Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Before the internet...

Believe it or not, there was a time when information was not right at our fingertips. Studios all had research departments. If we were writing a show and needed to know some historical fact, or date, or even background on a recent news item we would call the research department. Two hours later an inter-studio envelope would arrive with a Xerox copy of the requested information.

And the show would be charged $500. Probably $500.02. They charged for the Xerox copy.

But as a result we would go out of our way to find alternative avenues of obtaining our research.

One was to just guess and put it in the script. In addition to a research department, all studios hired companies to fact-check finished scripts (protection against lawsuits). So since we were paying for that anyway we just used them. A memo would come back that said, “Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis not Betty Boop.”

Or we would ask amongst ourselves, who knows someone who might know this? Like using life lines on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? For example, I could always call former girlfriends if there was a question about celibacy.

The easiest solution was to just change whatever we were looking for into something we knew. If I needed an opera singer it was always Pavarotti. I know nothing about opera. Don’t ask me to include his first name. I’d probably guess Dusty.

The point is, we were always looking for ways to skirt the ridiculously expensive research department.

One time, when I was working on that Mary Tyler Moore series we co-created, a certain sketch actor from the ‘60s came up in conversation. None of us had seen him in years and there was some question as to whether he had died.

To save $500 I called our casting director, Molly Lopata, and said we had a part in next week’s show we were writing and wanted to check on the availability of this sketch actor. We figured either she might tell us he’s dead, and if she herself didn’t know, when she called the agent she’d surely learn.

So I said, “Is ********* available next week?”  There was a long pause. “Oh, listen….” She said in a pained voice, obviously searching for just the right words to break the sad news, “I don’t know what the part is, but please, I beg of you, let me find you someone who’s better.” 

Progress isn’t always the best thing. Today we’d just Google him and have the answer in five seconds, thus denying us a laugh that must’ve lasted for ten minutes. (By the way, he was still alive. I explained to Molly the true purpose of my call and she said, “Oh, thank God. I thought you guys had lost your minds.”)


Breadbaker said...

Dusty Pavarotti was a baritone, Luciano was the tenor.

Ruth Harris said...

I recall scrolling through the NYT on microfiche to track down some needed fact. Or filling out a call slip and waiting for a librarian to bring the necessary volume. Time consuming. Inefficient. No fun. Love the big Goog. (At least when it comes to research and reference.)

Just wrote a post on research and reference in the cyber age with lots of links to obvious and not-so-obvious sources.

BigTed said...

If you type "is alive?" into Google, the second listing is still Abe Vigoda's website.

Mike McCann said...

Even better, NBC during the 1980s had an in-house library at its NY headquarters. Its highlight was a deep and wonderous collection of magazines of interest to us pop culture mavens (or news department researcers). I began building my database of rock 'n' roll TV performances by thumbing through the library's bound volumes of old TV GUIDEs that reached back to the 1940s. It was almost a time machine experience -- without having to worry about parking a DeLorean in midtown Manhattan.

Steve Pepoon said...

I wrote a script for a show where the main character said "John Lennon once said 'there's no such thing as talent - it's just knowing how to do something.'" Our research department asked me where I read that, they said you couldn't ascribe a quotation to someone unless you could prove they actually said or wrote it. I couldn't remember where I'd read it. They spent TWO DAYS pouring through every book about the Beatles they could get their hands on trying to find the quotation. Came up empty. Finally, they said I'd have to change the line. So I suggested, how about "I believe it was John Lennon who once said..." The research dept. said "Oh, sure, you can say THAT."

The Curmudgeon said...

This explains an error in Miracle on 34th Street -- the greatest movie about lawyers ever made. All the lawyers are good guys. The prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge. Only the psychologist is a bad guy.

So, in the movie, Edmund Gwenn is explaining how he breezes through psych tests and he's reciting the questions from memory. Then he throws in one of his own, "Who was Vice President under John Quincy Adams? Daniel D. Tompkins and I'll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn't know that." Maureen O'Hara and Philip Tonge (Mr. Shellhammer) are impressed.

But they shouldn't have been.

Daniel D. Tompkins was James Monroe's Vice President; the correct answer would have been John C. Calhoun.

Of course there's not many people who'd remember that. Even I was very young back in the 1820s. And Daniel D. Tompkins (to do a little Walter Matthau from "The Sunshine Boys") is a much funnier name than John C. Calhoun. And John Quincy Adams fits the rhythm of the joke much better than James Monroe. So maybe they did it on purpose.

