Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Friday Questions from the Way Back Machine


One of the most popular features of the blog is Friday Questions.  So once a month or so I've started reposting Friday Questions from ten or more years ago (since no one goes back in the archives that far and there's some good information hidden within those posts).  This was from Friday, July 29, 2011.  Were we all even alive back then?  Enjoy.   Oh... and a reminder, no anonymous or unknown comments will be posted. 

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or TWO AND A HALF MEN. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 

From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?

And finally, LaprGuy has a question about announcing baseball:

How much does the highlight package (and, maybe moreso, the demo reel) come into play when you are announcing a game?

I don’t think about it at all. As for highlights, I’m just trying to capture the drama of the moment and be accurate. I have no catch phrases.

Re: demo reels, I don’t think about that either. I just try to stay in the moment. Over the course of a season I figure there will be one or two demo-worthy innings somewhere along the way. But my main focus is on the listener and the game at hand. I’m trying to do an informative, entertaining, and descriptive broadcast, not impress. 


Michael said...

I remember asking the question but would have never guessed it was 10 years ago - time really flies.

Philly Cinephile said...

If you look at the air dates of TV shows back when the season ran from September through March, there were very few, if any, preemptions or reruns. A new episode aired each week, with perhaps a skipped week at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Also, a single season often had more than 30 episodes. Reruns were usually limited to the Summer months.

Michael said...

I'm reminded that Jack Benny had four writers for years, and the two junior ones were still "the new writers" after 20 years. Once he called all four of them over when they were rehearsing the radio show and said, "I want a line in the credits that the voice of the Maxwell is Mel Blanc." They wrote that down and one said, "You know, Jack, two of us could have taken care of that."

Mike Bloodworth said...

When Ken started writing ten minute plays I thought I would try to write some too. However, sometimes I find it incredibly difficult to fill even ten minutes. That is, it's hard to come up with ten minutes of GOOD dialogue and not repeat oneself or pad with superfluous phrases. I'm sure Ken would agree that every word counts. That's why it can be such a struggle to find just the right words.
I've seen some really bad plays. So I could crank out crap equivalent to those. But I would want anything I wrote to be considered better than average. I suppose that if it was easy then everyone would be writing short plays.


GoldenDreams said...

History is being made today. Would love to hear your thoughts on the first MLB game called by all women. In a First, an M.L.B. Game Will be Called Entirely by Women https://nyti.ms/3kqKCOd

Buttermilk Sky said...

Michael, I read somewhere that Jack Benny referred to all his writers as "the kids in the hall," the source for the Canadian comedy troupe's name.

Ken, you're forgiven for posting a rerun. It's Natalie Wood day on TCM!

Darwin's Ghost said...

Feature length documentary on the life and career of Mary Tyler Moore is in the works.


Unless they're aiming for a hagiography, I hope you're approached for an interview.

VP81955 said...

Hope Mary's considerable work against diabetes is covered. She did so much to raise awareness of the disease.

purplepenquin said...

"no one goes back in the archives that far"

FWIW, when I first discovered your blog a few years ago I went back to read all the "Friday Question" entries. (You didn't/don't have tags, so it took some digging & a lil' math)

But given how I got such a lousy memory, it is nice that you're reposting 'em again.

Brandon in Virginia said...

I actually did find a FQ I had in mind answered in the archives, so it was cool to get an answer one way or another.

Rob D said...

Regarding the typical length of a TV season: Gunsmoke is an interesting case to look at since it ran from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. The earliest seasons were a whopping 39 episodes per season. This gradually decreased over the years, until the last few seasons were only 24 episodes each. (Source: Gunsmoke episode guide at IMDb.com).

Diane KH said...

I've been reading through the archives as it's a good way to keep me off Twitter. However, the escapism is not always effective as possible prescient posts of yours might cause a flinch-worthy moment. Here's an example from Friday, July 14, 2006, titled: "The Emmys are only eight weeks away!" Your review of the previous year's Emmys contained this:

"Donald Trump's singing number was maybe the nadir of the 57 year history of the Emmy awards. And he won 'Emmy Idol'. Again, thank you, Red States."

He probably keeps his Emmy Idol award next to his fake cover of Time.