Friday, February 04, 2011

Did anyone get the license to that car?

To help get you in the mood for Super Bowl weekend, here are some Friday questions.

We start with Brad:

My favorite CHEERS mystery: Why did that station wagon drive by the bar every week for eleven years?

Seriously, almost every episode, a stock exterior shot was used with a station wagon passing by the bar while the same people walked by. The shot was also used at the beginning of the opening credits.

There are actually several establishing shots, but a sedan was used in the opening titles.   From time to time we would have a local Boston crew shoot new material. Winter shots, summer shots, night shots, takes where we push in to the bar, takes that are static, with and without traffic, with and without Michael Dukakis; that sort of thing.

We had a fan who was obsessed with these stock shots. He called himself “the Pineapple”. One day he sent to the producers a detailed eight-page hand written chart of which shot appeared in which show and how many times each stock shot appeared. I think he called himself “the Pineapple” instead of using a real name so we wouldn’t call the authorities.

Jen has a question about Sunday’s post on naming characters. Reader John had a similar question, but this is Jen’s:

When you use names of players in a group like that, do you have to clear those names with the players? Or is it okay to let it stand because it's only last names?

Do you ask your friends before using their names, or just assume they'll enjoy the wink and nod?

If the character is shown in a positive light we generally don’t seek permission from the person. But if we give the character unflattering traits and want to use a friend’s name, then yes, we'll clear it with him first. The idea is to salute someone, not use a national television show to embarrass him. I have seen writers do that as a form of revenge against someone they dislike and always thought it was bush league.

David and I were once looking for a name for a girl that Hawkeye once dated.  We took a break and went to a Dodger game.  The girl who threw out the first pitch was named Sandy Falcon.  We thought, "Hey, that works" so we used that.  I'm sure when Sandy Falcon watched the show she was completely floored.  

If you’re just using last names you rarely have to clear them. Unless maybe if the name was Hitler.

One year I was broadcasting for the Tidewater Tides and writing a CHEERS script on a plane flight. One of the players asked if I’d put his name in the script and I said sure. A few months later that episode was going into production and I got a call from the legal department. We couldn’t use that name because there was an actual baseball player who had that name. I said, “I know. I did it on purpose!” I think they still asked us to change it.

Anonymous has left a question on names (which I find somewhat ironic):

Was Lilith from Cheers named after the Lilith from Jewish mythology?

Not to my knowledge.

Ed wonders:

When you're developing a series how many scripts do you have ready to go when you begin putting together the cast? Watched some auditions on DVDs and it seemed like quite a bit of the dialogue was from deep into the first season.

Generally, you only write a pilot episode and the network determines which projects get greenlit based on those pilot scripts. Another brilliant Jeff Zucker innovation was that NBC required a couple of back-up episodes for every pilot. Yeah, it takes three scripts to determine whether a show is a piece of shit.

You begin casting by selecting sections of the pilot and having the actors audition using those. The trouble is, once you’ve heard a scene massacred thirty different ways you forget why you thought it worked it in the first place.

And since you now must bring several actors to the network for each role – even though they’re doing justice to the material – the network hears the same scene fifteen times and it starts sounding stale to them. So when they see the finished pilot they’re already tired of it.

So what we and a lot of other producers do is write new scenes specifically for audition purposes. That way the pilot scenes remain fresh. And it’s not uncommon, if the show gets picked up, to find a place for the audition scenes later in the season.

What’s your question?


Carson said...

I was wondering with email and text messaging, has the way the producers keep in touch with their casts changed? How are the actors and the rest of the crew notified when you will be returning from the summer hiatus, etc? Is there, like where I work, an email address that goes to everyone, like

Phillip B said...

At the risk of being too much a fanboy, in Lilith Needs a Favor, a 2003 episode of Frasier, guest star Brent Spinner asks Lilith directly is she was named for the character in mythology. She denied it too...

But at least Lilith got to be Jewish, and my question for another Friday is about ethnicity in sitcom characters, Is it strictly forbidden or just strongly discouraged?

