Thursday, July 27, 2017

Laughs per minute

Lots of interesting debate on last weekend’s post about laugh tracks (or more accurately, the lack of same). But I want to delve into a deeper aspect – how often are jokes necessary in a multi-camera sitcom? This speaks to the tone you set. As a showrunner are you looking for two laughs a minute or seven? Do they need to be big laughs or a steady stream of smaller laughs? It makes a big difference in the type of jokes you employ and the overall rhythm of the show.

On BIG BANG THEORY they go for LOTS of jokes. Almost every line has a joke or humorous turn. That’s one of the reasons the laugh track sounds more intrusive on that show – a studio audience can’t laugh at every single sentence.

A writer I know who worked on THE NEW ODD COUPLE for CBS said the network’s constant note was “more jokes, more jokes!” Maybe using the successful template of BIG BANG THEORY, or maybe just fear, but they believed if there wasn’t a laugh every few seconds the viewers would flee en masse.

Now you might say, what’s wrong with a laugh every few seconds? Nothing if you can do it. But that’s like saying “what’s wrong with hitting a home run every at-bat?” What often happens is that many of the jokes are forced or unfunny or both. It’s not natural for people to talk in punchlines. Especially if there’s nothing particularly comic going on. Two people are sitting at the kitchen table talking offers way less comic possibilities than two people with claustrophobia trapped in an elevator. And yet, if the same amount of jokes is required that kitchen scene is a holy bitch to write.

Here’s a dirty little secret: Shows with fewer jokes can be funnier than shows with more jokes.

It’s not the quantity; it’s the quality. Having a scene with three big genuine laughs is better than one with twenty zingers, even if a few of the zingers score.

On CHEERS and FRASIER and the shows I created, we were never afraid to go even an entire page without a joke if it meant setting the audience up for a big payoff. The risk of course is that the payoff better pay off, but the reward is so much greater. That’s when you get a real laugh from the audience. It also makes the show feel less stylized, less exhausting, and less desperate.

But I can tell you from experience, it’s hard when you’re watching a runthrough and thirty seconds go by without a laugh to resist the impulse to just pump in a few more jokes. The key is to remember the big picture. Does the episode have a good comic premise? Are the jokes you do have good enough? Is there a funnier way to tell the story?

Now some may say this creates sitcoms that are slow, and that today’s style is machine gun-fast. Maybe. But I would ask you to watch episodes from the first season of CHEERS. See how many jokes still evoke outright laughter thirty-five years after the shows were produced.

Also, laughs come not only from funny lines but from attitudes and pauses and reactions.

On my podcast right now is a reading of a failed pilot David Isaacs and I did for Fox in 2003. (You can hear it by just clicking the big gold button underneath the masthead.) We put a group of actors together on a stage, invited a small audience of about fifty, and recorded the results. So what you’re hearing is the actual laughter. There’s no laugh track, there’s no sweetening. As a result some lines and moments got better laughs than others. And that’s as it should be. There are lines in there that are cute asides and little zingers. They don’t get giant laughs. They aren’t meant to. There are other moments that depend on seeing the show on its feet and since we didn’t have that visual capability those laughs (costume jokes, reactions, throwing a cat out the window) aren’t as big as they would have been. So be it.

And happily, there are still a lot of real laughs in the reading and that tells me they were earned. See what you think?

What I didn’t include in the podcast was this: Earlier in the day I had a runthrough and recorded it just for protection. The cast did a terrific job. But the energy level in the room with a live audience added a real sparkle to the nighttime performance. It even got laughs we didn’t expect. Forget the number of jokes, that’s when you know you’re on to something.

In the cast photo of the SNOBS reading (from left to right): Harry Murphy, Bernadette Birkett, Oliver Muirhead, Mark Elliott, Dane Oliver, Suzanne Mayes, Jack Zullo, Barbara Howard. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

EP30: A TV Pilot for Your Listening Enjoyment

Listen to a failed TV pilot that Ken Levine & David Isaacs wrote and produced for Fox in 2003.  Now with a new (and better) cast, you’ll hear a reading of the pilot produced exclusively for this podcast.   Hear how the authors envisioned it and why they still think this is a damn funny show that would do well on TV today. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Sam & Diane in the golden age of film

Here’s a fun Friday Question. And it’s one you can participate in. I’ll give my answers. You share yours.

Justin Russo asked:

Ken, with your affinity for classic films and stars of the era, I have a bit of a whimsical question for you. Were you to cast "Cheers" using classic stars, who would you choose for each character? I keep picturing Thelma Ritter as Carla and David Niven as Frasier.

Assuming that all are age appropriate…

Well, Thelma Ritter as Carla for sure. I wouldn’t go with David Niven myself. I might pick William Powell for Frasier.

