Friday, April 01, 2016

Tuesday Questions

Here are this week’s Tuesday Questions:

cd1515 starts us off with his Monday Question:

In a sitcom, how aware are you of "we have to give each person something to do"? Obviously the stars are covered but if a few episodes go by and one of the supporting actors is kind of ignored or minimalized, do they or their agents get upset?

There are two schools of thought on this. One is that you need to service everybody every week. And usually those shows feature B or sometimes C stories to accommodate everyone. FRIENDS followed that format.

Other shows, like EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, just made it very clear that there would be one main story each week and that sometimes the supporting cast would be heavy and other weeks they wouldn't, but over the course of the season it would all even out.

On CHEERS, the cast understood that some weeks they would be light but that each one would have at least one episode in which they drove the main story.

I think if you let the actors know before you get into production just what the policy will be you will avoid any problems. It’s when you’re in the middle of production and suddenly change the rules that agents start calling you at home.

MikeK.Pa. asks his Sunday Question:

Ken: Curious, if you're now a full-time playwright (when you're not blogging) or do you still get together with David and spitball ideas for sitcoms, flesh them out and pitch to networks?

We do still write together, but at this stage of our career we’d rather write things on spec, and if a network, or whoever wants to do our script we’ll sell it to them. If they want to use our draft as a starting point and then go in a different direction we then respectfully decline.

We’re less interested in pitching ideas and having every step require approval.

But David and I do have a few projects in the hopper.

Longtime blog reader, Johnny Walker has this CHEERS Wednesday Question:

How far into Season 3 did Nicholas Colasanto stop being able to work, and how did it affect the season?

I think about halfway through. When you see him in some of those early episodes he doesn’t look great. Also, that same season, Shelley Long was pregnant, so we had to hide that.

For the Coach’s final appearance, that was a teaser filmed early in the season that we just held back. And for Diane, the Charles Brothers very cleverly devised a trip to Europe for her and Frasier. We filmed those scenes during pick ups in the early part of the season before Shelley was showing and sprinkled them in throughout the latter half of the year. But we had fair warning. Not so with Nick, so we were forced to just give the excuse that he was traveling and Sam would get letters from his various whereabouts. By reading the letters we would keep the Coach’s voice alive.

And finally, Andrew offers this Saturday Question:

It's well-known that Seinfeld became successful under the radar. It developed an audience slowly and incrementally, and the suits didn't mess with it because few people were watching. As the show became more popular, Larry David stood his ground and refused to do the show unless he and Jerry were given unheard-of artistic license. So there was very little corporate meddling.

So the question: why haven't the network suits learned from the success of Seinfeld? Why aren't they willing to hire talented people that they trust, give them as much creative freedom as possible, and allow the show enough time to develop an audience?

Simple. Because they like having the control. And since networks now own the shows, they have that power.

But they are starting to pay a steep price. All of a sudden talented writers are bringing their projects to other outlets like Netflix or Amazon or cable networks that will offer more autonomy. Broadcast networks are no longer the first place to sell an idea.  And now in an era when more and more viewers are fleeing broadcast networks and they need hits more desperately than ever, the few talented people who could provide these precious hits are taking their wares elsewhere.

And yet, I hear that this development season nothing has changed. Ohhhh wellllll.  Again, it's why David and I now prefer to write projects on spec. 

I answer your questions today and every Saturday. Please leave yours in the comments section. Thank you. Happy beginning of April.


Timothy said...

Ken, great Friday post as usual. And while I hate to overload on the Cheers questions when you have such a rich and varied history (I even saw you on CNN last night at a bar in a click clip, and said to my friend Hey! I know that guy, to which she replied with silence). With that caveat, I've just started watching the first season of Cheers on Netflix, and I wanted to pay the writing staff a compliment on the amount of "Boston" that was worked into the dialogue (mention of Coach dropping off Norm at Kenmore Square, Carla being raised on Federal Hill, Coach mentoring Sam "down in Pawtucket") along with other touches like a patron wearing a Somerville Alumni shirt and quite a few of the extras having a passable Boston accent. Kudos! I'm hoping that these won't fade as I continue watching in later seasons, but I imagine they'll probably be less and less vital to the story as the show gained popularity.

