Friday, August 21, 2020

Friday Questions

Time for some Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Bill in Toronto is up first.

Ken, I've been watching several short oral history segments, probably from the WGA, featuring Hugh Wilson. Given your background, do you wish you had written for WKRP?

I would have loved to have written for WKRP. And I knew Hugh pretty well. We were on staff of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW together.

But at the time he was producing WKRP I was on MASH and had very little time to sleep, much less write scripts on the side.

Hugh went on to do another show I admired greatly – FRANK’S PLACE.

And he became a pretty hot comedy film director as well. I miss him.

From Brian:

What do you think it is about modern day multicams that make them far less memorable and successful than their decades earlier counterparts? A more plastic look and presentation? Unfunny, lazy scripts? Less charismatic actors? All of the above?

I’ve heard from very good writers who have toiled in multi-cam over the last few years that there is tremendous network pressure to pump these shows with jokes every second. They’re afraid if the audience goes a minute without a joke they’ll immediately tune out.

As a result, a lot of these shows have become very forced and unnatural. Characters talking in one-liners back and forth and it sounds very artificial.

The best multi-cam comedy comes out of character and relatable behavior. When characters aren’t reacting like real people you lose that.

The studio audience is not going to laugh at every line so the laugh machine fills that role. It’s a vicious circle because the phony laughter becomes that much more obtrusive and annoying. s

On CHEERS and FRASIER we would gladly go a whole minute without a joke to set up a big laugh. I’m not sure producers can do that today. They’re certainly not encouraged to.

I also think less attention is paid to the story telling, which is understandable because “story” is the hardest part. And when shows get away with lazy storytelling by assaulting you with a barrage of jokes they don’t feel the need to work harder on story.

So at the end of the day, I don’t know whether our standards were just higher or today’s showrunner is so inundated with interference that it’s all he can do to turn out a product on time.

Janet has a MASH question.

I've just been rewatching "Goodbye Radar," and I've got an FQ for you.

When it came to the mess tent goodbye party, why did you and David choose to interrupt that party with a batch of wounded instead of having the party itself?

In your view, how was payoff for the viewer better?

We purposely took that approach to avoid the show getting sappy and overly sentimental. We didn’t want long sad speeches. We wanted the Radar farewells to be brief and elegant.

A Hawkeye salute was more powerful than a Hawkeye speech.

It also felt more true to the show. The war intruded at inconvenient times.

And finally, from Mark:

Do you think it's easier for one person to write a drama, but comedy is easier and better written by two or more?

I'm sure drama is enhanced by more input but it seems there are a lot of successful drama writers (Sorkin, etc) who write by themselves. And comedy always seems to be done by teams and groups. It's a hard question to formulate clearly, Ken!

When David and I were writing dramatic scenes for MASH it wasn’t much of an adjustment. And there have been some superb dramatic writing teams. To name but a very few:

Robert & Michelle King
Julius & Phiip Epstein
Richard Levinson & William Link
Frank Glicksman & Don Brinkley (Christie’s dad)

And my personal favorites…

Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee (who wrote the play INHERIT THE WIND.

Generally, the advantage of having a partnership in comedy is that you have another voice you trust to run material by. What is “funny” is so subjective that it’s nice to not be in a vacuum.

Stay safe. Wear a mask.


Rob Greenberg said...

One of my few joys during this pandemic is rewatching shows like 'Cheers' and 'Frasier.' And not just in reliving these show's individual pleasures, but that of the multi-cam format in general. I seriously haven't watched one regularly since 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' I've always found the Chuck Lorre shows mediocre at best (save for 'Kominsky').

I still feel the need to check out new sitcoms when they premiere. There was always an excitement to that growing up, so I continue to do so out of habit. And what immediately turns me off is hearing hysterical laughtrack at EVERY line, no matter how bland or unfunny they may be. I heard the recent podcast with Sam Denoff about the big laugh at the reveal in 'That's my Boy.' And that was always part of the joy of these shows, seeing the audience react along with you when it when it was earned. Same with the reveal of the entire Cheers bar standing at the door in the season 1 finale. Today's shows have the EXACT same uproarious laughtrack regardless of whatever is going on. It's like watching the old 'Abbott and Costello' show (which was at least funny).

