Friday, October 29, 2021

Friday Questions

Happy Halloween Weekend.  Here are some scary FQ’s to get you in the mood.

cd1515 leads off.

Friday question: as a writer, if you have a well-established character with a well-known trait—-ie, Charlie Harper drinks a lot, his brother is cheap, Monica on Friends is neat, Norm likes beer, etc—-where is the line between giving the viewers what they want and beating the horse to death?
After a show is on for a long time, they always seem to go back to jokes regarding the same things over and over again.  Did you battle that as well?

It’s something we battle all the time, especially on a long-running show.  The best way to deal with it is to find more dimension for the character.

Sometimes that means backing off whatever that trait was.  For example: early on in FRASIER, Daphne had psychic abilities.  But soon enough the producers realized that was not a bottomless pit of material and gently moved away from it.

For the most part, it’s a tricky dance.  Again, in FRASIER — we got a lot of mileage out of his Niles’ crush on Daphne.  But at some point we had to take the storyline to another level.   

In their case, I thought the timing was right.  But in a lot of others producers milk familiar laughs way past their sell-by date.  The Fonz and J.J. from GOOD TIMES are just two examples.  

Darwin's Ghost wonders:

As well as you and David, other Hollywood comedy screenwriting partnerships have been duos like Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Is there a sense of comradeship among comedy writing duos and do you guys all know each other?

There is indeed.  In the examples you cited, we don’t really know Lowell & Babaloo that well, but back in the mid ‘80s David and I were rewriting a movie for 20th and had an office next to a young team writing the screenplay for PROBLEM CHILD.  It was Scott & Larry, and we’ve been friends ever since.  They’re both great guys and terrific writers and even though it's not true, we take credit for discovering them. 

Among the teams we were friends with (some are no longer teams but they were then) are Patchett & Tarses, Marshall & Belson, Rosenstock & Teicher, the Charles Brothers, Pollock & Davis, Mumford & Wilcox, O’Shannon & Anderson, Staley & Long, Pollack & Rich, the Steinkellners, Saltzman & Diamond, Bugliari & McLaughlin, Vaupen & Baker, Casey & Lee, Kimmell & Gibbs, Donzig & Peterman, Flett-Giardano & Ramberg, Balmagia & Koenig, Byron & Kapstrom, Richman & Gittlin, and I’m sure I’m leaving a few people out (with my apologies).    Oh yeah… Levine & Emerson.  

Bob Paris queries:

Your daughter Annie is a comedy writer, as is Gary David Goldberg's daughter Shana. While writing structure can be taught, funny can't. When Annie was growing up did you have any inkling that she inherited your sense of humor or ability to write comedy?

Absolutely.  From day one.  My son, Matt is also very funny but chose to go into technology and now is at that Apple company that hopefully will stick around for a couple more years.  

But Annie was always funny.  She was selected for the “Writing for the Media” program at Northwestern and really established her comic voice.   It was very easy for me to be encouraging since I saw she had the chops.  But lest you think it was easy, she and her partner Jonathan Emerson wrote a bunch of spec scripts and needed several years before they could finally break in.  

And finally from Unknown (please leave a name):

Late to the party this week; is running a clip of Wilson Alvarez's second start in the majors, White Sox v Orioles. You're very mellifluous talent is part of the calls -- altho there's a lot of horrible Hawk too -- and I was wondering do you remember that game? Where does calling a no-hitter, for your team or the other team, fit among all your play-by-play highlights?

August 11, 1991.  What I remember most is that once we got into the late innings and there was the distinct possibility of a no-hitter, the Baltimore crowd (the game was in Baltimore) was rooting for Cal Ripken Jr. to make an out.  That might have been the only time that ever happened.  

No-hitters rank very high among my broadcasting highlights.  But my greatest highlight was calling a spring training game in 2009.   That’s because it was a Dodger game and the two announcers that day were Vin Scully and ME.  As a Dodger fan growing up you can imagine what an unbelievable thrill that was.  

What’s your Friday Question? 


Tyler said...

Related to the first question, it becomes particularly annoying as a viewer when a character's trait stops being one minor part of their personality and becomes their entire personality (like Monica's neatness on Friends).

ScarletNumber said...

I am glad that you went away from that aspect of Daphne's character. I found it so over-the-top in the pilot that it turned me off of the show completely and I didn't watch it until it went into syndication.

A few Good Cats said...

Somewhere out there in the semi-public domain is a show from the late 1950's called "Jack Benny's 40th Birthday." So they tried to change it up, but For whatever reason, it didn't stick, and he went back to being 39 for the rest of his life.

Chuck said...

I enjoyed the psychic aspect of Daphne.
Mostly because she was usually wrong and also because of the reactions of Frasier and Niles. Lovely photo of Jane Leeves at the top of today's blog. Can't beat a bit of FIA first thing in the morning.

Darwin's Ghost said...

Thanks for answering my question.

Alexander & Karaszewski wrote one of my favorite movies, Ed Wood, which is also one of Tim Burton's best movies.

Anonymous said...

Looking forward to your review of SQUID GAME

Darwin's Ghost said...

