Friday, October 07, 2011

Replacing Series Stars

Here are this week’s Friday questions.  Later today, some random suggestions and observations.  So come back.

Kaan gets us started.

What do you think about replacements in comedies? I literally hate that. And it doesn't matter if the "new guy" is better, I would never give him a chance.

I think comedies are more personal than Drama series. If you like a comedy and connect with it, its very very hard to tolerate any changes in the cast.

I immediately stopped watching Becker when Reggie was replaced by Chris (Terry by Nancy) and I have stopped watching Two and Half Men when Charlie got replaced by Waldon (Sheen by Kutcher)

So my question is: Are the writers and producers aware of this? Do they know how delicate this is? Or is this just my personal view?

As always, it depends on the show and just who you are losing. But often times as a producer I welcome cast changes. It shakes things up, changes the chemistry and relationships. Keeps the show fresh.  To me the key is not to replace a character with someone essentially playing the same character.

I think a perfect example of that was on MASH replacing Frank Burns with Charles Winchester. Frank was hilarious but also such an idiot. We all thought it would be interesting to give Hawkeye and B.J. a worthy adversary as opposed to just a straw man.

I think Ted Danson will reinvigorate CSI. And given time, I think Ashton will settle in nicely on TWO AND HALF MEN.

But of course you do run the risk that the replacement will suck and take the show down with him. And if you watch reruns on cable or Netflix and one of the new guy’s episodes come on you get that same disappointment you had as a kid when a THREE STOOGES short would come on and you’d see it was a Shemp episode.

From Brian Phillips:

Here is a Friday question: Sometimes, when a show is redone it turns out worse, i.e. "Hawaii Five-O", "Coupling" and sometimes it is generally agreed it is as much fun or better, such as "Doctor Who".

Are there any shows that you have been involved with that you would definitely bring back and others that you wouldn't?

I would love to revive ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S. THE MARY SHOW and AfterMASH may rest in peace.

By the way, I saw a promo for the new Tim Allen sitcom where Nancy Travis plays his wife. He looks old enough to be playing her father.
Roger Owen Green wonders:

What words or phrases do you find yourself having to remove from the second drafts of your scripts because you tend to use them too often in the first versions? It might vary from show to show, I realize.

In dialogue, starting sentences with “Well,…” and having characters incessantly call other characters by name. People don’t do that in real life. “Thanks for passing the chips, Frasier”. “No problem, Niles.” This is a trick used to orient the audience to characters, but once they clearly know who everyone is it’s silly to continue the practice. And yet, it’s an easy trap I sometimes fall into.

My partner, David hates when a character reacts by saying, “What?” I, however, like that device. So we often have to bargain. “I’ll give you two ‘whats’ if you give me one ‘well”.”

And finally, aspiring writer, Ben has a question about spec scripts.

How do you know when your spec is out of date? I'm not talking about when to finally chuck that Golden Girls sample...I've got a Parks and Rec that was current as of the end of last season, but due to a few developments with the characters so far this year, could be seen as outdated. Do I need to rewrite before next staffing season, or are showrunners forgiving as long as your sample demonstrates you can write in the show's voice?

Most showrunners are forgiving. If you have to change your script based on what actually happens on the show you’ll be rewriting your spec every week. Example: PARKS & RECREATION – Is Leslie going out with Ben? Is she not? That changes from week to week. You’d go nuts trying to nail down that relationship.

But if there are major changes – like Ashton Kutcher replacing Charlie Sheen – to where the whole axis of the series shifts, then yes, you might want to update.

BONUS HINT to those planning specs: You might not want to write that FREE AGENTS.

As always, best of luck.

What’s your question?


Tony said...

But apparently you can go ahead and finish up that Whitney spec…

KG said...

My question was answered - thank you!

I'm very excited about Ted Danson on CSI. I've stopped watching CSI after the sixth season. I guess I will give it another try when the 12th season starts here in Germany.

Thinking about my question: I guess you're right. It really depends on the change and on the show. I didn't stop watching Cheers when Diane was replaced by Rebecca and I enjoyed the show after it as well. To be fair, I'm just 25 years old. So its not like I had a choice. I just had to accept the change because the show was long over when I started watching it.

But there are some characters you can't replace. Just the thought of someone replacing David Hide Pierce on Frasier or Matthew Perry on Friends makes me want to scream.

Anthony Strand said...

My wife and I have been watching the first season of Cheers lately (and loving it, of course!), and I have a couple of questions. Apologies if you've answered these elsewhere.

