Friday, February 22, 2013

Missing actors and authors

Join in the fun! Leave your questions in the comments section. Thanks.

Rob starts us off:

Around 1977 there were a series of episodes where Loretta Swit appeared in only one scene and was absent from the rest of the show - even the OR scenes. Do you remember if she shot a bunch of random scenes in one day? In the mystery-novel show Nurse Bigelow had more screen time than Margaret!

Wow, you're observant.  Or you had a huge crush on Loretta Swit.  Loretta was sick for about three weeks in the summer of that season so we had to work around her. Just one of those things writing staffs have to deal with on an almost daily basis. But boy was I thrilled the day she came back.

Allie Illwaco has another MASH question:

Curious, did you get to meet Dr. Richard Hooker?

No.  I never met him... or "them."
 
As reader Johnny Walker pointed out, Dr Richard Hooker" was a pseudonym for two guys: H. Richard Hornberger, the guy who was actually a doctor in a M*A*S*H unit, and his ghostwriter/helper, W.C. Heinz.

Hornberger was very bitter that he sold off the rights to MASH to 20th Century Fox and thus never participated in the windfall bonanza that that property yielded. (Of course at the time, who knew?) So he refused to have any involvement with the show. Or us.

On our own however, we did manage to track down the real doctor Hawkeye was modeled after and flew to Phoenix to interview him. That was very cool.

Carol wonders:

How many degrees away from Kevin Bacon are you? (Full disclosure - I'm two - I used to sing with Calista Flockhart before she was famous-High School-and she did some movie with Kevin Bacon.)

Asking, because I wonder how many degrees from you I am removed. (Assuming blogs don't count.)

I’m only one degree away. Here’s a post I once wrote about it.

From Liggie:

Do you think networks will consider new anthology shows? Either with rotating casts and stories like "The Twilight Zone", or with a couple of constant characters but guest casts and settings like "Quantum Leap" and "Touched By An Angel"?

For several reasons networks shy away from anthologies. First off – they’re expensive. New sets, new cast each week. And secondly – viewers tend to like the continuity of characters and situations they are familiar with.

Another problem with anthologies is that depending on the story, setting, cast, and writer they can vary wildly in quality. It’s amazing to me how uniformly excellent THE TWILIGHT ZONE was. That Rod Serling feller was pretty good. 

Stephen asks:

Sitcoms have shorter running time than they did in the 70s (a recent Big Bang episode ran 20:03 compared to Mary Tyler Moore's 25:00 average). So does this shorten the time it takes to shoot an episode as well as giving the writers more time during the week to work on the script?

Actually Stephen, the shorter running time makes it harder for writers. It’s more difficult to tell a story with any depth when you have so little time. And when you have B and C stories you’re really up shit’s creek.

Remember, shows got shorter not because the networks felt they would be better creatively as a result. Their time got slashed so networks could sell more commercials.

39 comments:

alkali said...

On our own however, we did manage to track down the real doctor Hawkeye was modeled after and flew to Phoenix to interview him. That was very cool.

Do tell (as you are able).

Cowan said...

On the anthologies topic: be sure to watch (if you haven't seen it) the British series "Black Mirror". Fairly amazing standalone episodes of very very dark satire. First series was admittedly only three episodes; second series just started airing last week.

Gazzoo said...

For decades I’ve been convinced that the first two episodes of the seventh season of M*A*S*H were meant to be run in reverse order, can you confirm this? “Peace On Us” should have been the premiere…the opening scenes imply BJ is actually growing his moustache at that time, not to mention that the big storyline seems more fit for a season opener. In the episode that actually did air first, ”Commander Pierce”, BJ already has his moustache and is wearing the dyed red shirt that he didn’t make until “Peace On Us”. Do you recall anything about this and why the eps were flipped?

The Curmudgeon said...

"Or you had a huge crush on Loretta Swit."

Nu? Who didn't?

Chris said...

Dan Harmon said he wanted nothing to do with Community after getting fired, yet he still gets an executive consultant credit, just as NBC promised. How does that work, can you get that credit (and the money for it) without having anything to do with the show?

Tim Dunleavy said...

