Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday Questions

Here are Good Friday Questions.

Dan Ball starts us off:

After your epic tirade against ONE BIG HAPPY, how pissed and/or disillusioned are you that TV comedies haven't evolved more in the years since MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER? I know a lot of show business is about getting lucky with the right audience among other things, but do you get frustrated that making good TV is just a vicious cycle of discovery and ignorance instead of just steady evolution--like science or technology? We know you get bummed as a viewer, but as a person who's contributed to the betterment/evolution of good TV, what are your thoughts on this matter? How do you explain/reconcile it?

I wouldn’t say I’m pissed or disillusioned; just annoyed maybe.

In general I don’t think art evolves. It advances in spurts. There are periods of progress when the planets come together and then there are dry spells. TV comedy had a golden age in the ‘70s and by the early ‘80s people were predicting that sitcoms were dead.

But contributing to today’s comedy malaise, I think there are several factors. Broadcasters aren’t making television shows anymore. Mega corporations are. Same with the film industry. Gone are showmen like Darryl F. Zanuck and Louis B. Mayer, replaced by Fortune 500 companies only concerned with the bottom line. I get no sense of love and pride for making good entertainment.

When William Paley owned CBS it was called “the Tiffany Network.” The same network that gave us THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, MASH, ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW now airs 2 BROKE GIRLS. And NBC’s Must-See-TV line up of shows like CHEERS, FRASIER, and SEINFELD has given way to ONE BIG HAPPY. Character, depth, and wit has been replaced by crass vagina jokes.

There’s no one at the top saying, “We can’t put that shit on the air. We’re the National Broadcasting Company for Godsakes!”

Also, networks now chase young audiences exclusively. Those classic “Must-See-TV” shows probably wouldn’t get on the air today. Certainly not with casts all in their 30s or older. And certainly not with sophisticated storylines and references to literature instead of pop culture.

I also worry that many of today’s showrunners aren’t experienced enough. I don’t think they receive the mentoring that we fortunately did and at times it feels like they’re trying to reinvent the wheel. I certainly believe today’s young writers are the ones who should be writing most of the network pilots, but they need to be ready.

At some point this will change and comedy will have a renaissance. I just hope it’s soon.

From Matt:

I attended the CHEERS filming of "Dinner at Eight-ish," and when they finished they announced that audience members were welcome to stay while they filmed scenes from an episode they started the prior week. We were shown a rough cut of the first half of "One Last Fling," and then they filmed the remaining scenes. Was this a common practice? I figured they were trying to shorten the production schedule and saw the logic in it as those scenes were all bar/office with no costume changes and went pretty quickly.

There are several reasons for doing that. Sometimes we went back and re-shot scenes that didn’t work. Other times we tried to get ahead.

In season three Shelley Long was pregnant. To avoid having Diane pregnant we planned that she and Frasier go off to Europe for vacation. We filmed those scenes before Shelley was showing. Generally, we did one a week on top of the episode we shot. Once Shelley started showing we inserted them into the episodes to keep her in the show.

On TAXI one season they did a two-parter where the cab company went under and each cabbie had to get another job. Those individual scenes were filmed after shows. It saved the production company two full weeks.  And were two great episodes. 

cd1515 asks:

It always strikes me as lame when on a TV show, there's about 5-6 people standing there when one says to another "we need to talk privately," and then they step 18 inches to the right where EVERYONE COULD STILL EASILY HEAR THEM.

is that a blocking thing, like is it too hard to get those 2 people further away?

Ah, the dreaded “cone of silence” – a creative license staple of multi-camera shows. The sets aren’t very large and it takes too much time for people to cross into an office. So the compromise is taking someone off to the side. A smart director will stage it so that those five or six extras are not in the shot.

But this isn’t an exclusive convention to TV. I’ve seen this on the stage where the two actors step off a few steps and the other actors are still quite visible. But like I said, it’s creative license. Just like there always being parking spaces right in front of the building and window tables at restaurants.

And finally, a couple of quickies from Michael:

M*A*S*H and CHEERS both had significant cast changes over the years. Which characters do you think were truly irreplaceable - just Hawkeye and Sam?

Yep. Maybe include Eddie on FRASIER.

Especially interested if you think M*A*S*H could have survived the loss of Hot Lips?

Yes. Nothing against Loretta Swit, who was terrific, but you could find other nurses. Personally, I think the show sacrificed a lot of the fun of the character once she slept with Hawkeye. But that’s me.

