Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Questions

Time for more Friday Questions. And tonight on TCM I host three more Neil Simon movies. The fun begins at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.  First up is one of his best -- THE GOODBYE GIRL.  And I don't wear the brown jacket so cut me some slack. 

Michael starts us off with a Neil Simon question:

Will both Neil Simon and the creators of the 70's THE ODD COUPLE tv show get paid for the new remake or just Simon because he created the characters?

Way back in the ‘60s Simon sold off the TV rights to THE ODD COUPLE and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK to Paramount for $125,000. Bad career advice. He hasn’t seen a dime from any of the TV versions of THE ODD COUPLE. And reading between the lines in his memoir, he’s not all too pleased. Can you blame him?

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

When you are a guest director on any sitcom, is there anything you do that is considered to be a personal signature. This would be something that an observant and knowledgeable viewer would reveal that this episode was directed by "Ken Levine" or "James Burrows"?

First and foremost, you have to match the style of the show, but I like a lot of movement, a little business, establishing a nice pace, and maybe finding a few interesting shots… usually during pick-ups when I have to get a single of someone and have three other cameras to play with.

Mostly though my job is to get the best performances out of he actors and make sure the story works.

It comes down to writing. The great James Burrows always said if the story works you could just shoot the entire show with one camera getting a wide master and it would work. But if the story doesn’t work, no amount of cool camera angles and fancy editing would save it.

I always go back to the writers room after run-throughs and offer any assistance in that department. That’s something I feel I can provide that most other directors can’t. Sometimes I’ll even get a few jokes in. Once in a blue moon those jokes will work. 

But basically my job is to do the best version of their series in their style with their tone. On time and on budget.

From Chris:

As CHEERS went on, did the writers and directors ever let John Ratzenberger improvise his "little known facts" from time to time?

No.

Mike wonders:

On another blog, I saw this comment about Cheers:

"The writers would purposely give Kelsey Grammer who played Frasier bad lines they didn't think could get a laugh and he would turn around and make them work. "

Is this true? Were you trying to get rid of Frasier?

No.

And finally, from scottmc:

I just read the biography of Bob Hope and wondered if you were a fan. Did you like his movies, his work on the Oscar broadcasts and the television specials? Also, did Larry Gelbart ever share stories from the time he was one of Hope's writers?

I was a big fan of his early film work and the Road Pictures he made with Bing Crosby. He was funny and irreverent. But that youthful character didn’t age well. By the ‘50s his movies were creaky.

Same with his stand-up. Listen to his old radio shows. He had a great delivery and most of his material worked.

But eventually it became dated and he never changed it.

I did like his Oscar hosting though. He had the gravitas, occasionally got off some good lines, and he kept the show moving. If nothing else, he was a pro’s pro.

And I greatly admire his going to war zones to entertain the troops; often putting himself in harm’s way. He didn’t have to do that -- year after year, war after war.

Yes, Larry Gelbart worked for Bob Hope and had some great stories. Unfortunately, I can’t share any of them. But they were complimentary to Mr. Hope.

What’s your Friday Question?

53 comments:

MikeK.Pa. said...

I'm interested in reading the new Hope bio. Previously read one written by Arthur Marx (Groucho's son), who wrote for Hope and painted an unflattering picture of him from womanizing to being tight with a buck despite his vast wealth. I believe Larry Gelbart covers his time with Hope in his book "Laughing Matters," which I highly recommend.

rockgolf said...

I'll now be speculating all day on why Ken can't pass along Larry Gelbart's Bob Hope stories. I can't see there being a libel threat as unfortunately the people involved would likely be dead.

Brian Phillips said...

"Dick Tracy in B-Flat" is a star-studded radio show that includes Bob Hope as Flattop and one of the co-writers is a young Larry Gelbart.

It's VERY funny.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5EZZaAgzec

Brian Phillips said...

Friday Question:
You've recounted the "Hot Rod Lincoln" story as an example of campaigning for a joke that you thought was funny and fell flat.

Do you recall some instances where you fought especially hard, whether it was with David Isaacs, an actor or executive and it paid off?

Michael said...

