Friday, September 27, 2019

Friday Questions

I have a short play opening at the Hollywood Short + Sweet Festival tonight. Come see it. In the meantime, your Friday Questions for the week:

Andrew gets us started.

I've heard that on some sitcoms, when a character became an unexpected breakout sensation, the rest of the cast were frustrated about being overshadowed and/or the show's direction changing. Examples would be Good Times (J.J.) and Family Matters (Urkel). Have you ever experienced this on any shows you worked on? What are your thoughts on why some shows seem to adjust better than others (like Happy Days)?

More than anything else it depends on the star. If the star is gracious then fine. In cases like that the star is aware that high tides float all boats and a breakout characters means success for the show – thus more money and accolades for YOU.

But if the star is an idiot or must hog the spotlight then the new dynamic is hell. Cybill springs to mind.

So kudos to Kelsey Grammer for being so supportive of David Hyde Pierce. Same with Ronny Howard on HAPPY DAYS. He embraced Henry Winkler’s Fonzie.

I’m reminded of the great Jack Benny (who had his own radio and TV variety show for 274 years). Someone said to him, “I don’t understand it. You let all your supporting characters have the big jokes” to which he said, “Ahhh, yes, but the show is called THE JACK BENNY program. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore understood that as well.

Gary ask:.

Ken, when you were directing a show that was written by others, were you still thinking of funnier lines to replace those in the script? If you've written comedy I imagine there's no way to turn off that trigger in your brain. And did you ever suggest a funnier line while directing, or would that be a serious breach of show business protocol?

I would ask the showrunner beforehand if I could do that because yes, lots of times I thought of better jokes than were on the page.

Some showrunners welcomed that and were very appreciate. Others said no, show us what we wrote. In those cases, if something didn’t work I would pitch the new line back in the room and occasionally it would go in.

But the short answer is it was the showrunner’s call and I bowed to his wishes. And by the way, if he didn’t want me offering suggested new lines, that was okay too. I never took it personally. I wouldn’t let a freelance director toss in lines in one of my shows before approving them with me first.

From Susan:

You are a good writer, you had scripts and also the directing experience. With your money and maybe some raised from outside, why didn't you make your own independent movie, than be dependent on these horrible studios?

Too much money coupled with very little likelihood I would find a film distributor (unless I had a big star in my little film).

Most small independent movies cost well over six figures and wind up as DVD’s on coffee tables or are forever being entered to film festivals.

For every BLAIR WITCH PROJECT there are a thousand movies that lose a fortune. I’ve known a number of my writer friends who boldly took that step and wiped out their life savings to make movies that maybe twelve people have ever seen.

Doesn’t seem like a good bet to me.

And finally, Mike Bloodworth queries:

Have you or a show you've worked for ever been accused of stealing someone else's idea? In other words, have you i.e. you staff ever come up with a story so similar to someone's who's spec script was rejected that it caused problems?

A couple of times on MASH. 20th Century Fox did a deposition with us at our office and they took it from there. I don’t know the details but do know we always won.

My Friday Question is “what’s YOUR Friday Question?”


Unkystan said...

It seems now that literally everyone who has anything to do with a film production gets on screen credit. From the director all the way down to the guy who drives the food truck. My question is this...why don’t all the writers get some sort of credit? It seems only fair. Respect for the writers!

McAlvie said...

Funny, but Andrew's question is relevant to my own work life right now. In our office "ensemble cast" there's one diva wannabe who greatly resents anyone else shining even briefly. You can tell who did good by whatever nasty rumors the diva is spreading that week. Yes, management should do something about it, but that's another topic. So the acting world isn't really all that different from real life.

Andrew said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. Always a thrill. Great answer, too.

Michael said...

About the star being giving, two things related to Jack Benny.

