Friday, April 15, 2016

Friday Questions

This is your last chance to see A OR B? at the Hatboro Village Theatre. Tonight and tomorrow. Be there or be square.

When you ask a Friday Question I copy and paste it into a file and try to answer as many as I can. But a few I never get around to. And over time those have started piling up so today I’m going to dig deep and pull out some FQ’s that were asked some time ago. Sorry for the delay.

Ernie asked this in 1974:

What qualities does your writing partner, David Isaacs, bring to your collaborative work that you have trouble doing or can't do; likewise, what do you bring to the partnership that David Isaacs doesn't do or doesn't do as well (i.e. what are some of your strengths and weaknesses both in your writing and in your business partnership)?

More than anything else it was our speed. Especially early on in our writing career, I would tend to go too fast and David would sometimes be too deliberate. He slowed me down and I sped him up until we reached a good working groove, which happy to say, we’re still in.

But in terms of story and joke ability, I think we were pretty even. Having a trusted partner just helped us both grow as writers much faster than we would have each working alone.

Sid asked this question in 1957:

There have been a few shows, such as Your Show of Shows, Caesar’s Hour, Smothers Brothers, etc. that were famous for their all-star cast of writers. But in all those instances, the writers were not famous when they were on the show. Rather, they became famous after the fact. To the best of your knowledge, has there ever been a program or project where someone attempted to assemble an all-star crew of comedy writers? (The analogy would be “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” with its all-star cast of performers.)

I can’t speak for the current crop, but back in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s All-Star line-ups of comedy writers were routinely assembled to help out on pilots. We would pitch in on rewrite nights of each other’s projects.

There were times when it was hard to believe I was there because I’d be in a room with Jim Brooks, the Charles Brothers, Sam Simon, Jerry Belson, David Lloyd, Harvey Miller, and Treva Silverman and think, “Holy shit, this is the ’27 Yankees.”

Oh, and did having that amazing collection of talent always result in the pilot being picked up? Uh, that would be no.

Johnny Walker wondered this in 1985:

In the best Bar Wars episode (you know the one), I remember "Monster Mash" playing when Gary pranked the bar. It's a memory that's stayed with me since I was a kid -- it just seemed like the perfect song, and was SO funny. But unlike every other song used in Cheers (which is the same as it was when first broadcast), "Monster Mash" has been changed to cheaper sounding alternative for home video (even Netflix). Any idea why? It's maddening when I watch that episode. (Also, if the music wasn't played on set -- allowing them to switch it out, what did the audience react to?)

I’m guessing it was just too expensive to get the rights.  That song was on an independent label owned, I believe, by Gary Paxton, and the artist, Bobby Pickett, passed away several years ago.  I don't know how complicated it was to secure permission.   It's too bad, because that song was perfect.

Mark wondered this in 1947:

If you name drop an actor in a script do you contact them and ask if it's ok? The line "Ted Danson and I went out that night and got smashed" might tick off Ted Danson, right?

You’re allowed to mention celebrities since they are public figures. If you do so in a derogatory light you do run the risk of a defamation suit (although those are rare).

But let’s take Alan Alda for example. He has maybe the best marriage of any celebrity I know. He is a very faithful husband. If one of the girls on 2 BROKE GIRLS said she was having an affair with Alan Alda I could see where lawyers might be called. But if one of the characters just took a shot at Alan Alda's hair I don’t think litigation would result.

If in writing scripts we have any question as to whether a reference is acceptable we could always consult the studio legal department. We rarely did that because their knee jerk reaction was always “No!”

Mel Agar goes back to 1937 to ask:

Have you ever written a show off only to "rediscover" it later and find it has found its stride? What shows do you feel have managed to do that recently?

PARKS & RECREATION. And MOM.

And finally, we go back to 1911 when Oliver asked:

What do you think about comedies being ordered straight-to-series, skipping the pilot process?

I wish it had happened to me.   Actually, it did happen to me.  THE MARY SHOW. 

Giving a series order is always a little risky and usually the network hedges its bet with either an A-list creator or coveted A-list talent. But it can backfire. THE MARY SHOW lasted 13.  And who remembers the MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW?

