Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday Questions

Let’s close out May and begin the summer with Friday Questions.

First up is Kevin with…

A question about writing credits and pay. I know that when the credits read "Levine & Isaacs" (with an ampersand) that means you two split the money. But if it's "Levine & Isaacs and Smith" (A-N-D) that means you two as a team wrote some and Smith wrote some. Do you then split the money three ways? Do they pay more? Does the team get its full union scale AND Smith get the same? I.E. does it cost the company twice as much for that script?

No more than two writers (a team with an & constitutes one writer) may share credit on a script without a waiver from the WGA. And each writer is entitled to half.

So let’s say William Shakespeare writes the first act and since no one can trust him to write the whole script, David Isaacs and I write the second act.

If the credit reads:

Written by William Shakespeare and Ken Levine & David Isaacs

Then Willie gets 50% and David and I each get 25%.

But if the credit reads:

Written by William Shakespeare & Ken Levine & David Isaacs

Then the WGA would have to approve it and all three of us would get 50%. In other words the studio would have to pay one-and-a-half times the normal script fee. That’s what we did all the time on ALMOST PERFECT when Robin Schiff, David, and I wrote drafts.

You can also break down the writing credit by having “Story by” credit and “Teleplay by” credit. There are formulas with each of those and you’ll notice on Chuck Lorre shows the writing credits are always an alphabet soup of names. That’s because no one really writes the script. It’s room written, but since every writer can’t be credited they just rotate the credit among the staff.

Y. Knott asks:

Conan O'Brien and his staff are being sued for joke theft. A Twitter user claims he wrote and posted daily topical jokes that O'Brien's staff would use the same night. (Google the recent Vanity Fair article for details.)

What do you think -- is it possible? Or is it case of parallel joke development? Accusations of joke theft are common, but does it actually happen?

Conan himself eloquently answers this. Here’s the link.

I agree with him. It happens ALL the time. I’ve seen situations in the writing room where two writers on either side of the room will pitch out essentially the same joke at the same time.

When I do my award show reviews I release them as soon as I can so I won’t be accused of stealing other peoples’ material. But there are only so many ways to describe atrocious-looking gowns.

From Chris:

I have been reading back through old post as I am still fairly new to the blog.

Something that comes up from time to time. "Scoring". Eg You have said Lilith was meant to be a small guest role, but you lucked out. "She scored really well" and you made her a regular

Who is doing the scoring? Is it a questionnaire the studio audience get? Or ring around poll?

Assuming it is the former, what sort of questions are in it and there must be other people doing it too (execs?), or is it literally the actors potential regular gig hanging on the mood of whoever happens to be in the audience on the filming day of that one off guest appearance?

No, Chris, it just means that the actors get big laughs.  And sometimes that will prompt the producers to bring them back.  Or if a supporting character really scores the producers may give him a more prominent role like with the Fonz. 

We don’t do questionnaires, but the network does test the show from time to time, and their results are either something we already knew or way off base. Studio audiences are a better indicator than twenty tourists plucked from the MGM Grand Casino nickel slots area.

And finally, from Kirk:

Here's a somewhat self-indulgent Friday Question. The fact that I, who's nobody, can leave a comment and someone who's name I've seen in TV credits for years will actually read that comment, is to me nothing short of amazing (which is why I went overboard when I first started reading this blog and left a comment every time out, even when I had nothing to say.) But I wonder, how does that feel from the other side? I know you can tell very little about us from reading our comments, but, that said, is there anything about us or what we regularly have to say that you find amazing, or at least mildly surprising?

I often find the comments way more amusing and interesting than my posts.

From time to time I ask readers to tell me where they’re from, what they like, etc. I should probably do that again soon.

But I enjoy the comments. Sometimes I’ll get a person who comments frequently and then they disappear and I wonder, “Hey, where is she? Did I piss her off? Is she just done with this blog?” But I know that readers come and go. Still I wonder. Am I just the blog version of Puff the Magic Dragon?

