Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cybill vs. Christine Baranski

It’s Friday question day. What’s yours?

Mike from Atlanta asks:

What do you do when the supporting character begins to overshadow the main character? Examples: the Barney character on How I Met Your Mother, Christine Baranski's character on Cybill, Dr. Johhny Fever in WKRP and even the Steve Urkel character in Family Matters (he wasn't a regular until later in the season).

It depends on the show and the star. Most of the time the stars accept it because they realize that with this breakout character (a la the Fonz) the show is a big hit. Otherwise, it's thirteen and out. In the case of Cybill though, Christine Baranski’s popularity caused much drama and acrimony on the set. Think the queen and Snow White. I am so glad I wasn’t one of the dwarves who worked on that show. Yikes!

Not to tell tales out of school but I understand Alex Karras and Susan Clarke really resented Emmanual Lewis who played Webster. But Jesus, the show was called WEBSTER.

I will say this, from day one everybody on FRASIER embraced David Hyde Pierce and recognized how supremely talented he was. And no one was more supportive than Kelsey Grammer.

Since most comedies are ensembles, egos tend to be in check. But there’s always that chance, especially when you have gifted thespians like Alex Karras and Susan Clarke.

Bob Summers wants to know:

What are your thoughts on turning movies (theatrical releases) into a series? "M*A*S*H" and "Alice" work, but I'm frustrated watching the first season of "The Paper Chase" on DVD. It was a great movie. The series just doesn't come close.

Usually they don’t work because the TV adaptation feels like a dinner theater version of the original movie. Big stars are replaced with faint carbon TV actors. MASH made the jump, in my opinion, because the writing was so stylized and great, they went against type with Hawkeye and Trapper, they were lucky enough to snare Alan Alda, and CBS stuck with the show. People forget that MASH was nearly cancelled in its first year.

PAPER CHASE was actually a pretty successful series in its initial run. And it had the advantage of having the star of the movie, John Houseman, star in the TV version as well. Maybe the exclusion of Lindsay Wagner was why the show wasn’t a smash. However, getting the film star to also star in the series is not always a guarantee for success. Nia Vardalos did little to rescue MY BIG FAT GREEK LIFE. Of course, in that case I don't think divine intervention would have helped either.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER worked better as a TV show than movie and I credit Joss Whedon for that.


That said, I still think VOLUNTEERS would make a great TV series. Think of it, every week blowing up another bridge in the village.

Ironically, I bet there are now more movies from TV shows than the other way around.

Leave your questions in the comment section. As always, many thanks.


Anonymous said...

If Cybill had any real talents, the writers might have been inspired to write her some material. If she wasn't a jerk, same thing.

Buffy the movie was directed by a script supervisor whose husband had money. If a real director had made the film we might not have had the series.

Rob said...

I have no idea what Kelsey Grammer is like, but you have to admire a star who is willing to be upstaged by pretty much everyone else in the cast, including the dog. I never watched Cheers, but somehow instantly got hooked on Frasier. It was the rare show that could make you laugh until you hurt and tear up in the same episode and mixed super smart writing with some of the best slapstick ever seen.

Diane said...

I had the true pleasure of seeing David Hyde Pierce in Curtains on Broadway. He was delightful.

gottacook said...

Given the many impediments to getting a new series (or a revival of an old series, a series based on a movie, or - in the case of the upcoming Parenthood - a series based on both an old movie and a prior series) on the air, do you see any hope for the return of the anthology series? Every so often there's an attempt at a revival of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but I have in mind something more like Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which I've been seeing again lately, at midnight weekdays in the DC area). The actors always seem to be having such a good time - not playing a character more than once, perhaps they automatically play the role less perfunctorily.

Could such a series get on the air without some central personality, a Hitchcock or a Serling? If such a person were indeed crucial to a successful anthology, who might it be in today's environment?

Jim said...

A Frazier question I've always had, and I may have asked here before: Were Daphne's supposed psychic powers in Season One purely a set up for the gag when she met Lilith? Daphne had an unexplained migraine as she entered the apartment, pleasantly shook hands with Lilith, and muttered under her breathe to Martin as she walked away "I touch that woman's hand and lost all feeling in me right arm."

