Thursday, May 03, 2012

Sometimes writers have to hold their ground

Remember an episode of CHEERS called Rat Girl?   Lilith's pet lab rat dies and she couldn't part with it so she kept it in her purse. It's a heartwarming tale.  My writing partner, David Isaacs and I wrote that episode and won the WGA award for Best Comedy Script that year (beating out Larry David who brings it up every time I see him. I've offered to give it to him for only .00001% of SEINFELD and so far the award remains in my office.).

But the point is it was a pretty well-received episode.  You can see it here.

But the whole show almost blew up. Over one little note.

Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Lilith and I dearly love, announced on the second day of rehearsal that she had a problem.

Lilith didn't carry a purse. Well, okay.  We asked her to make an exception this week for the story.  But she said it wasn't consistent with her character.  She explained that Lilith is a scientist and scientists don't carry purses.

Oh really? NO scientist? Ever?

Again, the whole writing staff asked if she'd graciously overlook that TINY inconsistency and please have a purse?

Were there alternatives?  

One thought was that she could keep the rat in her pocket (do scientists have pockets?) but that seemed even too creepy for Lilith, and it was important that the gang in the bar discovered the critter while she was out of the room.  We needed Frasier to explain away her rather bizarre behavior.  Our primary concern was that Lilith didn't come off like a complete loon. 

I do admire that actors take great care in wanting to be as true to their characters as possible, and details that are seemingly unimportant to us are very meaningful to their defining their roles. But sometimes, Jesus! As the great David Lloyd used to say, "It's just pretend!".

To her credit, Bebe backed down.  Most of the time (practically ALL of the time) writers make adjustments to accommodate the actors.  Sometimes we have to stand our ground.   In this case, the entire episode depended on it.   Bebe was a team player.   She embraced the purse and the episode went off as planned.

Ironically, we did expect a note, but it wasn't from Bebe and we never got flagged for it.  At one point in the script the guys around the bar get out junk food.   When David and I were writing it we wondered out loud if anyone could eat a Hostess Snowball in one gulp?   So how best to settle it?  We made Woody do it.   His favorite food was Hostess Snowballs because they were "bite size."   God love, Mr. Harrelson, he downed one of those babies in one bite.  Excuse me, but THAT'S acting! 

Happy to say that in all these years and all the many airings of Rat Girl, not once have we received a protest from a scientist.   Or Hostess bakeries. 


LouOCNY said...

but did you get any Hostess Snowballs?

Thomas said...

Every time I hear Kelsey Grammar speak I wonder how he's going to try kill Bart this episode.

PolyWogg said...

The funny thing is that I could totally agree with Lilith not carrying a purse. *AND* making a point of it -- that it was a girly girly thing and she was far from girly girly.

Yet here's the weird part. I can also picture her sitting down with someone and using it to "stake her claim" to relevant table space, a territorial "kalunk".

I have way too much time on my hands.


Bill said...

Having loved this episode as a kid, of course I had to try eating snowballs in one bite. I wonder if Ken and David would feel really guilty if I'd choked to death? Because I nearly did. But I did manage to do it. Barely.

MrEd said...

Didn't Woody shoot up a truck full of Hostess Snowballs in Zombieland?

Michael said...

The question is, did Woody ever recover from this?

Markus said...

I could also totally picture a twist that has Lilith not carrying a purse, and still having to find a way to carry the rat with her, and how that turns into a psychological dilemma for her where she's experimenting with different bags, purses, cloths, boxes, etc., being totally freaked out by the fact that she has to carry a purse, not by the fact that she's schlepping around a dead rat. She'd explain how the rat thing emotionally-psychologically reasonable, and the purse thing illogic and stupid.

Mary Stella said...

Reading this I had to think about the research scientists I know. I'm pretty sure our director carries a small handbag if she goes out to dinner. The rest of the time everything she needs is in a backpack.

Lilith did not strike me as a backpack wearer. Although, these days, we can get ones that are quite stylish. I myself have one by Vera Bradley that I use for travel. It will carry the laptop, Kindle, single zip-loc bag and anything else I might need on the plane but still fit under the seat in front of me.

Given that Spirit Airlines now wants to charge passengers $100 for a bag that goes in the overhead bin, this is particularly crucial.

Becca said...

I'd really like to hear Bebe's backstory about Lilith that dictated she would object to carrying a purse, but NOT to carrying a dead rat around with her. Fascinating.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Gawd all-mighty...Hostess Snowballs...I got those in my lunchbox once a week back in the mid-'60s in elementary school. The pink ones...I never really liked them all that much - much preferred Hostess cup cakes, but for some reason my mom didn't buy them often. She stopped putting Twinkies in my lunch in third grade. Ding-Dongs came along in 6th grade and abruptly put an end to Snowballs, thank gawd. Ho-Ho's came around by 7th grade, but I already graduated to Hostess chocolate pies by then. (And Winchell's chocolate bar doughnuts...thanks mom.)