But, now, reading this post, I'm pretty sure you've hit on the explanation.

Lloyd said...

A friend of mine teaches middle school students about research methodology. Oh, this isn't a "technology bad, books good" course. They're quite up to date. He says it's more about teaching these kids that "research," even on the vast, wonderful internet, extends beyond Wikipedia. He says it's sad to him that, with all the research options available to young people today, many of them rarely get any further than what Wikipedia says.

Diane L. said...

Friday question: Can you share any wild stories (like this one from the clip)regarding any of the other casts that you've worked with when they were off the clock? http://teamcoco.com/video/ted-danson-woody-harrelson-mushrooms

Hamid said...


That's hilarious! I love Abe Vigoda. A great actor and such a good sport for taking the running gag about the mistaken death reports with good humour. May he still be with us for many more years to come.

ScottyB said...

Ken: This may be an indelicate issue to bring up or ask you about, but since it was brought up here (link follows), I'll ask about it here.


It seems to me that Seinfeld is correct, and that a question like this should piss him off, or anyone else who writes/performs comedy. I can't count how many blog entries you've made that have to do with how destructive to the process of good comedy the studio suits can be. Sooo -- shouldn't the similar intrusion of political correctness be scorned just as much? I mean jeez, if the suits and political sensibilities had their way, every single sitcom would make sure it had a white, a black, a Mexican, an Asian, and probably a Samoan in it all getting equal time.

So, basic question thru this all is: Where do you draw the line as not just a writer but someone in charge of the whole show?

ScottyB said...

>>>"One was to just guess and put it in the script."<<<

And thus, Cliff Clavin was born.

ScottyB said...

Ken: Yeah, true ... but the answer you get now from Google isn't the be-all and end-all undisputed truth. It's like the question of what was the longest home run ever hit in major league baseball? Was the 600' shots from Mickey Mantle, or was it the one hit by Babe Ruth that supposedly flew into a train car and kept going? And would a record 600' shot in the Rockies' stadium (where the air is thin and the balls fly better in Denver) still hold up as a record if the same ball was hit at a more sea-level park, where the air is thicker and balls don't fly as easy?

Again, that's why, when you're a sitcom writer and sometimes you just throw shit into the wind, owning a character like Cliff fucking Clavin rules.

Brian Leveson said...

My early career was spent writing sketches and I remember doing sketch about Dick Turpin the British highwayman. I walked round to Marylebone library and researched the character. Three hours for a lousy 3 minute sketch! Ridiculous.

cadavra said...

As something of a walking IMDb, I've spent many years gladly answering questions of this sort. And thus it annoys me no end when I see movies making blatantly obvious errors that could have easily been fixed with the proverbial stroke of the pen.

A personal favorite: A friend of mine once asked me to look over her screenplay; it was a CHINATOWN knock-off set in 1937. In one scene, someone suggested going to dinner at Chasen's: "Elizabeth Taylor is crazy about their chili." I scratched out "Elizabeth Taylor," wrote in "Carole Lombard," and wrote in the margin, "In 1937, Taylor was five years old and living in London."

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting sort of on-air correction recently on "Brooklyn Nine Nine." In an early episode, the character played by Terry Crews referred to Francois Truffaut's "Breathless." Well, Truffaut wrote the original script for "Breathless," but Jean-Luc Godard directed it (and, by all accounts, greatly altered the script), and it is usually called his film.

In this week's episode, one scene has Crews arguing with a pair of academics, and the first words we hear are "Yes, I know Godard directed it. But Truffaut wrote it, and I consider film a writer's medium. That's why I regard it as his film."

Great save. (And, of course, it's funnier because Crews is a heavily muscled ex-football player, here playing a tough cop.)

VP81955 said...

A personal favorite: A friend of mine once asked me to look over her screenplay; it was a CHINATOWN knock-off set in 1937. In one scene, someone suggested going to dinner at Chasen's: "Elizabeth Taylor is crazy about their chili." I scratched out "Elizabeth Taylor," wrote in "Carole Lombard," and wrote in the margin, "In 1937, Taylor was five years old and living in London."

From the art imitates life dept.: In the late '30s, after Alfred Hitchcock had emigrated from the UK, he became good friends with Lombard (he rented her house after she moved to the Encino ranch following her marriage to Clark Gable), and Clark and Carole took him to Chasen's; he became a regular. However, despite all the research I've done over the years for my classic Hollywood site "Carole & Co.", I have no record of whether Lombard liked their chili. However, Chasen's opened in December 1936, so at least your friend got that part right.