Thursday, July 13, 2017

A show I once loved that didn't hold up

I’m always fascinated by how some things hold up over time and other things don’t. You’ve all had movies you remembered loving as a kid and you see them now and go “Eeeewww. What did I like about that?” And other movies you love as much or more now as you did when you first saw them.

That goes for TV, music, theater, and radio shows.

Growing up, one of my favorite disc jockeys was Robert W. Morgan on KHJ. Great voice, smooth delivery, and a sneaky caustic sense of humor. Plus, he used to occasionally sneak in inside references for radio insiders. And since I was a radio geek I knew the references and loved them. It’s always cool to feel like you’re on the inside. Tech geeks get that I’m sure from SILICON VALLEY. I enjoy the show but know there are little asides that are going over my head.   And that's okay, if it's kept to a minimum. 

After 5 ½ years doing the morning show on KHJ Los Angeles in the ‘60s Robert W. left to work at WIND in Chicago. His last show on KHJ was in October 1970.

I got up early and listened to the entire show from 6-9 AM. And I loved every minute of it. He was particularly surly and rebellious and it was a radio geek’s delight because ALL the jokes were inside, all the references were radio industry oriented. He made fun of the station’s very tight format, had jocks from competing stations on the air (including Wolfman Jack who made an in-studio appearance), and put down the station’s music.

I lapped up every minute of it. And for years held the memory that it was a hilarious show. Recently, a Facebook friend, Greg Barman, posted it, and I listened again for the first time in a gazillion years.

And I hated it.

You can hear it here. (The commercials and songs have been cut out. It’s called a “telescoped” aircheck.)

When I listened this time it struck me that by playing almost exclusively to the radio industry Morgan was completely ignoring the listeners. What was once so audacious and hilarious now felt smug and self-indulgent.

I took it as a reminder of a great lesson. As a writer I have an obligation to think of my audience first. It’s easy these days to do meta jokes or parodies of other shows. But who would I be serving? My friends? Maybe my fellow writers? I know we’re in the age of niche TV but that’s a pretty narrow target.

I would rather concentrate on exploring emotions, universal conflicts, relatable characters and situations, comedy that comes from reality and the human condition. One of the things I appreciated about Jimmy Kimmel’s Oscar opening monologue was that the jokes were for America not the room. There were no Harvey Weinstein references.

As I was listening again to Robert W. Morgan’s last day I thought, if I was just a general listener, why would I care? There was nothing in the broadcast to suggest that he cared about me. Never did he express any sadness that he was leaving so why should I be sad to see him go?

Instead, it was three hours of thumbing his nose at everyone. I found it very entertaining when I was a kid and passive-aggressive bordering on hostile today.

I still feel Robert W. Morgan was an extraordinary talent. He came back to Los Angeles a year later, and a few years after that I was privileged to be on the same station as him (K100). But on that one day in October 1970, what I originally thought was his best show, I now consider his worst.

And if I’m being honest, I have to confess I’ve done the same thing. When B100 San Diego went on the air in1975 they held a 100 hour commercial-free marathon and invited a lot of local jocks and radio legends to do hour segments. And I played primarily to the other jocks who were listening. I’m as guilty as Morgan. Now one can argue that the station had just gone on the air and there weren’t many listeners, but that’s no excuse. Airchecks of those B100 hours circulated throughout the industry and were very well received. Still, I think back and cringe.

The audience. Never forget the audience. It’s not about entertaining me. It’s about entertaining YOU.

24 comments :

Jim S said...

Ken,

I have to say that I found Hawkeye of your show MASH to be an interesting character in that when I was young, he was cool. He told the man off and he put up with Frank Burns and Hot Lips.

When I watched MASH years later, I really began to appreciate the episodes where Hawkeye got his comeupance. Because, man what a jerk. A womanizer who treated the nurse like objects that existed for his pleasure.

I get that he was in a war zone, but so was everybody else. His pain wasn't special. So when Radar told Hawkeye, who when in charge actually failed in his duties to do things like order supplies in a timely fashion, that he felt real bad for the wounded too, but that actually didn't solve the problem Hawkeye created by not doing his job, I was delighted.

I even enjoyed the episodes where Frank Burns got sick of Hawkeye's pranks and pranked back. The episode of course ended with Hawkeye on top, but yeah he had what he got coming.