Great line, btw

Jennifer Roland said...

It's too bad that there was on-set drama with Cybill. I enjoyed both women on the show, but Christine Baranski and Alicia Witt were the highlights for me.

Dhppy said...

I noticed the Frasier logo was always silver colored in it's final season. Was that designed to be a sign of it's platinum year or something to that effect?


Was there ever talk of getting Jean Smart as a regular on Frasier?

Anonymous said...

What type of comedy works better? single or mulit-com?

bevo said...

I am waiting for the television show that is based on the movie, which was initially based on the television show.

At that point, it will be revealed that television executives have no balls.

Anonymous said...

Say what you will about Kelsey Grammer, but I will always suspect that the reason Lisa Kudrow was replaced on Frasier was because she was funnier than the star. The only person who could convince me otherwise would be Ms. Kudrow herself and I don't expect her to come knocking on my door saying "Kelsey was a gem. I was simply wrong for the part."

Sorry Ken, if I'm wrong. It just seems so implausable that someone so funny in everything would be re-cast, except for this reason.

Griff said...

People forget that THE PAPER CHASE was actually cancelled after its first season on CBS. Several years later -- after reruns of the much-lauded program's 22 episodes had proven popular on PBS -- Fox made a deal with Showtime to continue the series on pay-cable. An additional 36 episodes were produced over three years, and James Hart (James Stephens) got to graduate from law school.

Lairbo said...

Dr. Johnny Fever wasn't the main character on WKRP?

Pat Reeder said...

I remember that MASH was nearly canceled its first year. In fact, I was in junior high then and wrote my first-ever letter to a network, praising that show and begging them to keep it on the air. Its subsequent enormous success proved what I always suspected: that a 13-year-old kid could program a network better than the executives who are actually in charge of it can.

BTW, my verification word: "canta." Chico Marx Italian for "can't."

A. Buck Short said...

I think Christine Baranski is incredibly talented. At the time Cybill was on the air, I once mentioned to one of the producers that she (and I guess meaning how she played her character) reminded me of the comedienne Rita Rudner. It wasn't taken that well as a compliment. So here's some advice, if you ever want to compliment Christine Baranski by saying she's got a touch of Rita Rudner in her, make sure the person you are talking to is also as big a fan of Rita Rudner as you are.

Ryan Roe said...

While I understand why ABC cancelled the CLERKS series, it was actually pretty good. It had a completely different tone from the movie -- much sillier and less independent film-ish -- and I think that worked in its favor.

Mary Stella said...

*locks hands together and pleads*

Bring back Buffy!

I don't care of Sarah Michelle now mentors Buffilettes instead of kicking ass herself, I just want the show back on the air for Joss Whedon's writing. He's a GAM. (aka god among men)

wv=parstsern -- When a horse's ass sags to its hoof

Anonymous said...

Here's a question/topic that I'm not sure I've seen addressed: As an experienced comedy writer, are there any particular jokes or set-ups that you think are overused and come across as lazy writing? And/or perhaps are things that would rarely (if ever) happen in real life?

For example, I always groan when character one accuses character two of being some particular way, and then character two denies it while exhibiting just that trait. As in "You're always so loud." "I AM NOT!!"

It also drives me nuts when one character talks in overdrive, such that a second character can't get a word in edgewise, which after the fact renders whatever the first character was saying irrelevant (or simply wrong).

Are there any other such "comedic" stylings that stick in your mind as things best avoided?

Richard - Milwaukee, WI

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

Bevo: "I am waiting for the television show that is based on the movie, which was initially based on the television show."

Obviously, you have forgotten (not that anyone can blame you) the 1990s versions of THE UNTOUCHABLES and THE FUGITIVE.

As for movies based on television shows that were based on movies, there have been THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (which ultimately derives from a movie called THE MOONRUNNERS) and one or two of the later HIGHLANDER movies.

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

Note to self: Take a moment to do a little research before claiming a fact.

