Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Don’t step on any black cats while reading this week’s Friday (the 13th) Questions.

Andy Rose gets us started.

Preston Beckman recently said that NBC was very excited about the upcoming debut of Friends in 1994, but had a problem. Jennifer Aniston was still in first position on a show called Muddling Through that CBS was airing as a summer series. If CBS renewed it, NBC would have to recast Aniston's role on Friends and reshoot the pilot. So they made a point of sandbagging Muddling Through with strong counterprogramming to make sure it was dead by the end of summer. It worked out great for NBC and Jennifer Aniston. It sucked for everyone else on that show since it might have survived if NBC weren't so intent on getting Aniston for themselves.

Have you ever had a show that you knew was being targeted for failure for reasons beyond your control?

Uh, Mr. Beckman may be embellishing some facts and inflating the importance of NBC at the time.

First of all, networks can’t just target competing shows and arbitrarily knock them off. I suppose if they wanted to move FRASIER to whatever MUDDLING THROUGH’S time slot was they could crush them, but why make such a drastic move, upset your entire programming schedule, just to ensure you don’t have to recast one actor in a pilot for a show that hadn’t even aired yet?

Was NBC excited about FRIENDS? Sure. They were excited about all the new shows they were premiering that Fall.

One other point, when you cast an actor in second position (meaning if the show they’re committed to gets picked up you lose them) you take a big risk. Usually you only take that risk if there’s a very good chance the first-position show is not going to make it. Word on the street at the time was that MUDDLING THROUGH would just live up to its name, which it did.  CBS aired the show on Saturday night (a death slot even then).  It was a place holder. 

But stranger things have happened. I might have felt pretty safe casting Jason Alexander in second-position considering the early scuttlebutt of that SEINFELD thing he was in.


In the interest of getting it right -- a highly placed NBC executive who I totally trust and was there at the time said that yes, NBC did indeed try to squash MUDDLING THROUGH by pre-empting EMPTY NEST or whatever their regular programming was and substitute instead some high powered movies of the week by a very popular author.  Again, I believe this source so let this update be the definitive answer to the question. 

Charles H. Bryan with a question pertaining to filming multi-camera sitcoms before a live studio audience:

What happens if an audience member has a coughing fit or loud sneeze? Are the stage microphones directional enough to not pick up those sounds?

The audience sits in a bleacher section. There are three or four microphones placed over their heads in different locations. We can easily remix the audience reaction to downplay or eliminate the hacker.

A bigger problem is occasionally having an audience member talk back to the actors. We had one I remember on CHEERS. He was yelling things like “Don’t go in that door, Diane!” He was politely asked to leave.

Ben Devine queries:

I've been re-watching old Seinfelds and noticed possibly a reference to you in Season 1, Episode 2. At a gathering of relatives in Jerry's apartment, a cousin appears into the conversation. Jerry says, "Elaine, this is my cousin Artie Levine," pronouncing it "Leveen." Artie, looking annoyed, barks, "It's Le VINE!" After he exits, Jerry says, "Yeah, Le VINE, and I'm Jerry Cougar Mellencamp." Was this a friendly dig at a fellow NBC writer?

I'd like to think so but I have no idea. I’ve never asked Larry David because I’d look like a complete idiot if it wasn’t.

From Al Leos:

We were having a discussion of the "Edith Bunker gets attacked" episode of All in the Family in an online forum, and the question came up whether CBS could have blocked the script from airing. Do you have to clear any scripts ahead of time, if it involves a controversial topic or a vital change to a key character?

Nowadays you have to clear EVERY script, every outline, every story notion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a controversial story or someone overcooks the Thanksgiving turkey. Maybe a superstar producer like Chuck Lorre or Shonda Rhimes can exert a little push-back, but today it’s not a matter of whether the network will air the show, they won’t even let you make it.

What’s your Friday Question? You can leave it in the comments section.


Peter said...

I think Le-Vine must be the American pronunciation, because here in the UK my GP pronounces her name Le-veen.

Stan said...

Hi, Ken. I have a question about eating during a show. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive about this but it really bugs me.

