any flack from the players, coaching staff, or fellow broadcasters. If anyone was pissed they never told me. And I’m still friends with many of the folks in the book including my partner Jon Miller. I don’t think anyone from Shamrock Airlines is my biggest fan though.

I did get a nice note from Johnny Unitas saying how much he enjoyed the book – and it was worth writing it just for that.

And finally, from Jen from Jersey:

What is your opinion about sitcoms and dramas that add topical references to the show? Any show that uses Trump jokes will seem dated in 20 years. The old and new Murphy Brown used topical political humor and it doesn’t stand the test of time.

Yes, you do topical humor at your own risk because it does date the show and reduces its value in syndication.

But it depends on the premise of the series. A show like MURPHY BROWN is set in the world of current events. They're almost obligated to deal with real life people and events. 

I had more of an issue with the topical jokes themselves. As you know I loathe Trump with every fiber of my being. But the Trump jokes on the new MURPHY BROWN were so blatant and relentless that they got old. Obviously he’s an easy target, but that made for easy jokes. And Trump became the only target for topical humor. I think even the most rabid Trump-haters said, “Okay! We get it!”

In my new play, which has a character who’s a journalist, there are a few references sprinkled in about the current state of the administration. A fellow playwright said, “What happens when he leaves office?” I said, “Nothing would please me more than to rewrite.”

What’s your Friday Question?


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The problem with Trump jokes is that EVERY SHOW has Trump jokes.
I can turn on any "comedy" show and there are Trump jokes.
And they are not even jokes. They are just complaints said by people who are supposed to be funny.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, sorry I missed your play.
If there were 2 empty seats on Sunday they were mine.

I missed it for you and the audience.
I'm sure no one wanted to hear me coughing instead of dialogue.

E. Yarber said...

By an odd coincidence, just this morning I was discussing writers who direct, since I've finally sunk to attempting a book on how to write a screenplay. The basic difference is that if someone is writing a script with the intention of directing the film, they can compose the work with complete anticipation of how they'll stage it, photograph it, edit it, etc, integrating all these factors into the original draft. Someone who is just writing the script, by comparison, can't make those choices for whoever will come along to direct the project. There will have to be another stage of development while the director interprets the writer's contribution.

Not only is the director protecting their writing, but directing as they write.

Bill O said...

Always uncomfortable with Coach. Had an easier time with Woody - played dumb but obviously wasn't.

Lemuel said...

Speaking of Mel Brooks, let's not forget Alfa Betty Olsen, the Sally Rodgers of the Brooks writing team (and you know Mel doesn't forget her).

J Lee said...


Since you've just gotten back from New York, anything that stuck out for you about the logistics of staging a play (or for that matter, a TV show) in New York, versus doing the same thing in Los Angeles? I know when I was growing up in NYC in the 1960s and '70s, the logistics of doing prime-time episodic TV there were awful, and the city really had to work at getting companies back for more than just the occasional exterior shots (It seems to be better now, but I do remember last year reading about ex-Cheers writer/producer Rob Long's travails with the logistics of reverse commuting from NYC out to Long Island to do "Kevin Can Wait". Staging a play in Brooklyn probably isn't as much of a logistical PITA).

Michael said...

Ken, thanks for answering my question. I wondered because you obviously did express opinions of people, and I wondered how thin-skinned they might be.

As for someone who came across well (and differently than his reputation) in your book, I read that Frank Robinson is seriously ill. I was sorry to read that.

And I've never flown Shamrock Airlines, thanks to you.

McAlvie said...

In fairness to the Murphy Brown episodes, they did branch out, it wasn't all Trump all the time. But that being the elephant in the living room, they couldn't avoid the topic either.

I think the problem with Trump jokes is that there's no longer any humor in the situation. It's just scary.

TodBrowning said...

@Lemuel Alpha-Betty Olsen! I remember her name listed as a writer (along with Marshall Efron) of a very funny Sunday morning religious show that told Bible stories with puppets. It must have been the 70s. I just checked IMDB and there is nothing listed that is even close.
The name stuck in my head. Her children's children must have had kids by now, which would make her an Alpha-Betty Gramma.

Coram_Loci said...

The problems with Trump jokes are that they alienate half the audience, and they eventually become so easy that they are seen to be a lazy way to a laugh. They take the audience for granted.

If sacred cows make for the tastiest hamburgers then nothing is blander than another clapter-inducing Trump joke topped with snarky secret sauce.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Thanks for the notice on It's Gone.... - copy on its way.

You probably know about, perhaps have read, Ball Four - Jim Bouton's account of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros (and some great stories from his days with the Yankees).

It wasn't quite a "secret" but Bouton did not hide that he was keeping a diary that season.

You may not know about the sequel I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally.

The scope of this book is wider, since the book changed Bouton's life. He started the season still a ballplayer, took a lot of guff for Ball Four, retired mid-season, took up announcing the sports scores on the evening news in New York, had a meeting with Bowie Kuhn that Kafka might have written, and for aspiring authors recounted how the money flowed - the early proceeds for Ball Four.

A fine second effort.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I'd confidently vie with you for the title of "Guy Who Hates Trump The Most", and I also totally sympathize with that feeling of "OK, we get it!". In the case of Murphy Brown, the jokes seemed so clumsy that they were only one step away from just breaking the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and saying "Man, that Trump, he sure is an asshole, amiright?". When you couple that with some very lackluster performances from the cast, I couldn't make it through the entire season. I'd truly rather watch old episodes with dated Dan Quayle jokes that to watch another episode of the latest series.

