Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are Friday Questions to close out the week...and month.

Chris starts us off:

How come Everybody Loves Raymond only had one act break? (At least the first 3 seasons) I mean, I know Phil Rosenthal wanted to create a classic, back in the day family style sitcom, but why didn't CBS push for more ad space?

Networks air the same amount of commercials whether it’s two acts or six.

When RAYMOND began in the mid ‘90s all half-hour sitcoms had a two-act format. It really wasn’t until the ‘00s that networks went to three acts hoping to better hide their inflated commercial loads. The result is it’s harder to tell stories with two act breaks rather than one, but networks aren’t remotely concerned with that.
Jon Wolfert asks:

When and how did the term "show runner" enter the TV lexicon? I don't remember hearing about "show runners" in the 70s and 80s. There were producers, directors, head writers, writers... but "show runner" sounds like a term made up by someone with a third grade mind. (I thought the same thing when I first heard "I am the Decider".) Any insight?

I first heard the term used in the '90s. I don’t know who coined it. Maybe the same guy who named the ballpark in Arlington “the Ballpark.”

For many years Executive Producer was the official title for the person in charge. Then writers moved up the ladder and several shared the title. There were also co-Executive Producers. In an effort to cut through the bullshit someone came up with the more generic but less pretentious "show runner."

So the term has been around awhile. It's only the last fifteen years or so with the internet that the general public started recognizing the contributions of the behind-the-camera staff and learning just who the show runners were.

The job itself has never changed. Only the unofficial title.

Hamid wants to know:

By all accounts, the 80s was a legendary decade in Hollywood for excess and wild parties, the era of Don Simpson's infamous antics. You worked on one of the biggest shows of the decade right in the heart of Hollywood at Paramount, so my question is how much of those legendary wild times did you personally witness and was it a lot of fun?

Uh, none. I have heard stories of writing rooms where they would have cocaine in a sugar bowl, but CHEERS was most definitely NOT one of them. We’d have some wine with dinner at times and enjoy a Heineken after rewrites but truly, that was about it.

In the mid ‘80s TV GUIDE did a whole cover story on the rampant use of cocaine in Hollywood. At the time David and I were "show running" a short-lived series for Mary Tyler Moore. We received a letter from a viewer. This is how it began: “I read a recent article on all the drug use in Hollywood and thought they must be way exaggerating. And then I watched an episode of your show…”

And finally, from Timothy Wintour:

When writing a spec for an existing show, would you recommend writing a very self-contained episode by trying to use only the main characters and main sets (which is very difficult to pull off without it feeling boring) or would you recommend creating new sets and one-time guest characters (which shows often do)?

Definitely lean towards containment. Don’t write an episode that would cost their entire season's budget to produce. That’s a rookie mistake. And you can certainly have outside characters, but clearly center your show on the main characters and primarily focus on them.

Another rookie mistake is to introduce an outside character and make the episode about him. We had that several times in CHEERS. One of the barflies would write a spec in which HE was the star of the show that week. Like that would ever happen.  

As a general rule, if you're writing a show called THE MINDY PROJECT the story should probably be about a character named Mindy. 

As always, best of luck with your spec.

What’s your question?


Dan Ball said...

So Nancy Reagan wrote that episode of DIFF'RENT STROKES? Man...accomplished lady... :D

Markus said...

I guess "the guy who runs the show" simply has a more positive vibe to it than "the guy who executes the production" ...

Hamid said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! As always, a great read. The image of cocaine in a sugar bowl in a writers room is hilarious. That might explain some episodes of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Of course, as a kid, I didn't discern the homoeroticism in the show, even in the episodes where He-Man hung out with his good pal Fisto.

Mike said...

'And the I saw your show'

Reminds me of a letter that Neil Cavuto read on Fox Business Report.

I was watching Fox News, and I was thinking, where are the ugly people? Everyone is so beautiful. Fox News says Fair and Balanced, but beauty everywhere. Then I sa your show, and my faith in Fox News was restored.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

There's always an exception, of course. I believe I heard on the DVD commentary for a HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER episode that the script for that episode had been submitted as a spec and that they loved it because it brought to the foreground a guy behind the bar that no one else had really noticed was always there and mined his point of view.


Darryl said...

I knew someone whose father worked on some Norman Lear sitcoms, primarily "Sanford and Son." He told me that "Sanford" used a lot of freelance scripts and that they were forever getting submissions that required four brand-new sets, location shooting and a special guest appearance by Harry Belafonte.

The other thing he told me was that they got a lot of submissions which somehow or another altered the basic premise of the series, or key relationships between characters. Having Fred Sanford die of a heart attack (the character milked sympathy by faking heart attacks) was a favorite, he told me, as was having son Lamont shot and killed. He told me it amazed him that so many writers came up with this stuff with no regard for how the series was supposed to continue from there.

Steve Pepoon said...

On ALF, we constantly got spec scripts where the puppet was somehow destroyed, either by having all his hair fall off or splashing around in a bathtub which would have drowned the puppeteers and shorted out the electronics in his head (eyes, ears, eyebrows) The main ALF cost about 50 grand as I recall. Sorry. Ain't gonna wreck it for your story.