Elizabelle said...

Friday question: I love the moment in "Goodbye Radar" where he tastes the cake and grimaces. What are some of your favorite non-speaking moments by actors in any series--moments where they took a simple cue in a script and just nailed it?

Anonymous said...

Considering that coauthor, they are going to have to cancel Inherit the Wind.

Rory Wohl said...

Hi Ken,

Am catching up on back episodes of the podcast and really enjoyed your conversation with Billy Van Zandt (although I had to learn from Wikipedia that he was once married to Adrienne Barbeau!).

His 46-year (!) partnership with the late Jane Milmore, which he noted that because of the projects they were working on at the time of her death essentially continues, got me thinking about you and David.

Even though you both are off doing things individually, do you still consider yourselves partners?

If CBS called today and said, "Ken, baby, the zeitgeist is ready for a reboot of 'Big Wave Dave's,'" would you immediately be on the phone to David with "David, dust off the ol' typewriter, we're back!"?

- Rory

Mark said...

Thanks so much for answering my question, Ken. And, also, thanks for your podcast. These days listening to your podcast feels like an escape into a better world.

kent said...

Ken, TCM is having a 24hr Natalie Wood marathon starting late tonight (actually at 3am Saturday on Directv).

Thought you should know.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

That's also the same reason why shows no longer have theme songs and main title sequences anymore: networks are afraid that viewers will lose interest and change the channel if they have to sit through the same opening titles every week.

Cedricstudio said...

Friday Question: I was just listening to a podcast with a college instructor talking about a lecture he gave on comedy and joke structure. He said he played a six-minute scene for the class featuring Sam and Diane from the first season of Cheers. While the students enjoyed It and saw value in it, they felt the scene went on far too long and that you couldn't get away with that today. The consensus was that if today's young audiences (who are being conditioned by Snapchat, TikTok, etc.) had to sit through a six minute scene of nothing but two people talking, no matter how good the writing was eventually they would start to squirm. Do you agree? Any thoughts?

Mike Doran said...

In re the playwright Robert E. Lee (obviously not the Civil War General):

Mr. Lee and his partner Jerome Lawrence wrote many plays, and before that radio and TV shows.
It was during their radio days that Mr. Lee met and married his longtime lady, Janet Waldo.

Here's a fun thing to do with (or to) a friend:
While watching Inherit The Wind, tell the friend that one of the playwrights was the longtime husband of Judy Jetson.
The reaction might prove interesting ...

VincentS said...

I saw a continuity error in this scene and immediately remembered your comments
about prioritizing the best take ahead of continuity, Ken.

Ted said...

Interesting facts about Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee:

Lawrence felt the need to leave off his Jewish last name (Schwartz) to work in theater. But Lee had no problem with the implications of his own name. (He wasn't related to the general, who had a different middle name. Lee was actually writing a book about Gen. Robert E. Lee when he died.)

Also, Lawrence and Lee both worked for Armed Forces Radio, just like later writers such as Larry Gelbart (and Ken Levine).

Michael said...

A couple of things ....

"Goodbye, Radar." Having him have to tell people goodbye amid the wounded was the perfect point to make about the war. And Harry Morgan's scene was the best because Harry Morgan was the best.

As for going a full minute without a joke, Jack Benny once told George Burns that his best jokes took five years to write. What he meant was this: What is the most memorable line he ever had? "I'm thinking it over," in response to the mugger saying, "Your money or your life." What set it up was the pause and the laughter that ensued because everybody--and I do mean everybody--knew how tough a choice that would be for Benny.

In other words, character comedy. Carol Burnett said of a much underrated and underremembered star of early television, Garry Moore, that he would go through the script and give up lines to others, saying they would work better for her or another cast member. Yes, but he also knew it fit the character they were playing. If we did a "MASH-up" (sorry), and had Alan Alda read Gary Burghoff's lines and vice versa, it would be really interesting, but it wouldn't really work.

blinky said...

