Friday, June 10, 2011

Diana Ross as Hot Lips

One of my regular features (actually my only regular feature) is Friday Question Day. You ask. I answer. I try to be right.

Lou H. gets us started:

Ken, on the shows you've produced, did you ever have to do something against your better judgment, such as stunt casting, because of pressure from the network during sweeps?

On the ill-fated AfterMASH there was tremendous pressure to keep bringing back MASH cast members. (We did bring back Gary Burghoff as Radar and that proved to be a series highlight). But at some point you have to live or die with your actual cast.

We got a lot of pressure to bring Loretta Swit back for a guest appearance as Hot Lips. We were totally on board with that but Loretta declined. (She probably watched an episode of the show.) But here’s my favorite part of the story. One of the idiot studio executives said, “Well, just cast somebody else and call them Hot Lips.” Yeah, that makes it a real event. So I suggested he check on Diana Ross’ availability.

What a moron.

Carson wonders:

What's the fastest you've seen or had one of your scripts go from the writing to production to air?

On BIG WAVE DAVE’S for CBS we received no lead time. They wanted the show rushed to summer. I remember an episode my partner, David and I wrote over one weekend. It went into production the next day, was filmed the end of the week, and aired a week later. So from the time we came up with the idea for the story until the finished product aired on CBS was less than three weeks. By the way: it was my favorite episode. You can see it here.

From OneAndAHalfWoman:

For an hour long drama shot in multiple locations the schedule is much harder, correct? Especially if there is one star who is in almost every scene. I'm basing this on some extras I've watched, specifically Veronica Mars. Just wondering.

Yes, it’s much harder. Network hour shows are generally shot in eight days. On cable sometimes less. That means lonnnng hours, often fifteen or sixteen hour days. Hugh Laurie earns his money on HOUSE. So did Kiefer Sutherland on 24. There were times he was probably praying that Jack Bauer got killed.

Not sure this still goes on but I believe it does. The SAG contract requires that you must give an actor twelve hours from when he wraps one day of shooting to when he starts the next. Otherwise, it’s a huge penalty. So to get around that, if there is night shooting, the production staff will schedule it for Friday night since there’s no shooting on the weekend. So an actor might get a 7:00 AM call on Friday morning and work until 5:00 AM on Saturday morning since his next call won’t be until Monday. Imagine doing this for seven months. No wonder House is always cranky and has livers removed needlessly.

And finally, from Michael:

When you were a showrunner, how much input or say did you have in selecting the clothes the characters wore?

Not a lot on MASH. From time to time I got involved but only to make sure the wardrobe was right for the character. I don’t know crap about women’s fashion. Thank goodness on ALMOST PERFECT we had Robin Schiff who (a) was a fellow showrunner, and (b) had great taste. Whenever there was a wardrobe issue we happily let Robin handle it. For me to go up to an actress and start telling her what to wear is like me diving out of an airplane with nothing but a parasol.

Nowadays, like with everything else, the networks are getting more involved in making these calls. I hear on some shows that for every costume change you now have to send photos of the actress in three or four selections and the network picks one. Like I said, I have zero fashion sense, but I’d still rather make my own decisions thank you.

What's your question?  Please leave it in the comment section.  Many thanks.  


Cantara said...

Look, I know you helped create it, but why are you so down on AfterMASH? It was a pretty good show and deserved more time.

Unknown said...

Why do tv stations air Christmas episodes in months of march, may etc, surely since they are reruns they could day part them.

Anonymous said...

Callum - in short, because there's fuck all else on.

I hope this answers your question.

selection7 said...

Callum, having seen it happen (a show I was following skip a seasonal episode), I can say sometimes they do. Obviously sometimes they don't as well, so my guess is there's not that much thought put into it. I prefer they not skip episodes, personally.

ScottyB said...

Every time Ken advises writers to take a joke and make it better, I'm always reminded of the part in one of the Bar Wars episodes where Sam hires an Irish band, which turns out to be an Irish band in the truest sense ("Limey scum, limey scum, I toss a bomb and still they come"). Now THAT is "making it better" genius; how many writers would just stop at bagpipers, maybe?

I do have a question, tho: I seem to recall a "Cheers" episode where a very tall, husky-voiced woman who smoked, like, a carton of cigarettes a day had the hots for I think it was Norm. Who was the actress? She looked like the eastern European equivalent of Kristen Johnston. Anyone know?

Bg Porter said...

