Thursday, October 08, 2009

The episode of CHEERS that sparked an uproar and protests

Heading to St. Louis to cover the Dodgers-Cardinals National League Division Series. Last time I flew to St. Louis in October it was to report to Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, so this is better.

Here are some Friday Q&A’s.

Mary Stella wonders:

Is there an official phrase in the biz for giving big hints to the audience in case we're too dense to figure that a long shot of a kangaroo hopping where it has no place being might be significant?

I don’t know if it’s an “official” phrase but we call that “hanging a lantern”.

Michael Neff asks:

Whatever happened to a GREAT (but short-lived) laugh track-less social sitcom called UNITED STATES? Was it like POLICE SQUAD and too hip for the room at the time?

UNITED STATES was created by Larry Gelbart and his stepson, Gary Markowitz and was a unique experiment. It was sold to NBC with the proviso that all the scripts be written before the show went into production (a la UK sitcoms). The premise was to portray a marriage honestly. It was funny but also dramatic, and at times very dark (Y’know, like any REAL marriage). There was no laugh track, no studio audience, no obligatory happy ending every episode.

It starred Beau Bridges and Helen Shaver and although 35 scripts were written, only 13 were produced and 8 aired. NBC was so terrified of the series they scheduled it at 10:30 and kept moving the day. Imagine a sitcom at 10:30 at night? Needless to say, it crashed and burned.

One critic, Robert Lindsey said this about UNTIED STATES in his review: “While the network describes the show as a situation comedy, it promises to be about as close to THREE’S COMPANY or THE JEFFERSONS as POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN is to VICTORY AT SEA.

From Aron:

My question is about writing classic tv moments. IMHO, the Sam Malone rap is one of the funniest minutes in TV history. Even today, every time I hear an injury report, I play it in my head. When you guys write a gem like that, do you know that it's classic right away, or are you still unsure until the moment Ted Danson turns on the boombox?

We NEVER know if something is a classic. The minute we think we’re creating classic art is the minute an anvil falls on our heads. We (my partner David Isaacs and I) just try to write the best scripts we can. Sometimes we’re extremely lucky and something connects (but I'm still not sure they're "classics"). When that happens we just thank the Gods of Comedy.

Kurt has a FRASIER question:

Is the Seattle background a picture, bluescreen image, or one of those minature scale models?

It’s a backdrop. Actually, two backdrops – one for day and one for night. It’s a bit of a cheat because the photos were taken from the Queen Ann district, which is not downtown. But like everything else about that set – it’s the perfect panorama.

And finally, from Bob Chesson:

One of my all time favorite CHEERS is the Thanksgiving Orphans episode where the CHEERS crew goes to Norm's and a food fight ensues. Having unfortunately not viewed ALMOST PERFECT until directed to in your blog to youtube, I watched the WRAP PARTY episode where there is a food fight in the restaurant involving desert tarts. Did you and your partner write either? Was the WRAP PARTY episode a type of homage to the CHEERS episode? Am I just a conspiracy nut?

We wrote the ALMOST PERFECT along with Robin Schiff. We were consulting CHEERS during the Thanksgiving episode. A joke or two of ours might be in it but the brilliance of that script was all Bill & Cheri Steinkellner.

At the time CHEERS got a lot of flack for that episode because there was a big “stop world hunger” campaign and the show was criticized for wasting food.

In the ALMOST PERFECT episode, the staff of a TV show thinks they’re cancelled, says things to each other they never would have if they thought they’d ever see them again and then learn the show was picked-up for another year. It's a very funny episode. You can check it out here. And this is a detailed explanation of the making of that show. We needed a device to mend fences and a giant pie fight was our solution. We were thinking much more Laurel & Hardy than CHEERS.

What’s your question?


David K. M. Klaus said...

My question is still whether my wife and I can have the pleasure of buying you a drink while you're here in St. Louis, as I haven't received an answer to my earlier query.

Don't worry, neither of us will be upset if you're too busy while you're here, or if the idea of hanging for a bit with a stranger who you only know from your weblog is uncomfortable. We understand in either case and will take no offense. It's just that for what it may be worth, we admire your work, I enjoy your weblog, and it'd just be a way of saying thanks for the pleasure you're brought us over the years.

Regardless, best wishes from our family to yours, and have a great series to call!

gottacook said...

Wait, there are thirty-five completed UNITED STATES scripts? Did Gelbart write or co-write them all? I remember liking the show and appreciating it as something really different when I saw it a few times during its network run (spring 1980) on a 9-inch 1960s black-and-white Sony. Will the general public ever be able to view these scripts or the unaired episodes?

