Wednesday, November 19, 2008

"Questions from the 'Major Dad' Postings"

Today, I’m responding to questions about the Major Dad postings. What a day. After two hundred and something postings, I am finally interactive.
“Racicot” comments…

I know what you’re referring to here with “first time”, Earl – but I wonder when you go to pages, do you keep the “first joke” you write? Or do you work on each joke to find the best laugh?

We’re talking about two different things here. What I was referring to in my posting was a desire to capture the first moments in a situation or a relationship, the prototypes for the rest of the series. CBS suggested I save my Major Dad “first” story and use it later as a “flashback” episode. I objected to that for two reasons. One, it would deprive me of my most compelling story which I needed to get the pilot sold, and two, as far as mining the “funny” was concerned, “later” would be too late.

Now, to Racicot’s actual question. Sometimes, a joke comes out perfectly formed, like a beautiful, flawless pearl. I don’t know how it happens. It’s kind of magic. You know you’ve come up with one of those, because you’re amazed, and you’re laughing really hard, and so, if you pitched it in a rewrite room, is everyone else.

Sometimes, however, jokes are pitched where the concept is right, but the wording needs adjustment. Sometimes, this is subjective. The person who pitched the joke may think it’s right the way it is. Ken Levine ( refers to tampering with a joke that doesn’t need tampering with as “stabbing the frog.” Sometimes, you have to leave the frog alone. But sometimes, you can make the frog funnier. It’s a matter of judgment.

In terms of finding a funnier different joke, you’re always looking for a funnier joke. If you discover one, during the rewrite process, in your sleep, I often found one when I was going to the bathroom, in it goes. There is nothing sacred about a “first joke” unless it’s the best joke.

Or the “show runner” made it up.
“Gary Mugford” asks…

Was Shanna Reed aware of her controversial status? (Note: The network president didn’t want her for the part.)

I don’t think she was aware of it, but I can’t say for sure. No studio executive or writer on the show would have reason to mention it. You try to insulate actors from reality as much as possible. They’re extremely sensitive. More sensitive even than writers. I never knew that was possible.

(By the way, when a network executive opposes a choice you make and your choice turns out to be correct, you know what they always say afterwards? “I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong.” I often wonder if they mean it.)
“PP” offers what he calls “only technical questions”…

Sitcoms were shot on tape, right? “Major Dad” was a three-camera show…any idea what the shooting ratio was?

Major Dad was shot on film. Not only do I not know what the “shooting ratio” was, I am not really clear on what a “shooting ratio” is. I am not technical. I am hanging onto this blog by my fingernails.

How did you handle having to do multiple takes of jokes?

Sometimes, the audience were troupers, and they laughed just as hard through the subsequent takes. (As a warm-up man, I always encouraged them to do that, as an “acting exercise.”) Sometimes, if a scene had to be re-shot, we would clip out the laugh from the original “take” and glue it to the “take” we decided to use. Also, sometimes, this is where the “laugh track” came in, to supplement a deteriorating laugh, caused not by of unfunniness, but by repetition. On rare occasions, we would change the joke for the subsequent “take”. If we nailed it, the laugh would be huge.

You shot every episode in one day? How long was the day? How long was the audience there for? How much time rehearsing without the audience present?

We shot every episode in an evening, usually starting around seven. The filming ran about three to four hours. The audience stayed through the duration of the filming (unless they came on a bus, and it had to leave, like, at nine – which we hated.) We rehearsed for five days, the last two with cameras. How’s that, “PP”?
“JGCii” has concerns about “finding the right person for a role that isn’t particularly flattering”…

I’m thinking of Gunny. She’s talented, she’s good at what she does, but she’s plain…Does she come into casting, knowing how she looks?

Yes. Actors have mirrors. In this particular situation, the actress was solicited specifically for the role, because of her talent and her look, though at some point – call it a persona – the two elements become one.