What episode(s) that you've written do you think haven't held up well over time? I'm thinking of the episode (written by Burt Prelutsky, not you guys) of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye and BJ spent a heck of a lot of time convincing Radar to not get a tattoo. I can't imagine what my kids would think of that discussion ("why wouldn't they want him to get a tattoo? You're pretty lame for not having a tattoo, Dad...")

te said...

Here's a wacky idea: Pernell Roberts as Trapper John!

Runnin' Monarch said...

Didn't Diana Ross play Hot Lips in The Wiz? There's more to that but I'm suddently too modest say it. Diana was hot, maybe she still is, I'm not sure, I don't watch Oprah. Not often.

Congrats to my fellow Old Dominion alum Jason Verlander for his masterful domination of my M's last night. No team would've done much w/Jason's offerings last night.

When are ya back w/the M's Ken? They need you!

Matt Patton said...

Diana Ross looked very pretty back in 1979, when my aunt took me to see her in concert (I was visiting from out of town). Not a great singer, but that wasn't much of a problem, because she spent most of her time changing costumes.

About a year or so later, I saw Ella Fitzgerald in a free concert in St. Petersburg, FL, where I was then living. As I remember, there was only one costume change, during the intermission. She was not in her best voice, but her worst voice was probably several grades higher than that of the average human being. That was a real singer.

On the other hand, Diana Ross isn't a bad actress. She doesn't look anything like Loretta Swit or Sally Kellerman, but strictly on acting chops, she would have been fine . . .

rob! said...


How do you keep an audience member during a taping from laughing inappropriately during a rare dramatic moment?

In the penultimate episode of Cheers, guest star Sharon Lawrence has a monologue about being a sex addict. Its a very serious scene, and its meant to be--but you can still hear a few nervous titters as she talks, like the audience didn't know they weren't supposed to just be quiet.

Do you prep an audience for a scene like that, or do you just hope someone doesn't ruin a good take by laughing at the wrong time?

Also--yeah, stop knocking AfterMASH so much. I just watched them for the first time (since they originally aired) last year and the show wasn't THAT bad!

Howard Hoffman said...

I'm amazed I never asked you this in person.

It's not much of an issue now since they barely exist today, but who was responsible for the style and design of a show's opening credits? Is it the show's creators or is it farmed out to a third party (with the creators' final approval)? The thought always pops in my head when I see the terrific openings for CHEERS, FRASIER and ALMOST PERFECT (whose swing music was co-opted by MODERN FAMILY).

Andy Ihnatko said...

Your Luis Tiant story made me wonder: how difficult is it to have a character do something badly? Do actors balk at the idea of appearing to be a worse singer, dancer, actor than they are? And is it tough to get someone to be "bad" the "right" way?

I remember the episode of "Frasier" in which Sir Derek Jacobi played a God-awful classical actor. It looked like he was relishing the chance to send up every scenery-chewing Shakespearian he's ever had to work with!

Kevin S. said...

Hi Ken,

I sent this question via e-mail a couple weeks ago and liked the asking on that version better. I'll try to remember what I wrote ...

During the filming of 'Cheers', what was the protocol for making sure all the glassware (mugs, wine & martini glasses) were clean and sanitary for each week's use by various cast members?

VP81955 said...

When you had a guest star whose background was essentially in film, with next to no TV experience, was it difficult to guide him or her through the somewhat different technique of television acting?

Anonymous said...

Sally Kellerman maybe? ;-)

DwWashburn said...

Bg Porter, everytime a see someone with a tattoo, I remember BJ's line "Why would anyone want a permanent picture on their body that they wouldn't be caught dead hanging on their wall."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Levine,

I would be interested to hear your take on the best route to writing for TV. I think most people who are trying realize the traditional route of specs, networking, working towards a writing assistant gig, etc. But I'd be curious as to what your take on the current climate is. Is a spec as worthwhile as it once was? Is it worth working towards a writing assistant gig as those, numbers-wise, are harder to get than a staff job? Is it more worthwhile to put shorts on the internet, do stand-up, or get a play produced? Everyone always talks about the cuspiness of the TV industry, but it seems like the advice given to writers at panels in LA and whatnot hasn't changed all that much.

Mike from Belfast said...

A Friday question: Occasionally you mention Robin Schiff, co-creator of Almost Perfect. Given that you already had a successful partnership with David Isaacs, how did this relationship come about? Was it difficult to work out the new dynamic? Have you worked with Robin since?

Stephen said...

Did you see George Wendt on Wednesday's episode of "Hot in Cleveland"? There was a great Cheers callback when he walked into the bar.