Sunday, October 20, 2013

Writing for BARNEY MILLER

BARNEY MILLER is one of those forgotten gem sitcoms from the 70s. I guess because they were taped and now look like crap you rarely see them pop up in reruns. Set in a detectives’ squad room in an NYPD precinct, BARNEY MILLER was a quirky character comedy revolving around the detectives and the nutcases that walked through their door (most in handcuffs).

It was created by Danny Arnold who was a true character. Brilliant, unpredictable (a nice term for bi-polar), demanding, and kind, Danny was an A-list show runner and a type-A+ personally. The man had a heart attack on the treadmill in his doctor’s office getting his heart checked. He had an oxygen tent installed on the BARNEY set so he could keep going during demanding shooting nights (which lasted routinely until 5 in the morning because of all the pick-ups he wanted). The results were fabulous but what a cost.

When David and I were starting out BARNEY MILLER was just starting to take off. It was one of the show we really wanted to write for. We had sold a couple of things and were making the freelance rounds. Our agent called with the good news that Danny had read our material and loved it. He wanted a meeting.

That meeting was one of the best EVER. We walked into his office and there was the nicest, most ebullient cigar-chomping uncle you’ve ever met. He was effusive in his praise. We couldn’t have been more excited. It was like the prettiest girl in school let you eat at her lunch table.

He invited us to come back with some story ideas and very much looked forward to working with us. A week later we were back in his office with our notions.

I noticed a bit of change right at the start. He was a little more gruff. Probably just the result of a long day. We started pitching and every idea was met with, “NO!!” “FUCK! ARE YOU KIDDING?” “JESUS, HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED OUR SHOW?” Needless to say we were shaken. After he had rejected all of them we started out and just before getting to the door he said, almost as an afterthought, “That Yamada gambling thing. I don’t think there’s anything there but if you want to develop it more you can.” Not exactly a sale.

But we went home and decided to develop it anyway. We wanted to show him that if nothing else we weren’t intimidated by him… although we sure as hell were.

We turned in an outline. He bought it. Had us in for notes and was very complimentary. We implemented his changes and turned in the revised outline.

He cut us off.

Well, we figured, so much for BARNEY MILLER. At least we got outline money.

Two weeks later I get a call from Danny’s assistant. Could we be in his office tomorrow at 8:30? Swell, I thought, he wants to chew us out again.

But we go and it’s the happy ingratiating Danny. “Boys! Come on in. You want a doughnut? How was your weekend?” He had read over our outline again and decided it was terrific. He had just a few tweaks. We were told to dash off a revised outline and then we’d go to work on the draft.

Two days later we delivered the new outline. And the following day…

He cut us off.

It just didn’t “jump off the page” for him. But he paid us for a second outline.

Elements of those outlines appeared in future shows but what the hell? He did pay us.

We never did a BARNEY MILLER assignment but a few years later when we were head writers of MASH he called and asked if we wanted to be his showrunners for the upcoming season. We chose to stay with MASH.

The guys who did take the job worked a million hours a week, learned a hell of a lot, got paid a fortune, and Danny gave them Rolls Royces… which they used to drive themselves to Cedar-Sinai hospital.

BARNEY MILLER is back, on some retro cable channels, DVD's, and I believe Hulu. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.

58 comments:

LouOCNY said...

As you might have guessed by my 5 million posts and mentions of it here, BARNEY is my favorite of all time. So I have to ask - what were some of your ideas for it? Was this during the Fish Era, or Dietrich? And was this the job that went to Dungan and Jeff Stein? In my opinion is that the years from Tony Sheehan and Rheinhold Weege into Dungan/Stein was the show's best - consistent writing and directing (Noam Pitlik for 90% of the shows), the actors were comfortable with their roles, and somehow managed to
managed to make the necessary transition when Jack Soo died, and making Levitt a regular member of the squad, without losing a beat.

RS Gray said...

