Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Questions

Coming at ya every Friday.

Rob Larkin is up first.

When you and your writing partner began as story editors on M*A*S*H how was it dealing with veteran writers for the show such as Laurence Marks, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum? Were they open to story suggestions? Or were they, "Who are you kids telling us what to do?"

That’s a great question. Jim & Everett could not have been nicer or more respectful. They were the most open to suggestions and rewriting. And ironically, their scripts required the least amount of rewriting. You could almost just shoot one of their first drafts.

We were such admirers of theirs and remained friends with them for the rest of their lives. I even did a blog post about them years ago.

The other veterans ranged from tolerating us to being downright rude. No names, but clearly they resented dealing with a couple of twentysomethings. And even then I’d forgive them if their drafts had come back better.

From Charles H. Bryan”

I was thinking today, a little, about THE COSBY SHOW of the 80s. I think if you mention the show to someone who was watching TV then, they'll say they liked it and think well of it, but it won't pop up on a list without the prompt. I think people more likely remember SEINFELD, or FRIENDS, or CHEERS as being part of NBC Thursday. I think more people would recall the Keatons than the Huxtables. Do you think THE COSBY SHOW gets the discussion that it should?

THE COSBY SHOW was one of the most influential television programs in the history of the medium. At the time it premiered in 1984 there was a lot of talk that sitcoms were an endangered species. That one show changed everything. The ratings were spectacular and no show in today’s landscape will ever have the impact THE COSBY SHOW had. CHEERS and FAMILY TIES only became smash hits because they followed THE COSBY SHOW.

Creatively, however, I don’t think THE COSBY SHOW aged well. And it’s not just because of those sweaters. In fairness, the first year was wonderful. Funny, fresh, and with attitudes that were real. And it had one of the best pilots ever.  I show it to my USC Comedy class every semester. 

But as the series progressed and Bill assumed more creative control the show became way more preachy. Scripts were routinely just thrown out by Bill so the poor writing staff was churning out material night and day. Not surprisingly, he would burn them out. And the end result reflected that.  Some terrific writers were reduced to galley slaves.  So you never got the advantage of seeing them at their best. 

Today the show feels dated and somewhat overbearing. But again, give it its due. THE COSBY SHOW must go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV.

Cpl. Clegg asks:

It appears that you are a veteran of many pitch meetings. From those, I assume, you must have formed some opinions on studio/network executives. What background makes the best executive? Former actor like Les Moonves? Long-term network employee like Fred Silverman? Or something else?

Taste, perspective, intelligence, showmanship, and courage. Courage to trust their instincts and make decisions out of conviction and not fear. And if they’re in comedy development it would help if they had a sense of humor. (Not all do.)

There are executives who have a great passion for television and always did. Then there are  executives that come from a strictly business background who are there simply to make money. They might as well be in banking or soft drink bottling.

A good executive can enhance a project and by establishing good relationships with top writers can attract the best people to their network. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some of these very talented men and women.

And finally, VincentS wants to know:

Although the "pilot" for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW - which was actually an episode of THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW - was multi-camera, when the show proper was green-lit Andy Griffith insisted that it be single camera, his reasoning being that if the actors were performing in front of a studio audience they would be pushing for laughs. What's your take on that, Ken, especially since you're a director as well?

I think it depends on the premise and tone of the show. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW had a more naturalistic easygoing tone – much like Andy himself. Other shows like BIG BANG THEORY really go for the big laughs, and in that case, a studio audience feeds the energy.

I can’t see MASH as a multi-camera show and I can’t see CHEERS as a single-camera show.

What’s your Friday Question? I’ll get to as many as I can. Thanks.


Avery said...

You say that The Cosby Show hasn't aged well and I agree. And it seems shows that were shot on tape as opposed to film don't age as well in general. The first season of Newhart was shot on tape and to me it just stands out like a sore thumb. Would you agree?

Stoney said...

This question is for Beaver Cleaver, the D.J.: Do you agree with Gene Simmons that rock is dead?