Have a great summer, kids. Thanks for reading and commenting.


Tim Dunleavy said...

Re "Big Bang Theory": I found it quite interesting that the final, hour-long episode of BBT had a co-writing credit for all twelve of the show's staff writers - "Written by Chuck Lorre & Steve Holland & Steven Molaro & Bill Prady & Dave Goetsch & ..."

Kudos to Lorre and the production staff for doing that. Though I wonder how they worked it out with the WGA.

Mitchell Hundred said...

I've been thinking a lot lately about bottle episodes. Is there any significant difference between the way a writer approaches them and the way they might approach a more conventional script?

Dave Creek said...

Parallel development doesn't just happen in humor. Back in 1964, the science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke and Poul Anderson published stories barely a month apart about spaceships with gigantic solar sails that used sunlight for propulsion. The two stories were published so close to one another that neither writer could have stolen the idea from the other. Also, neither Clarke (who would later write 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with Stanley Kubrick) nor Anderson, also an SF veteran, needed to steal ideas in the first place. And the actual storylines were very different.

The ultimate parallel development -- each titled his story "Sunjammer."

Matt said...

Hi Ken,

GlD you are a screenwriter and not a mathematician. Three people can not get 50%.

Pat Reeder said...

We recently moved into writing for exclusive clients on the Internet and TV, but for over 20 years before that, my wife and I wrote the Comedy Wire daily syndicated topical humor service for radio, and for a couple of years before that, the Morning Punch. Every night, I made it a point to watch every major late night monologue to insure we didn't send out a joke that had been told the night before.

Luckily, because our schedule was the reverse of theirs (they shot at 5 p.m.; we worked through the night and sent out material for morning DJs at 5 a.m.), we had the jump on news that happened evenings and overnight. But when we had to write jokes on a story that happened before about 4 p.m., I routinely had to remove some of our best jokes because they'd popped up verbatim in monologues that aired at 10:30 p.m. Obviously, neither of us was stealing from the other, it was just comedic minds running on the same track.

This was all the more impetus for me to work to insure our material remained creative, quirky and unpredictable and didn't fall into formulas.

I'm glad we're not doing that anymore, because I can't imagine being expected to clear our material to make sure we didn't repeat a single joke from the 24-hour open fire hydrant of wannabe comedy writers that is Twitter. Seems to me it would take a gargantuan ego for most people to think that anyone is reading their tweets at all, must less stealing them.

YEKIMI said...

Ref. the the Conan "joke stealing". I think I've said this before but at one point I was writing jokes for morning DJs, this was pre-internet, pre-Twitter, pre-EVERYTHING besides pony-express, and before I became a DJ and decided why give away stuff I could use myself? Anyways, it was late 70s...don't remember exactly what year...I'm watching a popular late night talk show [not naming names even though most of the participants are dead and the show has evolved] and low and behold the host tells a joke that was almost word for word [a few things had been changed] one I had written for a popular morning DJ. I was pissed! I called up the DJ and asked what the hell was going on, was he taking my material and selling it off to other shows? He was flabbergasted, denied everything and said he would check into it. As usual, the late night show copped an attitude and had a "Yeah, we get this all the time from you A-holes" till the station sent out a tape of the show with MY joke on it. Two weeks later I get called and the broadcasting company he worked for [more likely their attorneys] found out that one of the writers was from the area, had been back home visiting friends and was a fan of this DJ and had been listening the morning my joke had been told. He "borrowed" it and pitched it as his and fessed up to it when he was presented with the tape of the show. He was reprimanded, wasn't fired, got demoted [from what I was told] and they offered to pay the DJ for the joke and he told them they should make the offer to ME, not him. [I never heard from them, wish I had because I heard they offered freelancers anywhere from $25-$50 a joke.] Anyways, after all was said and done I was sorta thrilled a joke of mine had made it on national TV even in a roundabout way. Once all was said and done, I was glad the DJ wasn't the culprit and he was just as surprised as I was.