There may be better sitcoms than Barney Miller, but not many. But there is no sitcom I have fonder memories of. Dad would go bowling on Thursday nights and Mom and. I would watch Welcome Back, Kotter and Barney Miller. I was more familiar with Brooklyn and the Lower West Side than I was my own home town. And Barney always seemed so decent. Then Dad would come home with the carbon copies of his bowling scores (which I kept in a shoebox) and tell me how he did, and I'd tell him what he missed on Barney Miller. And to think Abe Vigoda seemed old back then.

Professor Longnose said...

I loved Barney Miller at the time, and I watched the whole run a couple of years ago and it holds up. Wonderful character comedy.

Yamada with a gambling problem? Hmm. I could see it.

DaveMB said...

Did you guys actually write my favorite Barney Miller line ever? It was when Harris bet Yamada he could quit smoking longer than Yamada could quit gambling:

Y: We Japanese have will power. We eat raw fish.

H: But you like raw fish!

Y: No we don't.

Igor said...


What would Barney Miller look like if it were re-created for today?

I mean that from a positive POV. Not, "Oh, it would be terrible because here are 12 things that were great about it that would be destroyed."

On the other hand, the answer might be, "'Barney Miller' could not work today."

Switching gears (so to speak), let's say you love the original Corvette from the 50s. Over the years, the good people at Chevrolet have produced new versions. Sometimes the reaction has been, "That is not a Corvette!" Sometimes, "Wow. Now THAT'S a Corvette." Those reactions have come from all sorts of people, but few can explain why one iteration worked and another one didn't.

Now, getting back to TV. From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, what would a show look like today that both worked in today's market, and would inspire lovers of the original show to say, "Wow. THAT'S 'Barney Miller'."?

Ray Barrington said...

A longtime favorite of mine; my mother didn't get to watch it because it was on Thursday nights, when she couldn't be home. At first, when it went into syndication, she didn't like it until she sat and watched a few episodes and started to understand how the humor came from the characters as much as the situations, and from that time it was one of her favorites as well.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Id like to see it again myself but all the "retro" channels show only programs from the Fabulous Fifties or the OMG I Love The Eighties! No shows from the Evil Hippie Seventies, a decade that's been purged from history except as a source for shitty remake movies. "Carrie", anyone?

Michael said...

A few years ago, cops were asked who were the most realistic policemen on TV. Half picked Sipowicz, a tribute both to NYPD Blue and to the great Dennis Franz. A quarter said Lennie Briscoe, a tribute both to Law & Order and to Jerry Orbach's brilliance. Ten percent said Fish, and THAT is a tribute, too.

I love watching Barney Miller. I've read that all of them were an extension of Danny--Yemana's gambling, Harris the clothes horse, and, in Fish's case, that Danny spoke of his wife exactly as Fish did of Bernice, but neither could have survived without their women.

Just a brilliant show. And granting that they made the transition, nobody was funnier than Jack Soo. Mushi mushi.

Greg Ehrbar said...

It's so weird to hear "Barney Miller" referred to as "forgotten," but I guess like so many others things we cherished as parts of our lives, it hasn't become the fixture it probably should have become.

Perhaps because it has no sheen, no fast cuts, little romance, who knows? I do recall that real life police had said that "Barney Miller" more resembled their real workplace than other TV cop shows.

I think it could work today, but it would have to be faster paced and be done on more than basically one set. Everything seems to get redone, so it's probably in someone's pipeline.

VincentS said...

That was a great story, Ken. I know I'm dating myself, but BARNEY MILLER was one of my favorite show. It's too bad there aren't many Danny Arnolds around!

LouOCNY said...

I know some NYPD guys, some of them active, some retired, and they say that in the course of their careers, they have worked with people just like every single one of the BM roster.

Dan Ball said...

I came a little late to the BARNEY MILLER game, but I've caught some reruns here and there. I've always liked most things that included my birthday twin, Abe Vigoda, though. Fish was an awesome character. The story behind his audition for the role's pretty hilarious.