One is that there was one episode that began something like, "Welcome to Beverly Hill, and the Tour Bus to the Stars' Homes." Then you hear, to the right is the home of Don Wilson, announcer for the Jack Benny show, and they go inside and Don does the commercial and jokes about Benny. Then to Dennis's house where his mother complains about Benny and Dennis sings. Then to the home of each cast member, who does some shtick. Almost at the end, you hear, "There is the home of Jack Benny," and Benny says, "Driver? This is where I get off." That was his only line.

The other, which George Burns told, is that Danny Kaye once got a script for his radio show, did the run-through, and at the end glared at the writers and said, "Thanks a lot. You've made me the highest-paid straight man in Hollywood." Dead silence. Then Goodman Ace, his head writer, said quietly, "Jack Benny makes three times what you do."

Benny understood. He also said--and Ken, it would be fun if you could shed light on this; I'll make it a Friday question to you--that his best jokes took five years to write. He meant character development, of course. It's like the "I'm thinking it over" line--by then, everybody knew how cheap he was. Can you think of a situation where there was something you wrote that was funny only because the character said it, and it wasn't really even a joke? And does that question even make sense!

Craig Gustafson said...

During rehearsals for the Broadway musical "Top Banana," Rose Marie asked Phil Silvers why he was surrounding himself with some of the best scene stealers in burlesque. "They're gonna kill you," she said.
Silvers said, "No, they can only help me. When people talk about the show the next day, they're gonna say, 'Wasn't that guy terrific in the Phil Silvers show last night?'"

Mike Bloodworth said...

Thanks, Ken.

As for your play, break a leg and rupture a spleen!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Your podcast with a ten-minute play (written in ten hours) showed how much fun you have with plays. Little risk/cost (mostly time) with a nice payoff. Makes an indy movie look like a poor bet.

This leads to a Friday Question - with so much more TV and Film getting made (with a blurry difference) what does the grapevine say about new studios and producers? What is it like to do a Netflix or Amazon project?

Anonymous said...

Judging by the number of comments this week,
your next play should be a jukebox musical titled
“My Favorite TV Theme.”

mike schlesinger said...

Of course, the gold standard for sitcom stars as straight men is Ernest Borgnine in McHALE'S NAVY. Benny, Van Dyke and Moore got their share of laughs, but Ernie didn't have to and never asked for any.

richfigel said...

Aloha, Ken! What do you think about the constant use of EXTREME CLOSE-UPS in TV shows and movies these days? In the classic movie comedies and sitcoms, wider shots allowed audiences to see actors use their whole bodies. Now we get to see every wrinkle, blemish and nose hair blown up in high def -- not flattering for actors. Plus, they could be in two different places and you wouldn't even know it since it's all cross-cutting from face to face shots. Got any theories why so many directors are doing this?

Susan said...

Thanks for the answer Ken.

MikeN said...

Ken, I think the question was less about whether you pitch jokes, and more about how your mind works. Are you constantly trying to improve it in your mind, even if that's not your job?

Rob in Toronto said...

One more thought about Jack Benny, who has been gone for so long a fair number of your readers probably have had no exposure to him : he was a master of the reaction shot. The other actors would often get a huge laugh at Jack's expense, but the laugh would go on for twice as long because of the expression on Jack's face. He would do a sheepish Oliver Hardy-type look out to the audience who would roar with laughter.

Obviously, this worked best when Jack moved to television, but he also knew how to milk a reaction on radio, which is an even more delicate art.

John Hammes said...

Bob Newhart also understood as well.

Mike Doran said...

A previously unmentioned case history:

A couple of weeks into the filming of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy took producer Aaron Ruben aside and told him:
"Okay, here's what we're gonna do.
From now on, Don (Knotts) gets the laughs and I'm the straight man."
Ruben took it from there, making Sheriff Andy the hub of Mayberry, with the support crew getting their own moments each week.
Result: Ageless Classic.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Are independent films really that expensive? I think the most I've ever spent on any film of mine was a little over $100 on an 18-minute experimental film that only received a lukewarm reaction anyway.

