Friday, May 10, 2013

What does THE BATES MOTEL have in common with MUPPET BABIES?

Tomorrow night I plan to be in Santa Barbara where CHEERS creators Glen & Les Charles and James Burrows will speak at UCSB. Should be fun.  I've always wanted to meet them.  Meanwhile, keep those Friday Questions coming. Here are this week’s:

Ron P. starts us off:

There's obviously been a lot of spinoffs... some successful... others not so much. But has there even been a prequel ?

Okay, readers, help me out here. Yes, first of all, although some of these might be prequels to movies, not other series. Still, off the top of my head there’s MUPPET BABIES, SMALLVILLE, FLINTSTONE KIDS, THE CARRIE DIARIES, BATES MOTEL, and HANNIBAL.

I’m sure there are more. Suggestions?

From Steve B.:

Ken, it seems that TV writing used to be more of a freelancer business, with less writers on staff and more freelance scripts handed out. If this is true, which do you think was the better system, both for the writers and for the shows?

Well, it’s certainly better for the writers to be on staff. More security and you’re getting paid by the episode in addition to any script assignments you get.

But it’s more advantageous for the showrunner to be able to give a writer a script first to see if he has a good feel for the show. That way he can staff his show only with writers he knows can contribute. The only downside is that a writer he may be considering gets a firm offer of staff work at another show and he loses him. And when you’re in the middle of staffing season (which we currently are) it’s like an insane game of musical chairs. So showrunners often don’t have the luxury of being able to audition potential staff members. Still, if I could, that’s a risk I’d be willing to take.

Best of luck to everybody either trying to staff or get on staff.

YEKIMI has a question related to my recent post on the “Boys in the Bar” episode of CHEERS.

Say you have the script for the two guys (extras, or for that matter anybody who may have a part, speaking or not, that interacts with the main cast) that kiss Norm....are they there for the table read, or does someone sit in for them and they're cast later?

In a case like this we would give the actors a few lines during the body of the show so they don’t come out of leftfield. But chances are they’d be hired for three of the five days so no, they wouldn’t be at the table read.

In each episode you look at the guest cast and decide how many days you’ll need each person. And crew people generally fill in for them in runthroughs if they’re not on set for the first day or two.  For table readings, writers usually get to pinch-hit.  I can say I've done scenes with Ted Danson, Kelsey Grammer, and David Hyde Pierce.   And I was so awesome the parts weren't cut as a result of my reading!

therapydoc is next:

Any idea if the MASH theme song was ever associated with a real suicide? It always creeped me out, the thought that people might sing it and then pop a cyanide.

In the movie there is a suicide sequence played for comic purposes. I suspect the lyrics were designed to complement that. But I can’t say for sure.
I can however, tell you this: Never ever were the lyrics sung on the television series. That was an iron-clad decree by series creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart. It’s a decision I happily stood by.

Please leave your questions in the comments section.  Thanks! 


cdonald said...


Prequels--Starting off:

Pup Named Scooby Doo
Star Trek: Enterprise
Young Indiana Jones

Ben Scripps said...

Even though it answers the question, it still feels like cheating...but Wikipedia has a handy list:

"Caprica" was the one I came up with on my own...

Andy Ihnatko said...

I've read that Robert Altman's son, who was asked to add lyrics to what was originally meant to be an instrumental theme, ultimately made more money from his royalties on the TV show's theme song than Altman made off the whole movie.

Ken, is this sort of thing common? "Suicide Is Painless" needed lyrics for the suicide scene, sure. But every now and then I hear about some producer (or even a star) writing never-intended-to-ever-be-heard lyrics to a theme song just so that they can lay claim to half of the song's royalties as its co-composer. says that Roddenberry did this with the "Star Trek" theme.

Michael said...

One of the cuter things to be found on You Tube is Dick Van Dyke singing the lyrics to his theme song, with Mary Tyler Moore doing some harmony. Morey Amsterdam sat down one day and wrote the words.

John said...

Andy Ihnatko said...

... Ken, is this sort of thing common? "Suicide Is Painless" needed lyrics for the suicide scene, sure. But every now and then I hear about some producer (or even a star) writing never-intended-to-ever-be-heard lyrics to a theme song just so that they can lay claim to half of the song's royalties as its co-composer. says that Roddenberry did this with the "Star Trek" theme.