Kirk said...

Oh, wow, Ken, you totally surprised me! Usually when I ask a question, if you don't answer it within the week, I think to myself, "He didn't find it interesting. Sigh. Oh, well, life goes on." Furthermore, this question was rambling, very stream-of-consciousness (it was inspired by something you wrote about people meeting you in person), and I knew that going in, so my hopes weren't all that high to begin with. But you answered it after all, and made my day. Thanks!

Peter said...

Happy 89th birthday to Clint Eastwood today. May he keep making films and live to 100 at least.

And Happy 58th birthday to the beautiful Lea Thompson, who doesn't seem to age at all!

Y. Knott said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! And thanks too for the continuing Friday Questions feature -- it's always a good read.

Roderick Allmanson said...

Commenting from Frostburg, MD - love the blog and read every day!

Anonymous said...

I wanted so hard to dislike Conan when he first got his NBC show, simply because he was basically unknown and initially I did not think he was funny. Now, 25 or so years later, I feel he is truly the funniest, and probably goofiest, of all late night hosts.(No one can ever eclipse Letteman as my favorite though.) His explanation for this settlement makes me respect him as much as I now like him.

Cole said...

Thank you Ken! Love reading the inside takes on the biz. Shout out from Dallas.

Frank Beans said...

It's more and more common for comedians to do the same joke--not because they are "stealing" them, but because in these times the jokes practically write themselves. I have seen literally the same joke about a political event on Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, or Jimmy Kimmel the same day.

I'm going to offer an original Zen koan here-- "If the joke is always the same, it means the times ain't that funny."

We're stuck in profoundly unfunny times.

Frank Beans said...

To follow up: I have profound respect for all of the aforementioned comedians. Colbert, in particular, is going to be known as the wisest commentator of our times.

I am not trying to say they are being unoriginal or lazy when they have the same jokes, just that--well, our current political world is a joke. Our system is the problem, our collective lack of action is also the problem. They reflect night after night the realities of what our leaders, and much of our "serious" news media apparently cannot do.

Peter said...

Matt, Ken clearly said "In other words the studio would have to pay one-and-a-half times the normal script fee."

Karan G said...

As one reader, whose life has gotten very busy in recent months...I check in when I can, and always enjoy the blog when I have time to read. We've recently started watching James Holzhauer on Jeopardy because of you. Keep doing what your doing...and many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Ken, I agree with Kirk. It is pretty amazing to comment on your blog. I have been seeing your name for many years on the credits of some of my beloved TV shows. Also, very cool when you bring up names like Persky and Denoff, a staple of my youth as a child of the 60's. Thanks for indulging me when I stop in from time to time! Janice B.

John said...

You came up on Seattle radio this morning start at the 33' mark.

Todd Everett said...

I've mentioned this here before, but it's pertinent: back in the days when I was reviewing TV shows, three shows premiered the same night on (as it was then) The WB; all sitcoms. All three shows included a variation on the same already-vintage joke:

"I'm not a waiter -- I'm an actor!"
"Well then, act like a waiter and bring me some coffee."

Update: more recently, two action dramas, the same night on different networks, had a (again not original) sequence involving a body dropped from great height and landing on the roof of a car.

And of course late-night hosts frequently make the same joke based on a current news event.

The guy who sued Conan is a clown. And not the finny kind -- if there is such a thing.

Ed from SFV said...

Mel Brooks has famously lamented the cultural tides which would never allow his brand of humor to see the light of day, let alone be produced (by himself or anyone). Have you and/or David found yourselves self-censoring more than ever due to the new tyrannical mores? Could you describe an example?

I've loved reading about your deejay exploits. Was there an occasion that you would love to take back/not have acted as you did if given the chance? If yes, please describe it.

