Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The making of ALMOST PERFECT

Thanks for watching the ALMOST PERFECT pilot. Thanks also for your comments. I’ll post more episodes in the near future. I don't know why some of you had trouble playing Pts. 2 & 3. They're both still up there and functional.

That strikingly handsome rake who played the maitre’d is my dad. Ironically, he’s only on screen for a few seconds. But it was that portion that the network used for their promos all summer so he was on CBS five thousand times. Baffled friends of his would approach and ask, “Are you starring in a new show with Nancy Travis?” He of course said yes.

Since we later used that venue as a regular hangout my dad became a semi-regular. We even started giving him a line now and again. Pretty soon he wanted a hot tub in his trailer. It’s unbelievable.

The guy who was Nancy’s blind date (the real Tom Milner), the guy at a table stuffing his face with bread. That’s my partner, David Isaacs.

Chip Zien (who played the high strung writer, Gary) was not cast until after we had gone into production. We had the table reading and the actor originally playing that role just wasn’t up to the others. This was on a Thursday. The next day was Good Friday so we were shut down for the day. Chip lived in New York. We had seen a taped audition of him a month before but were told he was attached to another pilot. To save money, the other production decided not to lock him in but pay him just for a guest spot – assuming of course that he’d never get another pilot at that late date and they’d save a bunch of money. Once we learned that he was available we got him approved by the studio and network and made the change. He was on a plane that night.

David Clennon (who played the weird writer, Neil) came in for his reading wearing that get-up. He sat down on the couch, said his first line – “I’ve got a big problem with that” – and that was it. We knew we found our guy.

The hardest part to cast was Kevin Kilner’s (Mike). Nancy read with a few other candidates and quite frankly she wiped the floor with them. We really had to scramble. By this point we had read maybe a hundred guys. A tape arrived from New York with Kevin. At the time he was starring in a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway. He took the redeye to LA arriving on a Monday morning. Nancy was filming a movie-of-the-week so we took Kevin to her location and had them read together in her trailer. Instantly, we knew this was the guy. After she wrapped for the day we drove them both to Paramount to be approved by the studio. They were thrilled. We then set up the network audition. They wanted to do it the next day. We said it had to be that night because Kevin was taking the redeye back. So they reluctantly agreed but were not happy about it. Plus it was the night of the NCAA Basketball championship game (UCLA won. Yay!) and they weren’t thrilled about missing part of it. It’s not the way you want to go into a network audition.

Usually the procedure is after the actors finish their audition they leave the room and the network hedges and wonders who else is available. Producers have to beg, plead, twist arms, etc. Not this time. They were over-the-moon ecstatic. They even thanked us for finding him. Of course, one year and one president later we were told to find a replacement but that’s another horror story.

The pilot was really a “presentation”. That means do a full half hour pilot but do it at a fraction of the cost. We had no money for sets. The restaurant set was Paramount property, used in hundreds of shows and movies. The writers room was a set we borrowed from ELLEN. And Nancy’s house was really Helen’s house from WINGS just repainted. Once the series got picked up we had our own sets built.

The tie continuity issue drove us nuts. In the last scene you'll notice Kevin's tie placement doesn't match from cut to cut. We pieced together the best performance from two takes. At the end of the day we opted for best performance vs. continuity. And hey, it's not like SPARTACUS where you can see the Hollywood Freeway in the corner of one of the battle scenes.

The music was from Bruce Miller, who composed (among other things) the closing song from FRASIER. We only had ten seconds for the opening. So we needed more of a jingle than a theme song. We were looking for something distinctive and something to convey the spirit of the show. We decided on going with a big band from the 40s sound. This was the “Swingers” era so old time dance music was cool again. It was up, fun, and we felt suggested those screwball romantic comedies of the era. No lyrics were ever written. Too bad because I’d love to hear David Archuleta sing it on AMERICAN IDOL.

We were told the pilot tested better than any CBS comedy since MURPHY BROWN. And watching it again with the distance of time I think I now know why. Dad, you were great!


Sam Kim said...

Someone commented in the other post that your dad's name is Cliff.
Cliff Levine.
Cliff Clavin?

