Saturday, February 18, 2012

Never have a cake when your show is in trouble

Thanks to everyone for your birthday greetings. I had a lovely time and saw Elke Sommers as we waited together for the valet. Today is my lovely wife’s big day. Happy B-Day, Deb! She likes birthdays more than me. But then, I’ve had a couple of work-related celebrations that can best be described as… unfortunate.

First was during the premiere year of CHEERS. The secretaries and P.A.’s were so sweet on that show. They prepared cakes and champagne for everyone’s birthdays. It just so happened that on mine we had a disastrous runthrough… not just a train wreck but one of those Amtrak 200-car pile-ups. We all trudged up to the office (we being me, my partner David Isaacs and Glen & Les Charles) knowing we were in shit shape with this episode. At best we were going to be there until the wee hours.

We start untangling the story, the door bursts open, and there are ten people with my cake. You know how awkward it is when someone sings “Happy Birthday” to you? Imagine that but add your co-workers want to kill you. I know it’s not my fault… but it is. To Glen & Les’ credit, they just fumed but allowed the party to go forward. There are showrunners on other shows (I won’t mention their names) but in a similar situation they would have yelled to the secretaries: “GET THE FUCK OUT!! NOW!!” and then fired me.

I will say this: that cake made a nice snack when we started rewriting the second act… at 2 A.M.

A few years later, David and I created a show for Mary Tyler Moore. On this particular week we had a script in such trouble and received so many extensive rewrites that we decided not to shoot it in front of a studio audience. It was unfair to make the actors learn 40 new pages of dialogue in one night and perform to an audience with only a day’s worth of rehearsal.  Plus, we didn't want anyone storming the stage if the show still sucked. 

So instead, we did a process called “block and shoot”. We filmed all day. The director would rehearse, assign camera moves, then film each scene individually. The process takes about ten to twelve hours.

Filming day was my birthday. Add to that, we had a monsoon. Rain was coming down so hard that it sprung a few leaks in the stage roof. One of them dripped right on Mary’s head when she sat at her desk in the office set. It was the Chinese Water Torture Test. Needless to say, Ms. Moore was not pleased. Workmen were dispatched to the catwalks to plug the leak.  Yes, it was risky and dangerous, but we didn't care.  I never saw them after they set out to fix the leak.  I wonder if they made it. 

All day long we were hearing reports on the radio of flooding and road closures. Everyone was getting progressively worried that they wouldn't be able to get home. Mary’s displeasure over the day’s events set the emotional tone for the day. Our guest-star was former Raider, Bubba Smith. At one point (in discussing the mood on the set) Bubba said to me, “this is like when Oakland goes in to Denver.”

We finally wrapped. All anyone wanted to do was just go home and crash. But just before they left – here comes the cake and champagne and singing secretaries. I didn’t need anyone to kill me. I was ready to kill myself. So for the next ten minutes everyone wolfed down their cake and ran out of the stage. Oh, and Mary can’t even eat cake.

I got in the car. My engine flooded. I had to call AAA, and of course I was not the only one with problems on a stormy night. I think I got home about 3.

So now I look at it that any birthday where I only age one year (instead of two that CHEERS year and four that Mary year) is a good one. This year my birthday celebration went off without incident. My car wasn’t towed until the next night.


Johnny Walker said...

Glad to hear you had a good birthday, Ken.

As I'm blasting through the series at the moment, I was wondering which years of Frasier you worked on, and in what capacity?

It seems really hard to get a good appreciation of the creative force behind a show. Even something as important as "Executive Producer" (which is often the show runner, as I understand it?) is only recognized as a "producer" on the IMDB, not as a writer... I assume because there's plenty of people credited as "Executive Producer" who don't actually do anything.

Likewise I understand that sometimes people come in for one episode of a show, and aren't actually members of the writing staff.

In this day and age of "room written" shows, it seems the creative voice of a given season is likely the show runner and the regular writing staff... and yet it's so hard to discover who these people are!

I'd love a breakdown of MASH, Cheers, and Frasier in this respect. Shame I can't find one anywhere!

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question, if you'd be so kind:

As writers get promoted from Staff Writer to Story Editor, etc. do they get any more responsibilities, or extra "say" in the writers' room? Or is it purely financial/status promotion?

Raj said...

Hi Ken,
Belated Happy Birthday!
I was curious about how the actors in sitcom get paid. I can understand the lead actors who appear in every episode having a fixed contract. But sometimes, the supporting cast appears in just one scene or does not appear at all. How do they get paid in such cases?

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Mary’s displeasure over the day’s events set the emotional tone for the day.... Bubba said to me, “this is like when Oakland goes in to Denver.”

Wow. And that rivalry was nasty back then, IIRC..

Can you tell us what CHeers episode almost crashed? I'm curious as to what the problem was: Plot too complicated, jokes not working or just everybody was cranky 'cause of the weather?

TIm W. said...

I hate my birthday, too. Probably my best birthday ever was when my wife and kids didn't say anything about it all day. I thought they were doing it on purpose because they knew I didn't want to hear anything. Turns out they just forgot. Strangely enough, it didn't bother me.

Cap'n Bob said...

Happy birthday Mrs. Levine.

You didn't say it, but do you think MTM might have set a better mood for that episode with a more positive attitude?

Johnny Walker said...

Raj, I'm no expert, but I believe that regular cast members get paid whether they appear or not, simply because they can't work on anything else, and must be available to the show. For this reason I'm sure there's pressure from those paying their salaries to put the actors to good use.

I'd also imagine, and I could be wrong, that actors are likely to want to appear in each episodes and would get frustrated if they had little to do each week.

Just what I've gleaned over the years of learning about these things. I could be wrong.

Dan Tedson said...

I can see being unhappy water's dripping on your melon. Unhappy enough to send peeps out into a monsoon?... Not so much.

RCP said...

Interesting that both you and your wife are Aquarians, Ken. Although I don't put much stock in astrology, I have read some wonderful things about Aquarians: talented, successful, funny, smart as whips...well, make of it what you will. My birthday is Feb. 15th, but fortunately I have the ability to be totally objective about things.

Breadbaker said...

Ken, happy belated birthday to your lovely wife. I know what you mean about work disasters and birthday. In 1982, I got to work and started handing out invitations to a birthday party my wife was planning for me only to be met with rather surprising regrets. Only to learn that a hostile takeover had been launched against our largest client and I wasn't going home that night either. Since then, I just don't celebrate birthdays at work.

Bob Oscar said...

You know, I once had a star sighting, but it was in the Men's Room at the NAB and I was at the urinal next to was....Casey Kasem...his wife, Jean Kasem, was dutifully waiting outside for him..

To tie this into Ken, Jean played Loretta Totelli on Cheers...

Ernie said...

Friday question (related to this blog post):Have you ever worked all night on an episode and you felt it still didn't work but you had to put it on the air? If so, how do you deal with it? Do you doubledown harder on future episodes, brainstorm, or do you just accept there will be hits and misses as part of doing business?

Raj said...

Thanks Johnny. Yes I remember Jason Alexander once said that he was very upset when Larry David left him out of one episode of Seinfeld.

My question was more regarding characters like Newman for example, who are quite important to the story but do not appear as often.

Johnny Walker said...

Sorry, Raj, I did a bad job of answering your question. In those cases I believe the actors are just hired for the week they rehearse and shoot the show. If they're not available they'll try and work around it (rewrite, etc).