5/10/2013 7:42 AM

"Cheers" noted this little phenomenon when they performed the lyrics to "Bonanza" as one of the first bar scenes in the show. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans had a lot more chops than Gene Roddenberry as a song-writer -- they did win an Oscar -- but the lyrics for the Cartwrights were unfortunate at best (they fared better two years later getting into the public consciousness with the words for the theme to "Mr. Ed")

Howard Hoffman said...

@Andy Ihnatko...

A longtime practice is a producer or property owner hiring someone to write songs or a score. They will then either buy the material outright and become the sole owner, or they'll make a deal to buy a piece of it in exchange for a percentage of the writing credit. That's what Tom Hanks did for "That Thing You Do!" He has co-writing credit on every song performed in that film, whether or not he contributed to creating them.

Egmont Scurley said...

I can recall one instance of a series being a prequel to its own pilot. This was THE FAMILY HOLVAK, a WALTONS-esque series from the mid-70s, about a Southern preacher and his family during the Depression. Glenn Ford played the preacher, who (SPOILER alert) died two-thirds of the way through the pilot movie. Presumably the original plan was to show how the family got along without him, but the people at NBC either thought that was too downbeat a premise, or decided that they needed Ford's star power, and so he came back for the series. This was justified by setting the series a few years before the movie. That was alright so far as Ford and Julie Harris (who played his wife) were concerned, but their children seemed to be stuck in a time loop.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Andy Ihnatko: On the DVD of ANYTHING BUT LOVE, the first episode has the lyrics for its theme tune, which thereafter were never heard again (which was fine with me; I loved the guitar instrumental version).

Isn't THE CARRIE DIARIES supposed to be a prequel to SEX AND THE CITY?


Dana Gabbard said...

Hey, I know by lyrics to the Star Trek theme by heart. Because in the 70s my Mom bought a book of sheet music for TV shows etc. and it was included. Boy are they lousy lyrics! And Gene Roddenberry wasn't a very nice person (cf Joel Engel's biography of The Great Bird of the Galaxy)

Jason said...

The suicidal character's nickname was "Painless" (he was the dentist, iirc), so I assume the song was written with that scene in mind.

BigTed said...

When I was a kid, I had a learn-to-play-the-guitar book with a few popular songs, some of which were kind of weird (which I now realize was probably because the sheet music rights were inexpensive). One of them was the theme from MASH, complete with all the words. I have so idea what my parents thought when they heard me up in my room, strumming the guitar and singing that song.

Johnny Walker said...

I've always thought the lyrics to "Suicide is Painless" were absolutely terrible, and this post made me want to research what Mike Altman's 14-year-old brain was aiming for when it wrote:

"Suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes."


"A brave man once requested me,
To answer questions that are key,
Is it to be or not to be,
And I replied, 'Oh, why ask me?'"

Then I stumbled across this:

'In addition to having [Johnny] Mandel write the entire original score for the film, Altman asked him to write the music for the scene known as "The Last Supper." As the action plays out, Capt. Walter "Painless Pole" Waldowski crawls into a casket to commit suicide as his 4077th cohorts feast on a da Vinci-esque dinner at a long table. It was up to Mandel to write a song that could be played on an acoustic guitar and sung by Ken Prymus, who played Private Seidman. And Altman gave him one guideline, as the composer revealed in an interview with Jazz Wax: "It's got to be the stupidest song ever written."

'Initially, Altman took it upon himself to write the dumbed-down lyrics for the tune, but according to Mandel, he returned a few days later and confessed, "I'm sorry, but there's just too much stuff in this 45-year-old brain. I can't write anything nearly as stupid as what we need." Instead, he asked his 14-year-old son, Michael, to take a stab at some inane words that would then be put to music. According to some sources, the younger Altman cranked out the assignment in just five minutes.'


(You can imagine the assignment: "We need lyrics to a sad song that plays when a character called 'Painless Pole' tries to commit suicide." And the 14-year-old brain's response: "Suicide. Painless. Sad.")

Altman later claimed that he only earned $70,000 from the movie, but his son had made millions :)

Charles H. Bryan said...

Friday question: Ken, are there ever any discussions about casting actors that resemble each other when their roles are siblings? Or is the production happy to just find people who show up on time and can get the job done? I always think this of FAMILY TIES: "Those kids aren't related to each other. This is a scam." However, I never doubted that Niles and Frasier were brothers.

gottacook said...