This brings me to my Friday question: In reading reviews and the history of "Give Me a Ring Sometime", it seems that there was another patron character that was intended to be in the cast, an older cantankerous woman in a wheelchair. Several places online it is noted that she was played by Elaine Stritch. The interesting part of this is I recall watching a scene with Diane and Coach where there was a woman in purple sitting in a wheelchair that seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to what was being said, and I thought to myself "Well, there's an extra that isn't really doing her job", and funny enough it was this character. Can you confirm that it was Elaine Stritch (it sure doesn't LOOK like her), and why she was editied and written out?

Thanks SO much, and keep up the good work!

Mark said...

Friday question Ken,

Is there any truth to the story that Kirstie Alley told one of the David's behind 'Frasier' that she would not be doing the show as Frasier's career in psychiatry conflicted with her Scientology beliefs? If so, why not kick up a fuss during 'Cheers' when Frasier was a major character, particularly in the handful of episodes that floated Rebecca and Frasier as a romantic couple?

Cliff said...


With baseball season starting, I'd really like to hear of your pre-game process to get ready to call the game. Some time ago, you mentioned that Dave N. arrived hours before a game to get ready. What is it you do? Read the sports pages or something? If you have other folks that you've worked with that have unique pre-game rituals, those would be interesting to hear about too.


Mike Barer said...

April Fool's! It's Friday!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

In regards to the final question, as I've said before, this is one of the main reasons why I'm more and more discouraged from branching out into television myself, because I know - not just from this blog, but from other resources out there - that there's virtually no creative control for the actor creators/producers/showrunners over their own shows anymore, and that networks call all the shots on what your show will be about, who your characters will be, what their foibles are, and owning your show to boot. And that's something I won't settle for. Heck, even local, public access outlets are now adopting that same business practice. I tried pitching a small, low-budget, miniscule show to local TV a few years back, and they gave me a producer's handbook to look over regarding their protocol and such, and when I got to the part where it said they would own the copyright and the content therein of my program, I declined.

I heartell FRIENDS is to blame for all of this: apparently since this was the first time an in-house show produced by the network itself became a big success, the networks decided they didn't need people coming to them to pitch shows, they could do shows themselves. I'm pretty sure I read that on this very blog some time back.

The problem with other outlets, though, is that they're not as widely available as broadcat/network television is. Not everybody has cable, and not everybody has regular internet access, so even if cable or the internet offer more creative freedom for producers, you would only be reaching a small percentage of the public anyway.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Ken! Somewhat fortuitous that you had a teaser held back (assuming it wasn't held back on purpose -- I don't really know the details of Colasanto's illness), especially one that ended with him ethereally reaching upwards (it gave me goosebumps after I realised it was his final appearance).

I seemed to have noticed that the yellow photograph of Geronimo appeared during that season -- so I guess any episode with it in the background was filmed after his passing. I'm guessing it must have put a dampener on the cast's spirits, but you could never tell watching that season. Losing two characters by the end of the season must have been hell, but again: You couldn't tell. I'd say it was the beginning of Season 4 that wavered a bit, during the introduction to Woody, and the souring of Sam and Diane's relationship -- tricky plates to spin.

When actors go missing, and the show still works without their character, sometimes they're never replaced (see Jeff Conaway's departure from Taxi), so it's interesting that Woody was introduced in Season 4 in a Coach capacity. It was ultimately a great decision, as so many great stories came from Woody, but I wonder if you considered not replacing Coach?

Anyways, thanks for answering, and, of course, have a Merry Christmas!

@Timothy Ken has a whole post answering that very question somewhere in the archives. Elsewhere online you also find the original script and see what the character said, too, as you watch the episode (and interesting experience -- some clever unscripted shots of Sam and Diane's reactions added a lot to the episode). But the character didn't really didn't add much, and was a bit too sour for the tone of the show.

Johnny Walker said...

@Mark Wow, I'd never heard that rumour before. I always thought it was because Alley just wanted to move on to other things.

It's ironic because I see Scientology and psychotherapy as being essentially the same thing: With both of them you pay to go into a room with a stranger to talk about your personal problems until eventually they don't affect you anymore. The difference with seeing a therapist is that when you're done, you stop paying and get on with your life with the new tools you've acquired.

With Scientology you keep going back, paying more and more, until it's eventually revealed that ancient space battles and an alien named Xenu are the real cause of your problems today.