By the way, have you heard that Jews on twitter have been ridiculing the new name for Facebook, Meta, because it sounds like the Hebrew word for dead? Sounds like perfect material for you to do a a blog post about!

Michael said...

First, until my wedding day, the greatest day of my life was meeting Vin. WORKING with him ... that's truly icing on the cake, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

On great writing teams--there were so many great or successful ones in ye olden days. Now I wonder about too many show-runners, et al., being involved?

And as for Frasier, I came up a clip from the episode where Niles, separated from Maris and missing her, gets a whippet, and the one scene missing from the internet, near as I can tell, is when they finally tell him the dog looks like Maris, he denies it, they put a fez on her, and he says, "Oh ... my ... God."

tb said...

Why does a beer I've never heard of have such prominent signage all over Dodger stadium? Always struck me as fishy. Does somebody owe a cartel a favor or something?

ReticentRabbit said...

FQ: Ken, you've held at least three of my dream jobs (screenwriter, DJ, baseball announcer). What jobs do you wish you'd worked but never did?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm kind of torn about characters changing over the course of a series. One bit that was run into the ground was on "Barney Miller" where Fish is constantly rushing to the bathroom. It wasn't that funny the first time let alone the twentieth.

You mentioned The Fonz. I was never a big fan of "Happy Days," but one of the things I hated the most is when they tried to make Fonzi legitimate by evolving him from a semi-hoodlum to teaching auto mechanics. In real life people don't change very much.

That's why I think "Married with Children" got it right. The characters did grow a little bit, but generally stayed true to themselves. That is Bud was always horney. Kelly was always stupid. Peggy was always materialistic. And Al was always suffering. Granted, "M.w/C." should have ended a few seasons earlier, but it did stay consistent.


Call Me Mike said...

Have to admit I preferred early wacky Daphne. Along with being "a bit psyyychic," she was also very British, which also faded over time.

But having said that, I liked it when they took Daphne and Niles to the next level because it was around that time her family began showing up. Gertrude and Simon were a hoot. I just wish Brian Cox as her dad could've stayed for more than a couple of episodes.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

J.J.: Dy-no-miiite!

The Fonz: Ayeee!

Debate Moderator: You both made some great points there.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

I enjoyed how Daphne's psychic powers were tested in "The Wizard and Roz." It was touching how her belief in her abilities came from her family history and how Niles pulled back on his skepticism to protect her. Fisher Stevens was great as the cynical psychiatrist who conducts the tests. He was also funny as the buzzkill Phoebe dated in Friends. I think the only movie I've seen him in is Only You, and again he's very good as the jerk husband who comes around. That's a wonderful romcom with Marissa Tomei, Bonnie Hunt, and Robert Downey Jr. and enhanced by Sven Nykvist's artful cinematography in Italy.

E. M. Forster on flat characters in "The Art of Fiction" said they worked best in comedy and that flat characters are very useful to authors; they "never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory."

Craig Russell said...

And as some characters grow and writers move past the cheap laugh, some shows also grow move on from a weak story line, and acknowledge it later...which I appreciate...

Friends being one of them. Ross's Monkey. Weak. In season 5, there was an opening scene, when Ross says out loud "Hey, remember when I had a monkey?" Big laugh. As to say, "Wow that was lame..glad we all moved on from that"...

ScarletNumber said...

Monica Johnson wrote many movies with Albert Brooks, but I don't think I have ever seen them referred to as Brooks & Johnson.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

I think they were well known as collaborators, though Johnson was sometimes downplayed as Brooks's "muse." Before Brooks she was teamed with Marilyn Suzanne Miller and they cowrote episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show but broke up when Miller went on to SNL.

I don't think Johnson got the accolades she deserved though it seems she worked closely with Brooks on their projects. About their methods of working as cowriters from an article posted on albert

When they get together to create, Brooks and Johnson are among the few writers who don’t work in front of a typewriter or word processor. They talk into tape recorders, have the tapes transcribed, and then pencil edit the results. "I don’t find it unusual at all," Johnson says of their modus operandi. "I type when I do a script solo, but with Albert, all we have is a set of cards with the story structure on them. A lot of times we drive around up on Mulholland Drive. We can hear the movie before we see it. It’s an advantage with Albert, because he can do his own character, and I do all the other parts. Sometimes I do his character too."

She also cowrote Modern Romance with Brooks, credited as Monica MacGowan Johnson.

By Ken Levine said...

Be it duly noted that Monica Johnson was the sister of Jerry Belson, one of the greatest comedy writers EVER. Talk about a talented family.

Caleb Martin said...


The other day, I came across a random, recent folk-rock song by Sammy Rae and The Friends that reminded me a lot of the theme from your 1980's Mary Tyler Moore sitcom. There were enough (coincidental) similarities in the groove and melody that I edited your show's opening titles to the song. It generally works, especially given that the song came out 30+ years after the show:

Which leads to my FQ: What's the largest creative similarity you've discovered between one of your shows and another sitcom, intentional or otherwise? Have you seen a scene or storyline you wrote more-or-less happen on another show, or vice versa?