I'm not sure why Carol asked about Ken's Kevin Bacon number. Not only was she the first commenter on Ken's original post about it, she even told the same Calista Flockhart story in it!
I know TV has reruns, but blogs?

JT Anthony said...

I recall in a Malcolm Gladwell book that Kevin Bacon was actually "ranked" in the 600's related to being connected in Hollywood. Another Hollywood figure trumped him easily because he was so talented and thrived in multiple genres.

As time moves on, I assume the names and rankings change, but who is this figure, you ask? It's the guy Ken mentioned in the first question; the talented feller, Rod Serling!

Rich D said...

Am I the only one who looks at American Horror Story as an anthology show, only one filtered through the current trend of shows having season-long story arcs.

Karl said...

It seems that as the cost and quality of using CGI for locations like "V" and "Once Upon A Time" comes down, that you could eventually use them for shows like anthologies that required a different "location" each week, but could be shot in a single green screened location week after week.

Mike said...

The baseball episode of The Simpson's could not be made with today's runtime. All the b all players show up in the second half of the show. The first part is The Natural with Springfield making it to the finals.

Heidi said...

I'm with Alkali...

Chris said...

But surely the whole "audiences" wanting continuity every week thing doesn't apply to the shows like Quantum Leap since you still have the same main characters doing essentially the same thing in every episode just a different setting with a different supporting cast.

I mean really that kind of show is the best of both worlds when you think about it. Networks maybe cheap and cowardly but a hit show with this kind of set up could do incredible things.

Michael said...

First, a recent study shows that we are now down to 4.75 degrees of separation, instead of six.

Also, W.C. Heinz was one of the great writers, and certainly one of the great sportswriters. He wrote a number of marvelous books and articles.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've kind of noticed by Season Seven or so of M*A*S*H, there were a number of episodes where some of cast may have only had one scene or two in the entire episode... this seem to happen most often to Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr, and Bill Christopher, but I seem to recall an episode or two where Harry Morgan only had one scene.

But I completely agree with you Ken, from a writing aspect, shortening the show is a murder, not just for the reasons you mentioned, but it is a PAIN to try to cram as much show as you can into just 21 minutes and have it all flow smoothly and make sense. And I heard that soon, shows are going to be shortened even more to like 18 1/2 minutes, is that true? If that's the case, 21 minutes is hard enough, but 18 1/2 is going to be IMPOSSIBLE!

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

You can see the consequences of this shortening effect on The Simpsons, most visibly.

Back in 1991, episodes ran over 23 minutes. Last week's show clocked at 19 minutes.

Add the fact that the episode has been torn into 4 acts, to add an extra commercial, and you can see the gruesome effort it takes for The Simpsons writers to deliver these woefully short shows with any kind of a cohesive story.

Janice said...

New sets and a new supporting cast each week is part of the reason "The Fugitive" was such a fantastic show.

Dana Gabbard said...

I noticed Dr Richard Hooker only got a credit once for MASH -- in the end credits of the pilot. The issue of Time that came out the week the finale was aired quoted him grousing about the politics of the show (evidently he was very conservative).

D.C. Fontana once complained that whereas for the original Star Trek there was enough running time for an "A" main plot plus a meaty "B" sub-plot that by time of TNG you were hard pressed to have time to do the "A" plot properly.

Serling wrote a great deal of the show but had two masterful guys also contributing -- Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. And even then Serling's estimation was a third of the episodes were great, a third OK and a third clunkers (for instance the Carol Burnett "comedy" episode).

Dana Gabbard said...

BTW, the Hooker story I take as a cautionay tale and supports my belief that the smartest person ever involved with showbiz is whoever drafted Gene Roddenberry's original agreement with Desilu for creating Star Trek. Think of astounding scope of it all -- while a very sucessful TV episodic writer his track record as a Producer at that point was basically a one season show (The Lieutenant) but evidently that agreement (as amended) was the basis of the rights (and many millions) he was able to assert and claim during the run of the show and even decades after. Whoever negoiated that earned ever cent they were paid by Roddenberry to do so.

Dana Gabbard said...