Wayne said...

Is it true that once Jerry Lewis was golfing with Dean Martin and foolishly he was such a great golfer that he could make a writer lie on the ground, tee up the ball on his lips and drive the ball down the fairway without touching the writer. Only Jerry clubbed the writer in the head? And the poor writer who got it in the head was Danny Arnold?

I've heard that story and it would at least prove Danny Arnold can take it as well as dish it out.

Rob said...
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Rob said...

LOVED Barney Miller, definitely one of my favorites of the era. Too bad you never sold a script there.

All time favorite moment (out of many), Dietrich is talking about how great The 3 Stooges were, which surprised everyone because he was considered to be too "intellectual" to appreciate such lowbrow comedy.

Levitt says, "I like the ones with Shemp."

Dietrich: "We have nothing further to discuss."

Eric J said...

It pains me to hear 'Barney Miller' described as "forgotten", but I suppose it might be because of the comparative lack of syndication.

I remember each and every one of the characters. Fish, Dietrich and Yamada are my favorites, but I liked and remembered them all. I can't say that about most shows.

Still one of the all time great American sitcoms.

Brownie said...

Barney was terrific, still my favorite sitcom. The Werewolf and Hash episodes still crack me up just thinking about them. Such interesting and unique characters. Inspector Luger was such a treat; and Lt. Scanlon, the guy ya love to hate. The show pops up on Antenna TV now and then, like Thursday and Sunday nights. (I believe it's Yemana. Nick Yemana.)

Scott said...

I got hooked on BARNEY MILLER through reruns on WGN (Chicago). Never saw it as a kid. Seemed like it clashed with THE WALTONS, or some other bit of nonsense my mother never missed. It's a shame it's not better remembered. I think it's one of the best comedies the 1970s produced.

The Mutt said...

One of my all time favorites. And what a perfect model for a sitcom. One set. Let the new comedy come through the door to you.

And as one of those weirdos who is obsessed with character actors, what a treat! Every week offered a new 'hey, it's that guy' moment.

Inspector Luger was such a great character. My favorite moment of his was when he told a mob of Hasidic protesters to "take a shave."

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

Loved BARNEY MILLER.

Barney finally admits he has a tattoo: "It was VE Day. I was 17!"

Yamada: "Did you do anything for VJ day?

Barney: No.

Yamada: Me neither.

Another episode, Wojo is buried in a ditch, and has a near death experience. He talks about it later with Deitrich.

Wojo: I heard voices.

Deitrich: You were buried near some telephone lines.

Wojo: All I'm trying to say is when you die you don't just lie there.

Deitrich: No, you rot.

Finally, Harris brags about the brilliant detective work that went into capturing a serial killer who left his chopped up victims in plastic bags.

Wojo: What detective work? The killer left his wallet in one of the bags.

Harris: Yes, but I had to reach in and dig it out!

Harv said...

Barney Miller comes on the "Antenna TV" network here. (It's not cable.) I watch it, and I have all the dvds, too. It's character driven, which takes patience--people have to get to know the characters. I also think it's like watching a play, because most of episodes take place entirely in the squad room. I also love WKRP, which is another comedy where most of the humor depends on knowing the characters.

Ron Clark said...

This isn't just one of the best comedies of the 70's, it's one of the best of all time. I was a cop for 22 years, and at one time or another I worked with every one of those guys, or combinations of those guys.

This show couldn't be remade. I don't think you could even get through the door now to pitch the idea of a cop show that never leaves the office, and where the youngest leads on the show were in their late 30's when it was on. For this I am glad, because I would hate to see what the talentless hacks that comprise so much of the entertainment industry would come up with for a remake.

KoHoSo said...

Let's all go down to the beach and shoot some clams. XD

LouOCNY said...

Mutt - In reality, Barney almost had a rep company of bit players who showed up once - maybe twice a season:

Richard Libertini: favorite one - the guy who claimed he was from the future - "THE Arthur Dietrich??"

