Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Why I thank God I never worked with Cybill Shepherd









If the ST. ELSEWHERE/CHEERS scene is one of the more famous crossovers in television history then the ALMOST PERFECT/CYBILL crossover has to be one of the least. But since a reader asked about it and I was there firsthand, I’m going to discuss it anyway.

Quick refresher for the .000006% who never heard of ALMOST PERFECT or don’t remember it – it was a sitcom I co-created/produced/
wrote/directed on CBS for two seasons in the mid 90s. Comedy goddess Nancy Travis played a single woman juggling her personal and professional life. On the day she gets the job of her life (head writer for a testosterone heavy cop show) she meets the man of her life and both are full-time jobs. I know I sound like Roger Clemens proclaiming his innocence but ALMOST PERFECT really was a damn good show.

CYBIL featured Cybill Shepherd as an over-the-hill actress. It was on CBS for about four years and was a modest hit. Second banana Christine Baranski deservedly won an Emmy for her role. Needless to say Ms. Shepherd was not pleased. But that’s another Hollywood bad-behavior story for a later day.

CBS thought it would be a hoot to do a crossover teaser to promote both series. Usually when that happens it’s two shows from the same production team. Such was not the case here. We were Paramount and since CYBILL starred an actress who was a nightmare it of course was produced by Carsey-Werner (right alongside ROSEANNE and GRACE UNDER FIRE).

So a number of issues had to be settled. What exactly was the scene? Which staff was going to write it? Would it be filmed on our stage or theirs? Would it air on our show or theirs?

Nancy, as always, was agreeable to anything. Ms. Shepherd insisted her team write it, it be filmed on her set, and aired on her show. Otherwise she would refuse to do it. Always the team player. We went along with it, just relieved that she didn’t also insist on singing.

Fortunately, I was (and still am) good friends with the CYBILL showrunner, Howard Gould. Together we conceived the idea. Cybill’s actress character would be coming to Nancy’s producer character to audition for her show. Yes, it made sense then that the scene be shot on our soundstage since that’s where Nancy’s office was Ms. Shepherd could give a rat’s ass about that so we shot it at her place.

I was happy to let Howard write the scene. He’s terrific. I wish he could have written whole episodes of our show. When finished, our team polished Nancy’s dialogue a little and sent it back. Ms. Shepherd read it and insisted on more jokes…for herself. After two or three drafts everyone (meaning her) was happy.

Next question: When to film this? They were on a different shooting schedule than we were. Guess who had to change their whole weekly routine to accommodate whom.

The actual filming took forever because Ms. Shepherd had to be backlit in every shot. Nancy was not to be backlit at all. And I can’t say for certain because I wasn’t there, but I think Ms. Shepherd required cue cards.

All of this over a four minute scene that ran once.

One final thought:

Howard Gould has since written a hilarious play about a Cybill Shepherd-type character called DIVA. If it’s ever staged in your neighborhood see it. If you want to read it (and trust me, it’s brilliant) it’s available through Samuel French.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Florida for Spring Training. Talk to you tomorrow from Ft. Myers.

51 comments:

blogward said...

Miiaaaoow!!

D. McEwan said...

I saw DIVA when it was staged at the Pasadena Playhouse. Very funny. Of course, Gould included a one-page essay in the program about how the character played by Annie Potts was NOT Cybill Shepherd, which had the primary effect of cluing in the elderly Pasadena playgoers who didn't know to the fact that Annie was playing Cybill. For many of them, a second essay would be needed to explain who this Cybill Shepherd person that Annie Potts was not playing was.

And David Lee payed for the set!

pat reeder said...

As the official chronicler of bad celebrity singers, allow me to show you why Ken was relieved that Cybill didn't demand to sing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTD-jPmimSg

Bitter Animator said...

I find Cybill to be incredibly sexy. That counts for a lot in my books.

l.a.guy said...

Great story Ken.