I notice that on Big Bang Theory when the characters are eating, which they are often doing, no food ever enters any of their mouths. They all just push the food around on their plates, which I find very distracting, because it's obvious they are supposed to be eating but they really aren't. I'm guessing that they're just pretending to eat so that no one gets caught with food in their mouth when they have a line to say, but I think it really detracts from the reality of the scene.

In contrast, on Mom they also have frequent eating scenes, except everyone actually eats during them, which (for me) makes the show and the characters much more believable. Any idea how it's decided how to handle this kind of scene in a show? Interestingly, these are both Chuck Lorre shows, so I'm pretty clear it's not coming from him.


Mike said...

Since Ken is such a big fan, a reminder that the Eurovision Song Contest will be broadcast live tomorrow in the US on cable channel Logo (not Lego) around 3pm ET.

Carol said...

Friday Question:

ABC cancelled Castle - this is a good thing, I think; I'd rather it end on a good note then limp along one more year. It occurred to me, however, that Castle was literally the only 'network' show I've watched in the last few years. I don't think I'm alone in that, either. I know you've talked about this before, but do you think the big three networks are in their final death throes? It seems to me they STILL don't pay attention to anything other than 'ratings', a system I don't really understand. It seems such an archaic way of tracking something when you can basically go onto social media and see what people REALLY watch. The head dude at ABC seems more intent in slashing the budget then creating something people want to watch.

What do you see the future of Network Television to be?

Kirk said...

I've always felt an earlier episode of All in the Family where it's Gloria that gets attacked was way more effective than the more famous one with Edith. Yes, Gloria does the wrong thing (she, or rather Mike decides for her, not to press charges against the rapist) but that's the whole point of the episode, the long odds that a rape victim faced when doing the "right thing", and how that could convince them to do otherwise. The closing close-up of Gloria on the verge of a breakdown as Archie babbles on about "taking care of their own" was haunting and rang true.

VP81955 said...

I wouldn't put the Aniston conspiracy past NBC. "Friends" was owned by Warners, and the network probably could envision her mug on all those People and Entertainment Weekly covers in a not-so-subtle display of corporate synergy (after all, by 1994, hadn't Julia Roberts run her course as those mags' cover subject du jour?).

Dennis said...

With all due respect to Mr. Beckman's memory, the "strong counterprogramming" he alleges that NBC used to "sandbag" MUDDLING THROUGH was the sitcom EMPTY NEST, then in its sixth year and which finished the season ranked overall at a lowly #62 among prime time television programs. All that means is MUDDLING THROUGH couldn't do well enough to beat NBC's aging, low-rated competition. Not much of a "sandbag," if you ask me.

YEKIMI said...

Carol sort of beat me to the punch but it also aggravated me that 8 shows that I watched were also cancelled. What's the point of me investing my time watching ANY shows on the networks when they turn around and cancel them at the drop of a hat? I'm talking about the newer ones, not ones that have been on for years. I don't watch shows from the online content providers [HULU, Amazon, Netflix, etc.] because I don't own a large screen TV and cannot stand watching stuff on a small laptop/desktop screen...especially with my eyesight getting worse each year. Eventually I'll get a large flat screen TV that I can hook my computer or whatever up to but for right now....what's the point?

Andy Rose said...

It's entirely possible Beckman is exaggerating... he is a "gifted storyteller," as they say. But for context, he didn't claim they reshuffled the whole schedule against this one show. He said he put on original Danielle Steel movies (the kind of thing they would normally air on a Monday or Tuesday night) for the first two Saturday nights that Muddling Through was on. He was counterprogramming a show that he would have ignored were it not for Aniston. He says his main concern was not that Muddling Through was going to be a massive hit, but that it could do just well enough that CBS might order some more episodes, maybe just to spite NBC.

Karl said...

Since I'm home with a bad cold and had nothing better to do, I did a little research.

CBS slotted MUDDLING THROUGH on Saturday nights from 9:00 to 9:30 (eastern time), paired with the Markie Post-John Ritter sitcom HEARTS AFIRE.

