Friday, March 04, 2016

Friday Questions

As we March into Friday Questions:

Stephen Marks asks:

You and Mr. Issacs wrote a script called "Him" for "Big Wave's Dave" (E6) where one character quoted Ernest Hemingway and another Truman Capote. How do you know if these references are too obscure or erudite for the viewers?

We used those references to help define those characters and their worldviews. And I’m a firm believer that you never write down to your audience. We assume our viewers have heard of Capote and Hemingway. And as you’ll recall in that episode, they also make a Jackie Collins literary reference. So we’re not that highbrow.

From Wayne:

Larry Gelbart was so naturally funny.  Did he have any have special joke forms he favored?

Larry tended not to do set up/punch line type jokes. His laughs flowed through the dialogue. He was a true wordsmith, and utilized wordplay frequently. He got a lot of fun out of characters unintentionally mangling the language. If you ever get a chance, read a copy of his play MASTERGATE. It has the greatest double-talk you will ever read.

One thing Larry used to always say is “add a few more raisins.” Now what does that mean? It comes from a writer named Gertrude Berg who wrote and starred as Molly Goldberg in radio and very early television on a show called THE GOLDBERGS (not to be confused with the current ABC series -- except they both had lots of Jews). Berg was like your typical Jewish grandmother. When baking bread you would add a few more raisins to sweeten it a little. She likened that to adding a few more little jokes to the script. Larry would say, “We’re in great shape. Just needs a few more raisins.”  Then he would add twenty in like a minute and a half. 

-30- queries:

Watching the drug co exec (not) testify before Congress today made me think of corporate malfeasance and wonder--in your radio days did anyone ever approach you with anything that resembled payola or did you ever see anybody at any station who could be bought? Don't take the 5th; the statue of limitations is up.

I got a couple of free lunches from record promo guys, but that’s about it. Look, by the time I got into industry the playlists were very tight and determined by the programming department. I never got to just pick my own music. In some cases I would go on the air and my entire show’s song selection would be pre-determined. I just went down the list. That’s why it was always a joke when we asked the listeners to call in requests. Our playlists were pre-set.

So there was no point in giving me payola. It’s like the old joke about the wannabe actress who was so stupid she tried to get ahead in show business by sleeping with writers.

I imagine music directors and national program directors were approached with payola and a few partook, but I never saw it on my level.  And everyone was doing coke so who knows where they got it?

I got into radio way too late for any real fun. In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s record companies used to sponsor “Disc Jockey Conventions.” They’d invite a ton of top DJ’s to a Miami Beach hotel and there would be non-stop booze, drugs, and hookers for four days. I think they even paid for room service.


And finally, from Richard Y:

I had mentioned 'Nash Bridges' to you earlier and you indicated that you had not watched it. That got me to wondering. Since you were deeply working on 'Frasier' during the time Nash Bridges was airing, how much episodic TV are writers able to actually watch while they are working on their own show?

Safe to say writers on staff watch way too much other television. The last place the “water cooler” exists where co-workers gather to chat about last night’s shows is the writers room. That’s usually the first half hour of every day. And there’s never any middle ground. There are either shows that everyone agrees are awesome, or (for the most part) shows that everyone rips to shreds. It’s a tough crowd. NASH BRIDGES was spared.

What’s your FQ? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks. Now bring on Spring Training!


Bob Gassel said...

Future Friday Question: Why wasn't Larry Linville given a proper farewell appearance on MASH? I assume he announced his intention to leave after season five wrapped, but did he not want to come back to do goodbye episode like Gary Burghoff did?

Anonymous said...

The death of Charlie Tuna reminded me of a great payola story.
It was already the mid 1970's so as Ken says the real payola was over.
Tom Snyder had Charlie ad a couple of other national Boss jocks on his late night program, maybe Scott Muni and someone from Detroit, His fourth guest was Uncle Lar, larry Lujack.
In that overly serious tone Tom used to use he confronted the jocks and looked them in the eye with his hard hitting question,
"Is there still payola in Big-Time radio?"
One by one they denied it, saying it was once a problem but is gone now, or probably on in small towns but not in a major market, or blah blah blah...
He finally turned to Uncle Lar and said, "What about it Lar? IS there still payola in major market radio?"
And Lujack looked at him with a mock serious expression and said,
"Payola, Tom? You mean paying me to play a record? You pay me enough money and I'l play any record you want all day long."
Snyder started stammering while the other guys just looked at their shoes and finally he didn't know what to do so he broke for commercial. Lujack just smiled at him as the camera pulled back.
The look on Snyder's face was priceless.

Jeannie said...

Re: Hemingway/Capote references. I was pleasantly surprised that Julian Fellowes didn't try to Americanize quaint British sayings like, "Wigs on the green" or "Steady the buffs" on "Downton Abbey." Googling them has expanded my vocabulary and added to my enjoyment of the series. Trust the audience.

Diane D. said...

Two of the greatest and most popular sitcoms of all time (CHEERS and FRAZER) made constant literary and philosophical references. Would that others had learned from that example.

