Friday, February 18, 2011

What's the craziest storyline ever pitched to CHEERS?


First off, happy birthday to my lovely child bride, Debby. This has been a month long celebration but today is the actual day. Many many more, kiddo!

Time to answer some questions and debunk some myths.


Ed starts us off with a doozy.

What was the craziest storyline the Cheers writers actually considered as a story arc? Cliff/Carla romance/love child? Norm working his way to the top of Lillian?

One of the co-creators was lobbying the first year to have Norm and Cliff buy a circus. I kid you not. For the next ten years, whenever someone pitched something too far-fetched we would always say, “I know the perfect B-Story – Norm and Cliff buy a circus!”


John G has another CHEERS question.

I read the following in the book, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists":

"For example [of doing research when writing], the writers for Cheers supposedly hung out in bars and wrote down conversations they'd overhear. This is partly why, I suspect, the dialogue in that show always sounded so spot-on."

How much truth is there to this, Ken?

Well, I did write-off my bar tab for eleven years as a business deduction, but the truth is no, we didn’t all eavesdrop in taverns. Our dialogue was very character specific, although God knows there’s a Cliff in every bar.

But from time to time one of the writers might’ve heard a snippet of dialogue from someone in a bar and that became the springboard for a conversation. I wasn’t in every story meetings. I missed the early morning ones because I was too hung over. Hey, don't give me that look. I got drunk for my art!


From YEKIMI:

Why is it that when the take successful movies and convert them to TV, for the most part, they tend to fail? M*A*S*H* is one of the few off hand that I can think of that made the transition. But others like "Kiss Me Guido", "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" etc. fall flat and are sentenced to oblivion. It seems they flop whether they have the original cast from the movie [or most of them] or completely new people for the TV show. Inquiring minds want to know!

Several reasons spring to mind.


First of all, the BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING TV version was just horrible on every level. But from what I hear (so I can’t guarantee this since thankfully I wasn’t there), star Nia Vardalos apparently made all the creative decisions, and every one was more wrong than the last. But I digress…

Generally, the casts aren’t as good in TV versions of movies. There are exceptions certainly (Alan Alda, Sarah Michelle Gellar to name just two), but take for example CASABLANCA. In the TV version David Soul played the Humphrey Bogart part. ‘Nuff said?

In movies, you have a beginning, middle, and end. You can wrap things up. A successful television series is open-ended. Some movies lend themselves to that transition better than others. THE ODD COUPLE is a premise that could go on and on. But how many days off can FERRIS BUELLER have? And how many final games of the season can the BAD NEWS BEARS win?

Quite often different writers are assigned to the TV adaptation. So different sensibilities and level of talent.

Movie comedies also have different rhythms than sitcoms. Some make the jump easier than others. In the case of MASH, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds created an entirely different fast-paced style from the movie’s more naturalistic pace. That was a big gamble. If they audience didn’t buy it, the show would have been dead. But they did, and it didn’t hurt that Gelbart’s dialogue was nothing short of brilliant.

And finally, sometimes a movie just captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and by the time it gets to the small screen that zeitgeist is over. Here too, MASH was fortunate. The Viet Nam war was raging on when the TV series premiered. Had the war ended in 1970 (like it should have), MASH would not have felt as relevant.

But take heart television fans. Just as many movies based on successful TV shows have flopped as TV series based on movies. I give you BEWITCHED, BILKO, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE FLINTSTONES, GET SMART, and LOST IN SPACE, to name but a few. (I’m sure you’ll fill in more. And some of you will call me an idiot for listing your all-time favorite movie in the above list.)

And finally, Amanda wonders:

When you have a comedy scene that's getting a big laugh, do the cameramen ever laugh hard enough to ruin the shot? If that happens too many times, do the cameramen keep their jobs?

It rarely if ever happens. First off, the cameras are mounted, so they won’t jiggle if the operator is having a laughing fit. Secondly, by the time the show is filmed in front of an audience, the cameraman has heard the joke seven times. The camera crew comes in the day before filming and spends the whole day blocking out the show. They hear the dialogue over and over. Then, on show day, there are three hours of fine-tuning, and a dress rehearsal.

