Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Retro Friday Questions

I'm doing something new this month.  Reprieving some Friday Questions from ten years ago.  People rarely scroll through the archives and there are 3,500 FQ's buried in there somewhere.   So since this will be a crazy month for me, and the huge majority of you will be seeing these for the first time, I thought I'd sprinkle in some vintage classic Friday Questions from years gone by.  Enjoy.

Here are some Friday questions. What’s yours?

rita asks:

It's "did-they-or-didn't-they"-time on the German MASH-forum again. this time the big question is, did Margaret and Hawkeye marry *each other* or did they marry *someone else*?

They married other people. We don’t know who. If I was Hawkeye I would have gone after Nurse Marcia (pictured). Hot Lips probably married Dick Cheney.

Someone who didn’t leave his name but should wondered:

Were you were inspired by something that happened a few years before your great "Cheers" episode where Sam pitches Piels.

A few months after the Yankees' 1978 comeback against the Red Sox, Luis Tiant signed with New York as a free agent.

He did an ad for the short-lived, barely FDA-approved Yankee Franks where he exclaimed "It's great to be with a weiner!"

Actually, no. We gave our casting director a list of possible names and Luis was available. Or at least sort of available. He was pitching winter ball in Puerto Rico and flew in between starts. The scene in question from a first year episode called “Now Pitching: Sam Malone” (that David and I wrote) was a TV commercial that Sam does with Luis, a parody of a then-popular beer campaign. Luis had maybe three lines. It took at least forty takes. Afterward, we gave him a little tour of the set and he said (at least this is what I think he said, it was impossible to understand him) “Hey, I’m going to give this acting a try”. He’s currently in between representation if any agent is interested.

And finally, from Dave Sikula (with parentheticals inside parentheticals):

I've gotten hooked on "Green Acres." Other than the production values (they seemed to have a budget of about twelve dollars, and everything is overlit [but then everything was in the 60s]), it holds up and is still an extremely funny show.

That said, I'd guess that all but a handful of the 170 episodes (over six seasons) were written by Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. (I think I've seen only three eps not credited to them, and we're well into Season 4.)

Would it be possible today for a team of two writers to have that kind of productivity? Most shows I see now have a huge staff of writers, assistants, and "producers." I suppose it's possible, but could you and David, say, maintain that pace for six seasons and still keep up the quality, or would you just burn out?

David and I could easily write five or six years worth of television by ourselves. The only thing is – they’d be shit. By season three think Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING. David and I wrote or rewrote practically all of season 7 of MASH and it damn near killed us. Contrast that to Larry Gelbart who essentially wrote the first four years of MASH himself and the show was never even remotely as good after he left.

It takes a very special talent to write an entire season of television considering the time pressures involved. David Kelley can do it. So can Aaron Sorkin. A few others too. Josh Schwartz I believe. It's a real gift and I hate and admirer them for it.

But having a staff of other writers is not a bad thing. Having fresh eyes, different perspectives, and different strengths can only produce a richer show. And keep the show runner out of the UCLA Medical Center (or at least delay his stay).

25 comments :

Steve Bailey said...

Ken,

You and Phoef Sutton ask your listeners to please rate your podcasts on iTunes. I'd love to do it. But I am not a member of iTunes, and whenever I try to go to your podcasts at the iTunes website, it does not appear to provide any link to where non-iTunes users can rate the podcasts. Can you help?

Thanks,

Steve Bailey
socialmediaspecialist61@gmail.com

Joseph Scarbrough said...

With all due respect to the great Larry Gelbart and his knack for biting satire, I have to say I think M*A*S*H did incredibly well for a few seasons after his departure. I know a lot of people disagree about that (then again, people say SEINFELD tanked after Larry David's departure, but I disagree about that as well), but I applaud Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe for stepping up to the plate and taking the show into slightly different directions.