Anonymous said...

And hey, it's not like SPARTACUS where you can see the Hollywood Freeway in the corner of one of the battle scenes.

Now I've got to see it again!

Ger Apeldoorn said...

The best thing about Nancy and Kevin's chemistry is how well they did their shouting matches. It's the one thing I remember from this series and frankly, the on ething that takes Nancy from a competent actress to a comedienne. Too often she is cast as the sane one.

Chip Zien was fantastic and even better when he was fighting with his wife, who is now on House. Funny we don't see him anymore.

David Clannon was hilarious and also only turns up every now and then in a drama series.

Which all leads to the same question. You say that when you cast, you should cast funny people. I seriously doubt that is all you did. If you would simple have cast funny people, we would have seen them on other series, playing the same parts. Or we would have seen them on other series before that, playing the same role as a bit part. I thionk it is one of the funny things about american television, that you can see actors playing the same part all their life (and being able to make a living from it). Usually some sort of character they developed in an improv group, that gets picked up. Because they do it all their life, the character is funny and real at the same time.

But what you did with Nancy, was see how you should write her to be funny. What you did with the other characters is write them in such a way that the actors made them funny. Okay, they still could have been played wrong by the wrong actors, but there is far more going on here than just 'casting funny people'. It's knowing what makes people funny.

Anonymous said...

Oh no! Barbara Walters just announced she spent many romantic evenings in Cliff's Almost Perfect Hot Tub (between liasons with Alan Greenspan and a couple U.S. Senators).

And the list goes on...

Gridlock said...

Sorry, being a young Brit I've never caught Almost Perfect - I gather the guy in the photo at top isn't Puddy from Seinfeld, but the resemblance is uncanny.

Patrick Warburton impresses me in almost everything I spot him in (including American Dad) - he seems to be one of those actors who must make a reasonable living from his work, yet always seems to be in the supporting cast.

Alex Epstein said...

Ken, can you blog a bit about how having an actor dad helped you in your writing? A lot of successful show people seem to come from show people families (e.g. Joss Whedon). I'm guessing that's not just having a foot in the door, but involves absorbing a sense of the biz and the craft?

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting how much Chip Zien (Gary) physically resembles Ken Levine. Although Ken is the decaf version of Gary.

Oh, and Gridlock, you mean you've seen Patrick Warburton in the Family Guy not American Dad.

Anonymous said...

Ken's Dad, Cliff, has a list of credits almost a long as his. More infamous, than famous, they include the title role in "THE ODDMOTHER" (to be confused with "The Goodfather"), Herr Docktor Reinhard Pudendum in "Piddler on the Roof", where he performed the show stopping song: "Snatchmaker", Howard Nosell in "ComeAlot" (you had to be there to get the connection) plus a few others he would like to forget. I have does he.

Anonymous said...

Ken, what happened to Kevin Kilner in later episodes? As I recall, by the end he simply disappeared from the series. Was this a writing choice, or a response to external affairs? Or am I misremembering a a decade old series?

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for posting that. I have video of several episodes, during and post-Kilner eras, but this was one episode that I was missing the first three or so minutes.

I concur that writing the right words for talented people. Jenna Elfman was far better served on "Dharma and Greg" than on "Courting Alex", David Spade was hilarious in "Just Shoot Me. In a definite case of star power, some of Kay Francis' movies were written to avoid "R's" as much as possible, so as not to call attention to her speech impediment.

Brian Phillips

Todd Mueller said...

For those looking for a crash course in writing a sitcom pilot, you couldn't do much better than perusing the Almost Perfect script at the WGA library. It's a fantastic model of story and joke structure, character development, pacing... and so much more. Study it along with Cheers, News Radio and Just Shoot Me and you'll have a solid base.

Which pilots do you recommend studying, Ken?

Somebody should gather all these pilots into a single volume and pass them out at the LA bus station.

pscarver said...

I just watched this, thanks for posting the videos. If you ever get a chance to post episode 2, please do - I think that's the one where Kevin dries his hands on the cat, which remains one of my favorite gags ever.