Friday, September 06, 2013

MTM vs. Lear

Now that the summer is nearly at an end we can concentrate more on Friday Questions. Here are some:

Michael starts us off:

In a recent blog post about yelling at Rob Reiner, Earl Pomerantz mentioned in the 70's there was a competition between MTM shows which were strictly character-driven and Norman Lear shows which, while also very funny, tried to teach lessons.

Cheers and Frasier clearly fell into the MTM camp while MASH sometimes veered more into the Norman Lear style. Question for you is did you prefer writing for one style or the other?

I clearly preferred the MTM character style. Even MASH was more character based than issue based. We’d refer to issues but not debate them. Lear shows generally were plotted from argument to argument. I much prefer writing shows that are based on universal relatable behavior.

And that’s not to knock the Lear shows. They were brilliant and (at first) groundbreaking. We would have loved to have written for ALL IN THE FAMILY or MAUDE. But there was a level of anger on those shows that didn’t really jibe with my temperament.

The MTM style really began with Jim Brooks and Allan Burns. From Mary came TAXI and from TAXI came CHEERS and from CHEERS came FRASIER. I was thrilled to be on that train. Too bad it's no longer running and is now in moth balls.

Marco asks:

You already described how much you liked the Cheers set in an older post. Do you know what happened to the set when the Hollywood Entertainment Museum closed in 2007? I sat in the set back in 2003 and enjoyed it a lot - I hope they have not destroyed it ...

I hate to burst your bubble, Marco, but that was not the original set used on the show. It was at best a copy, and it always bothered me that they were passing it off as the real deal.

I don’t know where the real one is. The Smithsonian might have it.

I walked onto the stage the day they were dismantling it and found it so disturbing I left after maybe one minute.

Chicago Pinot has a question regarding my post on Elmore Leonard and his TEN TIPS FOR WRITING:

Thanks for sharing these tips! The only one I am curious about is #7. When you were writing Cheers, was there ever the thought that a particular line or performer's delivery would be "Too Boston" for the mass audience?

Yes. There were times when actors spoke in thick authentic Boston accents and the jokes didn’t work. If the audience has to work hard to decipher they’re less apt to laugh. We gladly would trade authenticity for laughs.

I’ve told the story before, but we had a similar issue with David Ogden Stiers on MASH. When he came in to play Charles Winchester he originally wanted to give him a thick Boston accent. We worried that it would be too distracting. So he backed off on it and that’s the accent he used for his entire run on the series.

From Brenton:

I've heard that the "callers" to Frasier's radio show were real celebrities, sometimes talking about their real problems. David Duchovny was one, talking about what would later be revealed to be his sex addiction. Did anyone involved with the show realize he was making a confession of sorts?

Purely coincidental. He must’ve recognized the irony of course, but none of us did. I wonder if Tea Leoni finds that episode amusing?

And finally, from Breadbaker:

Baseball, as you know, is considering a challenge system to allow replays. On television, it's fairly simple to cover the time while they're being considered by showing the station's own replays. But what does a radio announcer do?

What we always do – read commercials, promote the next homestand, give the disclaimer, and read more commercials. Often times the game itself is just an imposition.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks!


Johnny Walker said...

I always thought the David Duchovny/sex addiction thing was a Larry Sanders-style in-joke! When I re-watched the series I even guessed it was Duchovny from the subject matter... I had no idea it predated real life!


Richard Rothrock said...

The Lear shows haven't aged well IMHO. The episodes revolved around contemporary social issues of the 1970s that, unless you were part of that time, no longer resonate with younger audiences.

I've watched several MTM shows recently (Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart) and they are just as funny now as then. Maybe more so.

MTM shows seemed to have more in common with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW than any other shows.

Kevin C. said...

The Duchovny/Leoni connection is even odder, since Tea played a sex addict about to marry Sam Malone on an earlier episode (before she married David).

canda said...

As George S. Kaufman said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night".

John said...

