Monday, September 14, 2020

Friday Questions on Monday

Making up for no Friday Questions on Friday, here they are on Monday.

McTom starts us off:

A college professor of mine (who was a first-year associate prof way back then, and is now a frequently-quoted expert on pop culture in the news) talked about character naming, and used the examples of Sam Malone "M-Alone because he's a lone wolf type", Diane Chambers "her emotions are chambered", and Norm because - "norm". Reading too much into it, or are characters sometimes actually subtly named for personality traits?

Happy to say in the case of CHEERS that NONE of that is true. No subtext, symbolism, or hidden meanings were involved in the naming of those characters. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

I’m always amused at how “experts” can read meaning into things that don’t exist. Of course, if dealing with contemporary work they could always ASK the creator. 

jcs asks:

Have you ever considered becoming more political in your work (TV or theatre) and going more in the direction of THE THICK OF IT or VEEP?

David Isaacs and I have done a number of political projects. A pilot about the White House press corps that we did for ABC and later for HBO, and a pilot about a mayor we sold to FX. At the time, both stalled because of fear of political shows.

How do you write something funny and satirical today that even comes close to the insanity of the current political scene?

But as you saw last week, I do write political plays, and I’ve written numerous articles for the Huffington Post.

From cd1515

Do those network promos for comedies really do any good?

If there are three funny lines in the promo I usually think “those might be the only three funny lines in the show and now I’ve already seen them so why would I watch?”

But if the three lines they show in the promo AREN’T funny then I think “wow if that’s the best stuff they have, why would I watch?”

When you were on network shows, what did you want a promo to accomplish and how much say did you have about what went in them?

Network promos used to be way more important when people watched the networks.

At one time they were crucial and producers fought tooth and nail to get as many promos as possible in the best slots as possible.

As for the content, that’s always been a big struggle because producers don’t select the clips – the promo department does. And either they give away big reveals or choose the wrong jokes or jokes that make no sense out of context. They were uncanny at that.

I just want viewers to (a) remember the show, and (b) be intrigued enough to watch it.  

Bob Gassel has this week’s (or is it last week’s) final question:

The only real continuing storyline MASH ever did was Margaret's engagement and marriage, why didn't they do more and would you have liked to?

We were locked into a time and place, which really tied our hands. The show lasted over four times as long as the actual war. On other shows characters can move, get in and out of relationships, have kids, change their circumstances, etc. We couldn’t do any of that. So it made it very hard to do long term story arcs when no one was allowed to evolve.

On the other hand, the advantage we had was all the research and all the interviews with people who served in Korea during that time. Most of our stories came from real-life events, and many were very unique to our series.

And we felt the trade-off was worth it. We told stories no other show could tell.

Friday Questions return to Friday this Friday. What’s yours?


Glenn said...

Ken, the Facebook-style tournament of Greatest American Sitcom has come to an end and the winner is... MASH!

And the runner-up is...Cheers!

And you worked on both. How about them apples?

Max said...

FRIDAY QUESTION for future consideration:

I'm rewatching the entire run of M*A*S*H and I'm up to season nine, and one thing that strikes me is the development of Margaret from "Hot Lips" to a more full, balanced, nuanced (even self-contradictory) character.
I also realized that there were moments in seasons 1-5 when there were hints of that with the "abandoned" characters. The most striking was a season three episode where Frank almost removes the kidney of a soldier who only HAD one kidney. He goes white as a sheet and then there's a great scene out in the ward with him and Trapper where Frank is deeply upset-- "I could have killed him." It struck me as a lost opportunity to add some depth to the character, and I would have certainly used it for a counter-argument anytime someone said that they'd done "all that they could do" with Frank. That was what I heard about Larry Linville wanting to leave: that he'd taken Frank as far he could go.
Margaret could have remained "Hot Lips" --the butt of sexist and sexual jokes ("I thought YOU were Frank's bag!") --but instead the character was fleshed out, deepened, and became more believably human.
My question is: was that a deliberate process? What was the spark? Did Loretta Swit ever have a moment where she said something like "I can't go any further with this character as she's written now"? Was it a producer's decision, a writing decision, or just something that "evolved"?
I do have to finally say that as a writer myself (novels), I can see that I learned a LOT about writing strong, believable female characters from the way Margaret was written and performed, so THANK YOU to you all and Loretta Swit for the inspiration!

Total said...

"The only real continuing storyline MASH ever did was Margaret's engagement and marriage"

Klinger's engagement, marriage, and divorce was another continuing storyline.

Phil said...

Hello, Ken,
I have a Friday Question:

In your script for LUNDY DON'T BE A HERO, you start off by describing the establishing music. How does music get cleared for a theatrical performance? I assume in today's conglomerate world, getting a music song cleared for TV might be simpler if the same corporation owns both the music label and the production company (or ironically may be harder because that's the way life works when what should happen doesn't). But for a play like this that will be performed in a festival, what sort of rights need to be obtained and/or licensed? I assume the theater is usually on the hook for paying the fees.


Mr. Ace said...


What are your thoughts on shows that used animated openings like I Dream of jeannie and Bewitched, and could an animated opening work today?

M Shayler said...

The best TV character ever named for a personality trait; Basil Fawlty!

Steve Bailey said...

Regarding people who "read' subtext into places where there is none: My favorite story about this comes from William Goldman's book "Adventures in the Screen Trade." I'm paraphrasing, but the story was that screenwriter Ernest Lehmann was attending the screening of a movie he wrote, Alfred Hitchcock's FAMILY PLOT. At one point, the rear end of a car appeared on the screen, and its license plate had some numbers and letters on it that were vaguely Biblically related. After the screen, a fan came up to Lehmann to tell him how brilliant he was in inserting this Christian commentary into a throwaway shot. Lehmann said, "I hate to disillusion you, but that's my old license plate number. I didn't want to get into legal trouble over such a small detail, so I used my number because I thought it would be safe."