Gene really did the show a service by delving more deeply into the characters and giving them the kind of growth and development that you didn't see a lot of in weekly series back in the day - this not only made the characters feel more genuine and believable to see them grow through their experiences in Korea, but it kept the show interesting (IMHO, Hawkeye and Trapper's schtick of chasing nurses, boozing their brains out, and tormenting Frank started growing old and stale by Season 3 anyway). And as great as Larry's anti-war satire was, I also feel like show found a better balance between the comedy and the drama during its middle seasons (5-7) as well - it's almost as if M*A*S*H, like a good wine, got better with age.

Unfortunately, by Season 8, it all went downhill from there, and never recovered. Losing Radar, and essentially losing the Klinger we all knew and love, and Alan Alda and Burt Metcalfe bringing in new writers who shifted more emphasis on the human drama and horrors of war while the humor took a serious backseat is what, to me, caused M*A*S*H's slow and painful death in its final years.

That's just me though.

As for GREEN ACRES (love the remark about the twelve-dollar production values, lol), I agree, it boggles my mind that Jay Sommers & Dick Chevillat were able to churn out a large majority of six years worth of stories. That's really impressive. And in looking around the internet, it doesn't seem that either of them did much writing for anything else outside of GREEN ACRES (aside from the specific episodes of PETTICOAT JUNCTION that helped setup the spinning off of GREEN ACRES). Though, interestingly, they wrote the screenplay for the Disney movie GORDY, which was about an intelligent pig (hmm, seem familiar?), and coincidentally, Tom Lester (Eb) also appeared in the movie as a supporting character.

David said...

Been waiting for someone to mention, but since no one did, I thought I will mention something that will make you happy.

Mel Gibson won a Razzie this year :D

Lot of Oscar speak, and you probably didn't notice this.

Dave Wrighteous said...

Here's a Friday Question semi-based on the last question here:
"In today's era of 22 episode seasons of sitcoms (if that), why do you think old time radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Jack Benny Show were able to do so many more episodes per season, and week after week consistently create killer material?
I dig that a television show is a LOT more complicated than a radio show, but could a squad of TV writers do like their forefathers and create 35+ quality shows a year if the actors were willing and the studio wanted them?"

Dr Loser said...

Margaret married somebody who shot his buddy in the butt?
I don't think so. For so many reasons.

Dr Loser said...

@Joseph re M*A*S*H: Yup. Right on every point.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Matt Weiner wrote or re-wrote all 92 Episodes over seven seasons of Mad Men. Sole writer's or co-writer's credits varied.

He also directed a fraction of those shows.

For pretty much all episodes he held "tone-meetings" (where he acted every part - including Jessica Pare's "Zou Bisou Bisou" dance Ep 501), and participated in final editing.

Add to that consulting on costumes, production design, practical locations, etc. etc. etc.

This amounts to a Friday Question - who else gets that busy with everything on a show?

E. Yarber said...

I try not to squelch any potential Friday questions, but this is background information about the radio side of the query, not the contemporary TV angle.

Jack Benny had four writers. Two wrote the first 15 minutes of his show, which typically concerned Jack's home life, while the second pair did the finish, which usually involved a celebrity guest in a movie parody or general sketch. Jack himself edited the material over the course of the week. The show was not only performed live, but twice, since the cast returned a couple hours later to do the West Coast broadcast. Even then, material was tweaked between the two shows.

Fibber McGee had a single writer, though the two stars were active through every stage of story development. The formula there was to carry the story through a series of exchanges with running characters, the way SNL dealt with filling 90 minutes of showtime by creating recurring sketches.

VincentS said...

I take umbrage at the anonymous questioner calling Yankee Franks "barely FDA approved." They were great. Small wonder why he didn't leave his name. As for GREEN ACRES, on what other show can you see a man tilling the land wearing a french cuff shirt?

E. Yarber said...

I'll just add a story about one of the most famous bits ever done on the Benny show, which came about solely through the pressure of having to write comedy on a deadline.

One of the teams had come up with HALF of a major gag. Jack would be walking home and a thief would pull a gun on him, demanding, "Your money or your life!"

