Sunday, April 27, 2014

A tribute to WINGS

Hard to believe but it’s been 24 years since WINGS premiered on NBC. I was with that show for most of its run as a one-night-a-week creative consultant (“We need a Fay joke, hotshot!”). My partner David and I also wrote six or eight episodes (including the one where Frasier and Lilith come to Nantucket), and I got my first directing assignment on WINGS as well.

WINGS was created by Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell. They would later go to create FRASIER. For whatever reason WINGS never got the respect it deserved. How much so? The only acting Emmy nominations it received were for Kelsey Grammer and Tyne Daly. None of its actual cast members were recognized. And that was a terrific cast. Steven Weber, Tim Daly, Tony Shaloub, Thomas Hayden Church (who later got an Oscar nomination so I’m not crying for him), Crystal Bernard, Rebecca Schull, Amy Yasbeck, and the hilarious David Schramm.

WINGS was supposed to be a Fall show but the producers had a bitch of a time casting it. They wanted really special people, and faces you hadn’t seen on seventeen other shows. As I recall, the hardest one to cast was Helen. In any event, production of the pilot got pushed and the show premiered very late.

I remember the week of the pilot (beautifully directed by Jim Burrows) our big hurdle was explaining how Helen, who had grown up on Nantucket with the Hackett brothers, had a Texas accent.

Some great comedy writers were involved with WINGS. Dave Hackel who went on to create BECKER, Steve Levitan who later created JUST SHOOT ME and then reunited with another WINGS alum Christopher Lloyd to create MODERN FAMILY. Other WINGS writers went to on become show runners of MURPHY BROWN, THE CLOSER, and one now lives on a boat!

WINGS was shot on Stage 19 at Paramount, which is cavernous. They needed a big stage to accommodate an airport hanger, terminal, and any additional sets. Trivia side note: We shot the pilot of ALMOST PERFECT on that stage and since we had no budget for sets, for Nancy Travis’ house we just repainted Helen’s house set. It was either that or say she lived in a plane.

Ratingswise, WINGS did okay but was never a breakout hit. Ironically, once it went to cable (seen twelve times a day on USA), ratings for the first-run episodes on NBC went way up. More people were discovering the show.

For my money, WINGS holds up better than most sitcoms over the last 20 years. It is a very funny show. The stories are clever, the jokes are sharp, and the performances are top notch. WINGS doesn’t feel dated.

In the final episode all of the writers are used as extras. I’m in one scene sitting in the terminal. My agent says that’s not enough for a full reel but that’s just him being lazy.

I’m as proud to say I worked on WINGS as I am to say I worked on CHEERS and FRASIER. I even still wear the show jacket. Happy 24th!

44 comments:

Hamid said...

I'm sorry to say I never really got a chance to get into WINGS as it aired sporadically here in the UK before vanishing altogether. But I do remember two things about it. One was tuning in to see the bizarre sight of Dan Quayle making a cameo appearance. The other was a joke in an episode of The Simpsons at the expense of the show, where a network announcer says "Tonight on WINGS... oh, who cares?"

Johnny Walker said...

Wow, I had no idea that WINGS ran for 8 years. It was a lot more successful than I realised.

tim said...

To say nothing of the most inspired use of classical music as a TV theme song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TXIBCNqIUw

Hamid said...

Ok, having googled and IMDB'd, which I should've done beforehand, it seems I got it wrong about Quayle being in WINGS. Instead he was in MAJOR DAD.

welcometosherwood said...

I watched Wings regularly when it was on prime time, and enjoyed it. My wife and I have started to watch re-runs via Netflix streaming, and to my surprise, I like the show even more now. It is very funny, and the characters are all interesting people, who it is fun to get to know. One other thing about Wings, it is the only sitcom I can recall that has a theme song without lyrics... And it is the only theme song that makes me feel relaxed after the opening credits. You're justified in your pride to have been associated with that show, Ken.

Ralph C. said...

I just re-watched all of the available episodes of WINGS on Netflix. I enjoyed the show now more than I did when it was originally aired, and I liked it okay then. I think one of the things I liked about WINGS was the comfortableness of it, even when the plots were crazy and wild. There was a gentleness about it, and I think that had to do with the location of the show. The airport was in Nantucket, I believe, and I think that environment, or what I or someone else might picture it, was present. The show felt....local, cozy, low-key. For me, that aspect played better in my 40s than it did in my 20s.

ScottyB said...

I loved 'Wings' from beginning to end during it's original run, but got totally sick of it when USA and TBS beat it to death 90 times a day, like what ION does with 'Criminal Minds' and 'Ghost Whisperer'. But now ya can't find it anywhere and I miss it again.

Here's a Friday question for Ken, which does have something to do with 'Wings': Is it true that once main characters start getting romantically hooked up with each other on a comedy, that's a sign the show has begun its death spiral? Do the writers just run out of other better ideas or something? It happened with 'Wings' and other well-liked shows, including 'Friends' and 'The Drew Carey Show.' Romantic entanglements just seem to fuck up perfectly good shows.

pumpkinhead said...