The crews will laugh during camera blocking day when they watch the scenes for the first time. In fact, they’re a good barometer. But once it’s show night, they’re so concerned with hitting their marks, listening for line cues, and framing their shots.

And one final point – the crews that work network shows, whether dramas or comedies or live reality shows, are top notch professionals; the very best in the business. As a director, it’s an honor to work with such fine craftsmen. They deserve more credit and recognition than they receive.


What’s your question?

37 comments:

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

It looks like "Mike & Molly" has shored up into a solid hit, drawing a pretty consistent audience. Have you revisited the show any? Also glad to see James Burrows has directed every episode.

YEKIMI said...

Thanks for answering my question. I think the last TV show-to-movie I watched was either Starsky & Hutch [retched] or Lost In Space [which I thought was atrocious but thought the special effects were neat] and I tend to think that going from small screen to big screen, they end up 100 times worse than they ever were as TV shows. Maybe the two worst incarnations were the "Car 54, Where Are You?" and the "The Honeymooners" movies, anyone involved in those should be rounded up and hung from a lighting rig as a reminder of how NOT to make movies from TV shows.

justcorbly said...

Norm and Cliff buy a circus? I like it. Clowns and llamas in the bar. The clowns would get drunk and the llamas would bite people. Or, vice-versa.

Mark said...

Regarding the transition from movie to TV series - I think the best post-MASH transition was Friday Night Lights. It certainly didn't match MASH's ratings success, but a great job of taking the essence of the movie and expanding on it.

Nat G said...

It seems tricky deciding what to cast aside and what to keep when adapting a film. For example, the Ferris Beuller TV series kept characters and situations, but lost the feel of it, and flopped with 13 episodes - while over on Fox, they stole the feel for Parker Lewis Can't Lose, which was much better and lasted 73 episodes. On the other hand, with Buffy - which definitely originally evoked a "you're going to make a TV series out of that? Really??" reaction, they kept the concept, dumped the feel, and ended up with great genre television. (At the moment, the only movie-to-TV series currently airing that comes to mind is Outsourced; a I forgetting any?)

wv:preature - what Father O'Malley turns into when the moon is full

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've noticed a camera jiggle on M*A*S*H before... from the episode "Sticky Wicket" from Season One, and Radar kept waking Henry in his tent, by pulling back the mask over his face, and carefully replacing it... until the last visit, where he just lets go of the mask, and it slaps him in the eye. I clearly saw the frame for that shot suddeny vibrate like if the cameraman had been laughing.

chalmers said...

“The Odd Couple” nearly failed as a sitcom in its first year when it was a small-screen version of the film (single-camera, with a similar look and tone as the film).

Nearly every classic episode that we remember is from the second season or later when it evolved into a more typical ‘70s multicamera/studio audience sitcom.

Randall and Klugman’s theatre backgrounds shone through in this format, and while we make fun of the orange-couch d├ęcor of shows from that era, the lighter look and mood lent itself much better for weekly laughs than the darker (literally and figuratively) film and debut season.

Lou H. said...

(At the moment, the only movie-to-TV series currently airing that comes to mind is Outsourced; am I forgetting any?)

There's NIKITA and, if you include spin-offs, STARGATE UNIVERSE.

Jim S said...

Ken,

I just started watching Cheers again for the first time in years. Funny show, but I noticed that sometimes the gang, always with the exception of Norm, who was glued to his seat, sat on the opposite side of the bar.

Was there a particular reason other than to just shake things up?

Anonymous said...

the phrase, "...more wrong than the next" makes NO SENSE! It should be "...more (whatever) than the last"; hope that helps you, seeing how you pride yourself on being and "expert" writer...

Anonymous said...

