Sunday, September 10, 2017

Writing for BARNEY MILLER

BARNEY MILLER is one of those forgotten gem sitcoms from the 70s. I guess because they were taped and now look like crap you rarely see them pop up in reruns. Set in a detectives’ squad room in an NYPD precinct, BARNEY MILLER was a quirky character comedy revolving around the detectives and the nutcases that walked through their door (most in handcuffs).

It was created by Danny Arnold who was a true character. Brilliant, unpredictable (a nice term for bi-polar), demanding, and kind, Danny was an A-list show runner and a type-A+ personally. The man had a heart attack on the treadmill in his doctor’s office getting his heart checked. He had an oxygen tent installed on the BARNEY set so he could keep going during demanding shooting nights (which lasted routinely until 5 in the morning because of all the pick-ups he wanted). The results were fabulous but what a cost.

When David and I were starting out BARNEY MILLER was just starting to take off. It was one of the show we really wanted to write for. We had sold a couple of things and were making the freelance rounds. Our agent called with the good news that Danny had read our material and loved it. He wanted a meeting.

That meeting was one of the best EVER. We walked into his office and there was the nicest, most ebullient cigar-chomping uncle you’ve ever met. He was effusive in his praise. We couldn’t have been more excited. It was like the prettiest girl in school let you eat at her lunch table.

He invited us to come back with some story ideas and very much looked forward to working with us. A week later we were back in his office with our notions.

I noticed a bit of change right at the start. He was a little more gruff. Probably just the result of a long day. We started pitching and every idea was met with, “NO!!” “FUCK! ARE YOU KIDDING?” “JESUS, HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED OUR SHOW?” Needless to say we were shaken. After he had rejected all of them we started out and just before getting to the door he said, almost as an afterthought, “That Yamada gambling thing. I don’t think there’s anything there but if you want to develop it more you can.” Not exactly a sale.

But we went home and decided to develop it anyway. We wanted to show him that if nothing else we weren’t intimidated by him… although we sure as hell were.

We turned in an outline. He bought it. Had us in for notes and was very complimentary. We implemented his changes and turned in the revised outline.

He cut us off.

Well, we figured, so much for BARNEY MILLER. At least we got outline money.

Two weeks later I get a call from Danny’s assistant. Could we be in his office tomorrow at 8:30? Swell, I thought, he wants to chew us out again.

But we go and it’s the happy ingratiating Danny. “Boys! Come on in. You want a doughnut? How was your weekend?” He had read over our outline again and decided it was terrific. He had just a few tweaks. We were told to dash off a revised outline and then we’d go to work on the draft.

Two days later we delivered the new outline. And the following day…

He cut us off.

It just didn’t “jump off the page” for him. But he paid us for a second outline.

Elements of those outlines appeared in future shows but what the hell? He did pay us.

We never did a BARNEY MILLER assignment but a few years later when we were head writers of MASH he called and asked if we wanted to be his showrunners for the upcoming season. We chose to stay with MASH.

The guys who did take the job worked a million hours a week, learned a hell of a lot, got paid a fortune, and Danny gave them Rolls Royces… which they used to drive themselves to Cedar-Sinai hospital.

BARNEY MILLER is back, on some retro cable channels, DVD's, and streaming services. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a treat.

45 comments :

Barry in Portland said...

My favorite character was Steve Landsberg's incredible Arthur Dietrich. Sure the writers gave him great material, but his delivery was perfect.

Shaun S said...

Barney Miller was great, I think Abe Vigoda who played Fish must hold the record for the number of times that he falsely reported as dead.

Diane D said...

Until CHEERS came along, that was probably my favorite show. I loved those characters. I hope it's on one of my streaming services. It will be a joy to see it again. However, the story of how he treated people makes me ill. NO AMOUNT of talent or brilliance justifies treating others that way. I wonder how many people he destroyed. I would think that kind of thing is one of the reasons it's a great idea to work with a partner. At least you have someone with whom to walk out that door, go to a coffee shop, and swear till you're hoarse.

