Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BARNEY MILLER: An Inside Look

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.

Danny Arnold
Danny Arnold was the creator of the show, and especially in the early years, he was a marvel. When he was "on", he could spin out entire scenes, ad-libbing dialogue -- and great jokes -- for every character. By the time those scenes got to script form, though, he obsessively rewrote them.

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!

Best,
Tom

Thanks again to Tom Reeder and LouOCNY for the suggestion. Tom has a blog you need to bookmark.  You can go to it here. 

40 comments:

Roger said...

How nice of Tom to respond! I just subscribed to his blog, and am looking forward to reading his old posts.

I can already tell I'm going to like them.

Brian Phillips said...

Wonderful post! You know your working at a frantic pace when the TV Guide writes an article that mentions "Danny's Demons" regarding the frantic pace of work.

Mac said...

Thanks Tom, very interesting. Always nice to find a new comedy-writer blog as well. Cheers.

LouOCNY said...

Thanks Ken and Tom! Also thanks to Bob Claster, who posted a link to a great radio interview he did with Danny Arnold. http://www.bobclaster.com/#arnold

Thanks to Amazon(and UPS), I should have the box set in my hands by noon! Only question is what episode to watch first?

bettyd said...

Good Info Tom. I think the box set will be one of my gift's to my dad this Christmas.

I can't imagine working at that pace. I read that the great drama NYPD Blue had a similar rewrite and new pages during filiming pace, which caused them to lose Jimmy Smits eventually. And it get Milch a heart attack too.

I guess control freak show runners must be common - watch out Shondra - the big one is near!

benson said...

I was in college when the show hit the air, and my girlfriend would come over every Thursday night for dinner, Barney Miller and then, sex afterwards :)

Thanks, Tom for helping me get...oh, too easy. Thanks.

Dave Mackey said...

Did anyone besides me ever notice that most of the names on the squad room attendance board were the names of ABC crew members?

LouOCNY said...

Benson - now THAT'S a girlfriend! Hope that lasted post-Barney!

Vida Blueballs said...

My girlfriend used to come over and give me sex after every episode of "Turn-On," "Co-Ed Fever," "South of Sunset," "Emily's Reasons Why Not," and "You're in the Picture." I'm so lonely.

Michael said...

Bettyd, as I recall, Milch himself was the problem on NYPD Blue. I also recall concerns about The West Wing because Aaron Sorkin was notoriously late with scripts. So they finally got him out of there, and the show went downhill. I guess NBC got what it wanted!

The "Hash" episode is unforgettable for many reasons, but Jack Soo should have won an Emmy for it. Mushi mushi!

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, a great read. Thanks for making things like this happen!

Craig Richard Nelson said...

I played the insurance agent in the episode The Radical, what a great experience. I was so impressed with the care taken for every scene, every beat. There was no live audience, but you still got that theatrical feeling.
Love your blog!

Mark said...

Amazing insider stuff! This is one of the best written shows ever, in my opinion. BARNEY MILLER would have more happen during its pre-credit sequence than other shows would have in two commercial breaks.

This is gold-standard type of writing-- I can't believe it was done under those conditions.

David Schwartz said...

Barney Miller was indeed a great show! The characters were so unique and distinct from each other and yet it all worked. Hal Linden did such a great job of being an anchor and unifier of that disparate group of people.

Great Big Radio Guy said...

And let's not forget - it was all done with typewriters and Xerox machines...long before word processors, printers and email.

danrydell said...

Loved the opening bass notes of the Barney Miller theme song.

Tom Reeder said...

Great Big Radio Guy, your mention of Xerox machines reminded me that one of those dinosaurs had a role in me getting the job on Barney Miller.

I was working for the ABC Promo department at the time, and my office was on the 2nd floor. The Barney Miller offices were one floor up. We shared a Xerox machine.

One day I was talking to the show's publicist, Ann Moreno, while we were making copies of something; she volunteered to take a spec script of mine and show it to Danny and Chris Hayward. She did, and they liked it enough to give me an assignment.

No, I did not keep that Xerox machine as a memento.

John said...