Carsey-Werner really earned their money on those series. I had a couple of first hand experiences with Roseanne back then and she was about the biggest pain in the ass I've ever been around. (Ironically crazy man Tom Arnold was about the only one who seemed to be keep her reasonably in check.) I remember working on a show for Amnesty International and although Roseanne was suppose to appear at the end of the show she didn't want to stick around that long so they had to reorder the entire show in order to accommodate her so she could do her bit and leave. Even then they had to coax her to the stage to do her little 2 minute speech. Another real team player.

"I find Cybill to be incredibly sexy. That counts for a lot in my books."

Trust me, sexy wears thin in a hurry when these people become the bane of your existence. When you have to show up the next day two hours early for rehearsal (after a 14 hour day) because Whitney Houston couldn't get her shit together, no amount of beauty or talent will make up for that. (I'm speaking hypothetically of course :-)

Anonymous said...

The truth is that Christine Baranski was the real star of that show. She was awesome. Cybil could have been replaced by any reasonably good looking 40-something actress. Baranski was gold.

VP81955 said...

Great story, Ken. From the stories I've heard about Cybill over the years, I understand at times she can be Godzilla in pantyhose.

BTW, have a great time watching the Twins in Ft. Myers. (Oh -- you're in to check out the other team that trains there...)

Nathan said...

I just did a movie with Howard and I'll be happy to attest to the fact that he's a class act. Funny, smart, not full of himself. He's the first director in about 10 years that made me want the movie to succeed just because I wanted him to do well.

And Alicia Witt was the only thing keeping me interested on that show. I'm shallow and easily distracted.

Anonymous said...

How can you tell Cybill is sexy since every camera shot of her looks like it was shot through burlap?

John said...

Monty Python did a great audio skit called "Be a Great Actor", where the home listener was invited to learn how to act by emoting along with the recorded play at designated spots, portraying the character Montague.

Of course, the very first thing out of the other character's mouth at the start of the play is Montague has been murdered, leading the narrator to quickly note that the character apparently doesn't have any lines in this production.

I'm sure if Gould could have worked it out -- i.e. gotten away with it -- he would have paid you to write a similar part as Montague's for Ms. Shepherd to play in the crossover episode.

Nat G said...

As someone who enjoyed Cybill's works at times (much to be said for Moonlighting), I was watching the Cybill series (also much to be said for Baranski, Witt, and Rosenberg). And I'd heard reports of her being a line hog, but paid it no mind... until one episode where, in response to some situation, Cybill's character said "I bet Maryanne (or whatever Baranski's character name) would say (something Baranski's character might say)"... and Maryanne was in the scene. Right there.

I could only assume that when asked to transfer the good line to the star, the writers decided to purposely do it in the most obvious way, to let the world know what was going on...

Dan Coyle said...

"Nancy was not be backlit at all."

Sheesh, what a jerk Shepard is. I don't know why, but that's the part of the story that burns my bacon the most.

D. McEwan said...

A close writer friend of mine who shall be nameless (But you've met her, Ken) wrote for THE NANNY for 5 years. Fran Dresher was another one who demanded that any line or bit of business that got a laugh be given to her.

Writer: "But Fran. That line is ABOUT your character. It would be grossly out-of-character for you to say it, and it would require rejigging the whole scene to try and contrive for you to do that bit of business."

Fran (From behind the dead eyes of a shark): "And your point it?"

The other actors often had to take the approach of blowing the timing on lines or bits of comic business at run-throughs and rehearsals, so a line or a bit would look lame, and Fran wouldn't demand it. However, when they did it right at the shooting, if it got a big laugh: DEAD HALT, let the audience sit there while the scene is rewritten for laugh bit to be rewritten into a bit for Fran.

DIVA is written backwards, which is to say the first scene is the last scene, each subsequent scene takes place before the one ahead of it, and the last scene is the first, like Pinter's BETRAYAL. It is, at times, every bit as confusing as a Pinter play, but it's Pinter with punch lines.

D. McEwan said...

Of course, that's supposed to say:

Fran (From behind the dead eyes of a shark): "And your point is?"

My eyes and keypad aim aren't what they used to be.

jbryant said...

A buddy of mine was co-writer/producer on the penultimate episode of "Riptide," which combined a clip show with a parody of "Moonlighting," the series that had killed them in the ratings. The episode was called "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em."

