Friday, July 05, 2013

Julia Duffy, Jan Smithers, and the Pineapple

Yes, it’s a holiday weekend, but I never stand down from my Friday Question watch. So here they are:

Klee gets us started:

Perhaps it's been brought up before. Kirstie as Shelley's replacement brought new life to the show. On the other hand, when Julia Duffy replaced Delta Burke on Designing Women, the show never quite recovered. Conversely, when Julia replaced Jennifer Holmes on Newhart, the show blossomed. Ken, what are your thoughts on actors brought in during a show's run. "Formula"? Luck? Combination of both? Thanks!!

Definitely a combination. First, the writers have to create a good character. There are many factors to that. What makes the character interesting and funny? And equally important, how does that character fit into the mix with the rest of the characters on your show? What purpose does he serve your series? What will the other characters' attitudes be towards him?  And what comic mileage can you get as a result?  

New characters can shake things up and add fresh life to your series if developed correctly.

Next you have to cast the right person. I agree that when Julia Duffy joined NEWHART that’s when the show really took off. Put her in the right role and she is hilarious. I think she was mis-cast DESIGNING WOMEN.

But luck is so key. Let’s say Kirstie Alley was not available when we were casting the Rebecca part for CHEERS? Or David Ogden Stiers on MASH?

It’s always a Catch-22 because you want the best actors. But the best actors are the ones usually working and so are not available. That’s why it’s such a gift when someone like Woody Harrelson walks in to read for Woody on CHEERS. (And by the way, it’s purely coincidental that the character was named Woody. How many people do you encounter named Woody?)

Michael wonders:

These days it is easy for viewers to point out continuity errors and/or complain to showrunners on social media. In pre-Internet days, did you get similar letters from viewers?

Oh sure. There are viewers who pay way more attention to the details of shows than the writers. We had a guy on CHEERS who called himself “the Pineapple.”  He once sent us a detailed chart of how many times we used the stock shot with the grey car driving by. He cataloged all of the stock shots for every episode. He sent us page after page of this stuff.

And if there was any miniscule inconsistency or two shots that didn’t match we’d hear about it.

We’d be in a late night rewrite at 1 a.m. and some logistic question would arise and we’d all say, “Let’s call the Pineapple. Let’s wake him up. He’d know.”

That said, we always appreciated that there were fans who were so devoted. We thanked the Pineapple for his efforts and sent him lots of CHEERS swag.

jcs asks:

You've mentioned problems with networks failing to promote shows several times. With many alternatives to TV and dwindling audiences, what do you consider to be effective promotion today? Online ads, showing up at Comic-Con in full force or still old-fashioned TV promos?

Answer: All of the above and more. I’d have fan pages on every social network that has an icon. I’d encourage my writing staff to have Twitter accounts and I’d be tweeting like mad. I’d try to set up “behind the scenes” videos for a fan website and YouTube.  I'd set up on-line contests giving away signed scripts. 

And if critics responded to the show I would go back and enlist their help in getting the word out.

I would pretty much do anything short of making the P.A.’s wear sandwich boards and walking through malls.


I see you said you worked some with Hugh Wilson (WKRP) I bet you wanted to do some writing for that show. Tell us if there is a Hugh Wilson, WKRP, Ken Levine story out there....

With my background in being fired from radio stations, I would have LOVED to have written for WKRP. But at the time my partner and I were working on MASH. I also would like to have been reunited with my high school friend, Jan Smithers. You didn’t know I went to high school with Jan Smithers? That’s why you need to read my book, which you can order and enjoy here. (What an artful subtle plug.)

What’s your question? Have a great and safe holiday weekend.


Carl McD said...

Everyone raved about the hot blonde Jennifer Marlowe but we all knew the REAL babe was Mother Carlson.
Yeah, I said it,come and get me, Bailey freaks!

fred nerk said...

This is the question I want answered every time I watch cheers. Who is the woman in the long dress walking past in the opening credits?

Stephen Robinson said...

