Friday, August 10, 2012

What you see is what we show you

Friday Questions coming attacha.

Ben asks:

At a taping of The New Adventures of Old Christine a few years ago, I noticed it was shot digitally, which meant the crowd had monitors showing the footage as it was shot.

In the days of Cheers (and 35mm), was there some sort of vid-tap that fed the crowd what was being shot to monitors, or was it viewed much more like a stage play, and you saw everything at once, and only got the additional camera jokes when you saw it on TV?

In the early years of CHEERS there was no “video assist” as we call it. There were monitors overhead, but those were just used to either show the pilot or scenes that had been pre-shot.

Then cameras were equipped with additional video taps that allowed for instant viewing. And now that multi-cam shows are shot in HD, not film, the quality of the picture is greatly improved.

One thing worth noted: Back in “the day” (although it’s never specified just what that day was), multi-camera shows were either filmed or videotaped. If they were filmed, all four cameras ran continuously, it would take a few days for the film to get back from the drugstore, and the show would be edited later. For tape shows (like ALL IN THE FAMILY and THE JEFFERSONS), the director would be in a control room assembling the show on the fly. He’d instruct the switcher to “take camera three”, “take camera one”, etc. So at the end of the taping you had a rough cut of your show already.

Now you have HD, which is like the best of both worlds. Looks like film but shot on (far more inexpensive) tape. But they’re still assembled after the fact (a la film). That means, for the studio audience, a switcher is employed, and just for their benefit he edits the show as it unfolds. But the angles you see, and the takes you see, might not necessarily be what is used in the final version that airs.

Still, you think back to those old days before there was video assist and the audience missed half the show. You had the cameras and all the people on the floor, and if there was a swing set constructed just for that episode it was usually tucked off to the side so a large portion of the audience couldn’t see it at all. You attended filmings for the experience then you caught the show on the air to find out exactly what you were watching.

From Mark:

Ken, what do you think of series crossovers, like CHEERS/WINGS? This effectively makes CHEERS, WINGS, THE TORTELLI'S and FRASIER exist in the same universe as one another.

Do you think, despite it being an obvious ratings ploy, that it's nice to have this shared universe among the characters?

On a similar note, what do you think of the CHEERS/FRASIER episodes?

I always like crossover episodes. It’s fun to see characters from different shows interact. I especially liked the CHEERS/FRASIER crossovers because David and I wrote most of them. (Four with Lilith, one with Sam, one with Diane.) We also wrote the WINGS episode with Frasier and Lilith. Here’s a piece of totally useless trivia: David and I are the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three different series. I think that’s our legacy.

Crossovers can get sticky however, if both shows aren’t from the same creative team. On ALMOST PERFECT we did a crossover with CYBILL. There must’ve been four drafts that ping-ponged back and forth between our writing staff and theirs.

And then there was the CHEERS crossover with ST. ELSEWHERE. That was less successful. Not only did you have two creative teams, you had two genres. The ST. ELSEWHERE folks wrote the scene and let’s just say they did not do a splendid job of capturing our characters or the style of our humor. I’m sure the CHEERS staff would have written a clunky ST. ELSEWHERE scene if the shoe were on the other foot. Although, maybe we could have made Howie Mandel funny.

But here’s where it got really weird: In the finale of ST. ELSEWHERE we learn the whole show was just a dream some kid had. So does that mean CHEERS, even in television reality, was just part of the dream and never really existed? Where’s Rod Serling when you need him?

Jayne L has queries:

I have never seen an end-credits scene on Frasier that didn't have the theme music playing over top, muting the dialogue. Seems a bit of a waste of effort to write dialogue that no one will ever hear, so: was there scripted dialogue for those scenes, or did the scripting stop at the gist of the scene, and the actors left to ad-lib based on the premise?

