Friday, March 08, 2019

Friday Questions

Daylight Saving Time starts again on Sunday. Remember to turn your clocks ahead one hour. And leave any Friday Questions in the comment section.

Mitchell Hundred has this week’s first FQ:

I was watching the Laurel and Hardy video that you posted a couple of weeks back, and although I really enjoyed it I noticed that neither of them seems to be playing the straight man. So my Friday question would be: what is the function of a straight man in comedy, and why does Laurel and Hardy seem to work so well without one?

A standard trope in comedy is “set up/joke.” In many cases that means someone asks a question (set up) and the other person answers with a punchline.

What people don’t realize is that it takes a lot of skill and timing to be a good set-up man. And the guy who has the punchline may get the laugh and glory, but the joke would not have worked had the set-up man not teed it up correctly. Great examples are Abbott & Costello, Burns & Allen, and Bob & Ray on the radio.

Laurel & Hardy had a different dynamic. Most of their comedy was physical. Their dynamic was a frustrated guy who attempted at all times to preserve his dignity and a carefree guy who through his bungling frustrated the other guy to death.

What Stan Laurel (who wrote all of their material) understood was that the laugh was not just the physical gag (e.g. brick falling on Hardy’s head) but the reaction.

Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman asks:

If, you say, the Academy Awards are discontinued, Hollywood won't bother making "prestige" pictures any more - its output will be entirely superheroes, comic books, and other stuff for teenaged boys. What happens then to movies for grown-ups?

They get made by Netflix and other streaming services. They essentially become TV movies.

And as a result you sacrifice scope and the experience of seeing the film in a theatre.

A-list directors will find their way to Netflix but they will have to work with a more limited budget and their project most likely won’t have the impact it would have had it been a major motion picture.

When you go to your menu screen on Netflix, there will be the thumbnail of the new Martin Scorsese movie next to the CATWALK documentary. That’s a fry cry from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

From 71dude:

With nothing getting good ratings anymore and even established series like "Fresh off the Boat" and "Speechless" hanging by a thread, how do actors in bubble shows decide when to audition for other pilots? Do they follow ratings websites that say their show is "likely renewed" or "likely cancelled"? Or can they just act in whatever they want when their season wraps?

If their show is on the bubble they go on auditions and if they get cast in a pilot it’s understood they’re in “second position” – meaning if their previous show does get picked up they’re obligated to return to it. But if it gets cancelled and they’re free and the new pilot goes to series they’re confirmed for that series.

That’s what happened to Jennifer Aniston. When she signed to do the FRIENDS pilot she was in second position to a summer sitcom on CBS, MUDDLING THROUGH (see photo of Jennifer in that show above). Had that show gotten an order for more episodes Jennifer would have had to drop out of FRIENDS.

So as a producer you take a risk when you hire someone in second position because it has happened that a bubble show got a last minute reprieve and a pilot that was ordered to series had to recast and reshoot because their second position actor was now no longer available.

Unless the actor is really really special or it’s almost a guarantee his previous show is not coming back I tend to avoid hiring actors in second position. The casting process is stressful enough.

And finally, Jamie T has a baseball question.

YouTube is chock full of clips of brawls breaking out in Major League Baseball games (some posted by MLB itself). They get tons of views.

As an announcer, did you ever have to call a brawl? Whether or not you had to do it, what would your feeling be in the moment? Are you kind of excited by the action? Are you annoyed? Does the league/network/local management give any guidance on how they want you to call it?

I’ve called many brawls. No, I get no guidance.

Brawls can be ugly and certainly don’t show baseball in a good light. And of course, guys could get hurt.

On the other hand, in some cases I understand the reason for them. Players need to protect their teammates. Players who don’t quickly become ostracized.

Personally, here’s what I like about them. I feel I’m pretty good at descriptions and painting a visual picture. Brawls let me show off those skills.  And it's way more fun to call them on radio because you've got to continually set the scene.  (At least for me.  There are lots of announcers who are very uncomfortable going off script.) 

There was one brawl I called that was particularly unsettling. I was calling it on the radio. Chip Caray and Ron Fairly were handling TV that inning. It was my second year with the Seattle Mariners. We were playing the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore. Our catcher, Dan Hasselman took exception to being plunked by Mike Mussina thus sparking what proved to be a really ugly melee. Most brawls are essentially guys just standing around but there were fist-fights that just kept erupting.

