Friday, May 09, 2014

Friday Questions

Time to roll up my sleeves and answer more of your Friday Questions.

Michael asks:

Between networks, basic cable, pay cable, and now streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, etc), there are more places than ever for show creators to pitch new shows to. What factors do they consider when deciding where to pitch?

Well, first off all, which ones of those places want YOU. Beyond that, I would say it depends on the project itself. If you have more of a mainstream sitcom you would probably approach the networks first. Or TBS.

And even if your show is for a network, which one? CBS tends to be more traditional. Fox favors single-camera. ABC is always looking for the perfect companion to MODERN FAMILY. And NBC is sort of a mix of all of them.

If your project is geared more for an older audience you should consider TV LAND as your first stop.

A younger skewing show might find a home on THE DISNEY CHANNEL or NICHELODEON.

If your project is more edgy you might steer towards FX, or one of the premium cable channels. And streaming services are a complete wildcard. They seem to be accepting a wide range of ideas and comic styles.

But you’re right, Michael. Back in the Dark Ages there were three buyers – the major networks, and that was pretty much it. Today there are way more options, and as a result, a lot more variety for the viewer. You could never do LOUIE on CBS. Or HOT IN CLEVELAND on FX.

From John G:

How did you get Johnny Carson to do Heeere's Cliffy?

This is one of those “you’ll never know unless you try” stories. Johnny Carson was notorious for saying no to things. It was a major deal when he did a two-second cameo on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and even then you just heard his voice. You never actually saw him on screen.

I think, in our case, the planets just aligned. This was his last year as TONIGHT SHOW host so he may have been more receptive to the added attention a CHEERS appearance would bring. He also was a big fan of the show.

I don’t know the exact logistics of who specifically approached who (did we go through NBC or his representatives?), but he agreed to do the episode based on hearing the idea. It’s not like we had to write the script first and then have him decide. (We wouldn’t have done that.)

Once Johnny was on board everything fell easily into place. And as I’ve mentioned before, he couldn’t have been nicer, more respectful, and easier to work with. A complete pro and gentleman.

Anonymous has a question (please leave your name, guys):

Ken: there was an article this week on one of the writers for Late Night with Seth Meyers who was hired based solely on the jokes on his Twitter account (it's actually a cool Cinderella story. Other showrunners and stars, like Parks & Rec's Mike Schur and Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andy Samburg, have come out and agreed that they've found writers via Twitter. Other showrunners like Mindy Kaling agrees that this is a useful tool but also feels social media could be deceptive, because it can be easy to come up with a quick quip or joke, but that's not the same as crafting 22 minutes of character-driven story. What's your take on this? Thanks.

If you can get noticed and make a positive impression from your Twitter Tweets I say more power to ya. Any legal avenue you can find!

But I agree with Mindy. Tweets wouldn’t tell me if this person can write character comedy, has any sense of story or can write for different voices. If there was someone on Twitter I thought was really funny I might contact them and ask for a script sample too. But what a leg up that person would have. Obviously, I would read their stuff before I got to the pile of submissions. So Tweet away!

And finally, from Charles H. Bryan:

Have you ever thought about creating a baseball sitcom?

I would LOVE to create a baseball series. But there are some problems.

First off, baseball shows are very expensive. You have to show the games, and ideally big crowds. CBS tried to get around that in the ‘70s by adapting Jim Bouton’s classic book BALL FOUR into a multi-camera sitcom set entirely in the locker room. It was a total cheat and audiences didn’t buy it.

Fox once did a baseball series that was a knock-off of MAJOR LEAGUE and it never got numbers worth the expense.

CBS aired an adaptation of the movie LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and that too bombed.

There have also been a couple of series centered on Little League baseball. A BAD NEWS BEARS knockoff in the ‘70s and just last year BACK IN THE GAME with James Caan and Maggie Lawson struck out on three pitches. Interestingly, in both of these cases, producers were told to de-emphasize baseball-themed stories.

For my money, the best baseball series was BAY CITY BLUES about a minor league team. But the emphasis was more on the players’ wives than the players themselves.

