Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Smoke gets in the CBS eye

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post with a special guest to answer it. Because if I don’t know the answer I often try to flag down the person who does.

Dave Wrighteous has the question.

Hey Ken! Never saw it while it was on, but I've been watching Becker in reruns and am LOVING IT! It's hilarious and Ted Danson is terrific! Anyway, my question is: did creator Dave Hackel or you or the network ever get complaints about Becker's smoking? You hardly ever see that on TV anymore, and I heard that NBC's late, great show Constantine had constant network battles about the smoking of the lead character.

Thanks and best wishes.

I went to Dave Hackel who graciously provided the answer.

Before we started shooting “Becker,” I asked for a meeting with Les Moonves so that I could get his thoughts about the tone of the show. Specifically, I wanted to see if I might get some sort of assurance that, once past the pilot, CBS wouldn’t suddenly start giving us notes aimed at softening the character to make Becker more traditionally television friendly. I thought it best to at least start by being on the same page with the head of the network.

Moonves was great. He’d read the script again before we met and assured me that he was willing to let us go for it.

But he did have one concern: Becker’s smoking. He didn’t ask me to take it out, but he wanted my assurance that we wouldn’t glamorize it in any way.

Not a problem, I promised. In fact I told him that my plan was to constantly have other characters tell Becker how disgusting his habit was. Also we did things like showing his own doctor admonishing him about smoking, depicted him unable to exercise because of his habit, had him wrestle with trying to quit and even had him start a fire by flicking a lit cigarette on the ground.

In my opinion, the show was able to send a far better anti-smoking message by having our main character smoke than had we not. And, to his credit, Les kept his word.

We continued to speak negatively about smoking and CBS allowed us to have the character behave as conceived. If the network or studio received complaints about Becker smoking cigarettes they handled them without getting me or the staff involved.

Again, my thanks to Dave Hackel. And Les Moonves.

25 comments :

Coram Loci said...

When I read that I picture South Park's depiction of Rob Reiner and Prius drivers.

{Closing eyes} Thhhhaaaaaannnkkkss.

tavm said...

I read that when William Paley was still chairman of CBS, he had a poll of viewers of "All in the Family". That poll showed that most viewers (presumably male, white, and Republican) totally agreed with the bigoted Archie Bunker. When he found out, he decided to have it thrown away as the show was by that time No. 1 and, I'm guessing he didn't want to lose so many of his viewers responsible for making his network the highest-rated. Compare that to now with all that happened between Rosanne Barr and ABC concerning their No. 1 show and its star among a certain demographic...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

It baffles me that studio and network bigwigs in this day and age take issues with depicting people smoking and/or drinking in a show or movie (I guess BEWITCHED would get a TV-14 rating today because of how often Darrin needed a drink, or M*A*S*H being TV-MA because Henry, Klinger, and Potter all enjoyed their cigars), but no qualms about sex or violence. Bob gets beaten to a bloody pulp because he got Alice pregnant? No problem! But when Bob has a cigarette danglign out of his mouth? DEAR GOD! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!

The Silver Fox said...

NON-interference by the Powers-That-Be? I'm amazed, but I love it.

I also "love" how smoking counts toward the eventual rating of a film nowadays. Even if it's a period piece set in the first half of the 20th century, when almost everybody who was "cool" or wanted to be smoked. Men... women... children... dogs...

MikeN said...

I think Les outsmarted you. He collected money from the government for Becker's non-smoking messages. Specifically, those mandatory PSAs that the network has to run can be substituted with in content messaging. I always assumed the anti-smoking was put in at the request of CBS to sell a few more ads in place of the PSAs(especially since Ken never denied it when I brought it up). Turns out I was wrong and it was there from the beginning.

The Silver Fox said...

NON-interference by the Powers-That-Be? I'm amazed, but I love it.

I also "love" how smoking counts toward the eventual rating of a film nowadays. Even if it's a period piece set in the first half of the 20th century, when almost everybody who was "cool" or wanted to be smoked. Men... women... children... dogs...

Mike Bloodworth said...