Always liked Wings and agreed that it never got the respect it deserved. Favorites: the Valerie Mahaffey episodes.

Canda said...

WINGS had the misfortune of being on, when other comedies were regularly having their casts get nominated (Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Estelle Getty, Helen Hunt, the Seinfeld Cast, Candice Bergen, Christine Baranksi from Cybil, Calista Flockhart, John Goodman, etc.), plus other shows dominated the ratings like SEINFELD, HOME IMPROVEMENT, etc.

Had it started in 1998 or 1999, maybe things would have been different.

ScottyB said...

Oh man -- 'Becker'. Probably the best overlooked sitcom (other than the 'The John Larroquette Show' -- the one set in a St. Louis bus station) that is just waiting to be re-discovered even more. Except not 90 times a day on one cable station, hopefully.

The huge difference tho between 'Becker' and 'Larroquette' was the bitingly-funny writing on 'Becker' was consistent during it's entire run, whereas the network forced 'Larroquette' to get toned down and diluted after the first season, like what happened after the first season or two of 'The Andy Griffith Show'.

S. S. said...

"I had no idea that WINGS ran for 8 years."
"the only theme song that makes me feel relaxed after the opening credits."
Don't use these quotes as blurbs for the dvd box.

VP81955 said...

I rarely watched the series, but I did see part of a dress rehearsal at Stage 19 when I took a tour of the Paramount lot in September 1996. Fascinating...and Crystal Bernard was charming.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Wings never got the respect it deserved, but obviously someone was watching it; 8 years is a damn good run on network TV. I thought it had a lot of sharp writing and some genuinely funny characters, and its lack of recognition really eludes me. Of course, it also eludes me why so many people hate Billy Joel's music, why Two Broke Girls was renewed, or why Honey Boo Boo was ever more than a "WTF was THAT??" moment on television. I'm obviously not a good barometer of what constitutes "buzz".

I did get a big kick out of Glenn Quagmire's spirited defense of Wings on a Family Guy episode a few years ago.

ODJennings said...

Maybe I'm off base here, but I've noticed that whenever Ken mentions Wings, lists his favorite actors to work with, or generally writes about who the good guys are, there's one female Wings cast member who is never mentioned on this blog.

The repeated omissions remind me of the old Soviet Union and how they would airbrush the purged politicians out of the photos.

Is there a story here?

Janice said...

I love WINGS so much that I own the whole series on DVD. To this day, Tony Shalhoub's Antonio is my favorite sad-sack of all-time. Both the writing and portrayal of that character allow us to feel comfortable enough to genuinely laugh at his misery, which makes it that much funnier.

Johnny Walker said...

ODJennings, not being overly familiar with WINGS, I'm guessing you're referring to Farrah Forke?

She and Ken actually had a brief (and very polite) back and forth on his blog here: http://kenlevine.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/flexing-my-wings.html

KEN: "That's Farah Forke who was on the show as Alex for a couple of seasons. She is a total doll." (read the rest above)

ODJennings said...

That's good to hear. I always liked her on Wings, and I thought she was destined for great things in the business.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting that you post this...for some reason it occurred to me yesterday, out of the blue, what a murderer's row of acting talent this show had. This is one show that actually isn't syndicated enough.

Phil Buckman said...

WINGS was definitely one of my favorite jobs. "Carter, the video store clerk" was so well written. I never got to thank the producers for submitting me for an EMMY for Best Actor in a Guest Starring Role, so...
THANK YOU!!!
(And, for writing the character of "Leo", on FRAISER for me!)

Phil Buckman said...

WINGS was definitely one of my favorite jobs. "Carter, the video store clerk" was so well written. I never got to thank the producers for submitting me for an EMMY for Best Actor in a Guest Starring Role, so...
THANK YOU!!!
(And, for writing the character of "Leo", on FRASIER for me!)

Eric J said...

Wings is one of the best. Very underrated. I can't use my Dust Buster without thinking of "A Terminal Christmas".

Anonymous said...

I adored "Wings," having watched the majority of it in syndication on USA when I was in college.

Yes, it was very funny, but one thing that made it stand out for me was the dramatic arc: Joe and Brian had a pretty crushingly sad childhood and a lot of scars associated with that. But it was all treated with nuance and blended very well with the overall humor. And also on the dramatic side, what a declaration of love that Joe made to Helen in that elevator! Be still my heart.

Of course, no mention of the show can be complete without quoting the big sandwich episode. "We are a simple people. We fish our waters, we till our lands, we eat a big sandwich."

Laura said...

Two of my favorites were the Bri Bri and Joey Bear episodes!

Aaron Sheckley said...

Every time I've been in New Mexico and seen signs for Las Cruces, I always hear it in my head in Carlton Blanchard's voice....

Anonymous said...

What about "My goat knows the bowling scores'" ? That has to be one of the best song lyrics ever.

I love that show. They had it on Reels weekday until recently. Even though I've seen almost every episode I still DVRed it. I saved the last episode. I'll have to look for you.

Julie C

Todd Everett said...

