Friday, April 12, 2019

Friday Questions

Hello from Indianapolis where I am attending the opening of my play, GOING GOING GONE and conducting a Q&A afterwards. It’s at the Westfield Playhouse. Come join us. Tomorrow I’m in Minneapolis for OUR TIME and a Q&A. Stop by there if you’re anywhere in the Midwest.

In the meantime…

Janet Ybarra has a Friday Question.

Whether it's one of your contemporary stageplays, a teleplay you wrote with David or what-have-you: how do you come up with good, satisfying names for your characters so that everyone isn't a Jones or a Smith?

I’ve written posts on this before. I try to find names that might fit the ethnicity, personality, and age of the character. If I’m writing a period piece there weren’t too many Beyonces in the 1920’s.

I prefer not having two characters with names that start with the same letter (e.g. Janet & Jennifer). It’s easier writing in Final Draft when I only need one key stroke instead of two when typing the character name.

Many times I’ll use names of people I know. Friends and ex-girlfriends show up all the time in MASH and CHEERS.

I also consult my high school yearbook.  Lots of great names in there. 

On MASH we always needed patients and visiting military personnel so my partner David and I in season 7 just went down the Los Angeles Dodgers roster. You’ll find Cey, Garvey, Rhoden, Rau, Hooten, Russell, Lopes, etc.

To be honest, I try not to spend too much time on this because you could devote three days coming up with just the perfect name when all you’re really doing is procrastinating.

Brian Phillips asks:

What are your thoughts on physical humor in a script that you write/co-write?

I love physical comedy and even in shows with sophisticated humor like FRASIER I will try to fit in some physical comedy. The key is having the actors who can pull it off. FRASIER had that in spades.

But even in my plays, which rely on dialogue to get the lion’s share of laughs, I will find spots for physical comedy.

If there’s any form of comedy that is universal and guaranteed to stand the test of time, it’s physical comedy. Laurel & Hardy make me laugh hysterically to this day.

From MikeN:

Would you write episodes differently for Netflix because there are no commercials?

Not really. My act break might not come directly in the middle, but good dramatic structure is good dramatic structure.  I still want a strong act break even if its purpose isn’t to retain an audience through a commercial break.

What excites me more about writing a show for Netflix is not having to squeeze a half hour episode into 18 minutes. I can better tell stories when I have a little more time.

And finally, Frank Beans has a FQ in a similar vein.

Curious, Ken--are there any episodes that you have worked on from any show that you wish could have been longer, or even multi-part so that they could tell a story arc better and in more depth?

Yes, primarily on MASH because we would always weave at least two storylines into every episode (sometimes three). There were instances when we had to cut the show for time and lost good stuff.

I always loved when script assignments that started out as a single episode expanded into a two-parter. Easier to tell the story and twice the money (the latter being the BIG incentive).

But here’s the dirty little secret: Most two-parters you see are really part-and-a-halfs. There is generally padding to fill out the whole hour. I’ve written any number of two parters and could take fifteen minutes out of any of them.

But did I mention I get paid twice for two-parters? I can’t love ‘em enough.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. And hope to see you this weekend on the theatre circuit. Thanks.


Michael said...

Friday question: You were always very dismissive of TWO BROKE GIRLS, but curious if you think you could have taken the same basic premise and characters and written a show you would have been proud of. I guess asking if the premise and characters are less important than the execution.

Sara said...

I tried to watch Abby - the most disturbing was the laugh track. Is a laugh track ever effective?

E. Yarber said...

John Ford directed an episode of WAGON TRAIN as a favor to the show's star Ward Bond, who had been a prominent member of Ford's stock company. John Wayne showed up in a cameo. The result was seventy-two minutes long. MCA, which produced the show, considered expanding the story to a two-parter, but decided it would be cheaper to simply cut fourteen minutes of footage.

E. Yarber said...

Actually, according to Joseph McBride's SEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD, the episode was out by 19 minutes, not 14, which makes sense for the hour slot. It would have been an easy detail to check before posting a comment, but I would have had to wake up a cat sleeping peacefully next to me.

J Lee said...

Ken, when you have a supporting character on a sitcom who really hits with the audience, how do you avoid the temptation (either on the staff or the network's part) to over-use that supporting character and basically run them into the ground, because the character works best in small periodic doses? You know in the early going the character can provide easy laughs, but you'll ruin him or her later on if you go to the well too often.

Dan Reese said...

