Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sitcom retrospectives

It’s Friday question day. What’s yours?

Damian J. Thomas wants to know:

Why do TV series waste my time with retrospective episodes? Some episodes simply show parts of the same stuff I’ve already seen. Was someone, such as the head writer, on vacation that week?

Retrospectives are a cheap way to fill out a season’s worth of shows. They generally do well in the ratings. And networks promote the crap out of them.

One of the most horrifying experiences in my life involves a retrospective. I was taking an MRI (already a heart pounding endeavor). Mirrors were set up in the tube that allowed patients to watch a television. So there I was, claustrophobic, not allowed to move even an inch, for 45 minutes, forced to watch the NANNY retrospective.

Years ago I pitched a sitcom pilot to NBC. When it was time for questions one network whiz asked (in a straight face yet): “What’s the first episode of season seven?” I picked my jaw off the floor and said, “The clip show featuring all the classic moments from the first six years.” I wanted to add but didn’t: “What the fuck do you think is the first show of season seven? How the fuck would I know that? Are you insane?” They didn’t buy the show.

Retrospectives are great for writers. They get royalties for any clips used from their episodes. My partner and I cleaned up on MASH and CHEERS. I think on CHEERS they used something like 25 of our episodes. After that, anytime in the writing room we were stuck on a story at CHEERS I would say, “Let’s just scrap this and do another clip show!”

We were there during the MASH retrospective and although it was cheap to produce it required five times the effort on our part to put it together. For a month every night after we finished our writing we drove to a production house in Hollywood and screened episodes until midnight or 1 AM. Then came the impossible task of culling seven years of great highlights into one expanded episode.

An additional problem is determining the format for the clips. There is the wraparound approach. This can be real dicey. I remember one series got around this problem by having their characters being robbed. While tied up together in the kitchen, to pass the time (as all bound families do) they started reminiscing. “Hey, remember the time you wrecked the car?” And then they’d show the clip. Smooooth.

Nowadays shows tend to steer away from that artful device. On CHEERS we took the cast out of character and put them on a panel. They answered a moderator’s questions and we used the clips to support those answers. Other shows use just strictly clips tied together by graphics or voice-overs.

One trend I’m noticing lately – these retrospectives are appearing sooner and sooner. It used to be you wouldn’t even think of doing a clip show before 100 episodes. Now it’s getting to where the clip show comes as a celebration of getting picked up for the back nine.

Someday I’ll have to put together a clip show of this blog. Various sentences from different posts. Wait a minute. I could say I’m doing that right NOW. Yes, welcome to my retrospective post.

24 comments:

Dan said...

The 200th episode of Cheers with John McLaughlin was great. A clip show packaged with a cast retrospective. No convoluted premise to rely on. I still have that on VHS somewhere. Wish they put that on the DVD. That and the alcohol induced Tonight Show after the finale.

The two Seinfeld ones were good. Jerry just breaks the forth wall and basically says hey, it's the clip show.

A. Buck Short said...

Well I just busted my humpback with a late, extended dissertation on whale penises no one will ever read in response to your immediately previous “Globally warm pie” blog offering, because the comment didn’t get posted until Friday Question Day had already opened for business. So the best question I can come up with is:

In one of those wonderful Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern – “we were punked before punking was cool” – episodes you and David wrote, did somebody actually have to calculate how many sheep were needed to fill the Cheers backroom office? Or did you know you could get away with whatever would be sufficient for the camera angle? And was Wade Boggs flown out specially to be in that, or was the taping scheduled for a time he had to be out there anyway to play Anaheim or somebody?

ryanpaige said...

Speaking of clip shows, I enjoyed that the Clerks cartoon did a clip show as their second episode of the series (granted, you had to wait for the DVD set to know that, but it was still a good gag).

D. McEwan said...

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW managed to make a memorable episode out of a clip show, with the wrap-around, Mary and her guests trapped in the dark episode, where they "remembered" all of Mary's lousy parties, and then Johnny Carson dropped in and no one could see him.

You'll be pleased to know that President Obama has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Nanny clip-show incident as a Peace Crime, as it legally constitutes torture, or at least "Enhanced MRI".