I'm old enough to remember when almost everyone on T.V. smoked. I also remember when cigarette commercials were still on T.V. My parents told me that some of my first words were, "Pack or box" from the Marlboro commercials. Ironically, with so many of these "classic" T.V. channels running shows from the 50's and 60's people are still being exposed to tobacco use. Even these retro shows, such as MADMEN show people smoking. This is another issue where I'm torn. I don't think the "Nanny State" should prevent you from smoking if that's what you choose to do. Yet, I have lost my ability to tolerate smoke. When I was a kid my mom smoked. All of her friends smoked. Most of my relatives smoked and in high school, many of MY friends smoked. I never somked (O.K. Maybe an occasional cigar and lots of pot, but not cigarettes.) So, as I say, If second-hand smoke is dangerous, I'm already dead.
M.B.

VP81955 said...

The difference? The lines were from Archie Bunker the character, and did not reflect the beliefs of Carroll O'Connor, the actor portraying him. Indeed, in ensuing seasons, Archie was given more texture to make him more multi-dimensional.

Jessy S. said...

Lets not forget that Cheers had a character that smoked too. It was Rebecca Howe and she smoked to the point that she almost destroyed the bar. But the reason for her smoking was because she was nervous while Becker did it because it was a habit. Just a simple Friday Question for you, did you get notes from NBC regarding Rebecca's smoking? If you did, what was the tone of those notes?

Janet Ybarra said...

I've always thought a nice "compromise," so to speak, might be if a TV series or whatever wanted to show characters smoking, ok, let it as long as during the commercials they had to run some of those really graphic "Tip From A Former Smoker" PSAs that show former smokers who often have been mutilated due to smoking-related disease.

A question of curiosity, though, because I don't believe Ted Danson and other actors who are called on to smoke in-character are smokers in real life. So the question is: what are these non-smoker actors smoking to pretend to be smoking?

Janet Ybarra said...

I've never watched BECKER, but I might give it a try in re-runs. I couldn't watch it first run because I was too upset they took Terry Farrell away from we TREK fans.

I guess I can let that grudge go now, especially since now she married Leonard Nimoy's son. :)

Mike said...

@Joseph Scarbrough: Sex & violence sell. So networks trade with the authorities: less swearing & vices to screen more R-rated material.

@tavm: I reckon Disney sacked Roseanne. She was a bad sell for capitalism.

Dave Wrighteous said...

Thank you so much for answering my query, Ken!
Becker has quickly earned a slot in my All Time Top 5 Favorite comedies and your blog is my #1 of All Time Top 5 Sites To Open When I Drag My Carcass Outta Bed Each Morning.
I'll post this on my FB page and hopefully draw some new readers to yr daily dose of awesome.
Thanks again, and keep up the great work!!

Buttermilk Sky said...

It reminds me of the FDR monument erected in Washington in the 1990s, I think. Roosevelt was frequently photographed with his trademark cigarette holder, but pictures of him in a wheelchair were forbidden (and if necessary confiscated by the Secret Service). Fifty years on it would have been shocking to include the cigarette, while advocates for the disabled insisted on the wheelchair. Different times, different sensibilities.

Mike said...

For the second time of posting:
@Joseph Scarborough: Sex & violence sells. So networks trade with the authorities: less swearing & vices for more R-rated material.

@tavm: I reckon Disney cancelled Roseanne. She was a bad sell for capitalism. She might have put off parents from buying Mickey Mouse merch.

cadavra said...

Even Nazis don't smoke in movies anymore. It's nuts.

Garry said...

I have a friend who works for a porn production company out here in California. He's mentioned to me that they forbid the use of tobacco products in videos they distribute. No one can be shown smoking a cigarette or a cigar. Which strikes me as kind of funny.

A Simon and Garfunkel box set that came out a few years ago had a cover photo taken in the recording studio showing the guys sitting on the floor, listening to a playback. Paul Simon's hand and fingers seem to be in an odd position until you realize that in the original photo he was holding a cigarette, which was airbrushed out for the CD cover.

Similarly, a few years ago a poster was issued of the cover of the Beatles' ABBEY ROAD album. On this poster (NOT on the album cover itself), the cigarette was airbrushed out of Paul McCartney's hand.

One of Bruce Springsteen's album covers removed a visible pack of cigarettes, at Springsteen's request, from the photo used.

