Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Questions

What better way to get ready for the Oscars than to answers some Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Andy Rose asks:

When audience and critical feedback indicated that a character or plot line was beloved (or hated), how quickly could you incorporate that feedback into your writing? Is it harder for limited-run cable series where an entire season is shot before the first episode has aired, so they have no audience feedback at all during production?

It’s the dilemma we all face with a new series. You like to be several scripts ahead (because your lead time disappears), but you don’t want to be so far ahead that you can’t make adjustments based on the audience's reaction.

As a result, early on, as a showrunner you’re really living on the edge. However, finding out that a character you didn’t expect becomes a breakout stars and needs to be serviced is not the worst problem to have. Give me a “Fonz” and I’ll be happy to scramble and write new scripts any day.

But limited series or series on streaming services that air all episodes at once make it tough or even impossible to make mid-course corrections. If your season is in the can before it airs you’re stuck.

THE GOOD WIFE manages to walk the line as well or better than any show I know. They take chances, introduce new characters and storylines, and sometimes they fizzle. One in particular was introducing Kalinda’s ex-husband a few seasons ago. We GOOD WIFE fans hated that story arc and they quickly jettisoned it. I’m sure that meant a lot of re-thinking and rewriting, and long nights and weekends, but kudos to them for rolling up their sleeves and doing what had to be done.

And speaking of THE GOOD WIFE, Thomas Mossman asks:

Now that word has come down that The Good Wife is ending after this season, do you feel there are any dramas left on network TV worth watching?

Well, there are certainly entertaining dramas. Shondaland dramas can be good fun. And certainly EMPIRE has its fans. As does the current trend of hot (sometimes tattooed) brunettes in serialized thrillers. If you’re a fan of procedurals or shows with initials or “Chicago” in their titles you have plenty to choose from. And there is very inventive storytelling on ONCE UPON A TIME for you fantasy lovers.

But sophisticated, layered dramas with real depth? I can’t think of another network show besides THE GOOD WIFE. Meanwhile, on cable and streaming platforms there are dozens of them.

From DonR:

While watching "Grandfathered" the other night I noticed it's produced by ABC Studios, yet it runs on Fox. How does that happen? Did ABC pass on its own show and sell it to Fox?

The bigger question is why were you watching GRANDFATHERED? But yes, networks will buy shows produced by competing networks.

I think the first time (or at least one of the first examples) was CAROLINE IN THE CITY. Developed for CBS by CBS, they passed but NBC was interested in the series. It ran on NBC for quite a few years.

I will say that these occurrences are somewhat rare and if say Fox has a choice between a pilot they like that was produced by themselves vs. one produced by ABC, they’ll usually opt for their own. At times to their own detriment.

Chris wants to know:

I recently watched the Cheers episode, "Heeeeere's...Cliffy!" again. I was wondering where the idea came from and how you got Johnny to go along with it? Was the filming done during one of his regular tapings or on a separate day? Also, I noticed Doc did the "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" in that episode. Did Ed already have a commitment that day or was it some contractual thing that he wasn't in it?

I did a whole blog post devoted to that episode. You can find it here.

And finally, from Casey C:

Have you or your partner ever taken an unproduced script and reworked it to accommodate the project you were presently working on, or do you start from scratch every time?

Projects, yes.  Stories, no.   I adapted a spec screenplay into a comic novel (MUST KILL TV, available here for a mere pittance), and a spec pilot into a full-length play (although I changed practically all of it), but those are essentially adaptations -- changing from one genre to another.  We've never put a fresh coat of paint on a pilot and then tried to resell it, or changed a movie title and tried to peddle an unproduced screenplay as something new.    

And we NEVER recycle story ideas for future episodes.

I know of writers who will go back through old editions of TV GUIDE, read loglines, and steal them for the show they’re currently working on.

To me that’s lazy writing, not to mention unethical. That’s what hacks do.

It’s our job to come up with NEW ideas, fresh stories, and if possible, stories that you could only do on that series. And I don’t even see that as going to extraordinary lengths. To me it’s just professionalism.  Taking pride in what you do.   And not having to worry that someone will be watching GIDGET on AntennaTV and say, "Hey, that's the same story they did last week on that Levine & Isaacs show!" 

UPDATE:  Because a bunch of you requested it:


NKCAUmp said...

I was late to the party on UNDATEABLE, but binge watched it with my wife over the last couple of weeks. As seems to be our fate, we googled "Is UNDATEABLE renewed?" and were met with a lot of "Probably Not" type answers.

We absolutely loved the "Cheers" vibe of the show and it got better season after season taking it to crazy awesome levels on the live episodes.

