Thursday, December 23, 2010

How did we handle drinking on CHEERS?

Home from Hawaii.  I see the mail and The Friday questions have started to pile up in my absence so I thought I’d sneak in an extra day of answers. Please leave your queries in the comments section. Thanks.

Lairbo is up first.

On CHEERS, I can recall few, if any, scenes of someone actually being drunk at the bar. Were there rules or guidelines about this? If so, were they from the network or the creators?

I think everyone (the Charles Brothers, Jim Burrows, NBC, Paramount) were in agreement that the drinking had to be handled responsibly. No one ever drove home drunk. There were a few cases where cabs were called for homeward bound patrons.

The conceit with Norm was that he could hold his liquor. So we never played him drunk or with impaired judgment.

I want to say we never got laughs out of drunks at the bar but there was Al. A case can be made that he was just punch drunk, not alcohol drunk, but he sure acted like a tosspot.

Sam of course, was a former alcoholic and the message was delivered many times that you don’t solve your problems by drinking. And that goes for egg nog, by the way. The benefit people got from going to the CHEERS bar was the camaraderie and support they gained from each other. Remember, the theme is “where everyone knows your name” not “where fifty dollars will get you shit-faced”.

From RockGolf:

Which IQ is easier to write for: smart or dumb? And which do networks prefer?

Both have their plusses. It’s “easier” I suppose to write dumb characters, but smart characters allow you to write with sophistication, and I personally prefer that. Anyone can write morons; it takes a certain skill to service witty, truly intelligent characters.

But I can’t stress this enough: play every character to the top of their intelligence, regardless of their IQ. I’ve said this before, but the best dimwits are the ones who are dumb for a legitimate reason. Coach was hit in the head by too many fastballs. Woody was a naïve country boy. There’s a logic to everything they said. It’s just not the correct logic.

Networks prefer any show that gets ratings. If it’s FRASIER, fine. If it’s HEE HAW, also fine.

Kevin asks:

Ken, You've talked about not liking it when the director of Volunteers broke the fourth wall. What do you think about the practice of putting an "inside" joke into a sitcom? For instance, How I Met Your Mother has done it at least twice: Barney recreating the end of Doogie Howser in one show and recently when Jorge Garcia shouted out the "Lost" numbers in an episode. Even Frasier did it once when Laurie Metcalf as Nanny G asked Fraiser how he'd feel playing the same role for 20 years. For the joke to work, the audience has to know the reference, which can be a big risk.

Inside jokes are tricky. They can be great little rewards for fans who are really paying attention. Or your close friends, or eighth grade teacher that you want to rip.  But you have to be careful that the audience doesn't feel excluded because there are too many references they don’t get.

Personally, I like inside jokes. Always have. I loved in HIS GIRL FRIDAY that Cary Grant makes mention of an Archie Leach (which was his real name). And he describes Roz Russell’s fiancée as looking like the actor Ralph Bellamy (Ralph Bellamy actually played the part of the fiancée).

I’ve slipped in my fair share of inside jokes. But the trick is to hide them so they go right by the general audience. It’s comedy camouflage. But never do an inside joke at the expense of a bigger joke that everyone would get. You’re doing a show for millions of people, not just your eight friends (unless you’re on NBC at 10:30).

And finally, from Debby G:

You're taking an improv class? Just for fun or to help your writing or because you see a job at The Groundlings in your future? Once you became an established writer, did you still take classes, read how-to books, etc.? Or did you feel you'd advanced beyond those things?

I’m taking it mostly for fun but also to keep sharpening my skills, in the same way that professional golfers still take lessons. I have no aspirations of performing in an improv group or becoming an actor, but learning how to create characters and even more importantly, commit to them helps me as a writer.

Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

I’m in a class taught by Andy Goldberg. Most class members are improv veterans so it’s primarily a group of enormously talented people (and me) essentially having a jam session.

Did I mention it’s great great fun?

The question no one asked and everybody should be asking is:  Ken, what present would you like this year?  

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