Thursday, July 02, 2009

Who was the last customer on CHEERS?

Thanks for your Friday questions. Here are four more:

From Bob Sassone:

Who was it who played the last customer at Cheers, the one who Sam told the bar was closed? I have a friend who insists it was someone famous but I say it was just part of the crew/cast/behind the scenes people.

That final customer was agent Bob Broder. He represented the Charles Brothers, Jimmy Burrows, and more importantly, me and my partner. Bob was instrumental in getting the show on the air and keeping it on the air. Also, he was (and still is) the best agent we ever had.

From another Bob -- Summers:

Do networks really buy shows that they know are only going to make it four or six episodes?

Networks rarely give orders, even short ones, to shows they don’t believe in. If they do it’s usually to fulfill a commitment. A number of years ago there was a comedian NBC wanted to keep in the fold as a possible replacement for Johnny Carson when he retired. So they gave this comedian a six episode order for a sitcom. They hated the resulting episodes so much they kept the show on the shelf for a year. Finally, they decided to just burn it off and air the show.

That show was SEINFELD.

In the past, when networks didn’t own the shows, they tried on several occasions to order six episodes and the studios balked (back in the days when they could). The practice was generally discontinued and shows got picked up for thirteen.

Still there were some short-order shows like for the summer. Our series BIG WAVE DAVE’S was one. Considering it got a 19 share and kept 100% of its lead in, MURPHY BROWN’S audience it deserved a better fate than six and out. Not that I’m bitter all these fucking years later.

Doug R has a good one:

How often does it happen that someone is hired onto a writing staff, and it turns out he or she isn't as good as their spec script or other sample indicated? How long are they given to turn it around before they're given the boot?

Back in primitive times (the 70s) writers were not hired on staff until they turned in a freelance script that impressed the producers enough to hire them on staff. That’s how we got our first two staff jobs (THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, MASH).

But now shows hand out very few freelance assignments. And if someone writes an impressive spec chances are several shows will want him. So to sign him the producer must take a flyer and put him right on staff. No longer is there an opportunity to test the neophyte writer beforehand.

So yes, way too often these people don’t work out. Their scripts don’t live up to their specs, they’re a zero in the writing room, they don’t get any better, and the dazzling spec script gave no indication that they didn’t bathe.

Generally, there are options built into their deal so that after six or thirteen episodes the producer can elect not to pick up their option.

But hiring writers today is like buying a house based on a couple of pictures you’ve seen on the internet.
And finally, from Kevin Stern:

When did you get your first chance to direct for television? What did you have to do campaign-wise to get the job and move out of the writer's room? Were you prepared for the task on your first day/week?

In 1994 I directed an episode of WINGS. The account of that experience is here. I had been auditing directors for several years and during my show running stints I often would reblock scenes, deal with actors, and oversee editing. I once asked Jimmy Burrows what’s the best advice he could give me in preparing to direct? He said, “Get the job” and he’s right. You can audit forever but until you’re the one in the driver’s seat you’re never going to really learn.

But how do you get that first job? In my case, I was lucky. I had been consulting WINGS since the series began so everyone in the production was familiar with me (and a few even liked me). Producers Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell took a chance and gave me an assignment. And David Lee was kind enough to spend a whole Saturday helping me with the camera blocking. So the short answer is I knew somebody and caught a good break.

What's your question??


Cedric Hohnstadt said...

Love your blog, especially the Friday questions. Here's one more for you:

You've written about the ways MASH evolved and about the controversies over whether or not to use a laugh track on the series. Along similar lines I'm wondering about the use of background music on MASH. I've noticed that in the early seasons music was used often, especially leading into and out of commercial breaks. In the later seasons the practice seems to have been dropped. Was the music considered too heavy-handed or "talking down" to the audience (like the laugh track)? Or was it simply a matter of tone as the series evolved?

Thanks for all the great insights and info.

Mike McCann said...

Why don't the networks burn off unsold pilots as summer anthology as was common practice during the '60s, especially on CBS? Often Lucy or Andy or Danny's slot wasn't filled by reruns or a short-run series, but 13 or so pilots that just didn't make the grade. One in particular, I still remember more than 40 years after its one and only airing. Joan Blondell was cast as the gal Friday of a Hollywood Mogul in the "golden age of the movies." Seemed like a great premise. Maybe it was too difficult to pull off week after week.

Anyway, where do films like that go now? At least if they aired once, fees were paid and someone recouped some of the money laid out to write and shoot the pilot.

Scott B. said...

Hey Ken, are there any writers around town who have a reputation for accidentally "borrowing" or outright stealing from other shows or writers? How does a room deal with them? And have you ever discovered after the fact that you accidentally lifted something from another source?

Lawrence Fechtenberger said...

I, too, have wondered about the disappearance of unsold pilots from the summer landscape. A couple of possible reasons occurred to me, but I have no idea if they are right.