Get Smart (if you're talking the Steve Carell/Anne Hathaway version, as opposed to The Nude Bomb, which was a t*rd even though it had most of the original cast; talk about dumping on your own legacy!) was NOT a flop ($130MIL US, $230MIL worldwide- making it a MUCH bigger hit than the Mannequin sequel)! Then again, what else to expect from a product of the same Liberal misinformation machine that also houses/defends the filthy likes of Nir Rosen?

Larry said...

I think you're leaving out the most obvious reason why most movies-to-TV-shows fail, and most TV-show-to-movies fail. That's because most TV shows and movies fail regardless of where they come from. A hit movie or TV show is like lightning striking.

Richard Y said...

Regarding Cliff and always (or at least it seemed like it)in his postal uniform. Were there ever any issues with the US Postal Service showing him in uniform in the bar?
If this has been answered before I apologize.

jbryant said...

Anonymous: And THE FLINSTONES' domestic gross was about the same, only in 1994 dollars. Worldwide it made something like 350 million, so please, Lord, let me have a piece of such a "flop" some day.

But dude, are you seriously comparing Ken's mistaken characterization of GET SMART'S box office take with the Nir Rosen incident? Sheesh. Can someone go ahead and bring Hitler into this so we can get it over with?

Robala said...

OK, I have a question. How long did it take you to find THAT photo of Nia Vardalos?

: )

Cap'n Bob said...

Crane Boys mysteries. Books? Any discussion anent same.

Somersby said...

@Richard Y
...I've often asked the same thing. You'd think some sort of special dispensation would have to be granted by the USPS for a character who, on at least one occasion, staged a jeep accident to cover for not having done his mail deliveries. Love to know the answer.

gottacook said...

Anonymous #1: Did you really write "pride yourself on being and 'expert' writer"?

Chalmers: Excellent point concerning The Odd Couple series. I haven't seen any episodes in decades and had forgotten the distinction.

Johnny Walker said...

Question:

I loved Cheers. I grew up watching it with my family every week, and I remember my sides aching, and tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard.

Now that I'm older, I think back to the Woody and Rebecca years, and mingled in with the laughs I'm kind of shocked by what I remember of Sam's womanising behaviour. It was lost on me as a kid, but I was wondering how you feel about this years later? Would you do anything differently now? Or do you feel you always managed to stay on the right side of good taste?

I haven't seen the episodes in a very long time, so I'm not referring to anything specific (other than maybe Sam's desperate quest to "bed" Rebecca). Apologies if this is something you get asked a lot. I was just wondering.

Thanks for years of wonderful entertainment!

Lacy P. said...

Friday Question:

Hey, Ken. Seems to me these days whenever I talk to new writers or aspiring writers or basically anyone who hasn't done much, they all seem to just care about the attention. Having people laugh at their jokes and watching their show. I don't hear much about wanting to just... be good at writing. Is this a generational thing or are there always more people just looking to get attention than make something good?

WV: Botnessi: A mechanical monster that lives in Scotland.

LouOCNY said...

The classic Marx Brothers story is that, when filming their movies, they would need to do the bits a couple of times, for the reasons you state in the blog today - so the crews knew the gags. However, it has been said that the 'problem' with the Marxes was that the gags would be twice as funny the second...third...fourth times around.

Sebastian said...

Maybe my english is really bad but is there something missing from the first sentence of this post?

"my lovely child bride, Debby"?

I thought child brides were girls married forcefully way to young

*scratches head*

Sorry for asking such an un-funny question...

benson said...

I'm on my first coffee so I'm a little cranky...But the whole one vs. three camera re: the Odd Couple. Yes, that show found it's stride in three camera, but the first season wasn't bad at all. My problem with the later seasons of the Odd Couple were with stunt casting (i.e, the likes of Howard Cosell, and darn near every ballet and opera star breathing in NYC at that time)and relying less and less on the Poker buddies, etc.

I guess my biggest problem with some (and I repeat, only some) three camera shows is not three camera, but the hyena-like behavior of the audience. It didn't start there but, for example, on Happy Days and Fonzie's entrances. That totally took me out of the moment.