Turning down his job offer may have been the wisest thing you ever did.

Brent said...

Danny produced the 1st season of BEWITCHED, one of its best, and a much different show than the "spell of the week" routine William Asher turned it into by season 4. Actually, Danny only made it half-way thru that 1st season, reportedly butting heads with Asher on a daily basis. Two strong personalities... too bad there are no transcriptions of their meetings.

Steve Boyko said...

I always enjoyed watching BARNEY MILLER. It was a good show. Thanks for the back story!

Bruce P. said...

Your title reminded me of a joke I heard on Green Acres that I always liked. The Douglases had a house guest who wrote for Newstime Magazine. He is introduced to Mr. Kimball
Mr. Kimball -- What do you do?
House Guest -- I write for Newstime Magazine
Mr. Kimball -- So do I but they never send it.

John Hammes said...

Human nature being what it is, the comedy of character is timeless. The show, by and large, still works. Dietrich and Yemana were favorites.

Tudor Queen said...

"Barney Miller" was a great show - character-based, as already noted, and those characters were so well developed and acted that it was like visiting - or at least hearing stories about - people you actually knew. Plus it was a 'cop show' with a difference. And I loved the recurring characters who came in and out of the precinct house, every one of them a sterling character actor. Hookers, bums, madmen, pickpockets, religious fanatics, all got respect from Barney and his men.

Favorites? I loved Barney himself, of course, and Yemana (cried when Jack Soo died), but I also loved Harris, which seems to be a decided minority opinion in the fandom. Even Barney, by the end, didn't seem to like Harris much - but I did!

John H said...

Barney Miller is timeless. Brilliantly written with magnificent performances from the entire cast.

Max said...


Speaking of "fortune"..... surely you too made a fortune on MASH and CHEERS, Ken :)

You have literally shared everything about your life here.

So, come on give us a hint ;) .... atleast let us know if you are a millionaire :D :D :D

Just a "Yes" in a Friday Question will suffice :)
.........


P.S.: Ho, by the way, still waiting for Dunkirk review :(


Buttermilk Sky said...

This is why I come here! I love "Barney Miller" and I love knowing you and your partner had the idea of making Nick Yemana a gambler, even if you never got credit. Too bad Danny Arnold was such a bear to work for, but he left us with some great shows.

Neal said...

With all due respect, I don't think being on tape is the reason BARNEY MILLER is rarely seen. The sub-channels that have become the refuge of most pre-2000 television don't appear to have any problem running sitcoms that were produced on videotape. BARNEY MILLER was always a show with less mass appeal that many more popular sitcoms. I suspect that's why it's seen less today than it deserves to be.

Regarding sitcoms produced on videotape, that's the one thing I think Norman Lear did that I truly regret. CBS wanted ALL IN THE FAMILY on film, like other sitcoms were, but Lear insisted on tape because he wanted the show to have the feel, the immediacy, of the live television he'd cut his teeth on. He wanted that "anything could happen" tension that he felt the show would have lacked had it been neatly shot and edited on film. And of course, after ALL IN THE FAMILY became a hit, everybody else wanted to use tape, believing that might have been part of what made ALL IN THE FAMILY a success. It didn't hurt that shooting on tape was cheaper than film. It's a shame, though. Videotaped productions are never going to look much better. You can sharpen them up a little, but not by much. I wonder what young people think about these shot-on-tape shows, having been raised in a high-definition world, with close-ups so sharp you can practically count the actors' nose hairs.

Terrence Moss said...

B&W in the 50s, early color in the 60s, videotape in the 70s, crisp in the 80s, bright in the 90s -- until HD,I was never bothered by how a show looked. I took it for what it was in the era it was produced.

jcs said...

