Friday, July 31, 2020

Friday Questions

Closing out July with FQ’s.

Kendall Rivers starts us off:

One of my favorite Becker episodes is The Usual Suspects. Can you share any interesting tidbits about that episode and the making of it? Also why the hell Sargent Borkow wasn't added to the series as a regular? He would've been a great replacement for Bob.

That’s my favorite episode too, although I might be biased for some reason.

The thing I remember is saying to the cast on the first day that if they had any questions or issues with the script don’t be shy. Feel free to share them, even though I was the writer.

As it happened it was an easy week. The script really worked – in large part due to the actors. Ted Danson, Shawnee Smith, and Troy Evans (as Borkow) were particular standouts.

There is a matching goof for those who pay way too much attention. Borkow is in the diner, orders hamburgers, and later they just appear. For whatever reason, the shot of Reggie setting down the plate was lifted. So it looks like the burgers just appear. How glaring a mistake was that? I’ve seen the show countless times and didn’t pick up on that until I read it on imdb.

The Borkow character was very funny when used in spots. Just like Colonel Flagg on MASH or Bibi on FRASIER – when used judiciously they really scored.

But they were very broad. If they were regulars their characters might lose their luster.

You could say “Bob” was broad too and quite honestly, I didn’t miss him when he left.

From Sogn:

In MASH very often we see Radar, and later Klinger, using the PA system, but all other announcements come from someone who's never seen in the entire course of the series. There's also no credit for the voice. Was this intended from the beginning as a running joke akin to Maris and Vera never being seen on FRASIER and CHEERS? Of course the analogy breaks down because the voice was never referenced by the characters, but the absence is very striking.

This was a holdover from the movie MASH. I’ll be honest, we never once gave a thought to “is there a communications tent?” Or “whose job is that?” Nor did I ever ask anyone I interviewed who had served in MASH units in Korea whether those announcements were realistic or even if they actually existed.

Some trivia for you MASH fans: for much of the series run that voice belonged to actor Sal Viscuso. Amaze your friends at parties.

sanford wonders:

Do you know of any movies that were turned down in which some other studio picked it up and became a hit. The question came from a Quora question. There were two answers. One was Home Alone The studio wanted Hughes to cut the budget. It was relatively small for the time. He eventually went to Fox where the movie made a ton. The other movie mentioned was Back to the Future It was turned down 40 times. Eventually Spielberg picked it and as they say the rest is history.

Oh, there are many. Huge hits.

Let’s start with Star Wars. Universal passed on that one.

And then you got ET, Pulp Fiction, Back to the Future, Twilight, the Exorcist, Dumb & Dumber, Boogie Nights… need I go on?

William Goldman was right. “No one knows anything.

And finally, from Ron Havens:

Over the years I have noticed that many of the classic sit-com scripts are really long and effective set ups for the final line of the show. I’ve seen it on “I Love Lucy”, “The Odd Couple” and others.
Have you ever written a script that started with the ending line or joke and write the entire show leading up to that line?

One time only. On CHEERS.

The episode was “Breaking In Is Hard to Do.” Frasier and Lilith are worried that their baby hasn’t spoken yet. Frasier takes him to the bar for a few days and Lilith finds out and is horrified. But then the baby says his first word: “Norm.”

It got a thunderous laugh. But it’s very risky basing a whole episode on one payoff joke because if the joke doesn’t work your entire episode is in the toilet.

David Isaacs and I did it once, got away with it, thanked the Gods of comedy, and have not tried it since.

What's your Friday Question?


Jeff Weimer said...

My favorite "brick joke" episode was Seinfeld's "The Marine Biologist." Kramer driving golf shots at the beach, George pretending to be a Marine Biologist. Everything was set up for him pulling out the golf ball at the restaurant and it was hysterical.

Jerry said...

There's a great tribute to that M*A*S*H feature in Rob Corddry and David Wain's 6-season (excellent) show "Children's Hospital": Somewhere in every episode there's a funny PA announcement, the announcer is played by Michael Cera - who's character is credited as "Sal Viscuso"!

Brian said...