Cable networks and streaming services are more willing to take that gamble, but they often dole out fewer episodes per order. Ten or sometimes six. I think the order for Michael J. Fox was 22. That was a big financial hit for NBC to take.

What’s your Friday Question? I promise to get to it by 2057.

26 comments:

Gene F. said...

One of my favorite celebrity mentions is from "Doc Hollywood." It's background conversation in a Hollywood bar during a close-up on Michael J. Fox as he realizes he belongs back in Georgia. I always wondered if this was scripted or an ad lib that was too good to pass up, considering the actor who says the line.

Bridget Fonda: Is that a celebrity?
Woody Harrelson: Naw, It's Ted Danson.

Richard said...

Regarding the Cheers Monster Mash question. I think there is even a more jarring music change made for syndication.

There is an episode where Sam is teasing Rebecca over Robin going to jail. In the original broadcast, Sam plays I Fought the Law by Bobby Fuller a couple of times on the jukebox and a cassette player. Great song and funny for the scene.

But in the reruns they just dub it with generic music without any words. You can see Rebecca's reaction and the audience laugh, but without knowing the song, the joke is lost! I would think they would either bite the bullet and make some kind of deal to keep it in or just cut the scene entirely. Very weird that stuff like that happens...you lose a good scene for money or greed.

Terrence Moss said...

"Life with Lucy" also comes to mind.

Roseann said...

I worked on a show that went straight to series. We completed 12 episodes before even one aired. By that time the Studio head and all the other VIP's who LOVED our show had been ousted and non of the new regime cared about our show for one minute. So there was no publicity, no late night appearances, not much pre information before we debuted. So the whole series sunk like a stone.
It was not a light comedy series - it was pretty serious stuff and REALLY good - if anyone took the time to watch. I was out of work after 3 episodes aired....

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

A response and a question for this blog:

Everyone loves Michael J Fox.
But THAT show was hard to watch. Unfortunately. Because instead of watching an actor play a character with parkinsons, as an audience, it just felt like we were intruding on watching someone we love with parkinsons.
Made us feel...dunno...helpless? pity? sadness and awkwardness?

Not something that works with a sitcom.

What IF they would have changed the format. Maybe with Michael breaking the 4th wall, talking to us (ala Garry Shandling show) and introducing scenes.
Would that have worked better?

Tom Scarlett said...


There's a Fred Astaire movie from the 50s where the Astaire character was supposed to say, "I'm no Marlon Brando. I'm an entertainer." The studio checked with Brando, who took offense at the notion that he couldn't be an entertainer. The line was changed to "I'm no Marlon Brando. I'm a song-and-dance man."

VP81955 said...

Could you discuss what a writing staff goes through this time of year, when series that have been renewed plan the next season's story arc (as "Mom" now is planning to do for season 4, though that show almost certainly was to have been brought back). I would think most series have long-range plans, both for the season arc and for individual episodes that aren't tied to an arc but can be shown at nearly any time during the season. And for a show that's renewed by the skin of its teeth, with writers making contingency plans, I'm sure the staff doesn't have its collective mind focused on future seasons.

Also, are you familiar with Sheldon Bull? He's written a book on sitcom writing called "Elephant Bucks" which I'm waiting to take out from the library. He's written some "Mom" episodes, as well as several for "Newnart" and one of my guilty pleasures, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." I understand he was good friends with Blake Snyder, but please don't hold that against him.

Mike said...

Wow, I just checked out that Cheers bit with "I Fought the Law" removed on Netflix. The scene makes absolutely no sense now with the song removed; it's not even like they put another "breaking the law" song in its place. Just music with a bunch of barely-audible words. And they do a sloppy job with it too; when they revisit the joke later in the episode, you can actually hear "I Fought the Law" for about half a second before they dub over whatever that generic thing is. At least it's the same generic song each time they use it. But still....wow. And apparently that's the way the scene is on DVD.