BARNEY MILLER was clearly filmed during an era when actors (and actresses) were hired because they were competent and funny, not because they were gorgeous. My opinion is that a cast like the one seen in the photo would not be possible today.

Gary said...

I remember seeing a retired policeman being interviewed on a talk show, and he was asked which of TV's countless cop shows was the most like real life. Without hesitation, he answered Barney Miller!

DJ said...

The late Dennis Farina, who was a long-time Chicago police officer, agreed with this.

VP81955 said...

Police I've known love the series too. It had a real feel for a station's atmosphere.

J Lee said...

Arnold did two turns as showrunner with Danny Thomas' production company, on "The Real McCoys" and then again on "That Girl", given Thomas' propensity for yelling at everyone on his "Make Room for Daddy" set, there must have been some epic head-bumping there as well between the two Dannys.

PJ said...

I watched Barney Miller as a kid. I liked it but I think most of the jokes probably went over my head. I'd like to see it again, I'll keep an eye out for it!

Pizzagod said...

Ken
I know you're a professional, and polished doesn't begin to describe your ability with words.

But you are the truest definition of a raconteur in my opinion. NOBODY can tell a story like you can. I LOVED the Danny Arnold story. I was sorry to see it end.

LouOCNY said...

Best line about BARNEY, and it's character driven basis, was by an ex-cop, who said, "I've worked with every single one of those guys!"

And ANTENNA tv is running BARNEY daily, and SUNDANCE is running it as its Tuesday series that they show 4 or 5 of very early in the morning in longer time slots they don't cut anything...so it's out there!

Alan Christensen said...

My favorite Harris storyline was when he produced a porno movie. "Thank you, Black Stallion." "HARRIS!" "Hitchcock does it!"

johnny seattle said...

Barney Miller, one of the great sitcoms of all time. Funny but also treated the folks at home as if we had a brain. The good by to Jack Soo was an intelligent/thoughtful way to handle the death of a castmember in the middle of a show run. The actual episode had the remaining cast members step out of their roles and discuss Jack Soo for the entire show.



Anonymous said...

One of my favorite episodes was the one where the guy was turning into a werewolf and Nick tells Barney he's going to put paper down in the cage.Very funny. I liked Harris also. Janice B.

Pilot Joe said...

Jack Soo,
Mushy,Mushy,Mushy.
Pilot Joe

Anonymous said...

Nick Yemana, not Yamada.

Alfred Day said...

Shout Factory put out a Complete Barney Miller set of DVD's a few years back which I picked up and have done a binge of the complete series. I remembered the show from when I was a kid and wondered if it would still work.

And boy does it! It's amazingly topical, many of the shows dealing with current issues (police brutality, climate change, etc.). There are a couple of difficult moments where the show is dealing comedically with an issue that we now take much more seriously (the show where spousal rape is the center of an entire series of jokes for example), but on the whole, I tend to view these as snapshots of the time in which the show was produced.

I will say, that I loved Harris as a character. I remember him as a kid, largely because it was rare in those days to see a black character who (after the first season anyway) was largely written to avoid stereotypes of African-Americans. As a young nerdy black kid, this was a pretty important thing to me.

My favorite story of course is told by Hal Linden, who when visiting Jack Soo in the hospital before his passing, reports that Jack Soo quipped as he entered the operating room, "Must have been the coffee."

Donald Benson said...

Jack Soo and Pat Morita played "comic" Chinese white slavers in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (A Julie Andrews musical comedy with caged sobbing women being shipped out as sex slaves? Yes, and it was a hit). I wondered if then either actor hoped for the kind of success and non-demeaning roles that waited ahead.

Liggie said...

Let's not forget that theme song.

RF Burns said...

What, no love for Wojo?

I loved that show as a teenager, it was "appointment viewing" for me before they called it that.

I liked Harris too. One of the episodes I remember was set on Christmas Eve, when Harris (perhaps realizing he wasn't well liked) went down to a bodega and bought cheap gifts for everyone. Toothbrush, pencil, coffee cup, etc.

