Sunday, October 05, 2008

Why CHEERS wouldn't sell today

I was going to do this as a Friday question. But it seemed more like a Monday answer. Arjewtino asked:

Of all the shows you worked on, which ones do you think would have had drastically different fates if they were aired today?

CHEERS would never sell today. I can just see the pitch meeting. The network executive would politely listen with a plastered pained smile. When the pitch was over and you couldn’t wait to bolt from her office, either by the door or window, you ask if she has any questions. And unfortunately, she does.

Um… yeah. First of all, it’s wonderful and we all love it. Really. Amazing. You guys are great. But, uh, a bar in Boston where people just hang out? What am I missing?… Huh? That’s it? That’s all of it? … No, it’s great. Really. But doesn’t it seem a little, I dunno, low concept? Have you seen THE WORST WEEK? Now that’s a concept that can go for ten years. Yours? I dunno. It’s hard to picture an audience just listening to people talk for a half hour…. Sure, they’re interesting people – you guys are awesome writers – but I think we’d be more comfortable if someone wore a diaper or had to eat dog food.

I think there’s also some concern that there is no real star part. Ensemble pieces are great as long as they are centered around a star.

And is there any way you could skew your show a little younger? It’s kind of sad to think of a romance between people in their 30s. Isn’t that sort of… ick? We’re not looking to do ON GOLDEN POND: THE SERIES. I still think it works that Sam is a retired ballplayer and recovered alcoholic at 22. Am I wrong? My staff agrees.

Oh, hey, a lightbulb just went off. Oh yes. This totally works. I’m a little bumped by the tone. It seems a little edgy-lite. Now I love the Carol character… Carla, right. Sorry. Again, we can make her in her 20s. She could have had her kids young. In fact that’s better. But what about this? As a way to sort of tie in these bar people and give them something besides just talk-talk-talk, what about if she has four kids and each kid was from a different customer? … Okay, well, just think about it.

I loved that theme song you played but we don’t do theme songs anymore. Or opening titles. But if we did, that’s the kind we’d want. So good goin’. You were right on the money there.

I know Standards & Practices will have some issues. We can have a bar but we can’t really have people drinking. You wouldn’t believe the watchdog groups that come out of the woodwork. Does it change things too much if Sam runs a juice bar? Oooh, oooh, another brainstorm: instead of a bar, what if Sam runs a Jamba Juice? Ohmygod, my staff is in stitches!

So anyway, those are our thoughts. What do ya think? Again, not that the idea you brought in isn’t a total home run but if that’s what you want to do I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass.

So thanks again for coming in. It was really great to see you guys again. We’ll be in touch. And again, if you have any idea, please bring it here first.


Anonymous said...

I think I've had this conversation. In fact, I remember starting off a pitch by mentioning the lead characters were 24, to which the exec said, "Can they be 23?" I actually thought he was joking but no, he was not joking.

And Cheers tanked at the beginning, perhaps because it was low concept. Today's networks generally either do not, or cannot, allow themselves such patience, so they're always looking for Maximum Sizzle. It's like the way they breed thoroughbreds now -- for speed, not distance, so of course they're always breaking down.

Now I feel like I'm edging into "in my day a dollar bought you a real prostitute" territory, so I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

My follow up question is after all that, would you do what she asks to get a show on TV or would you walk away?

Anonymous said...

good entry, and tough follow up question.

today's TV and movie audiences have forcibly digested so much crap, that execs deduce that is what sells. the audiences demand entertainment at any rate (i.e. no matter the lack of story substance or character development)and end up rewarding execs for making the calls to go with shows centered around only the most "photoshop"-ed of realities. (airbrushed and glitzy, polished and young and smooth, skin tan and teeth white, sparkling and sinful, morally extreme but unflinchingly unapologetic)
it's a Krappy-Kreme diet that wants so badly to be on the menu at Spago's not Soup Plantation.

as a writer, you could hold just as unflinchingly to something like Cheers as it was originally known, but will it turn the tide, even if accepted by execs, of the present direction of more shallow shows??

ratings would be so low for Cheers now because it goes against the grain of a steady ramping up of obsession over a visual monopoly of "sexy and young."

i would compromise a little to get it on TV, but if Rubik's cube turned into Simon Says, forget it.

Anonymous said...

Dire post, especially after being on such a Frasier kick of late (it's on like 5 times a day on Lifetime!).

As someone aspiring to get into TV writing, I have to ask... is it worth it? I think I saw an article last week entitled "Two and a Half Comedy Writers Left in Hollywood." Yikes.

I've done some work in online media, sure, but there just isn't money there to pay the bills.

Would love to be working in a TV writer's room (and am working on the spec scripts to get in the door), but am worried there won't be a career for me when I get there.

What do you think about that, Ken?

Anonymous said...

How depressing. Seems certain there will never be any great television. Ever again. I'm glad I have the first nine seasons of Cheers on DVD so I can still watch great television.

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder that pretty much all I watch any more are reruns and DVDs? I'm sure this post is right on the money, sad as that may be.

I've been watching the Frasier reruns on Lifetime and just caught a Cheers rerun the other day, and these shows HOLD UP. The writing was just so damn good.