I have to agree with McAlvie; there's zero humor left in the fact that he's president. As a fictional character he'd be hilarious; he's basically Doug Adams' Zaphod Beeblebrox. If you had to create a character whose sole purpose was to distract you from what's really happening by his ridiculous behavior, Trump would be the blueprint for that character. Trouble is, Zaphod Beeblebrox is now real, and as it turns out, it isn't that funny after all.

Philly Cinephile said...

Friday question: what happens if the writers of a show come up with a script involving an animal and one of the cast members has a phobia of that particular animal? Can the actor ask for a rewrite or refuse to do the episode? (I have a vague memory of reading an article about a scene involving an animal, and one of the cast members refusing to be present on the set when the scene was shot.) And in general, if an actor is called upon to do something that makes him or her uncomfortable, how is it decided if the actor needs to forge ahead or if the writers need to accommodate the actor and alter the script?

Buttermilk Sky said...

The problem I have with Stephen Colbert's Trump jokes is hearing the exact same jokes an hour later from Seth Myers. Their writers should get together in late afternoon and coordinate. (I never watch Fallon and Corden, so for all I know they have the same problem.) Most days I've already read more scabrously funny stuff online, while sites like The Onion and The Borowitz Report struggle to stay one step ahead of reality. This must be a particularly hard time to be a comedy writer.

JED said...

Ken said, "When the book came out I never caught any flack from the players, coaching staff, or fellow broadcasters. If anyone was pissed they never told me."

Maybe they didn't give you flack because none of them were ever called "Red".

Covarr said...

When the first episode of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT had a "phony news" joke in it, it ruined the episode for me. Topical humor is already somewhat of a fine line, but even moreso when you're injecting modern topical humor into a period piece. That one joke felt more lazy and forced than anything in Murphy Brown.

Lakedog said...

What no kindle edition of the baseball book?

mike said...

Hi Ken,
I loved It's Gone...No Wait a Minute, and I was keen to come out to Brooklyn and see you and your new play and maybe have it signed--but it's the exact same dates and times as a show I'm in myself! Any chance of having my copy signed if I send it along to you, perhaps to your office, postpaid and at my total risk, of course? Or might you be in the NYC area again at some point with another show? What can i say, I'm a collector!

thirteen said...

Trump is too scary to be funny.

Last night's Jeopardy had an answer about the Russian officer who (it says here) prevented WW3 because he didn't believe that the five incoming U.S. missiles on his warning screens were real. I wonder what he would think now?

Anonymous said...

She tweets as alfabetter55
Her book (with Mr Efron) Omnivores has an “Affidavit” by Mel Brooks.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Coach wasn't "dumb." He was brain damaged. He led the league in getting beamed by pitches. Today you'd probably say he had C.T.E. (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) The same condition the NFL is so concerned about these days. Almost every sitcom has a "dumb" charater. It has almost become a requirement, as hackneyed as that may be. However, Coach was handeled with a certain amount of dignity. We, pardon the cliche, laughed with him and not at him. I liked coach. He added to the overall "vibe" of the bar.
But, as I've said before, the dumb characters I have a real problem with are the ones who's only purpose is to be a thorn in the side of the protagonist.

Speaking of the NFL...GO RAMS!!

DBenson said...

Rapidly closing on tedious anti-Trump jokes is tedious jokes about how comedians love Trump.

Andy Rose said...

I think Coach is a great example of how writers can't possibly predict what humor will be "acceptable" in the future. When they went out of their way to explain that Coach was addled because of all the baseballs he took to the head, I assumed they they thought it would make his character a little more palatable, since they could show they weren't getting laughs from someone who had dementia or a congenital mental disorder. Now, the fact that we're laughing at the Coach's Traumatic Brain Injury would probably be considered to be of equally questionable taste. (For the record, I always found Coach to be hilarious, whatever the reason for his being "slow on the uptake.")

Dubliner said...

Re topical references in Murphy Brown. I re-watched the series on YouTube before the new reboot and I was surprised at how the jokes that were topical at the time have in fact held up. I'm not American so a lot of the American references wouldn't have meant much to me anyway. But you don't have to know who Connie Chung is to laugh at the rivalry between her and Murphy. And you don't have to know precisely who Yasser Arafat was to laugh at a well-crafted joke about his correspondence course in Bonsai horticulture.

MikeN said...

Christopher Hitchens talking to Bill Maher about George W Bush jokes,
"It's the joke that stupid people laugh at..."

Pete Sutcliffe said...

Friday Question:

I was just reading a "behind the scenes" article about Friends. It just hit me that Friends had the same pilot premise as Cheers. A spoiled bride-to-be has just had a wedding called off and is persuaded to start a new life against type as a working-class waitress at the watering hole where she finds herself stranded. In Cheers, the upper-class Diane is abandoned by her fiance in Cheers, where she end up serving drinks. In Friends, rich-girl Rachel stiffs her fiance at the altar and runs to Central Perk, where she ends up serving drinks. Both pilots coincidentally were directed by James Burrows, who was also a co-creator of Cheers. Just wondering if you ever speculated about cross-pollination of ideas between the two pilots.