To your point about Netflix providing the ability not to have to cut an episode to 18 minutes— would there be an opportunity to revisit classic episodes of MASH, Cheers, Frazier to do a director’s cut? Assuming the cut footage still exists, do you think there could be a market for that in the streaming or DVD worlds? Would you be interested in going back to any of your previous writing or directing work and editing them the way you’d do it without time constraints?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks for answering Janet Ybarra's question because I've also asked that before. With characters such as "Frasier and Niles Craine," they wouldn't have seemed as erudite if their names were "Bob and Jack Smith." (No offense if those are your names.) I'm guessing that that's why the dad was named "Martin." He needed a more common, working class name for contrast.
Foreign characters must be more difficult to name if you're not familiar with the language. "Kim" is a very common family name in Korea, so it's not surprising that so many characters on "M*A*S*H" had that name. However, other times is seems that there is a definite ignorance and/or lack of imagination in other works. e.g. Look at how many Indians are named "Sanjay" or Chinese named "Wang."
I've also noticed that in the credits of Chuck Lorre's shows they give characters, including day-players names even if they're not called by name. Many times on other shows they'll have a description instead. e.g. "Girl in bar" or "Repair man," etc.

I too, love physical comedy by, in your words, "...actors who can pull it off." Dick Van Dyke is a master. I really wasn't a fan of "There's Company," but the late John Ritter was also highly adept at the physical humor. Art Carney, of course. et al.
It reminds me of the argument that sometimes come up, are The Marks Brothers better than The Three Stuges? Or vice versa. I love them both.

No opinion on the other F.Q.'s

Mike said...

Will tomorrow's weekend post be about WGA accepting agencies offer

or mass firings?

I just hope WGA doesn't succumb to pressure by tomorrow and accept ATA's handout.

Mitchell Hundred said...

One of the ways I know that violence is the universal language (rather than math or money) is the enduring nature of physical comedy/slapstick.

Also, whenever someone asks about whether three-act structure is relevant in a format without commercials, I immediately think of this video on the subject. It's ubiquitous for a reason.

Dr Loser said...

I think you hit on something with two-parters: they're generally something that the audience recognises, and feels cheated by, and rightly so (partly because the material is stretched, but mostly because, on a more mundane level, you can see that the unforgiving nature of a series schedule makes them appealing to the suits. In other words, they're usually artificial.)

Here's a thought -- what's wrong with a three-parter? Think of it as an Attic play, or a Mozart piano concerto, if you will. Kick off with a great theme and counter-theme (Mozart) or Hubris (Greek). Next episode, go for the slow movement (Mozart) that everyone likes and remembers, or the rather more exciting Greek version, which is Nemesis.

The third episode/act/movement would of course be a chance for the writers to let things rip. In Greek terms, it's Catharsis. In TV terms, it's Radar flying back to reclaim his teddy-bear. And in Mozart's case ...

Well, let's face it, Mozart ran out of ideas for his third movement, 38 times out of 41.

But that's the challenge! Outdo Mozart in a three act play!

MikeKPa. said...

You can catch part of the Tigers-Twins game tomorrow afternoon. A balmy 36-degrees for first pitch.

Madame Smock said...

Cheers did a 3 part episode "Strange Bedfellows". Was the episode written to be three parts or was there too much material to put into one episode ? In today's world you can binge the three parter but in 1986 it took us 3 weeks.

slgc said...

Here's a Friday Question - Do you consider The Naked Gun to be a baseball movie? Granted, it's only the last third of the movie that's baseball related, but it contains some truly classic scenes.

It's good enough for the MLB Network to show it from time to time, but is it good enough for you?

Wally said...

@Michael re: premise vs execution:

Kyle Burress said...

Had I known earlier that you were going to be in Indianapolis I would've tried to come check it out tonight!

Throughout the years I'm sure you've turned down actors for certain roles in favor of someone else and actors have turned you down as well. Who are some of the names both ways and the potential reasoning for doing so? Any regrets on someone you've passed on?

Rinaldo said...

Given that the idea of not having multiple characters whose names begin with the same letter, or are otherwise too similar, is probably fairly widely shared, I've often wondered:

How did THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW end up with 3 regular or recurring characters named Mary, Murray, and Marie? They're the same except for the vowels. Was there a purpose behind it? An idea for a mistaken-identity farce that never happened?

Janet Ybarra said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! I recall on MASH, nurses were usually named very simply, alphabetically: Able, Baker, etc.

As I recall, Nurse Kellye, in the very beginning, began as an "Able" or "Baker."

Another question for you: What do you think of Kelsey Grammer's performance in PROVEN INNOCENT?

Break a leg in the Hoosier State!

Chris said...

Did you fire your agent?

Peter said...

Frank Beans?