Phil Leeds:

Ralph Manza

Candy Azzaria

Florence Halop

Leonard Stone

Oliver Clark

Ken Tigar

and about 30 others!


They actually got away with using David Clennon in two straight episodes, and nobody noticed! He first did a show as a religious cult leader in full beard, long hair and robes, and in the very next show, was a lawyer from the State department - dressed normally!




Jean said...

Have to say the first season where they tried to integrate Barney's work life with his home life was ... not the strongest.

But not many sit coms do that well....

I like Barbara Barrie, but on that show when she came on the screen the whole show came to a grinding halt.

Jon said...

Barney Miller is one of my favorite shows. I do agree having been 'taped' makes the show visually less appealing.
I really enjoyed the fact that they treated the fans as adults. For example, when the actor Jack Soo passed away, instead of a 'show' with the characters, the cast was allowed to break character and talk about the loss of their friend. I still recall poor Max Gail -without his toupee- barely able to get out his tribute and you see him look down after giving it.
It was a very adult way to handle a real life event. I wish other shows would consider taking this approach.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0bGP9SxIY0
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QCNxBJDibE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAJHmakicYs

Mike in Seattle said...

Why tape? Was that a multi-camera requirement before there was time code on film? If not, could film v. tape be negotiated?

When you guys were getting started, at what point did you have enough experience to join the WGA? Did that make your getting a foot in the door easier?

Mark said...

If more people were too cheap for cable, they would find that the Golden age of 70s sitcoms is well represented on terrestrial superstations.

http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2013/04/terrestrial-superstations.html

METV in particular has built its brand around MTM and MTM adjacent shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, MASH, Taxi and Dick Van Dyke. Not surprisingly both Carl Reiner and Ed Asner are fans.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=20i-0y39CAI

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the superstations that come from the small regional player Weigel (METV, ThisTV, and, in partnership with Fox, MOVIES!) are some of the best you will ever see in any medium while the terrestrial superstation from NBC (COZITV) is perhaps the worst. Only an NBC programmer would think to schedule Munster, Go Home with Agnes of God.

http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2013/04/i-need-to-be-very-careful-when-i-base.html

http://observationalepidemiology.blogspot.com/2013/05/tale-of-two-ad-campaigns.html

Hamid said...

I'm not sure if Barney Miller was ever shown in the UK, and if it was, it was before my time. But reading Ken's piece and all the comments make me want to check it out.

And while we're on the subject of forgotten sitcoms, does anyone else have fond memories of Herman's Head? I liked it but I sometimes felt I was the only person watching!

Steph said...

The episode when Kenneth Tigar guested as a possessed perp terrified me as a kid. Why Barney Miller? That shit gave me nightmares.The possession episodes on "Soap" scared the crap out of me too so maybe it's just me. Still- I have to wonder why demonic possession seemed to be a hot sitcom plot line in the early eighties?

craig m said...

The show also had a very cool instrumental theme song. I heard REM jam to it in one of their early concerts.

Anonymous said...

Yup - definitely one of the best and one of my favorites. I was born just before it went off the air, but I remember watching it as a little kid w/ my dad in syndication. I didn't catch most of the humor, but I always liked Dietrich.

I caught up a bit more as I got older and over the last year or so finally watched the whole series thanks to MeTV.

Really truly one of the best.
-sammy

Johnny Walker said...

When I hears stories like this, I have to wonder if the same brilliance couldn't have been possible without all the stress?

I mean, really. Did all those pick-ups significantly add to the show? Would there be less people here saying how much they loved it?

I would honestly like to know.

Tom Reeder said...

Brownie is correct: Jack Soo's character was Nick Yemana.

Lee Goldberg said...

