Thursday, March 18, 2010

Help! I'm stuck on a bad show!

Off for a quick two-day trip to Gotham to speak at the Talkers radio convention. Meanwhile, here are some Friday Q’s for yous.

From SimoSSimonhammon:

We all know that you've had the good fortune to work on quite a few classic sitcoms, but I'm sure you've probably done or have known other talented writers who have worked on shows that didn't work. How, as a writer who knows they're good at their craft, do you or they deal with a situation where no matter how hard they work on it, what ends up on screen will ultimately be a flop?

First, check your bank account. Food on the table is always a good incentive for staying on a bad show. It’s a tough situation, especially now since there are not many really good sitcoms out there. There are not many sitcoms out there period so you have to feel fortunate just having any job. But if you want to trade up , here are a couple of suggestions.

I would write a spec of a good show. Leave your ego at the door. Don’t think, “Well, I’m on a show. I don’t have to write specs anymore.” Yes you do. Casey & Lee went from THE JEFFERSONS to CHEERS based on CHEERS spec. And they were showrunning THE JEFFERSONS at the time.

Also, I would suggest writing a spec feature or play or novel or just anything that’s your own and reflects your sensibility. Alan Ball was an unhappy staffer on CYBIL and to keep his sanity banged out a spec screenplay when he came home at night. That screenplay was AMERICAN BEAUTY.

You just have to prove that you're better than the show you're on.

Mike wonders:

I've read one of Bea Arthur's beefs with the Golden Girls writers was that they'd put too many timely cultural references into the scripts, which would therefore hurt it in reruns (i.e., jokes about Miami Vice or Hunter or Ronald Reagan, etc). As a writer, how much did you think about things like that?

I think about it a lot. Current references can kill a show’s long term prospects. The classic example is MURPHY BROWN. Dan Quayle jokes? Phil Rosenthal, creator of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND had much better foresight. He made sure that there were no topical references in his series. I think RAYMOND reruns will be around forever. (It also helps that it’s a great show.)

I think one of Bea Arthur’s GOLDEN GIRL complaints was that not only were there too many modern references, seven-out-of-ten were Willard Scott jokes.

On CHEERS we sort of straddled the line. As a contemporary show we needed to pay some heed to the world around us but not be so specific that the gags would become anachronistic by June.

But it’s a double-edged sword. What makes some shows seem fresh and edgy is that their humor is up to date and topical. 30 ROCK springs to mind. But there may be a price later.

Meanwhile, on MASH we constantly sprinkled in references to 50s pop culture but what the hell? They just gave the show a richer texture and sense of time & place. Plus, who wouldn’t howl at a good Adolphe Menjou joke?

From dougR:

I assume you came up with the "Cheers" name for the bar and the show. So who owns the "Cheers" logo? Do you have a piece of it? Do you (or DID you) get revenue every time it was reproduced?

I did not come up with the “Cheers” name. Glen & Les Charles and James Burrows did. I don’t know what the royalty situation is but I suspect they and Paramount Television own the license and logo. I wanted to call the bar “Shit Face”. In hindsight they were right to pick the name they did, although it took me years to realize it.

David (not Isaacs) asks:

Who's the most beautiful actress you`ve written for as (a) a series regular and (b) a recurring character?

Are you kidding me? How suicidal do you think I am?

Please leave your questions (that I can answer without getting in massive trouble) in the comments section. Thanks.


rob! said...

Plus, who wouldn’t howl at a good Adolphe Menjou joke?

Any joke featuring "Adolphe Menjou" is inherently a good one, because its such a funny name.

David (not Isaacs) said...

Hey! You left out the last part of my question! That it's gotta be Bebe!

VW: rizessem - What Bebe does to heterosexual males.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if she's the most beautiful woman you worked with or not, but Bebe Neuwirth just about has to be the most deceptively beautiful woman you worked with. I remember near the end of Cheers' run the entire cast was appearing as a group on a daytime talk show (Oprah I'm pretty sure). I always thought Ms. Neuwirth was an attractive woman, but the difference between seeing her in character and seeing her in a low cut blouse and blue jeans was astonishing. It's no wonder she went on to a career playing half-naked women on Broadway.