If it's any conciliation to Neil Simon, judging from the commercials I have seen for the new ODD COUPLE, I don't expect it to last very long, so he won't be missing out on a lot of money for this incarnation.

VincentS said...

Do I blame Neil Simon for being upset over the TV deal he made with THE ODD COUPLE? Short answer: No. Having said that, he made that deal with his eyes wide open. And it's not as if he was a neophyte to be taken advantage of. He had a long, lucrative career writing for television before (fortunately for us) turning his considerable talents to the theatre. He could have overruled his agent and held out for more.

ScottyB said...

Me-TV has 'The Odd Couple' in its regular rotation during the week. I watched this show during its first run when I was a kid and thinking it was awesome-funny and smart. But when I watch it now, decades later, I really don't find much amusement in it.

I guess that's pretty much on par with the discussion over Bob Hope and time passing and perspectives changing and all that.

James Van Hise said...

Selling all the rights to something for what seems like good money at the time isn't unusual. In the late 1960s Rod Serling sold all his rights in The Twilight Zone for 400 thousand dollars, which was a pile of money at the time. But Twilight Zone went on to make millions in syndication and Rod Serling's career sputtered during the last years of his life as he was reduced to being a pitchman in commercials and just a hired hand on Night Gallery (where he was not allowed any creative control like he had on Twilight Zone). In 1971 I saw him give a talk at the University of Miami and he went out of his way to warn the audience not to smoke, something he'd tried quitting countless times and which he described as "a monkey on my back," He was only 50 when he died in 1975 of a heart attack, and doctors said he had the arteries of an 80 year old man because of all the smoking he'd done.

Pat Reeder said...

Re: Hope's style getting creaky and outdated. I remember when I was a kid and "SNL" came in. Everyone raved about how it was so fresh and new and blew away all those unfunny old Bob Hope-style sketches. Then over Christmas, I felt like watching some old Christmas programs, so I went to YouTube and found a couple of complete Bob Hope specials from the early '60s. Watching him ad lib with Bing Crosby and break the fourth wall, it surprised me that not only did it seem fresher than what "SNL" is doing these days, it was a hell of a lot funnier. Granted, that's not saying much, but those old shows really were funny.

I tried to see as many old time comics as I could while I had the chance, and I still remember going to see Hope when I was in high school. He came to Waco to host a fundraising show at the Heart of Texas Colosseum, which was a huge sports arena. It was packed with people, and I was in the nosebleed section. I still remember being blown away by how one guy with a microphone could grab and hold the focus of all those thousands of people for every second he was on stage. He had that crowd in the palm of his hand, even those of us who were half a mile away. I've never seen an emcee/comic that confident and in control since.

Covarr said...

I'm really curious about the origins of that Frasier rumor. Like, how did it start? I've seen it all over the place, and it must've come from somewhere.

I suspect it's twisted from something far less ridiculous, like maybe originally two guys were sitting on the couch watching CHEERS and one of them said "Wow, it's amazing how Frasier's dialogue makes him such an idiot, but he delivers it so that it sounds smarter than it actually is", and the other guy misunderstood and told a friend that this was the intent and it just barreled out of control from there.

Although I suppose if any character is suited to a telephone-style spreading and evolving rumor like this, it's Frasier, who himself seems to wind up spreading rumors (at least in his own show, maybe less in CHEERS) by repeating stuff he either only heard part of or plain didn't understand.

Bill O said...

Grammar himself said his best lines were taken from him at table readings. He'd bet the writers he could get laughs from the remains. I've read it in an interview, and I think in his autobio.

Thomas said...

I'm not sure I'm able to write comedy any more.

I recognise jokes. If I'm watching something with my family I can see the joke coming and I know why they're laughing at it, the rhythm of the thing, but I don't laugh now.

My question:

Am I normal?

Thomas said...

Lucy and Desi sold all rights to I LOVE LUCY to CBS in 1957 for six million dollars. At the time, everyone thought they'd made a brilliant deal. CBS has, of course, made their money back many times over. Ball said years later that they thought those films would be good for five, maybe ten years, at most. An acquaintance has told about Ball, late in life, autographing videocassettes of I LOVE LUCY episodes and grumbling that she didn't make a dime off of them.

