Friday, July 05, 2019

Friday Questions

It may be a holiday weekend, but Friday Questions get answered just the same.

Colby starts us off:

If you had to sit down now and write an original episode of any of the shows you've worked on, (your actors are frozen in time, so no nursing home requirements for the characters) which do you think would be the easiest to write fresh content for?


Don’t know why, but I never got tired of writing that show. Even after 40 episodes. I love those characters, love that setting, and could happily keep writing them for years.

FRASIER would be a close second.

But not MASH. So much of that show was based on research, and by the end those bones were picked clean. Because we were locked into a time and place and characters couldn’t grow, I think the show went on about two or three years too long.

Earl B asks:

Have you ever, in your writing, thought "This is a good, clever joke, but at this point in the script I need a belly laugh"?

All the time.

Especially if we’re looking for a joke to end a scene.

When I write a joke I always try to imagine a studio audience’s reaction. Will they really laugh at this or will they smile? Not every line in a script needs to be a belly laugh, but there are places where they are required.

Example: If you take a whole page to set up one joke, it better be a great joke.

In general, I try to shy away from “clever.” Word-plays or puns work better in prose.

But I’m always looking to “beat” jokes – in other words, replace them with better jokes. It's become an obsession.  I do it sometimes with jokes that have already aired.  I need therapy. 

From PolyWogg:

I have a question about off-set escapades. Does scandal / noise / etc. from the stars affect the writing or is that someone else's problem and you stick to the writing?

Offstage distractions make it harder for all concerned. The audience will start blending the actor’s behavior with his character’s, which often distorts the character.

As a writer you do your best to maintain the direction and integrity of the show, but it’s tough when an actor’s behavior starts turning viewers against them and your show.

I would not want to be writing FRESH OFF THE BOAT right now given Constance Wu’s disdain for the show that launched her career.

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun.

And finally, from Jim S:

What is the protocol for using personal stories. I imagine it's OK for a writer to think, "I remember a time when I forgot my mother's birthday and there was Hell to pay. Let's make that a story."

But what if Mom objects? And say you remember an embarassing story where a friend or even family member did something that they might not like on national TV? How do finesse that? Or are the lines one doesn't cross?

That’s always an issue, and the writer has to take it on a case-by-case basis.

One way is to ask the person's permission.  

Putting a spin on the story to hide someone’s identity is always helpful. Instead of your father who got drunk and drove his car through the living room, it’s a neighbor, or one of your regular characters. The world doesn’t have to know.

To me the tipping point is if you know it’s going to really hurt someone’s feelings. Then I would say don’t do it.

But here’s the interesting thing – let’s say you shield a family member by preserving their anonymity. But the behavior is clearly theirs. Often times the person in question will say, “I know someone just like that.” They won’t recognize that it’s them.  

And I will say this, I have had arguments with my wife where she’s said in the middle of it – “This better not turn up in a script!”    They never did.  I'm not an idiot. 

The best and safest way to go are to do humiliating stories about yourself.

What’s your Friday Question? Hopefully, you still have ten fingers to type because you didn’t lose three of them in a home fireworks accident.


William said...

"... let’s say you shield a family member by preserving their anonymity. But the behavior is clearly theirs."

Reminds me of the Frasier-episode Mixed Doubles, where Niles has a hard time recognising that Daphnes new boyfriend is uncannily like him. Was that by any chance inspired by somebody not recognising behaviour that is clearly theirs?

Glenn said...

One of the writers from Everybody Loves Raymond talked about making an episode about something that happened between him and his wife. The wife was pretty upset about the whole world knowing their personal issues, but then she saw the check he got for that week. What do you know, all was forgiven.

Steve Bailey said...

I remember reading an interview with Ray Romano where he said his wife complained once when an incident from their lives turned up in an episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Romano said he pointed out the window and asked his wife, "You see that pool? You think it fills itself?"

Gary said...

I recall reading about a comedy writer whose wife recognized one of their arguments in a sitcom episode he helped write. Of course by the end of the 22-minute show the characters' argument was completely resolved. The writer's wife said something to the effect of "If only it were that easy in real life..."

marka said...

This is a revised Friday question, I asked it before but now I realize this is what I really meant to ask:

How are you given the peramators for script logistics? Like: how many non-cast member actors are you able to write in an episode? Does it matter if they have one line (which I assume would be paid less than if they had fifteen lines) or are a main character for whole episode? If 20 extras are told to laugh (or yell "NORM!") at one point do they all get paid for having a speaking part? How about the sets, are you given directions on how large or how many additional sets you can build for an episode? Does it matter if you can argue that those new sets woud be very useful in future episodes?