Another problem for baseball series is that they tend not to do well internationally. They play as well overseas as a CBS sitcom about Australian Rules Football would play here in the U.S.

Still… if there was a way, I’d love to do one.

It’s easy to post a Friday Question. Just submit it in the comments section. Have a great Mother’s Day weekend.


Brian O. said...

ABC's COACH did pretty well without a stadium, crowds or games. Is the writing for football easier than baseball in sitcoms?

Stoney said...

The "Cheers" episode "Rat Girl" is currently available (on my system at least) on TVGN On Demand. The story ends with the suggestion of a second child for Frasier and Lillith but that never transpired. Is there much difficulty in writing something into a single episode which could have a major affect on the future of a series?

Rays profile said...

"a CBS sitcom about Australian Rules Football"

Tonight, on "How I Tackled Your Mother..."

Johnny Walker said...

I kind of feel you could do a Baseball series with minimal shots of the game itself, right? So many locations: Locker rooms, hotel rooms, buses, bus terminals, airplanes, offices, the player's homes, not to mention the bar they congregate at after the game.

Sounds ideal for a single camera show. For some reason it just sounds really good to me.

I appreciate the fear that nobody outside of the US would watch it -- but FIELD OF DREAMS and MAJOR LEAGUE and other such movies were successful abroad, weren't they? Being a foreigner, I think there's more fear in the US than actual resistance from audiences abroad.

In other news: I'm listening to your last MARILU appearance while I work today, and again I'm hit by how entertaining you are. I usually can't stand talk radio DJs. There's that terrible subconscious pressure to keep talking, and have extreme opinions on things, even if they don't know what the hell they're talking about, but I don't get that listening to you. A fourth career move? :)

Anyways, here's even more CHEERS related Friday questions:

In Season One there's at least one episode where we see the "fourth" wall (where the audience is in reality). How did this work on a practical level? Didn't pulling the fake wall out obscure the audience's view?

Towards the end of Season 3, Sam is forced to hire a matronly British waitress played by the late Lila Kaye. I always thought she did such an excellent job and fitted in with the chemistry of the show perfectly. Was there ever any consideration given to bringing her back for another episode or two?

Unknown said...
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Dan Ball said...

EASTBOUND & DOWN wasn't too bad of a baseball show. I've only seen the first season, but it was pretty decent if you don't mind Danny McBride.

Unknown said...

Hello!You know, I Have an idea it just came to me.You said once that characters or actors like Joey Tribbiani can't make it on their own. He can't handle a show dedicated for his character.ok, what about taking two characters of the same "level", and combine them in one spin off about letting Roz Doyle meet Joey Tribbiani !! Wouldn't they together make it work ?and at the same time you are gaining the audience of two sitcoms.I don't know just an idea. What do you think ?Great blog by the way. I am an arab living in the middle east, and a loyal fan of Frasier, cheers.. and when I was younger.. Friends!

Johnny Walker said...

@Hiba I believe the reason why characters like Joey (or Coach on CHEERS) don't work too well at the center of shows is because they are broad to be relatable.

I could totally imagine Roz having her own spin-off show, as she was very grounded in reality, but I think Joey would be relegated to being a kooky friend of hers. You'd still need someone she could relate to.

Sorry to shoot down your idea, this sort of thing is just interesting to me! :)

Mr First Nighter said...

The best thing about Jim Bouton's BALL FOUR sitcom was the theme song by Harry Chapin

Milton the Momser said...

Isn't the only "rule" in Australian Rules Football "kill the man with the ball"?

Frank from Silly Cone Valley said...

Austrailian Rules Football is actually a pretty fun game to watch.
ESPN used to show it back when they were looking for stuff to fill up their schedule before they started running 12 hours of Sportscenter a day.
Enough small talk: Hey Ken, could I send you a one page draft of an idea I am working on? I would love you to go all Dennis Miller on me.

Rinaldo said...

I wouldn't say that Bay City Blues was more about the wives (though after all this time, who remembers for sure?). But it was more about the personal lives of the players and staff, which included wives (Sharon Stone! Sheree North!). Most important was that, sadly, it just wasn't very good. It lacked that "spark of life" that we know when we see it. They made 8 episodes; showed the first 4 (one was preempted in many locations by election coverage), then months later burned off the remaining 4 on Sunday late-night. And that was that.