A Saturday night time slot may have been enough, in and of itself, to doom MUDDLING THROUGH.

Competition during that hour was a movie on ABC and AMERICA'S MOST WANTED on Fox. NBC usually ran sitcoms during that hour, but benched them for the summer in favor of special programming. Mostly reruns of Danielle Steele movies, it appears.

I have no memory of MUDDLING THROUGH, but then, I was in my 20s at the time, and the last place I was on Saturday night was at home in front of the television.

I remember HEARTS AFIRE. That was one of those sitcoms critics liked, but that never caught on with the public, though CBS was patient enough to give it two or three years.

HJ Rotfeld said...

Having read many historical accounts of the TV business, plus biographies or autobiographies of people such as Tinker, Silverman, and Reuven Frank, add in many years of reading your blog and Mark Evanier (, I have just one conclusion and question. The greatest continuing success in TV management has been in picking the shows that seem to have potential, then leaving the writers, producers and actors alone to do the job, because top down micromanagement of details does not increase the odds of success. (This would seem to also be true in movies, novels and even comic books.) This is obvious, proven time and again.

But then the question: why are TV programming managers evaluated by the success or failure of individual shows such that they feel a need to mess up the works even when they have no idea if their small ideas are any "better" than ones over-ruled? They aren't going to "save the show," or even their jobs, and by now you'd think the senior managers should realize this.

VP81955 said...

IIRC, "Hearts Afire" featured Beth Broderick in a supporting role, two years before she was cast as the brainy, magical Aunt Zelda on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." (The story goes that she was initially cast as the man-hungry Aunt Hilda -- a role similar to what she had played on other sitcoms and movies -- but successfully persuaded the producers to have her switch roles with Caroline Rhea.) So I suppose Jen wasn't the only winner from all this, considering "Sabrina" reached syndication and Beth probably got her score of residuals.)

Myles said...

The head "dude" at ABC is now actually a woman. And they definitely pay attention to a lot of factors including social media engagement by a shows fans. If you read any articles via Deadline they always mention multiple factors that played into a shows cancellation. Some factors being if the network owns the show (value), if it's a huge award winner, social media engagement of fans, if they have more faith in its potential replacement, and how much the show costs to make just to name a few. And sometimes it's just a hunch. At the end of the day it's all educated guessing and nobody has a flawless system. There are a few Netflix shows I could name that should probably be canceled and we're renewed before they even aired another season just because of the names of the cast/producers. Lol

Johnny Red said...

Re: Edith gets attacked.
I once interviewed a writer from All in the Family and he said that CBS aired the episode because Norman Lear had enough hits shows and enough power to make them do it.

D. McEwan said...

"A bigger problem is occasionally having an audience member talk back to the actors. We had one I remember on CHEERS. He was yelling things like “Don’t go in that door, Diane!” He was politely asked to leave."

29 years ago I saw Pygmalion on Broadway, with Peter O'Toole, Lionel Jeffries, and Sir John Mills. Great production. There was a guy seated in the second row who was talking back to the characters also, and heckling them. He did it relentlessly, and frankly, from the slurring of his words, I'd say he'd had a drink or 50 before the show.

He was not there for act II.

DrBOP said...

The Off-Topic Kid always listens to Mr. Scully for essential Friday The 13th guidance :

Why isn't 'dis guy runnin' for President?

cadavra said...

Another reason you don't want actors actually eating is that if you have to do multiple takes, they can get full pretty fast!

Andy Rose said...

When it comes to eating, multiple takes also can cause lots of continuity problems (you'll see them in almost any movie scene of people eating a meal if you look closely enough) and the practical matter of constantly replenishing food and drink.

I was on a single-camera TV set where a family was supposed to be having a tense dinner conversation at an upscale steakhouse. The production rented out a real Morton's. As usual, performers were told not to actually eat any of the food, which got colder and less appetizing over the course of several hours.

However, the director decided she wanted to begin the scene by having the camera follow a piping-hot steak being delivered to the family's table. There was no practical way to fake this, so they cooked a bunch of real steaks. When one take ended, they'd throw another steak on the grill long enough for it to sizzle again, forcing the entire cast and crew to wait until it was seared, plated and put on its mark. After all that trouble, the steak shot wound up being edited out of the final cut because the scene was running long.