Barney Miller and M*A*S*H were similar at the time in their ability to juggle multiple story lines at once, as well as being confident enough to not always have to end every thread with a big laugh line (Arnold also famously lasted only half a season as producer of "Bewitched" in it's debut year because of his perfectionist work habits, but still gets credit for putting together the shows great group of lead and supporting actors that had the show at No. 2 in the ratings in its debut season).

After the arrival of Fred Silverman, and until he convinced most of the Mary Tyler Moore writing staff to come over to ABC, Barney Miller also stood out on the network as the one successful sitcom that wasn't dumbing things down to try and be successful (though Fred did give it a shot at having the "non-schtick hour" in 1976 by putting The Tony Randall Show after Barney. Not sure why that didn't work out).

Brownie said...

Thanks, Tom Reeder. Fascinating. Good stuff from my favorite show. Enjoyed Night Court, too, but not nearly as much as I did the old one-two!

BigTed said...

"Barney Miller" was a great show, so this frenetic process must not have hurt it too badly. But it's hard to imagine how the writers managed to be funny under that much time pressure. Ken, is it possible to learn how to write like that? (Not that you would neccesarily want to -- but it sounds as if sometimes you'd have to.) Or do some writers just naturally excel at a more leisurely pace?

HogsAteMySister said...

Man oh man, I'd trade CSI Everywhere for Barney Miller, Wojo, Fish, Yemana, Dietrich, Harris and Levitz. I miss the brilliance.

Kirk said...

BARNEY MILLER was one of my favorite sitcoms of all time. I vividly remember the Hash episode: Jack Soo asking if anyone's seen his legs, Fish so high he actually defends his wife's honor (followed by "Oh, my God, what did I just do?"), and Levitt, so eager to please the boss that he's willing to engage in a cover-up, even though that's not exactly what Barney had in mind. And it has one of the great tag endings ("Let's forget about what happened yesterday", and they have forgotten!)

Kirk said...

I want to add that Hal Linden was one of the all-time great sitcom straight men. I don't think the show would have been quite as funny if he hadn't been the sober-minded center of it all (that's literally true on the "Hash" episode)

Pat Reeder said...

Thanks for the insights and memories of a great show, Tom. I didn't know you wrote for "Barney Miller," but seeing your name on "Cheers" used to inspire me to think that if one Reeder could be a comedy writer, I could, too.

BTW, when I was in college, a professor got me into a script-writing competition that involved writing a "Barney Miller" episode that would be judged by Danny Arnold. I didn't win it, but I was thrilled to get a good review and detailed critique of what he liked and what he would have done differently. Even though I eventually went into writing topical humor for radio rather than sitcoms (I prefer working alone and am allergic to Los Angeles), I'll always cherish my distant "Barney Miller" connection.

VW: "Mebotha." The catchphrase of Alfred E. Neumann's Jamaican cousin: "What, me botha?"

Phillip B said...

Thanks for this!

So "Hash" is one of the Top Ten. Can you share the other nine?

Michael said...

Was Danny Arnold involved in the "Fish" spin-off? I assume there would be rules about subjecting child actors to the same long shooting schedules.

Tom Quigley said...

One of my all-time favorite sitcom episodes (I seem to be writing a lot about those lately) was the Barney Miller one where talented character actor Kenneth Tigar played Mr. Kopechne, a man who thought he was turning into a werewolf. (I had the chance to meet Kenneth almost 20 years later on a show we were both working on, and complimented him on the episode, and he smiled and told me "You've got a good memory!")

The high point of the episode was when Mr. Kopechne was pacing back and forth in the jail cell like a caged animal (just like what he thought he was turning into would be doing) and began demanding to be let out, growling "I gotta go home! I gotta get some sleep! I gotta go to WORRRRRRRRRRK!!!!", then proceeded to climb the bars of the cell and start howling. I think I hurt myself laughing that night.

He did a couple of appearances in later episodes as the same character, but that episode topped them all.

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

One question that has always burned inside of me about BM, was the use of the various bit players who returned seemingly once a season as 'different' characters - actors like Peggy Pope, Richard Libertini and especially the great Phil Leeds. Did it get to the point where the writers would go - "Gee, we need to write a spot for Phil Leeds this year"?