Dave-El said...

How about a series about the owner of baseball team? Rich but a bit clueless. Loves baseball but has zero talent for the game. Has a business manager with less passion for baseball and constantly looking to dump the luckless team he owns. Stuff with the team intersects with his family. One of the players is sleeping with his daughter; wait, not his daughter but one of his sons. Wait, his son is gay? Since when? Anyway, you get the gist.

Very little has to occur during games. You want to see some players do baseball type things? Find a southern city with a baseball team that has decent weather during the fall and winter so you can get in a bunch of spring/summer baseball shots.


mickey said...

For me, Bay City Blues had potential (including a really good cast), but NBC pulled the plug prematurely. The reason Hill Street and St. Elsewhere had long-term high-quality runs is that they were given time to establish themselves. I guess it was easier to give the benefit of the doubt to shows about traditional subjects like cops or doctors, and it was easier to just say "baseball shows don't work."

Tertullian said...

Since when has Mindy Kaling ever created "22 minutes of character-driven story"?

pumpkinhead said...

So far today, the comments today have given me two interesting things (maybe more, but two that caught my attention).

I've always looked for a way to describe that intangible something that makes me feel like a new show is working. Rinaldo's phrase "spark of life" I think is an excellent term to describe it.

I also think Hiba's idea is a really good one overall. Not necessary Roz and Joey, but I do think the idea of utilizing several established supporting characters (from same show, different shows) for a spin-off is an excellent and underused idea. I'm aware that there are a few examples of this where it didn't work (AfterMash, Golden Palace), but I think the problems there were that they were ill-conceived attempts to keep long-running shows going rather than inspired attempts to expand worthy supporting characters.

Tim Dunleavy said...

For the BALL FOUR sitcom, the producers got the Phillies to play an exhibition inning or two against the show's fictitious team. Then every time the team left the locker room to play a game, they cut to footage of that exhibition game. After a few weeks you began to wonder "Does this team play ANYONE except the Phillies?"

CANDA said...

Another baseball series problem. Baseball is played in the summer, the TV season is Fall, Winter, Spring. When it's January in New York, watching a show about a baseball event in July is going to seem very strange.

Maybe Winter Ball in Mexico, with an aging American Baseball player, ala Bull Durham might work better. Fish out of Water.

Brian said...

Just read yet another story on "greatest ad-libbed movie lines of all time". Do you have any stories of when an actor ad-libbed a line and it was kept in the program? How about when an actor had to be told to "just say it like its written"?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I believe PHENOM, a one-season show in the early 1990s about a teen tennis player suffered from a similar cost problem. The idea, I think, was finding the balance between a supreme gift, whose development places all sorts of demands on the phenom and her family, and a normal life. (In the end, BUFFY covered all that way better.) The tennis parts always looked fake - the show's star couldn't really play and wasn't in any kind of physical shape to be taken seriously even as a top junior, and they couldn't show matches. So they wound up with a lot of stories about her and school, and her various problems with her coach (who although he ran an academy some distance away was always around). They'd have done better to make her a budding pianist.


Johnny Walker said...

I'd never heard of PHENOM before, Wendy, but it was actually a James L Brooks show, co-created by Sam Simon. Ed. Weinberger directed the pilot, too! Wow, talk about lost to time.

Anonymous said...

Baseball series: "The Topes". Animation solves the expense of crowd scenes.

chalmers said...

With all of the talent involved, I think "Bay City Blues" could have found its groove eventually. Unfortunately, it matched Hill Street's low ratings without the same crackle that could convince a network exec to keep it on the air despite the audience size.

Given that Bochco got the show on the air based on HSB's critical acclaim, you could expect similarities, but I think it went way too far, even extending to team/series name.

Even the opening credits feature a beautifully simple, sad Mike Post melody set to shots of the characters interspersed with depressing local images. That seems much more appropriate to a drama set against inner-city crime rather than America's national pastime, even if set in a dying, minor-league town.