The other problem I've found in watching reruns of the Lear shows is the extreme obtrusive audience reactions -- they didn't just 'sweeten' the audience laughter, they unscrewed the lid on the sugar dispenser and dumped the entire contents into the bowl.

The result for me is what might be a slightly funny response or even a throwaway line gets such an out-of-proportion reaction it becomes annoying (this trend seemed to migrate to ABC from CBS with Fred Silverman in the mid-70s, as the stable to Garry Marshall's Paramount shows suffered the same problem. Fortunately, it was confined to only one production company on the Paramount lot, so we weren't subjected to over-sweetened audience reactions to "Taxi" or "Cheers" in the late 70s and early 80s).

GFoyle said...

I have a question, prompted by your insignificant typo in today's opening sentence, "Now that the summer is nearly at an end we can concentrate more OF Friday Questions."

Have you worked on a show (or are aware of one) where the writer committed an egregious factual error or typo in the script that went unrecognized by everyone else involved, which survived through the broadcast and led to an "Oh shit!" moment?

As much as every word is scrutinized, it's hard to conceive of this happening, but I'm curious.

Roy Phillips said...

I strongly disagree with Rothrock about the Lear sitcoms being dated. If you listen to right-wing radio or watch the Fox News Channel (on a dare, mind you), you would think the hosts were graduates from Archie Bunker University. Social problems still exist in this society.

chuckcd said...

Did you happen to catch the Hot In Cleveland episode that reunited the female cast of The Mary Tyler Moore show?

At the very end, they show a real kitten that did the MTM meow.
I thought that was pretty cool.

ScottyB said...

@KenLevine: Altho I wouldn't yell at you over it, there's something you do somewhat often that slightly bugs my reading enjoyment of your posts:

1. It's "trouper", not "trooper".
2. It's "teeming", not "teaming".

I'm sure Mike Stivic would read you the riot act over the state of education in America, and Archie would just go "Rev. Trooper, Rev. Trouper ... whatEVER".

Still I agree with you, I'm more drawn to shows in the MTM vain (ooops -- vein). Especially when you consider that episodes of stuff like 'Family Ties' and 'Diff'rent Strokes' -- shows done for funny -- delved into serious "very special episode" stuff like child molesters and substance abuse. Bleeecccch.

ScottyB said...

I think Ken's post today brings up a good discussion point: How much of a tighrope balancing act is there between funny with a moral, and making a moral point while trying to surround it with funny? I think Ken's post today reflects that sorta thing.

While 'MTM' was always funny, you kinda learned something by osmosis, over time. Lear's shows seemed to want to bash you over the head with whatever "lesson" was on tap that week.

And I think we saw that as the seasons of 'All In The Family' stretched on. I kinda started losing interest in the franchise being "way-way funny but with a purpose" with the "swastika on Archie's door" episode.

Sorry, but Edith saying, "It's nicer than when he called them coons" -- when used within the context of that first-season episode -- is for me among the Holy Grail of the best lines ever written in TV-comedy history.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Friday Question: Have you ever worked with people who are funny in the room but not on the page? Or vice versa? Where there's a marked difference, where the script has people crying with laughter but the personal presence is sort of a dud? I have to imagine that there are those who operate better in one environment instead of the other. What do you do with such people?

Sam said...

I worked in the writers room on DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and there was an interesting tension between descendants of Lear and MTM. Marc Cherry came up on Golden Girls, which follows the Lear camp. Another one of the EPs rose up the ranks on FRASIER. They would frequently debate when a scene should just be dramatic or if it should include comedy. The Lear school was to not have any comedy in the dramatic part of the scene - you could make the A side funny, but once the serious B side came in, it wasn't time for a joke. Meanwhile, the Frasier school would be willing to have a dramatic moment and cut it with a joke. It was an interesting disagreement between two schools of thought.

