Friday, September 02, 2011

Inside TV questions

Hello from New York. Is there anything better than Labor Day weekend in Gotham? Here are this week’s Friday Questions and answers.

DyHrdMET gets us started:

I was watching a rerun of CHEERS on TV the other day and it was an episode with what I guess you'd call a "recurring character" - not a series regular, but someone with many appearances over the 11 year run of the show (it was Ma Clavin returning to Boston for a visit and Cliff not letting her stay with him).

How do you write and produce those episodes with regards to the actor/actress guest starring? Do the writers pitch the idea and write it and hope the producers can get the necessary guest star(s) that week to tape the show? Or does it get written and put in the drawer until the guest star has an opening in their schedule? Or does the guest star come knocking on the door of the show's offices looking for work and the writers room has to create a storyline on the spot?

Usually someone in the writers room will spark to a story idea that involves that character. We’ll have the casting director immediately call that actor’s agent and check on his availability. Assuming he’s still interested in playing that character we’ll get an idea of when he’s free. Sometimes there may be a small window if say he’s committed to a play in New York or on location filming a movie. If we know he’s available for three weeks in October we’ll try to plan accordingly. If his schedule is open we tell the agent to keep in touch. You’d be surprised how fast open schedules close up.

Another option is re-casting if you have your heart set on doing a show with that character but the actor is not available. This doesn’t happen often but I can give one example of it. From CHEERS. For the part of Gary, Sam's bar rival, Joel Polis played him originally. But when we needed a Bar Wars episode that was locked into a specific date and Joel wasn’t available, Robert Desiderio was hired. From there we bounced back and forth between the two depending on availability.

From Chris:

On YES, DEAR the first aired episode was written by Greg Garcia and Alan Kirschenbaum, the show's creators, so it seemed pretty obvious it was the pilot, but its production code was 109, the second episode had the 101 production code and it was written by two other writers.

How do production codes get assigned and how does that work?

Quite often pilots have different production numbers. It’s grouped with other pilots that studio is producing that season. Once it goes to series and has its own license fee it gets assigned a different sequence of numbers. You may the only person in the world who made note of YES DEAR production code discrepancies.

From another Chris -- Chris G:

What was at the top of the stairs that led into Cheers? Did the stairs ever present any issues in terms of blocking, timing, actors spraining ankles, etc.?

You mean the stairs that led up to Melville’s? Nothing. A wooden platform and another staircase that dropped you off backstage. To my knowledge there were no mishaps. We did have an episode where the Coach falls down the stairs but we used a stunt person to do the tumble.

Jim S asks:

How did Grant Tinker pick shows? It seems that he took NBC from last to first in about 10 minutes, supporting shows that were excellent, but no popular right off the bat, shows such as Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and picked winners that changed the course of TV. Sitcoms were considered dead when Cosby hit the air.

Was it he had faith in his judgment? Or did he know how test better?

Grant did have faith in his judgment, stood by his decisions even when ratings weren’t initially favorable, and he surrounded himself with the best creative people in the business – the best writers and producers, and the best network president in Brandon Tartikoff.

And the big key is that Grant left you alone. He created a nurturing atmosphere where people could do their best. The result? The work was more inspired and the best people wanted to bring their projects to NBC because of the environment.

It’s a formula that worked for him at MTM and worked again at NBC. And remember, when he took over NBC it was a mess. Within a few years it was back to being number one along with cleaning up at the Emmys.

I know what you’re saying: Then why don’t network presidents follow that formula today?

Why indeed.

What’s your Friday question (besides the one above – for which there is no good answer)?


Tim Dunleavy said...

Ken - you'll want to read this long but thoughtful tribute to CHEERS from Michael Schur, showrunner on PARKS AND RECREATION. Hey, he even mentions you!

gottacook said...

Did you ever work with Frances Sternhagen on a Ma Clavin episode, and if so, how was she to work with?

I saw her in the original production of On Golden Pond with Tom Aldredge, in 1979, and have been a fan ever since - I even liked her as Carter's grandma on ER, a onetime TV institution that seems to have receded into the distance awfully quickly.

Curt Alliaume said...

Grant Tinker had the knack of picking good shows for a long, long time. Merv Griffin once sent me an e-mail (I was on a game show newsgroup; he lurked and wrote to the people who didn't seem too goofy) that when he staged a runthrough of "Jeopardy!" for Tinker and Jerry Chester back in 1964, Chester told Griffin he was dubious the show could work over the long haul, while Tinker was jumping up and down behind him shouting, "Buy it! Buy it!"

Curt Alliaume said...

Whoops -- not Jerry Chester, Mort Werner.

*tarazza said...

I've been doing a big Cheers re-watch on Netflix and coincidentally just watched that episode where Coach throws himself down the stairs to get the girl. Great episode!

GregN said...

Tim D:

Read that piece last night and was going to post the link too.
A MUST read!


bettyd said...

Weren't there two stairs in Cheers - one that goes from the street, and the one on the side that goes up to the restaurant?

The staircase I am thinking of is in the final shot of the series when someone comes down and knocks on the door. That was from the street, I thought.