I don't know how you do what you do. Just as certain athletes surpass my grasp, your sharp mind and humble way seem far beyond the explainable. Thanks for your contributions in art and for being such a giving person.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've told this story before, but it's worth repeating here. When I was in high school my speech/drama class had to write and perform commercials for the class. I came up with "ROX" a breakfast cereal made from rocks. Most of the jokes were pretty obvious. Then, within two weeks "Saturday Night Live" aired its "Quarry" commercial parody. The two commercials were about 95% the same. But, I had witnesses that I did mine FIRST.
But it's not easy to always write an original gag. There have been times that I thought I was being original only to learn that someone did it before. It's almost impossible not to unconsciously remember stuff from "Laugh-In" or "The Smothers Brothers" or "The Bob Newhart Show" or other shows of my youth.

I always try to contribute something of value to Ken's blog. Although, I realize that that's subjective. Yet, there are many times when I won't comment because someone has already said what I had planned to say or because I'd piss off too many people. My views aren't always popular or politically correct.

I always try to read ALL the comments on the blog. However, I kind of burn out around thirty. Sometimes earlier depending on how long they are. So, for example, Saturday's blog about the "All in the Family" remake had fifty comments. Wednesday's blog about weatherman Dallas Raines had fifty-seven. If I didn't get to your comment it was nothing personal.
Speaking of parallel development, how many times have you logged in to Ken's blog only to see fifteen people with the same comment.

kent said...

In case you were concerned, still here.

Loosehead said...

Ken, regarding the thrill of having a famous Hollywood writer read our comments, I'm sure some people only comment to get their name in print.
Dave Gordon

Jen from Jersey said...

Friday question: why does Shelly Long to this day get a bad reputation for leaving Cheers? Even Andy Cohen was joking about it on WWHL. She’s certainly not the first actor to leave a show prematurely. Is it because she wasn’t well liked? I think the best episodes were when she was on the show.

Tom Galloway said...

Back around 1981, I wrote online (yes, the Internet, or more accurately its immediate predecessors ARPANet and Usenet, existed then) "A hypothetical paradox: What would happen in a battle between an Enterprise security team, who always get killed soon after appearing, and a squad of Imperial Stormtroopers, who can't hit the broad side of a planet?"

While sometimes it's quoted with credit (it ended up in a file of "fortunes" for the Unix operating system. If you typed the "fortune" command, it'd randomly print a fortune from the file on your screen), a whole *lot* of people have independently come up with the idea over the last 40ish years. As far as I can tell, no one's ever claimed they came up with it before me though. And it is what it is. I only get annoyed if someone makes a really big deal about how it's a fresh new thing they came up with.

Charles Bryan said...

I don't comment as much as I once did because some other commenter better makes whatever point I had. I think I used up any Friday Questions that I had. But I still read, learn, and enjoy. As always, thank you for blog and your podcast, and I hope that you and yours are all doing well.

mike schlesinger said...

One of my favorite things when making the Biffle & Shooster shorts was to take old Henny Youngman jokes and work them into the script in a way that gave them context. The "Doctor, it hurts when I go like this..." bit is even funnier when actually spoken to a doctor, and nobody ever complained that they'd heard it before.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

Another example of parallel development: David Cronenberg's debut feature film, SHIVERS, and J.G. Ballard's novel HIGH-RISE. Both came out in 1975 and both are about the residents of a state-of-the-art, high-tech living complex descending into savagery and murder. The similarities between SHIVERS and HIGH-RISE are so unmistakable, I assumed Cronenberg was influenced by Ballard (after all, Cronenberg has an affinity for Ballard, seeing as how he directed a film version of Ballard's novel CRASH). But given that SHIVERS received its initial [Canadian] release in October 1975, a month before the [British] publication date of HIGH-RISE (November 1975), it's unlikely Cronenberg was influenced by Ballard (or vice versa), and more likely a case of two similar pieces of art being created independently of each other.

Bruce P. said...

If Conan did steal those "jokes" they must have met his high standard of being completely unfunny.

