Friday, March 09, 2012

Everybody Loves Radomir

As I prepare to head off to Arizona for Mariners’ spring training, here are this week’s Friday Questions. Will try to add a couple extra Question days in the next few weeks to catch up a little. But still, submit yours in the comments section. And as always – many thanks.

Dennis Johnson starts us off:

Have you seen "Exporting Raymond" and if so, any comments?

I have and loved it. I believe it’s now playing on HBO. This is a documentary of Phil Rosenthal, the creator of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND going to Moscow where Russian TV was developing their version of his show. Phil is just a naturally funny guy, and to watch him deal with his creation being “adapted” for Soviet viewers is a riot. Every change they made was seemingly wrong and even appalling. How did the new version do?   See the movie.  I strongly recommend it.

Meanwhile, I understand they are about to do the same thing with RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, adapt it for Russian TV. Good luck.

Not too long ago Spain did a version of CHEERS that apparently was a flop. Still, I got writing credit on an episode so that should be good for $.03 in royalties!!!

From Helena:

How excited were you when you for the first time heard your words spoken by an actor? Does that become less exciting over time?

It was exciting and brief. The first show my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote was an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. 98% of our draft was changed. But the three lines of ours that did make it were exciting to hear. Two of the three were then cut in editing. Note: We got our MASH assignment based on our draft of THE JEFFERSONS. So somebody liked it.

The next show we wrote that was produced was an episode of JOE AND SONS. I know. You’re saying – “Huh? What the hell was that?” It was a short-lived series on CBS in 1975 starring Richard Castellano (the fat guy from THE GODFATHER) and Jerry Stiller. Maybe 60% of our draft was still in tact and that was definitely a thrill hearing real actors do our lines… and even better – getting laughs with them.

But the real high came watching our first MASH.  95% of the final version was from our script. And to hear Alan Alda, Harry Morgan and the rest of the cast perform our material was not just amazing; it was practically surreal.

And to answer your next question: I am just as excited today as I was then to hear my words come to life. I still pinch myself every time. To me, for a screenwriter or playwright that’s the ultimate reward.

Barefoot Billy Aloha asks:

When you create a series idea, is it safer to pick a common-experience setup like military service (MASH) or bar patronage (Cheers)versus a specialty-experience setup like Big Wave Dave's? What's the rationale behind your decision? In other words, what were you thinking? Very few folks have been to Hawaii...but nearly all of us have been in the military and bars...

It’s always good to find a fresh venue, but that wasn’t our objective with BIG WAVE DAVE’S. Like I’ve said in the past, pilots have to be about something. The theme we were exploring here  was a mid-life crisis. Three disgruntled guys approaching 40 (and one wife) decide to chuck it all and move to Hawaii where they feel they will leave their problems behind. In a sense, it was “Wendy and the Lost Boys”. Once in Hawaii they learn, of course, that they can’t escape life’s problems… even in paradise.

We chose a surf shop because we wanted them to take on a task that was indigenous to Hawaii and yet a lot harder than they had imagined.

We shot the show in front of a studio audience. In retrospect, I wish we had done it single-camera and been able to take better advantage of Hawaii.

Michael queries:

Do TV writers retain any sense of ownership in characters they create? For example, are they automatically entitled to compensation if one of their characters is spun-off to a new series, even if they are not involved in the new series?

Yes. And the characters don’t have to be spun-off. They can just become recurring. Writers of the episode that introduced the character make a nominal creation fee. David and I received that on CHEERS for the Eddie LeBec character.

Usually, you have to ask the studio for it. They will NEVER just offer it. You have to remind them of the provision…. And then threaten legal action when they initially refuse.

One more, from Rick Mohr:

Why do the best friends/neighbors never knock on so many shows, the just walk in and the leave the door open the entire time they are there?

They never knock because it takes time for someone to cross to the door to answer it. But I will grant you it is a big cheat. Still, it sure makes Kramer’s entrances on SEINFELD funnier when he can just burst in.

I’m not aware of neighbors leaving the door open, however. Maybe that happens. I just don’t pay attention.

The bigger issue is devising excuses for why the neighbors are coming over.   The best neighbor entrance EVER was Howard on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, Howard barged into Bob’s apartment one time and said, “Hi, Bob. I’m here for no apparent reason.”


