Thursday, March 05, 2015

Friday Questions that spilled over into Thursday

With your questions continuing to pile up, I thought I’d sneak in another extra day.

John is first up:

We are starting to see the networks ordering pilots. It's always surprising to see them continuing to go to the same writer-producers who created this and last seasons' flops.

What does that signify? An unwillingness to take a chance on new voices? Or is it a recognition that some of those shows failed because of the process they undergo, with the networks tinkering and tinkering some more?

It just seems odd that they expect some of these people to suddenly lay golden eggs after so many fails (and especially when some of the pilot concept see so stale and lame). 

Pilots are expensive. Networks generally feel more secure with writers they know and can trust. Also, networks have their favorite writers. Those are generally writers who don’t give them much push-back when they insert themselves heavily into the process.

And so many things have to line up for a show to be a hit. Most successful writer/creators have pilots that failed and series that flopped. Kaufman & Crane had several misfires before (and after) FRIENDS. Same with Chuck Lorre, Diane English, Aaron Sorkin, Larry Gelbart, Phil Rosenthal, Norman Lear, and just about anyone else you care to name.

Pilot writing is an art. Not only must you be able to craft a script that accomplishes a lot of things, you also need the skill to identify problems and fix them during production. This takes experience.

But make no mistake, networks will never take the blame for a failed pilot -- despite their meddling, despite their insisting on the wrong actors.   

Networks do take some chances with newer writers, but usually there’s a non-writing producer also attached who surrounds them with more experienced scribes.

What surprises me however, is that there are some veteran writers who frankly are just not very good. Why the networks continue to give them pilots is beyond me. I generally get copies of the pilots that get greenlit and there are certain writers who are just mediocre and yet there they are again. I read their pilot and yep, just as bad as last year’s pilot. But then again, when has anyone been able to explain decisions in Hollywood?

Along similar lines, Bill Jones queries:

In your opinion, did FRIENDS mark a turning point in terms of network interference with sitcoms? I have read in several sources that this was the quintessential "network" show, in that--despite the talents of its creators--NBC played a big role in choosing, casting, and cultivating it. And, obviously, it turned out to be huge. Was that the point at which networks said, "We can do this," and really started to call the shots vs. creators/producers/writers? Obviously there has always been network "input" since the early days, but was FRIENDS a watershed in that respect?

No. The big sea change was when networks were allowed to own their own shows and studios. They then became the 800 pound gorilla. Before that they had to deal with independent studios. And for example, NBC might have had a show done by Warner Brothers. They had notes, but Warner Brothers stood their ground. If NBC strong-armed Warner Brothers into making the changes, Warner Brothers might be really pissed. And next development season when they were going out with a show called FRIENDS they might say, “Let’s take it anywhere but NBC.”

But now networks have full control over everything.

As for casting, networks have insisted on approving the actors for close to forty years now. The first pilot David Isaacs and I did was for NBC in 1979 and they wouldn’t approve Andrea Martin. She didn’t have the right, uh… “look.”

As far as NBC's brilliant development suggestions for FRIENDS -- after the first runthrough they said, "Make one of them the star.  Pick whichever you want, but one has to be the star."  To his credit, director James Burrows said, no, that's not what he signed on for.  The key to the show was that it was an ensemble.   NBC fortunately backed down. Today there would be no discussion.  Either one becomes the star or the network pulls the plug.  Period.   But if they had their way, they may well have screwed up FRIENDS.   So I always laugh when I see the NBC executives at the time take "credit" for developing FRIENDS. 

Luke wonders:

Hey Ken. Sorry if you've already answered this one but can you please tell us anything about the proposed CHEERS spin-off about Coach's early days?

First off, CHEERS itself wasn’t firmly established until the third season.

There was never a spin-off discussed for the Coach. Nicky developed health problems in season one. He passed away towards the end of season three.

To my knowledge there was no talk of spin-offs until much later in the series’ run. And the only one that ultimately came to fruition while CHEERS was still on the air was THE TORTELLIS, which was short-lived.

And finally, from Chris:

I've read numerous stories about writers who left a series for another one or to create their own. When that doesn't work, returning to the show they left in the first place seems tabu. Is there resentment when someone lets the showrunner know they're leaving? Why is returning almost never a possibility?

It all depends on the circumstances by which the writer leaves. Sometimes the showrunner feels betrayed.