And here’s the thing: I knew every player on both teams personally. Many were my friends. So here I am calling the blow-by-blow of friends of mine slugging other friends of mine. There was nothing remotely fun about that one.

Here’s the fight with Chip & Ron’s call. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of my broadcast. Too bad because I thought, under the circumstances, I did a real nice job.


Curt Alliaume said...

There's a photograph Ms. Aniston could happily live the rest of her life without ever seeing.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Great conversation about setup/joke partners.
Certainly plenty of great set up/jokes teams on TV.

Ken wrote for many. On Cheers there was always the Norm entrance, or even the Cliff Calvin set up with the Carla riposte.
On MASH there was always a set up for Hawkeye, usually from Henry, McIntyre, or Burns.

Peter said...

Ken, next time you see James L. Brooks, please thank him for me for deciding with the other Simpsons producers to permanently remove the episode that featured that disgusting freak Michael Jackson from all platforms and future box set releases.

He said "I'm against book burning of any kind. But this is our book, and we're allowed to take out a chapter."

Dan said...

Please, please, PLEASE don't call it Daylight Savings Time!! It is Daylight Saving Time!

Ted said...


E. Yarber said...

Virtually all movie comedy teams worked together on stage before appearing on film. Laurel and Hardy are an unusual case. Harold Lloyd had been Hal Roach's star comedian before leaving to run his own show. Roach didn't put all his eggs in one basket after that, but concentrated on ensembles like the Our Gang kids. The adult equivalent was called the "All Stars" and included recurring players like Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson. When Laurel joined the group, he was not specifically paired with Hardy at first. Only when the chemistry between the two became apparent did they eventually become the center of the troupe. Thus they never really had the same straight man/comic dynamic that other duos had worked out on the road.

marka said...

Frasier question:

Did they film the Eddy tricks before the filming, without anyone on the set, in case the tricks didn't work out during the live run?

J Lee said...

Some of the end gags Stan came up with for the L&H shorts and features in the 1930s and early 40s came across as more disturbing than funny, based on the images of their characters. This blog post from seven years ago has a list of the 'shock' endings, which range from the mildly unsettling to "What was he thinking?"

Carson said...

In my opinion, one of the greatest straight-man/funny man duos was Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. Knotts won all of the Emmys, but if he had not had Griffith to play off of, that character would not have worked.

Michael said...

On Laurel & Hardy, it also was character comedy. Eventually, it was clear to the audience who they were, so in addition to the physical comedy (Hardy once said Laurel handled all of the creative stuff, but that he figured he earned his pay by falling into all of the mudholes), you KNEW Stan would say or do something dumb and/or childlike, and that Ollie would react a certain way. It brings to mind what, speaking of the great straight men, George Burns said Jack Benny told him: A joke might take five years to set up.

Actually, Burns provided an example from Benny. Benny said the biggest laugh he ever got on radio was from three words: "Oh, shut up." And he didn't say them. Mary did. Dorothy Kirsten, the opera singer, was the guest, and Don Wilson, the announcer, was known to be an opera lover, so they got into a discussion that even got technical at times. Everybody who listened knew Benny would have to say something. Finally he cut in and said, "Well, I thought ...," and Mary immediately said, "Oh, shut up!" And the audience went crazy because they both were in character.

As for the brawl, Pat Hughes of the Cubs does these great CD's of tributes to baseball broadcasters (including Dave Niehaus, Chuck Thompson, and Jon Miller, all of whom were great because they worked with Ken). On the one for Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons there's a brawl or two, and Hodges's boxing training came in handy.

Dennis Hartin said...

You mentioned Bob and Ray as a classic "set-up/joke" comedy team in the context of the "straight man/comic" structure along with Abbott and Costello and Burns and Allen. Unlike those other teams, though, Bob and Ray took turns being the comic and the straight man. This was part of their genius, in part because it kept the audience slightly in the dark about how a given bit would play out. I find it impossible to imagine Lou setting Bud up for a laugh, for instance.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

And as a result you sacrifice scope and the experience of seeing the film in a theatre.

