Friday, September 04, 2020

Friday Questions

After a summer of staying home, let’s kick off an autumn of staying home with Friday Questions.

Michael starts us off.

SEINFELD only had 4 regular characters, with lots of memorable recurring characters (even Newman only appeared in about 1/4 of the episodes). Did you prefer to write for shows with smaller casts or was it tougher generating new story ideas?

For the most part I like a larger cast. More characters give you more points-of-view and more stories.

The problem is serving all these characters. That’s why a lot of sitcoms with large casts will do two or more stories per episode to make sure everyone has something to do. That can be problematic.

I prefer on my shows to tell my supporting cast that there will be some weeks they’ll be very light but over the course of the season I will do at least one episode where they have the primary story.  And that seems to work. 

From Leslea:

Hugh Wilson (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) 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?

Yes. Now more than ever.

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."

Some of these producers and network executives are so young they don’t even know of FRASIER or CHEERS. Yes, that sort of scenario does happen. Happily, I have nothing more to prove in television so I’m not looking to write for any current show.

But when I write for the theatre and an audience is laughing for ninety-minutes I know I’m not done… yet.

Were the sitcoms you worked on so callously dismissive of the previous generation's comedy writers?

No. Just the opposite. We were in awe of many of the writers from the previous generation and were blessed to have worked with quite a few like Jim Frizzell & Everett Greenbaum, Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf, Larry Gelbart, David Lloyd, Bob Ellison, Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, Gene Reynolds, Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, Gordon Mitchell & Lloyd Turner, Bernie Kukoff & Jeff Harris, Stan Burns, and several others. We studied at their feet. I owe them all a great debt of gratitude.

And finally, Chris wonders:

There’s a number of tropes going around for decades as punchlines. Like "THAT went well!" or

"Character A: Promiscuous comment toward character B.
Character B (pleasantly embarrassed): Oh, Character A, stop.
Character C (disgusted): Yes, Character A, stop."

There's many more I've noticed throughout the years. They're bizarre little twilight zone moments, connecting shows from different times and styles, especially since they don't really happen in real life.

I was wondering, how come they're not considered stealing, since every writer in every room must know they've been done before when they're being pitched?

Well, it’s hard to pinpoint just who was the first person to come up with these tropes (and if you did would you really want to admit it?).

But I’d say it was more lazy writing than outright stealing. These tropes have become clich├ęs and when you use them you’re a hack.

What’s your Friday Question?


Bob Gassel said...

Friday 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?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I remember watching an interview with audience reaction mixer Carroll Pratt one time, and he said what led to his retirement and turning his company over to his younger apprentices was when he was working on a show with rather young producers one time, and he overheard them whispering to each other, "Isn't he too old to understand today's humor?"

Andrew said...

Ken, I'm curious if you're familiar with the website "TV Tropes." A person could spend a week on the pages for Cheers or Frasier alone.

Doug said...

My two daughters consider an "old show" to be anything from the twentieth century. Getting them to watch any series that pre-dates their existence on this earth isn't easy. The only real exception to that is "I Love Lucy," which their both crazy about.

Rob Greenberg said...

With the possible exception of shorter scenes, there is no real stylistic difference with today's multi-cams. The only difference is a lowered quality. A show like 'Wings' would win multiple emmys today, where it couldn't even get a nomination in the 'must see' era of the 1990s.

George said...

Ken, Leslea's questions and your response really echoes a story you posted back in 2016:

"...I announced to everybody that we had a very special guest in the studio, Bob from Bob & Ray. Most of the crew was young and had no idea who he was. He received a tepid smattering of applause at best. Bob turned to me and said, “Fifty years in show business and it was worth it all for this one moment.” "

Michael said...

A funny story about the generational thing. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., worked on Adlai Stevenson's campaign in 1952 and was given a speech written by a couple of old FDR speechwriters, and found it horribly done, and thought, they're too old, they should stay out of the way. A few years later, he discovered people around JFK and RFK were saying it about him! He did see the irony in it.

Thinking about some of the names of those classic comedy writers ... Fritzell and Greenbaum wrote some of the best Andy Griffith episodes and some of the best MASH episodes; could two sitcoms differ more in approach? Schiller & Weiskopf were, I believe, with I Love Lucy, and later wrote for Red Skelton, and then were with Norman Lear's company--again, vast differences. Funny is funny.

blinky said...

We’ve been watching the Community from start to finish and now arrived at season six which seems to be a completely different show. Not only are all the original Creatives gone but all the characters seem to be caricatures of themselves. But one thing I noticed is that the antagonists, the dean and Chang are now part of the gang. They hang out with everybody and they all have a good laugh at the end of each show. I noticed that sort of happened with MASH with Hot Lips becoming Margaret. Is there a point where you just can’t carry on the conflict and decide to bring those characters in or how does that work?

Bruce P. said...

Though not done for humor, one of my pet peeves that appears in entertainment venues of the past and today is repeating the same phrase with the phrases separated by a name.

Example from the MASH "Cowboy" episode. "Let's go home, Cowboy. Let's go home."

I hear this in dramas, sitcoms, commercials -- all other the place. I very seldom here it in real life.

Anonymous said...

Concerning old FDR scriptwriters, Robert E Sherwood was perhaps the most famous, having won 4 Pulitzers (3 for drama, 1 for biography). Yet, while the quality of his screenwriting was often quite good, his plays are seldom revived.