Every actor who comes through the door is fully aware of why they’re there. That’s what casting is – finding the most suitable actor for the job. If the role involves what might be considered “unflattering attributes”, so be it. But you don’t have to be mean about it. You know, “Could we get the next plain girl in here, please?” You don’t do that.
“Grace” asks two things…

Earl, I never missed one episode of “Major Dad”…I especially enjoyed the first season. After they moved and the General and Gunny were added, I didn’t like the show as much. So can you tell me who’s idea that was???

Well, Grace, thank you. After running Major Dad for the first season, I departed from the show. Defining our relationship, Gerald McRaney once said, “You’re the coach, and I’m the quarterback.” Well, during one episode late in the first season, the “quarterback” decided to call his own play. Instead of performing what was in the script, McRaney rewrote and insisted on performing something entirely different during the filming. This was unacceptable to me, and I decided to sever my relationship with the show. I co-wrote the first script of the second season, where the new characters were introduced. After that, I collected my royalties, and moved on to other things.

In her second question, Grace refers to a character whose name she couldn’t recall – it was “Holowachuk” – and his distracting habit of “reading from the cue cards.” Nobody on Major Dad ever read from cue cards. They memorized everything. What you were noticing I guess, Grace, was Matt Mulhern’s – the actor who played “Holowachuk” – acting technique, which apparently involved delivering lines you’ve memorized as if you were reading them off of cue cards. What acting school teaches that!
Finally, a question from me to me…

Hey, Early Bird, how come you had two posts last Thursday and none last Friday?

I made a mistake.

I told you I wasn’t technical.
Keep those questions coming, will ya? I’ve enjoyed doing this, and would not at all mind doing it again.


Rusty James said...

Cool Earl,

Thanks for the answer.

I recently finished a '30 Rock' spec and felt like I was doing something wrong by keeping my first laugh-out-loud jokes (2/page on this show)... and by the time I got around to polishing, I was under the impression that I had plagiarized most of the jokes - resulting in having to watch Season 1 & 2 over again. 30 Rock makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

Can you possibly tell us about the scene that McRaney disagreed with you about and rewrote?
Also, I noticed John G. Stephens's name in the credits. What did he contribute to the show? Just so everyone knows, John was an Executive Producer on SIMON & SIMON.
I disagree with Kim on two counts:
One: Shanna Reed was wonderful as Polly.
Two: I don't think that MAJOR DAD had to be any more similar to Marine life than it already was.
One thing I forgot to tell you last time, Earl. The pilot for MAJOR DAD is probably the best pilot I have ever seen. I think I remember having a smile on my face the entire episode. I'm not crazy about much on TV any more. I watched the episodes of DEADWOOD and JERICHO that Mackie were in, (He's on Broadway now) but now the only thing I NEVER miss is HOUSE.
Hugh Laurie is AMAZING!!
WILL & GRACE was my favorite comedy, but now I think THE BIG BANG THEORY is pretty good. Oh, and I am waiting impatiently to see if the next BACHELOR couple stay together....NOT!!
Grace :)

PP said...

Perfect! Very useful, sir. My thanks to you.

I'm surprised it was shot on film, though. Maybe I shouldn't be? I had been led to believe that many TV shows shot on tape, especially non-dramas. It seems I have been misled.

Shooting ratio: amount of film shot vs amount of film used. If you shot 88 minutes of film for a 22 minute final cut, you had a 4:1 shooting ratio.

I only watched the pilot on YouTube after having read the posts. I was surprised by how much I laughed...which is supposed to be a compliment, so please interpret it as such.

Jon Ericson said...

I'm an Air Force brat and our family loved Major Dad. I remember the Pilot especially, but I thought the show nailed the experience of military life pretty well (at least in peace time). You already answered, I think, what went wrong with the show after its promising start.

I assume you had technical consultants to help out with some of the details of Marine life, but did the Corps have any official involvement one way or another? It seemed like an above average recruiting tool, but I could imagine pressure to avoid throwing the military into a negative situation.