No dialogue is written. Just a brief description of what the writer envisioned. And even then, there were times there was no written pages. The writers would just tell an idea to the cast and they would all work it out on the spot.

rockfish wonders:

Do you have a favorite home run call? And do you think it's important for one to have just one -- I'm amazed at some of the ordinary or even dumb ones. Over all the years and the number of announcers, it must be impossible to create an original sounding one... What's yours?

I don’t have one. All I care about when calling a home run is that I do it accurately and capture the appropriate drama of the moment. A dramatic walk-off home run is a lot different than one hit during a blowout. I try to be as descriptive as I can.

Announcers today can easily get caught-up in highlights. Your dramatic game calls are now replayed on post game shows, ESPN, and other sports networks. And just like players try to make dazzling plays so they can appear on “Web Gems”, announcers try to make spectacular home run calls so they can hear themselves on Sportscenter. I’m less interested in that unless I can somehow work a plug in for my book during my home run call.

And finally, from Kevin S.:

Will we be seeing you make a guest appearance on the Sunday broadcast of Comedy Central's Roast of Roseanne?

I'd love to but I'm folding my socks that day.

What’s your home run call? I mean question?


sjml said...

Actually, it turns out that a grand proportion of television took place in "the Tommy Westphall universe."

Johnny said...

I'm sure everyone already knows this, but in case not, there's a highly amusing chart made by some internet geeks which shows just how many shows are supposedly contained in Tommy Westphall's autistic brain (the kid at the end of St. Elsewhere).

This is due entirely to the number of cross-overs and references that have been made over the years. I believe the current count is something like 282 shows.

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to M*A*S*H to CSI to The Brady Bunch.

Here the site:

Johnny said...

Ha! Looks like you posted your message while I was writing mine, sjml.

Rich D said...

Another great site (and fun time waster) that organizes a number of crossover/shared television universes is -

Did you know that Star Trek and Knight Rider take place in the same universe?

Howard Hoffman said...

In Ken's defense, I can confidently say that he never EVER used "Are you kidding ME!?!" or "It goes yard!" in any of his play-by-play calls. And the world is a better place.

Phillip B said...

By simply including Lt. John Munch in every new series, all of TV will eventually be joined in one universe..

Kirk said...

The entire run of Cheers isn't necessarily a product of Tommy Westphall's imagination. He may have just seen an episode of Cheers on TV and incorporated it in his thoughts. Of course, that would still mean CHEERS is fictional, but then so is Tommy Westphall himself.

Incidentally, Tommy contradicts himself in his autistic delusion. On a earlier episode, the character David Morse played visits the bar that was used as the CHEERS exterior, it's clearly referred to AS a TV show.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused by the answer re. monitors on old TV shows being used to primarily show pre-filmed scenes. Back in the old days in NY I regularly went to watch the filming of the Garry Moore show (I did say the old days!). Because there were so many cameras and lights it was often hard to see the stage. But there were TV sets so we could see what was being filmed. Was it done differently for variety shows and sitcoms?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken, a question for a future Friday column (in keeping with coordinating your Friday blogs with Friday questions): As I know shows generally work on a three- or four-week filming rotation, with a week's hiatus afterward, and knowing what an exhausting number of hours the showrunner, producers and writing staff have to keep any week the show is in production, what does the staff do to keep their batteries recharged, so to speak, during those weeks, until they can enjoy at least a brief respite during the hiatus week?

I was always amazed at how on filming nights, even on the last consecutive week before the break, the production and writing staff still managed to be fully functional and put together a good show.

Volklfan said...

Did you see the first episode of GO ON? and if so what did you think? I felt like the show had real promise and a nice balance of heart and humor, i'm just not sure how long they can stretch the group therapy premise, although I love COMMUNITY and that was a premise I was even less confident in.

ScottyB said...

Ken: I liked Jayne L's question and your response about the closing sequence of "Frasier" since I always wondered that myself, especially since an hour of "Frasier" reruns is part of my TV-watching weekdays. It was always my favorite part of the show (an added "extra") since it's left up to us to read what's going on. The fact that it was left up to the actors (including Eddie) to go the extra mile to interpret, portray, and pack a lot of shit (or less-is-more) into such a short scene is IMO what made "Frasier" -- and the talents of the cast -- even MORE valuable. Christ, ANY mook can throw on a baseball cap and go to a bar; it takes a bit more balls to put on a Panama hat and make it work for ya.