Simon H, aka SimoSSimonhammon said...

Damn my IPhone for inserting that ridiculous looking name as I was saving it. But thanks for an answer as always. I imagine it is a double-edged sword, especially in this economy.

mrdj said...

Speaking of the opening of 'Cheers':

Mac said...

It's Peri Gilpin, isn't it Ken?
I know you can't say, but it's got to be Peri Gilpin.

Anonymous said...

I don't think 30 Rock will suffer in re-runs because it's still a self-contained scenario, the production of a tv show, the main stars, the producer, etc..and the goings-on of the programming exec.

I wonder how tween shows, like from Nick especially, can figure out how to work with a child star who is basically a ticking clock, growing up from girl to woman? That reality basically brackets the potential years of the show and audience-demographics doesn' it? There is a huge difference between a 13 year old girl and a 17 going on 18 year old one. And it's hard to mix episodes in re-runs as the actors too obviously jump back and forth in age.

On a related side-note, I just read the actress from I-Carly is getting a mid seven-figure salary for another 26 episodes. Absurdly, she's the worst actress on the show too.

gih said...

wow! I am the one who gonna save ya! pls wait me. :-)

Trinity Moses said...

We have Nickelodeon on a lot in our house, so I am qualified to respond to Anonymous's remark...

...and so let me point out that calling Miranda Cosgrove (I presume that is whom he meant) "the worst actress on" iCARLY is pretty much meaningless, given that there is only one other actress in the cast. I could state that Laurence Olivier gave the worst performance in SLEUTH, or Alan Alda the worst performance in SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR, but what does that tell you?

Not so much now, but Nickelodeon did use to freely mix episodes of DRAKE AND JOSH (with a pre-adolescent Cosgrove) and iCARLY (it was recognizing her on both shows that taught my little girl the difference between a character and the actor or actress playing the part). Disney Channel and Disney XD still run episodes from all seasons of the SUITE LIFE series, so that within the space of an hour you can see the Sprouse brothers go from little boys to gangling teens well into puberty. So, these channels do not seem to be as worried about the aging of the actors as Anonymous is. (Of course, evidence of the actors growing up OFF-camera can create problems. You will not find Jamie Lynn Spears's series ZOEY 101 on Nickelodeon any more.)

normadesmond said...

thank you. when i used to sometimes watch the golden girls, i would thing to myself, i enjoy watching these women, especially bea, but it's not nearly what maude was. not as smart.

Michael said...

The 1950s pop culture references on MASH made perfect sense because, after all, it was about the early 1950s. But I remember on one of Colonel Flagg's appearances, one of the jokes was that he worked as a showgirl at the Sands. Well, the Sands opened in late 1952. I don't think it was likely to have been on Hawkeye's radar screen at that time.

That brings up the whole issue of anachronisms and inconsistencies, as in Colonel Potter having been married for 25 and 37 years during the run of MASH. Great shows can get away with that.

Jo Ann said...

Hi Ken,
Bob Newhart also insisted on no topical references on "Newhart", and "the Bob Newhart Show". He felt that he wanted his shows to be classic, and able to be re-run years later and not be dated. But I agree, it depends on what works for the show....Jo Ann

Dana Gabbard said...

How about Angus Jones in at least one episode in the past year competing with Charlie Sheen for the babe of the week? Is it time to call it Two and three-quarter Men?

Kirk said...

If I watch an old movie or TV show, read an old book, or even listen to an old Tin Pan Alley song that has some topical references of which I'm unfamiliar, I'm willing to do a little research if I think there'll be a payoff in the end.

It took me a while, but I can finally say that I understand all the references in Cole Porter's "You're the Tops" and I'm better person for it.

Sherri said...

A few topical references are okay, but Murphy Brown is completely unwatchable in reruns now, even though I know all the references.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken, have you heard anything about the Cheers reunion rumors?

D. McEwan said...

"Michael said...
The 1950s pop culture references on MASH made perfect sense because, after all, it was about the early 1950s."