While many people were complaining that there were no black characters on Happy Days, for example, I was among those wondering how you could portray Milwaukee - then or now - without Polish people. Lenny and Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley were perhaps the most Polish of any characters since the cast of Sgt Bilko -- but it was all subtext.

Can't recall any jokes about Irish Catholics on Cheers, but rich people were usually portrayed as excessively Protestant...

Brad said...

Thanks for answering my question. While I'm (hopefully) not as obsessive as "Pineapple," the repeated instances of that particular shot is something I noticed while re-watching the entire series on DVD over the past year with my wife.

I also noticed that many new exterior shots were filmed during season nine or ten, and with them came a lot of opening teasers filmed outside the bar. Since these were done in Boston, were they all filmed in one marathon session?

How about the scene in which Frasier threatens to jump to his death after Lilith leaves him? Was that shot several weeks before the rest of the episode?

Mike Botula said...

On naming characters. Thanks for explaining that. I have a lawyer-cousin (OK, he's the Black Sheep) who once copied me on a letter he sent to author Tony Hillerman hinting at legal action for using our family name for a sheriff in one of his books. I told cuz that I was happy to see a character named Sheriff Botula rather than some serial killer-rapist-pedophile. Hillerman thought Botula must have been a Navajo name. Not even close. Personally I get a kick out of the inside joke involved.

Mike Botula

David Z. said...

Following up on Brad's question, I distinctly remember the episode where Frasier threatens to jump from the window above Cheers. I was a college student living around the corner on Arlington Street, and I saw the episode being shot. It was Columbus Day Weekend 1992. That episode aired in November, so it wasn't filmed too far in advance.

I watched them shoot for quite a while, hoping as young college acting students do, that the director would look into the crowd, spy me, and say "hey you, we need a guy like you in this scene!"

Apparently, Cheers had more discerning casting procedures...

Kyah said...

Question for you, feel free to pick it up and use it next Friday so I can feel mildly famous.

What do you do on days when you're stuck for jokes, or having an off day?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Can't recall any jokes about Irish Catholics on Cheers,

I don't remember any jokes, but IIRC when Diane was facing off with Councilwoman Janet Eldridge, she suggested that it helped the latter's campaign to have a boyfriend with an Irish name, and I think it came up when Rebecca and Sam were fighting over what name their baby would have. Fanboy? Cheersnerd? Me? Hell no.

I guess considering Lilith was supposed to be a one-shot character with two minutes and five lines, it would have been a bit much to put that much thought into it, but what a perfect name for the character.

Just to build on my nerdery and the ethnicity question, syndicated reruns always cut out one of my favorite Frasier lines ever, when Frasier is explaining why the Sternin-Craines don't celebrate Xmas. IIRC: "Ooh, look out everyone! A fir tree! 5,000 year old religion and Frasier Craine's gonna bring it down with some tinsel and a plastic star!" Perfect delivery by KG.

Jim S said...

Great column as always. I am curious about how decisions are made and you've written extensively on how some, not all, networks suits can make the process of creating a new show every week difficult with their "helpful" suggestions.

I wonder about the other side of the coin. What happens when a showrunner gets a vision of a successful show that just appears bad to everyone else. Heros after the first season comes to my mind as a show that was hurt by its own producers. Can the suits actually save someone from making a huge mistake?

Mike said...

Why did that station wagon drive by the bar every week for eleven years?

I like to think it was Norm's designated driver.

As for The Pineapple, and I say this with the deepest of sincerity, thank God for the Internet so people with that type of energy and dedication don't go unnoticed by the world at large anymore. They may have a niche audience, but at least there's some place for it now.

Tim W. said...

Funny, I named one of my daughters Lilith and the most common comment is "Like on Cheers?". And no, we didn't name her after Lilith on Cheers, but after the Lilith that apparently appears in the Gnostic Gospels as the first woman.

VP81955 said...

Darn, I was hoping Lilith was named for the 1964 Warren Beatty-Jean Seberg movie of the same name, part of which was filmed in Rockville, Md., where I formerly lived. In fact, I frequently passed the lodge used in the film, a building that unfortunately burned down a few years ago before it was to be converted into housing.

