Friday, December 04, 2020

Friday Questions

Here we are in December.  I’d say “already” but it’s been the longest year ever.  Let’s have some Friday Questions.

FFS gets us started.

Question from a non-writer. What the hell is a "beat"?

Any new element in the story.

Think of the story as the spine and beats as the vertebrae.  

Examples of beats:  

A couple starts an argument.

A father shows his son how to tie a knot.

Bob takes out the ring and proposes.  

Fred arrives with the Christmas tree.

In an outline you start with the beats.  First this happens, then that, then the next thing.  It gives you an overview of the story.  Are there too many things (beats) happening in this act?  Are there not enough? Is it repetitious?  Is there a step missing?

Once you’re satisfied that all the vertebrae are in the right place, and the story spine holds up then fill out each beat.  

The couple that starts an argument.  Over what?

Father showing son how to tie a knot?   Does the son not want his help?  Is this a bonding experience?  

Bob takes out the ring and proposes.
  Is he clumsy?  What is his proposal?  Was she expecting it or surprised?    Does she accept or reject his proposal?  I would say that’s a separate beat.  The story very much turns on whether she accepts or not.  

Hopefully you get the idea.   I write my beats on the computer then move them around.  A lot of writers use index cards.  One beat per card.  You can also use note cards in certain scripture programs.  

Ere I Saw Elba asks:

What would be your personal theme song, if you got to have one?

From an existing TV show?  “Mr. Lucky.”

From Lorimartian:

Have you ever talked about working with Nathan Lane? He is so talented, and I remember that series. Was it a good experience?

It was a wonderful experience!

I directed three episodes of his short-lived NBC sitcom, ENCORE ENCORE.  I found him to be a delight.  He’s very inventive and nimble.  

There are two sides to Nathan Lane— “on” when he’s performing, and “off” when he’s very quiet and introspective.  

If I had to tell one story about working with Nathan, it would be this:  Episode 13, our final episode in the series order.  Two days into rehearsal we get the word that ENCORE ENCORE has been canceled. (There would be no “encore” much less two.)   Everyone knew this episode would never air.

Nathan had a choice. He could just pull the plug and not bother or tough it out another three long days.   Nathan chose to complete the episode because he didn’t want the crew to lose out on a week’s pay.  

And not only that, he worked just as hard or harder those final futile three days.  The man is the consummate professional and a mensch.  I would work with him again in a second.

And finally, from Bill Slankard:

I recently read how The Big Bang Theory wrote around Kaley Cuoco's riding accident and it made me wonder what happens when the unexpected happens, and the writing staff has to come up with a fix immediately and some future episodes.  Does this happen a lot?  And what do you do? 

It happens all the time.  You just have to deal with it.  A cast member gets sick and you have to write him out of the episode… or several episodes.  Someone breaks their foot is on crutches.  You have to explain it away.  

During the course of a season I just expect curve balls like that.  You have to film a show after 9-11.  Your star is doing a movie and you have to shoot all his scenes separately for next week’s episode.  One of your stars goes into rehab.  The guest star you had planned cancels on you the night before you go into production.   The possibilities are endless.

Current TV writers have had to readjust their scripts to accommodate shooting during the pandemic.  They’ve had to remove crowd scenes, any scene with extras really.  Even four or five characters in a scene is now two scenes with two or three characters.  

Bottom line: you just gotta roll with it.  You can’t prepare.  Consider it another challenge and why they pay you the big bucks (or bigger bucks than you’d make at Starbucks).

What’s your Friday Question? 


Anonymous said...

What the hell is a "beat"? Ringo to Paul while recording their final album

Bud Wilkinson said...

Pleased to hear your take on Nathan Lane. Having spent more than 40 years covering various areas of the entertainment business, seeing Nathan Lane in "The Producers" on Broadway provided one of the memorable moments. It wasn't during the musical's initial run, rather during the winter doldrums a year or so later when he and Matthew Broderick came back to put some butts in the seats. They got big bucks and could have mailed it in, but not Lane. During one of Broderick's big numbers, rather than watch him, I kept my eyes focused on Lane, who was out of the spotlight. Damned if he didn't give 100 percent in reacting to what Broderick was doing. I was mesmerized by how focused he was. What dedication and professionalism. I'd say that scene alone was worth the price of admission, but the tickets were comps.

FFS said...

Fred From Scarborough

VP81955 said...

Being the baseball buff you also are, this thunderbolt of sorts from Chicago: Len Kasper, who's been TV voice of the Cubs for 16 years, is leaving to become lead radio play-by-play of the White Sox. (Moreover, the Sox are returning to AM 1000, now ESPN-linked, as their flagship after a few years at WGN, the North Siders' one-time radio home for decades.) Replacing Kasper at the Cubs' Marquee Sports Network is Chris Myers.