I'll take that chance. I can't regularly afford $9.25 for a matinee (for one movie!), nor deal with the people who can't wrap their heads around the concept that they're in a movie theater, and maybe there are others there who actually want to see the movie.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I will not be setting my clock forward this weekend. For twelve years now, I have refused to conform to Bush's extended DST; I have always hated DST - even as a school kid, when my parents would make me go to bed at 8:30, 9:00, 9:30 on school nights in August and it'd still be daylight outside. How's a kid (who's already a night owl and an insomnaic) supposed to sleep when outside still has daytime written all over it?

Bush had no reason to extend DST. "To improve trade with other countries," he said. Well, guess what? The only other country that went along with extended DST was Canada, because they really had no other choice but to tagalong with us.

Other than Europe, and some parts of South America and Australia, the rest of the world has long stopped observing DST altogether - why can't we just do away with it as well?

So, while the rest of you enjoy losing an hour of sleep this weekend, I won't; I'll still be on Eastern Standard Time for another month, and then I'll spring forward in April, as we once used to . . . and fall back in October, not November, as we once used to.

gottacook said...

With respect to "sacrificing" the theater experience: A couple of days ago I came across this quote from Paul Schrader: "Distribution models evolve. The notion of squeezing 200+ people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics, not any notion of the 'theatrical experience.' Netflix allows many financially marginal films to have a platform and that’s a good thing."

I have to agree with him - going to the theater can be special but it's not inherently special; it was simply the only way to see a movie for decades. (Of course I don't mean Imax-type presentations, but the huge majority of movies aren't; as for 3D, the glasses give me a headache and make the image dimmer.)

There is a reason that the last movie my family bought tickets for (Incredibles 2) was shown in a theater with widely separated individual recliners and relatively few total seats: Exhibitors are trying to emulate the home experience.

Of course, I have fond memories of seeing particular movies in the theater - for example, the cheer that went up when the eight-note trumpet fanfare played at the beginning of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 ("yeah, THIS time they're going to do it right!"). But the prospect of a similar experience isn't enough to make me regularly pay for movie tickets in 2019.

Anonymous said...

The threat posed by teenage boys to American Cinema is overstated - primarily by codgers unfamiliar with performers who aren’t members of AARP. A greater- and, at tines, more insidious influence- is wielded by China, our favorite dictatorship. AMC, the world’s largest theatre chain, is controlled by Chinese interests (, China is the second largest film market (more than enough reason for studios to avoid producing political films or English language talkfests); China produces much of the innards for our smart phones and is leading in 5G, and, of course, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is now Chinese owned

Steven said...

As a Cubs fan I didn't realize Chip Caray had called some notable brawls. This is the one I'll always remember

E. Yarber said...

Not only did Bob & Ray effortlessly switch straight man/comic roles, but were versatile enough to handle ensemble comedy between the two of themselves, as in the Mary Backstayge sketches.

Anonymous said...

I will not go to a theater to see a movie ever again. I was so excited to see The Last Jedi in the theater, but came away without a clue as to what it was about. The sound for the special effects were too loud, I couldn't hear the dialog and the the general sound was to loud. I am that cranky old guy yelling, "Get off my lawn" sometimes, but it was not a pleasant experience. I'll just wait till they come on dvd or on cable.

Pam, St. Louis

Kendall Rivers said...

I have another Friday Question: I loved the discussion on Barney Miller's Hash and it made me remember how amazing it is that even after Barney not only survived but even gotten better after Abe Vigoda and Jack Doo were gone and that's no diss to them they were incredible in their roles and if this was any other show it would probably tank without them but the ensemble was so incredible that the show didn't fall apart. Same on the other shows you did like Cheers and MASH that also improved with cast changes. This wasn't the case with The Office for example. Why is that?

Andy Rose said...

"Losing the beauty of the theater experience" strikes me as a coastal urban concern to which I can't really relate. I grew up in a small town in middle America with one crappy theater that had absolutely no character at all. The floors were always sticky, the seats were dirty and often broken, and the sound was monaural on intercom-quality speakers. But most importantly, it took us at least a month after release before films would finally come to our city on 35mm prints that were already worn out. When I finally got to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I vividly remember the first 20 minutes being marred by a horrendous green line straight down the middle of the picture. Apparently the theater that had been previously using that print had something break off in the gate and scratch the entire first reel. Nothing we could do about it. Our parents were not about to drive us to the closest "big city" theater 45 miles away.

Ted said...

What are the odds that Bill Hasselman will deliver an intro speech for Mussina at this year's HOF induction?

Cliff said...