I also appreciated the episode where a patient went "sour" and Hawkeye freaked out. Henry Blake pointed out that there are lot of patients who need help and self-pity was a luxury. When the problem was found, Frank Burns said anyone could have missed what Hawkeye missed. I never saw Hawkeye be that gracious.

I have also been watching Hill Street Blues on H&I. Half of it holds up. The drama really works, but the humor, eye, yi yi. Talk about hamfisted and just lazy.

So that show half holds up. The "funny" characters really are caractures. A strange mix of great and weak sauce.

John in NE Ohio said...

I remember hearing Dennis Miller (many years ago) saying that he always had 3 punchlines in his standup/monologue. The first was very broad and everyone should get it. The second was for the average well informed person. The third was for himself and maybe one person at the back of the room. I remember at least on occasion him running through the punchlines in order, and it was very accurate. Didn't often understand the reference in the third joke, but when I did, absolutely the best joke.
My long winded point being that a joke for 4 people is ok when it is part of a bigger whole, and 1 missed joke shouldn't be a big deal. If all he told were those jokes, there would be times that nobody would laugh because none of us had seen whatever obscure sitcom that lasted 3 episodes in 1975 all the jokes were referencing.

Jeff said...

Friday Question: I wondered if you had a take on this article about Frank Darabont seeking renumeration from AMC over The Walking Dead?

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/walking-dead-lawsuit-spills-obscene-emails-tales-greed-tvs-billion-dollar-hit-1020061

There's a lot there, so any commentary would be enlightening, but in particular I noticed how some of these cases go on for decades -- have you ever been in the position of having to spend years recovering compensation? And the articles claim that a lot of formerly-hidden "Hollywood accounting" practices are now out in the open. Do you think that will lead to greater transparency overall?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Great post. lots of insight there. How lucky are the likes of Weiner and Gilligan who may write up to their own high-standards (pleasing themselves, essentially) and have it catch on to their audiences.

cd1515 said...

Good points Ken, I see a lot of the same thing today in podcasts where it's the host interviewing another person.
I get the feeling most podcast hosts will book a guest because "hey that person seems interesting to me, let's have him/her on."
Whether that guest will be interesting TO THE LISTENER never seems to matter.

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting comment about Hawkeye. I grew up loving him, not just for his humour but for his humanity, but I haven't watched the show in a long time. I hope I would still like him today.

Beau Weaver said...

I too, loved Robert W. Morgan's snarky inside baseball references. In retrospect, you are right, he had developed an arrogant, narcissistic focus that left the listeners out. And, I think that was allowed to develop unchecked after Ron Jacobs left the building. Jacobs was a big a bully as RWM, and was able to keep him more or less along the lines of the "preparation, concentration, MODERATION" orthodoxy of the format. There was always SOME latitude give to the morning man, but the PD's who followed Jacobs were no match for Morgan's pushing of the boundaries. He became a monster, in terms of his performances on the air and behavior behind the scenes. Ask anyone who worked with him. Airchecks from the early days of Boss Radio, with Jacobs standing on his neck produced some of the greatest work I have ever heard in this narrow realm. By 1970, you are right....he was out of control. Thanks for the object lesson. -Beau Weaver

Stephen Robinson said...

Re: Hawkeye

At his core, he's a decent man, which is key. He can be arrogant and self-righteous but he's also kind and funny and charming.

I'd argue that the womanizing would hold up in the sense that TV series are more likely to have sex-obsessed leads (Christian Troy from Nip/Tuck is an example and he was *at best* a Jerk with a Heart of Gold whereas Hawkeye was more consistently nice). On the flip side, now such womanizing is depicted as a clear character flaw/weakness, which wasn't really the case for Hawkeye.

Anonymous said...

Robert W. Morgan never really made it in Chicago (Morgan in the morning).
In the late 1960's through the early 1980's Chicago had by far the best stable of jocks in the country between WLS and WCFL..
Lujack was the man, of course, but Fred Winston (that's him in Ferris Bueller), John Records Landecker (Records truly is my middle name),Joel Sebastian, J.J. Jeffries, Ron Britain, Bick Biondi, Barney Pipp, Bob Sirott (who is still on but has really gone downhill) and a little later on Steve Dahl with Garry Meier (see Demolition, Disco).
There were a couple of great female jocks Connie Szerzen, and Yvonne Daniels, and even the jocks on the urban station were great (Herb Kent "The Cool Gent" is a well-deserved legend)
To be honest Robert W. was Ok but could never match up to the best of those guys.