Apparently all the baseball energy and talent around town now is south of the Loop. For Sox fans' sake, I hope it works as Tony La Russa returns to the job he never should've had to leave -- a move engineered, or at least carried out, by one-time GM Ken Harrelson. The irony: Hawk is now a South Side icon. Go fig.

Sparks said...

During NFL broadcasts these days one hears crowd noise without a crowd. Is that a sweetener added to the broadcast or played in the stadium?

G.E. Masana said...

My better half looks at me like I'm crazy when I tell her I think Nathan Lane is the finest actor on stage today. Just watch his performance in The Nance, the scene where he has to perform in drag but breaks down, then pulls himself up to keep going, then breaks down... to go from normal to despair and back again (and to do that every performance?) - wow.

Jim S said...

Having watched college football and basketball games with and without the "crowd" noises, I have to say I prefer them with the fake noise. It gives the game real energy, as least for me as a spectator.

I am an alumnus of Michigan State and I just watched them beat Duke in a basketball game. There was no crowd noise and it just came off as weird. Two archrivals with a storied history coached by Hall of Famers and dominant noise was squeaky sneakers.

My preference may seem unpure because it's the quality of the game that should count, but I don't care. Give me what I'm used to, what really adds an electric charge to the viewing experience.

But that's me. I do understand why real fans prefer the game as it is, without fake crowd noises that could be considered a detraction from the real action being performed by real players.

Roseann said...

I, too, had the chance to work a few days with Nathan Lane. A lovely, professional, happy man. I would work with him again in a minute. Lucky us.

Don Kemp said...

VP81955 beat to it by bringing up the subject, but I fully expect to hear experienced radio broadcaster Ken Levine has applied to be the radio play by play announcer for the Chicago Cubs. The downside is having to work for Sinclair Broadcasting and the Ricketts family, so far to the right politically their earth is flat, but spending summers in Wrigley Field no matter how good the team is should be a dream come true.

KB said...

I worked on a show where one of the actresses had gone a little too far on the Botox and fillers and whatever else that it made her face looked like a basketball. We had to rewrite the episode so that her character had a cold and was off camera shouting from her bedroom so we'd never see her.

Don Kemp said...

Sparks- yes- it's added by the networks.

thomas tucker said...

You can't have "mr Lucky" as a personal theme song- it's MINE! I love that theme song.
But here's my Friday question- you wrote about working with Nathan Lane. Did you ever get to work with Robert Morse- if so, what was that like? And do you remember his short-lived TV show called That's Life from the late 60's? I think it was done live and was like a weekly Broadway show.

Tom Galloway said...

Michigan State and Duke are "archrivals"?

Speaking as an alum of both UMich and UNC-CH, um no. Just no.

Troy McClure said...

A heads-up that you can see George Wendt, Marsha Mason and many other stars in a virtual festival live streaming at 5pm PT tonight.

YouTube link:

Michael said...

I read that after TAXI had to write Jeff Conaway out of episodes at last-minute a few times because of his drug use, they realized they didn't need him and dropped him from the cast permanently.

Kendall Rivers said...

Nathan Lane seems like a great guy. Grew up on him as the voice of Timon from The Lion King and it's various spin offs. He was also good in that movie The Birdcage and his episode of Frasier as the pathological liar who stole Frasier's identity.

FQ: You wrote before about what shows you'd love to have written for that you hadn't, and those were all dramas. Any specific comedies you wish you would have been able to write for? Men of a Certain Age starring Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher for example? Now that was a great series that really proved that modern Tv is too stupid to recognize true greatness and cancels anything remotely interesting and good.

Ron Rettig said...

Ken, evidently Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex likes your tree lot.
"It is understood that Harry and Meghan were at Big Wave Dave's Christmas Trees & Pumpkin Patch, a shop set up in a Macy's parking lot in Santa Barbara."

Mike Bloodworth said...

One time Matt LeBlanc hurt his arm in real life. But even though he was in a sling the "Friends" writers completely ignored it. They never mentioned the injury. Since "Joey" was the "dumb one" it seemed logical that they could have come up with some comical scenario to explain what happened. I never could figure out why it wasn't even alluded to. I know. Bad grammar.


Tudor Queen said...

Thank you so much for your recollection of working with Nathan Lane. You'd gently mocked him in a column last week and I hoped it wasn't a reflection of any sense you might have had that he was a limited actor.

