BARNEY MILLER was a great show. A couple of years ago I wrote about our checkered experience writing for it. Here’s that post. Tom Reeder had much better luck. He stayed and worked on the show for several years. This week Shout! Factory is finally releasing the complete BM series set. In honor of that, reader LouOCNY suggested maybe I could ask Tom to write about his experience. Among Tom’s scripts was the “Hash” episode, which to me is one of the top ten sitcom scripts of all-time. Anyway, I did ask Tom and he graciously wrote me this:
Hi, Ken -- Here are some recollections about the experience of writing for Barney Miller. I went on for more than your requested "few paragraphs", so feel free to trim as needed...
Writing for television is never a stately minuet, but the process on Barney Miller was something like "Everyone into the lifeboats!" It was chaotic, but back then I had no way of knowing it wasn't like that on every show, since it was my first TV writing gig.
That's true of a lot of showrunners, but Danny couldn't seem to stop himself. Sometime during season 2 (or maybe it was 3) the show was no longer taped in front of an audience, partly because the script was rarely done by show night. When one season began, 6 pages were in print. Not 6 scripts -- 6 pages of one script.
This meant that on the day the show was taped, the actors would hang around on the stage, waiting for pages to be sent down. Then -- sometimes at 2 a.m. -- they would have to learn new scenes. Ron Carey (Officer Levitt) would get his fairly quickly: "Here's your mail, Captain." On the other hand, poor Steve Landesberg (Dietrich) might have to memorize long speeches explaining how nuclear fission works.
In the early years, Danny benefited from the heroic writing efforts of Chris Hayward, who was a veteran writer, and rookies Tony Sheehan and Reinhold Weege who, like me, didn't know any better. They were the Barney Miller writing staff. My agent wisely turned down Danny's annual offers of staff jobs, negotiating freelance assignments (so-called "multiple deals") for me instead. Even so, the pace was frantic -- on one assignment I was given 3 hours to write the story outline. On another occasion, a friend came into my office at ABC-Vine Street and said, "Hey, Reeder, want to go get some lunch?" I pointed to the paper in my typewriter and said, "This script is on the stage -- thanks anyway."
I wasn't there the day Danny developed chest pains, but I was told that he was still pitching changes as he was being wheeled to the ambulance.
As for the episode called "Hash"... my first draft was titled "Pot", but one of my colleagues remarked that the effects of hashish would be more potent and felt more quickly. I took his word for it -- there was no time to do field research. I should also give credit to Reiny, who contributed some very funny stuff, especially in Act Two. Man, that was a long time ago. It's nice to know that people still remember Barney Miller.
I'm also pleased to be writing at a more leisurely pace these days. My boss on Tom Reeder's Blog gives me a lot more slack than Danny Arnold did.
Come to think of it, Ken, you might be the only person I know who regularly works at a pace that comes anywhere close to Danny's!
Thanks again to Tom Reeder and LouOCNY for the suggestion. Tom has a blog you need to bookmark. You can go to it here.