ScottyB said...

Crossovers. UGH!! Whenever I see one of those coming (especially even today in reruns), I always hear the voiceover guy saying, "Tonight -- on a **very special episode** of Blossom/Family Ties/Silver Spoons/One Day At A Time/Growing Pains/Who's The Boss ..."

Michael said...

Jon Miller has said that he grew up in the Bay Area with Russ Hodges saying, "Bye, bye, baby," and Lon Simmons saying, "Tell it goodbye." One night he picked up KFI in LA and heard an announcer call a home run by saying, "She's gone." He thought, that's it? That guy will never make it. The Vin, of course.

ScottyB said...

OK, actual question instead of a comment for Ken: What's your take/reason for "retrospective" sitcom episodes? On one hand, I can see whee they're useful, especially if it's a program that took a few seasons to catch on without somehow being canceled and it's a handy way to get the slower folk up even more up to speed, but they always made me think they were just filler thrown together that week because nobody had any good ideas that week, there was an actor/script mutiny, someone in the cast died and shut down the set, the studio caught on fire, or that stars just wanted their own individual talent shows. Even those live 100th-episode retros of Cheers (hosted by John McLaughlin -- gawd, WTF was someone thinking????), Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond just always seemed really hollow and self-serving.

Larry said...

My favorite crossover episode was when Jay Sherman of The Critic visited The Simpsons. I especially liked how Bart was almost contemptuous of Jay.

The writing staff wrote a great episode, even if Matt Groening was whining about it.

Sean in NoCal said...

On the topic of home run calls, I am a huge baseball on the radio fan, and feel like I'm pretty spoiled by the Giants broadcast team. When you worked with Jon Miller, did he do the "Adios Pelota" home run call for a latin player like he does with the Giants? There was some recent contraversy with fans feeling this was somewhat racist. (Which is utter BS!) Next to Vin Scully, I think he's the best in the business and like the use of the spanish.

Michelle said...

Crossovers can really be a mindfuck. The only current one I can think of is the Two and a half men/CSI crossover. Both of them felt surreal, like the scripts were written as big inside jokes.

Unknown said...

Okay, here's a question, with some info first.

Writers Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson, who have written some big feature films, are writing the 3rd Bill & Ted movie...apparently on spec.

My question for you: is it the economy that creates a situation where established writers will write a full movie screenplay on spec? Is it because they're the ones who created Bill & Ted, and are pushing for its development, and thus are waiving any initial fee to get it done?

Would YOU, Mr. Established Writer, write a movie script on spec?

(These are rambling questions. I'm sorry.)

-Paul in Chicago

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The crossover I thought was intriguing was the one where the staff of 2 1/2 Men wrote a CSI (? some cop show) episode and vice-versa. Very weird.

That was an awfully short scene between Cybill Shepherd and Nancy Travis to need four rewrites!


Anonymous said...

I'm sure this has to be one of the more obscure Friday Questions you'll get but do you know anything about the 1975 sitcom WE'LL GET BY created by Alan Alda? It only lasted a handful of episodes but I remember it to this day as being one of the funniest shows I ever saw. The family sing-a-long of "The Wabash Cannonball" on their disastrous trip to Woonsocket RI still makes me laugh.


Ted said...

to kingvermin - Neil Simon has said that every one of his screenplays was on spec. And he sold a few.

Kevin said...

Ken what would it take to get you to write for or show run a sitcom again? Have you ever thought of writing on a Hour long drama say "Justified"?

Ane said...