*tarazza said...

Interesting. I always notice that on Frasier, Niles always rings the doorbell. It's so unusual in TV sitcoms, especially for a family member to not just barge in, that I think it's a great part of his character-- really emphasizes the importance Frasier and Niles put on etiquette!

Unknown said...

Your versatility is amazing to me. Anyone who can excel at two completely different careers is someone to be admired indeed.

I'm sure you keep the folks in the Mariner's organization entertained. Lucky them.

Tom Quigley said...

“Hi, Bob. I’m here for no apparent reason.”

I don't remember the episode, but I'll bet that was also a great line the writers were able to have Bob Hartley play off of.

Gloria Angell said...

One thing I always notice is that if the main characters are in the living room, the neighbors come in the front door, but if they're in the kitchen, the neighbors come in the back door. HOW DO THEY KNOW??? Psychic neighbors? (examples: Dick Van Dyke show, Andy Griffith show, Everybody Loves Raymond)

Anonymous said...

I can relate to "Exporting Raymond".

Ages ago I worked on a German television show. The brilliant plan was to take a rather unknown, but fantastic British sitcom and adapt it for the German market.

Needless to say it tanked. Then again - not once did the team even watch the original. Not even the director. The cast was horrific. While the original scripts were written by some of Britain's best comedy writers, their german counterparts were written by screenwriting students (because they were cheaper).

After two episodes they pushed the show from prime time to midnight.

Bri said...


Ken, do you ever go out of your way to learn from other talented people's mistakes?

Reason I ask is, I've been watching My Mother The Car on Hulu lately (yeah, I know, I know - I could at least watch Dragnet, or Adam-12), having always heard what a bad show it was, but really? It's not so terrible.

What really surprised me was the brains behind it: Chris Hayward (Get Smart, He and She, Barney Miller - plus he created Dudley Do-Right), Allan Burns, James L. Brooks. Now there's some real talent, who all went on to bigger and better things, but here's this show, and it just sort of sits there and does nothing for thirty episodes.

Also? I don't think it's the worst American TV show ever (I would have to lean towards Knight Rider).

Helena said...

Yay, thanks for answering my question!

Andrea said...

I also always notice it when doors and windows get left open like that on various sitcoms. Maybe because I have a cat and always make sure never to let it out. Plus, you know, you don't want to cool or heat the outdoors or invite bugs in...that's my dad talking there. (Oh, and the lack of storm windows on TV show windows is weird to this KC gal.) I had no idea this kind of bugged anyone else. And I loved how Niles always rang the bell!

Raj said...

In an interview Michael Richards said that the way Kramer enters through the door is a metaphor for his character - It's the same way Kramer comes into the lives of other characters, without any preliminaries. And the one time when Jerry and Kramer fight, he actually knocks before coming in!

Kirk said...

I don't remember the Bob Newhart episode, but I can just imagine Bill Dailey--one of the funniest actors who never really became all that famous--saying it. It wouldn't have worked if Peter Bonerz or Marcia Wallace had said the line instead. Of course, they played less off-the-wall characters.

Ubragio mentioned My Mother, The Car. I read that James L. Brooks was originally a writer for the TV news who wanted to get into situation comedy. He met Allan Burns at a party, and pitched a idea for MMTC that Burns used. A couple years later Brooks showed Burns the pilot for a show he had written. Upon reading it, Burns immediately asked to be part of the it. The show was Room 222. While that show only did so-so in the ratings, it captured the attention of Grant Tinker, who was trying to develop a show for his wife, Mary Tyler Moore. The rest is history, and it wouldn't have happened without My Mother, The Car. Maybe they let Jerry Van Dyke do a guest shot on MTM as a way of showing their gratitude.

Andrea mentioned doors and windows being opened on sitcoms without anyone getting cold. Mad magazine once observed that there's no weather on sitcoms except on Christmas Eve, when it suddenly starts snowing like crazy.

cadavra said...

Re JOE AND SONS: Actually, the actor's name is Richard Castellano.

Anonymous said...

On "Big Bang Theory" Sheldon always knocks the exact same way, which is pretty funny. In fact, contrary to most shows, I think almost every character knocks on that show before coming in. Interesting.