D. McEwan said...

I bought the first season of BURKE'S LAW on DVD, and could hardly help noticing that every single time Amos Burke's Rolls Royce squad car pulled into Parker Center, the exact same motorcycle cop rode out of the driveway past him. It gave the series a timeless quality, since every case took place at the exact same time. It's weirder than Lost.

charlotte said...

I have a Friday question about music usages on television from a script-writing standpoint:

M*A*S*H provided my first acquaintance with songs like "You're the Top" and "Stormy Weather" and other tunes sung in whole or part by the show's characters, either in passing or sometimes even as a very significant story point, like "Sentimental Journey." I've always heard how expensive it is to license music or even just a song's lyrics for use in a TV show. Were you & the other M*A*S*H writers ever constrained by the cost of music/lyrics? Did you ever put music uses in your 1st draft scripts that you were told to cut for cost? Was this not as much of an issue back in the 70s? Or was M*A*S*H maybe just such a tremendous hit that it was in a class by itself and you didn't have to worry so much about the cost of writing song uses into your scripts as other shows at the time might have? Was it a similar situation in the 80s on CHEERS? I remember Norm and Cliff singing "Lollipop," a drunken Rebecca singing "We've Got Tonight," and the whole gang busting out the theme song to "The Magnificent Seven." Did you & the other writers have to fight to get the music uses you wanted in your scripts approved, or were your producers always pretty open to spending money on having characters singing bits of songs (since the TV series you were writing them into were such huge money-makers overall)?

Thanks, Ken, for answering this if you can get to it and for all the time you put into blogging here for us. :)

DyHrdMET said...

I'm watching an old episode of Cheers that you had co-written and co-produced (it says it's from 1982), with good banter between Carla and Diane. Was there a character, or a pair of characters together in all of your television experience that you enjoyed writing for and and a character/pair that you found it the most difficult to write for?

DyHrdMET said...

and let me ask one more - How'd you get into Baseball broadcasting?

Anonymous said...

are you being sarcastic about that stuff about needing 3 episodes to know if the show is good or not? I think it's a good idea, since a lot of shows go downhill after the pilot

John said...

Ok another name question relating to Lilith: the actress / actor (where do you stand on that btw) was called Bebe which was also the name of Frasiers agent - was that a deliberate connection?


Eric L said...

I have a question about Mash regarding Radar. Did he in fact have ESP or some other psychic abilities or is he just really good at his job and anticipating what's coming next?

If he was psychic was there ever any explaination or insight given as to how or why he had these abilities? It seems to be such a big part of his character but I don't recall it ever being explored.

David K. M. Klaus said...

I have a recollection of reading an interview with Bebe Neuworth in which she said she loved the name Lilith because of the Hebrew religious associations -- it was a powerful name, and it helped her with her characterization of Lilith as a powerful woman.

So even if you didn't intend that association as such, evidently she took that from the name and used it in her performance.

scottmc said...

This evening I remembered a particular comic scene where a character's wife is enlisted into the scheme. I then spent another twenty minutes trying to recall what show it was from. Finally I realized that it was a scene from MASH where Hawkeye asks Potter to ask Mrs. Potter to help them in some stateside plan. And it occured to me that Mrs. Potter's name was able to be turned into a character joke; as in if Mrs. Potter married Hawkeye she'd become 'Mildred Pierce'.

Steven W said...

Ken, for your next "Friday Questions":

In your recent column, "Natalie Deserves Better than this", you say:

"The big studio decision makers (most of whom are in the 50’s or 60’s and live in gated communities)..."

QUESTION: What's life REALLY like for studio execs who live in these Hollywood gated communities?

Unknown said...

To Brad's comments about the"station wagon" in the opening credits, Brad you are not very observant, that's a Mercury Grand Marquis not a station wagon, or as we Yankee's call it a beach wagon, it's a 4 door sedan, in fact I was in Boston that day, that's my car. I thought the camera crew was a news crew. Wish I could get royalties. Signed: Brocktonian in cogneto

Anonymous said...

Doesn't look like a Grand Marquis to me...