While BCB presaged the "Bull Durham" formula of using baseball as a background for relationship stories, it lacked the fun of the film, or maybe all of the Hill Street stuff just made it seem that way.

Drew said...

Hi Ken,

Deadline this pilot season has repeatedly said there is a "shortage of senior level writer-producers" for returning and new network shows. How is that possible? What are former senior level writer-producers doing, if not working in tv?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, thanks for the response! It only encourages me:

1) What about an animated baseball sitcom? You've written for animation.

2) What about a comedic baseball novel? You've written a novel.

3) How well do U.S. sitcoms play internationally? (I recall, sort of, back in the early 90s I was taking a grad course where I was writing something about television and I found information that the number 5 show in South Africa was WHO'S THE BOSS? That's always stuck with me.) Of course, rather than dollar signs, stories about bizarre translations of your work would be more entertaining.

Stoney said...

Not a question but an observation. The Katie Couric show is playing in the other room and her guest is Patricia Heaton. Not seeing her, it strikes me that she sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton. Has she ever been asked about playing that role?

ScottyB said...

@DavidLong: Been done, except at an AM radio station. See 'WKRP in Cincinnati'.

How about this?: Two guys who met while paying major or minor league ball years ago, but now are doing something else. Aw crap, nevermind. 'Cheers'.

You suck, Levine. You used up all the good ideas.

ScottyB said...

@BrianO has a total point there with 'Coach'. But if I recall, that show had audio footage of crowd cheering. Lord knows the strain the rights to that has on a show's budget.

ScottyB said...

Methinks this is a good watch from David Milch (co-creator of 'Hill Street Blues'), given Levine's posts since forever, and the comments and questions about writing from us:

ScottyB said...

Oops, my bad. Milch wrote for 'Hill Street'. He co-created 'NYPD Blue'.

Todd Everett said...

[b] Anonymous pumpkinhead said...[/b}

...I also think Hiba's idea is a really good one overall. Not necessary Roz and Joey, but I do think the idea of utilizing several established supporting characters (from same show, different shows) for a spin-off is an excellent and underused idea...

Producer/writer Dan Schneider has done that very thing, taking characters from two earlier series and putting them together as "Sam & Kat" for Nickelodeon.

I discovered it relatively recently through a review in The New Yorker (!) and -- several decades beyond the presumed target audience -- find it hilarious. Saturday nights at 7 or so.

Johnny Walker said...

Yes, maybe with the right characters it could work... An interesting idea.

Rob in Toronto said...

Ken, would you agree with me that Carson's guest spot on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is pretty much the greatest guest spot in sitcom history, partly because of the guts it took to do it that way ? Imagine teasing an audience for 25 minutes about an appearance they will never see... yet when I saw the episode first run I remember laughing twice as hard when I figured out we'd been duped, because it was so damn clever... and Carson's unmistakable voice assured us he was really there.

John G said...


Thanks a bunch for answering my question! And let's not forget Carson's cameo in a cafe at the end of a Night Court episode as a secret admirer of Christine. Bull then asks Johnny, "Excuse me, but aren't you married now?", with Carson replying, "I don't know."

Brad said...

Carson did very little sitcom work, am I correct? Aside from what's been mentioned, I seem to recall a cameo on Get Smart. Also, he and Ed McMahon made a full-blown guest appearance together with Lucille Ball on Here's Lucy. ("Full blown" in that it wasn't just a gag appearance, walk-on or cameo.) My wife seems to recall him turning up on Newhart.

I always admired the way he quietly stepped out of the limelight and chose to remain out of it after leaving The Tonight Show, turning down large amounts of money to remain with NBC (or go elsewhere) and do specials. In a business where people are inclined to continue shoving their faces at us long after they've done their best work and long after we've ceased to care (I'm lookin' at you, Bob Hope), that was a very rare and refreshing choice for him to make.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

" could do a Baseball series with minimal shots of the game itself, right? So many locations: Locker rooms, hotel rooms, buses, bus terminals, airplanes, offices, the player's homes, not to mention the bar they congregate at after the game.

I thinks that's been done before. That sounds like a combination of Cheers and Wings. :)

Cole said...

