Friday, February 07, 2020

Friday Questions

Slogging through the winter with more Friday Questions.

Susan begins.

Do you think you will be remembered in the Oscar's 'In Memoriam' segment?

You wrote for a few movies, but your work was for mostly TV shows. I am sure you would have thought about it too.

No, I don't think I'll be included. Not with the body of movie work I have now. If one of my plays becomes a major motion picture and wins a bunch of Oscars then I have a chance. But since that’s highly unlikely I’m going to try to stay alive as long as possible.

I suppose for the TV Academy I’ve got a chance. Depends on how many more important people also go that year.

But here’s my real goal: Considering how irrelevant these award shows are becoming, I hope to outlive them.

VP81955 queries:

Are some characters in an ensemble simply more difficult to write stories for, regardless of the quality of the actor?

Absolutely, and you’re right, it’s not necessarily the actor’s fault. If the character is bland, too nice, or too perfect there’s nothing to hang any comedy on.

Fay on WINGS was tough. Father Mulcahy on MASH. Daphne on FRASIER. Those were three that I had to personally wrestle with, and I’m sure every TV comedy writer has one or two that he or she encountered.

I always feel bad for the actors. They have thankless roles, and as a writer I feel bad that I couldn’t service them better. But we were hampered by the overwhelming goodness of their characters.

From Bob Waldman:

Have you ever been far into developing an original series idea when you learn a network has greenlit a pilot with almost the identical premise as yours? Do you put away your idea and start on another?

No, not in television. But in TV it’s not uncommon for several networks to do similar shows. And in the case of NBC, they developed two shows one pilot season with the same premise although with different execution -- the backstage world of an SNL-type show. STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP from Aaron Sorkin and 30 ROCK from Tina Fey. Well, one of them was successful.

In movies however, David Isaacs and I wrote a spec screenplay that we were literally in the middle of negotiations for a studio to buy it when it was announced that Robin Williams was attached to a project with a similar premise so our studio pulled out.

If that announcement had been made just one day later we would have made a lot of money. That one hurt. 

And finally, from Randall Klugman:

Why are there no multicamera comedy movies? Even SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH and GOOD LUCK CHARLIE changed formats when they made movies.

Filming a TV show in front of a studio audience is meant to simulate the experience of watching the show in a theatre with other people, and not just by yourself in your living room. So, in theory, the laughter on the screen is supposed to prompt you to laugh as well.

But when you do a TV show as a movie it is (at least initially) meant to be seen in a theatre with a live audience. And you know how much funnier a comedy is when everyone in the room is laughing.

So a TV audience is unnecessary.

What’s your Friday Question?


Unkystan said...

I have a question During the series finale of The Big Bang Theory last year there was a scene about loading the elevator with luggage (which I found to be ridiculous). Last evening I watched the episode again in syndication and the scene was gone. What I wondering was, do writers insert extraneous scenes like this knowing they’ll be cut for time later on in order to keep the integrity of the episode intact?
If you print this...please edit it ( to keep the integrity)

benson said...

It seems to me, the legit In Memoriam segment is the video produced by Turner Classic Movies. Jump on YouTube and take a look at "TCM Remembers". Those are great every year. And since Ken, you've did a week on Neil Simon, we know they're already familiar with your work.

But, I've lost too many people recently, and I probably speak for many. Please hang on for a while. You and Dan Patrick are the best way to start a day.

VP81955 said...

Anyone know of a good site to keep up on the TV industry (overnight ratings, series cancellations/renewals, etc.)? TV By The Numbers unexpectedly ended its run last Friday, and isn't an especially attractive alternative for those of us interested in multi-cams in particular and sitcoms in general.

Susan said...

Thanks Ken, that is some goal :)

Phil said...

Which Robin Williams movie?

Tom said...

Regarding the recent Kirk Douglas raped Natalie Wood issue, it is said that it was Robert Downey Jr. who made the first accusation :

Ted said...

Shouldn't your studio gone ahead too?

Isn't that what competition is all about?

They chickened out just because a big star too was making a similar movie. And Robin Williams was not some Tom Cruise type of star delivering massive hits continuously.

They should have taken him on.

Man, Hollywood baffles me.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading this.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I have a twist on Phil's question "Which Robin Williams Movie?"
Instead, Without naming the Movie, how do you think the other movie did with the premise? Did they stick with it and did it work?

My Guess is that it was TOYS

By Ken Levine said...

The Robin Williams movie was CLUB PARADISE.

Phil said...

That movie flopped.

