Thursday, June 03, 2010

My all-time favorite job

Earl Pomerantz, in his wonderful blog, wrote a recent post describing his “All-time favorite job”. A few readers of both his site and mine have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.

We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.

We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)

It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.

Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.

Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).

Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.

So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.

At all.

We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)

Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.

This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.

To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.

We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.

And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.

The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.

Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.

But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.


scottmc said...

This is off the topic but I thought of you and this blog when I saw the Dodgers were in a scoreless extra inning game and, then later, when the Tiger pitcher lost his Perfect game thanks to an imperfect call at 1st base. Do you find scoreless games exciting pitching duels or frustrating? How would you feel if the blown call happened during a Dodger game?

Emily Blake said...

Man that is one hell of a retarded reason to cancel a show.

I swear to you I heard someone on NPR mention Big Wave Dave's the other day. I can't remember why.

Janet said...

Just watched the pilot and I kept seeing David Morse as Neil Patrick Harris and Adam Arkin as David Schwimmer. I had a hard time shaking it.

I would like to see the rest of the episodes? Are they available.

Joey C said...

I just Googled "tom shales" and "big wave dave's" to see Shales' review, and in the second paragraph of the review I see that "Big Wave Dave's" was aired in the time slot held by—wait for it—"Love and War." Which, as I just (re)read here recently, was the show Jay Thomas went to after he was booted off "Cheers" for his on-air Rhea Perlman comment.

It just struck me as funny how things connect sometimes. At least in my mind.

Joey C said...

I just Googled "tom shales" and "big wave dave's" to see Shales' review, and in the second paragraph of the review I see that "Big Wave Dave's" was aired in the time slot held by—wait for it—"Love and War." Which, as I just (re)read here recently, was the show Jay Thomas went to after he was booted off "Cheers" for his on-air Rhea Perlman comment.

It just struck me as funny how things connect sometimes. At least in my mind.

John Leader said...

What a great story, Ken.
I was a fan of "BWD's" that summer. Probably saw every episode. And this was BEFORE DVRs, so you know I liked it.
Kurtwood Smith as Jack Lord? Perfect.

Anonymous said...

Well, my curiosity is aroused -- to Joey C (or anyone else) just what was the on-air comment that Jay Thomas made about Rhea Perlman that got him fired from Cheers? The whole story, please!

Greg said...

Friday Question:

Your opinion of the blown call that caused Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game?

Should the call be reversed, or does this open up Pandora's dugout?

Greg said...

Oops, change "caused" to "cost" in my Friday Question above!

Anonymous said...

For Anonymous @ 10:20 regarding the Jay Thomas thing - I Googled and found the answer from this very blog:

A few episodes of recurring bliss and then one day on Jay’s radio show a caller asked him what it was like to be on CHEERS? He said something to the effect of “It’s brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.” Well, guess who happened to be listening.

By Ken Levine said...

I absolutely feel Bud Selig has to reverse that horrible call and award Galarraga the perfect game he deserves.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

What a funny, funny show AND cast! It reminds me why I liked sitcoms in the first place. It really just kicks ass! People are always amazed and slightly judgmental when they see their favorite "Doctor show" stars, back when they could blow the doors off of a well written comedy scene! Thanks for the look back, Ken. You'd be hard pressed to find a multi camera show today with that kind of nuanced comedy and dialog.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

By the way, Galarraga was just given a 2010 Corvette Convertable form Chevy! He'll end up with more pub from the missed call than had he actually got the PG. The 24 hour news cycle just spun him through the weekend and beyond. I know, but still...

Gridlock said...

So the umpire's decision is final, except when it's not?

That's just not cricket..

Janet said...

My associations were strictly based on physical appearance. Doesn't the baby faced David Morse look like NPH with the same face shape and hair line/hair cut? And the Arkin/Schwimmer resemblance is striking on a tiny laptop screen.

Anonymous said...

I watched the pilot. Don't know if I would have come back for Episode 2. Seemed like 3 dopes and a smart chick but first impressions are often wrong. It certainly had a strong cast.

Max Clarke said...

I expect Selig to reverse the call and award the perfect game. It's a powerful move, it's the right thing to do, it's a transition to instant replay, and it will keep the journalists from forever calling him Bud Luddite. You know, that new beer.

They're just building up the drama for the reversal.

Eric Wheeler said...

Ken, I have a question about blogging. I know it doesn't match the topic at hand but I see that you are using and it directs it to the blog. I noticed on Blogspot that you can get a domain name for $10.00 a year and it will direct your domain name to the blog. Is this what you did? If so do you also have to buy web hosting space?

Ben Kubelsky said...

I recall reading about two other shows for which the producers demanded no network interference and no notes: "Saturday Night Live" and "Hill Street Blues." What a pair of train wrecks!