Max Clarke said...

Same thing about movies. There are lots of great motion pictures that never would have been made, or might have been altered beyond recognition.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had the experience of having to pitch anything to anyone, but in the case of "Cheers", if indeed this person was talking about the same show (he didn't name it) I know of one older famous person who thought that the concept was too limiting; he was offered a role, but declined it. Since Mr. Levine may or may not have mentioned his name at any time , I won't either, even though I read this in an autobiography.

As for me, I am a huge fan of "Cheers", but when I first heard about it, I decided not to watch it at first, because I thought it would be a retread of a show I also enjoyed, and probably wouldn't be successfully pitched today, "Taxi". Did anyone else say that when the show was pitched?

Anonymous said...

Ken, this was fantastic! Thanks for answering my question but even more thanks for taking this thought experiment to such a realistically humorous degree!

You're so right about how Cheers could never be made today. Aside from everything you said, the network would demand better-looking actors and wouldn't have cared for how gifted the cast was.

Anonymous said...

"It’s kind of sad to think of a romance between people in their 30s. Isn’t that sort of… ick? We’re not looking to do ON GOLDEN POND: THE SERIES."

Wow, reading that is the really sad thing! And I'm still hoping for some romance in my 40s!

Anonymous said...

OMG, that's funny. In a depressing sort of way. Publishers want high-concept ideas for novels too. My first novel, about a teenager who had an unrequited crush on his friend and had to deal with his divorced mom's new boyfriend, got rejected many times because the problems were "too ordinary." It ended up selling to the eleventh publisher that saw it and did very well, selling in hardback, paperback, audio, and in three other languages. My high concept novel, on the other hand, went out of print a year after the hardback was published.

And your scenario of everyone saying they loved your stuff-- right before they rejected it-- rang so true. When my high concept novel was being considered for a TV series, I was suprised how much everyone in Hollywood threw the word "love" around. My film agent "loved" my writing, and the proposed scriptwriter thought my book was so great he'd take a break from writing feature films to write a TV script for the very first time. (I googled him and found out he'd written for several TV series.) Another Hollywood guy said I was a "f'ing amazing writer." And then the option never went through.

Anonymous said...

This whole 'you can only pitch young characters at young people/the demographic has to match' shtick infuriates me. In the golden age us kids loved 'The Avengers' (Middle-aged guy and upperclass woman), 'Burke's Law' (crumbly old roué), 'The Man from Uncle', (Brooks Brothers type and foreign sidekick with wrinkly old boss) - you get the picture?

Chad said...

Latest studio notes:

"Ken, great pitch. However, we just bought the rights to a British sitcom, 'The End of Us,' about the staff at an euthanasia clinic. Could you take the 'Cheers' pitch and re-tailor it to that by tomorrow? Thanks."

Anonymous said...

Ken, I laughed and cried at the same time. That does explain why I don't watch but a couple of current sitcoms, and the number is shrinking.

Anonymous said...

"Have you seen THE WORST WEEK? Now that’s a concept that can go for ten years."

That one has been driving me nuts ever since WORST WEEK was anounced.

A friend told me "See, in the English series, season one is the week before the wedding, and season 2 is the week before they have a baby."

I replied, "You can reasonably fill an English, 6-episode season with one week, but how do you squeeze 22 episodes into a "Week"? Is this the comedy equivelent to 24?

And to think that once I marvelled at M*A*S*H making the Korean War last 11 years. CBS hopes for an 11-year "Week"!

Mary Stella said...

Wow, Ken. Thank God you were ahead of this time.

And I'm still hoping for some romance in my 40s!

40s? Ha! I'm 50. There's a better chance that I'll get hit by a bus. Considering we barely have bus service in the Keys and only one highway, a bus would pretty much need to track me down in a parking lot like a heat-seeking missle.

James said...

I'd find this post a lot funnier if it weren't so horrifically true.

Anonymous said...

Another reason you couldn't do Cheers today. Shelley Long wouldn't be available because she's so busy with her movie career.

Anonymous said...

I've mentioned it before... I read a review panning CHEERS at its debut, and key to that was the critic's finding the idea of a recovering alcoholic running a bar distasteful.

Anonymous said...

I just remember that my parents almost woulnd't let me watch it because it was set in a bar...

...and yet the latest 'teen drama' openly implied felatio in the opener.

My how times have changed. And I'm only 30!

Cap'n Bob said...

Two stories about writers and their dealings wiht Hollywood:

Writer One tells about having lunch with a bunch of producers and other hotshots. They talked about big plans and million-dollar deals--then stuck him with the check.

Writer Two had his mystery series turned into a TV series. The protagonist drank heavily and couldn't stand his kids, who lived with their mother. That was in the books. On TV he was a recovering alcoholic who looked wistfully at his kids through a chain link fence as they played at recess. In short, every element that made the books great entertainment were excised. The show was lame and folded.

VP81955 said...

"Cheers" could still be sold today, but they'd play up the Red Sox angle a lot more, probably having the cast sing "Sweet Caroline" during every episode.

And it consequently would be canceled after 10 weeks.

Zach said...

I think you just described It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.