Friday, June 04, 2010

A great practical joke on CBS

Thanks for all your Friday questions. I’ll try to answer as many as I can. Keep ‘em coming.

MikeN gets us started.

How much influence do the networks have on your plots?

A lot more now than they used to. Networks now insist you clear all story ideas with them. Then you have to clear the story outlines with them.

It used to be you’d meet with the network the beginning of the season, run down the direction you were going in and that was pretty much it.

On MASH we were only required to write up loglines (a sentence or two). Often we would fall seven or eight shows behind. John Rappaport, one of the MASH producers, pulled a classic stunt on CBS. The series TRAPPER JOHN M.D. was about to premiere that fall on CBS. Among the loglines John submitted was “Hawkeye is devastated to learn that his buddy Trapper John has died back in the states.”

John gets a frantic call from the network. “You can’t do that!” they pleaded. “We have a show starring Trapper John.” Rapppaport shrugged and said, “That’s not our problem.”

The network insisted they drop the story. John said, “It’s too late. We already filmed it.” The network rep was absolutely apoplectic until John told him it was a goof.

But the short answer to your question is that networks now pretty much control the stories… unless you’re a proven hit showrunner.

Dave Creek asks:

I haven't seen you mention Lucille Ball much here. How much of an influence were her sitcoms an influence on you?

Well, first of all, the only Lucy sitcom I bother with at all is I LOVE LUCY. All the later ones I thought were awful and forced.

There are some classic I LOVE LUCY episodes I could watch a thousand times and still laugh. Actually, there probably are a few episodes I HAVE seen a thousand times. She was an amazing physical comedienne. No one since has even come close.

But for the most part I was never as enamored with I LOVE LUCY as I was with BILKO, THE HONEYMOONERS, and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I thought the writing and characters were sharper and funnier on those three shows.

So I guess you could say, “I LIKE Lucy”.

From Ron Rettig, one of the finest officers I had to pleasure of serving with while in the Reserves:

Why no BluRay reissue of remastered "Volunteers" with making of and writer & director interviews, etc.?

Yeah! I agree! The movie was made for Tri-Star Pictures (which no longer exists) and HBO Films (which in that form is gone). So I don’t even know who to complain to. But I would love to see that released. Personally, I think the jokes would play sooo much better in Blu-Ray. We wrote them specifically for Blu-Ray.

I would also LOVE it if the series DVDs of ALMOST PERFECT finally came out. They’re owned now by CBS-Paramount. We made 34 episodes and at the time had quite a following. A lot more people would buy and rent it than BA BA BLACKSHEEP which is out, and the friggin’ DORIS DAY SHOW.

And finally, from Mike Barer:

Who are the top unseen characters? I think of Maris on Frasier, Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda, etc. What is the thinking behind it?

Offscreen characters just broaden the world of the show. And invite the audience to use their imagination.

Besides Maris, and Carlton, there’s also Norm’s wife Vera on CHEERS, the neighbor on HOME IMPROVEMENT, “Thing” on the ADDAMS FAMILY, and way way back in the 50’s Pete’s wife Gladys on DECEMBER BRIDE. CBS later did a spinoff, PETE & GLADYS where she was shown. Harry Morgan played Pete on both series. Cara Williams eventually played Gladys. I’m sure there are other examples. Feel free to help me out.

57 comments:

Greg said...

My top unseen character: the Invisible Man.

I will hang up and listen for my groan.

Neil said...

I'm glad you mentioned Bilko. That show is often overlooked. Not that it's all that important but Phil Silvers isn't even in the Emmy Academy Hall of Fame, I believe.

Jim 7 said...

Buddy's wife Pickles Sorrel on the Dick Van Dyke show. Wikipedia tells me that she appeared on camera in the first season, but Wikipedia says a lot of things. I never saw her.

Max Clarke said...

Good point about the missing character stimulating imagination. After it became clear we would probably never see Vera, I wondered what she might be like married to a guy like Norm. Or Norm!

They even tantalized viewers with an episode in which Vera got a job working upstairs at Melville's, but we heard Vera and never saw her.

We eventually got to see Vera in that great Thanksgiving food fight episode, but when she was introduced, Diane had tossed a pie in Vera's face.

Brian Phillips said...

Another unseen character was "Moose", Charlotte Rae's (Mrs. Belotti) son in "Hot L Baltimore. He was apparently enormous and always stayed in their room.

Jim 7, Pickles Sorrell, Buddy's ex-showgirl wife did indeed appear on the show, however, she was played by two different actresses, Joan Shawlee and Barbara Perry.

My favorite scene with her is when Buddy complains about her "Boiled Steak with hot water sauce" to Rob and Laura. She replies, unabashedly, "Well, my mother was the worst cook in the neighborhood and she taught me everything she knew."