Unknown said...

I think any show that reflects the culture and styles of the day, such as Cosby, The Partridge Family, or Welcome Back, Kotter, will suffer in future viewings. Plus, I feel the quality of the show went steadily downhill from the first season. Fortunately for the showrunners and NBC, the public had already fallen in love with the characters, so it was a juggernaut for several years.
For those who look back fondly at that Thursday night lineup, I highly recommend Warren Littlefield's Rise and Fall of Must-See-TV. There is much-deserved love doled out to Cosby, as well as Cheers, Wings, Friends, Will and Grace, and ER. His undeserved ouster at the behest of the odious Don Ohlmeyer is one of the most inane decisions in the history of television.

Terrence Moss said...

I read Littlefield's book and THE COSBY SHOW was largely glossed over in comparison to the coverage of CHEERS, SEINFELD and FRIENDS. Still, it was a great read.

As for THE COSBY SHOW being dated, you're all watching wrong. The show was at its best when it was focused on the core family.

While it did get preachy in later seasons, when the focus was still on Bill, it remained very funny. At the same time, its desire to present the world as it OUGHT to be (Cosby's words), necessitated some level of preachiness.

Pat Reeder said...

"The Cosby Show" was enormously influential and important - I remember all the talk just before it came along about sitcoms being dead and gone forever. And I loved the first episode and watched it through the first season. But I drifted away after that, even when it was in first run. I'd tune in occasionally, but it did turn preachy, like "this week, we will address the important issue of teen pregnancy..." It no longer seemed like a real family, but like a bunch of characters who existed to set up a moral, like an after-school special or "Pilgrim's Progress," only with gaudy sweaters. The fashions and hairdos make it seem dated, but the script quality decline was apparent even back then, and only more noticeable today. See the "Family Guy" cutaway gag where the kids ask their dad why they have so many grandparents, and why they're all famous jazz musicians.

As for executives who make a real contribution to the creative process, Mel Brooks was on Conan's show this week to promote the new Blu-Ray of "Young Frankenstein," and he was singing the praises of Alan Ladd Jr. when he ran 20th Century Fox. He said Ladd let him make "Silent Movie" when everyone else thought he was crazy, and he said of course "Young Frankenstein" should be in black and white after Columbia passed on it because Mel refused to shoot it in color. He also said Ladd okayed "Star Wars" after everyone else passed on it. Sounds like he had unusually good instincts for a suit.

Bill Jones said...

Agree that the Cosby Show hasn't aged well, but man, those first couple years were gold. No wonder it was a phenomenon.

I think another part of the problem is that as the Cosby kids got older, the show didn't work as well; the kids just didn't fit their parts like when they were younger, and they couldn't do more "grown-up" stuff, even though that is where the scripts started going.

Family Ties hasn't aged very well, either, owing to very topical 80s humor, occasional preachiness, and questionable acting by some of the players. But pretty much every scene with Michael J. Fox is still laugh-out-loud funny, even 30 years later. (Michael Gross is still pretty great in most scenes, too.)

Even Friends is starting to show its age. You look at some of those episodes, especially from the early years, and they scream "1990s" (big sweater vests, the hair, the guest stars, etc.). But the humor was less topical, so it still maintains some freshness.

Bradley said...

I just read a galley of Cosby: His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker, the first biography written with support from the man himself. It's a fairly interesting read, even though it definitely slants in his favor and glosses over some of his more negative qualities. Anyway, it's been well documented that Cosby was tough on writers (as far back as I Spy, apparently) and would improvise much of his own dialogue. This book claims that The Cosby Show was as improvised as Curb Your Enthusiasm, if not more so. Whitaker goes so far as to claim that Larry David has received credit for doing what Cosby did much earlier and much better. What's your take on this? With so many child actors and some very well constructed episodes, could it really have been as improvised as the biographer claims? Or has he just been swayed to believe as such by Cosby himself?

Stu Sutcliffe said...