Showrunners groom young writers. They may feel they’ve invested several years in developing a writer only to have him bolt for a better deal. I could see where there might be hard feelings.

But often the showrunner will recognize this is a great opportunity for the writer and wish him the best.

There are numerous examples of writers returning to shows if their pilots don’t work out. David and I left CHEERS to do a couple of pilots and were always welcomed back. Same with FRASIER and WINGS. Of course, in our case, we were just so delightful. Who wouldn’t want us?

What’s your Friday Question?


VP81955 said...

Regarding writers returning to a series after going on their own, I wouldn't think it would be much different than it is for actors. Tonight, Octavia Spencer returns to "Mom," presumably still in a recurring role, after the Fox series she signed up for failed to catch fire.

My question to Ken concerns the Hollywood Walk of Fame and its policy regarding writers (of all types). Last month, the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio received a star, which I have no qualm with, but I'm assuming it's for their songwriting and not as being record executives. (Remember, they split from Motown about 1970 or so to found Invictus Records, having a few hits from the Chairmen of the Board and Freda Payne.) I'd love to see Jackie DeShannon similarly honored. especially since the bulk of her songwriting work was done here in Los Angeles (and of course, she was a performer as well).

However, when it comes to movies, the Walk of Fame only seems to honor writers who become directors, such as Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder. Among those writers who have yet to receive a star include the likes of legends such as Norman Krasna, Ben Hecht and Robert Riskin. Isn't there an inconsistency here from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce (who manages the Walk of Fame) And as a writer, do you consider this second-class treatment of sorts?

C. A. Bridges said...

VP1955: On my only trip to LA (so far) we wandered into a souvenir shop off the strip so I could load up on goodies for friends and family. There was a huge shelf of T-shirts with labels like "Actor," "Actress," "Stuntman," "Director," "Producer," etc. No "Writer." I dug through them all and asked the very puzzled workers there who seemed baffled anyone would want such a shirt.

Of course, this was before Castle's "Writer" police vest, so maybe things have changed now...

Dan Ball said...

Related-trivia: the only non-directing writer on the Walk of Fame is Gene Roddenberry. (I think.)

Bill Jones said...

Ken--thanks for answering two of my questions in separate posts. Very interesting answers, and very much appreciated!

As long as I'm on a roll, here's another one I've always wondered. Today, it seems like big stars on a sitcom eventually get a producer credit if the sitcom lasts long enough. You've talked before about how it's mostly a vanity title; nevertheless, it still seems to be pretty common. So I was wondering why this didn't occur on CHEERS. Surely there, after some ten years, a star would have had leverage to request a producer credit, but this never happened (to my knowledge). Is that because (a) it wasn't a regular practice back then, or (b) none of the stars were the type to demand a producer credit?

Micah said...

Ken, you've diversified so much of late with playwrighting (a word?), TCM hosting. I'm curious if you've thought about doing a podcast? Given your broadcasting chops, storytelling and showbiz connections, I'd think you would be pretty successful with it. Have you considered that at all?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Regarding the CHEERS spin-off, found this interesting piece on the success rate of spin-offs.

Unkystan said...

Ken, This was probably discussed before but have you ever given your opinion of the movie "The TV Set" with David Duchovney? From reading your posts and seeing this movie it seems like anyone (especially a novice) going through the whole pilot development process is just frustrating, disheartening and finally (mental health wise) not worth it.

SER said...

The pilot of FRIENDS is interesting to watch because you see the potential for it to have not been an ensemble series. It either could have been a show about Monica -- the "mother" figure to her wacky friends and wackier roommate (a sort of 1990s spin on MARY TYLER MOORE or even NEWHART) *or* it could have been the Ross and Rachel show... and potentially just Rachel.

I thought Jennifer Aniston was the most comedically gifted actor on the show. Matthew Perry as Chandler was also brilliant, but I think he works best as a supporting player. Aniston as Rachel Green had far more complexity and ability to carry a series.

FRIENDS is also interesting to me, because like FRASIER, it never lost a major cast member during its run. It's hard to imagine what an impact the loss of one of the stars would have had on the show. If Schwimmer had left during the mid-90s when he was starring in movies with Gwyneth Paltrow... and so on.

Anonymous said...

Frasier was so influential. Loved the reruns, so influential. Not DONE watching it on TV reruns, mind you. It's the best of the best. It's like a deal coolest TV show ever.

John Hammes said...

Many programs have to face unpleasant real life situations, and deal with those situations in the best way they can, the best way they know. There is not always a completely right or wrong way.

