Friday, March 04, 2011

Brandon Tartikoff

Taking a break from all of yesterday's controvery, here are a few Friday Questions and Answers.
ajjjj begins:

What do managers do, and is it worth it to have one or submit to them when you're starting out?

Generally they make out the line-up, decide on the pitching rotation and… oh, you mean that kind of manager. Sorry. My head is into spring training.

In theory, a manager has just a few clients. So he is able to give you a lot of personal attention. He should be able to advise you on career choices. If you have a specific goal he should construct a game plan. The idea is that he’s really looking out for your best interests.

Your agent negotiates any deal. Your agent generally has a lot of clients. So if your agent isn't giving you the attention you require your manager keeps on his ass,

Sometimes a manager can act as your protector. Agencies make their big money not on your commissions but on putting together package deals for series. If the show becomes a hit they own a piece and that could be a jackpot. So even though there are better deals or better situations for you, your agent may try to steer you towards a show that is their package.

Let’s say the agent has two clients – you and the showrunner to that show. The showrunner needs a writer and you’d be great. But he’s also an asshole and impossible to work for while at the same time another showrunner wants you and he’s a prince. Whose best interest is the agent going to serve? Yours or the cash cow showrunner? So he’ll try to talk you into taking that job. Your manager, on the other hand, should look at the big picture and advise you take the other position.

But here’s the thing – if a manager puts a client in a show he can take a producing credit. So he’s then acting in his own best interest, not yours. And he winds up with a producing credit and piece of the action and does absolutely nothing for it.

When you’re starting out you want anybody who will work on your behalf.  If you can’t get an agent but can get a manager and that manager has connections and can make things happen for you, then do it. Otherwise, if you can get an agent, and you like him (and even trust him) then I think a manager is unnecessary and you’re just paying out more of your salary.

Personally, I have never had a manager. I’m confident that the agents that I’ve selected do in fact work on my behalf, and if I thought otherwise, I would just change agents.

That said, there are writers who swear by their managers. Bottom line: you just need somebody to have your back. It could be a manager, an agent, or an attorney.

Brian Doan asks:

Riffing on the anecdote you told-- what was it like working with Brandon Tartikoff? When you worked on CHEERS, did you come in to contact with him a lot? Especially since his passing, there seems to be a legend that's grown up around him, as one of the last TV execs to fill both the "creative" and "business" sides of the job. Did you find that to be true? Sorry if you've answered this before!

Brandon was the smartest and nicest high level television executive I ever worked for.  A complete mensch.  It was clear that he really loved television. He never considered programming a network just a rung on the ladder (a la Jeff Zucker). He treated everyone with respect. He was very collaborative, never tried to strong-arm you.

And he had taste. He appreciated quality and encouraged it. That’s not to say he didn’t see the need for standard popular fare, but even then if he was going to pick up THE A TEAM, he wanted to make the best possible A TEAM.

And Brandon was by far the most down-to-earth executive I have ever encountered. I have a basketball net on my garage. One day my son and I were shooting hoops. Brandon and his family drove up. They were attending some event at our neighbor’s. I look up and there’s Brandon walking up asking if he can work in with us. I’m standing in my driveway shooting baskets with my son and the President of the National Broadcasting Company. He was truly one of a kind. And had a great jump shot.

And finally, from Rory Wohl:

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?

They tape those shows as if they’re live. Rarely will they stop tape. So if a commercial break is six minutes, they will wait six minutes before starting up again. I believe that the network commercials are actually put in at the time of the taping. The only real holes are for local spots. This goes for game shows, too.

What’s your question? And "Play ball"!


Rory Wohl said...

Thanks, Ken.

Anonymous said...

I've heard that some talk shows no longer do the "taped live" thing. I know someone who attended Letterman in the past year and they treat the breaks as less than a minute now (there was a tech error in setting up the guest band and only that break was longer). Maybe someone who's seen a recent taping (of that or another show) can confirm that it's changing.

bmfc1 said...

I attended a Letterman taping last year. The time period between the monologue and the 1st desk segment was longer than on TV as Dave waited for the cameras to be positioned. From then on, the commercial breaks were shorter than on TV. I noticed Bill Cosby say something like "already?" as the show was about to resume.