Maybe I am remembering wrong.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Betty: I would think Ken's answer is true for BOTH staircases.

Curt: You're right, Grant Tinker's gift for picking good shows developed early. In a MT&R seminar included on the GET SMART box set, Leonard Stern said that after that series' pilot script had been rejected all over Hollywood (including at ABC), Tinker was the first executive to like the script. It was Tinker who put the show on track at NBC.

DaveMB said...

Tim Dunleavy -- thanks for the pointer to the excellent nymag article. Here's another version of the link, as yours didn't work for me:

Michael Schur on Cheers

emily said...

Tim's link should read:

Breadbaker said...

I would think Ken Levine would know Michael Schur by his alter ego, Ken Tremenous. Perhaps that's a shoutout to Ken himself.

Matt Tauber said...

Ken -
The "Movin' On Down" episode of "The Jeffersons" is scheduled for 5:30PM EST, 9/5 on TVLAND.

Mike Schryver said...

Also, the way I remember it, NBC's worst-to-first climb wasn't quick at all. It took at least 4 or 5 years.
There were a lot of interviews where Tinker and Tartikoff had to defend their programming approach, always insisting that viewers would eventually catch on. This eased up once Cosby came along.

birdie said...

St. Elsewhere and Family Ties were the two other critics darling shows that struggled in the ratings pre-Cosby, but that Tartikoff Tinker et al fought to keep on the air. Ironically, my favorite seasons of FT were before the ratings skyrocketed.

I used to love all the old SNLs where they would take major jabs at Fred Silverman. I'm not a big Al Franken fan but his Limo-for-Lamo bit was scathing and hilarious. Can you imagine having your best show be Diff'rent Strokes?

I remember a NYMag article around 1985 that basically said what Ken is saying: the positive, nurturing environment encouraged people to send their best scripts (Cosby, Golden Girls, etc) to NBC, and the rest is history (well, at least until Jeff Zucker came along). In short, long term strategy and concentrating on quality paid off. But my impression always has been that it was Tartikoff, more so than Tinker, who was really instrumental in turning the network around. In fact, wasn't it Tartikoff who came up with the Miami Nice/Golden Girls concept? Thoughts? Ken....?

Now, the real question is...who was responsible for the casting of Emmy-award winning actress Jackee?:)

Johnny Walker said...

There's another option I know of, that Ken didn't mention: Change the character. Sometimes if there's a show idea involving a particular character, and that actor isn't available, they'll go with a different character/actor that IS available.

For example, I know that in Season 5 of Angel they wrote an episode for Sarah Michelle Gellar. The actress apparently had a death in her family and couldn't make the show, so they re-wrote the script, but keeping the same idea, and used a different character/actor that was available (in this case Charisma Carpenter).

Maybe those are especially unusual circumstances, though?

jbryant said...

I read the Schur interview yesterday, too, and I agree it's a must-read for any Cheers/Ken fan (though I believe it's the interviewer who mentions Ken, not Schur).

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker, could you give details of that Angel recasting?

I think you are referring to a different episode that centered around Buffy, but they just cut her appearance out.

It doesn't make any sense with the plot. Charisma Carpenter had to play the role she played in her episode, Buffy couldn't play that part, not just for that episode, but the season arc changes if you take Charisma out of that episode.

The whole final season was probably meant to be two or three seasons, but they had to compress it once they were cancelled.

Paul Duca said...

"Mess" isn't the half of it...I read a book called "The Season" that studied TV as it was during that year (1983-84). The author stated that between the growth of cable and the network's own problems, he flatly predicted that NBC would be out of business within a few years. Ironically, he only mentioned COSBY and MIAMI VICE

benson said...

Speaking of great Cheers episodes, (long time fans of this blog will appreciate this) Reelz ran the Albania episode tonight.

Roger Owen Green said...

From HERE: In 1983 none of NBC's nine new shows was renewed, and the network received low consumer ratings for the third year in a row. Some sources attributed this decline to poor management and a mishandled budget. The network quickly replaced low-rated programming and managed to bring its ratings up to second place by the 1984-85 season, and to number one by 1985.

Johnny Walker said...

Anonymous, that's why they rewrote the episode. Charisma Carpenter and Sarah Michelle Gellar were never intended to share "Guest star" billing.

You can read scriptwriter David Fury talk about him changing the episode for Cordelia when Gellar declined:

Matt Tauber said...

Sorry, TV Land changed the time. The "Movin' On Down" episode of "The Jeffersons" airs 9/6 at 8am (est).

Greg said...

Ken-- the fact that you wrote all the BAR WARS episodes means you and your partner are responsible for my favorite ever line in CHEERS. In the episode where Gary "dies" (via scary holographic Carla head) and Sam refuses to buy that it's not all just a sick prank until after the gang has returned from the funeral... then a newly chagrined Sam quietly shares what a good friend Gary was, how much he'll miss him. Solemn pause, then cue Frasier: "That would have made a better eulogy than 'Get out of there, Gary.'"

It kills me EVERY TIME.

Stephen said...

Do writers submit their scripts to the Emmy voters when they are nominated? I always assumed that the voters based their decision on the script (for technique/form) AND the actual episode (for execution).