Chris stated "Networks maybe cheap and cowardly but a hit show with this kind of set up could do incredible things."

Great, find someone to take the risk and then everyone else will imitate them (on the old "Everyone wants to be first to be second" principle). And we are talking huge sums of money to be risked. Easy to suggest, scary to do...

Lorimartian said...

Janice said: "New sets and a new supporting cast each week is part of the reason "The Fugitive" was such a fantastic show."

Ditto "Route 66".

YEKIMI said...

Loretta was sick for about three weeks in the summer of that season.

Actual illness or "sick of her contract" and holding out for a raise?

And another question about the shortness of today's sitcoms: If it's harder for the writers to jam everything into one show, why not just stretch it out over two episodes? It seems like that's happening more nowadays anyways. Why don't they just throw a "continued next week" tag at the end of the show? I do realize that you'd have to have some type of cliffhanger at the end of the first show to lure the viewers back next week, but is it the networks that are reluctant? The studios? What with myriads of ways to watch and record shows nowadays, it seems like it would be a no-brainer.....that's assuming that network/studio people have brains.

chuckcd said...

Has anyone else noticed that Kevin Bacon looks like the phantom of the opera these days?

Dana Gabbard said...

YEKIMI, how about we viewers via a drop in viewership for the 2nd part let the networks know we are less than enthused at two part episodes? Also Ken has written about hour long "special" episodes of sitcoms often seem to only have 45 minutes of plot plus 15 minutes of filler. Proably ditto for two parters.

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

Dana Gabbard said...

"Serling wrote a great deal of the show but had two masterful guys also contributing -- Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont."

Certainly among the great episodes were two of my favorites written by Matheson, "Night Call" and "The Invaders" - which just ran a couple of nights ago on MeTV.

As for episode lengths being cut with apparently more cuts on the way in order to fit in more commercials - the number of commercials now is already ridiculous - I own DVDs of a number of series in which - on television - whole scenes have been cut out - many of them the best scenes the w/ best lines of the episode.

Dana Gabbard said...

RCP said...

"I own DVDs of a number of series in which - on television - whole scenes have been cut out - many of them the best scenes the w/ best lines of the episode."

That reinforces my sense that DVD's are more and more the dominant focus of episodic series production with network airing just to help pay the bills. Note how season-wide arcs are more and more the norm, which certainly encourages viewing via DVDs of entire seasons...

Dana Gabbard said...

BTW, Serling would have loved more help with Twilight Zone. He even dictated scripts to make the process easier (shades of Eric Stanley Gardner and his famous horse riding/writing/dictation habit on his ranch near San Diego) George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner are among the other scripters who contributed a handful of memorable episodes. Heck, they filled a week with a showing of a french film (almost w/no dialogue) adapting An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge which previously won an Oscar and best short subject at Cannes. Serling even at one point publicly invited amateurs to send in submissions; out of all that was sent in from what I have heard the TW staff found one script that was suitable for filming. ONE. YIKES! Sort of like when the Beatles when forming Apple asked for over the transom submissions of screenplays etc. That turned out pretty disasterously.

Sort of makes you question the folks who came out of the woodwork and posted on the internet during the last writers guild strike with derisive comments about how hard can it be, TV writers are greedy and overpaid, the producer's should hire me and everything would be fabulous. BTW I have heard these sorts of scabs rarely work out and also find after the strike is over to not be merely treated as pariahs by the writers who went on strike but also abandoned by the Producer's who just used them as an expediency but prefer once available tried and tested talent.

chalmers said...

I don't mean to Claven here, but the actor with the lowest "Bacon score" in Gladwell's book was Rod Steiger, not Rod Serling.

The underlying point is that people who are networking hubs are those who have a finger in several, unrelated pies.

Steiger made all genres and all qualities of movies, and went back and forth between leading man and small player.

This increased his chances to connect with someone, as opposed to someone like John Wayne, who actually has more titles on IMDB, but tended to make the same kinds of movies with the same people.

Likewise, the great networkers don't necessarily have the most contacts, but have contacts in the most varied cirles.

Johnny Walker said...

@Tim, Now that IS weird! Did she forget?

