Friday, February 11, 2011

Network interference

TGIQAAD – Thank God it’s Questions and Answers Day.

From Jim S:

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. Heroes 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?

That’s what networks point to – examples like HEROES. They’ll argue that if they aren’t around to steer the show in the right direction it will go off the rails like HEROES. And in fairness, sometimes they’re right. But more often than not the showrunner has a better grasp on the show he’s writing than executives who have never written a show. And most network notes are of the “safe” variety. Make the characters more likeable. Spell things out over and over again.

Rarely will you hear a network say to a producer, “Take a bigger chance. Really go for it.” They’re usually nervous whenever a showrunner wants to do something very bold. But again, to be fair, just because an idea is bold doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. And networks have a big financial investment in these shows now.  I imagine there are instances when they save shows from taking really bad turns. I just hate to admit it.

Kyah wonders:

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

It depends. If you’re on a show and you have to complete the rewrite that night you just suck it up. Take a few breaks. Start riffing on other subjects. Once everyone is laughing, even if it’s over something horribly inappropriate, you start feeling funny again, and the jokes for the actual show start to come.

If you’re just writing a script and you’re not up against a deadline crunch, then just walk away for a few hours.

Relax. Sometimes a way to jump start your brain is to watch some funny videos or a movie you find particularly hilarious. VOLUNTEERS springs to mind for some reason.  Read humorous essays (or blogs, hint hint), go to a comedy club, listen to the comedy channels on XM. Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch Kathleen Madigan.

For me, a great help has always been improv class. Teachers like Andy Goldberg can help you free up your mind, learn to be spontaneous, and all the while you’re having fun.

Finally, this is one of the reasons why it’s good to write in teams. One partner can carry the load on a day the other is just feeling dry. When I write with David Isaacs, often I find that there are days when he’s particularly hot or I’m particularly hot. I really love it when he’s hot.

Every writer is different and every writer develops tricks that seem to help him. But recognize that there are days your mind is molasses. That's normal, it happens to everyone, so just roll with it the best way you can.

Phillip B has a question about ethnicity.

Is it strictly forbidden or just strongly discouraged? At least Lilith got to be Jewish

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...

You mean they aren’t?

Certain groups go in and out of favor. In the ‘70s Jews were fashionable. You could have a character like Rhoda. Now I suspect you’d have a hard time getting that character to star in a network sitcom. Of course, in this case, it might be Fran Drescher who killed it for all Jews.

I used to love how Jason Alexander’s character in SEINFELD was so clearly Jewish but they gave him an Italian name. Same with Doris Roberts on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. I don’t care that her name was Barone. That was the most Jewish mother on TV since Nancy Walker played Rhoda’s mom.

I know it’s not an ethnicity, but for a long time you rarely saw gay characters. Now they’re in vogue. The Irish Catholics’ day will come.

And finally, Anonymous has a question. Please leave your name.

Do you feel that syndication and the associated editing to put in ad space is killing reruns? I'm specifically wondering about Becker. I used to think it was very good, one of the few shows I made appointments to watch. Now I watch it and find it not funny, with characters issuing one-liners that make no sense why they would say that. I'm wondering if maybe there's been some stuff edited out.

That’s the Faustian contract you make when you go into syndication. The studios and hopefully the creators make a lot of money. But the shows are hacked up to fit in more commercials. Actually, I don’t think BECKER has been that severely compromised. Certainly not as bad as some.

On MASH it’s a different story. Because we had two to three storylines going in every episode and there were a multitude of small scenes, sometimes the edited-for-syndication versions make absolutely no sense. Set-up scenes are gone and you have no idea why characters are acting the way they are. I believe the Hallmark Channel restored them to their original lengths. If so, thank you. The best way… no, the ONLY way, to see MASH is to watch the DVD’s.

What’s your question?


dgwphotography said...

As someone who was raised by an Italian mother who was born and raised in Brooklyn, I always saw Marie Barone as the typical Italian mother.

When it comes to Italian, and Jewish mothers, especially in NY, the upbringing is the same - only with different side dishes.

Craig Edwards said...


Now that's funny! Great blog as always, Mr. Levine! Thanks for posting it!

David said...

