Sunday, May 25, 2014

My All-Time Favorite Job

Earl Pomerantz, in his wonderful blog, wrote a recent post describing his “All-time favorite job”. A few readers of both his site and mine have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.

We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.

We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)

It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.

Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.

Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).

Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.

So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.

At all.

We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)

Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.

This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.

To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.

We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.

And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.

The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.

Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.

But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Ken,
Big wave Dave's was one of my wife and I's all time favorite could never understand why it was cancelled.
Out here in the flyover states, I guess we are not smart enough to know what the suites on both coast want us to like.
Enjoy the holiday.

Angry Tech Gamer said...

I have always been a fan of Adam I would have seen the show just for his participation.

Thanks for sharing this story. I am often amazed how Byzantine mature industries get. Too many hoops, Too many decision makers, Too many Dr. No types.

This is why I believe the networks are deadmen walking. When you look at shows like the Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad... then realize that they were not on TV networks. It make s you think something is awry. Granted Sopranos would not have worked on terrestrial TV but still...

I wonder if Big Wave would have found a distribution outlet if it came out these days instead of 1993?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Can it be resurrected?

Gads, how awful for everyone which brings me to the question: How do you guys keep your sanity when stuff like this happens? Nothing in school prepared us for such nonsense.

...maybe school courses should include an hour a day when students could sit at their desks quietly reading, and the teacher would walk the aisles randomly swatting their heads. Call the class: "Life Is Unfair, So Deal With It."

Far more useful than history or p.e.

Lila said...

Odd, I watched MURPHY BROWN faithfully back then but have absolutely no memory of BIG WAVE DAVE'S. Must be because it aired in the summer when I wasn't watching much TV.

Covarr said...

Friday question: What is a laugh spread?

John said...

Love the blog, thank you.

Lots of great reviews but the one you really remember is the sole sour one. (I got some ok reviews for a play but only remember the audience member saying to his girlfriend, "Load of old rubbish, this".)

Is it always only the bad ones that stick? If so, is it known why?

DBA said...

Covarr, it's the extra time due to waiting for live-audience's laughs to subside.

Cap'n Bob said...

Shame on you for trying to put a phalanx of empty suits out of their jobs. Please, do it again.

Hamid said...

I'd love to read any funny stories you have from working with the brilliant Kurtwood Smith. Before Big Wave Dave's, I'd only seen him as the vicious killer in Robocop and the strict dad in Dead Poets Society, so it was so nice to see him in a comedic role.

Klee said...

I always thought that was the Harry Anderson's sitcom...then I looked up on IMDB, that was called Dave's World...duh.

Michelle said...

Friday Question: have you ever been approached to do promos for TVLand or MeTV. I saw Fred Silverman talk about casting for MASH recently, and I thought you would be perfect for those 15 second spots.

Anonymous said...

Combining the accents, the style, and the casting of BWD, I felt as if I was watching an abandoned David Mamet play.

Anonymous said...

John Said:

"Lots of great reviews but the one you really remember is the sole sour one. (I got some ok reviews for a play but only remember the audience member saying to his girlfriend, "Load of old rubbish, this".)

Is it always only the bad ones that stick? If so, is it known why?"

Because some people, when they reach a certain level of success, believe deep down that they are frauds, and it's just a matter of time before they're found out.

Negative reviewers of television or movies are kind of like a food critic, who stops in the middle of the meal of an expensive restaurant and says, "hey... this filet... tastes... kind of like... old horse... I know it shouldn't, but it sure does..."

That's the review the "talented" cook who visits the rental horse ranch late at night will remember beyond any good review.

Because he should.

Johnny Walker said...

How depressing that you were cancelled after six episodes purely due to network politics. Ugh. Being successful and critically acclaimed wasn't good enough.

Auschlander said...

Good stuff, lots of laughs. And David Morse in a comedy - haven't seen that before or since. He was part of that great "new" class of actors that got their wings on St. Elsewhere, and what a fine bunch that was...Boomer!

You have any of the other episodes that you can show?

Anonymous said...

Ken, you may be interested to know that your Big Wave Dave's lives on as a sports bar on Kauai. I happened to notice it on my recent vacation and immediately thought of your show.
Or, based on recent "what am I doing now" post maybe this is what you're really doing...

Anonymous said...

I thought Chicago Hope was carried by Mandy Patinkin.

chuckcd said...

Northern Exposure is one of my all time favorites.
Adam Arkin was in that too and was