Regarding your experience editing the veterans, I worked as a magazine editor for a few years, and my experience was similar -- the more experienced the writer, the more open and professional their response to being edited. The writers who needed editing the most were always the most offended.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I disliked the Cosby Show at the time because it seemed like a stilted, unfunny commercial for Reagan's "Morning In America". To this day, when I see all the 80s-era programming on the schedule it reminds me of present day Catalans holding Franco rallies. But I'm just a Bitter Old Hippie who voted for John Anderson in 1980, and it's safe to store us in the garage.

Michael said...

This week's New Yorker has an article on Cosby that doubles as a quasi-review of the Cosby biography. The article appears to be far more insightful than the book.

Ken's comment about being viewed as "kids" was interesting to me in part because, when I was still a teenager, I worked as a reporter at a local newspaper. Everybody who took suggestions from colleagues took them from me; those who didn't from anybody else ignored me, too. But 30 years later, I'm still "The Kid." And I don't mean Ted Williams!

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

See the "Family Guy" cutaway gag where the kids ask their dad why they have so many grandparents, and why they're all famous jazz musicians.
If FG did that, it's something else they stole from the Simpsons. Bleeding Gums Murphy was one of the great jazz musician grandpas

Joe said...

When Cosby wasn't being overly preachy, it actually was one of the funniest shows ever. Certain bits and scenes are classics, not the lest of which the scene in the pilot with Theo and the Monopoly money. But late in the series, there were episodes where half of it was Clair giving some history of slavery or Cliff giving a history of Jazz music. Harmless, I guess, just not funny. Also the whole 'Cosby talks to little kids' routine got kind of stale after so many scenes of it, first with Rudy, then with Olivia.

Greg P. said...

Possible question: What is your opinion on Daisy Haggard's take on heads of comedy programming in Matt LeBlanc's Episodes. Ever run into any that clueless? Her Myra Licht is the highlight of the otherwise mediocre sitcom.

McAlvie said...

I'm not sure why you say that The Cosby Show is too dated now. I mean the fashions, sure, but the show was mostly family interactions. How is that dated? I do think that the show suffered as the kids got older. So much of Cosby's material has always been centered around children. They tried to get around the kids aging out by bringing in tykes practically off the street, the situtations obviously staged for a Cosby routine. So they often did not fit well with the episode's generally plotline, and sometimes didn't even try.

703-1 said...

Ask your colleague Earl to do a piece about working for Cos. Nobody wants throw anyone under the bus but Earl can be extremely tactful.

Johnny Walker said...

It's always interesting when multi-camera shows do external scenes (like when CHEERS was in Italy) -- they're suddenly single camera shows. Although it feels a little jarring at times, I always find it interesting to see if it still works. (In CHEERS'S case I think it did, but probably because it was only ever in small doses.)

I'll also join in on the COSBY love: I adored THE COSBY SHOW when it was on (I think the next show that had that sort of impact was THE SIMPSONS -- it's strange how people forget how big TCS was). Although I was probably too young to notice it getting "preachy" in later seasons, I will never forget that pilot moment with the homework. Such a strong voice coming through, even then.

It seems very rare these days for shows to have a "voice" about anything significant. Every show I think of seems to be going just for laughs, which is fine, but even THE SIMPSONS had a very sharp satirical voice. And ROSEANNE tackled some heavy subjects very well. After that FRIENDS and SEINFELD came along, just playing for laughs, and I can't remember any big sitcom with a voice following (although I'm sure someone will correct me).

If there's a "voice" dominating sitcoms these days, it seems it's CHUCK LORRE'S "beautiful women are prizes for successful men to score with, and for men who are losers to miss out on" (blech).

James Van Hise said...