In the parody, the Cybill Shepherd character is always shot through a high filter, an even more exaggerated effect than "Moonlighting's" soft focus, one of many funny touches in a script that manages to be simultaneously scathing and affectionate. Supposedly, the "Moonlighting" staff saw the episode and got a kick out of it, but I'm guessing Cybill didn't see the humor.

charity said...

what the HECK - talk about your psychic connection!!!???!!!!...only day before yesterday i brought up the Nancy Travis sitcom, though couldn't recall its title.

okay, ken, correct me if i am wrong (and it could be likely) - didn't Nancy, early on in the sitcom, have a scene where she is in a hotel room or a bedroom and the person next door has the TV on LOUDLY to CNN's Headline News?

and as the night progresses and Nancy continues to hear the same headlines over and over and over she goes absolutely ballistic and yells out "IT'S HEADLINE NEWS!" alluding to the fact that the same stories will be repeated endlessly?

pretty funny scene - and i brought it up day before yesterday because we had headline news on for about a half hour too long and i asked the person in the room with me to please turn the channel due to the repetitiveness - and i then brought up the Nancy Travis episode which i thought was hilarious....and then.....and then....

you column. freaky.

of course, you'll probably tell me that wasn't Nancy's show so my feeble brain will now wonder, which show was it???

and btw, i don't think Nancy Travis has ever turned in a bad performance. nice to know she is a pleasure to work with on a set.

Tim W. said...

This may be an incredibly naive question, but if she's such a pain in the ass, why does she continue to get hired? She was on the L-Word recently, from what I gather. It's not as if she's that big a name, anymore.

Dan Coyle said...

The thing I remember most fondly about Almost Perfect were the guys in the writing room, particualry Dave Clennon and Chip Zien, two very underappreciated actors.

Alto2 said...

Hey, you should have told me you were coming to SW Florida!! I could have given you great restaurants to try because I live nearby. We're spending every weekend in March traveling to different ballparks to see Spring Training. It's great fun.

Enjoy Lee County, the county with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

A. Buck Short said...

I get to rub shoulders (or anything) with fabulous babes so infrequently, I need to sieze this opportunity to share.

Not that it should matter, but I enjoyed this, as well as hearing nice things about working with writers. Have absolutely no doubt these Shepherd sagas are 100% true, and many should have resulted in either cybill or criminal lawsuits (sorry, I ned the setup). However, in summation for the defense, I remember a conversation quite a few years ago with Cybill Shepherd in Bel Air during a reception at the home of somebody I think you wrote with on Mash and Randall. She could not have been nicer.

This is a recurring experience with people who have a reputation for being “difficult” or even terrifying to others. God knows, as you've no doubt surmised, I give them enough reason to be viewed as intolerable. I have never been able to determine whether this has been because I just don’t matter and therefore pose no obstacle, or that they can see in my eyes that if even looked at crosswise I’d shrivel up into a pathetic, terrified whimpering heap – and who wants that? Trust me, she was thin and beautiful, no burlap involved, and, yes I’d still do ‘er. In fact, just this morning………… now onto, yes, that’s it, Morgan Fairchild.

The fact that so many really talented people are a pleasure to work with provides even less justification for the selfishness. Yet, at the same time, I’ve heard from so many of even those people how important it is to be tough, stand your ground, and fight for everything in Hollywood that the behavior does not seem to come out of thin air. A lot probably out of insecurity? In Cybill’s case, maybe out of the trauma-evolved 13 personalities – oh wait, that’s spelled differently. But having all those celluloid ups and downs can make one a little paranoid too I’m guessing.

Also fully concur about Christine Baranski. I remember a conversation over drinks with a friend of hers, who, trust me on this, had every right to feel uncomfortable visiting her on Cybill. For some reason I said I thought Baranski reminded me a lot of Rita Rudner. Being an admirer of the latter, I had no idea this would not necessarily be taken as a compliment. I was encouraged to take another look, and did determine CB seemed to be a step up if you include things like talent and versatility. Timing I think maybe a draw. Versatility in timing goes to Baranski.