Do you know of any other showrunning/writing styles from sitcoms that have a lineage to shows being written today? Maybe Gary Marshall? It seems Greg Daniels might be one of the more popular contemporary mentors, but as a SIMPSONS writer is he of the MTM camp? Or SNL (another storied camp, with Tina Fey et al)? Gary David Goldberg taught writers like Bruce Helford and Bill Lawrence, but he came up on MTM shows like Bob Newhart. I would think FRIENDS would've had some influence, but none of the subsequent shows by FRIENDS writers seems to have done well enough to have impact. SEINFELD was its own thing, but the closest modern descendent is THE LEAGUE on FX which to my knowledge does not really have a room. Jenni Konner (of GIRLS) comes from the Apatow camp, which might have had an impact with some other writers, though maybe more on the actors like Franco and Rogen. I bet Chuck Lorre fits in here somewhere, though I'm not sure how.

Would love to hear more thoughts on schools of sitcom writing!!

Hamid said...

My question:

MANNEQUIN 2 - Yay or nay?


Kid Exec said...

I was a programming executive at NBC during the time that we were doing a now-forgotten series called "Double Trouble," with Lear's company, which was Embassy at that time. The show was was a lighthearted, and in truth not very good, re-working of the old "Patty Duke Show." Apparently one of the critics of the show was Lear himself, whose internal note to the creative staff, after seeing a few early episodes, was "we don't do _Laverne and Shirley_ here [referring to Embassy]." It was only then that I understood that Lear wanted everything under his brand to have a political message. Of course, that snooty pronouncement sounded better when referring to Garry Marshall's shows than Jim Brooks'.

Kid Exec said...

I was a programming executive at NBC during the time that we were doing a now-forgotten series called "Double Trouble," with Lear's company, Embassay. The show was was a lighthearted, and in truth not very good, re-working of the old "Patty Duke Show." Apparently one of the critics of the show was Lear himself, whose internal note to the creative staff, after seeing a few early episodes, was "we don't do _Laverne and Shirley_ here [referring to Embassy]." It was only then that I understood that Lear wanted everything under his brand to have a political message. Of course, that snooty pronouncement sounded better when referring to Garry Marshall's shows than Jim Brooks'.

Tom Quigley said...

If baseball institutes the same technology regarding instant replay as football, as far as I know, all the announcers in the booth, including the radio announcers, would have access to the video feeds so they would be able to see what's being reviewed and offer their commentary on it. So it wouldn't be as if they were being kept in the dark about what's being looked at and have to fill the entire time with spots, plugs or old war stories.

benson said...

A quick though on local accents. while I understand how thick local/regional accents could be a problem, what always stuck out for me was non New York centered show where the various guest cast sounds nothing like the locals would. This was very obvious on the Andy Griffith show the most, but noticeable on many others.

And FWIW, seems like there should have been more Boston accents than just Cliff on Cheers.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Roy Phillips: I was going to say, like you, that I've been watching a few episodes of MAUDE lately, and while a number of them do seem dated to me, the one that stands out still is the pair of episodes in which Maude discovers she's pregnant and decides on an abortion. Now, 40 years later, it's almost impossible to find a TV character who actually goes through with it. Even on MAD MEN, Joan has *had* abortions before season 1 begins, but when she gets pregnant in season 4 she keeps the baby. Of course, when Maude did it, it had only just become legal in New York State.

ALL IN THE FAMILY relied, however, on a gender divide that no longer exists in the same way - though families of course still do have political and other divisions.


Courtney said...

Friday questions for another Friday:
Been watching a lot of Everybody Loves Raymond lately, and marveling that, as no show since perhaps The Jack Benny Program, it makes such frequent use of deadpan reactions, often to extraordinary lengths, always to maximum laughter. How can you possibly time your script when you never how long it'll take the audience to stop laughing at Brad Garrett's slightly elevated eyebrow?

Alternate question: so what's your take on Sir Patrick Stewart's by-now-viral YouTube dissertation on "the quadruple take"?

Hamid said...