BA said...

Jeannie: I'm glad someone else is grateful for their "classical education" courtesy of the BBC. RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY was a fine look at British justice though Jean Marsh had to dumb it down for me on MASTERPIECE THEATER. Monty Python has clarified many Brit idioms for me and the printed subtitles on the dvds are also educational. (Chiswick is pronounced HOW??) Shame that modern UK police soaps are apparently modeled after US dead body shows.

YEKIMI said...

I started in radio in mid 70s [writing jokes for morning DJs while finishing up high school] and late 70s on-air for myself. I recall that at least one station the DJs were allowed to pick one song an hour to play and for we were allowed to go as far back as the 50s to pick a song and it didn't really have to follow the format [we were a "Mellow Rock/AAA" hybrid format]. Some of the idiots abused it though by playing their favorite song all the time and the PD soon said "OK, only one song per shift and it can only be the same song once a week". Then it became one song a week we were allowed to pick and play. And we actually took requests and played what the listeners wanted as long as it wasn't too far from the format. If it was we usually responded "Weren't you listening two hours ago? We played it then and I can't play it again so soon." Soon they brought in a consultant and the DJ picks were out and they issued edicts that we only had 12 seconds to do the weather, XX amount of seconds to do this or that, no back announcing of records, etc. Ratings soon slid into the toilet. Payola sorta exsisted in the form of running out the back door of the station to the convenience store and getting a free cup of coffee if we mentioned the clerks name on the air or other minor things [haircuts, etc] but as low paid as some of the jocks were I wouldn't be surprised if big time payola was offered they would have snagged it in half a heartbeat. So at least at one station after you were out of radio request were taken and DJs could pick a song or two to play.

Max Clarke said...

About Ken's quotations of Hemingway and Capote, something that made CHEERS stand out was that they did not write down to the audience.

In one of the first episodes, Diane is visited by one of her classmates from college days, played by Julia Duffy.

They spent a minute, maybe, setting up a joke that had the punch line, "But enough Shope talk!", a reference to Shopenhauer.

The joke was good, but what I marveled at was that they took the time.

Years later, I met a fellow named Mischa who worked at a New Orleans-style restaurant in Berkeley. I quoted for him the funniest poem I can recall, and it's from Any Friend of Diane's, the same scene. 'Mischa the dog likes dead in the bog...."

Cheers was a very smart show.

MikeN said...

You are always mocking network notes. Do you think networks can keep problems that befell one show from happening to another?

I'm thinking of Psych vs Suits. On the former they went completely away from the shows premise of his being a fake psychic. Suits did that as well, but then went completely back in.

d said...

My Payola story: When I was in my early 20s and working at KGIL, I was in the production booth one time when a European recording artist was brought in my his manager to play his new single for Chuck Southcott, our PD, who determined what records got on the air. They played it. Chuck listened. He promised to put it in the air. Then the artist said: "And if it is a hit, there will be money for you." Chuck's polite face turned to stone, and he said: "What?"

The artist said, with an enthusiastic grin: "Oh do not worry. It will be all - what is your phrase? - Yes, under the table."

The temperature in the room dropped below freezing. Chuck did not reply directly to the artist; he just turned to the guy's manager and said in a low, serious voice barely repressing anger: "Get him out of here."

The manager hustled his loose-lipped client out the door. His records never got played on KGIL.

D. McEwan said...

Oops. The payola story was mine.

Andy Rose said...

As recently as a decade ago there were claims being made about corporate-level payola, in the form of "independent record promoters." Nothing was ever proven, and the corporations stopped doing it.

The payola prohibition is really just a restatement of the FCC Sponsorship Indentification Rule, which says that anything that is broadcast in exchange for any montary or in-kind consideration has to be identified as such. ("Payola" is actually legal if you acknowledge it on the air.) If you ever want to know whether a broadcast TV show is getting product placement money for a brand-name mention, look at the credits. There will be a "promotional consideration" line thrown in there somewhere for the company that's paying them. Doing product placement without that on-air acknowledgement would be an FCC violation. (This doesn't apply to cable TV and theatrical films.)

Pat Reeder said...

I started out in small town country radio where we were actually allowed to take requests and pick some of our own playlist, at least among oldies and recurrents. But God knows, nobody at the feed store ever offered me a free roll of bailing wire to spin Hank Thompson. By the time I worked my way up to large markets, the playlist was entirely computerized and dictated by charts, so there was no payola (at our level at least. The stations that determined the charts might have been another story.) Record companies did still give stations stuff like extra copies of records, T-shirts and free concert tickets, but it was considered general promotional swag, not bribes to play a specific record. Underpaid DJs appreciate any free stuff. Most of my wardrobe was promotional T-shirts. I use to say that if record companies would just give away promotional pants, I'd be all set (but not MC Hammer harem pants).