I think successful "replacing" of a character often involves *not* trying to "replace" the character. Julia Duffy's Alison was too similar to Delta Burke's Suzanne, and the few ways she was different (not as brassy) made her less appealing.

Winchester on M*A*S*H was not a cookie-cutter Frank Burns antagonist. Potter was not a wacky, clueless commanding officer. BJ was not a womanizer. The show moved in different directions because the characters themselves were different.

And CHEERS brilliantly overhauled and refreshed itself when Shelley Long left the show. I've argued that she might have "saved" it by leaving.The series was starting to repeat itself, as the Sam/Diane relationship couldn't really go any further.

ScottUSF said...

Hi Ken,

I'd love to see your outline for the opening episode of the final Mad Men season. just ran this one set in 1976.

The Mutt said...

Ken, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Richard Matheson. Thanks.

Frank P. said...

What are the odds of a Woody coming in to audition for a Woody role. I always thought the character was named after the actor.

DanB said...

I think DESIGNING WOMEN would have done very well if Judith Ivey had been cast (if she was available) from the start. The final season with her character was great, but I guess by then they'd alienated too many viewers for it to matter.

Regarding continuity and consistency, no show was too small to escape that. Worked on a local talk show in Phoenix in the 80s (FINN & FRIENDS) and we taped in the early evening, then aired after Johnny Carson. But if the clock on the wall of the homey living room set didn't match the actual time, we would get phone calls the next day.

Ike Iszany said...

I have a question: When you do a show do you plan for the shorter syndication edit? Do you pad in two minutes you can lose? And who has the say in what gets edited for time when a series goes to syndication? Watching "Cheers" on TV Guide Network is maddening. They may have added some lines and scenes back that we haven't seen since the network broadcast but they'll cut a scene in mid sentence to go to a commercial. They actually clipped off a punch line to the whole episode to roll credits on one episode.

rockgolf said...

When Linda Bloodsworth-Thomason let Julia Duffy go after one season of "Designing Women" she gave a quote I still remember: "Julia pedaled that bicycle as hard as she could".

I've always loved that quote.

DBenson said...

What was intriguing about the Rebecca character on Cheers is that she quickly evolved away from the character she was seemingly introduced to be. At first she was another outsider, a corporate ice queen instead of a perennial grad student. Pretty soon she was as much a mess as anybody in the bar; maybe more so. It was as if Winchester cast off all pretense of culture and became a screaming party animal.

Was that a planned arc, or just something that happened when Alley's gift for unsubtlety was observed.

Stephen Robinson said...

It's also interesting to see how in the early episodes of CHEERS, Norm is very much like Rebecca. He lacks her overt contempt for everyone, but he is career-minded and eager to please, but usually gets slapped around and is never able to advance the corporate ladder.

My one criticism of Rebecca's character is that she is a complete narcissist. She never has a moment of humanity. Norm defends Diane from his lecherous boss, which costs him his job. Sam repeatedly stands up for his friends. Even Diane makes repeated efforts to help others in the bar, including Carla, who outright hates her. We never see this from Rebecca.

Pamela Jaye said...

love the Pineapple!

two stories:

lack of memory about a certain storyline or detail sent Dark Shadows writers to the stage door to ask the fans, back in the 60s.

fans visiting the set of Quantum Leap caught an error in the name of Al's sister. (It was Trudy, I think, not Helen.)

I don't know why all shows don't have a bible.

Jeffro said...

Hey Ken,

Is this you taking the lovely Ms. Smithers for a ride?!:
(Picture Link)

chalmers said...

TV Guide Network cut out most of Coach's "Albania" song the other day. Maybe next they can start running "Mary Tyler Moore" reruns and excise Chuckles' funeral.

Tim said...

No actor have made Julia Duffy's character, Allison, on Designing Women work. That character was poorly conceived and tremendously unlikable. If they had made her a decent foil to the sometimes-overbearing Julia Sugarbaker, it could have worked. Instead, Allison was wrong all the time, and dumb (yet thought she was smart), with no heart. All the other characters on the show despised her.

Linda Bloodworth really blew it when she created that character.