Not exactly a question, but speaking of edits for syndication... I caught "Cheers" on ReelzChannel last night, and I was stunned -- because they ran the entire musical intro. I hadn't realized how accustomed I'd become to seeing truncated opening titles in syndicated versions of shows, presumably so the channels can squeeze in more commercials. It was downright luxurious to see and hear the whole thing.

John said...

Just following up on the syndication question -- back in the days when stations were sent the shows on film, it was pretty much up to the local station to decide where to cut out the segments to add the extra commercials. Since the shows went to video, they've been pre-edited, with the cuts being made before they're sent out to the stations.

Under the new system -- especially on shows still in production that go into syndication -- does anyone actually involved with the show actually get to say where the cuts are made? Or does Vinnie running the digital editing machine down in the basement decide what 2-3 minutes of show should be hacked out? (How Fox handled the edit selections on the M*A*S*H episode where Henry leaves Korea makes me sure that Vinnie had to be making decisions for the studio on that one).

Brad said...

Speaking of MASH on DVD, do you prefer to leave the laugh track on, or do you turn it off?

Personally, I"m a "no laugh track" guy. It reduces the cheese factor, and it's supposedly the way Larry Gelbart originally wanted the show to be aired.

Amanda said...

I have a question for next Friday: I've always wondered, when you have a comedy scene that's getting a big laugh, do the cameramen ever laugh hard enough to ruin the shot? If that happens too many times, do the cameramen keep their jobs?

Anonymous said...

Syndication editing ruined one of my favorite gags from "The Office."

Michael is eating tiramisu while on speakerphone with his boss, and chocolate powder goes down the wrong pipe and he has a choking fit. He apologizes, explains what happened, then absent-mindedly has another bite of tiramisu and has another choking fit, apologizes, etc.

In syndication, the second (or maybe first) choking bit is cut, so there's just one. Which is OK, but the idea of doing something dumb and then upping the dumb by doing it again, right away, really got me laughing the first time.

Mike Doran said...

I don't claim to be an expert on the ethnicity of names, and I was never a regular watcher of Seinfeld.

Was it ever established that the Costanza family was Italian?

Years ago, I read an interview with Art Metrano, a comedy actor who was all over TV at the time. He mentioned that many people thought Metrano was an Italian name, but in fact it was Sephardic - Mediterranean Jewish.

Couldn't that be George Costanza's background?

Just askin'.

gottacook said...

The most aggravating trim-for-commercials that I've seen recently was a movie, not a TV episode: My family and I happened to be watching Fargo while having brunch a few weekends ago, and I slowly realized that the entire Mike Yamagita story thread (the initial phone call, the meeting in Minneapolis, and the aftermath wherein Marge learns Linda Cooksey isn't dead after all) had been excised! And this was an Oscar-winning screenplay that received such treatment...

WV: "facts" - why, yes, they are important. Get the facts!

Cap'n Bob said...

Were there ever any plans to publish a Crane Boys Mysteries series?

Having lived in NY I can say without fear of contradiction that Jewish mothers and Italian mothers are cut from the same cloth. Loved the "different side dishes" comment.

te said...

East Indians seem to be in vogue these days; generally the women are gorgeous, and the men talk with "funny" accents.

Lenny Kosnowski was certainly Polish; not sure about Andrew Squigman. Maybe the writers were trying to avoid specifically Polish jokes?

Marshall Brodien said...

I thought Barney Miller did a good job of presenting an interesting and funny cast of characters that happened to be ethnically diverse--without forcing the issue or having the "token guy." You know, the bland character that doesn't have much personality and is interchangable with any actor. The TG usually gets the type of thankless exposition dialogue often voiced onstage by two maids. The TG inevitably has the "B" story.
I wondered about "Taxi." Jeff was the only recurring African American character and he really had no lines. Were there no black cabbies?

Marshall Brodien said...

I do have a Friday question... Orson Wells got started in radio, a background that influenced his film work in terms of editing scenes and dialogue.
Jess Oppenheimer wrote for radio's "My Favorite Husband" prior to "I Lovey Lucy"and used some situations first devised for that show in the early days of "Lucy."
And of course there is Ryan Seacrest who started in radio before "Idol."
Unlike Welle or Oppenheimer, radio from your Beaver Cleaver days wasn't scripted (but I am sure you have to script bits, etc). Did you call upon your radio experience as a TV/scriptwriter and if so, how?