Dietrich had a funny Gregory Peck impression as I recall.

Johnny Walker said...

Great post, but what if you'd had no other writing gig?

Jahn Ghalt said...

That Me. Kimball and House Guest Newstime Magazine Joke - that's an adaption of a classic Burns and Allen misdirection

Ghost of Yemana said...

I just looked up Hal Linden's Archive of American Television interview. He said the pilot, which included a wife (Abby Dalton) and children as a primary story line, and which was rejected by the network, was shot on film.

For the second pilot, the family was dropped and the show was produced on videotape. The new wife (Barbara Barrie) was a minor back story until that was also quickly dropped.

Here is a link to the interview

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnn1jQmAGzk

Tracy Carman said...

In reflecting back on Barney Miller, my favorite episode of the show revolves around an elderly couple who travel as tourist to New York City and get mugged. They're talking about how they came to the city due to all of the commercials where they're (paraphrased) "singing and dancing about the city but never mentioned this" (Reference the YouTube video's Milford Plaza commercial: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwlvkUMsDgI). Abe Vigoda's dead pan response that still almost makes me fall out of my chair?!: "They only had sixty seconds"

Don K. said...

Regarding the raconteur comment- I'm sure this has occurred to Ken, but his next book should be a collection of stories from this blog. There should be a few books in that, really.

DaveMB said...

If you were responsible for Yemana's gambling addiction, then
you indirectly created a sequence on the show I still remember.
Harris bets he can stop smoking longer than Yemana can stop
gambling:

Y: I'm going to win. We Japanese are tough. We eat raw fish.
H: But you like raw fish!
Y: No we don't.

Jeff Alexander said...

This is becoming sort of a cliche to say that many law enforcement officers believe that Barney Miller was the only true representation of working police officers on television.
However, I personally got that unsolicited response once from a police chief of a small town near where I lived - real police officers get buried under paperwork and have to deal with the crazies (not just in New York City) on a daily basis.
"Barney Miller," for the record is in my top 10 list of all-time great sitcoms!

Tommy Raiko said...

As long as we're reminiscing...one of my favorite Barney Miller moments is the episode where Chano has shot a suspect and is feeling guilty. Barney visits him at home to check up on him, and after a bit of awkward conversation, Barney goes to leave, pausing to say, "You know why a sperm whale, which is the biggest animal on the planet, has a throat that's only this big?" (He holds his hand open just a bit to indicate the small size.) "Because that's just the way things are." And he leaves. And Chano breaks down crying.

Really unexpected and smart writing and performing there.

Don K. said...

Googling Danny Arnold (I had this vague, mistaken notion he wrote for Your Show of Shows too) led me to discover he produced the one year of My World- And Welcome To It, which starred William Windom as a version of Thurber in 1970. It had Sheldon Leonard as the executive producer and was created by Mel Shavelson. With that pedigree, it is no wonder it won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. That didn't prevent it from being cancelled, though. My World was of course based on Thurber's writings and caused this then 12 year old back in 1970 to explore more of James Thurber. That led me to Harpo Marx's autobiography called Harpo Speaks!, which in turn put me down a path populated by the lies of Alexander Woollcott and the Algonquin Round Table. More than a few characters that were in My World were based on writers such as Dorothy Parker, etc. Sidenote- today I am proud to call Harpo's son, Bill Marx, an acquaintance. Bill wrote Son of Harpo Speaks!.

My World and another series a few years later called We'll Get By starring Paul Sorvino and created by Alan Alda were two shows who now seem to have come decades before their time, if only because there are now so many outlets for series like them to grow and prosper, whether Netflix or HBO or TNT. Back then though it was the Big Three or nothing, even if you won an Emmy.

McAlvie said...