The mindset of "Joke every minute" is analogous to top ten radio where all they play is the top hits until you get sick of them. Meanwhile hundreds of perfectly good songs don't get played.
Taking that one step further, Golden Oldie or Old School stations only play what were the top 5 or 10 songs of any particular date. They completely leave out the heart of what it was like to listen to radio is any given year. Did you know in 1972, Elton John's Tiny Dancer peaked on the Hot 100 chart in the No. 41 spot.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Lawrence and Lee wrote for two of radio's best shows, The Railroad Hour and Favorite Story. The latter is where Lee met Janet Waldo. He was a great help to her when she transitioned from radio and on-screen roles to cartoons (starting with The Jetsons). She asked Joe Barbera if she could do voices other than her own (Jean Vander Pyl and Bea Benederet and June Foray). Barbera needed an audition tape, so Lee wrote her scripts to enable her to create a variety of voices. Barbera was so impressed that she was given the role of Fred Flintstone's mother-in-law after Verna Felton passed away.

Favorite Story was hosted and usually starred Ronald Colman is half hour dramatizations of great literature, and Railroad Hour (starring Gordon MacRae) compressed entire musicals and operettas into 30 minutes. They were so well done that Decca and Capitol Records had many of them re-performed for records. You can find a lot of the records and the radio shows on YouTube and at

D McEwan said...

Lawrence & Lee also worked in comedy. They turned out a play I love so much that a copy of the script sits on my shelf next to the novel it was based on. (And if you know the extremely episodic novel, you know what a BRILLIANT job they did making a coherent play from it.) It was a little something called Auntie Mame. There's a few laughs sprinkled throughout, like maybe three or four per page.

If you know the movie, where the play was adapted for film by Comden & Greene, read the play and see how very, very many of Comden & Greene's great lines, were actually Lawrence & Lee's, as was the entire story structure. And, of course, many of those laughs came originally from the great Edward Everett Tanner III, aka "Patrick Dennis," one of my favorite writers over the whole of my life. (And a man whose life's third act was a mind-boggling plot twist.)

(Please do not blame Lawrence & Lee for the abomination known as Mame, though it too retains the story structure crafted by L&L from Tanner's loose collection of related short stories.)

Janet said...

Thanks so much for answering, Ken!

Your answer certainly makes sense.

Mike Bloodworth said...

The Bill Persky podcast-blog inspired a question.
During one of the recent "Dick Van Dyke Show" marathons I noticed that the later episodes written by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson had a different feel than the earlier shows written by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. I can't say they were better or worse; just different. I guess those episodes more closely represented their own comic sensibilities.
FRIDAY QUESTION: Since "M*A*S*H" was already a hit show when you and David joined the staff, how much pressure were you under to conform to the parameters already established? And how much leeway did you have to express your own "comic sensibilities?"
Follow Up: Based on the above, if one were writing a spec script for a particular show would you recommend keeping it simple to show you understand the format and characters? Or should you inject some of your own personality to show what makes your writing unique?

I tune out at the first long commercial break. Why some shows schedule that so close to the beginning of the show I can't understand. I start flipping around. Sometimes I get back, sometimes I don't.

Getting back to D.V.D., they seemed to use the "flashback" device an awful lot. That is the, "Didn't I ever tell you about...?" They used that almost as much as "M*A*S*H" used the letter home.


Steve_Law said...

I also enjoyed and would like to enjoy again Frank's Place, but understand it is not streaming or available on DVD due to music rights issues. Just curious but isn't there some way to allow the owners of the TV shows with these types of rights issues to create a fund into which the owners could pay some agreed upon rate, then make the TV show available, and let the music copyright organizations work out who gets paid what? (Obviously from that question I know nothing of how this works, just surprised with the money available that folks can't work out a solution. Stakes too small?) Really think that in this age of streaming not having Frank's Place or Homicide Life on the Street available is a shame. Thanks for the posts and can't wait to enjoy the Persky podcast.

VP81955 said...