I've been a fan of Bill Cosby when you could only know him through his records. I love I SPY and have all the dvds. I even liked his all but forgotten 1970s TV shows, but I just couldn't warm up to The Cosby Show. I'm not a fan of most family sitcoms anyway, but The Cosby Show just struck me as too harmless, and I find harmless to be dull. When The Simpsons was put up against The Cosby Show on Sunday nights, Bill Cosby went out of his way to knock it, but The Simpsons overwhelmed Cosby in the ratings because The Simpsons is anything but harmless.

VP81955 said...

If there's a "voice" dominating sitcoms these days, it seems it's Chuck Lorre's "beautiful women are prizes for successful men to score with, and for men who are losers to miss out on" (blech).

I certainly don't get that sense from watching "Mom," and if he'd wanted to create such a vehicle for cute, sexy Anna Faris, he surely could have done so. (Faris has said Lorre mailed her the treatment for the series, which husband Chris Pratt read and recommended.)

Julie said...

Jim and Everett wrote the Don Knotts picture The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which would earn them my young son's respect much more than anything they ever wrote for MASH. Mr. Chicken is his favorite movie.

Mark said...

I've noticed, Ken, that the scripts you and David write and the shows you work on rarely tackle social issues (in the Norman Lear manner) or engage in the kind of sometimes over-the-top preachiness that was common in 1980s-early '90s sitcoms. (I'm lookin' at you, Designing Women.) Nor are yours and David's characters even particularly inclined to learn anything. (It seems like almost every episode to come out of the Garry Marshall factory had to end with the scene where the principals in that night's episode discussed the lesson they'd learned, while a slow version of the show's theme music played softly in the background.)

Does this come from your's and David's personal tastes and preferences in comedy, or is it more a reflection of the kinds of shows you guys have tended to work on?

Michael said...

Friday Question:

Ken, what's your take on Amazon Studios, where newbies can submit pilot scripts for consideration? Is it a worthwhile enterprise, or should I be cautious about submitting? Curious to hear your thoughts and to see if it would a viable path to success. Thank you.

Powerhouse Salter said...

It never spoke to me, but I think I'd have felt more respect for Bill Cosby's 1980s sitcom if its opening credits had not consisted of him and his fellow black actors shuckin' and jivin' as if they were minstrel players.

Dave Olden said...

For 12 minutes, we *have* seen Cheers one-camera ...

... and it kinda makes Ken's point.

Anonymous said...

Even though it was contrived and made no sense to the plot, I loved the scenes with Cosby and Sondra's twins. It was pure and sweet and hysterically funny.

I would imagine that he could get by with more improvisation with Rashad and the older kids. But with a young Rudy and Olivia, I doubt if he would want to make them fail. He loves kids and seemed to take care of those he worked with.

Pam from St. Louis

Cap'n Bob said...

I never thought Cosby's records were funny, liked him in I Spy, and never watched the sitcom.

rockgolf said...

There are several replies to The Cosby Show and others looking "dated".

Ken, do you foresee the day when such programs will be digitally "modernized" by giving the cast more modern hair and clothes? Or replacing brick-sized cellphones with iPhones? It would be expensive now, but the cost will keep coming down.

And why do I feel I've given someone a truly terrible idea?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

another great thread of columns.

The Cosby Show was not as good once Denise went off to college. On the other hand, once Denise left Hillman College, then "A Different World" began to find it voice, making it an entertaining show.

However, I and most Americans, I think, believe Cliff and Claire were the best parental rolemodels, and I still learn parenting lessons from them whenever I catch a show.

Most shows with kids seem to fade a lot earlier than you'd think they should. The reason it seems is that not only are the kids less cute (now they just seem obnoxious) and also the roles and dynamics change. That teenager is now an adult and shouldn't be living at home or the Parent shouldn't have the sway on an adult as much.

I will say that the writers of Modern Family have done a great job with the kids they have and how they've aged.

Steve said...

Another problem for TCS as it progressed - The oldest daughter, Saundra (a character that didn't exist when the show began and was created after the fact) and her boyfriend (later husband) Elvin becoming regulars. The primary reason for this may have been because they were already planning on spinning Lisa Bonet off into her own series. Regardless, neither actor was very strong and their characters were boring (Saundra) and a complete wimp (Elvin). Early on, Elvin was portrayed as a lunkheaded misogynist and I remember it coming across incredibly forced.