Just yesterday I directed my first ever online sketch, which was also the first time I really directed an actor other than myself and the two other guys in my sketch group. The shoot ended up going pretty well, but in the early stages my actress (who happens to be my best friend) told me I was slightly intimidating and that she felt a lot of pressure from me. Being an actor myself I know that feeling and the last thing I wanted to do was make her feel that way, but at the same time I didn’t know how to better communicate with her to get the right performance. So, I was wondering if you have any advice on: How to make your actors feel more comfortable with your direction. How to get the best performances out of them without spoon feeding them delivery and letting them be themselves but still getting the performance you need and envisioned as the director. How to effectively work with your crew and not make it feel like they’re just working for you. And how to set up cheap but effective quick zoom panning foreground shot without it looking “amateurish.”
(That last one might be a bit tricky so I don’t blame you if you can’t answer it).

Johnny Walker said...

Albert, that's very true... but I could do with some more Cheers and Wings in my life :)

Chalmers said...

Johnny also paid the gas bill for Larry and the Darryls on "Newhart" and helped out his old friend, Krusty the Clown, by appearing on his comeback special. His "Simpsons" appearance was after he left the Tonight Show and might have been his last speaking role.

Noelle said...

Friday Question: What do you think makes a great TV pilot? And what are some of your all-time favorite pilots?

AndrewJ said...

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was a successful series about a sports team. To a lesser extent, so was THE WHITE SHADOW.

You could always do a baseball series set in the late 19th century/early 20th century. Rube Waddell would make an excellent central character... :)

Jordan M said...

Actually, Fox is looking for multi-cam hit. There's a Vulture piece with Kevin Reilly that's pretty open and illuminating about his current take on things.

Relevant section:

13. In fact, while Reilly seems to be turning Fox into the new home of NBC-style comedies — i.e., quirky and critically loved — he insists his real intent is to make the exact opposite kind of half-hour work. “The one thing that I’m really obsessed with is multi-camera comedy,” Reilly says. “It is a form that is unique to network television. And then, for whatever reason, it fell out of vogue at networks. And talent is afraid to get back in. I see so much comedic talent that seems like they would rather do a [single-camera] show that by definition less people are going to see.” Noting that multi-cams such as All in the Family and Seinfeld were “the coolest shows of all time,” Reilly says it’s surprising more showrunners aren’t looking to jump into the form. “I don’t know why you won’t aspire to do that,” he says. Not that some aren’t trying: “This year we have John Mulaney doing a sitcom for us, and Tina Fey and Matt Hubbard and Robert Carlock doing a multi-camera sitcom. Even the much-maligned Dads, where it became the poster child [for] everything that was wrong on television.”

Houston Mitchell said...

I just got finished watching seasons six and seven of "The West WIng", and it reminded me what a wonderful actor Alan Alda is. He also appears, from what I have heard, to be a good guy behind the scenes too. Do you have a great Alda story you can share with us?

Unknown said...

Yes you're probably right. Most of Joey's stories in Friends were about funny weird stuff like sexy relations, food, childish sentiments. The REAL events were for Rachel Ross and Chandler Monica relationships.
I think the only reason I suggested it is because I don't want these characters to die.
Anyway it's too late now. Just a theoretical question.
thank you for your reply Johnny

Cliff Corcoran said...

Doing Play by Play for the Mariners, (or another team), what circumstance left you speechless, or laughing so hard that you couldn't talk? Bonus for both answers!

Shawn said...

You often hear horror stories about pilot episodes, that were great, but the network decided to tweak the show, with disastrous results.

I recently saw the original pilot episode of 'Big Bang Theory', and it was unwatchable. Obviously better with the changes.

Can you think of any other shows that were actually better, once the network's notes were employed.

Tom Berg said...

Johnny Carson had a cameo on Night Court as well. It was a complete surprise, and very well done.

Marija said...

Hi Ken,

I just wanted to post this link. Take a look if you haven't seen it already (don't be discouraged, but it's on vulture). Two supporting actors from Mad Men talk about pilot season. It's really interesting and endearing to see how basically insecure they are.