To Rob Greenberg: Please give "Mom" a second chance. Its gradual retooling from a domestic family sitcom to one focusing on the AA members in recent years has substantially improved the series. The six-member recovery ensemble, plus the addition of William Fichtner as Adam (Bonnie's husband), fires on all cylinders. The scripts are funny, but the show is not afraid to occasionally take chances and create serious scenes and moving episodes. There are several "Mom" Facebook fan groups, and much of their memberships are comprised of people in recovery who appreciate its message and laud its character portrayals while understanding the series is meant to entertain as well as inform. Also note that Chuck Lorre has been in recovery, and cast members Allison Janney and Kristen Johnston have lost siblings to addiction.

Bob B. said...

OK since you were there you'd be in the know about this. The rumor has always been that when Gary Burghoff left the series no one was really sad to see him go. What was your impression and the impression of the cast about him during his last full season?

Anonymous said...

In your experience Does a "happy" set ( not drug induced) produce better tv/movies then a set with multiple peronality and other conflicts "back stage'?

Cowboy Surfer said...

Ken, are you one of those card board cut outs a few rows back from home plate at Dodger Stadium?

Kendall Rivers said...

Love WKRP. Never seen it before METV aired it in 2018-2019 but I really love the characters and it's very funny show. Another example of a show that flew under the radar, ignored or mistreated by the network yet became a huge cult classic that holds up better than most shows from its era and I remember Hugh Wilson saying in an interview how WKRP reruns were more successful than reruns of any other MTM show.

FQ: Speaking of WKRP, I remember seeing somewhere that the classic episode The Fish Story which was the zaniest episode of the series was an episode Hugh Wilson wrote out of spite because of frustration with network notes yet it became one of the best loved and most memorable episodes. I can't find anything else, an interview etc. confirming that fact to see if it's true or not?

71dude said...

FQ: What are your favorite emotional sitcom scenes that you didn't write that you think are well-earned?

PolyWogg said...

I *loved* Inherit the WInd, one of my favorite plays to read in high school, where unfortunately we were focused on the content more so than the technique.

But the wording around whether if the first day was a normal day before the sun was created, or whether the pastor ever thought about things that he did think about, or having the lawyer hold the Book of Origins and the Bible in opposite hands, weighing them, and then putting them together in his bag, side by side, was poetry.

I don't remember any missteps anywhere in that play...thanks for reminding me of it.


MG said...

Kendall Rivers - Here is a segment about "The Fish Story".

Mike Doran said...

For Kendall Rivers:

When WKRP In Cincinnati went into syndie reruns, WGN-tv, Chicago's Very Own Channel 9!, was one of the first buyers.

One of WKRP's biggest fans was Robert Cromie, book editor of the Chicago Tribune, host of PBS's Book Beat, and host of his own Sunday night talk show on Channel 9, The Cromie Circle.

When WGN bought WKRP, Bob Cromie booked Hugh Wilson as a guest to talk about the show, with clips and everything.

Bob Cromie was a low-key, humorous, and altogether charming host, and Hugh Wilson was so at ease that they were even able to talk about - and show clips from - "The Fish Story", which still embarrassed Wilson after all that time.

Cromie drew Wilson out about how "Fish Story" came to be written, and how Wilson came up with his pseudonym, 'Raoul Plager', as well as many good stories about the WKRP cast and crew.

Apparently, WGN didn't save very much of The Cromie Circle; I couldn't find much at YouTube, at any rate.

Damn shame, really; we in Chicago miss Bob Cromie, now more than ever.

No said...

"Goodbye Radar" parts 1 and 2 are superb episodes, perhaps the coda to the best run of MASH. I would say that with "A Period Of Adjustment" they could make a feature film.

Jake Mabe said...

Ken, I just wanted to tell you that I saw "Goodbye Radar" tonight for the first time in awhile, came here to tell you about it, and damned if you're not discussing it! It's a fine episode (I really consider it a one-hour show), easily in my top 10 favorites, albeit saddest, of the 11 years. Choosing *not* to have the sentimental sendoff was a stroke of genius. And I love the exchange Radar has with the driver about home at the end. You and David can be proud of that one, good sir.