His range is amazing. I saw his Tony-winning performance (his third Tony, btw) in "Angels in America" and was utterly captivated by his take on Roy Cohn. For me, it belonged right up there with the unforgettable work of Ron Liebman (Original Broadway Production) and Al Pacino (HBO miniseries). He's played Timon, Pseudolus, Nathan Detroit, Sheridan Whiteside, F. Lee Bailey, Max Bialystok, and several classic roles ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens to Neil Simon.

While watching the last season of "Penny Dreadful," I noticed my friends being slowly fascinated by his very serious performance as Det. Lewis Mitchner. They were captivated and realized just how good he is.

How lovely to know that he's also a mensch!

Max Clarke said...

About having to write around the accident a cast member has suffered....

There were a few episodes of CHEERS in which Woody wore a cast on his arm.

He wore shirts or sweaters which minimized its presence, but it was easy to spot.

Sue T. said...

Please share an instructive example(s) of rewriting a sitcom line -- from its first draft to its improved mid-draft to its final wording as filmed. Preferably, demonstrate the improvement using a Sam and Diane exchange from one of your CHEERS scripts. Thanks.

Lorimartian said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken, and to other posters who shared their experiences. I'm a huge fan of Nathan Lane. I'd like to see an interviewer delve into his "off" side. It seems he's always required to be "on."

And to Kendall, I also loved "Men of a Certain Age." AARP would classify it as a "program for adults." There appear to be fewer and fewer of those (i.e., adults) on the planet.

Michael said...

I am pretty sure FRIENDS did a cold opening where Joey was jumping on a bed off-screen and you could hear a crash to explain why his arm was in a sling.

Chakkuri said...


Whenever I watch a show that has a LOT of background extras (like Cheers), I’ve always wondered if they were really talking to each other or were they just miming conversations so as not to be heard over the main dialogue. Some of them looked like they were really having deep discussions.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

Thanks for the answer Ken. I had not heard "Mr. Lucky" before, but it was a treat.

For myself, I think my theme song would be BARNEY MILLER or MASH, but it would have to depend on which day of the week.

Mike said...

Hi Ken, I had to spend last week in hospital. Among the turbulent days were some blessings, one of which was seeing OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND for the first time in many years. I cried, especially the scenes with Tom Sullivan. Having the good fortune to see this again and study it a little, I was wondering if you would talk about Larry Linville and Frank Burns. Mr. Linville seems to inhabit that character in a way few do. Was it easy to find his voice when you were getting started? Easy to write for him?

A couple of days before that was BUG OUT and I noticed when the shelling got close to the camp, the camera moved to help intensify the explosions for us. Is that scripted? Thank you.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I was an Extra in a few movies, and the X-Files. We are silent, and sometimes miming as we "talk." Except in Rocky IV. We were coached on how to chant "Rocky" in a "Russian" accent, RAW-KEY RAW-KEY!! I have to admit that when I heard myself in the movie trailer, on TV, I got goosebumps.

Frank Salerno said...


MASH is credited with the first on screen usage of “the smallest violin in the world”.

I know it’s a silent film/melodrama reference.

Whose idea was it to use?

Thanks KEN
Stay healthy!

erich said...

Hi Ken, I have a memory of you doing play-by-play for the Seattle Mariners and Tom Hanks joined you in the booth. I have a vague recollection that he was in town shooting Sleepless in Seattle, and you and he of course knew one another from Volunteers.

I believe this is when I also learned you were a writer and were writing my favorite shows. My favorite baseball team and this was kind of a mind blower.

Here's my question... did that actually happen?? I was younger, and usually had to go to bed before the game was over, but i'd put on the radio nice and quiet, so I second guess this memory a lot and have always wanted to ask.

Jason Roberts said...

I just finished shooting a pilot in Chicago and we had over 1,100 background artists in our 15 days of shooting. The key to doing it successfully was lots and lots of PCR testing, also everyone wearing their PPE with the exception between "rolling and cuts". Didn't have any issues and didn't compromise anyone or the original intent of the pilot which required a lot of background artists.

Kendall Rivers said...

Yes! Lorimaritan that was a phenomenal show with a perfect cast imho. Should've went at least two more seasons and given a finale. I know Mike and Ray would've gave us a killer ending.

Tom said...

I just revisited the Dick Van Dyke episode "The Plots Thicken," which in its way had to have been barrier-breaking for the laughs it got from death (both Rob and Laura's parents have bought them burial plots). Did you ever ask Sam Denoff about it? The script is credited to Persky & Denoff AND Reiner, which I'm not sure was common.

Dr. Rosen Rosen said...


I just have to know more about the "Sinatra" line spoken amazingly by Al Rosen. Do you have any additional information about that line, who wrote it, was it scripted, was it scripted that he said it twice, where the writer's trying to find the right line for Al since he was background up until this point. I love this joke, performance, and the way the cast reacted to it so much that I just had to ask.