Speaking of Bonet, seems like they did a 180 with her character after she returned to the show, turning Denise into an airhead/flake. Perhaps that was Bill's way of punishing her for bailing on A Different World.

Steve said...

Powerhouse Salter,

What's strange is that that started with the second season of the show. The first season credits consisted of still shots of the Huxtables in a 'day at the park' type setting.

gottacook said...

I always liked The Bill Cosby Show, his earlier NBC series (1969-71). It's possibly the earliest example of what would today be called a single-camera, laugh-track-free sitcom, as well as possibly the earliest example of a series ending voluntarily rather than being canceled. Both seasons' versions of the music (by Quincy Jones) and Bill's "lyrics" for the opening and closing credits were (and are) great fun.

Mike said...

Would you like it if 30 Rock or something like that added in a character named Ken Levine, a screenwriter who is hard to work with, steals jokes, and writes nasty things about the people he works with on a personal diary that he shares with the public?

I bring this up because Suits has a character named Ted Forstmann.

Al said...

I absolutely adored the Cosby Show when it started and abhorred it by the time it finished. Partially because I was a black kid, just about Theo's age, so it really connected with me.

The thing I love about that pilot, that rarely gets mentioned, is how in the scene with Theo they set you up for one thing, and then deliver something else and it's hilarious.

In many (terrible) sitcoms at the time, it was the style to have a moment where someone pleas for someone to accept them as they are. It's what I like to call the "Awww" moment which you could find on every TGIF show on ABC at about the 28 minute mark.

Cosby sets this up beautifully when Theo pleads with his Dad, to just accept him for who he is. You can even hear the studio audience take the bait, with the audible "awww" that was pretty common at moments like these.

Cosby holds the moment for just long enough, and then replies that that was the stupidest thing he ever heard and basically threatens the kid that if he doesn't do better in school, he's going to pay for it.

I was maybe 14 years old, and that moment was the moment I realized that you could get comedy out of misdirection. Great moment!

Bevpaige/url said...


Ken, I have written a full season sitcom that may even be a better movie. However, I need some answers: 1) How do you determine whether to use one camera or 4 cam method in a sitcom? 2) How do we change from Sitcom to a movie? And From a producer's view point what method would be most profitable?

Snoskred said...

Here is my Friday question -

Did you ever listen to the official podcasts for Breaking Bad? Do people in the industry see these kinds of things as ways to engage fans, or as an annoyance?

Would you consider doing a similar podcast for a show you are involved in, even if it meant you had to organise it?

I'm doing a re-watch of the series now - and blogging about it - and I feel like the podcasts and the commentary tracks and extras on the DVDs really expand the experience of the show.

Pat Reeder said...

To Jim, Cheers Fan: You're right, it was "The Simpsons," not "Family Guy." I plead sleep deprivation from watching that weeklong "Simpsons" marathon on FX.

BTW, I think of all the episodes I rewatched, the "Frasier" parody with David Hyde Pierce as Sideshow Bob's brother, Cecil, was the funniest.

"Now, Bob, you know Cousin Merle ain't been right lately..."

VincentS said...

Thanks for posting my question, Ken!

Anonymous said...

That episode was hilarious.

"You've always been jealous of me.
You're the one who spent four years at clown college."

"I'll thank you not to refer to Princeton in that way."

What gets lost in syndication, I wonder if FX played it:
And right about when we figured out who it was playing Cecil, they come out of commercial with FRASIER is a comedy on the NBC television network.

MikeN said...

Who said Levine and Isaacs weren't preachy? The anti-smoking stuff in Becker was due to a government desire for propaganda.

MikeN said...

I don't see the later seasons as losing that much. The episode where Elvin proposes to Sondra is one of the best ever. Then again after they are married and challenge to see who is the most romantic.