(I do recall that NBC was in about as dire straits then as it is now - its primetime schedule featured the likes of THE BEST OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and HELLO, LARRY. And, now that I've checked the Wikipedia page showing the spring 1980 schedule, I remember seeing an episode of the 90-minute THE BIG SHOW that climaxed with an absolutely horrifying, endless musical number, a tribute to country music featuring Dennis Weaver.)

DonBoy said...

UNITED STATES ran later on, I think, A&E, and I'm pretty sure they showed all 13 produced episodes.

Anonymous said...

Funny that you mention the Steinkellners. I thought Cheers went into the utter shithole when they took over as executive producers. Now they are forced to write for cartoons.

Kurt said...

Thanks for answering my question about the backdrop, Ken.

Will you comment on HANK or BACK TO YOU? Personally, this Fall, my favorite is Modern Family, followed by The Middle, and then Hank. Is that because of Kelsey, or the script, or the chemistry of the ensemble, or what?

I'm also watching Cougar Town but it doesn't feel right to compare that to the other three. (ABC is on a role, though. They have two other new shows as well, Eastwick and Flashforward.)

By the way, it saddens me a little to make that statement about Hank because I am a really, really huge Frasier fan. I've also seen all 3 of David H.P.'s major broadway plays since Frasier. I'd love to see Kelsey live, but I live on the East coast so that is not going to be happening.

Thanks Ken! Loving your blog since I started reading it a few weeks ago. Put it on my google desktop bar.


Patrick said...

Ken, i have a question. it might be an easy one, but here goes ... With dialogue that deals with the involvement of lawyers, is there often a decision to just try something else in order to avoid a hassle? On The Office tonight there were two lines that seemed odd. At one point Dwight said something like, "... I search engined her." Obviously he meant Googled. Seemed like a specific choice to not use the term. Then later their was an entire segment based on a youtube video, and a character actually said, "I saw it on youtube." Any ideas on why one monstrous, topical, copywrite protected term was used and the other wasn't?

Btw, your Dodgers really got away with one tonight. Must have been a great game to call. I called the Phills and the Yanks in the Series like two months ago, and I'm stickin' with it. Hope this doesn't get my question deleted.

D. McEwan said...

" Anonymous said...
Funny that you mention the Steinkellners. I thought Cheers went into the utter shithole when they took over as executive producers. Now they are forced to write for cartoons."

They did more than a little all right for Bob Newhart. I knew both of them starting out, 30 years ago, and they are talented, funny people.

David K. M. Klaus said...

I got your e-mail, and I quite understand that you don't have the time. I'm not surprised that your schedule would keep you hopping the entire time you're in town, but I thought I'd take the chance of asking anyway.

As always, you have my best wishes, and please consider it an open invitation the next time you're in the area.

benson said...

One critic, Robert Lindsey said this about UNTIED STATES in his review:

Untied States? The un-rated version?

playfull said...

Hy Ken,

Is the 'Sitcom room' quota filled?

I emailed asking if i could come for $1,000 if i promised to be one third less funny but for some reason got no reply...

Anonymous said...

The Steinkellners also have a smash hit musical running on London's West End. They are wildly talented, funny people.

Anonymous said...


What techniques do showrunners use to overcome the "legends in their own mind" on set who make life hell for the creative staff and the other performers?

(Or, in other words, "Ten Simple Rules for shooting Fran Drescher")

Emmett Flatus said...

" to Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood."

Been there. Done that. I maintain that if the world receives an enema, it will be inserted there.

Dancing Stick said...

I saw "UNITED STATES" when it originally aired.

It didn't "crash and burn" because of its time slot.

Kirk said...

About UNITED STATES. If NBC was so terrified of the series, why did they buy it in the first place? Did Larry Gelbert also promise them a second, more commercial series? If so, what would that have been?

Demetria V. said...

Questions for Ken: Are sitcom pilots usually previewed with original theme songs? What becomes of the songs written for shows that don't sell? Do you know of any hit songs that were originally written for a failed TV pilot?

blogward said...

I just visualized all those people with their fingers in bowls of potato chips complaining about TV sitcoms wasting food.

WV: consiest = either the the legal term for the act of pretending to have a siesta, or the superlative form of 'consy', which describes a disatrously false sense of cosiness.

Matt Holliday said...

Would you mind if the Cardinals tie it up this weekend?

Bob said...

Several weeks back you talked about stars getting credits with the prefix "with" or "and" and sometimes having their character's name identified in the credits. You said this was to separate them from the rest of the cast. My question is, is this usually a star request or an agent request? In other words, is this usually a coup to let the agent show that he is working for the star, or does the star actually demand that he be given this "fortified" credit? Thanks.