Marc Mason said...

I have fond memories of ALMOST PERFECT, as it stood out as a cleverly written show. And as noted, it allowed the whole cast to be funny, not just the star. That always appeals to me.

Jon J said...

Shepherd probably felt entitled since noone in Memphis ever told her to shut the hell up.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of 'Almost Perfect', I imagine it got no international play.

Cybill Shepherd is on The L Word, so that should earn her some points with Ken.. As to why they'd hire her, I bet she's a pretty big draw as a middle-aged butch lesbian, especially if she's such a bitch..

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DodgerGirl said...

Years ago I worked at an answering service that handled Cybill Shepherd. She was a royal PITA. Still, she wasn't as bad as my personal nemesis, Lesley Anne Warren. *shudder*

ajmilner said...

Nancy Travis was wonderful on DUCKMAN, which is lonnnnng overdue for a DVD release.

Doug Walsh said...

Hate to bust your bubble, Ken, but I asked my wife and several of our friends tonight at dinner -- we're all thirty-somethings -- and nobody had ever heard of ALMOST PERFECT.

I think you're going to have to bump that decimal place to the right 4 or 5 places. Or 6.

Cool story anyway, even if it was about Cybill.

mp said...

Whoa, this is a creepy site.

What is this, gangbang strong women?

Ken, there are abundant men in this biz who are "nightmares" but they are called strong, successful, and are admired. Note: there's not even a male equivalent for the disparaging term "diva."

Believe me, I know whereof I speak. I work with the A-list.

Women must be strong personalities to break through the glass ceiling, and to endure the relentless criticism and ad hominem attacks. It's tough enough to succeed under the best of circumstances in this biz.

Look at the dearth of female showrunners or "empires." The few powerhouses who break through are ripped apart for being too demanding, i.e. Streisand, Madonna, Martha Stewart, Rosie O' Donnell, Barbara Walters, Shonda Rimes.

Sorry boys if not all women meekly stay in their place

It took a Roseanne to make one of the most successful sitcoms in history. Roseanne was called a lot of things because she was commanding, opinionated and decisive. She was also right in her creative decisions. If she were a man, she'd be celebrated not denigrated.

PLENTY of men are demanding and horible line hogs, why don't you denigrate them?

Geez, the sexism on this board is pathetic. You boys are so insecure you need your women meek, unassuming, with mediocre talents that could never threaten your own.

Nancy Travis may suit your comfort zone because she "stays in her place" - sweet, unassuming, with a mediocre career at best

The Crutnacker said...

Whoa, MP, when did you find time in the middle of your Ohio and Texas campaigning to post this message?

There are at least two great sitcoms with women playing a major role in the writing and running, the Office (Jen Celotta) and 30 Rock (Tina Fey).

As for me, there is a long list of talented actors and not so talented celebrities who are considered pains in the ass. An asshole is an asshole and a bitch is a bitch. Neither one represent being strong.

jbryant said...

mp: I dunno, Cybill was part of the thread topic, and horror stories about her diva behavior naturally led to anecdotes about other divas. I'm sure you're right that women catch the brunt of this kind of thing and that there are plenty of male "divas" equally deserving of scorn. But I'm not sure I follow the logic: some male star being an a'hole gives a female star carte blanche to be one too? Wouldn't these people likely be jerks even if they'd stayed in Podunk and become cashiers or construction workers?

And I believe there's a wide spectrum between "meek, unassuming" and "bitch on wheels."

Anonymous said...

"In the parody, the Cybill Shepherd character is always shot through a high filter, an even more exaggerated effect than "Moonlighting's" soft focus, one of many funny touches in a script that manages to be simultaneously scathing and affectionate. Supposedly, the "Moonlighting" staff saw the episode and got a kick out of it, but I'm guessing Cybill didn't see the humor."

Well, Cybill herself did a parody of the filter thing on MOONLIGHTING, here's the clip:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=KOTd5Ajd2Sk

Anonymous said...