Pat Reeder said...

To Frank Beans:

Speaking as someone who's written jokes about the news almost daily for nearly three decades, if all the late night comics do virtually the same joke about a story, I'd say that's not great minds all working on the same track, but lazy, formula writing. They're using the first, obvious joke that came to mind. That's the one I throw away and then try to think of something more creative and less on-the-nose.

Frank Beans said...

Pat Reeder--

I'll take your word for it. They perhaps are just being a bit lazy recently, a summer vacation attitude if you will. But it really must be hard to be original and funny when there is so much demented crap in the world that it feels like a cuckoo clock every single day.

Diane D said...

Jen from Jersey
I’m a big Shelley Long fan, but I can understand why some people would be resentful that she left CHEERS when she did. Since she was so popular, I’m sure some thought her leaving could result in the show struggling for a short while and then being cancelled. That would mean many people losing their jobs. Also, many TV actors might have only one really successful show in their entire careers, so they would resent someone cutting that short. That said, they should understand that each person has to do what he/she thinks is best for her/his career. It may seem selfish, but it’s a brutal business.

Breadbaker said...

Ken, I second those who are pleased their comments are meaningful and valuable to you. I've had the pleasure of meeting you twice, once in a group of commenters in Seattle and once at an autograph session, and have always appreciated your approachability and friendliness.

I ran a trivia game online on the AOL "Hometown" site; my game was added to the AOL Hometown Hall of Fame and had over 100,000 visits back before the turn of the century when that was a meaningful number. When players would stop playing, I'd contact them (they had to leave email addresses) and was surprised at the variety of the reasons they abandoned the site. Some just couldn't devote the time to it, some were challenged by some technical issues, some stopped liking it, some were concerned they were spending too much time on it. It's like any other human choice; there is no one clear reason for anything and there's often nothing you could do to change the result. And on a couple of occasions they left because, sadly, they died.

Cedricstudio said...

Friday Question: One of my favorite MASH episodes is “Dreams“. It completely abandons any traditional story structure and instead does a brilliant job using the dreams/nightmares of each character to explore how the war was affecting them personally. To this day I think it holds up as one of the most powerful and unique half hours ever scripted television.

I know it was after your tenure and written by Alan Alda, but I’m wondering if you or someone you know can offer any insight or background into how this episode came about? What inspired it? Was there any pushback from the network (i.e. concerns that it was too abstract or unconventional?) Was there any concern that the concept might veer into the hokey or bizarre? Did the actors offer any significant input? I’d love to hear any insights you can share. Thanks.

DrBOP said...

Ok,'s the deal.
Your blog is the most challenging to comment on in (Drumpfian delivery) IN THE HISTORY OF THE INTERNET.
It's intimidating to comment ANY time some ex-network executive can swoop in with notes.....some comedy writer can tear apart your idea in a second with some quick-witted one-liner.....or some super-walkin-wiki can put one's knowledge level firmly in it's place.

Most of my personal comments have been 7th drafts at least.....hours have been spent's work, I tell 'ya!

All of Hollywood is watching.....hell, the WORLD!

Oh, and by the time I read your blog (EVERYday), your intelligent readership has covered what I would Have commented on.....or, just got nothin' to say.

Chris said...

"Cedricstudio said...
Friday Question: One of my favorite MASH episodes is “Dreams“. It completely abandons any traditional story structure "

It is funny you say that.

Probably just me, but that is probably my all time most hated episode.

It seemed to be to me when Alan Alda (who sounds like a top dude in real life) turned a bit too "arty" stage (for want of a better word) and was trying to turn a half comedy into some sort of statement.

It coincided with a few other episodes which were slightly too "look at Hawke-eye. He the man"

I think it might have just been a phase or other actors had a word, because he seemed to down play the spotlight after a while.

As I say. Could just be my impression

Oh. Thanks for answering my question Ken. A lot more basic "This person is extremely funny" than my convoluted guessing!