Nat G said...

Maniac Mansion made their very first episode their 10th Anniversary Clip Show. Seemed smart to get it out of the ay.

James said...

For a few years it seemed as though Stargate SG-1 had a clip show every year. This is especially annoying when watching the show on DVD and your being reminded of all those things you've seen not over the past 7 years, but over the past 7 days. But at least they managed to come up with a unique premise every year with classics such as:

- There's a new president. He must be briefed about the Stargate.
- Oh No! The chinese found out about the Stargate. They must be briefed.
- We need more funds for the Stargate program. This calls for a briefing.

YEKIMI said...

TO: A. Buck Short.
ref: previous post.

Wow, all these years of being called a dork.....I was being complimented?

in case you missed it said...

A. Buck Short said...

"What if your penis itself weighs 240 pounds??? What then?"
"Then I'd probably be a Sperm whale.
Well there you go, apparently it is possible to be both fat and small boned. Mopy Dick. I know it’s a little late to start apologizing for the length of an only marginally-related commentary, but it’s so infrequent that I am provided with a setup to free-associate on a subject of genuine expertise, marine biology.

Not that anyone asked, but, for example, did you know the formal name for a whale penis is dork? I am not making this up – just Google "dork, whale penis." (Caution, you must Google all 3 words." Due to the hyper-presence of individuals in the field of information technology embracing the sobriquet dork, the word alone would yield too many false positives.) Unclear if dork is descriptive, a formal designation, or simply just another one of those pet names so many of us are want to christen our own peni? Or in extremely rare cases, someone elses's; but I’d rather not go there. We’ll check with the boys and the twins and get back to you on that. and the twins, and get back to you on that.

Awhile ago, Animal Planet did refer to the 5’6" penis of a Gray Whale as a dork. In doing so, they failed to specify whether 5’6" was the average size for a Gray Whale penis, or the largest dork ever recorded by Guinness. Either way, the question is probably moot until somebody succeeds in catching a Black Whale.

The one thing we all do know is that like Ken Levine, all whales are mammals. Because we are informed so in every single TV news story that has ever been done about a whale. Can you think of a single other vertebrate identified with this frequency of specificity by class? I understand Strunk and White’s broadcast style book actually mandates the mammalian designation, especially if one has already employed the actual word "whale" earlier in the piece. The mandatory second reference being "the huge mammal."

The learned among you must also know that, being mammals, all whales are required to mate completely out of the water. This is obviously no easy task, even consulting an extremely large copy of the Kama Sutra. Being so plus-sized and all, both participants obviously require a really good running start. The Fe-whale starting out somewhere around Cabo San Lucas. The He-whales generally congregate off Greenland -- or the older ones, at fern bars. Swimming toward each other with a good head of steam, the Fe-whale is frequently accompanied by a friend with a great personality.

To be honest, the Fe-whale doesn’t even feel like sex until she rounds Cape Horn. (What, you thought it was named after the shape of the continent down there?) In contrast the He-whale always wants sex. "Listen, they’re playing our whale song. Or is that Kenny G?”

The pair swim faster and faster until they collide somewhere off the coast of Argentina with such enormous force both are propelled completely out of the ocean, fuse momentarily in passion, then plunge backward in one of those slow motion sequences that indicates nobody really got hurt.

“That’s it? Some leviathan you are,” she says. “You call that a surge? Even for Bush it would be only a phased withdrawal. Ten thousand miles for this? And he calls himself a lover!" The He-whale complains, “I needed this like a hole in the head,” then goes out for pizza with two toppings -- plankton and krill. So the Fe-whale is reduced to text messaging her friend Marge, blubbering something about "& no X-it strat-e-G Ethr."