Re: Hornberger. He presumably got somewhat reimbursed, even if it was just from book sales (he put his pen-name on many sequels, too)...?

BigTed said...

"Dick Hornberger" would have been a pretty good name for the horny lead character of "MASH," although I guess "Hawkeye" is more literary.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@YEKIMI Ken sort of touched on that some time back in his rant against "hour long" episodes of weekly series (ala, The Office), IIRC, he said the issue there is that in those cases, the writers now have to try and come up with extra filler for the episode to fill up that extra airtime, which kind of slows down the pace of a show and makes a majority of the episode basically just droll.

Steve B. said...

It seems that creators of dramas are able to be much more prolific at creating new shows than creators of comedies. For every Chuck Lorre with multiple comedies on the air, there seem to be scores of people like Shonda Rhimes, J.J. Abrams and David Kelly who churn out numerous successful dramas. Do you find this to be the case, and if so, why do you think it is?

Jake Mabe said...

I'd love to see a good anthology series return to American TV, but I have no faith anybody could pull it off.

The three best -- discussed in the comments -- are "Twilight Zone," "The Fugitive" and "Route 66." The networks would be too damn cheap to actually film on location every week (which "Route 66" actually did), "The Fugitive" had a magic combination of a gifted, gifted star, great writing and a fantastic premise, and "The Twilight Zone" is one of those rare series that comes along maybe once in 50 years. Serling was a true genius.

Still, if it could be done, t'would be fun. Anything to break this logjam of lowest-common-denominator sitcoms, forensic procedurals and "reality" shows.

Liggie said...

I asked about anthology shows because the ones I mentioned had loyal audiences, and I wondered what the public appetite would be today for a new one.

I know "Quantum Leap" still has a very active base of "Leapers", who have been pressing Donald Belissario to produce a next-gen QL centering on Scott Bakula's daughter bouncing through time herself to find him. (Long story short, he learned he had a daughter he had never met.) The idea of a woman character "leaping" into an '80s Valley Girl, '90s dot-com pioneer or even a Catholic priest would be interesting. It would also open up opportunities for new actors each week, as a peek at QL guest stars shows (Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Aniston, Luke Perry et al.).

Speaking of, here's a casting-related FQ. What, and how intensive, is the casting process for a functional, minor character who has one line and almost nothing else to do in the script? Say, for a FedEx guy who walks into Cheers with a package, says "Delivery for Sam Malone", and leaves after Sam signs the receipt? As the character has dialogue, I'm guessing the showrunner must have an audition for union actors (with no dialogue, a nonunion extra would do). Still, the role's not exactly King Lear. Do you still have to go through tons of headshots, demo reels and casting calls for an actor who just has to say four words and hand off a nondescript prop?

Mike said...

When doing Cheers, was George Wendt obviously the brightest actor in the room?

Helena said...

Friday Q: Because you're so knowledgeable about the craft of sitcom writing, do you think you enjoy watching sitcoms less than a "regular" viewer? (Like being able to anticipate a specific joke, because that's the build-up you would've used for that joke. Or something like that.)

Anna B. said...

Ken,
My husband and I, both 30, enjoy watching a few episodes of Cheers or Frasier every night on Netflix. Now, as far as current shows, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, and Girls are some of our favorites. Now, we really like Cheers and Frasier and get why these are classics and deserving of the many awards they won, but we've been wondering, when did the format change so much? Was it Arrested Developement? Or Seinfeld? Did someone watch The Simpsons and think that that show could be done live action? I'm sure you've done a post on this, but I'd love to get an insider opinion on sitcom history.

BJ Wanlund said...

Friday question: Did you ever write any episodes of Will & Grace, or did you watch Jimmy Burrows directing Will & Grace? Because Jimmy Burrows is one of, if not the best directing mentor ever.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Now wait a minute... if networks aren't willing to do anthology series because it cost too much to have new sets and new actors come in all the time... then, how is that any different from having new sets and actors on a regular weekly series? Like say if the main characters find themselves in a new diner, or at a hotel, or at a distant relative's house, and then all the guest actors? Isn't that kind of the same?