Hank said...

Actor: my character wouldn't do so.
Writer: Who says it's your character?

Always loved this quote of David Chase. What do you think?

RCP said...

"Most of the time (practically ALL of the time) writers make adjustments to accommodate the actors. Sometimes we have to stand our ground."

I would love to hear more examples of this.

Snowballs. Ding-Dongs. Ho-Hos. That’s right, Jeffrey Mark, rub it in my face. You had one of those nice moms. Mine pushed apples and carrot sticks. Not even a lousy Raisinet.

Breadbaker said...

Was there some comedy reason the rat couldn't go in a briefcase? Scientists do carry briefcases.

Paul Duca said...

I read that a woman should carry her personal items in a purse and her professional items in something for that--briefcase, attache, tote, etc.

Max Clarke said...

I love the Rat Girl, everybody was quite good.

Kelsey did a lot with the line, "Apparently she's still grieving!"

And at the end of the episode, Frasier gets some action.

Woody was very good with physical comedy in Cheers. I still recall the way he bungled jumping over the bar in one of the Bar Wars episodes. Or maybe the episode when Sam stages an expensive gag on his own employees after they made him believe Gary was dead. You have to be in pretty good shape to make it look as if you can't get over the bar.

Tv Food and Drink said...

Ah Lillith still has my favorite line in all of Cheers history: "I... AM... NOT... A.... ROBOT!"

jcs said...

As a cancer researcher with 16 years of lab experience (7 in Boston) I have to support Bebe Neuwirth on this one. Few female scientists carry a traditional purse. Scientists usually have to schlepp a stack of papers and maybe a laptop computer. But for a special night out - like in this case -, why not?

Btw, there are few things that are more disgusting than a rodent that has been dead for more than a few hours. Also, research is mostly done on female rodents since you can only keep one male rodent per cage (unless they are from the same litter) which is pretty space-consuming.

toscler said...

I love the scene in the preschool with Frasier and Lilith. Their exchange is hilarious and the delivery by the actors is perfect. "But he WAS an animal!"

Unknown said...

I love the inside jokes to writing.
From Zombieland (favorite zombie movie ever) where Harrelson plays Tallahassee-

Tallahassee: [discovers Hostess truck filled with Sno-Balls] Sno-Balls? Sno-Balls? Sno Balls? Where's the fucking Twinkies?
Columbus: I love Sno-Balls.
Tallahassee: I hate coconut. Not the taste, consistency.
Columbus: [eats a Sno Ball] Fresh.
Tallahassee: Oh, this Twinkie thing, it ain't over yet.

Michael said...

This article includes a slideshow ranking of the best NBC Thursday Night comedy lineups which includes many you were a part of:

It also sparks a Friday question:

I always felt "Wings", while not quite at the same level as "Cheers" and "Frazier", was overlooked in terms of critical acclaim. Do you agree and, if so, why do think that was so?

Mike Schryver said...

"Markus said...

I could also totally picture a twist that has Lilith not carrying a purse, and still having to find a way to carry the rat with her, and how that turns into a psychological dilemma for her where she's experimenting with different bags, purses, cloths, boxes, etc., being totally freaked out by the fact that she has to carry a purse, not by the fact that she's schlepping around a dead rat. She'd explain how the rat thing emotionally-psychologically reasonable, and the purse thing illogic and stupid."

I like this idea. After the rat has been found, Lilith's not embarrassed about the rat, but that the gang noticed she's carrying a purse. She could say she's only carrying it because she needs a place to keep the rat.

Maybe that would have satisfied Bebe, and also been funny.
Not that it matters now.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Weird. I posted a comment earlier - I thought - and now don't see it.

To the effect that Neuwirth was right: many women in that sort of profession don't carry purses. I don't myself, but am pocket-mad (I wear a trail vest in the warmer months and when traveling). While she wouldn't wear a standard backpack, she might easily carry a briefcase or fine leather backpack. Few carried laptops in the 1980s when CHEERS was being made.

I like the idea of her buying a bag to put the rat in, but it would have taken up quite a bit of time.


Fitz said...

A Friday question candidate ...

I recently watched a show where a great piece of writing was taken to a whole new level by the actor. Full disclosure, it was the Spock napkin episode of The Big Bang Theory and the actor was Jim Parsons.

My question - can you think of anything particular of yours that you thought was great that was elevated to that new level, maybe by a cast member you didn't know very well or someone breaking out of a mold?

Mark Little

Brian Phillips said...

