Monday, April 16, 2018

Is that your line?

Here's a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It is from Rob:

How do you handle it when someone compliments you on a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you didn't happen to write? Has that ever happened to you?

It’s happened quite often. I always thank them and say a lot of people contributed to the writing of that script. Which is usually accurate.

I’ve written with a partner for my entire career. Often someone will say to me, “I saw your show last night and that joke about (whatever), that was yours, wasn’t it? It was so you. It had to be your joke.” Invariably they’re wrong. It was David’s joke.

Or they’ll say, “Y’know that joke about not being able to get it up? That had to be your joke. It had you written all over it.” What? You think I’m impotent?

Most of the time I will tell people that I don’t remember who wrote what joke. And that’s not being coy, it’s the truth. David and I volley jokes back and forth. One of us will pitch something, the other will say, “Okay, but what if we changed this word?” Before you know it the line changes five times until we arrive at the final version. And both of our fingerprints are on it.

When you’re on staff you learn to check your ego at the door. The best joke you write all year might be for someone else’s script. And likewise, one or two gems may come your way.

On year three of CHEERS to hide Shelley Long’s pregnancy they created a story arc whereby she and Frasier go to Europe. All of the scenes were filmed at once and shown the end of the season when Shelley was showing. So I’m watching an episode on the air one night and this scene appears. Diane and Frasier are shown into a hotel room and Frasier overtips the bellboy. I thought, wow, this sounds so familiar. Is this a re-run? No, because I haven’t seen the rest of the show. And then it hits me – David and I wrote that scene. It got lifted from our episode for time and was inserted into someone else’s show.

Lots of sitcoms today are room written (“gang banged” as the delightful expression goes) and writing credits are just arbitrarily assigned. So you may be complimented on a script you didn’t even know you supposedly wrote.

So the bottom line is to be gracious, just thank the person for the compliment, and in my case remind them I’m not impotent.

20 comments :

Steve Bailey said...

The famous "Interview" episode of "M*A*S*H" had character responses that were mostly improvised by the actors. Larry Gelbart said he was surprised to see the episode eventually credited to him ("Written and directed by Larry Gelbart"). He said that he often didn't get a writing credit even though he had a hand in nearly all of the episodes from the first four seasons. So he concluded that there must be some "credit god" who assigns these things arbitrarily.

estiv said...

Off-topic, Ken, thought you'd be interested in this take on the "Roseanne" reboot: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/23/how-one-joke-on-roseanne-explains-the-show

Covarr said...

"Lots of sitcoms today are room written (“gang banged” as the delightful expression goes) and writing credits are just arbitrarily assigned."

This is something I've been wondering about for a while. This practice is for WGA reasons, right? It seems to me that if inadequate or inaccurate crediting is the only way for writers to be fairly compensated, the guild needs to make some serious changes.

Just imagine if cast members took turns being credited per episode. "This week's show was acted by Ted Danson, last week's show was performed by Shelley Long, etc." There'd be riots. So why does it happen to writers? Is it actually necessary, or is it just an artifact of an older era and dated contracts?

Anonymous said...

You mentioned one of the scenes you wrote was assignd to a different script, not by you. I understand that and the money issues, but what happens during Emmy season and someone else's name is on a script you were mostly responsible for but they were assigned the credit? Who gets that Emmy?
-MW

RyderDA said...

Directly related question:
How do you handle it when someone compliments a character for a line from a particular episode from a particular show that you wrote or helped write? "Ted Danson's so funny - last night he said 'You can't HANDLE the truth' I wish I was as witty as Ted"

I would guess it happens all the time. I just watched a tribute reel to Robin Williams, and yes, the lines were wonderful, but Robin gets the credit for saying things like "Make your lives extraordinary". Someone wrote that, and the writers are never mentioned. Does it get writers upset that actors get "known" for brilliant things they wrote but aren't recognized for?

Chris G said...

I used to work in an office where work involved lots of collaborative writing projects. My boss referred to this method as "group grope", which I can't tell if it's better or worse than "gang bang."

David said...

RyderDA: You're absolutely right, "someone" wrote the Robin Williams line "Make your lives extraordinary" -- Tom Schulman wrote the screenplay for "Dead Poets Society." In fact, he won an Oscar for it. Credit where it's due, always.

Dr Loser said...

