Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Not for the superstitious: Friday the 13th Questions.

Jessica Munson leads off:

I was listening to an interview with Phil Rosenthal recently. He made a pretty good point that I never thought of before. He said as good as Friends was, it kind of ruined the types of television shows that made it on-air because executives have never known what's funny, but after the success of Friends they've resorted to build shows around young, attractive people. That's why a grounded, honest show like Raymond would be very difficult to get made today. Do you feel this is true?

I feel that is absolutely true. And of course, at the time they were rehearsing the FRIENDS pilot NBC said they had to make one of the kids the star. Director James Burrows said no, that’s not what he signed on for. The beauty of the show was that it was an ensemble and that all six leads would be equal. Once the show was a hit NBC took credit for its development and success of course.

But a sitcom starring all attractive young people became the brass ring for networks. Especially on Fox. NEW GIRL is their template. Older actors could be the “parents” or “bosses” of the young people but the good-looking kids had to be in the forefront.

I’ve always believed that for comedies you cast the funniest people. And often times those are not the most attractive. Today that would probably result in a big fight.

From Rodney:

It seems that when a show goes into syndication while still being on the air it can have a very positive affect on that show's audience numbers for the original shows. Big Bang Theory is a show that I think benefited. Wings could be another example. My question is: have you ever seen the reverse be true. That when a show goes into syndication the audience just loses interest in the older shows as well as the new ones? I bring it up because of Modern Family going into syndication.

Surprisingly, no, I can’t think of one instance where a show that goes into syndication while first-run episodes are still airing has suffered. Maybe I’m missing one or two. But you’d think that lots of them would fall victim to over-exposure when in fact the reverse is true.

Folks discover shows on cable and then become fans. WINGS in particular, got a big boost. When you think about it, with people able to utilize Netflix, buy seasons on DVD, or watch multiple episodes on ON DEMAND, a viewer can easily binge on practically any current show on the air.

The bottom line is the show has to be good. And has to be successful in syndication on its own. Due to its topicality, MURPHY BROWN did horrible in syndication. WINGS did great.

Meanwhile, NCIS has gotten a huge uptick due to syndication. And you can’t kill LAW & ORDER with a stick.

Carson wonders:

Are you encouraged to use actors in guest spots that are already tied to the studio? Specifically I'm thinking that both Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth did Star Trek episodes. And several Star Trek alums did Frasier. Or do you just become friends all working on the same lot?

Usually it’s the latter. Same is true with writers. Several CHEERS writers were friends with STAR TREK producers and got to be extras in an episode. They had just been beamed about the ship after having had the shit beaten out of them in some interplanetary battle. I have to say, they stole the show.

And finally, Professor Longnose asks:

Were you ever tempted to create a baseball sitcom? Or did Ball Four just destroy that genre in its infancy?

The problem with doing a baseball series is that they can be very expensive. Staging baseball games, especially on the professional level where you need big crowds and complicated shooting is a real undertaking. That’s why baseball series generally revolve around little leagues. You get a bunch of kids, six crazed dads in the stands and you go.

However, those problems don't exist in animation and indeed we wrote a SIMPSONS episode (Dancing Homer) that was centered around baseball.  

There have been a couple of other series besides BALL FOUR. There was a version of LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. Steve Bochco did a very ambitious series about the minor leagues called BAY CITY BLUES. A certain BASIC INSTINCT star was in that cast. There was also a Fox series called HARDBALL, which was a knock-off of MAJOR LEAGUE. There may be one or two others, but those are the only ones I can remember.

But getting back to your original question – I would love to do a baseball series.

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


Neil D said...

It's not just sitcoms - I've been wondering for a while when they stopped casting adults as the leads for any TV shows. I'm don't think that it's not just because I'm getting older and early 20-somethings seem much younger to me now than they used to.

I'm pretty sure no way does a show like The Rockford Files with a 40+ year old lead get made today, let alone The Equalizer or Murder, She Wrote.

Johnny Walker said...

It's crazy. One big hit, and the executives lose their imagination. There's so many examples of hit comedies with an older cast -- not mention so many examples of hilarious (but not, ahem, "attractive") comedy legends.

Has the world changed, or have the people controlling the content changed?

bill said...

I know your "dancing homer" episode well. My last name is McCloskey and years ago when the internet was young, if I did a search on my name, I came up with me and the dancing homer episode. You named someone in the script McCloskey.

Devin McMusters said...

The two funniest shows on right now, The Middle and the Neighbors, certainly don't feature many beautiful people.

Richard J. Marcej said...

I was a fan of "Bay City Blues" and had wished it lasted longer. If I recall, Dennis Franz, who played a coach that would attempt insurance fraud in his off hours, appeared on BCB prior to his two stints on "Hill Street Blues".