I just assume there would be guidelines for these things, perhaps in the staff handbook???

Joseph Scarbrough said...

What about that treatment you wrote for M*A*S*H last year? Where everybody's still in Korea, yet they say only two years had passed? B.J. saying he was looking forward to seeing his daughter again, and meeting his granddaughter who was getting ready to turn 12 because it had been such a long two years? That was hilarious! I wish you could somehow get the cast together to actually film that (though sadly, David Ogden Stiers has passed away since then).

PodFan said...

Hi Ken-

Who are the people you thank at the end of the podcast each week and what are you thanking them for? The mysterious Adam and Susie Meister-Butler and so forth....

Armando De Avila said...


You write that "Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun."

I'm going to do what you talk about in the second question/answer and try to beat this joke. I'm going to say that 'monkey' can be improved upon. I did actually laugh but then I thought, I don't believe I'd use that animal as a symbol of an actor or even of a human who is mischievous, has a short-attention span, is dumb but curious and gets into hijinks.

What about "Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a ferret a gun"? Can't be a dog or cat, too domesticated. I thought 'cat' for a moment because 'cat' is self-involved, curious and you're trying to conflate the characteristics of an animal with the stereotype of a non-thinking actor (Ken did write 'some', everyone).

Hmm. Monkey is still funnier than ferret. But monkey doesn't seem like the biggest laugh.

Maybe we go at some kind of ridiculous animal? Play that up, maybe even get the cache of the word itself being funny? An octopus, due to its multiple appendages? Or meerkat (weasel, some other kind of rodent = hamster?)? Can't use 'rat' or 'mouse', not funny and too many pejorative connotations. Something with a short attention span or the way we'd anthropomorphize the animal would extract its seemingly human short attention span.

Or we could say 'penguin' - just the image is ridiculous. Is that too far from the original intent?

E. Yarber said...

Once I was stuck in an awful situation trying to fix a production. The producer claimed it was a "cooperative" work, but the reality was that the performers were writing solely for themselves, trying to turn every scene into a monologue. One woman had decided to coast entirely by basing her character on a cousin of hers. This was a shortcut to actually thinking the role through, however. She wasn't trying to interpret her cousin or broaden the character beyond a surface imitation, so the part was crudely conceived and simply parroted things the actual woman had said. I warned this actor that she was at serious risk of hurting this relative through the cheap laughs she was seeking, but she insisted her cousin was flattered by the idea.

My suggestions were totally ignored because this crowd decided that I was trying to break up their group dynamic, and I realized I was wasting my time even trying to salvage their work. Of course everything that could go wrong went wrong. In the case of the cousin, she arrived for opening night happily declaring, "I'm the star of the show!" then had to sit in humiliation as she found she had been made the butt of a cruel joke, the audience laughing at the character on stage, who eventually revealed she had a social disease. The play got a terrible review and wound up getting audiences smaller than the cast itself. I don't know if the rift in the actor's family ever healed, but the pain she caused simply wasn't worth it.

Incorporating personal observation in your work doesn't have to be predatory opportunism. The natural course of developing the writing should be enough to bring the characters beyond one-on-one portrayals. If I find myself drawing on a memory for a character, I generally find I get more milage by considering people as TYPES, which means I can weave in behavior from two or three people with similar attitudes once I get started. That gives me more to work with and I don't get into the danger of turning the role into a personal attack.

Another method is to transpose one sort of experience into a totally different backdrop. I was working on a historical drama and had to present a thoroughly despicable military leader. At the time I was involved in a project that was going down the tubes because an absolute no-talent had been inserted in the package and was trying to play everyone against each other thinking he could take complete control of the film. I was able to apply that jerk's narcissism and blatant attempts at manipulation to the officer, resulting in a character everyone agreed was effectively revolting though his actions had nothing in common with his real-life model.

In fact, I used the same guy a little later when having to portray an obnoxious seven-year-old. The kid fit him like a glove.

Todd Everett said...

I'd have no problem giving a penguin a gun: he couldn't pick it up, let alone shoot or even throw it.

sanford said...

As far as characters in Mash not changing I think Margaret and Klinger did. Klinger was still a scrounger, but he stopped trying to get out of the army and stopped wearing women's clothing A Margaret for the most part quit being such a harpy. But I am assuming this happened after you and David left.

Peter said...

I know this isn't a political blog but I just have to mention the absolute hilarity of Trump saying in his speech that the Revolutionary army took over airports in 1775. He's blamed the error on the teleprompter and rain.