Mike said...

I've heard Castellano was dropped from Godfather 2 because he demanded to write his own lines. Is that why Joe Vitale flopped?

MrTact said...

Question: Have you seen the premier of "Awake"? I thought it was a brilliant concept (not to mention well-written and performe), but I question whether it has any legs. It seems more like a feature concept to me, and I'm keen to see how they manage to sustain it for any length of time.

MrTact said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I always laughed at David Landers and Michael McKeans' unannounced entrances on Lavern & Shirley. They were the funniest thing on that show.

Breadbaker said...

Re: Exporting Raymond, have you ever read "Harpo Speaks"? (If not, you should). In a chapter called "Xapno Mapcase: Secret Agent", he tells of being the first artist to go to the Soviet Union after the US restored diplomatic relations in the early 30s and how difficult it was for the Russians to get his act (sans brothers, of course) until some things were added to it that the Russians never explained to him. Suddenly, doing the same things on stage, he was getting incredible laughs. Anyway, highly recommended.

Ace Itthassist said...

You're a bit late for Spring Training, aren't ya? It'll be ok, if you're one of the 2 players WHO CAN HIT!

Don From PR said...

I thought Marlon Brando was the fat guy in "The Godfather"

Unknown said...

We had a German "Married, with children" version 15 years ago.


Oh and on the last "The Good Wife" when Kalinda visited Will and met his sisters she came in and left the door wide open. Really threw me off and I instantly thought about you Ken because you answered the question in the past AND you love TGW :-)

Paul Duca said...

You have to tell us your take on Dick Van Dyke marrying a woman young enough to be his granddaughter...or the fact he spent 30 years with the woman who invented "palimony", Michelle Triola Marvin.

jbryant said...

MrTact: If AWAKE's ratings continue to drop the way they did from first episode to second, they may not have to worry about sustaining the premise.

But I'm with you--I thought it was a great pilot. The end of episode two worries me, however, because it seems to be setting up some kind of conspiracy plot that could make the show even more convoluted.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Some people actually do enter houses like that. When she was growing up, one of my mom's neighbours was a woman named Olivia Chow, who had herself grew up in the Bronx. She would constantly barge into my grandparents' house asking for my grandmother's help or advice on a certain problem.

Then when my mom grew up and met another Asian person, she wondered what was wrong with them.

Anonymous said...

Your mention of the royalty for creating a recurring character reminding me of a screenwriter friend who wrote several episodes of Hill Street Blues, including the episode that introduced Lt. Hunter's dog, a Shar-Pei. He got paid the character royalty for every subsequent episode that featured the dog.

Jon said...

Jess Oppenheimer, who created "I Love Lucy," once sued Lucille Ball Productions, CBS, and Gulf + Western (Paramount's parent company at the time, which had purchased Desilu by then), alleging that the characters of Lucy Carmichael (on "The Lucy Show") and Lucy Carter (on "Here's Lucy") were essentially the same Lucy Ricardo character he had created for "I Love Lucy." His suit argued that while the personal details of the lives of Lucys Ricardo, Carmichael, and Carter were different, they were all basically the same character he had created in 1951. The matter was later settled out of court.

BrigittaV said...

I was never bothered by TV characters just barging into each other's homes. When I was growing up our aunt's family and our family would enter each others homes without knocking. We didn't live all that close to each other, and visits were only on weekends, but we were still close enough that we were comfortable with just going in through the back doors of each other's house. Come to think of it, I recollect a similar lack of formality with college chums. The characters I see on TV are in each other's back pockets all the time so the lack of ceremony between them seems normal.

Tomas Street said...


When writing a pilot / spec script, should one be spending time describing the main characters?
In a pilot they are described in the bible, and in a spec they are implied as being known.

Is it ok to just say
SAM enters and goes behind the bar.
SAM, a late thirties good looking fading athletic type in relaxed clothes, enters and heads behind the bar.

Thanks so much
-Tomas from Toronto

VP81955 said...

If you watch episodes of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," you'll find a few "My Mother, The Car" in-jokes -- it's listed as part of a schedule bloc for WJM, and it's occasionally mentioned in station voiceovers ("coming up next..."). And, of course, Jerry Van Dyke himself guested on an episode.