I decided to get out of doing radio myself when stations began the deadly trend of promoting PDs out of sales instead of programming. The last station I was on was known for its warm, witty personalities and great listener relations. Suddenly, we were all told we could no longer ad lib or take phone calls, and instead had to read dumb liners word-for-word off of blue cards. Several of us left. Naturally, the PD who made that boneheaded decision blamed the remaining on-air staff when the ratings tanked, even though they no longer had any creative control over their shows whatsoever. Around that point, I started writing syndicated comedy material for the remaining lucky bastards here and there around the world who were still allowed to show any personality on the air.

As Andy Rose notes, there were fairly recent stories about payola still going on between independent promoters and some major station decision makers. I recall reading that an investigation in New York found that executives at influential stations were getting free stereos, trips to Miami, etc., for making hits out of certain records. One detail that sticks with me is that they discovered a hot R&B station touted Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny From The Block" as their most-requested song, even though investigators couldn't turn up any evidence that a single person had ever called and asked to hear it even once. I often wonder why J-Lo never offers that bit of advice on how to have a hit record to "American Idol" contestants.

Pat Reeder said...

PS - On the subject of obscure references, I filled our radio service, the Comedy Wire, with them. Some clients told me they loved looking for them, like Easter eggs. I remember when I saw the first episode of "Cheers," and Diane quoted "The Bait," a poem by 17th century British poet Jon Donne. Her professor boyfriend told Sam, "That's Donne." He replied, "I certainly hope so." I knew at that moment I was going to love this series, not only because I thought the line was hilarious but because they actually had the brains to think of it and the guts to put it in.

Diane D. said...

"I was just an ODALISQUE in your SERAGLIO" has to be one of the most obscure and hilarious references ever made in a sitcom. It was said by Diane to Sam in CHEERS. Even if a person had never heard either word, the context made it obvious what was meant. Such delicious nuggets were part of what made CHEERS so great. (Since it's not in context here, it means a concubine in a harem)

Mark said...

Related Public Service Message: Larry Gelbart's Mastergate is available through as an audiobook. It stars Ed Asper and Walter Matthau. I found it while looking for a copy of the script of the play to read. I haven't listened to it yet but it's probably the audio from a performance of the play.

cadavra said...

Pat: There's a very similar joke in an episode of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, albeit one not written by our Mr. Levine. Randall visits the office of guest star William Windom and notices a painting: "That's Keane." Windom: "Yeah, I kinda like it myself."

Mike said...

@BA: If you're asking, Chiswick has a silent w. Chis-ick, as in chis-el & s-ick.

Shame that modern UK police soaps are apparently modeled after US dead body shows.
Like Silent Witness or Waking the Dead? The UK churns out any number of police proceduals, many of which are indeed period dramas. The classic police soap (in that it was a soap opera featuring police) was The Bill (1984-2010). Line of Duty (2012-) (Hulu) is highly regarded. The second series of Happy Valley (2014-) (Netflix) is currently airing and is excellent. Others are Inspector Morse (1987-2000) (PBS) and A Touch of Frost (1992-2010) (A&E). Light-hearted whodunnits include Midsomer Murders (1997-) (A&E/Netflix) and Death in Paradise (2011-), which presents locked-room type mysteries for the viewer to solve before the denouement. For harder mysteries, there's Jonathan Creek (1997-).
For me, the all-time definitive police procedual is The Sweeney (1975-78). The best police procedual currently airing is the French programme Spiral (2005-) (Netflix).

While I don't have a TV set, if you have any questions on British culture or TV, just ask.

Storm said...

@Mike: I absolutely live for British police/detective dramas, especially "Scott & Bailey", "Vera", "DCI Banks", and "Inspector George Gently". Thank Bowie above for PBS, because they certainly don't air on BBCAmerica; that would make too much sense, and take valuable airtime away from unpleasant men driving around in fast cars and yelling at people in kitchens.

@Diane D.: Girl, I'm tellin' you-- ODALISQUE SERAGLIO is my new drag name!

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Diane D. said...

Storm: Ha! I'm so glad. Such pearls should be thrown about unsparingly.

Mike said...

Just for you then, Brian Blessed starring in the first episode of The Sweeney.

That would be Jeremy Clarkson & Gordon Ramsay. I don't begin to understand BBCAmerica. It block hosts some BBC programmes (Sherlock, Attenborough's nature documentaries), just as many programmes from UK commercial stations (fair enough), but then even more Star Trek repeats. In no way is it representative of UK TV output or channels.

Andrew said...

Friday question: It's well-known that Seinfeld became successful under the radar. It developed an audience slowly and incrementally, and the suits didn't mess with it because few people were watching. As the show became more popular, Larry David stood his ground and refused to do the show unless he and Jerry were given unheard-of artistic license. So there was very little corporate meddling.

So the question: why haven't the network suits learned from the success of Seinfeld? Why aren't they willing to hire talented people that they trust, give them as much creative freedom as possible, and allow the show enough time to develop an audience?

Anonymous said...

@Mike: Ta, you lovely thing! Ah, yes, how I adore THE LOUDEST MAN IN BRITAIN! British and burly, that's my kinda man. That fool straight up punched a bear once. A BEAR, YOU GUYS.

Cheers, thanks a lot,