Pretty certain you can actually see all this at Sea World from the VIP section, but there’s a cover and two drink minimum. We should qualify this. There’s no right way for whales to get busy -- unless, of course you happen to be a Right Whale. For example at the Israeli Sea World, Schlomu, the killer whale – incidentally boasting the world’s only circumcised dork -- must also frequently provide jewelry – and even then still has to beg for it

One parting observation. Size isn’t everything. When it comes to gift-giving, the whale does not have the world’s most popular penis. That singular honor belongs to the walrus. If you’ve ever been to Alaska, you know that the petrified penis of a walrus –- known as an oosik -- can reach up to 3 feet in length and remains one of the state’s more coveted souvenirs and gift items. No, I am not making this up either; Google that word too. Rumor has it the name oosik may be related to the embarrassing sound made when neither walrus employs sufficient lubricant. Either way, in PalinWorld they treasure these suckers like Faberge eggs.

So you are now asking yourself, being at least two feet shorter than a whale’s, how did the petrified walrus penis come to be the world’s most popular? The short answer is better agent. The more probable one is location, location, location. A petrified walrus penis can be harvested relatively easily on land -- at least from a dead walrus. Wouldn't want to try that with a live one – again. In contrast, for a whale’s, you need a huge boat -- like Oracle’s Larry Ellison or Microsoft’s Paul Allen – a pair of real world class dorks. A boat they just know is bigger than anybody else’s. A boat that stands for something – and by now I think we all know what it stands for. Whatever turns you on.

4/23/2009 9:32 PM

DrBear said...

Can we have a clip show of that last comment?

growingupartists said...

I just want to know what you had for breakfast, and did you throw up afterwards.

Anonymous said...

how do we pose a friday question to you - by leaving it in the comment to a friday blog or do we need to email it?!

Scott said...

Survivor does a clip show to begin each episode!

But retrospectives are like greatest hits albums.
Nowadays, a greatest hits package is strewn together after 2 albums (isn't that right Hillary Duff?).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering my question.
Damian

blogward said...

Charlie Brooker's excellent 'Newswipe' (see BBC iplayer) has done a clip show after four episdodes (out of five).

WV: hearbi = ebonics legalese.

Tom Parker said...

I'm wondering if "Parks & Recreation" can (or even should) be saved. The first two episodes left me so cold I canceled the season pass on my pvr.

Even the pilot was weak. How did this get the greenlight?

Anonymous said...

I agree, re Parks & Recreation. That's yet another single camera show I watch a minute of before thinking to myself, "I could never write for this show." It leaves me ice cold. "Quirky" has definitely jumped the shark.

smallville91505 said...

What was the last sitcom to do a clip show? Friends?

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

That was fascinating and hilarious, A. Buck Short. All this talk remind me of the Mae West line when a man tells her he's six feet, eight inches. "Never mind the six feet, let's talk about the eight inches."

playfull said...

Clip shows...

Where more is less...

Blaze said...

In my brief career in the Business (of course, when I say "the Business", I mean "the Industry"), the clip show we created was for budgetary concerns. Episode after episode was pushing the allotted budget further off the road. The clip show was supposed to regain financial equilibrium, since it would require less new material of any sort.

In the end, the writers were not as clever as their peers (as mentioned above) thru history. The episode ended up being two-thirds new material and the clips were more annoying intrusive than anything.

The Kenosha Kid said...

Remember when...

The 200th episode of Cheers with John McLaughlin was great.

Heh. Indeed.

Well I just busted my humpback with a late, extended dissertation on whale penises no one will ever read

Good times, good times..

enjoyed that the Clerks cartoon did a clip show as their second episode of the series

You said a mouthful! Oh, here comes the super to let us out of the basement...

Anonymous said...

Or how about a crazy wedding?
Where something happens, a-do-do-do-do-do.

Sorry for the clip show
Have no fears, we've got story for years!

Dana Gabbard said...

Tom Parker asked in re "Parks & Recreation": How did this get the greenlight?

The promos answered that: "From the Producers of 'The Office'".

Anonymous asked how to pose a Friday question--either via a blog posting or e-mail it to Ken (his profile has the address).

Splenda said...

When I was reading the Wikipedia article about Hill Street Blues, I saw this line: "In a 1991 interview on Later with Bob Costas, Ken Olin explained that these characters were removed so that the new showrunners could add characters for which they would receive royalties."

How does adding new characters add to the royalties? And how often do showrunners add new characters to pad their wallet?