The Curmudgeon said...

I liked the Charlie Sheen post, and I read it before the disclaimer. I wouldn't have written it, but, of course, having never been in a writers' room, I couldn't have written it either. Keep giving us that 'inside baseball' stuff; your story this morning about Mr. Tartikoff is equally as 'inside' as your peek into the black humor of tired writers -- and very nice besides.

Looking forward to some 'inside baseball' baseball stories this Spring as well....

Breadbaker said...

When I was on Jeopardy! in the 90s, they cut tape literally between my wrong answer and the returning champion's answer on Final Jeopardy. So for five minutes, he was the only one in the world who knew he'd won.

Bob Summers said...


Have you ever seen Que Pasa USA?, PBS's first and probably only sitcom? You would think that being on PBS, it would have been fairly intellectual, but it looks like they just relied on the same comedy sources as everyone else, like culture clash and inter-generational disputes. Was it worthy of PBS just because the characters also spoke in Spanish? I would suggest that with a name change and less Spanish, it could have sold to a commercial network.

Bob Summers said...

Going back to a discussion in recent weeks about character names, I'm still a bit confused.

You said that when actual baseball players asked you to use their names for characters, legal or someone came back with a no because they were actual names of people. I don't see the problem. There are high school principals named Harry Potter and countless other instances like that. I don't think publishers told J.K. Roling to change the name. What am I missing?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks for the Brandon Tartikoff anecdote. I never met him or knew him, but always admired him for (as I read someplace) keeping ST. ELSEWHERE on the air when the general ratings didn't support it (though I think it drew some coveted upscale viewers).

He kept it on because he thought it was a good show. Wow.

Here's a link to a Google Books online scan of a 1985 New York Magazine article about Brandon Tartikoff. (Google Books also has archives of The Weekly World News. At the request of Batboy?)

Zack said...

I attended a Ferguson taping a couple of years ago. He tapes his show out of sequence. When you're watching, he does a cold-open for two minutes with him just riffing on something or interacting with the audience. This is actually shot AFTER the monologue. The warmup guy pumps you up for Craig, he runs out, does his monologue, then they film the cold-open, then go to Act III. That's why, when you're watching, he'll refer to something (or even continue his riff) from the cold open in Act III, and make no reference at all to it in the monologue.

YibbleGuy said...

Maybe some talk shows that air the same day as the taping have "taped live" breaks, but as Breadbaker noted, game shows assuredly do not. After each break, they go when they're ready to go. Who knows what commercials will be inserted when the show finally airs however many months later? And if they can't insert the commercials, why would they pause for the sake of pausing?

When I was on "Win Ben Stein's Money," the first break took just long enough for the floor manager to come up to me and say, "You look like you're at a funeral! SMILE!" (I didn't have the heart to tell her that what she'd seen *was* my 'happy face'.) Before the final round, they took a 15 minute break because Ben wanted to go take a nap. (It was the last show of a long day of taping.)

BTW, Ben was one of the nicest, most charming people I've ever met--even though I won "his money" (and, believe me, he took winning that game VERY seriously). Jimmy Kimmel, on the other hand, was a complete jerk. (And I'm a liberal Democrat, so I wasn't judging either man by his politics ....)

wackiland said...

Hi Ken.

Thanks for the nice words about Brandon T. Working for him was far and away the best professional experience of my life. I'm glad there are people like you who can share the stories with the "younger generations". Today just got a whole lot happier.

John said...

I also remember Tartikoff has having a sense of humor about himself, in that just before Cosby hit and NBC was resurrected from it's eight-year stint in the ratings basement, he was willing to do the SNL skit where Brandon was seen standing out in the street handing out leaflets to pedestrians urging them to watch "Manimal" and NBC's under under-performing shows from the 1983-84 season ("Cheers" not being one of the shows subject to ridicule, of course).