YEKIMI said...

Sort of along the same lines, I thought all my air check tapes had been destroyed, gobbled up, etc. by malfunctioning tape players over the years. But going through some old cassettes I have had, some dating back to the late 60s, I discovered an old unmarked tape of me from my first day on the air of a station in Florida back in the early 80s and listened to it. OMG! I wanted to throw it into a wood chipper, burn the remains, dig a 30 foot hole, bury it and stick "biological hazard, do not dig here for 10 billion years" signs all over and around it, then after that amount of time dig up the hole and launch it into the hottest and furthest star I could find. I'm sure if RWM were still alive and listened to that tape today, he might disown it.
[In my defense, I was hired and the PD said "Congrats, you start overnights TONIGHT and you'll be playing cuts from the newest Little River Band album." So with no show prep, no info on the LRB [pre-internet days, remember them?] and basically resorting to reading the liner notes off the album cover I stumbled through it.]

powers said...

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was without question the coolest & greatest TV show among my pre-teen friends & I back when the series first debuted.
We would discuss the show & await the next new episode eagerly.

Recently saw some episodes...wow!The show does not hold up at all in spite of a fine cast & terrific guest stars.Part of the problem was that it went from cold war espionage adventure to silly,camp episodes during its run.

Shows I enjoy from the past to this day are:Mission:Impossible,The Wild Wild West,The Andy Griffith Show,Get Smart.So,some do stand the test of time while others wither away.Except in reruns.

Anonymous said...

Friday questions, Ken:

1. What do you think about doing a spec script of an older show as a possible reboot? Two years ago it would have been unthinkable to spec "Will & Grace," and now it's coming back in the fall. Similarly, "Arrested Development" has two more seasons coming from Netflix. In this day and age, when a show is never truly dead, is anything ever really off the table?

2. I've read that a good package for TV writing is a spec of an established show plus a pilot script. Should they be in the same format, though? For instance, a spec of a sitcom and a pilot for a one-hour comedy/drama? Or would it be better to do two half-hour sitcom scripts and two hour-long scripts?

blinky said...

I watched CONTACT with my son so he could share in the great movie I saw 20 years ago. Wow was it slow. Two and a half hours that could have been cut to 90 minutes. The cool parts were still super cool but the parts in between were sooooo sloooowww. I guess all that Transformer and Borne pacing has me expecting faster action.

Donald Benson said...

Over time, Hawkeye became, if not a role model, less the old-school "bad boy".

At one point he realized he was slipping into alcoholism and pulled back (albeit not going on the wagon).
Likewise, the early notion that the doctors and nurses were constantly and randomly hooking up despite marital status was phased out. Marital and romantic fidelity were taken seriously. Married men BJ and Potter had to deal with temptations; Potter became aware his visiting son-in-law was cheating; Winchester found out a Frenchwoman he was attracted to was married; Klinger and other characters received "Dear John" letters. Hawkeye resumed an affair with a college girlfriend who'd since married, but ultimately couldn't handle it.

Part of that was because Alda himself seemed to be pressing for that. I recall he was often mocked for personifying the trendy feminist nice guy in real life. Still, Alda's attitude was in fact becoming mainstream; even James Bond was becoming less promiscuous and smoking was no longer universally acceptable. But I suspect the larger part was the need to make a long-running character not only sympathetic but plausible enough to support more stories.

Hawkeye the complete cynic was a dead-end street of silly pranks against the unquestioned cruelty of war. What were the stakes? Getting sent home, like he wanted? He had to care about his patients and friends for stories to mean anything. The show's anti-war edge dulled as Vietnam got pushed off the front page, and it became an odd but mostly successful mix of current issues and changing attitudes played out against a very specific historical backdrop.

Breadbaker said...

I'm reading Dick Van Dyke's memoir, and one thing he points out in his many compliments to Carl Reiner is how they had a hard and fast rule to avoid topical humor (though some things became topical over time, like musical choices). Which is one reason (the main other being the quality of the writing) why they can all be watched with enjoyment today).

Cap'n Bob said...

Ah, but BJ gave in to temptation one time, and it disturbed him deeply. Trapper, on the other hand, was a rampant p-hound and it's the one thing I disliked about him. Well, that and his hair.

