Earl Pomerantz, in his wonderful blog, wrote a recent post describing his “All-time favorite job”. A few readers of both his site and mine have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.
For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.
We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.
We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)
It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.
Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.
Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.
Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).
Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.
So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.
We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)
Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.
This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.
To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.
We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.
And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.
The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.
Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.
But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.