For Sam, who else? Cary Grant. And for Diane? The young Katherine Hepburn.

The Coach might be Charles Coburn. (You younger readers might have to look up some of these people.) For Norm, how about Wallace Beery?

Cliff is a toughie. Edward G. Robinson perhaps?

The young “No Time For Sergeants” Paul Newman would make a good Woody.   Note:  This was the live TV play version of "No Time For Sergeants," and yes, it was Paul Newman not Andy Griffith who starred.

Vivien Leigh would be my Lilith. The young Shelley Winters would be my Rebecca.

Okay. Those are mine for now. But you may some better suggestions and I’ll go, “Yes. Of course.” So I reserve the right to change my mind. Blogger’s privilege.

Thanks much.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

BABY DRIVER: My review

BABY DRIVER is a fun summer movie thrill ride. Imagine FAST & FURIOUS but not idiotic and Quentin Tarantino without Samuel L. Jackson. Writer/director Edgar Wright has crafted a super stylish adrenaline rush that has the best soundtrack I’ve heard in years.

The car stunts (all 2,000 of them) seemed real. They may be CGI – today they’d use CGI if they were making MY DINNER WITH ANDRE -- but they felt real. I don’t know many cars that could handle those turns, but then “getaway” capabilities are not a high priority for me when auto shopping. The story has some holes you could drive the entire Atlanta Police Force through, but you don’t go to this movie for Chekhov.

(I haven’t read any reviews but how many of them start with “Fasten your seatbelts!?”)

Young Ansel Elgort plays “Baby” the driver with a heart of gold and foot of lead. He has a baby face and sweet quality. He’s like Jesse Eisenberg but without that smugness that makes you want to just punch him in the face. I predict this will be a breakout role for Ansel.   He won't have to play a teenager on some CW show. 

Kevin Spacey is the mob boss for the thirtieth time. Yes, it’s familiar but at no time does he do his Bobby Darin or Johnny Carson impression. And as toupees go he’s sporting a good one.

Jamie Foxx is playing Django gone bad, and Jon Hamm is playing Don Draper gone bad.

Two notable cameos – Brogan Hall as Sam and Paul Williams (yes, Paul Williams) as “the Butcher.”

Enough people get killed that you think you’re watching an episode of 24 and nobody wears seatbelts (even though they could all be cited), and again, none of that matters when “Nowhere to Run” or “Harlem Shuffle” is blaring. And yes, they feature Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver.”

This is one of those movies I’d recommend you see on the big screen. It won’t be the same on your phone. Okay, fasten your seatbelts. Damn! I just couldn’t go the entire review without saying it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The value of talk-backs

David Mamet now has added a new wrinkle to theaters and producers staging his plays. They are no longer allowed to have talk-backs with the audience directly afterwards.

Talk-backs have become very popular. Audiences get the chance to meet members of the creative team and discuss the play. Talk-backs can be very informative. The type of thing I did on my podcast recently (Episode 27 – Comedy 101), sharing my thought process on the writing of a one-act play, is a great way for the audience to appreciate just what goes into the making of a project (I’m not going to say the making of “art” because I always find that so pretentious).

For theaters it’s a nice perk, increases attendance, and boosts subscriptions.

Mamet argues that it reduces his work, that often the people on the stage (directors, producers, actors) misinterpret the meaning of his “art,” can smooth over ambiguities, and the audience’s perception of what they have just seen can be altered by idiotic observations by some theatergoers.

And to that I say, SO WHAT?

If someone is interested enough in your play after having just seen it to stay and discuss it further, you’ve won. I’ve done a few talk-backs and I’m always thrilled when most people stick around for them.

As the playwright I’m interested in what people have to say. Yes, some of the comments and questions are insane and I have to resist the urge to say to them, “What fucking play were YOU watching, because it wasn’t this one here on earth?” I’m nice that way. But more often I’ll get good questions and I will learn from the experience. I’ve done rewrites based on talk-backs. At the end of the day the play is for the audience. If they’re confused when I don’t want them to be, or they’re angry at something when it’s not my intention then it’s my job to fix it.

Let’s say there's something I thought should have gotten a big laugh and it didn’t. It’s nice that I can say, “Why didn’t that work for you?” and someone will say, “Because I didn’t know that reference.” (Of course someone else will say “You’re just not funny.”)

Also, as a playwright I have to feel that my play can stand on its own and the audience’s appreciation of it won’t be swayed by a talk-back. If I’m worried that someone is going to say, “I thought I liked the play but then the talk-back convinced me I didn’t” then I shouldn’t be sending it out in the world.

Look, I do understand that when community theaters or college productions or even regional productions do your work they can sometimes screw it up. I’ve seen work of mine miscast and moments missed by directors. It’s to be expected. I’m sure GLENGARY GLENROSS has been done by the WAITING FOR GUFFMAN company players and it’s jaw-dropping. But so what? Theater pieces are exciting because they’re done live. And they are open to interpretation.

