One of my resolutions every year is to answer more Friday Questions. So I’m going to sneak in a bonus day of them. I'm really on top of this resolution -- it being February and all.
Charles H. Bryan starts us off:
Ken, for the holiday season and because it's free with Amazon Prime, I just downloaded the first season of The Twilight Zone. All 39 episodes. My Friday Question is: How the hell did they make 39 episodes of a show in one year? Doesn't that just seem insane by today's standards? Sure, one could argue that a lot of those shows back then weren't that good, but this is also the time of some classics (e.g., I LOVE LUCY - 35 eps its first season, PHIL SILVERS - avg 35 eps/4 seasons). This was well before the widespread industry-mandated use of cocaine. How did they do it? Just coffee? Really strong coffee?
And it’s worse. Writing staffs were very small back then. Usually no more than four and often fewer. I want to check myself into a hospital just thinking about it.
The hard part of course, was coming up with stories. 22 is a bitch, much less 39. Call the ambulance.
The difference is -- especially on multi-camera shows -- they didn’t rewrite nearly as much as we did in later years. Starting in the ‘70s there was extensive rewriting that went on in multi-cam shows. After every day’s rehearsal the staff would go back and continue to tinker with the script. Not so when they were cranking out 39. After maybe a rewrite following the table reading, the script was pretty much locked.
When we made MASH, we produced 25 episodes in six months. Today, single-camera shows take eight or nine months to churn out that many. The key for us was preparation. We spent months in pre-production preparing scripts because we knew that once the actors arrived and cameras started rolling, things got insane.
Still, I can’t imagine having to come up with 39 stories a season. If you look back at THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, truly a television classic, you’ll see that in the last season they pretty much redid a few episodes from the first season. Things got that bad.
You had to be incredibly prolific. But I think even Aaron Sorkin would have trouble cranking out 39 episodes a year. Seriously, I’m calling 911.
Kensi Blonde asks:
Would you be able to have such a flagrantly promiscuous character like Sam today? And I realize that pregnancy scares are hard to plumb for laughs, but how does he sleep with "four honeys" (just by season 1) and no one gets knocked up?? Ah, sitcom land...
He used protection. And we only had him sleep with women who were on the pill.
I’d also add CALIFORICATION, but the fact that he was a “writer” who got all that action, that was so completely absurd it doesn’t count.
With the recent conversation on live TV, Ken, I'd like your thoughts on the format of Neil Patrick Harris' recent variety show, "Best Time Ever". When I first heard of him doing variety, I thought it would be a callback to the '70s shows like Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Donny & Marie: rotating guests, comedy sketches with recurring characters, musical numbers, a big-production finale. So I was intrigued that Harris eschewed most of that in favor of games with the studio audience (and home viewers), hidden camera events, celebrities surprising audience members, just one set-piece number per show, and a live format. Is this a good way to maintain the variety genre and leave the classic format in the past? (Just the format of "Best Time Ever"; as opinions on its actual quality are divided, let's save that discussion for another time.)
People don’t want variety. Not anymore. If they want game shows they find game shows. There are “Punked” hidden camera shows. You Tube provides thousands of production numbers from various TV, movie, and Broadway shows.
Audiences have no patience for sitting through something they don’t like knowing something they do might be around the corner. Being all things to all people is unfortunately serving no one.
THE BEST TIME EVER was cancelled by NBC. No new variety series are in development.
And finally, from Rashad Khan:
How do you (and Mr. Isaacs) find the "perfect" writers to join your writing staff? Is there an initial interview -- and if so, what sort of questions do you ask to determine whether he or she would be a good fit for you and your show?
Believe me, it’s an inexact science. We read material first. Then interview them. We don’t have specific questions. We’re really just trying to determine their personality, whether they’d be fun to be stuck in a room with for 90 hours a week, whether their sensibility jibes with ours, questions about their background, etc.
After that we might call a few writers who they worked for and get their assessment. And then, like I said, it’s a crapshoot. We’ve made some inspired choices down through the years and some horrible ones.
For young writers going on these interviews, I recommend you just be yourself. Try to relax as much as you can. Be enthusiastic but don’t try to sell yourself too hard. Just have fun with the meeting. Look, you’re either going to get the job or not. And often when you don’t it’s because of circumstances beyond your control. So don’t put any unnecessary pressure on yourself.
What’s your Friday Question? Maybe I’ll even answer it on a Friday. Thanks.