If the scene's like this in syndication, it's a recent change. Back when Cheers was easier to find in syndication (aside from ME-TV, which I don't have, the only channel that airs it anymore is Hallmark, but that's at 4 o'clock in the morning), I'd see that episode pretty often, and "I Fought the Law" was always intact. In fact, whenever I hear the song on the radio, I think of that scene. But I have noticed -- unfortunately -- sometimes when you catch shows in syndication these days you get the DVD/Netflix version, which could have song replacement. That's how I first encountered what, for me, is the unkindest Cheers song replacement: the removal of the piano version of "What'll I Do?" from the end of "I Do, Adieu." It's a beautiful scene, one that has always gotten to me every time I watched the episode, and the removal of that song (it's replaced with some generic piano playing) really weakens the moment.

Michael said...

About straight to series: if I remember correctly, after writing and starring in the pilot "Head of the Family," Carl Reiner wrote 13 episodes of what would be the series. Sheldon Leonard liked the writing but told him he was all wrong portraying himself and they came up with Dick Van Dyke.

Dan Ball said...

Ken! Friday question: That Jenny Craig CHEERS commercial. What do you know about it? Did any of the CHEERS crew work on it to your knowledge? What did you think of it?

I've scrubbed the videos looking for Nick Colasanto's Geronimo portrait. Don't think I've found it yet. Otherwise, it's Cheers! It's like only the people aged around The Bar, not the bar itself. The lighting even looks like a natural progression from '82 to '93 to what it would look like if Cheers was still on the air now. Even in '93, there was still some of that '82 vibe and it's still there. It was amazing! Too bad there's no access to the pool room or the bathrooms now since they've been bricked them in. (Leftover from Bar Wars XXX, perhaps?)

B.A. said...

It seems TV shows are using expensive songs like Tomorrow Never Knows with full knowledge that it'll be cut or replaced for syndication. But think of the publicity when MAD MEN used a Holy Beatles song, or the "games" the Onion AV Club posts where you guess the source of music used on VINYL.

Mel Agar said...

I'm glad you mentioned MOM as a series you've revisited and found improved. I've had the same experience with that very show. I watched the first episode or two when it premiered, thought it was a waste of a brilliant actress (Allison Janney), and removed it from my DVR queue. A couple weeks ago, I was working on something with the tv in the background, too lazy to change channels, and an episode came on and I was completely stunned at the show it had become in its portrayal of strong but flawed women and their friendships and relationships. What a solid show it has become!

I had also initially written off THE GOLDBERGS after one episode that I thought was just too gimmicky and then a friend encouraged me to watch an episode dealing with the school play (I'm a high school theatre director, so I'm always a sucker for the big "school play" episodes of shows), and I was again stunned to find such a funny family comedy. Binge-watching the first season helped me survive a train ride from Chicago to New York City last year!

cadavra said...

In the pre-home-video era, songs were only licensed for broadcast. And yeah, extending the rights can cost a bloody fortune. The main reason MURPHY BROWN only put the first season out on DVD is that it didn't sell well enough to cover the enormous amount of money they had to pay Motown.

Mike said...

Music rights: I think most of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series made the CD release, but here's one bit that famously didn't. In my naivety, I think the rights holders should just waive the royalties on this and call it free advertising.

MikeN said...

That is ridiculous that there would be a lawsuit if Alan Alda was said to be having an affair.
So even Hollywood doesn't care about free speech?

We have in Germany a comedian is being prosecuted for mocking the Turkish leader(and there it was about sex with kids and goats). Mark Steyn wrote in one of his books:
These are the books we will never read, the plays we will never see, the movies that will never be made...

The lamps are going out all over the world - one distributor, one publisher, one silenced novelist, one cartoonist in hiding, one sued radio host, one murdered film director at a time.

The TV Guy said...

Friday Question:

I've always wondered why Shelley Long didn't return to CHEERS until the 1993 finale, 6 years after her departure? Was she invited? Seems like it would've been organic enough for her to pop in during the 6th, 7th, or 8th season. Why the long absence?

JR said...

I'm re-watching Justified, and I find I miss the commercials, only because the dialogue and action is so packed, I need a break every 10 minutes just to process it all. Now that shows are streamed - how does that change the pacing?

Wally said...