That was a fascinating clip of that brawl. What caused me to grin from ear to ear as I watched it was seeing the old Mariner teammates, and hearing all of those names that are so much a part of the teams history. As you are as well Ken. Good old Norm, Jay, Chris, Lou, and so many others that were rolling around in the grass.
I am amused to think that Chris Bosio was a threat to anyone, he wasn't exactly a power pitcher was he? :)


Jen from Jersey said...

Friday question: When you and Issacs wrote sitcoms, did you have Assistant writers too? If not, how were you able to write the dialogue so quickly for 20+ episodes?

David P said...

The most criminally under-rated straight man, of course, is Bob Newhart, who somehow was overlooked by the television academy until his guest-starring role on The Big Bang Theory.

Mitch H. said...

Hey Ken,

I was able to get a showrunner with an ABC sitcom pilot in contention this year to read my sample script without an agent, she said she'll consider me for the staff writer position if the show gets picked up. Only one problem, I'm Canadian. If a show agrees to hire someone, what are the chances they'll sponsor someone for a work visa? Also, are staff writers usually the last positions that they hire after the show is picked up? In the event that I do get hired, I want to make sure there's enough time for the visa to arrive.


Jeff Boice said...

I was at that game. Sat in the right field bleachers, it got frightening when that fight broke out close to the stands-for my perspective it looked liked everyone was right next to the stands and I imagined fans getting involved. The lady I took to the game would later rib me about me taking her to a knockdown drag-out brawl.

Back when Camden Yards was new and the O's were selling out every night.

Been a long time since I've seen a movie in a real theater. Too old, the prices scare me off- I figure I can wait.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I subscribe to three streaming services, Amazon Prime, Netflix and Britbox. As I get older, I find I can no longer hear my Korean-made television very well, and prefer watching TV shows on the computer with headphones. Also, I can watch the complete FRASIER, MONTY PYTHON, BLACKADDER and other great stuff anytime I want. The movies I like are dialogue-driven rather than skyscraper-exploding and this is perfectly adequate for them, too. In effect, we're back to the nickelodeons of 125 years ago, one viewer-one screen.

I was seriously upset by the news that Tom Seaver has dementia, and I'm grateful for the chance to come here and unwind. Tom Terrific and the Miracle Mets were heroes of my youth. Did you ever meet him, Ken?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@David I know, how pathetic is that?

J said...

I don't need a theater full of strangers too enjoy a good story. No one gets 100 ppl together in a big room to read a great book. Just enjoy it at home on whatever screen you like best, then discuss with your friends afterwords.

Edward said...

I was watching the Gene Reynolds interview for the Archive of American Television. I could not believe what I heard about Fox bullying him into signing away his profit participation in MASH. He said word got around town that he had been 'taken'. Then he left the show to join MTM.

What did you know at the time regarding Geny Reynolds leaving MASH?

My thought is that Alan Alda was requesting a piece of the show and the only way that was going to happen was if Fox could buyout one of the current profit participants.

DwWashburn said...

Baseball is the only pro sport I follow. And I am not a fan of brawls. Millionaires beating up on millionaires is not my idea of a fun evening. The problem, unfortunately is what you alluded to -- fans, the press and even MLB love brawls. The clip you showed had the MLB logo prominently displayed in the corner. Even though the announcers said there were boos in the crowd during the fight all I heard was constant crowd noise accentuated by cheers every time a new fight broke out. I would wager that if you looked at stills from MLB brawls and took a wide angle approach so that you could see the spectators, most of them would have smiles on their faces or would be cheering. Disgraceful!

There is a simple solution if the powers that be want to stop massive fights in MLB. Fine or eject any player that either comes out of the bullpen, off the bench or engages in a fight in which they were not the instigator or recipient. If in the clip the fight had been relegated to just the batter and pitcher and no one else it would have been over in 30 seconds and the batter would have been thrown out. And if you had ejected everyone that charged the mound you would not have had enough remaining players to play the game which would have resulted in a double forfeit. If either team had missed the playoffs because of this 1/2 game in the standings they would think twice before making asses of themselves on the diamond. Allowing everyone to take the field because they are "protecting their team" or because it is an "unwritten rule" accomplishes nothing and only amplifies the problem.