MP: You have repeated one of the most popular false assertions in the history of feminism. I've worked with some demanding, egotistical male line hogs, and I can't recall anyone who actually respected or admired them for their rotten, selfish behavior. As for there being no male equivalent to the term "diva," I've found that both "bastard" and "a--hole" appear to be quite popular.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Thanks for the tip about the play, Ken!

Almost Perfect did get international play. We got it in Holland, burnt off by the idiot programmers somewhere during the daytime, because it wasn't a hit in the US. We even got the unaired episodes you guys had to miss. But by then the series had been crippled by network interference, although it was nice to see Phoef Sutton play a director (I think).

Nancy Travis was great in it as she is in everything. Except maybe that lawyer comedy she did a few years ago. She's back in form now in the Bill Engvald Show, though it misses the oumpf Almost Perfect (and Becker) gave her by making her character more than a housewive.

Roseanne was funny. Cybill Shepard wanted to be funny. There's a difference.

Brent McKee said...

I remember watching Cybill. At first I watched it because of Cybill Shepherd but that died off pretty quickly when I discovered Alicia Witt, Dedee Pfeiffer (who were both sexier than Cybil) and Christine Baranski (who was a far better actress). Oh yeah, and Alan Rosenberg wasn't half bad in it either.

Anonymous said...

mp: welcome to the internet.

Tom Dougherty said...

Nancy Travis didn't need to be backlit. She's gorgeous, very likable and an always welcome presence on television in my opinion. I'd love to see her in another sitcom, or anything else for that matter.

Cybill Shepherd was already being shot through gauze, vaseline and bulky wool blankets by the time Moonlighting was wrapping up. That, and the fact that she always seems to be reading her lines for the first time makes her a particularly unwelcome sight to sore eyes.

jbryant said...

anonymous said: "Well, Cybill herself did a parody of the filter thing on MOONLIGHTING, here's the clip:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=KOTd5Ajd2Sk"

Cool. I notice that episode was a modified clip show, too. Wonder if the Riptide episode (which aired about 9 months earlier) inspired them in any way? Nice to know Cybill had a sense of humor about it.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Roseanne nauseates me. She stole her standup act from Phyllis Diller, which is why it was amusing, then made a public spectacle of herself at every opportunity to stay in the public eye. She's probably the blueprint for every pathetic publicity hound out there. As for the show, it sucked eggs.

Adam Rakunas said...

I remember watching "Almost Perfect" and thought it was funny as hell. Any show that ends its run with a pie fight is a winner.

D. McEwan said...

I have a trio of friends who worked on ROSEANNE for several years, two of them went on to write for her talk-show also, so they found it worth their while to put up with her for her talent.

That said, I attended the taping of EDNA TIME, a 1993 pilot Dame Edna did for FOX, with Tom & Rosanne among the guests.

Although the finale was to be Edna and Roseanne dueting YOU AIN'T WOMAN ENOUGH TO TAKE MY MAN over Tom Arnold. (Ah, that was sweet music indeed.), Tom and Roseanne didn't want to hang around for the whole shoot. They're stars. So they shot their interview, shot the finale out of order, and left. During the interview they had discussed the loose meat restaurant they were building back east, and they discussed their fertility treatments, trying to have a baby, with much discussion of Tom's sperm count.

After they had left, during a commercial break and reset, Dame Edna told only the audience (They never shot this line): "I don't think I'd want to eat at a restaurant run by a man so obsessed with his sperm. I certainly wouldn't trust the bouillabaisse."

Barry Humphries just threw that line away to us. It was the funniest line all night.

Jack Ruttan said...

I guess you can tell funny Shatner, Marlon Brando or Orson Welles stories as an antidote, or for equal opportunity ego-puncturing.

Is there anywhere I can read good Orson Welles stories? Or was he a nice guy? Frank Sinatra stories sound just depressing.

jbryant said...

cap'n bob: Gotta disagree about the Roseanne show, which was brilliant when it stuck to its original concept. The guy who created it, Matt Williams, grew up near my hometown, and a lot of those characters and stories felt real to me. He left pretty early on, but the show continued to be strong, off and on, primarily faltering when it went off on on weird tangents (e.g., that whole lottery win plotline).