Mark from Ark said...

This has been very disconcerting. Is it possible that I am the only one who does in fact say, "THAT went well," in real life?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Funny is funny. I laugh at comedies from the 50's as loudly as I laugh at sitcoms from the new millennium.
However, in terms of writing I do concede one point. Personally, I am woefully ignorant of "pop culture." I don't understand a lot of the slang the kids are using. I'm constantly having to Google definitions. Plus, among today's performers I have no idea who many of them are. If you put gun to my head I couldn't name a song from virtually any rapper.
In that sense I am "so done." In the 60's they used to talk about the "generation gap." I didn't understand it when I was a kid, but as I got older it became abundantly obvious.
Maybe if I had children or grandchildren that would help to stay relevant. I would be exposed to a lot more current stuff or at least I would have someone to ask about it. Ken didn't mention Annie's age in his birthday greeting, but I'm sure she's still young enough that she could help out ole dad once in awhile.
When Barak Obama was still president he was asked for a playlist of his favorite musical acts. Some artists were logical. Some others, there's no way someone his age would be listening to them. I suspect he went to his daughters and asked them who was currently popular and who they were listening to.

This underscores the need for greater diversity in writers rooms. Not just race, nationality or gender, but AGE AS WELL. The varied experiences and points of view create a balance that that is lacking in many of today's sitcoms.


Ben K. said...

Hi Ken: You've probably heard that Anna Faris is leaving her sitcom, "Mom," less than two weeks before the new season is scheduled to start shooting. Regardless of the actual reason (she says it's "to pursue new opportunities"), how do you think Chuck Lorre and the rest of the staff will deal with this? I know sitcoms have gone on without one of the lead actors before, but I can't think of many cases in which there was so little notice. (And working in pandemic conditions can't help.)

Ben K. said...

P.S.: I just read that they learned about Faris' departure some time after "Mom" finished shooting its previous season, so they were able to write the new season's episodes without her character. Not sure why they didn't announce it till now.

Astroboy said...

Personally, I like using 'THAT went well" in real life.' But if I hear 'it is what it is' one more time I'll take to the streets and make Portland seem like a day in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. And one I like, but that is overused: "Wait.....WHAT?"

Troy McClure said...

That monster Obama, getting his daughters to suggest current popular artists! That man should be in prison! He disgraced the office of president!

Meanwhile the orange turd tramples over the Constitution yet again by telling his retarded supporters to break the law by voting twice, and it emerges that he called America's war dead losers and suckers. This from a fat fuck who dodged the draft.

Cue mouth breathing Trumptard accusing me of "orange man bad". The irony is that these morons genuinely believe they're being witty when they say that.

Trump supporters thinking they're clever. Now THAT'S comedy!

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Anna Faris's departure from "Mom" is a tremendous blow to a fine series. Her exodus combined with the pandemic suggest its time to bring the curtain down.

No said...

I will state for the record, that like most people, I am only getting older. I perhaps have a bias in this.

Fuck ageism. I seriously don't understand why any network or production company would throw away talent and hardworking people, despite age, just to please their corporate masters who only care about ratings and ad revenue...and I think just answered my own question. Withdrawn.

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

To Rob Greenberg's point I think it says something about the quality of today's sitcoms that there is such a low bar that amazing sitcoms that were grossly underrated in their time like Barney Miller, Wings, Becker, The Odd Couple etc. would probably be the highest rated tv shows on the air today I think just because to see comedies that are actually funny and has amazing casts that are actually performing and not just saying lines are such a rarity in network tv comedies today.

FQ: For my money the classic Family Ties episodes "A, My Name Is Alex" are some of the finest sitcom episodes of all time, Michael J. Fox was sensational. It was top notch from top to bottom and it was also I think the most theatrical episode of a television show I've seen and I wonder do you think with this attention span of a nat type way sitcoms are done now could we ever see something like that again?

Mike said...

Gotta disagree with you on “A My Name Is Alex”. It’s pretentious, and is epitome of “very special” sitcom episodes from the 1980s. I want my sitcoms to be funny. Alex has a nervous breakdown over the death of a “best friend” we’ve never heard of in the previous five years of the show? Lazy. And the writing is trite, corny, and obvious.

BG said...

As much as I love watching the classics on MeTV, I do enjoy the fact that comedies finally did away with some of the sitcom cliches like the "have we met before" trope, where the character meets someone who co-starred with the actor/actress in a prior show. For example (and this is off the top of my head), Becker having a patient played by Woody Harrelson. Sometimes it's clever, but in other cases, it's a little TOO wink-wink-nudge.

Graham Powell said...

I'm curious, have you ever watched Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars getting Coffee? Of course it's kind of self-congratulating, but it's often very funny, and sometimes insightful. My favorite insight was that he said comedy was the most honest form of entertainment, because if you told a joke and people laughed, you knew right then that you'd succeeded. If you watched the show, what did you think?

Jim Amato said...

For Friday Questions: In a perfect world, the new Fall TV season would have started next week (Sun. 9/20 through Sat. 9/26). With a lot of debuts being pushed back until who knows when and the proliferation of other avenues to get programs, is it safe to say "The New Fall Season" is a bygone era? If you were an executive, what type of programming would you greenlight?