Bindlepritz Fuchenzimmer said...

My Friday question is, why are you so insistent on leaving names?

"Anonymous" is just as good as "BigFan" or "LoveCheers", etc.

mp said...

@Mike Doran- at some point Frank Costanza said that it always bothered him that he couldn't become President since he was born in Italy. There was also an incident with a picture from Tuscany that he thought showed his cousin Carlo.

Paul Duca said...

Not a question, but a disconcerting fact you should know, in time for TV Land's next airing of The M*A*S*H Olympics" episode (Wednesday 5:30 AM ET). You have Klinger bringing in the flame to light the games' official bedpan. I saw a TV show that said the event of a runner bringing the Olympic flame from Greece to light a brazier at the stadium was the brainchild of the Nazi planners of the 1936 Berlin games.

On a happier note, the Brazilian Supreme Court has just appointed its first Jewish judiciary....his name is Luiz Fux.

John G said...

I just watched "Play it again, Sam" for the first time and couldn't place why I recognized the scene when Linda and Dick brought Sharon to Allan's home. Then I remembered I saw it on your blog! I enjoyed the scene so much I used the same YouTube clip in a review I wrote.

Since this is a Friday's questions post, I have a "Cheers" question for you.

I read the following in the book, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists":

"For example [of doing research when writing], the writers for Cheers supposedly hung out in bars and wrote down conversations they'd overhear. This is partly why, I suspect, the dialogue in that show always sounded so spot-on."

How much truth is there to this, Ken?

Thanks for the great blog!

goodman.dl said...

As a commenter above suggested, I actually know a Costanza family. They're Jewish and of Portuguese ancestry.

Curt from Naperville said...

I will say that Friends made it pretty clear Ross and Monica were Jewish -- once or twice of the 200+ episodes they taped.

Shinwell Johnson said...

On the topic of "most aggravating trim-for-commercials," I offer the example of what a local station did some years back to the syndicated "Republic Night at the Movies" series. This was a package of feature films, serials, and short subjects from Republic Pictures, with each installment running two hours. The station I have in mind ran it at 10:30 in the evening, and went off the air after that. I guess that overtime kicked in at midnight, or maybe the last guy left at the station wanted to get home early, because the program invariably ended before 12:00. A lot of the episodes consisted of double features of B Westerns, and in those cases the second movie was never shown. In other episodes, the second hour was padded out with serial chapters or shorts, and these were invariably omitted. Well, that was annoying, but not really bad. However, sometimes a single movie filled the entire two hours--and in that case, the station simply cut out whole reels, apparently at random. One example is especially vivid in my memory: The hero is underwater, examining a sunken ship. The villains trap him under some debris, and then cut his air hose. We get a close-up of his face as he gasps for breath while struggling to free himself. There is then a commercial break. The movie resumes... and the hero is jumping out of an airplane that is about to crash. The whole underwater episode is not mentioned again.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Great questions and answers, as always!

Brad said...

What about edited-for-syndication episodes appearing on DVDs? The series finale of CHEERS ("One For The Road") is basically the three parts in the syndication package "Frankensteined" together. There are about three minutes missing from the episode on the DVD.

I can understand the need for music edits and replacements (while I don't like them), but this is baffling.

YEKIMI said...

Why is it that when the take successful movies and convert them to TV, for the most part, they tend to fail? M*A*S*H* is one of the few off hand that I can think of that made the transition. But others like "Kiss Me Guido", "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" etc. fall flat and are sentenced to oblivion. It seems they flop whether they have the original cast from the movie [or most of them] or completely new people for the TV show. Inquiring minds want to know!

YEKIMI said...

and from [it was more fun to read when it was a magazine]... what do you think of this?

Maureen said...

Re cuts for syndication, the syndicated version of Sex and the City showing on E! is cut differently than the version that aired on TBS. I'm talking about entire scenes being cut or put back in, so I'm thinking it's Vinnie in the basement as opposed to the syndicator. And you're right about M*A*S*H, Ken. The first time I saw an uncut episode on DVD I realized that even though I'd seen every episode dozens of times, I was seeing some of the scenes for the first time in 30 years. They're much better in their entirety.