Now, given how established Jack's stinginess was at that point, the audience would already be howling with laughter. A lot of the show worked through everyone's awareness of running gags like that. The thief got another laugh simply by repeating, "I said, 'Your money or your life!'"

The problem was that having set up the PERFECT straight line for Benny, how could he possibly top the anticipation of his response? That was the killer. The writers tossed one idea after another at each other, but nothing they devised could match the strength of the setup. The search for a finish became maddening.

After setting the problem aside for a while, one finally asked the other yet again, "What are we going to do about that 'Money or Life' gag?"

It was like reopening a wound. Frustrated and angry, the other writer blurted out, "I'M THINKING IT OVER!"

And that was the perfect punchline. That exchange, accentuated by Benny's LONG delay in responding, is often cited as the longest sustained laugh the show ever got, as well as one of the most replayed moments from the series.

David P said...

Jahn Galt:

Look at J. Michael Straczynski, and the work he did on Babylon 5...

Jon88 said...

Reprieving? Oy.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Jahn I'm pretty much the same way myself as a creator/producer . . . then again, unless I have other people I'm collaborating with on any given project, it's almost always all me anyway. *Shrug*

@Vincent I, personally, am more intrigued how all the other characters were essentially live action cartoons: they all wore the exact same wardrobe every episode all six seasons!

Tobin said...

Having watched GREEN ACRES my entire life, I've concluded that while it was often (but not always) funny in its early years, it went downhill later, especially in seasons five and six.
Fans might disagree with me, but IF you do agree, you might also agree with my feeling that Sommers and Chevillat were becoming "burnt out" themselves. Maybe the GREEN ACRES example proves that it's not a great idea for one or two people to try to write a long-running sitcom by themselves. Carl Reiner says he would have gone insane if he hadn't hired Bill Persky & Sam Denoff in season three of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Maybe GREEN ACRES would have been better in its latter years if Jay Sommers had done something similar.
I'm curious how Mr. Levine feels about GREEN ACRES as a show. It's a show with a cult following, so obviously some people love it. But some people hate it. And some, like me, like it but realize it has its flaws.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Another thing I want to add to is that I find when a show has a variety of different writers, it gives the show much more flavor - like added ingredients in a stew or something. Going back to SEINFELD, Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld did a bulk of the writing themselves in the beginning . . . and even up until Larry's departure, they would always completely re-write other writers' scripts in their own way before finalizing it for filming. I'm not a fan of the earlier seasons of SEINFELD (I feel it didn't really find its voice till the end of Season 4), and I think I now understand way: their so one-tone. Bringing in other writers after the first few seasons (not to mention the production values increasing tremendously, taking it out of the confines of your typical multi-camera setup) really helped boost the story telling aspect of the show. Giving each of the four leads their own subplot that was intertwined with the others' helped a lot to, as opposed to the earlier seasons basically being how Jerry's observations are worked into his stand-up material

This is my main problem with the current ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS on Nickelodeon: it's currently in its third season, but it is such a formulaic show, and I believe it's mainly because almost all of the writing is handled by co-creator Janice Karman and her son Michael Badgadasarian . . . yeah, the show has a few other writers, but it's clear that the writing process is similar to that of SEINFELD, or other aforementioned shows, in that Janice writes or rewrites every single script before it's animated. I mean, I'm a big Chipmunks fan, but I'm honestly getting really bored with this show, and how so many episodes follow the same formula all the time. At least the 80s cartoon series had other writers adding their own personal touches, and like M*A*S*H, the characters actually evolved over the course of the eight seasons of that series . . . in the Nickelodeon show, Alvin's almost become a Flanderized version of himself, and Dave hardly even reacts to any of his mischief anymore, making the character almost completely useless and disposable.

One last thing to point out about GREEN ACRES is that even series director Richard Baer began complaining about how Jay Sommers would keep reusing the same gags over and over and over again (like those subtitle gags, or commenting on the fife playing when Oliver would deliver a speech).