And as per wiki, director comes up with an excuse "But we were the fourth Caribbean comedy out that year [1986], and none of them did any business."

Powerhouse Salter said...

Regarding the script that was rejected because a similar story was in production with Robin Williams attached, did you and David Isaacs discuss just changing its genre? I mean, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur resold "The Front Page" a number of times (not counting remakes) by simply adapting it for different movie genres, most notably as an "original story" template for the classic 1939 version of "Gunga Din."

Brother Herbert said...

Here's a Friday question...

Do you consider yourself an extrovert? Being rather reserved myself, I've always envied people who can speak extemporaneously, on cue and for a given amount of time when necessary, like radio personalities and sportscasters. Since you've done both, is being outgoing a prerequisite of the job, or at least having the ability to fake it really, really well?

Wesley Mead said...

Spotted Ratings is excellent.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...It's been a while since I watched CLUB PARADISE, but I always thought of it as a Peter O'Toole movie... :P

KB said...

My take on Randall Klugman's question is that those multi cam sitcoms that did TV movies changed format because it was an "event." The networks get to advertise "Good Luck Charlie" for example as a "Special Christmas movie event!" They get a bigger budget, shoot more exteriors rather than cheap looking "outdoor" sets, cast guest stars, etc... Often they even hire outside writers to pen it. Which is also why the movie feels different than an episode. Because the geniuses at the networks think a "movie writer" knows better than the staff that has written for the characters for the last 100 episodes.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Similar ideas and concepts happen to me more than I care for it to.

Shows like 10 ITEMS OR LESS and SUPERSTORE? My idea. When I was younger, I got to thinking about how a store is one place where a "sitcom" (I use quotation marks, because I don't consider contemporary single-cam sitcoms to be true sitcoms anymore) has yet to take place.

That movie THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU? Very similar to a concept I had for a movie (albeit not as dark or suspenseful) where a man's life is so out of control that he's dispatched a pair of otherworldly beings who maintain something of a giant book of his life to help him get back on track, but he can't deviate away from what destiny has written for him in his life book.

Anonymous said...

"Father Mulcahy on MASH. Daphne on FRASIER."

As a non-writer but long time TV watcher, if the writing for these two was sub-par then keep it up, loved the stories you did come up for these two, especially Father Mulcahy.

YEKIMI said...

@ Brother Herbert

I've known plenty of people that have on-air jobs in radio, TV, etc. that are introverts. I'm one of them. I'd rather be around animals, read a book, stay home. I had a friend who managed a comedy club and he tried for years to get me to go on stage because around friends or one on one I can get them laughing. It terrified me so I always turned him down. Introducing an act or doing radio [which for the most part is a singular act unless you're part of a "morning zoo" type format] I'm fine. BUT I have to give out a scholarship every year and getting up in front of an auditorium full of people to do that freaks me out.

Chris G said...

VP81955 , I have relied on for that sort of thing for years.

Ben K. said...

Here are my pitches for modern-day shows featuring Father Mulcahy, Daphne and Fay:

FATHER MULCAHY: In this hourlong action-drama, an Army special-forces veteran has a crisis of faith and ends up becoming a Catholic priest. But as he tends to his troubled congregation in an inner-city neighborhood, he finds himself getting into situations that require his fighting skills as much as his spiritual counsel. Can he reconcile this violent world with his desire to live as a man of peace?

DAPHNE MOON: In this half-hour dramedy, a private nurse discovers she has psychic powers. But as she tends to her quirky patients and tries to decide between two suitors -- a sweet, wealthy psychiatrist attempting to leave a bad marriage, and a devilish female podcast producer who's making Daphne confront new desires -- her glimpses into the near future just seem to make her life that much more complicated.

FAY: In this new sitcom, the idiosyncratic workers at a small airport receive not-so-wise advice from the ghost of a middle-aged female employee, who survived a plane crash but then died from a bad bowl of soup at the airport's lunch counter. Okay, it's basically just "Wings," except that Antonio is suddenly Jewish for some reason.

UnWoke said...

I'm surprised a studio ditched a movie they wanted to make because another studio announced a similar film.

In the space of two years in the 80s we had Big, Vice Versa, 18 Again and Like Father Like Son, 4 variations on the same concept from 4 different studios.

1998 had Deep Impact and Armageddon.

I thought I knew about all the films starring Robin Williams but I've never heard of Club Paradise.

Unknown said...

"I always feel bad for the actors. They have thankless roles,"
We need more award shows

Myles said...