If Obama had made such an error, his critics would have demanded his impeachment.

Kevin Kozoriz said...

On a similar note to the first question, Cheers had two spin-offs. Frasier was a great success. The Tortellis, not so much.

If you were given the chance to write a spin off of any show, at any time period, which one would you spin off and what characters would you choose?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Armando, you're over-thinking this. It's funny because a monkey has hands and can fire a gun. A penguin, not so much.

PolyWogg said...

Thanks for answering my Friday Q about off-stage hijinks hurting the show. Fortunately, no monkeys were shot in the making of this week's post. Although I find ferret a little funnier than a monkey, I agree we all need therapy.

Anonymous said...

"Example: If you take a whole page to set up one joke, it better be a great joke. "

Especially fun is when a comedian's lengthy career persona is the set-up, as when the Three Stooges made their silent appearance as first responders in Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

Viv said...

Friday Q: For some reason, I find that older, standard definition sitcoms with brighter lighting somehow seem funnier than today's HD, super sharp, warmly lit affairs. Besides the quality of writing, do you think the method a show is lit and shot can affect how the humour comes across at home?

J. said...

@Armando de Avila - The monkey works because you could conceivably picture a monkey with a gun, and the monkey –even though it doesn't know the power of what it holds– could, in our heads anyway, conceivably fire the gun and hurt itself or someone else. A ferret can't hold a gun, nor an octopus or penguin, so picturing them with a gun doesn't inspire the same kind of anticipation of disaster. Those animals might be more ridiculous, but ridiculousness isn't the crux of the joke: It's ridiculousness + plausibility that sells the image. You could say "a baby with a gun," but unfortunately babies killing themselves and others with guns is ACTUALLY too common in the States to be funny.

Pat Reeder said...

To Armando De Avila: As a couple of other people have pointed out, "monkey" is funnier because only a monkey has human-like hands and can pull a trigger, therefore it is the only animal that would be dangerous with a gun.

Also, "monkey" has a "k" in it.

Armando De Avila said...

Hello, Ken and everyone who responded to my post. Ken, I'm a long-time follower of the blog - more than ten years. I hope I'm not hijacking the blog!

Thanks to everyone who was kind and also took my post seriously enough to respond. I obviously was connecting to what Ken had written about, trying to improve on jokes long after it was necessary/mattered, so forth.

I'm still chewing on it as an ode to Ken and his idea. In part, I've been thinking about writing a script (I'm a complete beginner) and am considering all these different facets and jokes are one major part of scripting. More like wording itself, even more than "jokes." So I thought I'd take a crack at this one joke, which I'm certain was a quick throwaway line of Ken's.

Todd Everett: I know, I know penguins can't grasp, as such. I thought I'd take a shot (pun intended) with that animal. I was going for absurdity there. As J. pointed out (and, again, took the time to explain himself - kind of you to do so), it's possible that absurdity isn't in order here. I don't think penguin would make my top 10. I kind of liked it because of the absurdity - actors-as-penguins holding guns or their phones to go a'Tweeting (as in they can't even hold a gun/phone let alone fire it, inept actors yada yada yada). Again, not in my top 10.

Thanks, J. Yeesh, you're right about the babies and guns thing. Wouldn't go there. But point taken.

Buttermilk Sky: Competely completely overthinking, yes. A lonely impulse of delight. To you-all and to Pat Reeder, 'monkey' is explainable but that's probably what I'm reacting to - it's kind of prosaic. What do you-all think of lemur? Orangutan? Baboon? I liked ferret because they are wily, curious creatures who themselves weigh far less than a gun so the image is one of an actor who can't hoist the weight of a firearm, doesn't know the weight of their trigger-happy tweets.

I appreciate being indulged. If I was in a writing room, I would never drone on like this.


Armando De Avila said...

Oh, and I get monkey, I do. I think I reacted to 'monkey' negatively because it's too familiar. It's almost like dog/cat, too domesticated as an animal reference. I realize there aren't very many monkeys in suburbia. Monkeying around, monkey see, monkey-do. I thought maybe there was an opportunity for a slightly less expected kill there.

Alright, I'm done. Btw, Ken, I've enjoyed your blog for a long time. Very generous of you, sir. I almost signed up for one of your Sitcom Room weekends many moons ago. You provide us all with a much-appreciated service.


blogward said...

Food for thought:

Unknown said...

If you ever watch Penguins of Madagascar, penguins do shoot guns.

Cute and cuddly, boys. Cute and cuddly.