Time for cup #2.

scottmc said...

Just after reading YEKIMI mention 'Car 54'as an example of a misguided television to movie transfer I read that John Strauss, that show's theme song composer has died. The trend of television show's not having a theme song makes me appreciate his and Nat Hiken's collaboration even more.

Jim in Upstate NY said...

I love this blog, and I hate to be THAT GUY, but... the Bad News Bears lost their final game (at least in the first movie).

I'll always love Tanner yelling "Hey Yankees... you can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass"!

A movie about a little league team that loses the title game and makes competitive parents look like jerks? It would never get made today.

Jim S said...

Ken,

I'm asking another question. Sorry to be so greedy. I saw for the first time in years the episode where Frederick's first word is "Norm". That was one of the cleverest things I've ever seen on TV. I noticed the credits show you and your partner as the writers. Just how did that really great idea come about?

Ned Roberts said...

I don't understand why this "jerk" who refers to him/herself as "anonymous" doesn't have the guts to use their name. Who are you? All you can say are negative things about Ken. Why in the hell don't you just do us ALL a favor and STOP reading this blog!

Screwtape said...

My guess is that Anonymous is either an insecure, overly-sensitive conservative (as everybody knows, Ken is a big ol' Hollywood pinko) or the president of the Nia Vardalos fan club.

Dan said...

TV to movie. Dragnet, one of my favorites. Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd are perfect in it. Having Harry Morgan reprise his role was a good move. Except for the opening credits where they have some horible remix version of the classic theme song and the closing credits rap with Hanks and Aykroyd. The video for it is shocking. Who thought that was a good idea?

"City of Crime" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT_QRKfv8H4

Crouch_P said...

I only recently discovered this blog after Aaron Sorkin talked about it on a podcast. Got to say I love it so far! Anyway, as I wipe your shit from my lips, here's a question:

When writing a pilot, do you include a character and set list, and if so, are these generally considered to be part of the page count?

Matt Patton said...

Speaking of M*A*S*H, the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 created what they called the "Wayne Rogers" rule; namely, by the time your hit movie becomes a TV show, at least one of the parts would be played by Wayne Rogers. M*A*S*H of course, but also playing Donna Reed in the TV movie where Marlo Thomas played Jimmy Stewart and Cloris Leachman was Henry Travers. And then of course, Wayne Rogers became Pernell Roberts . . .

Despite what is written above, I am suffering only from a migraine, not a Trans Ischemic Attack.

Stephen said...

What is your opinion on multi-year contracts actors enter into when they join a show, as opposed to the single-season contracts most actors are signed to here in the UK? Do you enjoy knowing you have the option of developing a character over several years or would you prefer writing a strong storyline for a character without worrying about how he/she would figure into the next season as well? A recent example is 24 which replaced almost its entire cast every season.

Matt Patton said...

Wayne Rogers ALSO appeared in the TV version of the movie House Calls. As I remember, he was quite good. And so was Lynn Redgrave. This is apropos of absolutely nothing

Rory Wohl said...

Hi Ken,

I have a Friday question on something that seems obvious, but I don't know the answer and it's bugging me.

On taped shows with a live audience where there's some acknowledgment of the commercial break (I'm mostly thinking of talk shows where the host says, "We'll be back after these commercial messages"), how long a break does the show actually take? Do they take the two minutes (or six, if it's Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson) and pretend commercials were shown? Do they take just enough time to set up the next shot (i.e., host moves from monologue stage to sitting behind desk)? Do they use the break as time to adjust other stuff?

Thanks!

Geoff said...

Hope it's not too late for a Friday question: Based on your experience working on hit shows, how many people (actors, writers, producers, crew, etc.) did Charlie Sheen just put out of work by being the second biggest ass on the planet? (Qaddafi retains the title for now)

Nicsho said...

Is it a requirement to know everything thats going on at that time for story arcs? Like if Becker was on today, would he be complaining about the Uprising in Libya, or would the writers just completely forget it and stick with a story arc?