V. Anton Spraul said...

If Simon sold the rights for $125,000 back in the mid-late sixties, that's the equivalent of selling it for around $850,000 now. I'd say it was an excellent career move given the information he had at the time. As anyone who reads this blog knows, most TV shows, even good shows, just don't make it, and taking a pile of money versus maybe getting an even bigger pile of money later seems like the right play. If Simon is kicking himself now, he's like a "hold 'em" poker player who gets mad at himself for folding a bad hand that would have become a monster on the river.

Bill O said...

Actually, the tv Odd Couple wasn't that big a draw in its network run. Only later in syndication.

Mike said...

Friday question (and thanks for answering my previous one a few weeks back, BTW): Now that ME-TV has started season 5 of Cheers, this has been on my mind: If Shelley Long hadn't left the series, what do you think would have been the logical next step for Sam & Diane in season 6? Do you think them as a married couple could have worked?

Mark said...

Yeah, I saw Tony Randall on TV once, talking about THE ODD COUPLE and saying that they wrappef up every season thinking they wouldn't be back, but at the last minute ABC would change their mind and pick them up again.

Anonymous said...

Friday question(s):
I was watching a Cheers rerun and noticed it was directed by John Ratzenberger. I recall seeing an episode of Frasier directed by Kelsey Grammer. One episode of Seinfeld was directed by Jason Alexander.

What's involved in an actor directing an episode of his own show? Is it a professional courtesy, or something more? Do some actors request a chance to direct, and get turned down?
- Johann

Brent said...

It doesn't make sense to me that anybody would take Grammer's best lines away from him. What would anybody have gained by doing that? "We're sorry, Kelsey, but your readings on these lines were too good and the laughs were too big. But here, we're leaving you all these bad lines because we know you'll be able to wring laughs out of them."

Bill O said...

Grammar said that his best lines were taken by Ms. Chambers.

Bill O said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles H. Bryan said...

So no more Allison Williams butt jokes? :( The good things in life always end too soon.

*>* ((

I was trying to recreate the photo using punctuation marks.

Lesley said...

Ah, so Kelsey Grammer claims that Shelley Long was given all his good lines. Mr. Levine, as the only one here who would have been in the room at the time, is there any truth in that?

Ken Levine said...

Trust me, regardless of what Kelsey said in his book, or thought went on -- that's nonsense. We never took away his good lines to give to someone else. Nor did we ever give him or any actor a line we felt wasn't the best line at the time.

There are shows where stars claim lines from other cast members but not on any show I've ever worked on. We wouldn't tolerate it, and believe me, the Charles Brothers wouldn't tolerate it.

At no time, EVER EVER, did Shelley or Ted or anyone in the CHEERS cast ask for someone else's joke.

Nor did that happen on FRASIER. In fact, the only reason David Hyde Pierce became such a breakout character was that Kelsey was gracious and never tried to hog the limelight.

chalmers said...

James Lipton of "Inside the Actors Studio" produced a lot of the '70s and '80s Hope specials. In his autobiography, Lipton spoke of Hope affectionately, but emphasized the star's obsession with money and irrational fear of returning to the poverty of his youth.

While the Reagans were in the White House, Hope wanted Nancy to take part in a special. Lipton called the White House and the response he got was enthusiastic but based on an incorrect assumption.

Lipton told Hope, "The First Lady would be thrilled to join you, but her office just wants to know what, uh, charity, it's for."

Hope replied, "Tell them 'Hope Realty.' "

Lesley said...

Thank you, Ken, for your prompt reply. I couldn't imagine CHEERS (or FRASIER) being the kind of show where that kind of thing would have been tolerated or encouraged.

sanford said...

Was 125,000 considered good money back then. And does he get money for all the revivals that are done.

ScottyB said...

This has nothing to do with anything about today's topic, but I was just channel-surfing and there was an episode of 'Community'(which I've never watched, even once for a second), and there was a scene where a woman-actor was standing there going, "You lost your actor. So why do I have to do this [audition] all over again?

Just seemed relevant to the blog and the forum for some reason.

ScottyB said...