For some of the time Alan Brady's face wasn't shown, but he was heard, on occasion. This convention was eventually dropped.

Liz said...

Karen's husband, Stan, on "Will & Grace".

MAW said...

Mrs. Columbo (in TOS)

Horsaw: Nevermind, too easy

David said...

And in the UK, Captain Mainwaring's wife Elizabeth in 'Dad's Army' - as fearsome a creature as ever walked this earth...

Glen said...

Jokes written years early in anticipation of BluRay? Now THAT's funny!

DJ said...

Did they ever show Lars, Phyllis's husband on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?

DrBear said...

The Real Killer in the O.J. trial.

Michael said...

I don't remember seeing Lars, but I did remember Pickles. I wonder whether Tim's neighbor on "Home Improvement" counts, since we could see part of him. I also remember rumbling at one point that someone would be cast as Maris, but, ever since the episode with the whippet dog with the fez, I had thought that would be disastrous.

The Alan Brady situation was that they wanted to get a superstar whose voice might be heard just to have fun with the audience, but they couldn't get anybody to go on the show unseen, so Carl Reiner decided to do it. And of course he was tremendous.

Apropos of MASH, anybody remember Captain Tuttle from early on?

Bob Summers said...

I wish cooler heads had prevailed at CBS. They could have leaked that Henry Blake, Trapper's old commanding officer from Korea, was going to be the hospital administrator in the new series.

I would love to see the reactions at M*A*S*H.

Maybe add in that Frank Burns would be making guest appearances.

Bob Summers said...

Ken,

What do you think became of all of those M*A*S*H characters when they got back from Korea? Granted, there is AfterMASH, but what do you think became of Winchester, Hawkeye, BJ, Margaret, etc? DId Igor really go into hog farming? Did Rizzo go on to see Billy Bubba become a great football star at LSU?

Does it seem strange that most, if not all of those characters would be very old or dead now?

Michael said...

The neighbor on Home Improvement did appear at the end of the series. Bearded.

We're all forgetting (maybe because we know what the REAL one looked like) Steinbrenner on Seinfeld.

Anonymous said...

Duffy's Tavern on radio. Duffy was always not here.

Mike said...

Howard's mother on Big Bang Theory.

WV: nostato - like a fingerling, but shaped like a nose.

Matthias said...

"Networks now pretty much control the stories." Does that mean that when we like or don't like the direction a show goes in, we should be crediting or blaming the networks as much as the showrunners? Or do they mostly just exercise veto power?

Also wondering, is the situation any different on cable? It's somehow hard to imagine a network having huge influence over plotlines on a more idiosyncratic show such as, say, "Mad Men."

This is a really interesting question. The M*A*S*H story is very funny, but I'm still curious to hear more details about the present-day situation.

Debby G said...

Charlie from Charlie's Angel's.

Danny said...

What about Charlie?

When I was a kid (10 or so) and he showed up on Dynasty my dad kept quizzing me with "whose voice is that? Don't you know it?" I could recognize the voice but not place it - it drove me nuts until he let me in on who it was.

Then he did the same thing to me with William Daniels on St. Elsewhere.

Good ol' Dad.

Anonymous said...

Not a comedy show, but John Beresford Tipton on
THE MILLIONAIRE, voiced by Paul Frees.

Beresford...mmm...where have I heard that name recently?

Mike said...

Ugly Naked Guy on Friends...

I don't know if he's a "best" unseen character, but he fits the criteria.

And any practical joke that causes me -- somebody who isn't on the receiving end to say aloud "what an asshole" (with a huge grin as well, mind you) is, in my estimation, a good prank.

gjs said...

Mrs. Columbo (later shown in a misguided series of her own as played by the way-too-young-to-be-his-wife Kate Mulgrew.)

in beta said...

For Volunteers, the initial DVD release (back in 2000) appears to be from HBO Home Video. HBO's online store still sells the DVD. So a blu-ray release would likely be done through HBO/Time-Warner.

Napa Valley Hobo said...

My favorite hidden characters :

The guy who made the P.A. announcements on M*A*S*H that wasn't Radar.

I always liked Nina Van Horn's unseen friend Binny on "Just Shoot Me," because doing anything with Binny always set up some crazy story about Nina's party lifestyle.

in beta said...

For unseen characters, this isn't a pure TV one (although there was a Sat morning show and local commercials), Vern from the Ernest series. I never knew if Vern was the cameraman or the viewer or what.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

There were some great Maris scenarios, my favorite involved her stalking Niles, a mysterious woman in a fur coat who ordered a triple caramel white mocha, sniffed it once, and left the café.