Also, a completely inside baseball, 33-years-in-the-past question -- back in the 1960s and early 70s, I remember shows that went into daytime/evening re-runs while still showing on network were usally renamed, under the idea that the public was too dumb to figure out the difference between a first-run prime-time episode and one airing opposite the 6 p.m. news. Supposedly, that changed in 1978 because for some odd reason, Fox had sold the syndication rights to M*A*S*H as "M*A*S*H", and the story was CBS was facing the prospect of actually having to change the name of the prime-time show before a deal was reached.

Since that was about the time you and David were the show-runners, is that true? Was the 1979-80 season ever close to being renamed something like "The A*L*A*N A*L*D*A Show"?

Raji Barbir said...

On a show without a live audience, how can you tell if a joke works?

D. McEwan said...

I went to tapings of several of Dame Edna's TV specials. Since they were taped well in advance, the commerical breaks were as long as needed to set up the next bit, or handle a costume change, etc., but they were also THE BEST PART OF THE SHOW! Although Edna had an audience warm-up guy, during commercial breaks, he got to just sit, because Edna herself prowled the stage, taking questions, and making remarks that would never make it onto the airwaves.

She had Roseanne and Tom Arnold on one show, and they'd talked about the restaurant they planned to open, and about their fertility problems, and about Tom's sperm count. (Sound yucky? It was worth it to see the face Edna made whenever Tom mentioned "sperm.")

Tom & Roseanne left early (which meant they had to shoot the finale before much of the rest of the show,), and once they were gone, during a commercial break, Edna said to the studio audience: "I wouldn't want to eat at a restaurant run by a man who is so obsessed with his sperm. I certainly wouldn't trust the Bouillabaisse."

I almost exploded.

Jay Leno shoots to a satillite feed, and his show's live breaks are the length the actual commercial breaks would be.

Jim S said...


Great column as always. I was wondering, for years Bebe Neurth was a frequent guest start, but not a regular on Cheers. Then in the 10th season she became a regular. But in the last season, she was essentially written out. Was that because the actress got tired of the NY-LA commute, or because they were setting Kelsey Grammer up for Fraiser?

the same chris said...

Okay, so the NBC President of one time can do crazy things on crack/cocaine, i. e. play basketball with the Levines, and a megaselling superstar of one time (who was the only reason a show worked) can't do crazy things on crack/cocaine, i. e. give a radio interview? There's some bias here or not?
Wait, now how to push the "reconsider the situation" button.

Tom Wolper said...

From the times I've been to the Late Show, they try to end the show one hour and two minutes after the start, just as it will air. The show is divided into 7 acts with Act 5 being a 30 second audience sweep. In the theater they will shorten the break from the end of Act 4 to the beginning of Act 6 and lengthen the break between Act 6 and 7 in order to set the stage up for the music act. I haven't seen a taping of the Ferguson show, but I remember reports of people watching a taping and seeing different segments on TV that night. And when Ferguson runs long with the first guest he'll keep the audience and tape a segment with the bumped guest to be aired later.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, there's an article in TV Guide about Sheen that also mentions Kelsey Grammar during the Frasier years. It says that NBC and Paramount and the show's cast and producers staged a full intervention on Kelsey after his flipped his car.

I'm sure it was incredibly difficult for everyone to take that action, but good for you that you did so. I hope that Kelsey's grateful.

AlaskaRay said...

Zach said: "I attended a Ferguson taping a couple of years ago. He tapes his show out of sequence. When you're watching, he does a cold-open for two minutes with him just riffing on something or interacting with the audience. This is actually shot AFTER the monologue. The warmup guy pumps you up for Craig, he runs out, does his monologue, then they film the cold-open, then go to Act III. That's why, when you're watching, he'll refer to something (or even continue his riff) from the cold open in Act III, and make no reference at all to it in the monologue."

When I sat in Ferguson's audience last year he did the show in its proper order, but after the show was done, he did 2 other segments to drop into shows that would be shown when he was away somewhere. I suspect that it varies from taping to taping. The commercial breaks were all real time.


Chris said...

Yibbleguy -

I, too, was on Win Ben Stein's Money. I, too, am a liberal democrat and I, too, had the exact same reaction to Mr. Stein and Mr. Kimmel. That's why I was so saddened by Ben's recent foray into creationism, of all things. Sheesh.