I once spent a memorable afternoon with Danny Arnold...I have it on tape somewhere... talking about Barney Miller. What I remember most was him telling me that no matter what ethnicity, religion, skin color, or line of work of any character on the show, they were all Jews. By that, he meant they all had Jewish personalities and Jewish senses of humor. I can't watch the Barney Miller reruns now without thinking of that every time.

Ken Levine said...

By the way, be it duly noted that commenter Tom Reeder WROTE the brownie/hash classic episode of BARNEY MILLER.

Nick Davis said...

My all-time favorite sitcom. So well-written, and the characters were just that - CHARACTERS!! And it was loaded with heart, too. I loved it!

Alan Hinton said...

I hope your next book will be available on Nook.

Bob Claster said...

Many questions posted here are answered by Danny Arnold himself in my half-hour interview with him, which you can hear at www.bobclaster.com, for absolutely free! Fascinating man. He claimed that all of the characters in BARNEY were actually aspects of his own personality. It's a shame it isn't easy to get ahold of the 6-episode series he did after BARNEY with Peter Boyle called JOE BASH. Great stuff. Very dark, but great.

Bob Claster said...

To answer one question, though, Arnold wanted to shoot BARNEY on film, but ABC wouldn't spend the money. So the compromise was that they'd let him shoot it on video and edit it as if it had been shot on film. To facilitate that, he set up monitors for each camera in a square with a timecode reader in the center, and shot that with an additional camera, thus inventing the quad split.

Terrence Moss said...

I like that the 70s era of TV looks dated because it was shot on tape and not on film. It adds a raw, grittiness to the look of the show that generally matches it's overall tone.

I'd rather have less visual appeal with great writing and clearly defined characters than a shit show that looks stunning.

Dave Mackey said...

If you want tape to look gritty, just run it through FilmLook or another similar process. I don't think anyone shoots on actual film any more, just video filtered to look like film. I wonder if any producer has tried doing that with old taped sitcoms to make them look more retro and less dated (what a trick)....

The one geeky thing I always noticed on Barney Miller - and I contributed this fact to IMDb - is that when you see the names on the station roll call board, besides the familiar names of MILLER, YEMANA, WOJO, FISH, etc. you would see names like BURSTEIN, CRESS, TALOSI, ALCOCER, etc. Where did those names from? Check the closing credits - they were all ABC camera ops and crew members!

Storm said...

No way? THAT Tom Reeder?!

Good Sir, if you happen to read this thread again, please let me thank you for writing one of the funniest episodes of television, ever. I saw it again recently after not seeing it for years, and it was even funnier than I remembered. I re-watched it like five times; I kept it in my DVR for a while to replay whenever stupid depression decided to rear its stupid head. Laughing myself goofy is better than any pill, so I thank you, and Ken, and all Bringers Of Mirth.

Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

chicoruiz said...

(A recruiting sergeant is in the station house after someone sets off an explosive device in the recruiting station)...

SERGEANT: I just don't understand it....Why would anyone want to bomb a U.S. military station?

YEMANA: ...Nostalgia?

Ron Clark said...

I just read chicoruiz's post and realized THAT is the mark of great comedy. I read that line and laughed out loud at it, just from the memory of that scene being played by Jack Soo and George Scanlon. When a line and a scene from an almost 40 year old comedy stays with you so strongly that even reading the lines from the scene can crack you up, you know as a comedy writer that you've left something lasting. I disagree about Barney Miller being a forgotten gem; it's definitely a gem, but it's most assuredly not forgotten by a lot of us.

McAlvie said...

I LOVED Barney Miller. It was such a great ensemble sitcom, plus the ever changing cast of suspects/guest stars. You never knew what was going to happen next week, but they would find a way to make it funny. And every New York stereotype was represented. Good stuff. And I bet it paid the rent for a lot of starving actors.

Mike W. said...

Barney Miller is indeed seen today on the subchannel network "Antenna TV" two times a week, Thursday and Sunday nights.

It's a digital subchannel of a local over-air station - WJW 8.2 here in Cleveland, for example. Tribune runs it, so check for a local Tribune-owned station.