Here's another question on the same theme:
Granted, you're going to want to write 90% of your scripts with David Isaacs, because you're simpatico.
What about the other 10%? Groucho Marx? John Cleese? Richard Pryor?
Is there somebody out there who you would really, really want to have written a joint script?
(Roseanne counts, if you want to offer her up.)

ELS said...

Of course, a joke can also be good or not depending on how an actor delivers it. You seem to have a ton of talent that's been enhanced by a parade of talented performers who've enhanced the lines.

It's a group effort... nothing happens in a vacuum. You do the delightful material... actors make it even more special.

Mike Doran said...

It was in 1955 that Alfred Hitchcock began his TV series, which began with the famous comedy introductions.
These were written for Hitch by a writer named James Allardice, who got the job through his headwriter on George Gobel's show, Hal Kanter.
The two men hit it off so well that Hitch hired Allardice to write speeches that he would give during the series's run, for dinners, galas, and the like.
Thus, any time you read of a quote from a speech that Alfred Hitchcock gave during the ten-year run of the series, that quote was likely the work of James Allardice.
Allardice died at the end of the series's run, circa 1965; it's perhaps not entirely coincidental that Hitchcock didn't do much public speaking after that (and when he did, it consisted of "greatest hits").

Donald Benson said...

For some reason recalling an interview with Paul Henreid, who directed several episodes of the Hitchcock series. He recalled that Hitchcock naturally got first pick of the scripts; it was a point of pride with Henreid that Hitchcock viewed one of his episodes and wished aloud he'd grabbed that one.

Ralph C. said...

Great picture of Shelley Long. :-)

Pilot Joe said...

Ken,
Sorry to hear Harry Anderson passed today. Loved him on Cheers.
Rip, Harry the hat
Joe

Donald from Chicago said...


When I learned that Harry Anderson passed, this was the first place I logged on to.

Other Ken said...

Harry Anderson will be missed
Harry the Hat was great
Loved when he worked with Coach to scam a different scam artist.
Night Court was a wonderful ensemble comedy

ScarletNumber said...

Did you have any interactions with Harry Anderson on Cheers?

Mike Bloodworth said...

Amen,ELS! I've had several instances where the delivery killed a joke. One time I wrote pickle joke with the word, "gherkin," but the guy pronounced it, "jerkin'." It killed the pun and changed the tone of the joke. Another time I had written a sketch and the main actress had to miss a performance. The girl that filled in for her had this thick Indian accent. The jokes that had worked previously fell flat because you couldn't understand what she was saying.
M.B.

RyderDA said...

David, I'm fully aware who wrote DEAD POETS. And I'm also aware that far more people have heard of Robin Williams than Tom Schulman. More people know CHEERS and Ted Danson than know that some (amazing, Emmy winning) guy named Ken wrote it. And that's exactly my point.

Tom Schulman/Mitch Markowitz/Matt Damon-Ben Affleck/Richard LaGravehese wrote the amazing things that Robin said. Robin gets the credit. Robin's awesome, but Tom/Mitch/Matt-Ben/Richard are also awesome. BTW, Robin's just an example.

My question is about how Ken feels when one of the awesome things/lines/scenes he helped create is attributed to the actor who said it, instead of him -- and how he responds.

E. Yarber said...

I can only answer for myself, but I've seen audiences laugh at gags I've written both on stage and screen with no idea who did them. My response was satisfaction to see that the material actually worked. I was quite happy letting other people take the spotlight because I just wanted to stay home writing. It's only since I began trying to sell work under my own name and got one "What the hell have YOU done?" response after another that I have come to feel I neglected a critically necessary aspect of my career.

Diane D. said...

Continuing the comments about line delivery—it was only after I started reading this blog that I became aware of how much that affected what was written. Afterwards, as I re-watched CHEERS, I saw how wonderfully that cast delivered their lines, none better than Shelley Long, from the first episode where Sam asks Diane what she can do (job-wise) and she answers, “Nothing!” to her line in Season Two’s, Snow Job, where she tells Sam (before he leaves for a ski trip with his baseball cronies), “ Just remember on your trip to paradise, ‘There is a certain box boy at my market who always wants to carry. my. bags, if you know what I mean.” She goes on in the same vein—just genius! She must have been a writer’s dream, and I think you have implied she was.