Anonymous Hamid said...

Ok, having googled and IMDB'd, which I should've done beforehand, it seems I got it wrong about Quayle being in WINGS. Instead he was in MAJOR DAD.


People are always confusing those two.


welcometosherwood said...

... One other thing about Wings, it is the only sitcom I can recall that has a theme song without lyrics...


"Taxi."

Johnny Walker said...

Don't forget Roseanne, M*A*S*H, The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, 30 Rock, Seinfeld. And, of course, Almost Perfect! ;)

gottacook said...

Also: Night Court, Barney Miller, and The Bob Newhart Show (although Rev. Jim did write a few lyrics for the latter, and sang them to Marcia Wallace, on Taxi).

(Of course that was for the first version of the Newhart theme. The transmogrified/funkified version used for the last three seasons, with the trumpet solo near the end, was great too, although not suitable for lyrics. Hooray for Patrick Williams, who also gave us the Lou Grant theme.)

DBenson said...

"Wings" also got dinged on "Duckman", an animated series designed to be a cult show from square one. One of the devil's minions says the cast of "Wings" wants another season, the devil tiredly says he can only do so much.

Myself, I liked the show and had a crush on Ms. Bernard. Ms. Forke had a habit of turning up on shows that were up and running, doing a good job and not quite taking root. But she never just vanished, suggesting the showrunners didn't have any complaints. On "Lois and Clark" she was a cop who distrusted Superman but was hot for Clark Kent. After several episodes they wrote her out, but gave her a dramatic on-screen death.

Klee said...

I've tried...but never got into it.

Henry said...

As Homer said in "Strong Arms of the Ma," (while eating dinner in the basement): "It's like we're at Cheers. I loved that show because you always knew it was only a half-hour till Wings. Then you could just sleep till Monday."

Exactly. What could be better?

Henry said...

Here's a Friday question: Why is "Try to Remember the Night he Dismembered," Season 3, Episode 9 of Wings (and one of my favorites), not on Netflix, along with a couple others? I don't catch what would be in that episode that is in any different than another. I've noticed that about quite a few streaming series, such as Frasier. Netflix used to tag those episodes "DVD Only," so you knew what you were missing, now they just jump the numbering and you have to compare their list to Wikipedia or IMBD to figure out which ones you need you need to hunt down on youtube.

Anonymous said...

The show where the comic relief are known to Emmy and Oscar .

D. McEwan said...

I liked Wings very much, and watched the entire run. Here's how much I liked it: even though I came in and read for a role in one episode and lost the part to some British actor, I still watched and loved the show, though I didn't care too much for the English stiff who got the role I read for.

Oh, and my mom liked the show very much also.

diego said...

i watched wings a lot as a kid, thanks to the nonstop reruns on USA. i think my favorite episode was the one where roy comes over to play trivial pursuit

Steve C. said...

"My Goat knows the bowling score"

SkippyMom said...

I always enjoyed Wings when during it's run and made a point to watch it. I also had no idea it ran for 8 years.

I do have one question tho' - as much as I love Crystal Bernard in anything, and it was difficult to cast that part, isn't it the sign of a great actress that she modulate her accent to the role she is playing?

Tony Shaloub's character and the Helen character were my absolute favorites. It was a great mix of personalities working in the airport, and it was enjoyable to watch every week.

Hard to believe it's been 24 years.

Jerry Krull said...

Wings was a favorite show of mine as well. My friends and I recently talked about our favorite sitcom scenes. I brought up a scene from Wings when the men in the show are sitting in the terminal and start discussing who they thought was the best looking male celebrity. Love that scene. The writing was sharp and the actors looked like they had a blast acting it. Now I have to find out what season that is from. Been years since I've seen it.

Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Jerry. That was from NOSES OFF, an episode I co-wrote with David Isaacs.

Richard said...

Nice article. I spent most of my jr. high and high school years watching Wings on USA. What a nice memory.

Jerry Krull said...

Ken I swear I wasn't pandering. I dind't know you and David wrote the episode.

That scene has always stuck in mind as a great example of a well written, well acted and well directed scene.

Loved the line with Lyle picking "Mr. Tom Petty!" And Antonio describing the men - beautiful ending line to the scene.

Ken Levine said...

Seriously, Jerry, I appreciate it. That is one of my all-time favorite scenes too. It made my day that someone else feels that way too.

Alec said...

I really like "Wings". A question I have for Ken is what does he make of the running joke on "Family Guy" where Quagmire constantly tries to remain his friends of "Wings" and they don't seem to remember it. He gets angry and says he loves Wings. Like to know Ken's thoughts on that.

Rosaleen Mc said...

I absolutely loved Wings when it was on and still do. In fact I have all seasons on DVD. Even though I was sad to see the show end I think everyone did a terrific job writing the ending. There are so many funny episodes and yes the Tom Petty one made me cry I laughed so much..I believe I saw actors almost cracking up themselves especially Tim Daley and Steven Weber. My all time favorite is when Brian is staying with Fay and he thinks she is a serial killer after watching an episode of that Maury Povich show...so funny.