Troy McClure said...

Breaking news today that scientists have detected a chemical in the atmosphere of Venus that suggests the existence of life on the planet!

Is it too much to hope that Venusians could visit earth and save us from Trump stealing the election and dismantling the Constitution to stay in power beyond a second term as he so grotesquely suggested during his latest Nuremberg style rally?

I for one welcome our new Venusian overlords.

Anonymous said...

“Sam Malone "M-Alone because he's a lone wolf type"

Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel” was “M(an) Appeal”
Hugh Laurie’s “House” was “Holmes”

M Shayler said...

Okay, so there's nothing underlying in the names of "Cheers" characters. Now, regarding "Frasier", Daphne Moon? C'mon! Ask the creator.

Mike Doran said...

Friday Question of a sort:

Do you remember a miniseries from 1977 called Washington: Behind Closed Doors?
This was based on a roman a clef by John Ehrlichman, wherein he got back on his fellow Nixonians who threw him under the bus not long before.
The TV showrunners, David Rintels and Eric Bercovici, took it just a wee bit farther - but that's another story.

The reason I bring it up here:
I'm looking at the DVD lately, and in particular at Jason Robards as 'President Monckton'.
Robards has several solo speeches here, small masterpieces of manic paranoia, and darned if they don't bring to mind That Man (currently) In The White House (who was a 31-year-old aspiring real estate swindler in '77)...
Might I make the suggestion that anyone interested try to find Washington: Behind Closed Doors, on any venue where it might be available?
I have a recently released DVD from Acorn Media, available directly from them or from Amazon,; knowing nothing about streaming, I'm guessing it might be available that way as well.
Might be something you could talk/write about in the future ...

Kendall Rivers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Bloodworth said...

There may not be subtext in the character names, but there must be at least some careful consideration of the appropriateness of those names. In other words, if Frasier had been named "'Gomer' Crane" it would not have conveyed the erudite nature of the character. Same thing if he has been called "Dick" or "Ralph" or "Bob." Similarly, as with Diane Chambers, that names suggests "old money" and/or a family history of relative privilege including access to education. If her name was "Schwartz" or "O'Malley" the character still could have been an intellectual, yet it wouldn't have been the same. Sam and Norm were supposed to be regular guys, so they had "regular guy" names.
At least it shows more imagination than giving the character the same first name as the actor playing him or her.
I'm sure that when you and David were creating "Big Wave Dave" or "Almost Perfect" you gave considerable thought to the characters' names.

And just to be clear I'm not saying that people with the above mentioned names aren't highly intelligent or well educated. But, when it comes to sitcom character names we're talking perceptions and yes stereotypes.


thirteen said...

Ron Lundy and Dan Ingram. Wanted you to know that I Got It. And I miss them, and those days. (W-A-Beatle-C!)

D McEwan said...

And sometimes a cigar is something else. Barry Humphries has stated many times that Dame Edna's late husband, "Norm Everage," was named specifically to be "Normal Average."

Andrew said...

Supposedly John Lennon wrote I Am the Walrus as a way of confusing people (especially scholars) who were always finding symbolism in Beatles songs.

My 15 Minute Show said...

@kenlevine: This isn’t a FQ or anything, but Brin Baumgartner’s podcast of ‘The Office’ pretty much captures so much of what you write about all these years.

Tom Galloway said...

Reminded me of a bit Harlan Ellison wrote up once. (from memory) Harlan was in the audience for something where an academic literary critic went through one of his stories detailing all the symbolism in it. Harlan replied from the audience that he was wrong; Harlan had intended none of what had been pointed out. The critic, of course, went into the standard "Well, the author doesn't know all the implications of what they write, but we critics do" riff.

To which Harlan responded "If you can find all this stuff in the story that I didn't know was there, how come you didn't notice the female lead is black?" "Huh? What? What makes you think I should know she's black?" "Right here. The line 'her ebony skin stark against the snow'". "Oh, yes, of course. What you *really* meant by that was..."

Harlan just gave a "whatcha gonna do?" shrug.

Kendall Rivers said...

FQ: I love a good Heck family car trips which made me think that The Hecks have got to be the most believable tv family I've seen in years with genuine chemistry. They actually feel like an actual family which most other family shows of this era lack. The Johnson's on Blackish are just too mean and spiteful to each other, The Juangs from Fresh are too...distant? And the families from modern family are just messes. I feel like if their shows did the car trip episodes or scenes The Middle did I'd be bored to tears or change the channel. What about you? Do The Hecks measure up to your favorite tv families?

June Bug said...

Most sitcom heavy-hitters these days have become famous before joining the series - think Samberg, Janney, Farris, Deschanel. Are we losing out on undiscovered comic talents bc of Hollywood's reliance on bankable names? Do you think this shift is permanent, or is it just another tide-turning?

Greg Ehrbar said...

A recent column (not some social media post) made the serious and not facetious assumption that Scooby-Doo cartoons were making a statement about the fallacy of belief systems because the ghosts and spirits were always proven to be phony.

ScarletNumber said...

This is the only time I recall seeing Fr. Mulcahy in his full-dress uniform. Also, if you recall, Col. Potter's "dignified" look is because "he's gotta hangover that would kill his horse".

mike schlesinger said...

I've always wondered what was up with the fact that of the six original male leads on "Star Trek," five had a K or hard C in their names: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov. That CAN'T be a coincidence!