I have two questions:
1) Given your connection to the show, have you heard whether it will be picked up?
2) What's it like to flap in the breeze on a show that hasn't been picked up yet? Do you still write stories or at least come up with ideas? Or do you see how the wind is blowing and start looking for something else?

And my wife and I are very sorry we didn't catch this train sooner. It's a great show - and we NEVER watch TV together.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I've actually often wondered if THE GOOD WIFE did the right thing in ending Nick's arc a few episodes early. It meant that a bunch of stuff got dropped with no explanation, and to this day I wonder how that would have played out had they stuck to their guns. Of course, I also thought Nick might have worked had he been played by Wallace Shawn instead.

Quite apart from the ill-fated Nick storyline, it's clear that something went awry with the show - it's really struggled to make sense the last couple of years, as though different teams took turns writing it without communicating with each other. It's a shame because when it was good it was *so* good.


Matt said...

Hi Ken,

You say that it is unethical to recycle stories from old shows, which I agree with. Would it still be unethical to take a story premise or set-up, but than spin it in a different way? In other words you got a nugget of an idea from an old show but did it differently?

KAS said...

Have you ever watched the JEOPARDY final question response by Elizabeth Williams? She is a friend of mine and when she failed to know the correct answer, she turned to Cliff Clavin's final Jeopardy response on CHEERS for a good laugh. Thought you might want to check it out!

Mike Heath said...

Friday qustion:
Every so often TBS trots out a painfully unfunny sitcom (Ground Floor, Sullivan and Son, Clipped, etc). My question is: do the writers think they're KILLING when they're writing it? Or are they going "well, we need a Kardashian joke here to get the audience to cheer."? I know the C and D level actors (with zero comic timing) don't help, but my god those shows are putrid.

John Parrish said...

I seem to remember that House was an NBC production that played on Fox.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Makes me think of how THE ODD COUPLE aired on ABC, yet it's CBS who put it out on DVD - as a CBS show. But then again, THE ODD COUPLE was produced by Paramount Pictures, which is a Viacom company, and I believe Viacom/Paramount own CBS, don't they? I know Universal owns NBC and Disney owns ABC, I'm pretty sure Viacom owns CBS. Similarly, CBS aired M*A*S*H, but it was released on DVD through FOX.

Breadbaker said...

Okay, Levine, dish. Where is the photo of you interviewing John Ratzenberger behind Johnny Carson's desk?

It was amazing how well you answered all his questions in the blog post from four years ago without having to add a word.

And Liz Taylor, too! So what is your favorite Disneyland ride?

Loosehead said...

That Johnny Carson story reminds me of a Frasier episode where Martin wrote a song that he tried to get Frank Sinatra to sing. Can't remember how it panned out, but I presume from your other comments that you didn't write that one.
And can I echo some other comments - we need to see the picture of you at the desk interviewing John Ratzenberger.

Steve Bailey said...

My Friday question: I noticed that some episodes of "AfterM*A*S*H" have been posted on YouTube. I thought that show started out well but then showed signs of "network interference" when the ratings didn't go to "M*A*S*H"-like stratospheric levels. What was your take on the show?

Mike said...

Article: The perils of writing for awards shows. Of course, there'll be no problems at the Oscars because those actors will deliver their lines consummately.

John Hammes said...

An early television example and reminder that the audience is ALWAYS important to the show, and in a sense, de facto producers from home:

ABC-TV premiered a daily series June 1966. The usual soap opera business, although there were also gothic overtones, allusions to the afterlife, the occasional ghost here and there. A unique series that the audience would check out, but nothing really caught on fire.

Facing expected cancellation, yet remembering favorable viewer response regarding the supernatural elements, the writers went all out and brought in the family vampire. The vampire became the breakout character. You know the rest of the story.

Talk about living on the edge. The series became a late '60s phenomenon (phenomenon - well, it was paranormal, it had to), writers had to re-write and ret-con some characters and storylines to now meet with audience satisfaction, fans were constantly gathering around the ABC New York studios for pictures and autographs, merchandise regarding the show sold consistently. Thanks to the average everyday unsung viewer, all involved enjoyed gainful employment. Yes, five day a week, pressure cooking writing/producing/acting around - and racing - the clock, but gainful employment in a chosen profession, never the less.

The example from this television show and certainly others: any writer, producer, actor, etc., who will listen to and have a healthy RESPECT for the audience - i.e. us - will be okay.

(By the way, the name of this 1960s show still enjoying a following decades later?
You guessed it ... "My Mother The Car ..." Yep.)

Terrence Moss said...

What is your aught against "Grandfathered"? I like it.

Jake said...

AMERICAN CRIME is a current network drama well worth watching with phenomenal performances, topped by Lili Taylor and the two boys.