The Death of Comedy in Advertising
http://adage.com/article/guest-columnists/laughing-death-comedy-advertising/303523/?utm_campaign=SocialFlow&utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social

True. Parallels your post about current sitcoms like 'Love', 'New Girl' and others

D. McEwan said...

"MikeN said...
That is ridiculous that there would be a lawsuit if Alan Alda was said to be having an affair.
So even Hollywood doesn't care about free speech?"


Free Speech is one thing, and libel laws and defamation of character are quite another.

Coz Baldwin said...

Alan Alda is definitely open to being referenced in most any light!

My friend Rob Cantor wrote a beautiful and jest-filled song in remembrance of Alan, despite the fact that he is still alive. Rob wrote to Alda's agent to make sure it would be OK to publish both the song and (more legally important) a Photoshopped image of Alan and Rob laughing together.

Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FN1VmCunwbU

Alan OK'd it all and added "I don't get it. Does this mean I get to collect my life insurance NOW?"

Lyrics and info: http://www.hiddeninthesand.com/wiki/index.php?title=In_Memoriam

- Coz (webmaster of The Village Players of Hatboro)

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken. It's odd because it's the only episode that doesn't have its original music... and it's actually one that people search for (Google autofill has CHEERS MONSTER MASH). It feels almost like a mistake.

@Richard "I Found the Law" is the song that's featured on the DVDs/iTunes. I guess they only changed it for syndication.

Johnny Walker said...

Looks like I spoke too soon, there are indeed other edits made to CHEERS. Damned annoying that even a show like Cheers can't get released unscathed, but I suppose it wasn't a mistake after all. From elsewhere on the internet:

In season 8, "Bar Wars III: The Return of Tecumseh," Cliff's very funny explanation of the plot of "Failsafe" was completely cut out.

In "The Norm Who Came for Dinner", the gang singing "Those Were the Days" is replaced by music when Frasier and Lilith are in bed in the middle of the night, and a few seconds of the gang singing it when Lilith walks downstairs and again when she leaves are missing.

A scene starts rather abruptly in "Get Your Kicks on Route 666" as well, when they're in the car the scene starts with Cliff mentioning that something must be wrong with the 8-track.. as if they had been singing before that.

"Monster Mash" is replaced with another song in "Bar Wars V"

In "Bar Wars VI: This Time It's for Real" when the gang returns from Gary's for the first time, they originally sang.. something, the DVD just shows them enter silently. Only 3-4 seconds affected.

In "An Old-Fashioned Wedding, part 2", Lilith singing a few words from "Make 'em Laugh" is muted. Only a few seconds here too.. no video missing, it ruins her punchline "a dead body at a wedding is so appalling" though, as that line is followed by her walking into the guest room singing "make em laugh, make em laugh..."

Andy Rose said...

When reruns are syndicated in a "library" deal, stations get their own copy of each episode and decide when they want to air it. When the rights expire to music in a particular episode, the syndicators technically are supposed to get the stations to use the new, edited versions. But because of the cost of replacing all the old copies, they often just look the other way and hope the music rightsholders don't notice. That's why sometimes you'll see original versions on a local station, but edited versions on another station or online.

A few years ago when WGN decided to start airing WKRP episodes again after a long, long absence, they just went back to the old tapes they had rotting in their own vault. They looked terrible, but they still had the original music. Unfortunately, somebody apparently noticed at some point, because they had to stop.

Mark said...

Shelley Long was not invited back to Cheers before the finale because the writers felt that her final episode (in season 5) had been so effective that it would be difficult to bring her back for a bit and effectively write her out again. They were right - I found her return in the finale disappointing. Her acting seemed so much more mannered, and I didn't like how they split her and Sam up again.

All of Lucille Ball's post-"I Love Lucy" series were straight-to-series orders, not just Life with Lucy. Petticoat Junction was also straight-to-series; CBS was so thrilled with the performance of The Beverly Hillbillies that they gave producer Paul Henning another half hour on the schedule, sight unseen. The original Dallas was also straight-to-series, in a way. CBS didn't just order a single pilot episode - they ordered a five-episode limited series that led to a full season the following year.

MikeN said...

DJ McEwan, I was under the impression Two Broke Girls is fictional.

forg/jecoup said...

Mom is a great show. So unpredictable and they are in control of their story threads. I wish The Emmys would take notice outside the very deserving Allison Janey