I have very fond memories of this show. And I did watch since on DVD. No, the production values don't hold a candle to what we see today, and it was basically one set ... no, wait, there was Barney's office, too. But what I found was by the end of the second episode I wasn't noticing the cheap set anymore.

I would compare it this way: you see a show on broadway and they make do with a basic set because really you are there to see the actors, so who cares if the window is just a painted backdrop? It's a hit and they make a film. Now it is not only a real window, it has to be open and you have to see branches moving outside and the curtain moving.

Did you care about any of that when you saw it on stage? No, because they didn't need those props; you got caught up in the story just fine without them.

Barney Miller was characters and bits and gags, etc., but it was a hit and they didn't need potty humor to accomplish it. What you had was TALENT.

Today they just have some character saying "F***" or "va****" for 20 minutes and they think they are the best thing on television. Maybe that's why I tend to watch PBS and a lot of reruns on Netflix. I don't know who their market is, but I do know it's pretty small compared to the number of people who used to watch Barney Miller. Because back then they wanted as many viewers as possible. What a novel concept!

Mike Bloodworth, Van Nuys said...

"Hash Brownies" was by far my favorite episode. Even though I enjoyed B.M.(I was in high school durring it's original run) sometimes the pacing was excruciatingly slow. Also, after a while some jokes just for beaten to death. e.g. Fish going to the bathroom, etc. B.M. is on Attena T.V. (Over-the-air 5.2 here in L.A.) This has nothing to do with the show, but I had the pleasure of meeting Max Gail at a couple of parties. He's a nice guy.

Anonymous said...

If Inspector Luger seemed a little TOO realistic, it's because he was based on a specific person: Barney Ruditsky, a legendary New York "hero cop" who later moved to LA and became a somewhat less heroic PI. (Seriously, his career sounds like a tongue-in-cheek parody of a James Elroy novel).
Of course, Arnold knew only one person could play him: James Gregory, who had played the ACTUAL Ruditsky on the 1950s TV series THE LAWLESS YEARS. (both BARNEY MILLER and THE LAWLESS YEARS gain a bit of depth when viewed with this in mine; Gregory's matching dramatic and comedic performances wonderfully contrasting and complimenting each other)

Anonymous said...

To me, "Barney Miller" is that rare show that actually improved every season it was on.

Susan D-L said...

I loved and still love Barney Miller as one of the shows that helped keep me sane during a terrible adolescence. What a perfect gem of television. But I worked for a guy like Danny Arnold and yeah, even a Rolls Royce wouldn't have been enough.

Sami said...

My grandma used to watch re-runs of Barney Miller after the 10 o'clock news. I used to spend the night with her sometimes and see it. I liked it then, but I didn't get most of the jokes. Now, I appreciate it so much more. Every episode is like a short play. The overall dreariness and sameness of the one set adds to the melancholy tone and feel of the show. Plus, that style is what I think of as the TV version of New York in the 70s. All in the Family, Rhoda--they both had a similar run-down, older look. As did Welcome Back, Kotter--but that one had a little bit brighter lighting. When I finally saw NYC in real life for the first time in 2003--yep, I could see where this style came from. So many very tall buildings, but the rooms were all small, dark, and cramped inside. Even the ice skating ring at Rockefeller center looked so much smaller in reality than it does on Mad About You. (We also went into the lobby of Trump Tower with the now-famous escalator--and yes,this, too, seemed remarkably small, dank, and dreary to me. I knew it was supposed to be luxurious and expensive, but back then it just seemed dreary and kind of dirty and weird with all the gold that did not shine. It just looked old and tired and like it was trying to hard to be shiny and impressive, but just wasn't...It was a little sad and uncomfortable being there. I had no idea of what was to come.) I think it's really hard to get natural light in those buildings when they are so tightly packed together.

Anyway, the writing and acting on Barney Miller--including all the character actors--was stupendous. That's one show that made me notice the character actors (who often made return appearances as different characters). I often think character actors must have way more fun than stars.


It's still on TV here, too.