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: Since you worked in radio how realistic did you think the characters were on WKRP? Obviously, not as wacky in real life as on the show but close. I loved the show and across the number of stations I was at I could say "Yep, Les Nessman was XXXXX at that station." or "For sure, that was Herb Tarlek was XXXX at this sation." And to be honest, there were a few that were way over the wack-o-meter when compared to WKRP characters, how they kept their jobs and were never arrested was beyond me.

Stephen said...

Hugh Wilson tried, after a few years teaching screenwriting at the University of Virginia, to get back into television with some new series ideas, but got nowhere. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying that he fully understood why no one was interested in an aging TV writer, even one with his resume.

"I know the feeling," he said. "When I was working on 'KRP' or 'Bob Newhart,' if some 'I Love Lucy' writers came in and wanted a job, we'd go, 'Please; you're so done.' So what goes around comes around."

Kendall Rivers said...

@Mike Doran and @MG Thanks! I appreciate the info.

Anonymous said...

"If some 'I Love Lucy' writers came in and wanted a job, we'd go, 'Please; you're so done."

"You're so done." Wow.

It's the same in many organizations. I know of a person in a slightly different entertainment field who was part of a department regime decades after it began. He had bigger and faster success and than his struggling yet also successful predecessors yet dismissed those pioneers that struggled to build their business from scratch.

Maybe his attitude was due to youthful arrogance or rising too quickly, but some of us can't bear the idea of disavowing those who helped give us what we have.

Leslea said...

Ken, regarding Stephen's Hugh Wilson anecdote above, where he talks about no one wanting an aging TV writer, is that kind of dismissive ("Please; you're so done") age-ism the norm in television? If someone can write a funny script, I fail to see what their age should have to do with it. I can't imagine it being a reality that someone could say to you and David, "Yeah, those 'Cheers' and 'Frasier' scripts were great in their day, but things have changed and that style isn't right for contemporary sitcoms," as if you'd be unable to adapt. That some producer could hit you with, "Please, you guys are so done." Were the sitcoms you worked on so callously dismissive of the previous generation's comedy writers?

bryon said...

"I also think less attention is paid to the story telling, which is understandable because 'story' is the hardest part. And when shows get away with lazy storytelling by assaulting you with a barrage of jokes they don’t feel the need to work harder on story."

This is J.J. Abrams' approach to everything he does. As long as the audience is mildly entertained or stunned by something else new out of left field, the story doesn't matter to him.

Chris Thomson said...

Hi Ken

Probably an odd question, but something I noticed watching an old Magnum pi episode.

There was one where Higgins actor John Hillerman plays his usual character, but also a half brother character, called Faith and Begorrah.

I noticed when the credits rolled the actor was actually listed twice. With the half brother being separately listed.

Just wondered if this is would be an inside joke thing or whether it would be a contract thing for Hillerman to make more money for the episode?



Mike Doran said...

For Chris Thomson:

John Hillerman did three (3) separate Magnums in which he played Higgins's 'half-brothers' (it was a running gag on the show).
One was a drawling Texan named Elmo.
Another was an Irish priest named Father Paddy.
The third was an Hispanic grandee named Don Jose.
It's been some years since I saw these episodes (Magnum has not ben in regular rotation since the reboot came on); sadly, I can't recall the credit rolls after all this time,
However, if John Hillerman (for whom these scripts were likely a gift) got special billing on one, he probably did on the other two as well.
I mean, fair is fair ...

mike schlesinger said...

Mike Doran: If you get Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, they're still rerunning the original "Magnum."

Chris Thomson said...

Mike Doran

Thanks. I thought it might be something like that.

TBF I don't usually watch credits, but just happened to notice at the end of the usuals it had something like...

(The Irish one) "Special appearance as Father ##### - John Hillerman" after he had already been obviously in the main credits one at the end.

Just assumed it must have been a joke, but was wondering if it was a money thing

Chris Thomson said...

Should probably take the chance to apologise to Ken for not reading his credits normally!

Sorry Ken

I know they were you in your programs, just don't need to read it!

TimWarp said...

I loved Frank's Place.