I don't like Lucy. Every once in a while she would drop a line in a way that suggests to me she could have been great as a dry, wise-cracking character a generation later. Changing time and changing tastes, but the bug-eyed zaniness feels as forced to me in the original as the later incarnations.

Put me down as one more huge Bilko fan. Amazing that show gets so little syndication play compared to some of the crap that won't die.

benson said...

FYI, for all Bilko fans: Season 1 comes out on July 27th.

Sonny Drysdale said...

Cousin Jeffrey on Seinfeld.

Omnibus Driver said...

William Daniels as the voice of KITT in Knight Rider?

MikeN said...

So was Dubya dictating the plots of Becker? The episodes about how dangerous is smoking and not using condoms come to mind.

Kirk Jusko said...

Also on MASH, Radar was always talking to a Sparky on the radio.

On Happy Days, Jennie Piccolo was unseen until late in the series, after Ron Howard and Donny Most had left the show.

On All in the Family, Archie often mentioned a McNabb who lived down the street, but I believe you ever saw him. That show was also remakably consistent over its long run about Archie and Edith once owning a cat named Arther.

Kirk Jusko said...

I meant to say, I believe you NEVER saw him (McNabb).

daniel in cherry hill said...

Does having proffesional actors in lead and supporting roles (Cheers and Frasier) make it easier to write than a sitcom like Everybody loves Raymond?

wv: cantshan. I can and I shall

Dana Gabbard said...

daniel in cherry hill, most of the smart stand-ups like Ray Romano surrounded themselves with seasoned pros. And like Jack Benny realized what matters is the comedy not who gets the laughs. So your question is pretty moot. Otherwise we are to take it you didn't consider Peter Boyle a professional actor?

Simon H. said...

Kirk: Sparky was shown once on an early episode of M*A*S*H and never again, which I thought was odd since his name was used in so many episodes even right up to the end.

Tim W. said...

Hey, I loved Ba Ba Black Sheep as a kid. I haven't watched it since, so I can't attest to how well it's held up, but it has to have held up better than Dukes of Hazzard.

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

Bob Summers: There was a long series of novels showing the M*A*S*H characters after the war. The first, M*A*S*H GOES TO MAINE, was by Richard Hooker, the author of the novel that started the whole franchise, and it was published in hardcover. The rest (M*A*S*H GOES TO MOSCOW, M*A*S*H GOES TO MONTREAL, ad infinitum) were all paperback originals, and though Hooker was always credited as a co-author, the actual writing had obviously been farmed out.

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

Another character who was originally not seen: In the Sammo Hung/Arsenio Hall series MARTIAL LAW, the heroes spent the whole second year fighting one of those international crime rings with an inexhaustible supply of agents, a la SPECTRE in the James Bond movies. Occasionally the leader turned up to give orders or taunt the heroes. He was then shown only in silhouette, and his voice was provided by Tim Curry. Then, in the final episode, he was without ceremony actually shown--at which point he became Christopher Neame. Well, perhaps he had been electriconically altering his voice in the previous episdoes.

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

"Electriconically."

Those of you who have been providing definitions of the verification words can have fun trying to figure out what I meant by that.

YibbleGuy said...

"Thing" wasn't an "Unseen Character."

Thing was a "What You See Of Him Is All There Is, Which Is What Made Him A 'Thing'" character.

Nina Myers said...

Kramer's friend Bob Sackamano on "Seinfeld."

Tom Quigley said...

Michael said...

"I wonder whether Tim's neighbor on "Home Improvement" counts, since we could see part of him."...

The last season of the show, I was responsible for bringing a small audience into the HI studio every week to watch a midweek rehearsal of the episode to be taped on Friday. The most often asked question I heard was "Will we get to see Wilson's face?" And unfailingly, the late Earl Hyndman always obliged.

Chalmers said...

To bring it all together, when Jenny Piccolo finally did appear, she was played by Cathy Silvers, daughter of Phil.

Cowan said...

On British TV, there was Arthur Daley's wife in "Minder" -- never seen as far as I know, and always referred to as "Her Indoors".

Paul Duca said...

And speaking of British TV, was Mrs. Rumpole of the Bailey ever seen? Or did she simply remain "She Who Must Be Obeyed"?

Tom K Mason said...

@Abie The Fish Peddler

The co-writer (he got shared credit with Richard Hooker) of the MASH novels was William E. Butterworth, better known now as W.E.B. Griffin.

Brian Phillips said...

A few responses: I see what seems to qualify as "Mostly Unseen Characters". Binny from "Just Shoot Me" was largely unseen until an episode that found Finch and Elliot going to Nina's after hearing one too many, "My friend Binny" stories.