Doug said...

That exchange, accentuated by Benny's LONG delay in responding, is often cited as the longest sustained laugh the show ever got

Except that it wasn't. If you listen to the actual broadcast of March 28, 1948, Jack's "I'm thinking it over" gets a good, solid laugh, but it's nowhere near the laugh of which legends are made. The show in question is readily available online, so people can hear it for themselves. I've always wondered where the routine's reputation as spawning the longest laugh ever came from. Maybe it originated in the days before these old radio shows were readily available and those involved were relying on their memories, and "remembered" the line as getting a much bigger reaction than it actually got.


Regarding GREEN ACRES. Purely trivial, but GREEN ACRES was based on a radio show titled GRANBY'S GREEN ACRES, produced, directed and written by Jay Sommers, that ran on CBS in the summer of 1950. It starred Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet. Gordon was a banker who gave it all up to fulfill his dream of being a farmer. The Granby's had a teenage daughter, who wasn't carried over to the TV version of the show

Hell no I'm not telling said...

On this week's Roseanne, she informs us that since all of her underwear are dirty, she's wearing a coffee filter on a scrunchie. At the end of the episode, we see her get into the shower with her fifteen year old granddaughter. You just don't know what you're missing.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Hey Ken. Gotta quibble with something you wrote:

"Hot Lips probably married Dick Cheney."

EARLY M*A*S*H episodes-era Hot Lips would have married Dick Cheney.
LATE-M*A*S*H episodes-era Hot Lips would have married Mitt Romney.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Doug Interestingly, the final season of GREEN ACRES has a little girl who stayed with the Douglases for an extended period of time, almost like a Cousin Oliver.

Anyway, I have one final thing to add to the points I've posted all day: in as much as I've said certain key creative people for a show having a little too much input, the same can actually be reversed. If I can give another example of a show I loved growing up, COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG. Creator John R. Dilworth was heavily involved with the writer in the first season, then hardly at all afterwards. He wrote maybe two episodes for the second season, and one for the final season, and that's it. Although I enjoyed the show, it felt like something was missing without his touch, and honestly, those few post-Season 1 episodes he wrote felt, to me, like the best post-Season 1 episodes of the series. It also makes me wonder what BEWITCHED whould have been like if Sol Saks wrote more than just the pilot.

J Lee said...

Jay Sommers & Dick Chevillat were also involved in Season 2 of Petticoat Junction before starting Green Acres the following year, and you can see some of the surreal aspects of the latter show in that one season of the former (along with some of the characters that would migrate over to GA, like Arnold Ziffel). So they kind of hit the ground running with the new show as far as taking it into weird territory, with Eddie Albert's character providing a much better character to play off all the bizarre actions with (and yes, definitely by the final season, Sommers & Chevillat were burned out on the concept, and the decline in quality of the scripts was obvious).

Donald Benson said...

I remember GREEN ACRES doing an episode where Oliver opened a law office with a bland young lawyer; it felt like they were expanding or even changing the format, but the law office and the young lawyer were never seen again.

BEVERLY HILLBILLIES seemed to be floundering the last few times I saw it. A fellow hillbilly named Shorty was throwing a party for all the city babes inexplicably charmed by him. Jethro, told he couldn't get it because it was just for girls, appeared in Tootsie-level drag and explained to a glowering Jed that you had to dress like this for Shorty's parties. The tone just wasn't right for this show. Similarly, Granny was sent to a psychiatrist because she thinks Ellie May's Navy frogman boyfriend really is part frog. Everybody treated Granny as senile, which also rubbed the wrong way. After thousands of "cee-ment pond" gags did the writers convince themselves dark was a fruitful new direction?

MCHALE'S NAVY uprooted from the South Pacific to Italy -- Fresh ideas or a decision that comic Nazis were less uncomfortable than constant references to the "Nips"?