Sealab 2021 did the one joke premise brilliantly in the episode "7211", which was re-used footage with new narration and the entire episode has not one laugh, until the credits sequence and the payoff it well worth it.

Jeff: What is amazing about the "...Biologist" episode is that Jason Alexander not only did his final speech in one take, he had been handed that speech just a little while before it was shot, so what you see is one take and no rehearsal.

DougG. said...

When Shelley Long announced she was leaving CHEERS, were you concerned about the future of the series? Or, because you were on MASH when Larry Linville left, had already been through that exercise and knew that shows with that quality writing can survive just about anything, you felt that CHEERS would make it without Ms. Long.

Rob D said...

George Costanza holding up the golf ball is almost ruined by a woman’s “shriek-laugh” a split second before the audience uproar. It is so conspicuous it feels like it might be an audience ringer/plant/shill. I hate it. I almost wish that laugh could have been deleted off the audio track in post-production.

My 15 Minute Show said...

Hello, @ken levine, longtime listener, not first-time caller. OK, here’s a FQ, in this time of pandemonium, especially since it’s going to be here for like forever in absence of better news:

What somewhat reliable avenues might someone with outlines or advanced but brick-wall scripts go to, to maybe find a writing partner to get over the hump? Writing in a vacuum only goes so far, and even night-time community non-credit college classes are shut down.

You had to enlist in the Army to meet David Isaacs and come up with some sitcom brilliance. What might you advise the serious among us civilians in this Time Of Shit.

David P said...

My understanding is that the scene in the restaurant with George pulling out the golf ball was not part of the original script as written, but was an on-set last minute rewrite.

It's mentioned on the wiki page, and is apparently on the DVD extras as well.

Powerhouse Salter said...

Even before knowing its premise or whether I might watch it, I thought your sitcom ALMOST PERFECT had a great title. What are some TV series you think were helped or hindered by their titles? And who has final say in the name given to a new series?

Bob Paris said...

A baseball question. Between batters, players will look at their notes about a batter to see where they should position themselves etc. Sometimes the card comes out of their pocket which to me imitates someone cheating answers they wrote down ahead of an exam. Other times the card is inside their hat which for some reason does not bother me. Do you have any feelings on this.

VP81955 said...

The season 2 "Mom" episode that concludes a three-part series on Bonnie's relapse culminates in Bonnie in her upstairs bed, greeted by her demonic and angelic selves (a tour de force by Allison Janney). Rather than perch tiny Bonnies on each shoulder -- the customary way to do such scenes -- all three are the same scale (the special effects are splendid), as the AA group downstairs hears her talking to herself and think she's gone crazy. We then go back to the bedroom, where the toilet flushes, the bathroom door opens, and out comes Jesus (played by the same actor who comforts Bonnie in her kitchen after Alvin's death). The good and bad Bonnies leave the room grudgingly, and Jesus tells Bonnie, "You've got this." She relaxes in bed and smiles, now confident she can recover.

In the coda, Christy (Anna Faris) sees her mother in bed, bends to give her a kiss, then goes to use the bathroom. We hear her say off-screen, "Who left the seat up?"

Sue T. said...

@Powerhouse Salter
AS TIME GOES BY, perhaps my favorite BBC sitcom, was helped by its title. The show's premise was a chance reunion of two former lovers, played by Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, both of whom thought they'd been abandoned by the other decades earlier. The show's original tile was WINTER WITH FLOWERS, but the cast refused to act unless the title was changed.

blinky said...

A Friday query...
Some great shows have exceptional seasons. While re-watching 30Rock from the beginning, we were struck by season six. It seems like they hit their stride to an exceptional degree. The writing, the character development the acting, all were firing on 12 cylinders. In fact I would say season 6 episode 3 was the peak.
Did any of your shows have a exceptional season and a best episode? I bet you would say Cheers season one, but what about Frasier or MASH?

Buttermilk Sky said...

Maybe my favorite line in the history of SEINFELD: "The sea was angry that day, my friends -- like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli." And I'm still not sure why. Jason Alexander's expression when Kramer asks, "Is that a Titleist?" And it all came together at the last minute? I love coming here for information like this.