Douglas Trapasso said...

One of the best aspects of the Burns-for-Winchester tradeoff is that Hawkeye and B.J. now had an antagonist that could match them cut for cut in the O.R. I'm not a big fan-fiction dude, but I wouldn't mind reading a couple of specs where Burns overrode Hawkeye in the O.R. - and was proven right.

Johnny Walker said...

Very nicely summed up, Donald Benson.

Betty said...

Just read Curtis Armstrong's autobiography "Revenge of the Nerd" - and there's a shout-out to "Almost Perfect"!

Y. Knott said...

Funny you mentioned how Morgan never cut it in Chicago, then talked about having to compete against the likes of John Landecker.

Landecker couldn't cut it in Toronto. He was snapped up by top 40 station CFTR with great fanfare in the early 80s -- and flopped. Whatever it was he had going on in Chicago, it came across as a bit desperate and phony to Toronto audiences, who never warmed to him. He slinked back to Chicago, tail between his legs, in under two years.

Another broadcasting legend seen a different way in Canada? A lot of Canadian folks only heard Vin Scully as he was broadcasting the '93 World Series. He was, quite frankly, rambling, not well prepared, and clearly not especially interested in the assignment -- what you got was a rather dull report about some phenomenally exciting baseball. There is simply no way, listening to his '93 World Series calls, to accept that this man was supposed to be some kind of broadcasting legend.

Of course, Landecker and Scully *were* legends in their own markets, and must have instinctively known how to tailor their personalities to those markets. Just because they succeeded at home, though, it wasn't a guarantee that they'd succeed anywhere. (On the other hand, just because they didn't succeed elsewhere doesn't mean they don't deserve their legendary status in their home markets!)

Stephen Robinson said...

FRANK: "I'm a very good doctor -- just ask any of my patients!"

HAWKEYE: "You can't go digging people up just for that."

No matter how often I see that episode, I wind up missing the next few lines because I'm laughing out loud. Alda's delivery is classic.

To a previous poster's point, I did like that Winchester was a better surgeon than Hawkeye but not as *efficient* as Hawkeye (too obsessed with perfection). Frank had no positive traits -- he was an incompetent surgeon but he also didn't even care about his patients. Frank Burns was the most brilliant and complex 2-dimensional character on TV -- and we have Larry Linville's genius to thank in part for making him as likable as he was.

Ted Cruz also reminds me of Frank Burns whenever I see him (though Cruz is by all accounts a smart guy).

Andy Rose said...

I never thought I'd get to pick up on a point from the legendary Beau Weaver, but here goes... There are lots of creative types who do their best work only when they have something or someone to fight against. A classic example is the cartoon Ren and Stimpy. When the show's creator John Kricfalusi was constantly battling Nickelodeon in the beginning over what would now be considered tame humor and visuals, he made some really trailblazing animation. Until he was fired. But then when Spike brought him back years later and gave him almost carte blanche, the result was unwatchable garbage.

David Letterman had a similar trajectory. He was never as good on CBS as he was on NBC, particularly after General Electric came into the picture. Once he had all the money and resources he could want and no new heights to which he could aspire, Dave's anger and self-loathing just seemed petty.

And speaking of being self-indulgent, I've been watching some NBC Letterman on YouTube lately. I prefer much of it to the overproduced and overedited talk shows that are on now, but still, it's hard to believe in hindsight how much I adored his frustrations and bungled jokes and "How're we doing on time?" loosey-goosey hosting back then. When he was on his game, no show was better, but when he got into a funk (which typically lasted for several weeks at a time), it was pretty dire watching Dave try to crawl to the finish line each night.

Rick said...

Morgan returned to KHJ 15 months after leaving. He only stayed a year and a half.Wonder how his second farewell show was? I did love Wolfman's appearance as Dick Whittinghill,his KMPC competition and saying Whit never gets up this early. Robert W always wanted to work at KMPC and he did on 1975 partvtime and replaced Whittinghill in 1979. He went to WIND to get an MOR station on his resume

KadeKo said...

Did MASH invent (or make popular, for network execs to emulate) an entire set of TV things we take for given today?

I was a kid when my parents watched it. I didn't get it, not all of it, but it just had a different tone from the rest of the grown-up shows I saw then.