And, Ken, I love this blog. I'm sure it take a lot of time to maintain, and it's free, and I just want to thank you.

ttv said...


perhaps you are correct. I already read that article but forgot the name of the persons who are involved.

Buttermilk Sky said...

gottacook, speaking of Oscar-winning screenplays, I was watching ALL ABOUT EVE on ThIS, god knows why, and they cut for commercials right in the middle of the hotel room scene between Anne Baxter and George Sanders. Never again.

Was Max Klinger originally supposed to be Jewish? Klinger isn't really a Lebanese name. I always assumed the character was re-written over time to accommodate Jamie Farr's background, but it was too late to change the name. Ken?

Anonymous said...

Is it not possible to be both Italian and Jewish, one is a nationality and the other is a religion.

Anonymous said...

Not that you asked, but I'm hiking in Malibu Creek State Park tomorrow and I'll be thinking of you out in M*A*S*H* land!

Craig Russell said...

It seems the earlier MASH's cutting was more haphazard, as evident on "Adam's Rib's" when an entire scene with a whole character was cut out (Still listed in the credits, however) Almost like the Movie, when Ho John dies and the only reference to it is the poker playing scene when a jeep drives away with a covered up body.

And on the Hallmark Channel...they made a big deal about running the unedited versions of episodes, but that was only for their first run through, and on special marathon weekends (Memorial Day, etc) HC hasn't actually run MASH since February 2010...Now it's Martha Stewart and Golden Girls...yawn...

benson said...

On the nationality topic: When I was much younger and really full of it (as opposed to now, how?)I got into a raging debate with my folks over the then current Sec. of Treasury (under Carter) W. Michael Blumenthal, who was born in China. This, I said, obviously made him Chinese.

Shinwell Johnson said...

Yekimi: Most shows of EVERY kind flop. I doubt that the average is any worse for TV adaptations of movies.

Verification word: "gumshi." An easily embarrassed detective.

Shinwell Johnson said...


One could also draw lists of shows that were not really hits but lasted too long to be called flops, such as PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES and PETROCELLI, or of shows that clearly were based on movies though no credit was given, such as HUNTER (from DIRTY HARRY) and WALKER TEXAS RANGER (from LONE WOLF McQUADE), but who has the time for that?

To forestall a quibble: THE DUKES OF HAZZARD was indeed a movie adaptation, the movie being MOONRUNNERS. That gives us a rare example of a movie that was adapted into a TV show, which was then adapted into a movie.

Verification word: "disamm." What a gumshi does to his opponents when he draws first.

Shinwell Johnson said...

Okay, this is beside the point, and I really have to stop this, but I just remembered the most successful example of an unacknowledged adaptation, and I feel compelled to mention it: BONANZA, which bears too strong a resemblance for coincidence to the film BROKEN LANCE. That film is in turn was a Westernized remake of the Edward G. Robinson vehicle HOUSE OF STRANGERS, but it also borrowed more than a little from KING LEAR.

So, you see, BONANZA is really KING LEAR. Ben is Lear, Adam is Goneril, Hoss is Regan, Little Joe is Cordelia, Candy is Edgar, and Hop Sing is the Fool. I am sure someone out there can get a thesis out of this.

Maureen said...

Craig Russell: Vinnie in the basement (thanks, John!) caused one of the stupidest trivia obsessions of my life. About 10 years ago I was watching a chopped version of Adam's Ribs. Hawkeye and Trapper said they were going to talk to Major Pfeiffer. Unbeknownst to me, Vinnie deleted the entire Pfeiffer scene, and in the "next" scene, they were visiting a sergeant they didn't call by name (unless Vinnie chopped that part too). So naturally, I assumed that was Pfeiffer.

"Pfeiffer" looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. I was sure he was a younger version of some actor I currently see, and I wanted to know who. The credits said Pfeiffer was played by Basil Hoffman, who's very recognizable, been in everything, and I knew he wasn't the guy. Hadn't been anywhere in the episode.

Now I was obsessed. I checked books and websites on M*A*S*H episodes, and they all said Hoffman played Pfeiffer. I toyed with the idea that it was another actor listed in the credits, Joseph Stern, but IMDb research showed I'd never seen him before or since, and besides, THEY'D JUST CALLED HIM PFEIFFER! (Sorry, I still get a little emotional when I tell this story.)