@Lesly: Maybe there are situations where they're trying to get rid of the funny guy by giving him bad lines or something, or at least testing him to see how funny the funny person in charge really is. Last nite, I was watching a rerun episode of 'Everybody Loves Raymond', where Deb Heaton dumps a bowlful of ice cream in Ray's lap while they're both sitting there on the couch.

Laughter ensues for many good long beats, and I sat there wondering whether this was scripted or not, or whether this was just a thing someone staged to see how Ray Romano would handle it.

I like to think the whole sequence was an ad lib, and we got treated to some comedy magic. If not, it was very masterfully done.

Gary said...

ScottyB, I've always wondered the same thing about the "Raymond" scene where Deborah drops the uncooked Thanksgiving turkey, and it keeps slipping out of her hands before she finally slams it into the oven. I have a feeling the scene wasn't supposed to go on that long, but the audience is absolutely hysterical, while Romano stays in character the entire time.

Dixon Steele said...

And yet Simon did do a cameo on the series, so...

VP81955 said...

Funny anecdote about Quinn Cummings blasting her agent on the 20th Century-Fox lot. She was so charming in "The Goodbye Girl"; whatever happened to her?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

The story about Neil Simon (and Lucy and Desi) make me think of the flip side: Audrey Meadows asked for residuals in perpetuity on The Honeymooners, and Gleason (or whoever) agreed, both sides thinking it was no big deal.

Since Bob Hope is the topic: I heard his biographer on NPR saying that BH had an inferiority complex with Crosby, and resented that Crosby never wanted to socialize offset. It struck me because I remember reading an interview with Hope late in his life, and he talked about Crosby with almost embarrassing affection. He didn't fear death because he knew he would see Bing again; he thought heaven would be a golf course where he and Bing could play every day. Even back then (late 80s? Early 90s?) it struck me as weird. Hearing about their cool relationship, it struck me as a little sad.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

All this talk of THE ODD COUPLE has got me to thinking about another question:

I've come to notice whenever a title is adapted from one medium to another, invariably, there's going to be some little changes made here and there (in the case of THE ODD COUPLE, Felix's ex-wife's name is changed from Frances to Gloria, Oscar goes from having a son to being childless; similarly in M*A*S*H's case, Hawkeye is Chief Surgeon instead of Trapper, and Radar's real name is Walter instead of Bloody Jalambi, or whatever it was). I take it there are certain rules/regulations/legalities regarding certain aspects of a property being changed from one medium to another, or is it simply a case of the writers/producers not researching the original source material, or what?

sanford said...

For who ever asked about quinn cummings. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinn_Cummings

She is alive and well and is on twitter.

Hank Gillette said...

Not show business, but Harland Sanders sold his Kentucky Fried Chicken business for $2 million in 1964. Granted, $2 million was quite a bit of money 60 years ago and he was already nearly 75 years old, but he still lived long enough to regret the sale.

Casey C said...

You've posted a couple of your TCM intros/outros (much appreciated!) - will we be seeing the ones for COME BLOW YOUR HORN?

Regarding Bob Hope, ROAD TO RIO,THE PRINCESS AND THE
PIRATE, and MY FAVORITE BLONDE always make me laugh
“By the ‘50s his movies were creaky”
The 50s seemed like it was a difficult time for comedians on film; Cold War, Korean War, lots of color, grand musicals, catering to the youth, sci-fi/ fantasy, beauty obsession, television. Just a few years before the screen was dominated by the Marx Bothers, Abbott & Costello, WC Fields, Mae West, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin…
Being a TCM aficionado and comedy writer, what are your observations on the dawn of filmed comedy (like 1910s-40s)? How much does/should society and technology affect a creator’s vision/voice? In turn, how dependent on the times are spectators reactions? What are your favorite classic movie comedies pre 1950s?

Bill O said...

You may think this extreme, but I'll bet Randall's ex had a name change cuz "Frances" is gender neutral. Listen to the Odd Couple's opening narration and it's desperately reassuring "these guys are straight" tone.

Bill O said...

And, according to the new Hope bio, he tried to buy rights to the Sunshine Boys for himself and Der Bingle. Simon refused, on the grounds that their star personae would overcome the material. And they were goyim.

Anonymous said...