Since the elevator was broken the entire show that seemed like a pretty good callback moment. Did the finale run longer than most episodes since it was the finale? Seems odd to cut it. Smh.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken,
Thanks so much for replying to my Friday Question. You've reinforced my confidence in sending a script to an agent yesterday even though CBS recently announced a pilot with a similar premise.

Sorry to hear what happened to your spec screenplay...ouch!

Have a good weekend! Your blog is an inspiration.

Bob Waldman

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I thought it might be Mrs. Doubtfire.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

In that vein, writing for the character John Burns, Taxi, must have been torture. The character was gone in season 2, and nobody noticed.

Edward said...


Did I miss something or was Major Holihan the only MASH character without a back story?

. said...

Recently I asked Alexa to "play the Hollywood and Levine podcast". She mispronounced your name, but you start talking right away.

Right about then, our video doorbell app announced that a driver arrived with a gourmet meal ordered by my son from his app. I tried to merge those 3 app functions:

"Alexa, tell Ken Levine to bring chateaubriand and tell me stories about Tony Shalhoub, Cal Ripken or Nancy Travis. His choice."

She failed me. "Sorry, I'm not sure about that."

Thought I was on to something.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Edward She did. She was an Army brat from the day she was born, she was conceived on manuevers; her father was a Colonel, her mother was a nurse; wherever her father ended up being stationed is where they would move; she had no idea what a civilian was, she thought it was somebody waiting for their uniforms to come back from the cleaners; she threw a temper tantrum at age five because they wouldn't let her get a crew cut; the Army's in her blood, and she was born to serve.

h said...

My question's about single-cam vs multi-cam shows. Why is there no middle ground?

Traditional multi-cam shows feel like stage plays - obviously all the cameras have to keep out of sight of each other, so they tend to be arranged on one side of the set, forming the ole' fourth wall.

Single cam shows can take us anywhere, any angle on the players, because each take is shot at a different point in time - but that can lead to continuity problems. Schitt's Creek, which I've been rather enjoying, has this problem in spades. You'll be watching one character, but they cut to a reverse shot and the character's in a completely different pose. I find it quite distracting.

So why is there no middle ground of "oh, we're shooting these two talking, so let's get the two sides of it at the same time"? They obviously can't get every shot they'll need for coverage - wides will have to be shot later - and the characters' lighting will end up being compromised a little, but at least the dialog will be perfectly in sync and continuity won't be a problem. It'd give the players more scope to act spontaneously without worrying they've got to perfectly match every move again.

Smilodon said...

Studio 60 One the Sunset Strip was one of those shows that really annoyed me to the point of tears. It was well written and could be engaging but it was always tripping itself over dumb crap that was just embarrassing to watch. When I watched the premier I thought I knew what they were going to do, I thought, oh smart move it will be all behind the scenes and we'll never see the show. Then they ended with that bullshit classical music apology song thing with a symphony orchestra. Another time a character plays Abbott and Costello doing "Who's On First" for his parents to show them something about how different he is from them or something and they had never heard it before... .really? They would have had to be teenagers in the forties from the look of them and they'd never heard of Abbott and Costello doing their most famous routine? Really? Things like that and having Matthew Perry's character write an entire sketch show HIMSELF every week just boggled the mind. Yeah I have strong feelings about this one for some reason.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jim, a nitpick: Alexa is not "she". Alexa is "it". It has no gender, being a piece of software. I feel very strongly about this. :)

Ken, a Friday question I feel sure you will want to answer. I think I've only ever seen one movie with Natalie Wood, and that was her final movie, BRAINSTORM, which I cordially loathed. For someone who isn't familiar with her work, which of her movies would you recommend?


Bob S. said...

I'm not Ken, but The Great Race is a good one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken, do you have the music that plays after the cheers intro and before the episode?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@h Later seasons of SEINFELD are the closest thing to a middle ground between single-cam and multi-cam we've gotten that I can think of.

Greg said...

Regarding the difficulty in writing for nice and wholesome characters, then what about Mary Tyler Moore in all of her TV series? In that vein, how about Andy Griffith?

It has to be that the star can be nice but the supporting characters not so? And, if a supporting character is nice, then better if they are nice to an extreme, like MTM's Georgette. If you flipped the Mary Tyler Moore show into the Rhoda show with Mary being one of the supporting characters, I see your point.

Going back to the classic 50's and 60's family comedies - Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, those writers must have been pulling their hair out.

I presume creating characters can be one of the most difficult challenges but also a fun and rewarding element of writing.

Neumann said...

Ken, here's my Friday Question: What do you think of Hogan's Heroes? I'm watching it from the beginning on Sundance TV, making my expenditure on streaming service an incredible value.