E. Yarber said...

I realize most people get their news from an entertainment press that represents the business about as accurately as THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW explored the human condition, but I am getting back into the studio system after years of dragging "independents" forward and have to say that the big dogs can be great places to work for. I'd forgotten how NICE people can be. Everybody's appreciative and supportive. They understand the importance of each player holding up their end of the project.

Yes, there are egos and bad behavior, but I've seen sexual harassment by bank managers and obnoxious twentysomething accountants showing up for work after a night at the clubs I don't want to hear about. That's just as bad as anything TMZ writes about, but those participants don't have a public profile making them envied and resented.

And while I'm on my high horse, I don't know why the food truck people seem to be regarded so poorly. The same people who seem to find Hollywood elitist and spoiled then look down on workers busting their guts feeding a hundred or more people during the course of an intensive 12-15 hour day. I once spent a day on the set of a shoestring production that botched the catering, and it made the work practically unbearable, which was even worse when you realize that the genius behind the film expected everyone to work for free. Try "Ars gratia artis" on an empty stomach. Caterers are a valuable part of the team and deserve credit.

Yes, the system can be infuriating at times, and God knows the money men can demonstrate zero understanding of storytelling when trying to rewrite your stuff. The problem is that it's really hard to get the pieces of a project together in one place, and the small-scale ones I've struggled with always seem like jigsaw puzzles with half the pieces missing. Maybe the director can shoot in someone's back yard, but they might not think far enough to get through post-production, let alone distribution. There may be editing software on computers these days, but you still need someone who actually knows how to edit. All the "invisible" jobs that go into the life of a film turn out to be pretty essential when they're not done. As noted, even making sure the cast and crew are fed is an indispensable task.

The studio system can always be improved, and definitely needs to be in many areas, but I don't see any better alternative, at least not in the real world. It looks a lot different when you have to get things done.

Lemuel said...

Hey, did anyone notice Cliff the mailman at an AA meeting in last night's MOM premiere?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your interesting insight as always, Ken!

In defense of John Amos, wasn't "Good Times" originally supposed to be somewhat a somewhat darker, more sensitive comedy until JJ and that silly "DYNO-MITE!" shtick virtually took it over and changed the whole flavor and intent of the show? Seems like that situation was a bit more involved than just breakout character syndrome.

Ron Howard and Henry Winkler are both class acts. Heard Henry on a local radio show once, gamely answering "AYYYY!" to each and every caller who addressed him that way. Can you even imagine how many times he's heard that in the past 40+ years?! Yet he was so gracious and kind. Said he loves the Fonzie character, is proud that Fonz is an icon, and will always embrace that legacy. The man's had a hugely successful career on both sides of the camera since, but remains fond of--and grateful to--his breakout role! Love Henry Winkler!

YEKIMI said...

Jealousy in Hollywood over breakout stars? Tell me it ain't so! It's even worse in radio (as you probably know, Ken.) A part-time DJ who sabotaged other DJs commercial spots they produced by leaving them on something that left a 60 cycle hum underlying the spots. When someone realized his spots were the only one without that hum, he was confronted and busted. He was hoping that one of the full timers would get canned over it and he could move up. There's jealousy everywhere. People were mad because almost 50 years ago at my first "real" job [an amusement park] I was getting $1.50 an hour, 10 cents more than the rest of the workers. You'd have thought I was looting Fort Knox from their comments {I found out why, many years later. The park owner/manager turned out to be gay and had the hots for me since I still had my wrestler's body build. Nowadays, he probably wouldn't even throw me a chewed over pork chop bone.}
As far as sinking your own money into a movie, I can recall a director who has, more or less, become a friend who spent $2,000,000 making his film over several years and the worldwide gross was only $2,436. It was a film that made the least money of all films released in 2012. Personally, I liked it a lot. Here's a link to its description on IMDB:
Also a Friday question. An actor signs a contract for X amount of dollars for, say, 3, 5, 7 years. Then two years later the show becomes a huge hit and all of a sudden
the actor wants to renegotiate his/her contract. It always seems that the studios cave and give in to their demands. Why don't they just tell them to pound salt and take what they agreed to? I get it that they're afraid he might leave and go elsewhere but it seems like they could just fire him/her. I'm of the mind that "Hey, I signed the contract for that amount of money and I'll stick with it till it's up" Then when it's time for a new contract they could ask for even bigger bucks.

sanford said...