I'd always thought a unique way to make a baseball TV show would to attempt something like I believe the play "Bleacher Bums". It could be sort of a "Cheers" but at a ballpark. The set would be a section os seats where the regulars sit at the game. Obviously you'd have to expand sets , other parts of the park, the main characters homes, etc… but the grandstand would always be the central spot of the show.

Jason said...

I've seen the last minute of New Girl dozens of times (before the start of the show I'm trying to watch), plus a number of ads for it, which I'd think would contain humor. I've never ONCE found it even the tiniest bit funny.

Curt Alliaume said...

The classic example of ageism on a TV series is Mork & Mindy - in the second season, Mindy's father and grandmother were written out in favor of younger characters. There were a bunch of other changes (a shift from Thursday to Sunday, and stories took on a different tone than the first year's shows), all of which combined to tick viewers off. ABC and Paramount tried undoing much of what they'd done, and added new characters and story lines, but the momentum never really came back.

Mark in Auburn said...

Adding a young actor to a cast is a practice that's been going on for decades. That's how Chekov (Walter Koenig) came to be on Star Trek in the second season. (Some stories say the popularity of The Monkees is what led to that move.)

Phillip B said...

Oh noo! - Ron Shelton is laboring to turn "Bull Durham" into a Broadway musical -

At least he isn't trying to fund it through Kickstarter. Yet...

Jay said...

Baseball => eastbound and down <3

Anonymous said...

Last week's Raising Hope was wone of the best examples of focusing on the 'older' actors. In "Murder, She Hoped" Burt & Virginia went all Rear Window. One of the best ever.

Pam aka Sisterzip

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Richard J. Marcej: I like that idea. Mine was to set it in the locker room/office. The problem with a baseball show made by a baseball nut is he might make the mistake of thinking it's about baseball. :)

Good. The numbers are back on the captcha. Much easier.

Charles Warn said...

gratis idea:
"A-Rod after baseball"
sitcom from FOX

Michael said...

Given the increased focus on ratings "demo" of young viewers vs total number of viewers, I think there will be a continued emphasis on young leads. For example, last night Scandal had 9.3 million viewers with a demo of 3.2 while Elementary had 9.5 million viewers with a demo of 1.8 in same time slot, yet Scandal is written about as a much bigger hit (and my guess attracts much bigger advertiser dollars).

John said...

Ken, on the going into syndication while the show is still in first-run on network -- back in the old days, when re-runs aired out of prime-time when the show was still on network, they would re-title those episodes, under the premise that people were too stupid to realize a show running five times a week at 5:30 p.m. wasn't the same as a show running once a week at 9 o'clock at night.

But I remember reading a story in late 1978 or early '79 that, because of some sort of mistake by Fox and/or CBS, the episodes of MASH about to enter syndication were keeping their original title, and the Monday night CBS episodes faced the dilemma of finding a new title because of the idea that first-run and syndicated episodes couldn't share the same name.

In the end, it didn't happen, of course, but was that scenario really playing out during the last season you were show-running for it with David?

Rich Shealer said...

@John - Ken answered this in a previous Friday question.

Canda said...

While Bleacher Bums as a series is a good idea, all baseball shows have one great problem - baseball takes place in the summer, while the TV season is traditionally from late September through May. The characters would have to be in summer all season, while the audience would be experiencing different times of year.

Anna Hedburg said...

Hey Ken,

I've been watching a lot of SNL lately and I know there has been countless cast members who ended up starring in NBC produced sitcoms, most currently Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg.

My question is: when you sit down to write characters do you ever think of certain actors for the parts to help yourself write it, even if they might be unattainable, and do you ever go so far to name them (Seth Meyers-like)or is that crossing the line between storyteller and fanatic fan?

Mark B. said...

What advice would you have for someone who has (brief) experience storyboarding and would like to tackle a screenwriting project (like a 5-10 minute short)? Is format something to consider when you're a newbie?

Diogo said...

Matthew Perry is set to produce and star in a new version of The Odd Couple as Oscar Maddison. What do you think of the apparent recent trend of remaking classic television shows, and the fact that it keeps persisting, despite the fact that most of them seem to die horrible deaths? It'd also be interesting to see how modern audiences perceive Felix. I fear there will be a temptation to turn him from neat freak to gay.

Mike said...

I always feel that the "suits" are unjustly vilified on this blog. (But then, I've never met any of them.) They're conscientously performing their duties as custodians of the company's money and bankers to the shareholders. Their task is risk reduction - the bigger the budget, the more formulaic the product and the heavier their interference. So Hollywood has decided that the best way to make money is through blockbusters - the blockbusters become comic book sequels.

VP81955 said...

1. Many of you are assuming that "Friends" was a good show, something I don't agree with. There always seemed to be a smugness about it.

