Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What killed our show: Follow up

Yesterday’s post on what killed our TV series sparked a lot of conversation in the comments section. So I thought I’d follow up on some things.

Reader Elf asked:

Was there ever any justification given for the network demand that Kevin be dropped? Did they not like his performance? Did they have research that showed he scared small children? Did he sleep with one of the network executive's wives?

The reason given (and I say that because who really knows?) was testing. And it’s not that Kevin tested particularly bad; it’s just that the others tested higher.

When I asked to see the testing they would only provide me with the comments people wrote. There were the usual “love her” “hate her” “I can’t stand the shoes everyone wears” comments, but there were also a lot of comments saying “this is a real cute show and I’d watch this if it were on the air.” And this was after we had been on the air for a year. What this tells me is that a bigger problem than Kevin was the CBS promotion department. On the air for a full season and all these test subjects thought it was a pilot?

And there too, maybe that affected the testing. If these people saw episode 16 and thought it was the pilot then they weren’t properly introduced to the characters and relationships.

RareWaves wondered if we had considered pulling a BEWITCHED and just swapping lead actors. No. Never for a moment. So much of the relationship was the chemistry and dynamics. That changes significantly with a new person in the role. Better to find someone else, go down a different track.

Bill Jones said...

Excellent story and guidance. However, this part struck me:

"we did one where Nancy overhears who she thinks is the man of her dreams but all she knows is that he spilled salad dressing on himself so at a big industry party she goes around checking out every man’s crotch. And we did one where she goes to a grief counseling class, doesn’t realize it’s for people who lost pets, shares her story and makes it seem like she had sex with her dog."

I'm going to remember this the next time you call out current sitcoms for "too many vagina jokes," etc. Crotch jokes and sex-with-dog jokes aren't exactly highbrow.

Glass houses, etc...

There are ways of dealing with this subject matter in somewhat sophisticated ways. In the case of the dog sex episode, everything was inferred. It was a comedy of misunderstanding not bestiality. And the fun was everyone’s reaction to the story. In today’s series I imagine characters would have sex with dogs. “Dude, I got so wasted last night. I think I did this really bad thing.” We stayed well clear of that.

As for the crotches. The fun was Nancy and the other characters circulating a party having to take discreet quick peeks at guy’s crotches. In some cases they were spotted and the fun was their excuses. At one point Nancy was discreetly checking some guy out and he said, “My eyes are up here.” It was a nice play on the complaint women often have about men always fixated on their breasts. I believe the bit was done in a subtle and tasteful way, but you may disagree. 2 BROKE GIRLS is on every week, Bill. Check it out.

And finally, Chip Zien, from our cast checked in:

Maybe I'm wrong... But I thought the premise of the show was a devilishly handsome but frustrated overlooked member of a writing team with glasses struggles with lack of respect issues and his inability to meet nice women. There was another concept? What?!

The truth is Chip’s character “Gary” was my favorite to write of in the series. I’ve since written a screenplay and stage play where essentially that same character appears and I always hear Chip’s voice when I write it. In ALMOST PERFECT, we had Gary married to “Patty” (played hilariously by Lisa Edelsten) – every Jewish boy’s dream/nightmare. Anytime we had a scene between the two of them, especially an argument, Robin Schiff (one of the show's co-creators) and I would just channel Patty and Gary. The rest of the staff would sit back as Robin and I just dictated the scene. Clearly, we were both in need of serious therapy.
An interesting story about Chip. When we were originally casting the show he was in New York and auditioned on tape. We liked the audition a lot but learned he was committed to another CBS pilot. So we moved on.

The table reading for the pilot was on a Thursday. The next day was Good Friday so we planned to not rehearse; just resume on Monday.

The actor we had chosen for Gary did not do well at the table reading. We decided to replace him. But with whom? At least we had one day’s reprieve because of Good Friday. Talk about scrambling. Our casting director discovered that Chip had only been hired as a guest star in the pilot. They had no hold on him other than filming the actual pilot (which had already been shot). It’s a gamble production companies sometimes take. They figure the actor won’t get another pilot so if their show is picked up they can negotiate a better deal. But if he does get another pilot, you’re fucked.