Chris said...

friday question: usually at some point in a show's run, if it's long enough, characters will start to do impressions of each other. In order for those to be funny, they have to exploit some quirk/defect of the actor. What's the situation there? Is that a sign your cast is bonding? Ever had trouble with people's egos there?

Mike said...

Courtesy of a recent documentary on the BBC about the Black Panthers, I now understand Ken's joke about Eldridge Cleaver. There was also a White Panther Party, founded by John Sinclair of MC5/Detroit fame, and a White Panther Party UK, founded by Mick Farren of Deviants/Ladbroke Grove fame. As I recall, the manifesto of the White Panther Party UK was somewhat humorous, but I'm unable to find a copy.

Anonymous said...

Ken, what do you think of Louis CK's new show?
We know you saw it. We know because it's a show that keys off of Cheers, and it features Alan Alda!

We don't believe you when you said you have to catch up on your Supergirl episodes before you get to Louis' show. If you think we believe that, then you must think we are dumber than we are. Newsflash: We are not dumber than we are, Ken. Please respect us, and share your opinion.

– Manny Reeders

Andy Rose said...

Caroline in the City was produced when CBS still had its own independent production company. As Joseph Scarbrough noted, all the networks later combined their production units with the television divisions of the studios that they merged with. NBC = Universal Television = MCA-TV. CBS = Paramount Television. ABC = Touchstone Television = Buena Vista Television Distribution.

So now, CBS owns Star Trek (Paramount was successor-in-interest to Desilu), which aired on NBC. They also own Fox's Beverly Hills 90210, which is a big reason why the revival ended up on CBS' sister network, The CW. NBC's The Golden Girls is now owned by ABC. And of course, M*A*S*H on CBS is owned by Fox. On the other hand, the Paramount/Viacom/CBS merger reunited The Andy Griffith Show with CBS, where it first aired.

Speaking of program ownership, I once heard the creator of ALF, Paul Fusco, say that his show was the last network sitcom that was independently produced. He, Tom Patchett and Bernie Brillstein financed the show themselves and sold it directly to NBC without any involvement of an outside studio. Was that really the last one? It sounds hard to believe, but I can't think of another independently-produced sitcom since then.

Igor said...

Ken, I chuckled at your answer about "Heeeeere's...Cliffy!"... because it made me wonder how often you get questions that (by chance) you've already answered, which made me think you could do a post in which every answer is a link to a previous post - a clip-show post.

And about Johnny Carson, with his Tonight Show now running 7 days/week on a retro-TV channel, it was beyond weird to hear him say, "And did you hear what our governor did today, Jerry Brown?" I could feel my brain trying to reorient itself. And while that can't be literally true, it was darn close to it. Really.

One thing about his show that surprised me, especially the 90-minute ones: How casually slow they are. Of course TV is faster now for short-attention-span audiences with 1000 channel choices, but the relative slowness seems more than that. Almost the pace of Hefner's show. Another thing I somehow didn't recall: That the biggest star (at that time) isn't necessarily the first guest.

gottacook said...

"Paramount was successor-in-interest to Desilu": To be clear, this took place while Star Trek was still in production, in 1968. The third and final season (1968-69) originally used the Paramount logo and music after the end credits, in place of Desilu.

cadavra said...

"But sophisticated, layered dramas with real depth? I can’t think of another network show besides THE GOOD WIFE."

Ken, might I suggest that on Sundays, you turn on your TV one hour earlier and catch the absolute jewel that is MADAM SECRETARY.

Bob Zirunkel said...

The Cheers question sparked a sense of nostalgia and a short spell of internet surfing.
From a Baltimore Sun preview of "Heeeeeere's... Cliffy!" on the day the episode aired, May 7, 1992:
"Local viewers should also know the script was co-written by Ken Levine, who last year at this time was calling Orioles baseball games on WBAL radio."

Paula said...

I like Grandfathered. It's a pleasant and entertaining little show.

cityslkrz said...

Drama: The Blackllist is one of the best dramas on network tv.

Elliott said...

Ken, at this late date you're the only one who'll see this, but since you're a fan of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, you might find it interesting. It concerns writers recycling story ideas. The DVD episode "The Curious Thing About Women" was written by David Adler. "David Adler" was a pseudonym for a writer named Frank Tarloff. Tarloff had written for Joan Davis's early '50s sitcom I MARRIED JOAN. One of his scripts for that series concerned Joan's husband Brad's annoyance at her habit of opening his mail. At one point, Brad proves his point to Joan about her nosiness by sending a package to the house containing a rubber raft that self-inflates when Joan opens the package. Tarloff reworked the I MARRIED JOAN script for THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, right down to reusing the rubber raft scene. I've always wondered if Carl Reiner was aware that Tarloff's script for "The Curious Thing About Women" was just a rewrite of one of his old I MARRIED JOAN scripts.