Michael said...

The "Norm" joke was going to work for a reason that Jack Benny figured out. He said the best jokes on his show took about five years to set up. An example, and then a last-line payoff.

The example is that on one show, the guest was opera star Dorothy Kirsten. They had long since established that Don Wilson, his announcer, loved opera, and he and Kirsten proceed to have a long discussion of opera--nothing funny about it. The audience starts laughing because they KNOW Benny, and they KNOW he will say something. He does. He cuts in and says, "Well, I thought--" and before he can finish, Mary Livingstone says, "Oh, SHUT UP!" And Benny said it got the longest laugh in the history of the show--bigger than "Your money or your life!" "I'm thinking it over."

The last-line payoff was an episode that begins something like, "Welcome to the bus tour of the home of the Hollywood stars. On the left is the home of Don Wilson, announcer for the Jack Benny Show." Then inside Wilson does the commercial. Then it's to Dennis Day's house for a conversation between him and his mother, and a song. Then to the home of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, who's talking about his boss. Then to the home of Phil Harris, and so on. As the show is nearing its end, the driver says, "That's the home of Jack Benny, star of radio and film," and you hear, "Driver, this is where I get off." That's all he said in the show, but he was the subject of the entire show.

Ron Havens said...

Thank you Ken for confirming a belief I've had about MASH for decades. I have always said that Sal Viscuso was the actor who did the "anonymous" PA announcements. Early on in the show's rerun phase on CBS late night, I made the connection between the voice and the actor who played a couple of small parts on screen. But because there was never any screen credit for the voiceovers I couldn't prove it. Now, I have a name to put to the voice. You are such a fountain of information. Thank you.

Ron Havens said...

Thank you Ken for confirming a belief I've had about MASH for decades. I have always said that Sal Viscuso was the actor who did the "anonymous" PA announcements. Early on in the show's rerun phase on CBS late night, I made the connection between the voice and the actor who played a couple of small parts on screen. But because there was never any screen credit for the voiceovers I couldn't prove it. Now, I have a name to put to the voice. You are such a fountain of information. Thank you.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Ken, I couldn't help but notice that you have SOLO writing credit for that episode of Becker. I've asked this question before, but it's worth asking again; where's David?
Did you two have a fight? Had he retired? Was he having gallbladder surgery? Did he hate the show as much as I do and refused to work on it with you?
I've got to know.

According to the bonus features on the "M*A*S*H" DVD, Robert Altman said the P.A. announcements were a device they came up with to transition from one scene to another. However, he also said that most of the announcements were based on actual army memos.

How about "Volunteers?" Was that picked up right away? Or did you have to shop it around?

One of my all time favorite final lines was from "Cheers." Sorry, Ken. It wasn't one of yours.
It the episode where Sam has his sperm count checked and Frasier and Lilith are preparing their wills.
In the very last scene an aged Lilith and an adult Frederick are in a lawyer's office about to hear Frasier's will. The lawyer starts to read, "Sam Malone's sperm count is..." Then you hear Lilith mutter, "That damn bar!"


I'm Outraged! said...

Apparently Jamie Farr was the PA announcer in the pilot and the first episode, then Todd Susman from 73-79 with Viscuso sharing from 76-79.

Troy McClure said...

Very saddened by the passing of Alan Parker. I always held out hope he'd make one more film.

Ken, do you have any favorites? Fame? The Commitments?

Bugsy Malone is one of the greatest children's movies ever made. Its legacy is amazing. Generations who weren't born when it was made have embraced it.

That, Angel Heart, Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning are top of my list.

Charles Bryan said...

I first read Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade over 30 years ago and, the older I get, the more I realize that that adage refers to many subjects other than film-making.

Troy McClure said...

Another day, another industry figure accused of workplace misconduct. Today it's the NBC entertainment chairman.

Ken, it would be great if you could do a post on how you've personally dealt with toxic people throughout your career. Obviously I wouldn't expect names. You're one of the good guys, so how does it feel when you meet someone in a position of power who's an asshole?

Ted O'Hara said...