Not all of them. Hawkeye frequently used Godzilla references in jokes throughout the run of M*A*S*H. This never ceased to bother me. The first Godzilla movie, the Japanese film Gojira, was made in 1954, after the Korean war ended, and its American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters with Raymond Burr, didn't come out in America until 1955, so the word "Godzilla" didn't even exist during the Korean War.

So that's the problem with layering in timely references in a period piece. If you aren't scrupulous about your research, you hoist anachronisms which drive people who know better nuts.

The new film of The WOlfman very specifically sets itself in 1891. There's an onscreen caption to that effect at the start of the picture, yet the London sequence features a fully-finished Tower Bridge prominently! Tower Bridge wasn't completed until 1894. In 1891 it would barely have begun contruction.

This is, though, better than the Tim Burton movie of Sweeney Todd, where he sails into London at the start of the movie past Tower Bridge in the 1840s, 50 years before it was built!

DwWashburn said...

Question -- I notice that some of your daily posts gets scores of comments while others may only get 5 or so. Do you ever get upset or feel like you didn't "reach" the audience when the number of comments are low? Thanks.

Chalmers said...

I think the timelessness of shows like "MASH" and "Happy Days" in syndication is in large part because they were originally set in the past. Garry Marshall has cited this as a reason he set the show in the '50s.

With a 20-year lead time, you know which cultural references are going to stick. Hindsight allowed the MASH producers to base a show around Marilyn Monroe, knowing that she'd be recognizable as long as the show is aired.

Had the show been cotemporaneous, it might have centered on, say, Judy Holliday.

Buttermilk Sky said...

The pop culture references on MASH may have been 1950s, but the hair and mustaches were pure 1970s. No man, in or out of the military in 1950, would have worn his hair as long as BJ and Hawkeye. What do you do (if anything) when actors decline to cut their hair for period roles? (HAPPY DAYS, by contrast, generally got the look right.)

VW: unmet. All my expectations, alas.

Kirk said...

Happy Days didn't get the look right where Chachi was concerned. He was pure 1970s.

Anonymous said...

@Trinity Moses:
First of all, I like the story of your daughter learning to tell the difference between actor and character due to the different years of a show. Positive way to deal with television.

I wasn't really "worried" just I was wondering how TV producers who normally desire a repeatable product, suddenly figured out or just stopped worrying about that in tween programs, as it just by necessity can't be built into these kinds of programs. I also wonder as for target audiences, because it was always a rule that it is hard to watch your little brother or sisters program - or did that change now too, and 16-17 year olds are cool to sit in the same room and watch their 9 year old brother or sister's program?

"Suite Life" is a good example, in that it seems to work only in that the brothers act "older" when they were actually young kids, and act "younger" when they are older now. It evens out, but I wonder what they will be like at 21...

As for "actress" I meant Cosgrove, and if I used "actor" it would have been simply a wrong-gender usage I think, and just short hand. Anyway, the other actress on the show IS far better than Cosgrove's two expressions (one of which is actually just a grimace of sorts). Ironically she was great as a kid and in "School of Rock". Now she's really frozen.

As for Jamie Lynn "Zoey 101" in the highly profitable global cable markets you can find it daily in re-runs.

DrBoodleQuakers said...

Ken...I have a question I'd love to know the answer to. First, let me state that I'm writing a spec script right now that takes place in the 40's, and I've been feverishly watching old flicks in order to get the dialogue right. This made me think of something I've always wondered. On MASH, how did you guys come up with all those brilliant "Potterisms"? Were they pulled out of the ether? Researched?

No matter how many times I hear them, I'll never get tired of lines like "sufferin sheepdip!" or "What in the name of Sweet Fanny Adams!"

Dawn Marie said...

I was lucky enough to see Harriet Harris recently in 'Present Laughter' in New York, and was wondering how her character of Frasier's agent Bebe came about. Was it written especially for her? Those were some of my favorite episodes. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Murphy Brown was doomed once a) she had the baby, and b) they decided to go on and on and ON long after the series ran out of juice...