You have mentioned Cybil Shepard before. Have you had personal experience working with her or is this just common knowledge that she was difficult. If she was so difficult why did she keep getting jobs.

Chuck said...

Those Jack Benny radio shows still make me laugh! I listen to 2 or 3 just about every night, and the writing and timing are so on point. The cast truly seems to enjoy what they are doing, and who they are doing it with.

Peter said...

As Homer Simpson once said of Urkel:

"That little snot boy, I'd like to smack that kid!"

Jeff Boice said...

The point about Good Times is a good one. Same thing happened with the original Lost In Space. Dr. Smith went from being a straight villain (who supposedly was going to be killed off at the end of Season One) to a comic villain who took over the show. The "stars" Guy Williams and June Lockhart were relegated to supporting roles. That wasn't what they signed up for.

Paul Duca said...

Then why didn't Phil stand up for her when they cut all her scenes in the film version?

ScarletNumber said...

Jerry Seinfeld was smart enough to surround himself with great actors. Gallagher used to derisively say that Jerry wouldn't win a medal on his own show, but from my perspective, Jerry and Larry David laughed all the way to the bank.

VP81955 said...

Lemuel, alongside John Ratzenberger was Reginald VelJohnson of "Family Matters" fame. Chuck Lorre brings in top talent all over the place.

Jen from jersey said...

Why don’t you like Kevin James?

tavm said...

One more kudos should go to Jackie Gleason for letting Art Carney not only steal "The Honeymooners" but also getting the Emmys for that role and not publicly displaying any jealously (of course, privately he must have felt different since I read whenever Carney let his boss visit his house, he hid those Emmys)...

Andy Rose said...

I'll add another "Henry Winkler is a mensch" story to the pile. A couple of East Coast coworkers of mine were in Hollywood for the Oscars a few years ago and went to look for some breakfast. They ended up at a bakery that happened to be frequented by Mr. Winkler, and he was very amiably chatting with everyone who approached him while he was in line. One of my colleagues didn't want to be quite that obvious, so she got in line behind him and said in a stage whisper, "I wonder what's good here." Instantly, Henry spun around and said, "Well! Let me tell you..." and proceeded to give insightful commentary on the whole menu. Once they got their order, they were told Henry picked up the check.

Want to hear a TV theme that sounds wildly out of place? Listen to the version of Miami Vice that aired in early episodes, before the mix was done properly. No lead guitar!

Tony said...

On HAPPY DAYS, Ron Howard went along with the shift in focus to Henry Winkler's Fonzie, but only up to a point. Garry Marshall himself told how ABC approached him about changing the name of the series from HAPPY DAYS to FONZIE'S GANG. With Marshall's support, Ron Howard told ABC that he signed to do a show called HAPPY DAYS, not FONZIE'S GANG, and if they changed the title they'd be doing FONZIE'S GANG without him.

Unknown said...

Ken, I have a Friday Question about the lack of smoking on MASH. At the time the show was set (early 1950's) A LOT of people smoked, and I recall reading that the cigarette companies gave every soldier 2 free cartons a months. So why is there very little if any smoking on MASH? Was it a note from Standards and Practices since cigarette ads had recently been banned from tv? Or a decision by the creators?

Jason said...

Friday question: Even by the standards of its day, MASH had an unusually strong grounding in its location and time period. I'm curious in general about the viability of such shows today, but specifically, I wonder how much of MASH's first-run success is attributable to having an audience who had such a strong personal connection to the realities of wartime service either first-hand or through family? Could MASH's setup ever work in the current post-draft culture?