Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Are you ready for the return of (a) Daylight Savings and (b) Friday Questions?

Matt starts us off:

Have you ever written for a sketch comedy show? Is this type of writing different?

Yes. My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote sketches for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW on Fox. It was great fun. The trick was finding a good ending. The problem with most sketches is that have funny premises but the writers don’t know how to get out of them.

A couple of the sketches we wrote for Tracey were musicals. In one case, Paula Abdul choreographed a dance number from one of them.

What helped in our case was that Tracey and her supporting players were all terrific and versatile.   Any character we envisioned they could do.  Tracey had several established characters so that made those sketches easier because we could picture her doing it and could imagine her voice.

I imagine the writers of SNL are having a ball these days.  

From Michael:

You've mentioned being fired from several radio jobs. Did they ever let you back on-the-air after firing you? If so, did you ever do/say something memorable?

I was fired from TenQ in Los Angeles. I had been on the air doing Saturday nights for a year, but then a new program director came in and well, you know that drill. He lasted six months. His replacement (who came from out of town) was a big fan and called to see whether I’d consider doing a show on the weekends. He didn’t realize I had already been there. I was happy to return. When I signed on for my first show back I opened with “So as I was saying…”

I then did a talk show on KABC in 1981 and was fired for Maureen Reagan (who was president Reagan’s daughter). Hard to argue with that. Then in 2008 I returned to host Dodger Talk. Fortunately, Obama’s kids were little.

Paul wonders:

I was lucky enough to attend a Cheers filming and have always had a question about the set design -- the episode I attended had several scenes in Sam's office and each time the action shifted in there, they stopped filming, unfolded the set (yes, very cool to watch), shot the scene in the office, then stopped and folded it back up. The question: why not have Sam's office designed back in the pool room, which would have eliminated the need for that time-consuming folding and unfolding? Was there a thought that the office would be rarely used and the pool room would see more action? Or did they need to leave room in the studio for those occasional swing sets? Or is there no reason?

Putting the office where it was was the most efficient use of space on the stage. And anytime you switched from one set to the other there was going to be a time gap since the cameras had to move and re-set. The process of swinging the walls and bar took only a couple of minutes. We had an Indy 500-type pit crew.

And this way we could shoot right down the hallway from the bar to the poolroom, which was a very cool shot and added great depth to the set. Putting Sam’s office over there would eliminate that shot and necessitate that the pool room be smaller.

And finally, from Mark:

You mentioned the difficulty of filming outside for MASH once Fall and Winter set in. Why not have fifteen or twenty scripts ready and then do all the outside filming for all of them before moving to the set and doing all the inside stuff.

Each script required weeks of work to prepare. From idea to breaking the story, to the outline, and all the many drafts. Meanwhile, once we went into production we were filming episodes in four days. Our lead time got swallowed up in short order.

To have 20 scripts ready to go before production began would have required at least a full year of pre-production. We didn’t have that time. We only had a few months.

I like to think we were extremely organized and we had maybe eight scripts ready to go when production began. But the rest of the time we were scrambling to stay ahead of the production schedule. And by the last few shows it was reeeeeeeally tight.

Also, I think it would drive the actors insane to be shooting multiple shows at once. They’d have no idea what they were playing. It would be a confusing mess – not to mention an absolute nightmare for continuity trying to match clothes, where extras were, etc.

Single-camera comedies generally make 22 episodes between the end of July and the end of March. We made 25 episodes a season between July 4th and Christmas. I’d say we cranked them out at a pretty good rate. And first and foremost, we tried to make sure the writing was the absolute best it could possibly be. That takes time even if we didn’t have it.

What's your Friday Question?  

26 comments :

ChipO said...

Just a comment, mostly for Mr. Levine:
La La Land is going on tour, full orchestra, choir, jazz ensemble.
But don't worry - they won't have some real singers trampling over the warblings of Stone & Gosling - whew, I know Ken will be relieved:
"But fans eager to hear the live vocal stylings of John Legend, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, be forewarned: Though the orchestra will be live, the vocals will not be.
"By preserving the film's unique recorded vocal performances of Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend from the film's soundtrack and blending them with live musicians, we are able to build a one-of-a-kind concert experience, which becomes a hybrid of film, pre-recordings and incredible live musicianship," said Richard Kraft, the concert's director." "

Curt Alliaume said...

Both My Three Sons and Family Affair shot out of sequence to accommodate the schedules of Fred MacMurray and Brian Keith - the two of them apparently did all of their scenes in two 30-day blocks each year, and the scenes without them were shot separately. This was probably less of a problem for the kids in the shows, and more for the older actors (I've read William Frawley couldn't get used to working that way after shooting I Love Lucy in sequence).