So Chip was available. We watched his tape again and knew instantly that he was the guy. A call was made to Chip who said he was interested.

Things were going a little too smoothly. We called CBS and they wanted us to see several other actors, none of whom were even remotely right. We didn’t have the time to waste. We had to close Chip’s deal and get him on a plane to Los Angeles.

Thus a long call to CBS. We said time was of the essence, they obviously like Chip’s work if they approved him for another pilot, the actors they suggested were totally wrong for what we had in mind – let’s just do this. They begrudgingly gave in. Usually that means they’ll hate the person, but we would face that potential problem later.

So Chip arrived on Monday, was fantastic, and on Wednesday we had the network runthrough. To their credit, after Chip’s first scene, the executive who had his doubts took us aside and said, “He’s perfect! I didn’t see what you were going for, but now I get it totally.”

Unfortunately, that executive was replaced and the rest is "our show was history."

I’ve inquired about getting ALMOST PERFECT released either on DVD or on streaming sites. So far I’ve hit a brick wall. It’s too bad because it was a good show that deserved a better fate.


luciuspaisley said...

"It was a comedy of misunderstanding not bestiality."

It's a sad comment on the viewing public when something like this needs to be pointed out.

willieb said...

In watching one of the episodes you embedded, I wondered -- forgive me if you've addressed this before -- why did you guys choose 40s-style clarinet jazz for your theme?

Carol said...

I actually remember reading something; probably in TV Guide, about the decision to get rid of Kevin's character. I remember thinking it was a stupid idea at the time. But I still watched the show because I liked it, and was sorry when it got cancelled.

Maybe you can start a Kickstarter to get it on Netflix or something.

I said this in yesterday's post, but I didn't say it until today, so I'm repeating myself, just in case. I had the great good fortune to see Chip Zien in Into The Woods on Broadway back in the day, and he's actually the reason I started watching Almost Perfect. Don't remember any episodes where you got him to sing, though. Did you?

Bill Jones said...

Thanks for addressing my comment, Ken. Your explanation makes perfect sense. I can think of plenty of clever sexual innuendo jokes on Cheers and Frasier, so I imagine that's what you're describing as well. Sorry that I never got a chance to see Almost Perfect during its heyday.

Dan Ball said...

Carol, don't get Ken started on Kickstarter. :)

It'd be ironic if someone just uploaded eps of AP to Youtube and then CBS got up in arms about it because someone was pirating a show they couldn't even air for two seasons.

A couple weeks ago, I talked to some concept artists/illustrators who worked on a lot of movies and Star Trek, and it was weird that they don't own much of their work or the designs. That's nuts how you can spend so much of your life working on something like that, but you have no real claim for it.

Friday question:
How much work did the art department usually do on an average CHEERS episode? I know Herman Zimmerman was the art director for a few years before he went to work on STAR TREK, but was there ever much of a need to have someone sketch out props or certain set pieces? I know the sets themselves would need obviously need blueprints so they could be built properly, but beyond that, would we be surprised by how much concept work and illustration was done on CHEERS versus something like STAR TREK?

Friday question alternate:
Would you mind telling a story about one of your writer's block-curing trips to the STAR TREK soundstages? I've heard they shot on Stages 9 and 16. Did CHEERS take up more than one studio or did the bar set and special guest sets fit under one roof?

Sorry for all the technical, Star Trek-related questions! It's wildly fascinating to study the production history of STAR TREK. Reading your blog has put that into perspective since CHEERS was being produced during the same time period just several hundred feet away, yet it was an ENTIRELY different show in terms of scale and intent. As a film/TV geek, it's just neat to compare the two and formulate a picture of how these two historic TV series were made.

McAlvie said...

It definitely deserved a better fate. I enjoyed the show very much. Gary was a fun character, and I always had the sense that Chip had fun playing him. Now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder if that isn't a large part of why sitcoms used to be better, the great character parts. These days they seem to be casting for prettiness, and the characters are rather interchangeable. That's got to be hard to write for.

Brian Phillips said...