What’s your Friday Question?

37 comments:

Oat Willie said...

"At some point this will change and comedy will have a renaissance. I just hope it’s soon."
Wrong. There is no "soon", there is only The Corporation.

Doug Thompson said...

Ken, possible Friday question about radio.

What was the single best piece of advice you received while in radio that you continued to use in your television/movie writing/directing career?

John in Ohio said...

RE:quality comedies
It isn't completely the corporations. They will put quality on if it makes money.
Once upon a time, there were very few good hour dramas on TV. Mostly crap. HBO, then Showtime, then AMC, etc. started making quality dramas. These became drivers to get people to pay for their networks. Then people started developing better shows, because there was a market. Then broadcast networks started bidding on these better shows, and giving some proven talent more freedom, becuase if you can't beat them, join them.
If HBO, etc. start making good comedies that drive subscriptions, the rising tide will lift all boats.
Another point - dramas are better for HBO. You need to watch all of them in order to keep up. You need to watch them when they are new so you can discuss at the water cooler. You may watch them twice to see what you missed. Most of these don't apply to most comedies.

Ana said...

Possible Friday question: I've recently started watching Episodes and I enjoyed your review. I found it interesting that you said the Carol character is the kind of person you could really meet in the business. My question is: Are writers really treated as shitty as Sean and Beverly are? It's like they have no say about anything and no one respects them much. They even have to put up with the worst secretary anyone has ever had. Please tell me you've been treated better than that?

A. L. Crivaro said...

I know very little about the television industry, so, if I'm wrong, pardon my ignorance, but it seems to me that if this is indeed a "dry spell" for television comedy, would now be the PERFECT time for a quality show to emerge? With the airways being flooded with nothing but slightly amusing irony and vagina jokes, wouldn't a more traditional, deftly produced sitcom stand out like a white hot light in a pitch black cave? So why is no one striking while the iron's hot? Why aren't the existing veterans of TV comedy who actually came up with all those shows they're speeding up on TBS and TVLand and Hallmark putting their heads together, doing what they do best, and going to NETFLIX with it? To my knowledge, NETFLIX has yet to produce an original multi camera sitcom.

Pat Reeder said...

In his great book, "The Silent Clowns," Walter Kerr observed that every time there is a technological leap forward into a new medium, entertainment starts over at the beginning of evolution, like monkeys hurling feces at each other. For instance, when movies first appeared, the comedies of Shakespeare and Aristophanes had long existed, yet silent comedy started out with people throwing pies at each other and kicking each other in the butt. Likewise, when the Internet age dawned, YouTube was mostly clips of things hitting guys in the crotch, but it eventually evolved into more sophisticated directions. Maybe with the TV medium in a constant state of chaotic flux, entertainment is just stalled at the monkeys-throwing-feces stage (i.e., "Two Broke Girls") until we finally settle on what the next form of media will be, and then it can start evolving again.

Mike Barer said...

Happy "Eastover" to everyone!

Mike Botula said...

Ken, you put the round right dead-center in the "ten ring" with your comment about "broadcasters" being replaced by "corporations." Sadly, that is at the heart of our nation's problems these days.

cd1515 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cd1515 said...

Friday question: can you think of any instance where a "note" from some boss was actually a great idea that made the product better?

Tim W. said...

After Ken's eviscerating One Big Happy, I had to take a look just out of curiosity sake. Unlike Ken, I didn't have a problem with vagina jokes, etc. The big problem was that it just wasn't funny. At all. I couldn't last more than ten minutes it was so bad.

The jokes weren't funny, the dialogue wooden and I couldn't imagine caring about any of the characters.

pumpkinhead said...

... and no one locks their doors, or knocks before coming into their neighbor's home...

VincentS said...

As far as how times have changed, Ken, I'm still in shock over your previous posting about how Grant Tinker never gave a single note. God, that must have been paradise! And I think the two-part TAXI episode you mention was one of the funnies things ever put on TV, especially Jim's "new job" scene. I hope you show that clip on a future posting.

AlaskaRay said...

What's so good about them? Ray.

Roger Owen Green said...

I agree that Hawkeye and Margaret sleeping together was a mistake. It was great in the moment, but ruined the relationship for the duration of the series.

SER said...