2. I sense the suits admired "Friends" because of the log-rolling between Warners (whose property it was) and TimeWarner, explaining why cast members (particularly Jennifer Aniston) were disproportionately on the covers of that group's magazines.

Liggie said...

"Mom" is one show that's not quite following the beautiful-young-lead blueprint. Although the quite attractive Anna Faris is nominally the lead, 54-year-old Allison Janney is as much of a reason for the show's reach as Faris is. I constantly laugh my gut out at the outrageous stuff Janney does and says that Faris' hapless character has to deal with.

F.Q., advice version. What do you think is the best way to divide time on two projects at different stages of development? I've marketing one completed screenplay and am about to start the first draft on another, and the professional feedback I've been getting is that the completed script needs a moderate rewrite. Does that mean I should put the new one aside while I do the rewrite?

Fred said...

I don't know if you allow it but his article on the state of sitcoms
Says exactly why I click right by anything produced in the last 2-3 years. The sitcom landscape has turned into my Thor 2

Aaron Sheckley said...

@ Mike:
My opinion is that, Once art is regarded as a product to be produced for the profit of a company and it's shareholders, you're going to start filtering out anything controversial, or though provoking, or unique. That's why television has always been years behind where society actually is at that moment, and why we get endless repetitions of hit shows. It's why non-caricatured gay characters were an anomaly on TV until probably the 90s, and why we have endless copies of Law and Order and CSI. "Make money. not waves" has got to be an entertainment industry mantra.

Mike Snider said...

How about a baseball sitcom set in a team's Traveling Secretary office? One of the main characters could be a 'so-so' player who keeps going up to the majors and back down to the minors every couple weeks (Based on an all-too-true story!)
PLUS: all the baseball action would happen offscreen, or rather, on the same TV screen that regular BB fans see it just license footage from ESPN, etc.

Daniel said...

Here's my Friday question: How many permanent sets does a sitcom usually have available? An ensemble show like Friends or The Big Bang Theory has a lot of different characters living in separate apartments. Are some of them a generic apartment set that keeps getting redressed, or is there a lot of storage space in the studio?

And, at the risk of boring people with insider trivia, I'm curious: When characters on a show live across the hall from each other, do they build one big set with a hallway in the middle or a bunch of smaller sets?

Jim Linzer said...

Neil D: A couple of years ago, there was a pilot for a new version of "The Rockford Files" with Dermot Mulrooney (born 1963) in the lead. However, it did not sell, so I suppose your point still holds.

Anna Hedburg: Supposedly, in the script for the "Mission: Impossible" pilot, the master of disguise was named Martin Land--creator Bruce Geller's none-too-subtle way of indicating who he wanted for the role. After Martin Landau signed on, the character was renamed Rollin Hand, a name selected so as to minimize the retyping needed.

Bobby M. said...

Hey Ken!

Long time reader, first time Friday Question asker.

When I was in undergrad, a teacher of mine told me that many contemporary sitcoms are based off of Jewish theater: the Rabbi, the Putz, the Schmuck, and the Princess appear as the main character archetypes. He specifically cited Frasier, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and even Friends to some extent (though the leads rotate these roles frequently). Now I'm in grad school, and my theater history teacher suspects the tradition dates as far back as Plautus and the birth of New Comedy.

My question to you—as a college professor and writer of one of the aforementioned shows—is how aware of this were you when writing for TV? Did you work to establish characters as these specific archetypes? Do you even agree with this?

Thanks! (and if you answer my question, I promise to buy your book, which I hear is available on Amazon for $2.99)

William said...

Friday Question:

What was it like working with Derek Jacobi? Did you come up with the idea of mocking a Shakespearean actor first, and then sign Jacobi, or did you know you could get Jacobi and then thought up the character for him?

For those not in the know: Derek Jacobi is one of the great Shakesperean actors of his generation, who did a guest appearance on Fraiser in "The Show Must Go Off".

Stella said...

A Friday question: Hey Ken! So, I just watched His Girl Friday, (I was thrilled to read the snippets you wrote about it)
and I heard somewhere that because improv was encouraged on the set, Rosalind Russell hired a writer to beef up her part. Have you ever heard about things like that happening in tv or other movies? Have you ever encountered that?

Trey said...

@Daniel: That's an interesting question. I do know that doubling up on sets happens. On I LOVE LUCY, Lucy and Ricky's bedroom doubled as Fred and Ethel's living room. On BEWITCHED, Tabitha's nursery doubled as Darrin's den.

Metal Mickey said...

@ Neil D

"Person Of Interest" has a noticably older cast than most shows - the 4 main cast members are all over 40, only the most recent additions (Amy Acker & Sarah Shahi) are younger... great show, too!