On crossovers, I read somewhere the following, which is quite cool:
1. Someone from Frasier, I think it was Daphne and Niles, were guests on a show that I think is called Caroline And The City (or In The City or whatever).
2.So was Chandler from Friends.
3.So, in that universe, Frasier and Friends excists for real.
4.On Friends the characters would sometimes watch Cheers.
So in the universe of Friends, Frasier is for real but Cheers is a Tv-show!

Mike said...

May I ask a Friday Question, please?

Would Fawlty Towers have stood any chance whatsoever of being made by US TV? Either back in 1974 or today?

(Assume that, after rejection by UK TV, Cleese & Booth rewrote the scripts superficially to Americanise the settings & dialogue, but retained the characters & story.)

(I think the programme would have been reworked so much it would have resembled Newhart: the series with the inn in Vermont. But perhaps I'm wrong.)

Michael Zand said...

None of us really exist. We are part of Tommy Westphall's imaginary universe. Whoooa dude, you just blew my miiind.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Mike: I remember an absolutely ghastly attempt to remake FAWLTY TOWERS for the US. It starred John Larroquette and I can't remember who else, but I do remember that his character's name was something like Royal Payne, which should give you a sense of the quality of the "humor".

So even *after* the success of FT, US TV had no clue about what made it work.

Ah. A quick search shows that US TV has tried no less than *three* times to remake FT.

Paul Duca said...

In 1983 ABC tried "Amanda's by the Sea" with Bea Arthur as a female Fawlty.

The Jnow said...

Tommy's Snow globe!!!!

Ref said...

Ken, you're a wonderful writer, but not even Larry Gelbart, Doc Simon, and Mel Brooks combined could have made Howie Mandel funny.

Paul Duca said...

And a worthy legacy it is..."Five bucks on Mortica--she's scrawny but quick"

Kendall said...

Friday Question:

Was reuniting Frasier and Lilith ever a posibility (on Frasier's show)?

Based on Lilith's technical chronological appearances, is it okay to assume that they DO get back together?

(That damn bar.)

Diana in NoCal said...

Building on Tom in Vegas' show runner question from June 29, (how) can someone determine who the show runner is from reading the credits? Or, is it a trade secret to be known only by insiders? Or, you could tell me but then you'd have to kill me? (I thoroughly enjoy your blog - thanks for writing it!)

Michael McKinney said...

Hi Ken, I just saw a commercial for a film that gave away one of the funnier bits in the film. Did you ever have a promo for one of your shows that gave away too much and ruined the joke or the show for the viewer?

spencer said...

Enjoyed Me Generation so much I bought Where The Hell Am I. Going to San Francisco next week and wonder if your restaurant recommendations are up to date and if you have any new entries.

Terrence Moss said...

"CSI" and "Two and a Half Men" crossover was pretty interesting to watch, although I only saw the latter result.

"The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" had a crossover as well, which was even more interesting because they were of separate genres and on separate NETWORKS.

The book "The Second Golden Age of Drama" also addressed The Tommy Westphall Universe.

Terrence Moss said...

**Friday Question**

I just watched "The Boys in the Bar" episode of CHEERS, written by you and David.

In the episode, some of the regulars became afraid of CHEERS accidentaly going gay like another local bar had.

For the early-AIDS, post-Jodie Dallas, early-1980s on sitcom television, I am amazed at how progressive this episode was and how the issue of homophobia within the episode still holds up today.

Was there any pushback from the network? Was there any hesitation on the part of the actors -- namely Adam Arkin, who had a pivotal role in the episode as a gay man?

I was also more than surprised by how macho ladies' man Sam Malone was more embracing than he or I would have assumed he would have been of Arkin's character and ultimately the possibility as a whole of there being gay men in his bar.

To make this even longer, I loved how the episode ended. BRILLIANT.

And I must say, you and David had some pretty great insight to put together such a fantastic episode.

By Ken Levine said...


Scoma's is there for sure. Go early, avoid the wait, and enjoy spectacular seafood.

Kirk said...

In addition to the two already mentioned, there was yet another unsold American version of Fawlty Towers that aired either in the late '70s or early '80s. Can't remember it's name, but it starred Harvey Korman and Betty White.