A friend of mine has a Sinatra CD that uses a photo on the CD cover of Sinatra with the cigarette airbrushed out of his hand.

Disney has altered segments of a couple of their 1940s animated features to eliminate shots of characters smoking cigarettes.

Terrence Moss said...

I love that you're able to take us directly to the source.

VP81955 said...

A Los Angeles example can be found at Union Station, specifically the Vignes Street side of the Metrorail Red and Purple line terminus. There's a mural there called "Traveler," reflecting city history from various stages -- and representing the movie industry is the lady in my avatar. The artist, Terry Schoonhoven, adapted a Paramount publicity still of Carole, but made two notable changes: She's now sitting atop a suitcase instead of some steps, and the cigarette she was smoking in the still has been removed (hey, Union Station is smoke-free, even for murals). Find out more about the mural at https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/21500.html.

One more thing: Union Station was where on Jan. 12, 1942, Lombard, her mother Elizabeth Peters and MGM publicist Otto Winkler (a good friend of Carole and Clark Gable, serving as a de facto chaperone) boarded "The City of Los Angeles" en route to Chicago, where Carole received training prior to her war bond rally in Indianapolis. None would ever return to the city.

thirteen said...

I remember Joel Hodgson on MST3K telling the robots during "Catalina Caper" that the 1960s were a strange time. For instance, he said, "People smoked openly on the Tonight Show."

Donald Benson said...

Last night watched "Muscle Beach Party", and was startled to see Frankie Avalon smoking a cigarette while brooding over Annette. It's not just that cigarettes are now legally and socially non grata. It's that smoking has become unusual enough to call attention to itself, like a "fashionable" woman's hat. Where it once was a neutral and common act, now smoking a cigarette is a statement about the character and/or the period.\

Kaleberg said...

Smoking was great in that it gave actors something to do with their hands. It provided an excuse to pause the dialog and action, and let the actor reveal something using only body language.

In real life, fussing with one's cell phone has replaced the old ritual of getting the cigarette, lighting up and finally exhaling. Maybe we need to get actors to use their cell phones better. Set the scene for conspiracy or romance by flipping it into silent mode. Pause the action while a character pauses to check the time, his schedule or whether an awaited message has arrived. Once a great gesture gets nailed on video, people will copy it, as life imitates art.

One reason this hasn't happened is that fussing with one's cell phone has long been a pain in the ass. There was the activation, entering the PIN, flipping to the right app and so on. You had to look at the thing; think about the thing. What you want is a stylized movement to activate, a glance to check the screen, then on to the reaction and a resumption of action.

I know this sounds ridiculous but I think Apple has figured this out. Face recognition is about a stylized motion coordinating hand and face. Alarms just go silent. Notifications just appear. Maybe a quick brush of the hand is needed, but little more. That gives an actor something to work with. You barely have to pay attention to the device. You can just use it.

That, and it doesn't cause lung cancer.

David Baruffi said...

I always had a theory about "Becker" that I know is ridiculous, but...- I think "Becker" is a show about how everybody else reacts to the main character, but we rarely if ever actually see how the character actually is. My basis for this theory, rarely if ever do they begin a scene, with Becker in the room. Usually, they begin with everybody else, and then Becker enters the scene and everything changes. I know, it's ridiculous and can easily be disproven, but I can't think of too many other shows that did that, certainly not as consistently as "Becker" did, have the main character constantly enter the scene after it began. I wonder how purposeful that was though, to have Becker constantly shown entering an established scene and group of characters as opposed to starting with him?

Donna D. said...

I have a friend who works for a porn production company out here in California. He's mentioned to me that they forbid the use of tobacco products in videos they distribute. No one can be shown smoking a cigarette or a cigar. Which strikes me as kind of funny.

Well, yeah. Glamorizing promiscuous, unprotected sex with strangers while ignoring the list of STDs that can result from such behavior, as well as the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, is one thing. But showing someone smoking a cigarette afterward? Hey, how irresponsible do you think porn producers are?

cadavra said...

Remember several years ago when the post office put out a Bette Davis stamp and her hand was in an odd position? Yup, airbrushed cigarette. The woman smoked like a Ford factory; it's tantamount to rewriting history.