BTW, my one claim to fame came when Jimmy teased me that I "wasn't a real man" because I didn't know the answer to a hockey question. I responded, "Meh, hockey is for pussies." And they let it go on the air!

Bill said...

I absolutely loved the first season of Almost Perfect -- putting Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner together again as characters on a show driven by another star might catch lightning in a bottle on a network like TBS... just a thought.

Anyway, absolutely loved the show

DwWashburn said...

Friday question (since you said "Play ball") -- What's your take on the Albert Pujols situation? Do you think that the Cardinals have blown it or do you see him coming back to St. Louis? If you think he's going to be a Cardinal, do you see him getting the 10 year $300 million? BTW, I'm a Cardinal fan.

YibbleGuy said...

This is a response to Chris, above:

Great comeback--good for you, my friend! Kimmel delivered a very similar insult to me *off* air, so he didn't have the excuse that he was "just doing a bit."

Mine was the last taping of the day. Before you leave, you have to fill out a bunch of tax and legal forms if you're a money winner. So, I guess so they wouldn't lose track of me while they were running around shutting down everything, the floor manager pointed at a spot on the stage and said, "Stand right there, and don't go anywhere."

That spot was right next to where Kimmel was standing. No one else within 50 feet. I said, "Hi." No response. He didn't even look up from the papers he was holding in his hand.

Two minutes or more go by. Dead silence. Kimmel never looks up. Shuffles through his papers occasionally. You don't know how long two minutes can feel.

One of his papers was the card with the questions from my final round win. Still without looking at me, he says, "Hmm. Ben and you got exactly the same questions right, except for the one about the tea cozy."

That was correct--all the other questions in the final round were on arcane literary/historical subjects, but I won because I knew that the quilted cover to keep a teapot warm is called a "cozy."

Just to have something to say, since he had finally deigned to almost converse with me, I chuckled and said, "Y'know, I'm actually kinda embarrassed that I knew that."

He paused for a beat, then said--still without looking at me: "Yeah. I would be too."

Back to the shuffling of papers.

Gee, a little insecure in our masculinity are we, Jimmy?

After I was released from my assigned spot next to Mr. Personality, Ben Stein came over to where I was sitting. He shook my hand, congratulated me, and asked me questions about myself (he seemed to be genuinely curious about anybody who could beat him at 'his own game'). We chatted companionably for what must have been 10 minutes until they called me to the show office to fill out the forms, with Ben treating me like his new best friend the entire time. For no reason other than that he's just a nice guy.

So, yeah, Chris, I'm saddened by Ben Stein's foray into Creationism too, but I'll never say anything bad about the man just the same--and I'm glad you got to top Kimmel's line on national TV.

DJE said...

@the_same_chris Ben Silverman is not (nor will he ever be) Brandon Tartikoff. Get your facts straight and hit the reset button on your comment.

Am I the only one here to not be on "Win Ben Stein's Money"?

Dave Mackey said...

As much as game shows try to be "live to tape", sometimes it's not possible. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was fraught with delays, retakes, and edits, as contestants have (or had when I played the game back in '06) all the time in the world to answer the question. Many prime time shows make use of overdubbed host language, which to me is really phoney. On "Millionaire" there was a pickup on Meredith Vieira's question read for the final question I faced, which I did not answer, and since it was a two-shot, I did all I could to look like I was still on track to win a million dollars. "The Price is Right" routinely stops down between showcases to get all the staging in place, then after the show, AD Marco Mancini hunkers down with the tape editors to make the show fit.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Ken! Thanks for answering my question, and for the great story about shooting hoops with Tartikoff. I was a kid (probably around eight or so) when Tartikoff took over as NBC programming chief, and I have to admit that many of my favorite shows back then would've fit the A-TEAM model much more than CHEERS or HILL STREET BLUES. But as I've gotten older and gotten to know and love those more acclaimed shows, I marvel even more about how well he balanced all these different needs, and seemed to treat all his shows, high or low, with genuine respect and affection.

Barry said...

Jim S.-IIRC, Bebe had to leave the final season of Cheers to go do a Broadway-type thing. Not sure of the particulars, but I remember her being on Letterman or something around that time frame and she was blonde, not to mention HOT :)