To elaborate on "Yibble's" pointm=, Thing from "Addams Family" sitcom, if you compare it to the movie, was seen all the time. For those who do not know (I didn't) Thing was Ted Cassidy's hand, which explains why Lurch was never handed anything by Thing.

"She Who Must Be Obeyed" in the Rumpole series may not have been in the TV show, but she is in the last scene of one of the books, having a traditional English dinner in a posh (I think French) restaurant.

Ugly Naked Guy was seen and not heard in the episode where Ross tries to rent his apartment when he moves.

Bravo to the mention of Duffy of "Duffy's Tavern". Keeping with the radio theme, we can add "Yehoodi", Jerry Colonna's friend from the Bob Hope Show. If you pop over to the UK, the series "Revolting People" about the US just before the American Revolution had one "unheard" character, General Venables.

For those of you who read the above paragraph and sniff that all characters on radio are unseen, I say, "Feh".

The counterpart to "Will and Grace's" Stan is the largely unseen "Dick" from (I apologize for potentially raising our host's hackles) "Cybill", Maryann's ex-husband. I do recall an episode in which she administers electric shocks to him, so you do hear him.

It's not a sitcom, but it was a semi-recurring cartoon series. For the longest time, Charlie Brown longed for the Little Red-Haired Girl and Charles Schulz resisted showing her for the longest time, but she was finally shown and that made the news at the time. Like Charlie never being able to kick the Lucy's football, I sort of wish Schulz hadn't shown her.

To Kirk Jusko: bully about "All in the Family's" McNabb. I seem to recall Archie always calling him "Old Man McNabb".

On a different tack, that is good news about "Sgt. Bilko". If I may don my Paul Harvey guise for a moment, Phil Silvers was starring in "Top Banana" on Broadway. A young starlet asked if she could leave the show, because a TV opportunity arose. Silvers not only let her go, but when she asked what he was going to do to recast her part, he said, "That's my problem and I'll worry about it". In reminiscence, she said of him, "Phil Silvers, one of the biggest [stars] one of the best". It turned out to be a good move, since Audrey Meadows took over the role of Alice on "The Honeymooners". This is from what I recall of Meadows' book, "Love, Alice" . If I have goofed a detail, I apologize, but if I did get it at least partially right, it's nice to know that Phil Silvers was a mensch (at least in this instance).

The downside of "the rest of the story" was that Pert Kelton LOST her job as Alice Kramden because her husband was blacklisted, which makes the unseen character in "The Honeymooners" and many other shows the HUAC.

Kirk Jusko said...

Thought of someone else. On the Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife used to flirt on the telephone to the unseen Juanita, a truck stop waitress. Barney was also dating Betty Lou, who WAS seen. I guess it's a good thing for Barney that Betty Lou apparently didn't see, or hear, or know anything about Juanita.

Joey H said...

Robin Masters on Magnum P.I.

Famous! said...

Some years back, a DJ gal I knew was going to do some promotional thingy involving contact with David Hyde-Pierce, who was at the time doing "Frasier". I told her before the event that if she got the opportunity, she should tell him that if they ever decided to reveal "Maris", she should be played by David's costar/screen wife from "The Powers That Be" (I liked that show!), Valerie Mahaffey. She plays a good "unwrapped"!

Knowing fully well that the last thing professional actors and writers want to hear are "suggestions", I still was interested in what his reaction would be. Turned out to be something along the lines of, "Hmm, that's very interesting. Yes. We'll have to see.." But at least I know my big brainstorm got 5 seconds of air time over lunch in some commissary somewhere ("Some jerk I met..!" j/k)

Stu Pididiot said...

Edna the big-faced girl from Wings! (Antonio was dating her)At least I don't think they ever showed her. I would've hated to be the person responsible for casting that role . . . "Your face is huge . . . you're perfect!"

Stephen said...

Friday question - What does a show-runner do when there are too many regulars on a series? I look at shows like Will & Grace, which had 4 regulars through its entire run, and at shows like Grey's Anatomy, which at last count has 13 regulars. Can even the best writer in your experience serve every actor every week?

Anonymous said...

You know my friend, Bob Sacamano? He came in here for a hernia operation. "Routine surgery" they said... Now he sits around in a chair by the window going "MY NAEM IS BOB! :D"

Phil said...

Friday Question - Ken, given that many television shows end frequently, what do most TV writers do for employment after spending some time on a particular completed show? I know you have one of the best gigs by getting to host Dodger Talk, but what do others have to look forward to?

Samuel said...

Friday Question: Hey Ken, after searching through your site recently, I was unable to find Part 2 of how you and David broke into the TV writing biz. Any plans of an update?

Mike Barer said...

The President on HBO's "Veep"