Davidin PS said...

Two things. Well, three. Or four.

The character in DIVA was a combo of stories from the trio of nightmares that had recently had series--Cybill, Roseanne, and Brett Butler. Howard and I played a game during rehearsals--If something went well, he'd tell me which actor actually committed one of the outrageous behaviors.

I directed the play at Pasadena. I don't recall paying for the sets.

True story: I got a call from Cybill's manager one day. She wanted to DO THE ROLE!!!!

I broke the news to Howard and we stared at each other for a second thinking about the strange space time continuum warp of that piece of casting--then said "Are you kidding? We're doing a play based on a woman who is a nightmare to work with, and we are supposed to consider working with her?"

Annie Potts played the role. She was brilliant, funny, firm, assertive, uncompromising, professional and in no way whatsoever a bitch.

It can be done.

Len Dreary said...

A. Buck Short said 'Baranski reminded me a lot of Rita Rudner'.
Surely this is simply a matter of dentistry? Both (as well as being seriously funny) have distinctive overbites.

Dhppy said...

I've always been a David Clennon and Lisa Edelstein fan. I was happy to see them in Almost Perfect.

MP, I definitely agree that there is generally a much lower tolerance for demanding women than men. When David O Russell was outed for his antics, the response seemed to be more along the lines of "how dare this video get out?" rather than "where does he get off calling Lily Tomlin a c@*t?" Still, all jackasses deserve to be called on their crap, and today it's Cybill's turn.

Anonymous said...

Ken: "Quick refresher for the .000006% who never heard of ALMOST PERFECT or don’t remember it –"

When I first read this, I thought Ken had simply messed up with his figures and had really meant to write something self-deprecating (as in "for the half-dozen people who DO remember this show"). I mean, his line as written applies to something like M*A*S*H or CHEERS, but ALMOST PERFECT? The show barely lasted into that second season, getting canceled just four more episodes, right? Even if, as Ken tells us, Les Moonves calls it “the best show he ever canceled,” I doubt the general public was that invested. And, while Nancy Travis is an attractive and appealing actress, isn’t it going overboard to call her a "comedy goddess"? She's had an okay career, but no one’s ever going to mistake her for Carol Burnett.

As for Cybill Shepherd, while I don’t doubt the stories about her often egocentric behavior, in all fairness one thing should be remembered when talking about which show was going to take the lead in handling the crossover, and that's that CYBILL was the already established show. It had been a mid-season replacement and did well enough that first half-year to have won Christine Baranski an Emmy that fall (with Cybill herself getting a nomination). When it came to doing the crossover, wouldn’t most people look at it as the established show doing the new one a favor?

John Pearley Huffman said...

MP,

What does Nancy Travis have to do to have something other than a "mediocre career at best?"

She's had a wonderful career that pales only in the light of sustained superstardom. She's been a working actress for over 20 years with a lot of notably good performances.

Since when did "strength" in anyone -- male or female -- become something that's mutually exclusive from being unassuming? Being a raging jackass isn't the same as being strong. Being sweet-natured isn't the same as being weak. Being cooperative and a team player isn't the same as being mediocre.

Forget TV production, there's something to be said for being a reasonable person in life.

D. McEwan said...

"I directed the play at Pasadena. I don't recall paying for the sets."

I'm sorry David. My informant was the former facilities manager at PP, Mike Leineinger. (A friend of more than 40 years, and who gave me my free tickets to DIVA.) Mike is always saying what a saint he thinks you are, and I recalled him saying how a particular show they staged only had a set because you paid for it, but I must have gotten confused in memory over which production he referred to.

Kenji said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kenji said...

It's interesting that mp feels it necessary to shit on another female performer in order to make her point. (Don't know what this means, but it means something.)

Anyway, if Nancy Travis hasn't had a better career, is that also the fault of the fellas who seem to think she's great?

Anonymous said...

"Nancy was not be backlit at all."


I assume that means because she's lovely in all kinds of light and doesn't need movie star trick lighting.