Off-topic but as punchlines were being discussed this week, I just wanted to post about a couple of my favourite Cheers quotes. There are obviously far too many classic lines to pick an absolute favourite, but whenever I do think about Cheers, almost always the same two quotes come to mind first. One was in the episode where the gang are in the bar watching video footage of Diane dancing. As they all struggle to not burst out laughing, Diane beams proudly and says "Ever since I was a little girl, I've always wanted to dance so badly", to which Norm says "You got your wish".

The other isn't a punchline gag but a priceless character moment. I think Diane was trying to make an arty short film with the Cheers gang. When arguments broke out and filming was disrupted, she just yelled "People! People! Work with me! Work with me!"

Just two examples of why Cheers was, is and always will be my favourite sitcom.

Austin Edwards said...

Are there any books available about the MTM era? I would love to read an oral history (a la Top of the Rock) about the production process there! Maybe it could be your next book. Haha.

The Mutt said...

Friday Question:

Ken, what is your opinion on Instant replay in baseball in general? I hate the idea myself because I don't see how it can work. In baseball, play continues after calls are made by umpires. Fielders and runners make decisions based on those calls.

I foresee nightmare scenarios like umpires trying to position base runners on the base paths based on where they were when the call was made and whether they were running hard or waiting to tag-up. Or taking runs off the board because the first baseman wouldn't have made a throwing error trying to throw out the runner attempting to take third if he had gotten an out call at first. Etc.

Rob in Toronto said...

Austin - Mary And Lou And Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a good history of the MTM sitcom, along with some Rhoda spinoff info as well. Very little on the other MTM shows, but it's a great read for buffs like us.

Johnny Walker said...

I'd love to watch MTM, as I've never seen it, but I cannot find it anywhere here in the UK. Same goes for seasons 3 to 5 of Taxi. Or the Bob Newhart Show. I don't suppose anyone has any tips? Thanks.

Mike said...

@GFoyle: Something like this?

Joey H said...

I never cared much for the Lear shows. Today, I think Modern Family does a good job of being a character driven comedy that still has a mild lesson in every episode.

peabody nobis said...

Re: MTM vs. Lear
I don't think you have to choose-there's room for both genres. I enjoyed both while growing up.
The Archie-Michael dynamic so closely resembled my relationship with my father that he took to calling me "Meathead". We lived in Alabama, so his understanding of race was rooted in the Jim Crow era. We even owned a dry cleaners with separate restrooms for "Whites" and "Coloreds". I didn't understand it, and it led to several heated discussions as I grew older.
I learned to love the MTM show from the afternoon showings by the networks on weekdays. After getting out of school, me and a buddy would go to my house and watch MTM and Archie, back-to-back, before going to our after ashool jobs. It was hard to watch Mary without falling in love with her. She was so gorgeous in those middle years, when she had the golden tan. She could be very funny, but she was a great straight (wo)man, much like Andy Griffith. It takes a very secure actor to let everyone else have all the funniest lines. And what a supporting cast! My God, those were some talented people.

Edward Copeland said...

The state of the MTM library is outrageous. While all of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is available for home viewing, the only other MTM series available on DVD in its entirety is Remington Steele. Fox Home Entertainment holds the remainder hostage (as well as some other series not in the MTM family) and has released partials in bizarre ways. Two out of three of The White Shadow seasons are out. Same with Rhoda. Only the first three seasons of Hill Street Blues and the first of St. Elsewhere. Only the first season of Newhart can be obtained and, in the most infuriating case, all except the final two seasons of The Bob Newhart Show were released and Fox announced they were releasing the last two so Amazon put it up as a pre-order. Unfortunately, Fox changed its mind for some reason and Amazon never caught on so people still were able to preorder. You should read the angry comments from Bob Newhart fans who had pre-ordered the final two seasons and then had them canceled. If producing DVDs and Blu-rays of the shows aren't cost-efficient, that's fine, but in this age of streaming and digital downloads, Fox Home Entertainment has no excuse.