This has been mentioned before in far superior ways: Barney Miller's Jack Soo tribute episode set the gold standard regarding a situation no program would ever want to deal with... addressing the passing of a well loved and respected colleague.

This Barney Miller "special" was a regular half hour edition - the last episode of season five - and therefore was always included in the syndication package. No story, the actors are "out of character" and respectfully and honestly speak to the viewer.

Generous clips featuring the best of Yemana, biographical stories of what Jack had to go through in life, the actors somehow stoically getting through what Jack meant to them - Max Gail stuggling a bit toward the end still gets to the viewer - a gentle example on how to deal with a reality we ALL deal with in real life. A comforting example, too.

"... Maybe [your Studebaker] wasn't stolen...
Maybe it RAN away."

-Nick Yemana

Oat Willie said...

I'll aways remember Nick's sushi bit:
"Us Japanese have a lot of will power. We eat raw fish."
"But you like it."
"No we don't."

sunday said...

Friday question: I'm an academic currently working on my PhD - one chapter is on M*A*S*H, and an article on Cheers. How do you feel about academics working on television material?

tavm said...

I still can't believe the woman who played Loretta Tortelli, Jean Kasem, would eventually be in a fight with her stepoffspring (I refuse to use the term stepchildren since they're now adults) over first the health and eventual burial of her late hubby, my favorite DJ, Casey Kasem. I truly hope he gets buried in Los Angeles where he belongs.

chuckcd said...

I think the talent of the writer(s)
has a lot to do with it.
And any show would love to have Levine/Isaacs working for them.

Mike said...

I think only one episode -- of very poor video quality -- of The Tortellis is available online, so I've wondered: why, in your opinion Ken, did the show fail? Nick was always one of my favorite recurring characters on Cheers. He was guaranteed to make me laugh out loud, and of course Dan Hedaya did a terrific job with him. Do you think maybe it was a case of overkill? That's doomed a lot of spinoffs over the years; it turns out the character you loved in small doses really only works in those small doses.

Also, I noticed that, while Nick (and Loretta) made basically yearly appearances on Cheers in the first five years, after The Tortellis flopped he wasn't on again until the last season (in an episode written by you and David Isaacs, if memory serves). Was that just coincidence, or did the writers think the show needed a break from the character after Tortellis failed, or what?


sanford said...

Not a Friday question and I am guessing you can leave comments anywhere here.

I know that shows in syndication get shopped up. I didn't know how much though. As every one knows the first 5 seasons on Mash are on Netflix. Last night i put season 1 episode 5 on Netflix while also watching on ME TV. Some of the cuts where kind of short but you could tell the difference. The longest cut was where Hawkeye is out in the field with a nurse and Trapper drives up to tell him the moose is back. I stopped netflix when the commercials came on. When the how came back on the air the scenes would match, but by the end the Netflix version ran longer than what was on tv. Pretty amazing.

opimus said...

Please Will you post about your

Asia trip,

Unknown said...

In his Archive Interview former Desilu executive Herb Solow said that after viewing the first Star Trek pilot NBC wanted the Mr. Spock character dropped from the series. He also told NBC that if they wanted to see dailies they would have to come to the studio. I can't imagine a studio executive telling that to a network today.

Incidentally, I noticed David Isaacs and your name on the Emmy TV Legends Interview list. How was the experience and when can we expect to see the interview?

By Ken Levine said...

I will be posting a (hopefully) humorous travelogue of my trip upon my return.

Albert Giesbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albert Giesbrecht said...

Ken, I was wondering if you have an opinion about the Trailer Park Boys? After several years off TV, Season 9 is about to debut on Netflix. In Canada it was revolutionary, with the one camera set up, but now that every other show uses one camera, has the show lost it's unique quality?

Bill O said...

NBC did make significant changes to Star Trek, contingent on having a second pilot. A female exec officer was removed, and a more physically active plot demanded. Spock gave NBC the vapors because of his devilish appearance, so much so that the network airbrushed them to normal in pre publicity ads.

Anonymous said...

Laughs tracks are tricky and an art. I worked with a studio who did this. And most of the time, it's a hit and miss. But the one in MASH works well. I am not DONE watching the past re-runs. By Dad gave me a DVD BOX... so , lots of viewing. Not DONE , my Dad made me a great DEAL. I give him all of Sanford, and he gives me the complete MASH. Let's hope.