But the good news is sometimes those interpretations, from the actors or directors, are better than your original conception. Or at least add a shading that wasn’t already there. Boy, is that exciting.

So uncertainty comes with the territory. Not being able to control all the elements also come with the territory. Yes, they can be frustrating. I was in the audience of a talk-back of a Neil LaBute play. He was on the panel. It was a terrible fucking play. He’s written some fabulous ones but this wasn’t one of them. When I pointed out a character inconsistency that he couldn’t defend he became very hostile. Meanwhile, all the actors on the stage were smiling and nodding. I talked to one of the actors afterwards and she thanked me. She said the cast all had the same issue and LaBute just refused to change anything. They loved that someone else called him on it. My intent was not to challenge him but to get him to clarify for me something that was confusing and preventing me from enjoying the play.

At the end of the day, David Mamet can decide to impose any restrictions he wants on his plays. He is also free to deny any production of his plays if he so desires. There are some claiming this is a “violation of free speech” issue; I think that’s stretching it. But for my money, hearing from the public is always a good thing. And once you stop caring what they think, they have every right to stop caring about what you think.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why you can't let rejection dash your hopes

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.

She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the late great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:


He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A comedy scene without a laugh track

I found this to be very interesting.  Thanks to a reader for alerting me to it.  This is a scene from THE BIG BANG THEORY but with the laugh track surgically removed.   Are the jokes really funny on their own?   You can imagine that on the air with the laugh track this stuff was getting screams.  Here of course, the scene feels very flat.

But I must say, in all fairness, that by removing the laugh track they also removed the actual audience reaction.   So some of these jokes that appear to evoke silence might have gotten legitimate laughs on the stage.   You have to keep that in mind.   Some of this stuff did work although you can't tell from this version. 

That said, this clip does give you a sense of the amount of jokes and rhythm of jokes in a BIG BANG THEORY scene.   And like I said, you decide yourself without any help from the machine whether these jokes or some of these jokes work.    It's kind of a fun exercise and takes less than two minutes.

Enjoy and let me know what you thought. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day.

Jim starts us off.

So here's a sort of Friday question if you want an excuse to talk about old comedy. Are there any actors around today who still have those physical skills? The only one I can think of is Jackie Chan, who's getting on a bit I suppose.

Steve Martin is a great physical comedian. So is Michael Richards. I would add Kevin James. A lot of people like Jim Carrey. Just not a fan. Melissa McCarthy has game. For my money, Kate McKinnon can do anything. Nathan Lane is pretty physical too.

But David Hyde Pierce is a master.

And then of course there are the British comedic actors – from the Monty Python guys, to Rowen Atkinson. And you can throw in Hugh Laurie.

I’m sure I’m leaving a few out. Physical comedy is a true art form requiring grace, coordination, and expert comic timing.

Brad Apling asks:

I call this question "Where Everybody Knows Your Tune (almost)". Some shows have memorable tunes that people recognize instantly; others have to be Googled. Who decides the theme song for a series, any side input from the writers or showrunners?

Well, it used to be the showrunner… back when there WERE theme songs. Most network shows today are deathly afraid you’ll tune out so opening themes are five seconds. Not many people are going to hum five second jingles.

Some cable networks and premium services allow for opening credits and themes. Personally, I think they add a lot. The GAME OF THRONES opening is extraordinary.

But when theme songs are allowed, it’s usually the showrunner’s call although he very well may enlist input from the staff.

I remember the Charles Brothers playing the demo of the CHEERS theme for us and asking what we thought. I rather liked it actually.

From MikeN:

There is a clip from Cheers that gets used at professional sports events. I'll let readers try and guess which one.

My question is, does the studio get paid for use of these clips, and if so do you get a share?

The studio might but we don’t.  And I'm sure in a lot of cases the studio doesn't know about it.  Unless they're alerted, they probably don't know if AA minor league stadiums feature the clip in question.   I’m guessing this is the clip you mean.

And finally, Peter has another CHEERS question.

With so many sitcoms returning for "limited event series" like Roseanne, Will & Grace,etc, perhaps it's only a matter of time that TV executives ask for a limited run of new Cheers. Obviously this can only happen if the Charles brothers and Ted Danson say yes. Do you think they would and if they did, would you and David also get on board?

I don’t think it would ever happen. I can’t imagine Ted or the Charles Brothers ever going ahead with something like that. CHEERS is locked in time. Remember the characters as they were.

As for me and David, obviously I can’t speak for my partner, but the only reason I would participate is to work again with Glen & Les. But again, it ain’t gonna happen. Trust me on this one.

What’s your Friday Question?