1) You and David wrote the episode "The Boys in the Bar," where Sam's old teammate comes out of the closet and Norm works the regulars into a gay panic. How did that story come about? Did you(or whoever came up with the story idea) get any opposition from the network or conservative viewers?

2) How did they achieve Sam's slide-a-beer-around-the-corner trick? Was there a track, or was that something Ted Danson could actually do? Or was it some third things?

An said...

You mentioned the Shelley Long pregnancy cover-up, and looking at the S3 episodes in order, you can see her growing, but toward the end of the season, in "Cheerio, Cheers" (killer ep, BTW), she is suddenly unbig. I know the Europe scenes were pasted in, but was "C,C" shot very early on or after she delivered? If early, wow, you had that story locked down. If after, I can't help but marvel at her quick recovery. Just nerdily wondering how the writing/production schedule was structured.

Orangutanagram said...

I'm guessing "Cheerio, Cheers" was filmed early, perhaps at the same time the Europe scenes were shot. It's one of the few episodes in late season 3 with Coach.

What I wonder is if Shellew Long was fully back by the time the fourth season started. In the first episode, she isn't in the bar, and only appears in one long (and great) scene at the convent. I know the story had her leave, and it was necessary to get her back somehow, but the timing of that particular development (Diane in a convent) strikes me as a result of the pregnancy.
So was it purely a story decision or a logistical necessity?

Something similar happened in the first episode of the last season of Seinfeld. Elaine's story has her on a plane and she doesn't interact with the rest of the main cast.

Michael Zand said...

Sorry, Ken, but I thought MASH suffered when you lost Frank Burns. Winchester was pompous but threw off the balance of the show. Hawkeye and BJ were great foils to Frank Burns' craven idiocy but Ogden-Stiers played his chracter with such intelligent dignity that he made Hawkeye and BJ come off as immature at times and so not as funny.

Orangutanagram said...

By the way, the third season of Cheers was clearly plagued with adversities, but it hardly shows. It must have been very difficult to handle. Kudos to the staff.

Michael said...

Michael, I have to agree and disagree. Where I disagree is that Larry Linville said he left because there was nowhere left to go with Frank Burns, and not just because Margaret married Penobscot. It's just that he couldn't suddenly become their ally. The truth is, if you think back, when Hawkeye becomes chief surgeon, it isn't because Frank is incompetent but Hawkeye is so much better. Over the years, it became common for Frank to be considered just about incompetent.

Another point to consider: the early MASH episodes included a lot of immature behavior. B.J. was a more solid citizen--faithful to his wife, except for that one tumble--and that affected the level of lunacy. Throw in that Potter knew how to run a unit, as opposed to Blake, and the tone really did have to change.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

And then there's David E. Kelley, who on Boston Legal seemed to replace characters as if they were craft service pastries. The *only* two constants through the five-year run were James Spader and William Shatner, although once Candice Bergen arrived in S1e11 she stayed on board.


An said...

@ Orangutanagram - It's puzzling because she's showing way more in the Europe scenes than in "C,C". My instinct is that "C,C" was post-baby, and that as suspected, Shelley Long is superhuman. As to S4, she's back in the bar pretty quickly-- the second episode. In the convent, she looks to be back to pre-baby form.

I do agree that S3, while it must have been challenging behind the scenes, works wonderfully. The Sam/Diane/Frasier dynamic is so much fun. That alone could have been a disaster, but was anything but.

John said...

Ken -- A Shemp short was nothing compared to when a Joe Besser episode came on ("Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!)

As for M*A*S*H, the first two years with Maj. Winchester still had the required light-heartedness when required, but it seemed to me the ability to go light really disappeared in the final three seasons, to the point that the writing came across as forced when it was trying to be frivolous, as if the cast and crew were more concerned about the serious scenes and had lost the ability to change tones on a dime, as had been the case especially in Seasons 3-7.

(Also, speaking of the arrival of Maj. Winchester, there's one early in Season 6 written by Laurence Marks entitled "Change Day" in which Charles' scheme to scam people out of their script comes across more like something Frank Burns would do. Was the writing staff still trying to get a handle on who Maj. Winchester was at the time, or was this an idea thought up earlier, when Frank Burns was still the show's main foil, and then reworked to try and fit David Ogden Stiers' new character?

Chad said...

I was in a bar once, that had a regular 3 Stooges viewing night and a heated stooge preference debate broke out. The Curlys ended up outnumbering the Shemps but not by that much. There are a lot of us out there who lean Shemp.