VP81955 said...

I may have mentioned this before, but regarding home run calls, I still fondly remember how Harry Kalas -- whose trademark call was "outta here!" -- reacted to Mike Schmidt's 500th homer in 1987, which one knew was going to be a big deal for Harry since he was so identified with Schmitty. If you've seen replays of the homer, you know it was a line drive quickly hit straight to the left-field seats at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. It was hit so hard, so fast that Harry didn't have the chance to say "outta here" -- just "swing and a long drive, there it is, the career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt!" That it was hit with two on in the ninth and put the Phillies ahead added to the moment.

If a hack like John Sterling had done the game, you can be sure he would have shoehorned his inane "it is high, it is far, it is gone" phrase into a home run that wasn't that way at all. Which is why Harry has a Ford Frick Award and Sterling never will (unless Hall of Fame officials have a colossal brain freeze).

DwWashburn said...

The Discovery Channel did a great one hour program many many years ago on the assembling of a Friends episode. They showed it from writing to table read to performance and editing. Very educational for a non Hollywood guy like me. Those film editors must be so sick of an episode by the time it is broadcast.

Cody said...

Have you ever had to take your name off of anything?

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

The 1970s American version of FAWLTY TOWERS was entitled SNAVELY. It was not bad, exactly, but nothing in it worked as well as in the original.

Strictly speaking, Matthew Perry played a very Chandler-esque character on CAROLINE IN THE CITY, not Chandler exactly. The show took care to avoid naming him, or having him say or do anything that specifically identified him. (The same was true of Lea Thompson's appearance on FRIENDS that same night.) I presume that this was done to avoid paying a royalty for the use of the character. So, the FRIENDS/FRASIER connection is not definitely established.

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"Although, maybe we could have made Howie Mandel funny."

You were good. You weren't that good.

chuckcd said...

I wrote a spec script that had a crossover of Star Trek and MASH.

Spock and Kirk travel back in time and land on Earth in Korea in the 50's.
Having Kirk and Hawkeye interact was a lot of fun.

MIchele said...

I have another Friday question...
I was watching those time fillers on a premium movie channel. You know, the Hella Big One. Anyway, it was one of these ego stroking interviews with the cast and crew of a movie or upcoming show whose name I can't remember. The guys and gals were just raving about how talented this person was, and that person was and how fabulous it was to work with everyone and how the director was visionary and really let them find their characters and all the other dull banal language we've heard 1000x. I know there are tons of incentives NOT to say anything negative about anyone, or anything, but I'm wondering if there is a show where people just said,"Look this thing sucks ass. Watch it because I've got boat payments, but if you're expect high brow cinema I think Ghost Rider 2 is a better bet."

Michele said...

I have another Friday question...
I was watching those time fillers on a premium movie channel. You know, the Hella Big One. Anyway, it was one of these ego stroking interviews with the cast and crew of a movie or upcoming show whose name I can't remember. The guys and gals were just raving about how talented this person was, and that person was and how fabulous it was to work with everyone and how the director was visionary and really let them find their characters and all the other dull banal language we've heard 1000x. I know there are tons of incentives NOT to say anything negative about anyone, or anything, but I'm wondering if there is a show where people just said,"Look this thing sucks ass. Watch it because I've got boat payments, but if you're expect high brow cinema I think Ghost Rider 2 is a better bet."

Stephhh said...

Friday question for you...what's going on with the Kristen Chenowith accident and CBS's lack of comment now that she's quit the show? It seems like we're not getting the whole story, and doesn't she have some kindof contract?

Brad Preston said...

As an avid "Cheers" fan, I've long noticed that we never saw Sam's apartment. We saw Diane's apartment, Carla's house, Cliff's apartment, Frasier and Lillith's house and Rebecca's apartment, but in eleven years, we never saw where star of the show lived. In the words of Cliff Clavin, "What's up with that?"