I find that the Tim Daly version of THE FUGITIVE was not from the '90s. It ran 2000-2001.

By Ken Levine said...

I was there when Lisa Kudrow was fired. As talented as she is she was mis-cast in that particular role. Roz needed more edge, Lisa didn't display it. And everyone else in the cast was so dead-on that it really stuck out.

On FRIENDS and MAD ABOUT YOU you she played to her strengths and was indeed hilarious.

John said...

Ken have there been any shows you've written for/been employed by and have left that you looked at in their ensuing episodes/seasons and wondered "Why are they doing that?" or "Why are they taking the show in that direction?"

Mike said...

That Webster story is pretty interesting. Like you said, he's the freaking title character.

I'd always wondered if Ron Howard felt a little resentment after Happy Days was reworked to focus on Fonzie. After all, he really had been the show's star up until that point. And, IIRC, he admitted in a behind-the-scenes type show a few years back that he was indeed uncomfortable at first when he saw just how many scripts were revolving around Fonzie. And he and Garry Marshall both pleaded with ABC not to change the name of the show to "Fonzie's Happy Days" (which they did consider, after the character became such a huge hit; it would have been a stupid name-change, IMO). But he got past it when he saw how successful the show turned out to be. Tough to quibble with having a hit show.

Cap'n Bob said...

Ken: What's your home run call? (Thought I'd forgot, eh?)

Garrett Strunk said...

The final three seasons of HAPPY DAYS Henry Winkler was indeed the "star" and Fonzie indeed the "main character", Ron Howard having left. Those three seasons just aren't as good as the rest of the season's run. You could argue it has nothing to do with Howard not being there, that the show had just run out of steam by that point, but I think it's because the ying and yang between Fonzie and Richie characters was sorely missing.

Dana Gabbard said...

Regarding stars and egos, I recall years ago reading that Didi Conn was frustrated at how little screen time she had on Benson. But then said of course Robert Guillaume was the star: "After all the name of the show was Benson".

YEKIMI said...

Half the time you see the crap in the tabloids about this actor hates that actor because they're getting all the attention on the show and you don't know if it's true or not because, after all, it's in a freaking tabloid! Unless I hear it straight from the actor's mouth, I tend not to believe it. Come on stars, post it on YouTube!

Joe said...

Riffing on what Rob said...I think that KG's appeal was similar to Jack Benny's. He let other people get the laughs and he glowed ever brighter as a result.

Someone said it of Benny and I think it applies to Grammer: "He's the world's greatest comic re-actor."

WVW: "fradwo" - One of the minor hobbits.

D. McEwan said...

"Rob said...
I have no idea what Kelsey Grammer is like, but you have to admire a star who is willing to be upstaged by pretty much everyone else in the cast, including the dog."

Then admire Jack Benny (For a billion reasons besides this) because that was Jack's basic act, and in very many ways, FRASIER was a return of The Jack Benny Show. Frasier had a different set of quirks and follies, though vanity ran at the top of the list on both of them, but the basic set up on both was what my old mentor Sweet Dick Whittington always called "Straight man to the world."

Bob Newhart was another master at the straight man to the world approach. Frasier used the Benny Show palette I'm sure consiously, and it worked as well as ever.

But Benny, as in FRASIER, understood that the supporting cast you surrounded yourself with HAD to be great funny people all.

Happened to see THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES yesterday for the first time in about 40 years, and there was Daphnee's mother, Millicent Martin, as a young babe.

VP81955 said...

In defense of Cybill Shepherd (whom I have never met), when Christine Baranski grew to stardom through "Cybill" (even though she was previously a highly-regarded stage actress), Cybill probably sensed Bruce Willis and "Moonlighting" all over again, I'm not necessarily saying any resentment she might have had towards Baranski was defensible, merely understandable.

And to the person who linked Christine Baranski to Rita Rudner: That's the first time I've ever heard anyone make that argument. Rudner doesn't have Baranski's sauciness...and her legs are nowhere as good.