Then again, it's not like either of those shows are exactly considered classics today (other than for their longevity).

Carson Clark said...

You have spoken before about NBC wanting Cheers to switch to videotape to save money. This got me to thinking, what exactly determined whether shows in the 70s thru the 90s would be shot on film or video? The film shows have certainly held up better since it's possible to go back now and get an HD print off of them as opposed to the video shows that will forever be stuck in 480 resolution.

ScottyB said...

A rather silly FQ for Ken: You've mentioned on a number of occasions the insane number of lemons and limes sliced up by Ted Danson over the years of 'Cheers'. How much coffee do you figure he ended up having to go thru every week? Probably nowhere near the amount of near-beer George Wendt endured, but I imagine it must've been fairly copious.

Justin Russo said...

Ken-

I have now watched and re-watched 'Cheers' countless times and have begun listing some favorite moments. I'd have to say Diane jumping off the sailboat when Sam proposes hits me in the gut (something about HOW Shelley Long jumps is so in tune with the character) but I think the best moment is the finale of Season 1, Sam and Diane arguing in Sam's office, when they open the door to find the entire staff and all the bar's patrons piled atop one another listening in. You even used the image of that scene today. The gag reminds me of "A Night At The Opera" in spirit and I was wondering if you have any commentary or insight to this incredible ending.

-Justin

YEKIMI said...

"By preserving the film's unique recorded vocal performances of Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling and John Legend from the film's soundtrack and blending them with live musicians, we are able to build a one-of-a-kind concert experience, which becomes a hybrid of film, pre-recordings and incredible live musicianship," said Richard Kraft, the concert's director."

Then I'm sure they'll be fine with me paying for the tickets with a hybrid of real money and Monopoly money.

Jon H said...

I was going to mention the shooting schedules that Don Fedderson had for Fred MacMurray and Brian Keith, but Curt Alliaume beat me to it. I can add that Fedderson also produced series that starred John Forsythe (TO ROME WITH LOVE) and Henry Fonda (THE SMITH FAMILY) and most likely had the same schedule set up to accommodate limited shooting days for them too.

Brian Phillips said...

I second the hurrah for the Fox "Tracey Ullman Show". The musical numbers, like the show, were quite inventive.

- One was done after a bungee jump. The singers, lead and background, were upside down AND the backup singers were choreographed.

- One was done in a plane about to crash. As the singer and the band jump out of the plane, as their chutes open, you can hear Tracey introducing the band.

Sadly, I'm guessing because of the music rights, the early Simpsons segments and the passage of time, a DVD release is not forthcoming.

Brian Phillips said...

Friday Question: I enjoyed all of your podcasts and left a review, too! in light of potentially losing cast choices to prior commitments, like Matthew Perry's near-series about baggage handlers set in the future, what are some of the stranger reasons you've heard as to why you could not cast someone, or, for that matter, what are some of the odder reasons someone has given you for not wanting to do a line as written?

Bobaloo said...

If you were doing uncredited or informal work on a tv show, would that keep you from doing a full blown commentary or review of it?

Otherwise, and I'm sure totally unrelated, count me in as someone who's interested in your thoughts on The Good Place.

Brian said...

Friday question: I have always thought the show Becker was pretty good. But there had to be some resistance to having Ted Danson play Becker after Cheers. Was anybody else considered for that character?

Andy Rose said...

With a seasoned stage crew, moving a set doesn't take nearly as long as you might think. SNL recently posted a behind-the-scenes video showing them striking their rather elaborate cold open set in a minute-and-a-half in order to make way for the monologue, which is done at the same position in the studio. ("Home base" is usually also used for a couple of other sketches during the show, as well as Weekend Update.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04kop3CvE_s

One thing I've wondered about: How could you still see the pool room down the hallway in episodes where, for instance, they also had Diane's apartment. On some occasions, you don't actually see any people in the distance, so my guess is that there was a flat designed to look like the pool room that they used to mask the swing set. But if that's the case, it was very well designed, because I still can't tell for sure.

MikeKPa. said...

"To have 20 scripts ready to go before production began would have required at least a full year of pre-production. We didn’t have that time. We only had a few months."

Any idea how a show like MY THREE SONS did it when Fred MacMurray's contract called for him to only work three months (this was when they filmed 36 episodes)? Would the scripts all have been written before the season began, or would he have shot his scenes during the latter part of the season? I also read that other sitcom actors have insisted on similar arrangements. Any idea if any more current shows' lead actor had that kind of deal?