John said...

The first season of Cosby's show spun very easily of the routines that had worked for Bill in standup, and in his 1981 movie of those routines. So it had a great foundation, produced a great season and got deservedly great ratings. But the further they got from Season 1, the less they were able to mine the gold from his original parenting routines and had to come up with new ideas, the more the show became the sitcom version of a parental role model and the weaker those episodes held up in syndication.

As far as "Cheers" goes, Ken, it did seem as if the series was allowed more single-camera exterior bits in the final season. Was that because it was the last year and Paramount and NBC had the go-ahead to spend a little more money on the episodes?

Jabroniville said...

A lot of shows are dated in terms of fashion- that's part of their charm. Most of the best Frasier episodes take place in the early years, when the women had awful, garish '90s clothing on, and giant frizzy hair. Never mind Kelsey's long hair/balding top look.

I actually enjoy early Friends episodes for much the same reason- the later episodes aren't as Fashion-Trendy and thus come off more bland.

As for The Cosby Show, I actually never saw much of it, but I liked what I did see, as obnoxious as the Jazz/Everyone In The Family Pantomimes Songs stuff got. "It doesn't hold up" seems to be a fairly-common gripe, though- it explains why its much harder to find in re-runs these days.

Johnny Walker said...

That's the scene I was thinking of, Al. Always stuck with me. I guess it was the beginning of using well traversed TV tropes for comedy misdirection (THE SIMPSONS would take it to another level)?

Also, the opening credits of The Cosby Show were great.

Johnny Walker said...

Dave Olden: Thanks for sharing that! I'd never seen it before. Watchdog the Cheers crew shoe-horned into an episode of St Elsewhere was fascinating -- it didn't work at all, but I did enjoy the rest of the dialogue. Makes me want to watch St Elsewhere!

Mike said...

The problem with The Cosby Show isn't that it looks dated. The problem is that after the first couple of seasons, it became less and less funny. I can't tell you why. But that first season is gold. If the remaining seasons had lived up to that standard, I think you'd see it rerun a lot more today.

Michael said...

With The Cosby Show, I wonder if part of the problem is something Ken once alluded to about MASH. Ken once mentioned that how the characters spoke on MASH became a problem: namely, Potter got folksier and Klinger would refer to "Oh, Fearless Leader," or whatever--ways they hadn't sounded before. As a show goes on, tiredness can set in. In Cosby's case, considering that he was the driving force behind everything, that means it's on one individual's shoulders.

MikeN said...

Judging by what's happening in the NFL, apparently the pilot episode of The Cosby Show wouldn't even be filmed unless it was a drama and Cliff is the villain.

jbryant said...

Powerhouse Salter: I'm not sure that black actors dancing and having a good time can automatically be termed "shuckin' and jivin'."

Mike: Eric Roberts' character on SUITS is Charles Forstmann, not Ted. The last name could still be a reference to Ted though.

AndrewJ said...

The misdirection in the pilot to The Cosby Show was identical to the scene in the pilot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Mary angrily confronts Lou Grant during her job interview. Lou smiles, "You got spunk!" And then he growls "I HATE spunk!" In both cases the show creators were saying to the viewers, "We understand the obligatory sitcom cliches... Now watch us upset them."

Terrence Moss said...

I will admit to a high level of bias when it comes "The Cosby Show", but a lot of the comments regarding it come from people citing one or two episodes of it and making those indicative of the series as a whole.

Yes, its first season was the best. But its next four, value-filled but far from preachy, were also great.

The problem that a lot of people have with the series as a whole lie with the final three seasons once Olivia came in, Cousin Pam came in and then they started dealing with "issues" that stemmed beyond the core Huxtable family.

Steve said...


I don't know if I'd classify TCS as 'hard to find' in reruns (as I type this, TVLand is promoting a 'Nothing but Huxtables' marathon for next weekend), but I'd agree that it isn't as ubiquitous as shows like 'Seinfeld' or 'Andy Griffith'.