That's what Tom Hanks did for "That Thing You Do!" He has co-writing credit on every song performed in that film.

No, the song "That Thing You Do!" and several others are credited to Adam (Fountains of Wayne) Schlesinger alone. Hanks has sole credit for several songs, including "Lovin' You Lots and Lots" heard during the opening credits. He also shares credit for a group of other songs, and in addition there are several songs [including "I Need You (That Thing You Do)," heard over the closing credits, and "She Knows It"] by a separate team of writers.

Ronzy2 said...

I don't care how many days in advance you write the blog, but "Whitney" gets the axe and you talk about something else? Huh? I come here looking for a Bar Mitzvah celebration and not one word. At least, do not take the high road when you eulogize.

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

Other posters here beat me to every other "prequel" TV series that came to mind... except the syndicated series Superboy.

Cap'n Bob said...

Young Sherlock Holmes. And I've always considered M*A*S*H as a prequel to AFTERMASH.

By Ken Levine said...


That's why you have to follow me on Twitter. I talked about WHITNEY yesterday.

Brian said...

Spoiler alert! There was a radio show based on the film, "The Third Man". Every show started by saying that Harry Lime died, but here is what happened before that.

Can a TV version of "Thelma and Lou...", naw, I'd better not.

Brizdaz (Darren) said...

Friday question:
Are you familiar with the so called Jungian type phenomena called 'synchromysticism' where movies,songs,actors/birth-dates,numbers and events can all be linked to a common unconscious underlying Jungian type theme,and do you find this sort of thing happening with your own material ?

As an example Jake Kotze
(the guy who is credited with coining the term) made this clip
called "ARMED With a DREAM"

Just coincidence or something more ?

Here's an example,the word verification for me to post this comment is 'Harrison ptystedo'
and Harrison Ford is a main link in Jake's clip,and I had not mentioned that in my comment until I saw the word verification staring back at me,so it couldn't have regurgitated his name back to me as an explanation of why that verification appeared,so there is one more weird coincidence.

Brizdaz (Darren) said...

Here's one more example of 'synchromysticism'

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I guess a Friday question. CBS has picked up (unsurprisingly) Chuck Lorre's pilot, MOM. That means that come September Lorre will have four shows running simultaneously. Is this a record?

Do his collaborators do most of the work, or does the man just not need sleep?


Egmont Scurley said...

I would not be surprised if Steven J. Cannell had at least four shows running at a time.

Joey H said...

Sheldon Leonard, I believe, had Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Gomer Pyle, and I Spy all on in 1966.

Jack said...

NBC cancelled all but two (maybe 3, depending on Hannibal) of their new shows from this season. Has a network had that bad of a season before?

Cap'n Bob said...

Quinn Martin?

Lorimartian said...


Extremely sad and disappointed to see "Smash" go. Sometimes the storylines were on the melodramatic side, but the acting, for the most part, was excellent. Christian Borle and Megan Hilty, in particular, were outstanding.

Also, "How to Live With Your Parents..." tried to be too much to too many, and there was not enough Brad Garrett. Hope they eventually find something worthy of his comedic talents.

Hope Christopher Guest's "Family Tree" on HBO is well done.

Lastly, Ashton Kutcher's acting on "Two And A Half Men" has noticeably improved since his debut. I don't know if it's the direction or if he has received outside coaching, but his performances are not so self-centered, and he is really listening to the other actors. Much improved. Good for him.

DBenson said...

I've got some prequel ideas:
-- "The Late Afternoon Zone", with tales of how very ordinary people put themselves in need of the inexplicable but poetically just desserts dealt out in "The Twilight Zone". Each episode ends happily, but Rod Sterling is standing in the background shaking his head.
-- "Ward and June", relating their adventures as sex-crazed mob enforcers before powerful drugs and the witness protection program enabled them to pass for a nice married couple. Learn the real reason they nicknamed their son Beaver.
-- "Little Friends", showing how it all began in a New York daycare center.
-- "Bruce", about an orphaned rich kid who senses his mission in life somehow involves wearing tights.
-- "MASH Kids," where the first aid monitors for a high school football team use gallows humor to deal with the meaningless carnage. And the wedgies. And the fact they're stuck in high school for 11 years.

Toby O'B said...

Did Norman Lear have four shows on at the same time?

And I may have missed it mentioned here, but as far as prequels go, there was 'Young Hercules'.

Bob Johnson said...