DICK VAN DYKE SHOW had Rob elected to city council in an episode that seemed to suggest the Alan Brady Show was going to disappear or at least be cut back in favor of suburban hijinks. The episode ended with Rob giving an aw-shucks speech straight to the audience in front of a campaign poster of himself, reinforcing the idea Something Was Changing. We never heard about the city council again.

Near the end of its run MORK AND MINDY did a multi-part story that torched the format and abandoned the supporting cast (including Jonathan Winters as their son) to establish them as time travelers fleeing a silly alien villain. Was that to be the show if it continued?

NEWHART shifted Dick from a how-to writer to a local TV host, but both those occupations tended to stay secondary to running the inn.

Sarah Melick said...

Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino left Gilmore Girls after 6 seasons because they weren't given a writing staff. They had to do everything themselves. Ironically, the studio figured out they needed more writers after the creators' departure.

Terrence Moss said...

there was a set-up to that where it was established that harris (the granddaughter) takes too long in the shower.

i thought it was funny.

shoving harris's head into the sink and spraying her with water - more shocking to me than funny.

what the child needed was a slap across the face.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Donald Benson I remember there was an arc in Season 3 involving Oliver taking over the phone company, because he kept complaining about their services so much that they literally just gave the company over to him. But you know, I agree with your sentiment - it seems like the latter half of the series shifted focus from Oliver's attempts to fix up his farm to . . . pretty much everything other than Oliver's attempts to fix up his farm: Lisa receiving visits from her Countess mother who's never seen on camera, or a duck, Oliver being crushed on by a high school girl, Eb getting married . . . not to mention the last two episodes were back-door pilots for spinoffs - neither of which made it to series because of the Rural Purge: one of these pilots focusing on a Hawaiian resort (where Oliver and Lisa spend a second honeymoon) where the manager's neo-hippy teenaged daughter practically runs the place; the other on Oliver's ditzy former secretary in New York and the kooky mysteries she ends up getting involved in.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Green Acres is either just a really silly show or one of the savviest, most deconstructive satires that ever slipped under the network radar. Because of the Henning successes, CBS allowed Henning to air any new series he wanted in 1965 without a pilot. Sommers retooled the concept of his radio show with Henning (it was Henning who insisted on Eva Gabor; Eb was recast from Parley Baer to the oafish yet acerbic Tom Lester; Hank Kimball went from a love interest for the teenaged daughter to an inane civil servant).

In order to churn out all those shows, Sommers and Chevillat used the radio "visitor" formula described above for Fibber McGee. A segment for Mr. Haney to visit, one of Eb, and alternating ones for the Monroe brothers or Mr. Kimball, with Druckers store as the central meeting place. Interestingly, Sara was an unseen phone operator in Mayberry, but she sometimes appeared on screen in Hooterville on Green Acres -- was this the same Sara?

I disagree that the show lost its steam in the last few seasons. If anything, the show descended into more madness because the suits didn't seem to notice the fleeting references to drugs, college riots, sex with a partner and without, alcohol, and several other issues of the 60s that bubbled into episodes. So the surrealism increased. You had to wait for the subtexts, and they came along sparingly, but they were there. Sometimes these surprising gags by so fast, you couldn't believe you heard them. Often the subtitles created for Arnold the Pig were very different in tone and sophistication than the rest of the show. Yet Green Acres remained a program for the family, just as Laugh-In could be watched by all ages because the subtext was generally hidden -- though much, much more in Green Acres than Laugh-In.

Most Green Acres episodes were fairly standard TV fare. The "in-jokes" were often buried very deep. The repetition of the gags themselves were ridiculed constantly, with "fourth wall" items referenced in the script. Pretty much everything was ridiculed. But in order to "get" this, it takes watching multiple episodes and that's why it's so hard to prove all of this.

To me, Green Acres is the closest American TV came to Goon Show-style British TV in the 60s. I got pretty much none of this as a kid. I just thought it was all very silly and the pig was funny. Maybe neither of us got any smarter, but who knows?