DanTedson said...

I think if done right, a cast change can really invigorate a show. I love the Shelley Long Cheers years even more than the Kirstie Alley years, but I don't think Cheers would have gone 11 years if Shelley Long hadn't left. Sitcom episodes are basically - bring a new event into a known group of people and see how they react. What can be more so than introducing a whole new character? It adds another layer to things even when other plot lines are going on. The key, I think, is to keep the known and loved characters the same around the new character. ie, don't try to ingratiate the audience to a new character by having known characters act in a way they never would.

Dave Olden said...

(Re: second draft removals..)

I've always had issues with being told what i shouldn't do, so I started thinking 'what's an exception to that?'

Let's say... Frasier has a very prominent guest, and Niles must attend a dinner.

But Niles and Frasier are pissed at each other (from an earlier misunderstanding)... Can't stand to be in the same room.

Daphne *orders* them to be polite to each other, so as not to offend the guest.

Now... making all the effort to satisfy Daphne...

(and... Action!)

Thanks for passing the chips, Frasier.

No problem, Niles.

(and SCENE)


Kirk said...

Someone in their comment mentioned the last three seasons of MASH as being inferior to what came before. I agree and have said so before in this space. But as the cast stayed the same, I have to think that it was because of a change of personnel behind the cameras rather than in front. Gene Reynolds name no longer appears in the credits after the 8th season. Could THAT have made the difference? (More a rhetorical than a Friday question, unless you REALLY want to answer it)

-bee said...

Its hard for me to sit idly by whenever people trash the latter years of my favorite sitcom MASH.

I loved the earlier years, I loved the later years. The only decision I question in the show's history - which I think was made early in season one - was to exaggerate Radar's innocence to the point of "holy fooldom" - which might have worked if Gary Burghoff LOOKED as young as the character supposedly was (granted, I LOVED Radar as a youngster).

MASH was funnier in its earlier years, and was deeper (yet still funny) later on. For me, the pluses and minuses equal out.

I think the subtext of the complaints about MASH have to do with anger about the later show's growing indictment of Hawkeye's 'objectification' of women and from those who were around in the 70's and bitterly remember how Alan Alda became a poster-boy for a sensitive, 'enlightened' man.

Personally, I was OK with the earlier show's 'boys will be boys' mentality, but appreciated its shift in tone.

gottacook said...

Oh, c'mon, cut Shemp some slack. The Shemp films were often as good as the Curly ones. To denigrate Shemp is to place him in the same boat with the unfortunates who followed him, despite his status as the brother of Moe and Curly, and that isn't fair, I tell ya.

Larry said...

You know what's always a bad line in a script? When someone says "Why are you telling me this?"

Here's why: because the audience needs to the information the character just imparted.

Harold X said...

People don’t do that in real life. “Thanks for passing the chips, Frasier”. “No problem, Niles.” This is a trick used to orient the audience to characters...

"As your accountant, I must insist..."
Oh -- glad you cleared that up. I was wondering why you were doing my taxes.

One maybe acceptable exception: "Because I'm your mother..."

An said...

On a related note: What was the feeling in the writers room when Shelley Long announced she wouldn't re-up?

nontom said...

Just in case anyone is confused by John's reference to "Charles scheming to scam people out of their script," I note that he meant "scrip," the substitute for money that the Army gave its soldiers back then.

Stoic said...

What?!!!! I LOVE Shemp!

Xian Qi said...

In the Spy magazine anthology, "Spy: The Funny Years," one of the writers recounts a story (p130) about confronting Graydon Carter for more money, saying she could make more money freelancing on her own. In the book, she says:

"Graydon took out a piece of paper and wrote down some things and slid it over to me. I looked at it: 'Gary Burghoff, McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville.' I said, 'Actors who were on MASH?' Graydon said, 'Actors who left MASH and were never heard from again!'"

I suppose Shelley Long could also be used as an employers bargaining chip.

Mike Barer said...

MASH was excellent with character replacements as BJ, Potter, and Major Winchester were able to keep the show going. In fact it added a touch of reality, because in a military operation, people would come and go.

Paul said...

Ugh. Tim Allen's new show. The only funny joke in the promo is a classic bit stolen from The Cosby Show.

jbryant said...

What drives me nuts is dialogue that begins: "Let me guess..."

Anonymous said...

You seem to be under the impression Nancy Travis is a young hottie... She looked old on Becker.