Lilith carrying a purse? Sure. It's less out of place than a laptop bag at dinner. Now take neat freak Monica on "Friends". In one episode, to even a score, she puts her head in a turkey. Was it funny? Yes. Even though it tied up the story well, would a woman who shrieks at peanut shells on the floor place her head in a foul-smelling dead animal? No.

...unless she lost her purse, one supposes.

John said...

Nowadays, carrying a purse (or if you're a man, a 'murse') to tote around something a like a iPad would be a logical way to get the bag into the story, instead of just carrying the thing around exposed to the elements and any light-fingered passersby.

Of course, if the episode was being written today, they'd probably want Lilith to carry around the Snowball in her purse and have Woody eat the rat...

pumpkinhead said...

Markus, I had a similar, though not as detailed and clever, reaction.

D. McEwan said...

So if Bebe had totally refused, could you have shot her under the "Stand Your Comic Ground" law?

My admiration to Woody. I couldn't choke down one of those Hostess Snowball horrors even in tiny bites. Even as a kid, I found them inedible. Hostess cupcakes, Twinkies and little chocolate donuts I still eat (or will until they disappear from the stores. Hostess did just go bankrupt), but those snowballs, giant gobs of cocoanut-bestrewn marshmellows. Ick.

I do remember that episode clearly. My late mother, who always found Lilith hilarious, and who had had pet rats herself as a child (I guess my grandparents were really cheap: "Those rats in your room? They're - ah - they're pets! Yeah, they're pets! That's the ticket!") so she always insisted rats were cute and loveable no matter how often I said they were vermin, not only laughed until she almost exploded, but she totally felt for Lilith in that one.

Mother thought rats made loveable pets, and she found John Astin on The Addams Family HIGHLY sexy. I'm not joking. She did. Aparently my mother was secretly Morticia Addams.

Profzed said...

Would it not have worked to have had Lilith begin to carry a purse for the soul sake of storing the rat in it? The others would notice that for some reason, Lilith had suddenly started carrying a purse. Frasier would find it most odd. They could even tease her about the purse and you could imagine her type of responses. Then of course, she would naturally forget the purse at which point the others would jump on it because there would have had to have been some major reason why Lilith had started carrying the purse. Eh. Who am I to second guess?

Don K. said...

FraSier, NOT FraZier.


Johnny Walker said...

It seems crazy because surely there's a ton of explanations. Lilith wouldn't normally carry a purse, but she started carrying one simply to put the rat in (as Wendy suggested).

If Bebe was still concerned, Frasier and Lilith could have had a simple exchange (as usual, I'm in work, so have about 30 seconds to write something):

FRASIER: "I wondered why you'd started carrying a purse. I thought you'd gotten more in touch with your feminine side..."

LILITH: "Well, now you know."

FRASIER: "Yes, now I know it's because you wanted to carry deceased rodents around with you!"

(I haven't seen the episode, either, so there's probably reasons why this wouldn't have worked.)

Me said...

Why wasn't Bebe in the series finale? I assume she had other commitments, but did the powers that be try to work her into it at any stage?

James said...

Speaking of Lilith... Was there a plan to have Lilth as a series regular when Frasier was spun off from Cheers in 1993, or was it decided right from the start to divorce them?

And also, was there a discussion of the two ending up together for the Frasier series finale? They were such a fantastic couple.

bill4 said...

Bwahahahaha. I love it!

This post made my week


bill4 said...

BTW, Ken, Cheers is one of my all time faves. I never missed an episode when it was first fun. And now I have it on NetFlix! What a world!

P.S. you blog is great! You rock, sir!

DP said...

As a female scientist who doesn't carry a purse, I agree with the others that the need to carry a rat around would cause one such as myself to change my rigid ways for a bit. I'd even be a little self-conscious about doing something different and expect comments as if I was sporting a drastic new haircut. And, I can speak from experience, when I make the occasional exception and dig it out of my trunk, I do tend to leave it behind. I'd argue she'd only be prone to leave it behind because it's not her habit to carry one as a matter of course.

All the pieces are there for it to be fine to suddenly carry a purse for a cause, be dodgy over comments about the change, and to be forgetful and leave it behind for others to mess with. And those elements already have the background of her not carrying a purse before, which makes it all super-fitting and I'd be thinking what a genius you guys were if I'd noticed all that before reading it wasn't intended that way.

Stephen Robinson said...

Just saw this episode on Netflix. I think my favorite Lilith moment is when she says "that this BASTARD threw in the trash." The way she nails that line. I never fail to laugh.

The thread's debate regarding Lilith carrying a purse is interesting. My sense of Lilith is that she is serious (hence the bun) but still stylish. She wears heels (forget the purse -- how many research scientists you know who do that?). Her suits have skirts and not pants.

She's definitely not, say, Doris (Norm's secretary).