And that's another thing that MLB players need to get away from -- the "unwritten rules of baseball". You know why they're unwritten? Because most of them are stupid. Don't talk to a pitcher who is throwing a no hitter, don't bunt for a base hit if the opposing pitcher is pitching a no hitter, don't steal a base if you are ahead by six or more runs, hit either the next batter or the same batter his next time up if he hit a home run, etc. etc. Do you know how asinine any of these would be if they were in the official rule book? It's disgraceful that these pampered privileged players have to swear to a code of "unwritten rules" to support their manhood.

MikeN said...

I don't get this idea that without the Oscars, various movies wouldn't be made. Why would a studio make a movie just for the Oscars?

Breadbaker said...

What may keep the theatrical experience available to appropriate films that may have a limited audience is a phenomenon I've experienced since we moved to the less affluent and less culturally cutting edge suburbs. Theaters now show some films only once or twice a week. So the big blockbuster will be on four screens most of the time, but on Tuesday at 11 am, some art film will be shown just once, to be replaced by the blockbuster again in the next time slot. We were able to see The Favourite that way, at a very odd hour. If the distributor can make money that way, they'll do it. If a film is worth seeing on the big screen (hint: a certain Oscar winning actress's nipples are a lot larger on a screen than on your laptop), this can happen.\

Keith Nichols said...

I used to see three or four flicks a week by paying four bucks at the multiplex matinee and moving from auditorium to auditorium. Now I agree with J Larrick. The big screen lost any magic when the image became grainy, many of the special effects obvious, and the sound deafening. Also the nauseating smell of whatever oil is dumped on the popcorn. And then there's the double-digit price of being subjected to all this. However, I haven't been in a movie theater in many years, so my criticisms may no longer be warranted.

Madame Smock said...

Daylight Savings, we don't need no stinking daylight savings ! Aloha.

Cedricstudio said...

Friday Question: The MASH episode "The Life You Save" (Season 9, Ep. 20) has a sequence where Father Mulcahy and Hawkeye have a discussion in front of a towering pile of garbage that is almost cartoonishly high. It must be at least twelve feet. In between lines of dialogue Mulcahy and Hawkeye take turns bracing the pile to keep it from avalanching down on them. This is such an usual setting for a scene that I have to wonder, were the writers feeling unusually grumpy or vengeful that day? I know this was after you left the show but I was wondering if you might have any insights into this peculiar scene?

Unknown said...

I just came across the movie Critical Condition on television. I checked the credits,thinking it was directed by Sidney Lumet.I was surprised when I saw David's and your name listed as co-screenwriters with John and Denis Hamill. I don't recall your mentioning this film on the blog. Was your work here similar to Jewel and the Nile? Were you ever on the set? It was directed by Michael Apted,who did the 7-Up films,Coal Miner's Daughter and Continental Divide-my favorite John Belushi movie. Do you have any positive memories of working on it?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Like many others here, I largely stopped going to most movie theaters because as they were carved up into smaller spaces the viewing angle deteriorated, as has audience behavior. I do, however, belong to a local film club that does good-quality screenings in a well-designed theater, and also a repertory cinema in central London where the midweek matinees are reasonably cheap and, again, both the theaters and the screenings are well-designed. This particular theater also occasionally does overnight binges of trilogies and stuff, and it has an FAQ full of tips for getting the best out of them. My favorite tip is that you should come wearing pajamas. They even encourage you to bring your own food.

I can also recommend the Virginia Theater in Champaign-Urbana, IL, a theater so excellent that Roger Ebert's film festival still takes place there every year. Great theater, superb audience.


Doug said...

Phfft! No basebrawl holds a candle to the Padres/Braves battle in Atlanta during the 1984 season. That sucker lasted innings!

Ben Varkentine said...

I always liked the little touch of Diane's "Norman" a beat after everybody else's "NORM!" on Cheers. Writers inspiration or actor's?

Ben Varkentine said...

Ps: I just realized both questions I've asked now have to do with whether a favorite moment in a show was the work of writers or ad-lib.

I swear it's a coincidence. I respect writers nearly to the point of reverence - Larry Gelbart is my hero.

Anonymous said...

My favorite brawl commentary, if I'm remembering it correctly, was from Skip Caray doing an Atlanta Braves broadcast where there was a brawl with my Houston Astros that started small and just kept escalating. At one point, Caray told his partner (maybe Pete Van Wieren?) something like "Ok, if this makes it up here, you get (Astros color guy) Larry Dierker and I'll take Milo (Hamilton)."

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