Mike said...

@Andy Rose: If it was me, I'd have closed the pool room door.

Anonymous said...

Choosing my favorite scene from CHEERS would be a difficult task, but the picture you used today would come close---the whole bar gathered outside the office door to eavesdrop on Sam and Diane's epic argument. I can still remember the first time I saw it and burst into laughter! Will there EVER be another show like the first 5 years of CHEERS. There have been other shows I've loved over the years, but nothing that could really compare.
DIANE D

purplepenquin said...

Not a Friday question, but rather a podcast request.

There is an app called "Stitcher" which allows Android users to subscribe to various podcasts and then listen to them all "stitched" together, one-after-another.

Looking over their FAQ it seems to be very easy for a producer to have their 'casts be a part of this service. (No costs - easy setup). You'd reach tons more listeners, including this one guy who doesn't wanna fiddle with the phone (changing between different podcasts) while driving in the car.

Thanks for all you do Ken! Your blog truly does brighten-up my day

D. McEwan said...

"Also, I think it would drive the actors insane to be shooting multiple shows at once. They’d have no idea what they were playing. It would be a confusing mess – not to mention an absolute nightmare for continuity trying to match clothes, where extras were, etc."

In the later, color seasons of The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves, they had all the scripts done before shooting began each season (13 episode seasons), then they shot via set. In other words, they'd shoot all the scenes in Perry White's office for the entire season over two or three days. Then they'd shoot all the scenes in Clark's office, Lois's office, Daily Planet hallways scenes, etc., etc.,. This is why the five main characters, Clark, Lois, Jimmy, Perry and Inspector Henderson all wear the same clothes all season, and, of course, Superman's clothes never changed.

How the actors kept it all straight in their heads, I do not know.

ScottyB said...

Ken wrote, "I imagine the writers of SNL are having a ball these days." Apparently they're not, according to this pretty interesting read: ("SNL Has Never Been More Popular and Less Fun") http://www.vulture.com/2017/03/snl-has-never-been-more-popular-and-less-fun.html

DMK said...

It's daylight SAVING, not the plural. This is not Bean from Kevin and Bean.

Ken Levine said...

purplepenguin,

It's been submitted to Stitcher. We're just waiting for approval. Sometimes these submissions take time. Thanks.

Mike said...

The producers of My Three Sons and Family Affair clearly had the scripts ready to go ahead of time. But let's remember: neither of those shows is anywhere near the quality of Cheers. Quality takes time.

My favorite Sam/Diane scene is their last one at the end of season 5, when Shelley Long left the show. The expressions on their faces (intellectual Diane dismayed that Sam thinks she won't return, and the street-smart Sam knowing that she won't) are just amazing - and heartbreaking.

Carol said...

My folks saw a couple of Carol Burnett Show tapings back in the '70s, and I've heard my mother talk about how amazed she was at how quickly the crew was able to completely disassemble and remove all traces of a set, then replace it with a brand new one.

Anonymous said...

I would have to put my favorite Sam/Diane scenes in two categories---funny and heartbreaking---because it would indeed be difficult to put anything above that last scene at the end of season 5, or the scene where Diane, sitting on the foot rail of the bar, overhears Sam tell Janet he will fire her.
DIANE D

Andrew Martin said...

Friday question: Why was writing the Cheers teaser "a pain in the ass." (As you've said earlier.) I assumed it would be one of the easier parts of a script.

Violet Creme said...

Hi Ken

I'm curious what your take on British comedy is. The sense I get in the UK is that most shows don't make it to the USA unless they've been remade, and if they do, they're either buried on streaming sites or on pay-only cable channels.

Obviously the formats here are different - 6 x 30mins is the standard series order - but I wonder what recent UK shows you may have seen, and what you thought of them. Modern favourites for me include Detectorists, Uncle, Friday Night Dinner, Fleabag, Alan Partidge's Mid Morning Matters, Peep Show.

John in NE Ohio said...

re: Shooting schedules

I realize this is several weeks past the sell by date, but ...

Do shows that post all their episodes at once still do the scripts one at a time, shooting in between? (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) Staying in your genre, something like The Ranch? Or do they get all the scripts ready and then just shoot episodes - either one after the other, or by set, or some combination? I would imagine that with guest stars it may be desirable to shoot all their scenes at once.

Also, re: the comments about actors keeping their head in what is going on if they do it by set - isn't that somewhat the it goes for movies? I didn't think they generally shoot those linearly. Why would it be different? Or is that why some TV actors can never make the jump - they can't shoot out of order?

Random thoughts.