Not that I can't totally see Scientology's argument that, of the two, psychotherapy is
the evil manipulative one that takes advantage of vulnerable people. Yep. No question about it.

Mark said...


If you get the Weigel/CBS terrestrial superstation DECADES (which you should check out -- Weigel always makes interesting programming choices and they have the whole CBS catalog to play with), you might want to record this:

The Dick Cavett Show
Hank Aaron, Leo Durocher, Mickey Mantle and Tom Gorman2:30 PM on DECAD 2.2, 30 min 1979

Part 1 of a three-part interview with baseball greats Hank Aaron, Leo Durocher, Mickey Mantle and umpire Tom Gorman that aired in 1979.

Mel Agar said...

A potential Friday question for you, Ken:

When did the single-camera format become the dominant sitcom format? What advantages does it offer compared to multi-camera? Are there shows that benefit more from one format versus the other? And as a writer, which format works best for you? Is it easier or harder to write for one versus the other?

Andy Rose said...

When WKRP in Cincinnati started, Hugh Wilson intended to have some of the characters (Bailey, Venus, Herb, and I think Les) to be more peripheral and not appear in every episode. But then he realized that his original vision of the show as "Old Guard vs. New Guard" was not as interesting as "People Who Work in Radio Are All Crazy," and then everyone started appearing in every episode. Plus they expanded the set to make it easier to fit more characters into a scene.

Daniel said...

Possible Friday Question:

"Batman v Superman" (which I happened to really like) got some really terrible reviews, and a lot of the criticism that I read faulted it for straying too far from the original source material. I personally think that type of criticism is unfair. I think a work of art should be judged for what it is, not for what it never tried to be. That said, I'm wondering if you ever experienced similar criticism when you were working on "M*A*S*H" from fans who felt that the TV show strayed too far from the original Altman film (or even from the original novel). And if you hadn't, how do you think you might have reacted if you had gotten such criticism?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Good luck with opening of "A or B?" tonight. Looking forward to seeing you and it next Friday.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Mel Agar Single-camera sitcoms gained prominence in the late 50s and became standard practice up till the early 70s when multi-cam made a big comeback. Producers prefered the single-cam format because it allowed them a great deal more camera angles and achieve a cinematic look that would otherwise be impractical on a multi-cam sitcom, where half the studio is accommodated by the audience. By the 70s, however, multi-cam became popular again with the success of Norman Lear and MTM-produced shows.

Bob B. said...

I always thought that some of the weakest MASH episodes were the ones where each of the front listed stars were given three or four minute vignettes. "Dreams", the episode where they answer letters from a grammar school, the episode where Hawkeye writes his will in the a battle zone, etc. These always reeked either of actor ego or agent interference.

I also seem to recall that during Kirstie Alley's first season, the supporting actors pushed for their own episodes since they had been there longer than Alley (maybe that's what you were referring to). And Norm, Carla, and Cliff weren't strong enough to carry their own episodes. Those episodes were also some of the weakest in the series.

George Adelman said...

I remember reading about Stritch On Wheels as well. Unfortunately, I don't really think her performing style would fit in with the Cheers gang- and from 1980-86 she was at the height of her alcoholism, which probably would've affected production.

Not to mention- how would they get a wheelchair down the stairs to the bar anyway?

blogward said...

Hi Ken, hope you're well. Question: A friend of mine is working on a production for BBC radio of 50 year-old+ scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson of Steptoe (US Sanford) and Son, and Hancock's Half Hour using, obviously, actors unassociated with these iconic characters. How do you think would you feel (assuming the money was right) about a similar thing happening with yours and David's classic scripts? Are there certain actors you might prefer - or not?

Lloyd said...

blogward said...

A friend of mine is working on a production for BBC radio of 50 year-old+ scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson of Steptoe (US Sanford) and Son, and Hancock's Half Hour using, obviously, actors unassociated with these iconic characters.

That seems like an odd thing to do. Both STEPTOE and HANCOCK seem to play perpetual repeats on BBC Radio 4 Extra already. I can't say that I really see the point in redoing the shows with new casts.

blogward said...

I can't say that I really see the point in redoing the shows with new casts.

Probably a BBC plan to kid the 9/11 generation that their licence fee is invested well. Certainly won't be for reasons of programme quality.