Ken... At the risk of being inundated with email from your nation of loyal followers, I am going to give you my email address here: Could you please drop me a line so I can communicate with you privately? My daughter wants you to know that I am not a stalker, even though I own three of your books and have forced her to read all of them... yes, even your baseball book. Thanks! - Bob Johnson

John said...

Garry Marshall, late 70s-early 80s, had the coveted sitcom quadroplex -- "Happy Days", "Laverne & Shirley", "Mork and Mindy" and whatever other sitcom ABC ordered up that only lasted a season ("Joanie Loves Chachi", "Angie", etc.)

Brian Doan said...

Hi Ken,
Don't know if you saw this, but the ONION AV Club did a nice piece with the showrunners of NEW GIRL, where they break down the writing/shooting process of their first five episodes. They have nice things to say about CHEERS, and I really like this passage about working with Larry Charles (who I initially confused with Les Charles, but I think I'm not the first viewer to do that (:):

"That was amazing. I wrote that episode, and I got to be on set for that episode and work with him on the script and it really felt special. He’s such a great writer and to have him read the script and write me notes—I felt like I learned a lot working with him on that one episode because he’s all about being as economical as possible—and that probably comes from doing Seinfeld and working on the multi-cam, where you don’t have as much freedom as you have with single-cam, where you can go anywhere and shoot anything. It was useful to have him look at it with that eye of, “Why do we need this scene, why do we need this moment in the story?” A lot of the times we get into trouble in the writing room, we try and do too much and shove too much story into 21 minutes. Then we have these heartbreaking moments in the editing room where we have to cut stories and stuff like that. So working with Larry on that was a good reminder of being as economical as possible."

It seems to track with a lot of what you've said about writing, so I thought you might enjoy it. Don't know how you feel about the show, but the whole thing can be read here, and given how Friday questions are generally about "how does a show work?", I thought others here might like it, too:,97504/

Ronald said...

For someone who creates a show and it gets picked up... what kind of financial windfall is there. I'm just curious as those people who did not get a show picked up (zero dollars) and those who did. Also... is there more dollars on network or cable (say TBS)

MikeN said...

So shows like CSI Miami, NCIS LA, or Law and Order SVU really count as spinoffs, when they have no characters in common? NCIS LA is a fake spinoff of NCIS which is a fake spinoff of JAG.

Joey is a real spinoff. Frasier is a real spinoff, and arguably the king.

johnsma said...

If reboots like Arrested Development and 24 prove to be successful, what do you think the chances are of seeing other series revived? Are there any you'd like to see brought back to life?

Rich D said...

@DBenson - You're not far off with that "Bruce" idea. Way back when, someone had pitched the WB a series centered on a young adult Bruce Wayne before he became Batman, as he was preparing for his life as a crime fighter. It got as far as a pilot script (which was pretty good as I recall) and some loglines for additional episodes before the network passed. However, one of the loglines centered on Bruce traveling to Kansas to investigate rumors about some sort of guardian angel in a little town known as Smallville. Needless to say, when the same network launched a show called Smallville, centering on a young pre-Superman career Clark Kent, they found themselves on the wrong side of a law suit.

MrCarlson said...

Ken, I was listening to Marc Maron's podcast interview with Sam Simon, and was devastated to find out that he has terminal cancer. He spoke candidly about his life and career, and one of the things he said really stuck with me. Talking about the Simpsons, he pointed out that none of the writers that worked on the show were ever able to create a hit show of their own, saying that the skills necessary to work on a big machine like the simpsons were very different then the ones needed to run a show by yourself. What do you think those are? and why do you think there has been little success outside of the show? it's impressive, if you consider there probably have been hundreds of writers working on it over the 25 years.

bla said...

Just watching the 200th episode with the interview and all.
I can't stop crying over
1) Coach being well... dead.
2) Diane being gone.

Where you there for this celebration ? Was anything written for the gathering ? How did the cast react to Shelley Long being there ?

Whatching Cheers for the first time ever (i'm a 35 french woman), i can't gather why Cheers did not ever aired in France except on a channel nobody ever got. We have the Nanny, the Cosby Show, Something so Right, Friends.... but never had Seinfeld or Cheers. What was that about ? Do you know how are show sold in other countries ?
And, right now, Hannibal seems to be trending oversees, will it be enough to save the show ? And, in general, oversees sell, are they enough to save a show in US ?

I don't know if i'm clear, pardon my french !