The question about Hot Lips reminded me of the difference between character and "function." A great character can wind up growing out of the vital function her or she served. Watching the first three seasons of M*A*S*H and Margaret is an antagonist. Once that changes, the character's function has gone, so as Ken says, you could have replaced her with another Head Nurse.

Tangentially, I think CHEERS realized this once it was clear that Rebecca had become a hilarious slapstick character, she was no longer a strong antagonist like she was in her first two seasons. Hill served that function well.

VP81955 said...

VincentS said...

As far as how times have changed, Ken, I'm still in shock over your previous posting about how Grant Tinker never gave a single note. God, that must have been paradise!


Well, on at least one of the series he never needed to give notes, since he (then) slept with the leading lady.

And to A.L. Crivaro: There indeed is a deftly-produced sitcom on TV today. It's called "Mom," and while it occasionally delivers lackluster episodes, at its best it has the bite of Norman Lear's '70s stable of sitcoms (without the dated politics) and is easily Chuck Lorre's best series in years.

Netflix probably doesn't want to do an original multi-camera sitcom because that format is deemed out of fashion, not chic for the twentysomethings it seeks. (Ironic, that, because that's the core audience that keeps "Friends" popular in reruns.)

Matt from Los Angeles said...

Friday question:

Thank you for answering my last Friday question, hope you find this one interesting...

How do payments/residuals work for a writer when a sitcom character written for a single episode becomes a regular character. My favorite example is Larry, Darryl & Darryl on NEWHART. They first appeared in the second episode to air written by Katherine Green (who I assume you know since she also wrote a season 1 episode of CHEERS) who only contributed the two episodes to the series, yet those characters appeared in 91 episodes. Additionally, in Emmy archive interviews, the show creator Barry Kemp spoke in detail about how he came up with these characters so I'm assuming as a freelance writer she was given the overall story and similar to how you've described giving out MASH assignments, she was assigned to do the script and therefore received sole credit. As the writer of the episode, I'd like to think she raked in a lot on residuals for use of the characters. My other favorite example is Lilith on CHEERS starting off in a single scene of an episode written by prominent show writer/producers only to become an extremely popular regular and multiple Emmy's for Bebe Neuwirth.

Ulysses411 said...

Hi Ken, a possible Friday question: do the producers/writers/show runners have any input into what gets cut when a show goes into syndication? Sometimes the cuts are so jarring, especially to someone who watched and loved the show in its original iteration. I just watched an episode of M.A.S.H. On ME TV and the scenes they cut were obvious, especially when they left in a callback joke to a deleted scene at the top of the episode. Dramas don't fare any better judging by the recent Colombo marathon on Hallmark. They excised several memorable scenes including one of my favorite bits of business where Colombo shows how he planted the "evidence" that induced a confession in the episode set in London by flicking a pearl into a cup with his thumb. I imagine this must be particularly painful to the writers.

Don't you think it's time that TV shows get the same respect that movies get? Shouldn't they have to put a disclaimer up front like they do with movies when they have altered them from their original version for broadcast?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

If these are the good Friday Questions, I shudder to think what the bad Friday Questions were like.

Bert said...

Ken- Friday question: You've mentioned a few times the records that drove you crazy when DJing especially because you had to play them repeatedly. I'm curious if there were also records you played with the same frequency but yet still enjoyed.

Bert from Petaluma

John said...

Nothing against Loretta Swit, who was terrific, but you could find other nurses. Personally, I think the show sacrificed a lot of the fun of the character once she slept with Hawkeye. But that’s me.

OK, this brings up another question -- "Comrades In Arms" was the two-part episode from Season 6, when the executive story editors where David Isaacs and Ken Levine. Is your opinion that having Hawkeye sleep with Hot Lips something you've come to feel in hindsight, or was is something you felt was wrong as the story was being done, but were overruled by others involved with the show? (I've see stories of people involved in shows and theatrical continuing series lament in looking back on things done with the characters that may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but turned out to be less so on a long-term basis. Was that the case here?)

Johnny Walker said...

John in Ohio: Although that works in theory, it does mean that shows aren't allowed to "grow" like Seinfeld or Cheers (both of which were not successful at the beginning).

Johnny Walker said...

Pat Reeder, that's a fascinating observation. I wonder if it's true -- I don't see music going backwards, though :-/

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: music hasn't gone backwards (although it's amusing to watch musicians in other fields adopt business models folksingers have used for decades), but think about radio. When podcasts began, a lot of them were some guy sitting in front of a microphone and rambling until he got bored. Now there's some amazingly well-produced things out there.