And one more thing - Barney was so good at defining its characters, that towards the end, in the "Chinatown" two parter, when Dietrich and Harris were holed up with a theoretical witness to some gang slayings in Chinatown. After a couple of weeks stuck in this room, the room is in squalor, Dietrich and even Harris got slovenly and unshaven, Harris freaks and walks out saying to the effect I am OUT of here - the shot cuts to the hotel hallway, Harris walking and turning the corner, as Dietrich shouts after him. "Dressed like THAT?" The camera lingers just long enough as we all know that Harris would come walking right back, and with perfect timing, Harris hustles back into the hotel room. And almost right after that, they get away with one of the best self references on TV history - the two detectives and witness are sitting watching TV, nondescript dialogue droning, when Barney (finally!) shows up to send them home. Dietrich asks if Barney wants to stay and watch TV, as TAXI is on next. Barney says no thanks and the set gets unceremoniously shut off. The joke being, of course, that in 1982 coming right after BARNEY, was - of course - TAXI. So Guess What the boys were watching?

Most underrated, semi abused show after its run of all time!

Tom Mason said...

Hey Tom (and Ken) - thanks for this. I loved Barney Miller - my dad and I used to watch it together back in the day. I get to watch the reruns now on Comedy Gold and it's still great writing, great acting, big laughs. Episodes feel like mini-plays, and as others have already pointed out, juggling multiple stories made it feel more "real." Also, the grubby set helped too.

"OK, Barn, I'll stay, but I ain't never gonna feel no better," from "Hash" is one of the best lines ever.

sephim said...

A friend of mine did a version of the theme song a couple of years ago.

http://www.thelovesongs.com/sotm/LoveSongOTM - 42 - Barney Miller.mp3

Weekly Reeder said...

Barney, Barney, Barney. Is your mother from Killarney?

Kirk said...

The guy who thought he was a werewolf also popped up as guy who thought he was Jesus Christ, a guy who thought he had ESP, and, finally, a guy who thought he was possesed by Satan. Only on the Satan episode is he identified as the guy who earlier thought he was a werewolf. As Jesus Christ and the guy with ESP, Barney and co. acted like they had never seen him before.

At any rate, he was really good at playing the "guy who thought he was..."

Roger Owen Green said...

For some obscure reason, one of my favorite episodes involved a woman whose car was stolen. Years later, the thief was caught. He took care of it with a "shammy", he noted lovingly. She noted that the car is "SO PINK!"

It's very sweet.

Anonymous said...

My father was a police captain and he often said that of all the cop shows on TV, Barney Miller was the most realistic!

Steve Esposito said...

Thanks for this great thread guys, especially Craig! I was just watching what I thought was a full version of "The Radical" but a piece might be missing.

Thought that in this episode Dodd asked someone on the phone about "Abbie," then paused and said "I understand," or something like that? In the copy I saw, Dodd speaks of conditions for his call, but is never shown making it. Maybe there was another episode I am confusing here?

Some old editorials from the week The Radical first aired were interesting too. Apparently ABC bleeped "Dupont" and "Dow" from Dodd's rants the first airing and columnists noticed.

Steve Esposito said...

Solved another little mystery. For some reason I thought "The Radical" was the episode where Deitrich's cold case hobby was revealed. Actually it was in "Uniform Days," which was another episode with Stuart Pankin, this time as a postman that could easily be the inspiration for Seinfeld's Newman character.

In "Uniform Days," Deitrich waited until the last moment to look for Michael Farantino, who had robbed Cotterman's seven years earlier, in 1973. Farantino (like Dodd) thought every cop in the world was looking for him for the past 6 years, 11 months, 29 days. Deitrich had only started a couple of days earlier.

Steve Esposito said...

Does anybody know anything about the wanted posters in the squad room? I noticed Weatherman founder Bernardine Rae Dohrn's wanted poster in Barney's office in season 1, episode 9 "Vigilante".

Also, the 1970s Yippie bank bomber (Ronald Kaufman) I am writing about has his poster behind Wojo's desk in several season 1 and 2 episodes. Interestingly enough, he was working about 15 miles from the ABC studios while those episodes were being filmed.

Anonymous said...

I was in law school at the University of Oregon when I saw an episode showing the wanted poster of David Sylvan Fine, a convicted 70's bomber of a building at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He was also a law student there - he got very upset as many did not realize his background. He was not allowed to become an attorney.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous,

Looks like David Fine is a paralegal now. Good catch!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Fine