Tom Reeder said...

Thank you for your kind words, Storm. It's been years since I've looked at that episode, too, but my recollection is that Hal Linden gave an excellent performance. I suspect that we can all relate to Barney's increasing desperation as he tries to hold it together while everything is falling apart around him.

chuckcd said...

Loved that show!
Too bad you didn't get to write an episode.
I could never work for a bi-polar showrunner like that.

courtney said...

Late to the thread, but if you like Barney Miller, you might give a peep to Andy Samberg's new Fox sitcom vehicle, Brooklyn 99, with the great Andre Braugher as sort of a gay Barney. Well, no, not exactly; we're comparing apples and pistachios here. But the ensemble is funny, the cop work is plausible and those of us who miss Barney Miller will grasp at any straw for a laugh these days...

Steve Cloutier said...

I loved Barney Miller when it was on. I teach Media Studies at university now, and I use BM as a kind of a case study on how television shows can reflected the social and political debates of the time. They're all there: gay rights, feminism, NY going bankrupt. I tell my students that if they want a good idea of what the US was like in the late 70s (and early 80s) they should watch Barney Miller.

D. McEwan said...

"Mark said...
If more people were too cheap for cable, they would find that the Golden age of 70s sitcoms is well represented on terrestrial superstations."


Ah, Mark, speakng as someone who is not "too cheap for cable," I can assure you that Time-Warner Cable brings Annteanae TV and ME TV into my home every day, and allows me to DVR them, so I don't have to get up at 4AM to watch Bilko.

@Tom Reeder, the hash brownies episode is the one Barney Miller episode I always record when I see that it's airing, absolutely my favorite episode of that series (Which I believe I've seen every episode of.) One can make me laugh like crazy if one says "Mooshie, mooshie, mooshie" just right.

I had a lady friend who worked for a while in the box office at a Pussycat straight-porn theater in Hollywood back in the early-to-mid 1970s. She said that Jack Soo was a regular patron and was always charming and sweet. Since he showed up so often, they got to regularly chatting, and she just loved him, and Jack loved his porn.

LouOCNY said...

Tom Reeder -

One more kudos for "Hash"! There are just so many classic lines in it!

Nick: Barney...Barney...Barney...is your mother from Killarney

Wojo: Boy, you ask the average guy to be divine, and see what you get

Nick: did you know it makes a noise when you close your eyes? It goes squish....squish....squish

We get to see a spark of what Fish must have been like when he was younger:

Perp: The old guy - he jumps over the gap - BANG ZOOM!
Fish: Yeah!

Which leads to this great exchange at the end:

Fish: Barney..is it true? There was something in those brownies?

Barney: Loaded with hashish

Fish: Really?

Barney: Verified by the lab

Fish (sad look on his face): Best I've felt in 20 years...........and it has to be illegal


It is a testimony to the brilliance of this episode that it took me forever to choose which lines to use, and also took forever to type, 'cause I kept giggling remembering!!

mooshy mooshy forever!



Michael said...

Mr. Reeder, I join in bowing in your direction, also for the MASH episode in which Charles's houseboy is a North Korean spy. Between you and Ken, we have a little too much comedy writing talent here, ya know?

Devon Ellington said...

I loved that show. That show was partially what inspired my love for ensemble casts. I loved watching it, I love the memories surrounding the watching it.

David said...

Tom Reeder commenting on Ken Levine's site? Wow, a mini-Cheers writers reunion! (A question, in fact: Do you writers from all those great shows ever get together to reminisce - all the comraderie / frustration / elation?)

As someone who grew up experiencing your great writing on shows like MASH, Barney Miller, Cheers, I just want to thank you both of you for the well-earned laughter over the years.

JDygola said...

"Barney, Barney, Barney is your mother from Killarny?"
Honestly one of the funniest things I had ever seen on TV, and I watched a lot of TV back then. Thank You!!