One is simply that the environment has changed too much for this. Back when there were only three broadcast networks, and cable was something you got (if you lived in the small number of areas where it was available) to improve your reception, not to add channels--then, a network could run a failed pilot at 10:30 in the dead of summer, and still be sure of getting millions of viewers. Now, with lots more competition, the networks feel it's safer to fill the spare hours with LAW & ORDER and CSI re-runs.

The other relates to an interview with Carroll O'Connor that I once read. He said that he shot several pilots in between ALL IN THE FAMILY and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, but they were never shown because he forbade it. He had a condition in his contract that allowed a pilot to be shown only if the series sold. As far as he was concerned, an unsold pilot was a failure, and he saw no point in making his failures public. (That presumably explains why he spent two pages of his autobiography insisting that the TV movie BRASS was not a pilot.) Perhaps other stars have begun to insist on the same condition. If the only pilots available for airing are the ones without big names, I can understand why the networks would not care about showing them.

But these are just guesses. I do not really know anything about how television works.

Craig M said...

When writing a script, do you plan for the time when the show will be rerun in syndication? Do do write a scene thinking, This is the one they can cut without harming the story?

gottacook said...

A corollary to Cedric's first question above:

In the later seasons of MASH, at the very end of the episode proper (that is, when the new credits including "creative consultant: Alan Alda" appear), the music at this point is always the same (with very rare exceptions): a 10-second compression of the opening theme.

I don't know why anyone associated with the show would choose to do this. It added to the predictability of the series, and although predictability can be a comfort, this wasn't the case here - it just became boring as hell.

Jub Jub The Frumious Bandersnatch said...

KL said: So the short answer is I knew somebody and caught a good break.

What's your question??

How does one know somebody and catch a good break?

I thank you.

Oh, and my word thingy is "cabbithe" which is a Wiccan soup vegetable.

Jim Stickford said...

I'm curious, what's more difficult for you, putting up with a writer or actor that is difficult, obnoxious, needs hand held through the whole process, but really delivers, or actor/writer who is a nice person, shows up on time and/or meets deadlines, is pleasant to be around, never gives you trouble but, for whatever reason, can't quite cut it or deliver what you want. They aren't terrible but aren't good either?

David K. M. Klaus said...

As I infer that you're not much on science fiction, I'm curious as to what you might consider doing if, hypothetically:

J. Michael Straczynski were doing another Babylon 5 spinoff;

Ronald D. Moore found himself for whatever reason with a hole in his writer's room for his Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica;

Chuck Lorre found himself with the same hole in his writer's room for The Big Bang Theory;

(I've thought of more examples, Bryce Zabel, Joss Whedon, etc., but I'm refraining as I'm sure you get the idea.)

...and called you and said, "I need you and David Isaacs to write for my show." Would you decline as none of them are the sort of show you do (except for Big Bang Theory being a three-camera sitcom, of course), would you have to give it a lot of consideration first, or would you say "yes" and step up to the plate and take a crack at it?

I know you're happy doing sports-radio right now and aren't looking for an assignment, I'm just curious as to how you might react to trying something outside what you've written in the past?

WV: "equarth", equal-opportunity Earth.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Thanks to Bob Broder, then, and anybody else who helped keep Cheers on the air when nobody seemed to think a "comedy about drunks" or whatever would work. I believe Grant Tinker had a lot to do with the show's survival, too, but I forget the details that I never knew. Cheers is my all-time favorite television comedy.

Dana Gabbard said...

While unsold pilots may not be burned off in summer anymore, unaired episodes of cancelled shows still appear then. Right now ABC has been burning off the final episodes of Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone and Dirty Sexy Money at 10 p.m. on Sturdays, which is like running them when nobody is watching anyway.

ABC is also burning off the last episodes of Samantha Who? Thursdays at 8 p.m. I suspect Lawrence Fechtenberger is correct unbought pilots are now seen as too risky versus unaired episodes of cancelled series.

BTW, I though that Samantha Who? and Pushing Daisies has premises that were not well suited to being ongoing series. Not that you can't milk a limited idea for a while -- 3rd Rock from the Sun went six seasons. And you can always tweak the premise (Rockford Files quickly dopped the idea he only took old "dead" cases).

Picking up on Craig M's question, I wonder is it now standard to include scenes intended to be bonuses in the DVD release? Maybe a joke you know the networks would never allow but that can then be touted as previously unseen footage when the DVD is marketed?

Kirk said...

To further add to gottacook's and Cedric's point, I've noticed the tag endings in later seasons had both loud theme music AND a freeze frame, whereas the earlier seasons had a much more subtle "fade to black". Was a freeze frame considered more commercial or high-tech or something?

Matt Ellis said...

Hi Ken. My question: why is Coupling funny? It's all a bit clunky - the acting's not too hot, the timing doesn't have good rhythm and even the script can be a bit awkward. But it's really, really funny. Why? What makes it work?