Why are we wasting time with old shows and old men? Old actors. That is why i hate done deal pro, all of them are old men farting there in the forum. Done deal is like an old episode of Odd Couple. Losers in tv show , and losers in done deal.

Gary said...

When the original Odd Couple series ran, the network was indeed terrified that viewers would suspect the roommates were gay. Randall and Klugman would film outtakes acting gay, just to mess with the censors. In the actual series it was never even hinted at, yet it was obvious both men were straight.

I'll wager that in the upcoming series, the writers will have to rely on a gay joke at least once a minute. (With all the other jokes using the word vagina.)

CarolMR said...

Re "The Odd Couple"'s changing Felix's wife's name from Frances to Gloria: Tony Randall's real-life wife at the time of the series was named Frances. I always thought that had something to do with the name change.

Bill O said...

I'll stand by the fact that Frances also sounds like a man's name.There were lots of people in the country unfamiliar with the play, movie, and Neil Simon. For similar reasons, the Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner, was renamed David for tv.

VP81955 said...

Bob Hope's cinematic decline wasn't as rapid as some here believe. He made a pair of good comedies in the early 1960s, "The Facts Of Life" with Lucille Ball and "Bachelor In Paradise" with Lana Turner (and a young Paula Prentiss).

Ben Kubelsky said...

Friday question/plea: Ken, can you please mention that Neil Simon NEVER appeared on the the Odd Couple tv show. I think I know how this rumor got started: in the 80s and 90s, Nick at Nite would run a little info bumper at the start of every episode of every show. The one for "Two on the Aisle" mentioned that it contained Neil Simon's only appearance on the show. Not true- it was critic JOHN Simon. Even at age 12 I spotted the error. And now it's entered blog lore.

Bill O said...

Do believe that the Couple ran into their "Dad" in a worldless outdoor shot.

CarolMR said...

The Facts of Life was a very good movie and Hope and Lucy were really wonderful. I saw it several years ago and was surprised at how good it was. I believe Neil Simon DID appear on an episode of The Odd Couple. Oscar and Felix are walking out of a theatre and Felix points to Simon and says, There's Doc Simon! The man he was pointing to looked like Neil Simon to me.

Diane D. said...

Interesting that Ken Levine says John Ratzenberger did not come up with his own "little known facts". I read (on a reputable site) that after the first year or so, he came up with all of them. Just goes to show that you can't believe anything people say (except for Ken Levine's blog).

Gary said...

Neil Simon definitely DID appear in the Odd Couple episode "Two on the Aisle," exactly as CarolMR described. The scene was an inside joke and had nothing to do with the plot, so it was always cut when the episode was shown in syndication.

According to the book "Odd Couple Mania" (Rip Stock, 1983) Simon was very bitter about the TV deal he made and refused to watch the show. But his kids watched it, and convinced him that it was actually very funny. So Simon began to tune in and actually became a fan, and agreed to do the cameo.

I'm a fan of the movie and the Matthau/Lemmon pairing, but to me the Odd Couple will always be Klugman and Randall. Ken, can you elaborate on why you also feel this way, so you can extend your debate with Mark Evanier? I'd love to hear both summaries to the jury!

William said...

Go to YouTube and search for odd couple neil simon cameo, and the first hit is the relevant scene.

It is honestly not a very funny scene, and I can understand why it was cut in syndication.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, thank you for answering my question.

Anonymous said...

Friday question: Kelsey Grammer and John Ratzenberger are both outspoken conservatives. Rob Long has written for conservative magazines. Did the cast and crew of Cheers ever argue about political issues behind the scenes? - Ian

Dean said...

Friday question... I am just watching season five of MASH when you came in post-Larry Gelbart. In retrospect it's clear the show went for more drama, some shows like The Nurses are very dramatic and have few laugh lines at all. Was that a conscious decision at the time? Also, and related, an early plot decision in the season is to break up Frank and Hot Lips. Given that that had provided so much comedy it seems an odd decision to make immediately post-Gelbart and it leaves the Burns character very isolated that season. I can understand why it was done from the perspective of the Hot Lips character and the actor who played her, but were you worried about giving up the comic potential of the character? It must surely have contributed to Larry Linville's decision to leave the series.