Access to distribution before the Internet was generally limited, but music as an art form has always been far more accessible to a wider range of practitioners than TV, film, etc. Live performance is universally accessible if you're willing to play on street corners; and even in 1980 you could make an LP to sell at gigs for $3000. It's a lot cheaper now, of course, but in the 1970s when the folksinger Kate Wolf wanted to finance her first album she pre-sold copies to fans at concerts to raise the money. Not so different from Kickstarter now. I said folksingers were pioneers. :)

wg

Dan Ball said...

Thanks, Ken! Good to know you're upbeat about the future of the craft.

It'd be weird to find out that a foreign country is just now experiencing their own sitcom renaissance because they're doing their versions of our shows from our last renaissance all while we're here in the doldrums again.

Andy Rose said...

On Taxi, "Memories of Cab 804" from the first season was also a two-parter done as a series of unconnected scenes that were shot in pickup through the year. In fact, one of them (with Tony Danza and Ed. Weinberger) was filmed on location in New York before studio production even started, because they had that vignette in mind at the very beginning. It was the same trip where they filmed Danza driving on the Queensboro Bridge, which ended up becoming the title sequence.

Liggie said...

F.Q. On the theme of "(insert genre/medium) is dead": TV was supposed to kill off radio and cinemas, then VCRs/DVDs were supposed to kill off cinemas. Instead, radio and movie theaters adapted their offerings and models and are still relevant today. Now on-demand and computer-streamed video is supposed to kill off cable TV. Will cable find a way to adjust to the new landscape and still stick around for a while, or is the doomsday crowd right thins time?

MCP said...

"When William Paley owned CBS it was called 'the Tiffany Network.

Yeah, but...

1. During "The Judy Garland Show," James Aubrey, Jr., president of CBS TV thought Judy Garland was too glamorous for TV and wanted Jerry Van Dyke to insult her.
2. "Gomer Pyle"
3. "The Real McCoys"
4. CBS had an advantage over NBC and ABC because they had more affiliates and could afford to be "The Tiffany Network."
5. "Amos 'n' Andy"
6. The "Hooterville" Trilogy: "Petticoat Junction," "Green Acres," and "The Beverly Hillbillies."
7. Gilligan's Island

Note: I'm not a robot. Would a robot care about such things?

John said...

I agree that it becomes difficult for shows to grow. However, if it follows a similar pattern to the dramas, there will eventually be season orders. If Netflix releases 15, 20 episodes at once, it will have time to grow because they are already bought and shot before anybody starts watching.

Anonymous said...

MCP, eff you regarding "Green Acres."
I guess it must suck for you to wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and realize you're not Arnold.
And you never will be. You never will be.

orwell said...

Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres may not have been sophisticated, but they were funny and exceptionally well cast. Though come to think of it, they were sophisticated compared to a lot of sitcoms on today.

James Van Hise said...

Candice Bergen was interviewed on NPR Sunday April 5th and talked about how initially the network didn't want the Murphy Brown show to be about a 40 year old woman, but rather a 30 year old woman. They also didn't like that in the first episode she had just completed a stint at Betty Ford. "Couldn't she just be returning from a spa?" they asked. But Diane English refused to change it, and the show was a hit which ran for years. Today the show would be about a nice 30 year old returning from a spa, and it would crash and burn in the first season and no one would have any idea why.

Adam said...

Hey Ken, this article talks about sitcoms that should be revived and Cheers is the top one mentioned. Do you agree? And if it were going to be revived - what would the format have to be for you to sign on to be the writer?

http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/sitcom-revivals-that-should-actually-happen/

Nevin ":-)" said...

While not quite related, here is a way to catch up on M*A*S*H https://youtu.be/GaWlGIvgJ6w

Eric E. Durnan said...

Friday question - I've read on here where there have been complaints/comments about the color on MASH. Now that all the episodes save the finale are on Netflix, have you seen the quality presented there? I think the color is very good on Netflix. The episode where everyone dyes their hair and wear red for Hawkeye really stands out compared to syndication.

On a side note, have you ever had MASH scripts rejected, and if so, what were they about?

Gazzoo said...

FRIDAY QUESTION: I notice that beginning in season six of MASH, two chopper shots were changed in the opening credit sequence (the one under the main title, and the quick one before the chorus). The shots that were replaced had clearly shown bloody soldiers with their arms dangling...were those eliminated due to a complaint?