Stardom is hard to project. When "That '70s Show" began, it appeared Topher Grace and Laura Prepon would be the breakout stars. Then Ashton Kutcher channeled Fonzie...

wv: "probacc" -- when a high school recruit has narrowed his or her choices to Clemson, Wake Forest and Maryland.

wv2: "essesses" -- Buckwheat exaggerating things again.

Tim W. said...

"Say what you will about Kelsey Grammer, but I will always suspect that the reason Lisa Kudrow was replaced on Frasier was because she was funnier than the star."

Perhaps if Kudrow was actually funny, you might have a case. On Mad About You and Friends she was a one note character that, while charming in very small doses on Mad About You, was incredibly grating in large doses on Friends. One of life's biggest mysteries for me was how she was nominated so many times for playing a character that I don't think made me laugh once.

And Peri Gilpin was fantastic on the show. Much better than Kudrow ever was on anything I've seen her in.

Matt said...

Anonymous asked about the comedic styling of a character denying a trait while displaying it, which I guess is a form of irony. Ironically, the episode of Cheers that Ken shares on Saturday has two such incidents: one involving Norm stuffing his face with peanuts, and the very last line of the episode. I guess that's not something Ken avoids. It's still a great episode.

wv: "enspl"--What you end up with if your spleen bursts.

Matt Bird said...

But... I've been re-watching a lot of "That '70s Show" recently (most underrated sitcom of the 00s) and it's just astounding what a class act Ashton Kutcher was about the whole thing. As he was being elevated to star status off the set his acting became even more self-effacing and ego-less onscreen. Surely he had the clout to start demanding more "laugh with" moments but he knew to let them keep his character a "laugh at" character. He trusted his talent to make the character sympathetic anyway, which it did.

Chris Andelman said...

My question is about writing episodes for guest actors. Do you ever sign them first and then write with them in mind? One of my favorite Cheers was the one with John Cleese. Was that because someone said let's write for John Cleese and was he approached before it was written?

Was there supposed to be a sequel with his character? I was doing typing and filing for Mark Evanier back then and I remember him on the phone to his friends at Cheers and telling me Cleese was coming back but then it didn't happen and I think that episode was rewritten for another actor.

Also when I was working with Mark, he had this actress girl friend who had been on one of the first episodes of Cheers playing a character named Brandee with two Es. She told me that the show had called her agent a couple of times to see if she was available because they were thinking of bringing the character back but they never did. How would that work? Do you have to make sure you can get the actor before you write for the actor?

Thank you in advance for any answers.

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

Re: Chris Andelman's question: I remember reading that the episode of CHEERS with Emma Thompson as Frasier's first wife was written for Glenn Close, who was dating Woody Harrelson at the time. When they broke up, Close bailed from the episode, and the producers were lucky enough to get Thompson.

So, episodes are sometimes written for specific guest stars, but not necessarily the ones who are actually in them.

Which reminds me of Robert Culp's commentary on one of the I SPY DVDs. He says that he wrote a part in one episode for a rising young British actress named Julie Christie, and he was confident that he could get her. Unfortunately, between the time he started writing, and the time the episode was actually filmed, DARLING and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO came out, and Christie wasn't exactly interested in TV guest shots. (Jean Marsh got the role instead.)

Len (dental) Dreary said...

The similarity between Baranski and Rudner is their overbites. That's all, however it is hard to look at one and not think of the other as they are both very attractive, funny and talented people who make overbites look sexy.

Mike Barer said...

Cybill should have known better than to cast a real actor espessially when her looks were fading, and her own acting talents were negligible at best.

Dana Gabbard said...

Maybe you could give us a peek at the legal process a script goes through. I know from reading the Making of Star Trek that someone researches whether a character's name is too similiar to an actual person who has the same profession as the character, etc.

I am astonished a CSI Producer in a draft used the name of actual real estate agents they had had dealings with (and evidently it was not a flattering portrayl). Does that sort of thing happen often? My guess is the resulting lawsuit will probably result in some money changing hands and the prodcuer being scolded.

pudrox said...

Christine Baranski was stylish and hilarious. And that drove Cybill crazy!