I just watched the interview you and David did for the Archive of American Television ( How did that come about, what was the process like, and how do you think the interview came out? And are there any other interviews there that you would recommend? (I especially like the ones with Leonard Nimoy, where he talks about acting, and the one with Linda Ellerbee, where she talks about the business of TV news).

benson said...


My guess at the worst series name was Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night. Maybe one of the five best series in TV history, but that title name I'm sure scared off a lot of non-sports fans, i.e, female demographic.

euphoria0504 said...

As Ken says, it’s actually pretty common for movies put in turnaround by one studio to become hits at another. I used to work at Miramax, where a ridiculous number of our most successful movies were picked up from other studios that didn’t know what to do with them, such as Good Will Hunting, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Pulp Fiction.

Sue T. said...

I second the nomination of Aaron Sorkin's SPORTS NIGHT as a brilliant network sitcom undermined by its title. Kind of like if Sorkin's excellent THE WEST WING series had instead been called WHITE HOUSE OFFICE STAFF.

Kendall Rivers said...

@Ted O'Hara I LOVE those interviews with the archive, man. I enjoyed Ken and David's too but if I may make some recommendations for you to watch that may or not be different from Ken's recommendation are my favorites: The Charles Brothers, Jimmie Walker, Angela Lansbury, Jack Klugman, Tony Randall, Gary David Goldberg and Jason Alexander. All were wonderfully in depth and in my opinion very fun to watch.

Kendall Rivers said...

@Ted O'Hara I of course recommend Ed O'Neill's the most no doubt. Ed has got to be one of the most real, honest and genuinely down to earth stars in history who can completely suck you into a story without you even realizing how much time has gone by. Highly recommend it, especially his bits about the process of acting, Married with Children, the movie Dutch and how he almost got the Ian McShane role on David Miltch's Deadwood.

My 15 Minute Show said...

Hello, @kenlevine. Re your Cheers episode mentioned today about an episode written around the payoff at the end. I’ve read your posts as far as outlining goes — you should be able to know and. outline the beginning, middle, and end. But how many successful productions do you k iw of that started off as the author only knowing/seeing the end — and nothing more than that — and building the story to that end? Granted, it does indeed help if you know Beginning, Middle and End from the start, but how un/common do you figure it is for someone to be able to build a whole story/screenplay around an initial idea nugget?

Tony said...

Garry Marshall once said he often wrote scripts backward, starting with an idea for what he called the "block scene" at the end of the script and then writing backwards to get his characters into that situation.

I don't think I've ever heard Ken use the term "block scene," so that may be older generation terminology, but presumably Marshall was referring to the big comedy scene that climaxes the story.

Mike said...

Garry Marshall cut his teeth on the 60s “Lucy Show”, and this is exactly how the writers from her 50s show worked. They’d say, “What if Lucy tried to bake bread?” They’d start with the huge loaf coming out of the oven, and then work backward from there.

Brian said...

Friday question: Been thinking about bowling and miss it some times. They say they will open soon, but what a germophobe nightmare. "Stick your fingers in these dirty holes and put on these shoes that a thousand people have worn". That reminded me of the Cheers episode "From Beer To Eternity". Any thoughts on that episode?

Ray said...

My Friday questions aren't very good, but someone else asked this one which is better:

What multi season TV series had a good arc? I'm primarily looking for series that had an arc plot which started at the beginning, crossed between seasons, and came to an ending which took in the whole run of the show and brought it to a coherent close, intended since the beginning, which made narrative sense and was emotionally satisfying.

Allan said...

I had heard Garry Marshall refer to "the block scene" in episodes of shows like HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, and while I gathered he was referring to an episode's big comic climax, I was never clear why he used the term "block scene" or how or where that term originated. Tony is right that it may have been an earlier generation's terminology, as I don't recall seeing younger (relatively speaking) writers like Ken refer to an episode's "block scene."

Kendall Rivers said...

FQ: just watched a rerun of the Modern Family series ender and man all I felt was bored because this thing was dragged out for an hour and I couldn't get into the goodbyes at all. How do you feel about half hour shows finales being unnecessarily an hour when it hurts the overall show?