Interesting feud going on over at Salon, where screenwriter Toph Eggers really lets one of his brethren, Steve Koren, have it for writing the likes of "Jack And Jill" and "A Thousand Words," movies that make his early "Bruce Almighty" look like a Lubitsch creation. Weird to see such dirty laundry being called out in public:

wvs: "drandsme sencessi" -- should have been a utility infielder for the Phillies in the '80s; I would have loved to have heard Harry Kalas call this name.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Along the lines of exported TV shows, I'll just note that British TV for some reason remade the first season of Mad About You under the title Loved By You. John Gordon Sinclair in the Paul Reiser role and someone charmless whose name I've repressed destroying the Helen Hunt role, which should have been played by Kim Thomson, who instead was miscast as Lisa.

They used the identical scripts and it was...exactly as good as the US version of Coupling.

Point that the captchas are not Ken's choice taken. Still a PITA, though.

Tom said...

Neighbors just walking in: When I was about 6, my mother had a friend who would just come in. I have a vague memory of thinking "I know they do that on TV but I've never seen it in real life."

Sid Eisen said...

You probably get tons of fawning e-mail thanking you for your work, asking you to read a spec, or picking apart long-forgotten minutae from your career. I am not going to disappoint you! (Although my specs were buried in the back yard long ago). Here's some questions for you to choose from....

-What prompted the idea for "The MASH Olympics"? Judging by when that episode aired (November, 1977), it was over a year after the most recent real-life Olympic games.

-What was it like writing the "Cheers" episode "Heeeeeeere's Cliffy"? Did you get to meet Johnny Carson? How did the idea come about? He's made so few sitcom appearances (Get Smart, Here's Lucy, Jack Benny, MTM, Newhart, The Simpsons) that he must have known "Cheers" was something special.

-I've noticed that classic, multi-cam shows that didn't have a consistent director (Odd Couple, WKRP, original Bob Newhart Show) seem to be underappreciated. None of those shows scored spectacular ratings or won many Emmys in their day. AITF, MTM, Cheers were much more popular, and had almost their entire runs directed by 2 or 3 people. All of the shows I just mentioned were high quality -- consistent director or not. Is there a connection, or is it just a big coincidence? Maybe viewers sense that things don't "feel" consistent from week to week? Your opinion?

-Any stories about David Lloyd? His scripts always seem to end with a huge "surprise" of some kind. Examples: "Chuckles the Clown," "Elaine's Strange Triangle" (Taxi), even "Casting the First Stone" (Amen), which I saw completely by accident and found hilarious.

-I'm guessing you've also crossed paths with David Davis in your career; whatever happened to him? Since co-producing the first season of "Taxi" (1979) his only credits seem to be a "special thanks" for "War of the Roses," and brief appearances in documentaries about the Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart shows.

-Finally, when is the next Sitcom Room?

Vern Rochon said...

I've noticed something very common that I find annoying: Characters talking to each other on the phone very rarely say "goodbye" when the conversation's over. They just hang up on each other.

Is this to save time, too? How long does it take to say, "Bye"?

bevo said...

On a short lived series on Comedy Central called, "That's My Bush," the conceit of the wacky neighbor dropping in was used to good effect.

The show centers around the president of the US (hence the title of the show). The A plot was a patent rip off (homage?) of some lame situation comedy from the 1970s where the POTUS has to learn a life lesson.

The wacky neighbor always dropped in without ringing the doorbell and without the usual hassles associated with seeding the PoTUS.

The joke worked well enough until we all learned how incompetent the real Bush was.

Chris said...

Hmmm...last time I checked, unemployment is much higher under Obama. So is the budget deficit. And the national debt. Gas prices, too. But let's keep repeating the "incompetent Bush" narrative in order to distract from the current president's failures.

Getting back to TV, Jess Oppenheimer "won" against Desilu (not Paramount - they hadn't bought Desilu yet) when he found out that the "Lucy Show" writers had it written into their contracts that they would "fashion the character of Lucy Carmichael after Lucy Ricardo". Those writers had been his colleagues on "I Love Lucy" and they were happy to share that tidbit with him.