Friday question: My wife and I have a recurring conversation. "____" is a good show, why isn't it on DVD/Netflix"? I understand some things are music licensing nightmares, such as "WKRP...", which Shout! Factory may be releasing with full music, or "Frank's Place", because of the jukebox. Others are held up because of nasty legal tangles ("Gabriel's Fire) or age and short runs ("Gabriel's Fire").

What are some of the "stone walls" that you have to burrow through?

VincentS said...

I remember ALMOST PERFECT and I think it was a great show, Ken. Although I must admit I did like Nancy Travis not having a boyfriend - but only because I had - and still have a massive crush on her!

Rod said...

Friday Question--Have you and your partner ever been asked to write an episode of a drama series? Have you ever been asked to direct an hourly drama series? Or is this even any thing that interests you and how much different would it be from the standard sitcom format that you normally work. Oh- and as a lifelong Mariners fan and Seattlite, I appreciate all the stories about the Mariners broadcasts and especially stuff about the Hall of Famer, Dave Niehaus.

Wayne said...

Ken, some writers too old for insane sitcom hours move on to hour dramas. Did you ever think of creating a real cop show BLUE JUSTICE?

C. Warren Dale said...

Hey Ken, Friday Question here:

I've been rewatching Frasier and I've noticed two episodes is Season 4 where Frasier has been all but written out of the episode (with an in-plot excuse, such as irritation or vacation) to focus on the supporting cast. Given the story I heard about what Jason Alexander did when he was written out of Seinfeld's Season 3 episode "the Pen," and Kelsey Grammer's reputation as a temperamental performer, were these episodes done at his request? Were there ever any issues in trying to get these episodes made? Were there any episodes that were nixed simply because Grammer (or any other actor, for that matter) simply refused to be written out of an episode?

Phil In Phoenix said...

Ken, have you and David ever considered trying to buy the ownership of "Almost Perfect" from CBS Television Distribution?

It seems they are just sitting on it. It might be affordable(relatively speaking).

There are so many outlets available now to get the show out there again. Not to mention there are so many outlets available to reboot the show should it be popular on DVD, repeats, streaming, etc.

It's a risk, of course. But you believe in the show so strongly. And under the caring watch of you and David, it seems possible it could have some kind of life again.

Dodgerdog said...

Yes Chip sings! Beautifully! Please re-post that.

Also Kevin Kilner... what a catch!

Roseann said...


Can't you pitch this same sitcom with different names, dates, and vitals and fool these network execs? Switch it up a bit and try again. Do all those suits have great memories? Besides the ones that were there then have been replaced tenfold.

I'd give it a go if I were you.

Damien Morris said...

The amicable and rational back-and-forth between Ken and Bill Jones makes me feel like I'm on a different internet.

Kudos, gentlemen!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

You gave Chip his career best opportunity. I hope he is doing a lot of good stage work, because tv and the movies are not kind to him.

Lorimartian said...

Roseann - From 1976-78, I worked in the CBS Story Department as assistant to the story editor, who supervised the story analysts. Each week, the development executives supplied a list of submissions they had received, and it was my responsibility to search the historical index card submissions catalog by title and by writer(s) to determine if any of the current properties were re-submissions. The file clerk would pull any pertinent files which contained previous correspondence and coverage. Consequently, even if you didn't find a matching title, if you found other submissions by Levine and/or Isaacs, you could check those files to see if the concepts were the same as or similar to the current submission.

Assuming that information is now in a computer database, I wonder how far back it goes. Searches must now take just minutes to complete thanks to modern technology. How times have changed.

Bradley said...

I have several VHS tapes with episodes of Almost Perfect sandwiched between episodes of other sitcoms I enjoyed as a teenager. (Mad About You, Hope & Gloria, and Wings were other favorites that I taped on a regular basis.) I would study these episodes over and over, practically memorizing them, in an attempt to teach myself comedy structure and how to write good dialogue. Now that I am a full time writer, passages from these episodes still pop into my head from time to time, even though I no longer have a VHS player and haven't seen them in ages. Thank you for that.

HWah said...

Is it possible that the show was just mediocre?