Breadbaker said...

Perhaps "Mary" would have been improved by a big sugar bowl of cocaine in the middle of the room. Not necessarily to consume, but as sort of a real life MacGuffin.

John said...

I blame Edward Bennett Williams for The Ballpark at Arlington, since they were trying to mimic EBW's Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which opened two years earlier, right down to the throwback red brick exterior (which fit with Camden Yards, since they were incorporating a big red brick warehouse into the stadium design, but less so when your ballpark is next to Turnpike Stadium and Six Flags. However, since then, I believe everything in Texas has been required to be built with red brick exteriors, so it no longer looks out of place).

Friday question -- Have you known of any writers who were good at taking fully-developed characters from, say, Season 2 or beyond in a series, and designing a story around them, but didn't work as well if they were dealing with an early episode, where the characters and situations were less well-defined?

Kevin B said...

Steve Pepoon,

Health Inspector 2000 is one of the greatest half hours of television ever.

Hamid said...


I loved ALF as a kid! Such a fun show. There was some news a while back about a movie or a reboot by the original creator Paul Fusco. Is that still happening?

I guess the actor who played the dad won't be involved. Wasn't he exposed smoking crack with some homeless guys? :-)

Mitchell Hundred said...

I know you're a sitcom guy, but do you have any theories as to why police procedurals are so consistently popular with networks?

Steven said...

I guess the actor who played the dad won't be involved. Wasn't he exposed smoking crack with some homeless guys

Considering it's been almost 25 years since ALF was cancelled, I can't imagine that any of the original cast would be able to reprise their roles should a reboot of the series happen.

Joey H said...

Whoa. A question from Jon Wolfert. The JAM Jingles Jon Wolfert? Cool.

Mike said...

Russian 'kills friend in argument over whether poetry or prose is better'
The killing came four months after an argument over the theories of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant ended in a man being shot in a grocery store in southern Russia.
Just watch yourself, making fun of Russian poetry.

Anonymous said...

You previously wrote about Dan Harmon being fired from Community?

What are your thoughts on his return?

Oliver said...

I saw these floor plans of houses/apartments in popular series:

I was wondering if you find it important to have an overall spatial concept. Do viewers pick up on inconstistencies, e.g. doors leading to different rooms in different episodes (if that ever happens at all)?

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Speaking of writing spec scripts, I think I've found a good rule of thumb.

I'm far from an expert -- I've never completed a spec script, let alone sold one -- so there's absolutely no reason to listen to me (and I'm not even convinced I'm right in what I'm about to suggest) but I have given writing for Hollywood a helluva a lot of thought over the years. I've listened every interview from anyone who have actually been successful in Hollywood that I could lay my hands on, and I've read every bit of advice on the subject I could find.

One such bit of advice is that you should never send your spec to the show you've written for: The producers know their characters, their aims, the things they want to avoid, a lot better than you. They will see every flaw, every misstep, magnified tenfold.

But there's a few cases, probably in the entire history of Hollywood, where someone has not only submitted a spec to the show they've written for, but that spec was actually produced.

One such example was Sam Simon for TAXI. And here's what I noticed with his script: Simon came up with an original story that had the exact same emotional heft, impact and tone as the pilot.

It struck me that, if the pilot is especially good, that it's probably the best example of what the producers are aiming for with their show: It's the script that has had the most amount of care, attention and love poured into it.

If you can come up with an original story that has the same tone and satisfying emotional resolution as the pilot, I think you'll probably have something that is very recognizably of that show, and in a very good way.

In other words, if you're looking for a template as a basis for your story, don't look at the kooky/weird episodes where the producers are trying out something new (or are just trying to meet their episode count for the season) -- go back to the source.

I have no qualifications to give out any such advice, and I could be very wrong indeed. (I can even think of a few exceptions off the top of my head where shows have started shakily and found their feet later -- PARKS AND REC for example -- where going back to the pilot would probably be a huge mistake.)

But it MAY be good advice, SOME of the time :)

Matthew said...

Do viewers pick up on inconsistencies, e.g. doors leading to different rooms in different episodes (if that ever happens at all)?

On BEWITCHED, Samantha and Darrin have two windows in their bedroom that look out over their front yard. However, if you think about how that bedroom is positioned in relation to the rest of the house, those two windows should look out over their back yard.

There's also a door in Sam and Darrin's kitchen that leads to a laundry room, a broom closet, or the cellar stairs, depending on which episode you're seeing it used in.

Wilhelm said...

Friday Question:

I'm currently working on a sitcom, which is my main focus. Lately, however, I've become enamored with the idea of an hour-long mystery series. Once writers make it, do they stick to one genre, or can they switch back and forth? I don't recall any examples of any sitcom creators creating a drama series or vice versa.

Allan V said...

I have two questions about when a cast member not only stars in an episode, but also directs it. I was wondering:

1) how much of the running time does he/she have to spend behind the camera to qualify for directing credit, and
2) are studios enthusiastic about the practice, or otherwise?