I hate to admit this, but I was just about to write a letter to Alan Alda. This is how nuts I got over this stupid thing.

And then, just in time, I got the DVD, and there was Basil Hoffman in an entirely separate scene. Now I knew my story was going to have a very unsatisfying ending.

So I convinced myself Joseph Stern looked familiar because he looks a little like the guy on Petrocelli, and I was able to move on to a more productive life.

There's no question I'm crazy. But that doesn't absolve Vinnie.

Kirk said...

Happy Days probably didn't have any blacks because the show took place in an all-white neighborhood. That's hardly prejudice. That's just the way it was back in the 1950s. Actually, in a lot of places, it's the way it is NOW. Should a work of fiction have more integration than actually exists in real life? I guess if you believe fiction should always depict some desirable alternative reality, which I don't.

I remember an episode of Barney Miller where some guy who believes he's Jesus is arrested. Wojo asks Barney if he thinks it really could be Jesus. Barney replies, "It's not really my area of expertise" And Wojo says "Oh, that's right, you're Jewish!" I'd been watching the show for several years at that point, and that's the first I'd heard that the character was Jewish. The last name Miller certainly didn't give it away.

Joanna said...

What do you make of the self-awareness trend in film? In movies like 'Get Him to the Greek' and 'Funny People', there was an open mockery of how things work in the entertainment industry, namely putting out poor quality music and films all in the name of a profit, with a lot of celebrity participation. (The callback to 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' in 'Get Him to the Greek' was a perfect parody of all the latest hospital dramas.) Except this isn't like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, who's essentially an outsider looking in. You have the people who make bad movies, making fun of themselves for making bad movies, who then make no attempt to change the quality of their work. I'm curious for what your take is on this trend. Is this self-awareness going to be self-destructive for not only the quality of filmmaking in the long term, but also their profits? Do you think there are more celebrities participating in this as a way to let loose in such a tightly controlled industry, or do they take their work (no matter how awful) with deadly seriousness and this is just to not look like a bad sport? (Apologies for length)

Paul Duca said...

And don't forget TV shows that get greenlighted because they resemble hit movies...for example, while it was developed independently, it's safe to say THE BRADY BUNCH was picked up in the wake of the box-office success of YOURS, MINE AND OURS--both being about the escapades of a blended family.

Matt Tauber said...

DVD isn't the ONLY way to watch "M*A*S*H". I've been enjoying them on 16mm for years now.

Anonymous said...

Small note on Heroes: It was fairly common knowledge Tim Kring (creator) intended a different ending to the first season. He planned on the majority of characters being killed off, and a new cast for season two, with just a couple of carry-overs. But NBC, seeing what a hit they had, insisted he bring back all these new, well-loved characters.

The show went downhill from there. Season two was a shadow of the originality and fun of the first season, and it was only a matter of time until the show lost all spark and was canceled.

Ed said...

I imagine it's the networks who force shows to have big name guests spots on shows. Especially hate when they do this in crime dramas, big star comes on for seemingly bit part and you know he's more heavily involved in the storyline and then the show has tipped it's hand on the conclusion of the show. Please tell me show runners aren't this stupid.

And if you'll indulge me another question, what was the craziest storyline the Cheers writers actually considered as a story arc? Cliff/Carla romance/love child? Norm working his way to the top of Lillian?

Aaron said...

Is there a more fun show to write for on TV right now than Community? Fantastically flawed characters, a format that changes dramatically every week, a cast blessed with comedic chops, and an either large or at least effectively spent production budget to back all of that up; is that show the dream destination for TV comedy writers right now?

Gary D said...

As an Irish American, I feel we have been well represented over the years on televison.
Even though there characters weren't Irish, I think Peter Boyle,Carrol O'Connor,John Mahoney and William Frawley, to name but a few,portrayed my irritable, beer guzzling,pallid,bald or balding clan exceedingly well.

Kristi McGee said...

Ken, just discovered your excellent blog. Excuse the lack of timeliness, but had to comment on your mention of Kathleen Madigan on this post. I've watched her SHO special three times now and she is gasp-for-air funny. Hope she breaks out big soon.

Really enjoy your work and your blog!