Mike Moody said...

I've noticed that comedies often make jokes about their character's physical looks. The Office is probably the most obvious example with constant gags about Phyllis's dowdy looks and Kevin's weight. Cheers would sometimes "go there" with Norm ("Vera got me a membership at a health club. Real subtle, huh?"; "What are you up to Norm?" "My ideal weight if I was 11 feet tall.") My question: I know you can't comment on the Office, but when Cheers would make fun of Norm's weight, would you worry that it might be cruel to George Wendt to bring it up? Did you work with him on such jokes or was he okay with them as long as they were funny?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Thanks, Ken! I'm surprised that the whole CHEERS audience didn't join in on "Norm!"

Anonymous said...

Was there ever a reason we never saw Sam's apartment on Cheers?

Jon said...

I've noticed that comedies often make jokes about their character's physical looks. The Office is probably the most obvious example with constant gags about Phyllis's dowdy looks and Kevin's weight. Cheers would sometimes "go there" with Norm ("Vera got me a membership at a health club. Real subtle, huh?"; "What are you up to Norm?" "My ideal weight if I was 11 feet tall.") My question: I know you can't comment on the Office, but when Cheers would make fun of Norm's weight, would you worry that it might be cruel to George Wendt to bring it up? Did you work with him on such jokes or was he okay with them as long as they were funny?

Variations of this question, about whether or not actors in sitcoms are sensitive to jokes aimed at their looks or physical shortcomings, have come up here before, and the consensus from those commenting has generally been that actors understand such lines to be about their character, not them, and that they do not take them personally.

However, that's not always the case. I've been reading a book that's just out about THE GOLDEN GIRLS, which is interesting in that it's heavily weighted toward episode-by-episode comments and reminiscences from cast and staff. (Someone should put together a book like that about CHEERS while everybody is still alive.) Anyway, on GOLDEN GIRLS, Bea Arthur's character, Dorothy, was frequently the target of jibes from other characters about her perceived lack of attractiveness. At least she was until, staffers recall in the book, Arthur broke into tears during a table read because she was so upset over the steady stream of "Dorothy is big and ugly" jokes that had been directed toward her. It's recalled that they had to ease way up on such insults to placate Arthur.

nes said...

Hi Ken - I love your blog and I love Cheers. When I was 12-15 (1990-1993), I saw a ton of Cheers reruns on tv at night, and the majority came from the Rebecca years, which were the ones I liked the most. The Diane ones never grabbed me. But as I started to collect all the seasons on dvd, I reluctantly decided to buy the first five seasons so I could have a complete set after I had 6-11. I finally noticed, in my mid-30s, that the Diane years are enormously entertaining and have a brilliant charm that I can't believe I didn't see before then in my all-time favourite tv series.

What I wonder is how a character like Diane is written. How were you able to balance her endearing traits with the irritating ones? I would guess that if she had been too sweet and caring, there wouldn't have been enough tension, and that if she had been too snooty, she could have ended up as merely repellent to the other characters and to the audience. Was there a careful plan?

John Stevens

D. McEwan said...

When Carol Channing did HELLO DOLLY, she had to consume a meal at record rate on stage. The relentlessness of her eating was a physical gag in the show. Her "Food" was cotton candy sculpted and colored to look like a three-course meal, which, of course, basically disappears in her mouth.

I was in a stage play once that required me to consume onstage a number of M&Ms each performance, which were supposedly pills I was taking. I manned up and ate all that chocolate every performance, also at rehearsals, post-performance parties, and continued to after the show had closed. I was a pro!

I once played Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. In act 1, I had to scarf up all the cucumber sandwiches. It's in the script. We made small soft bread and butter items for me to eat. I quickly learned always to come to do the performance hungry.

Stephen Robinson said...

I was always impressed by how appealing the characters of Diane and Frasier were on CHEERS when there was so much potential for us to dislike them. I'm sure a great deal of this had to come from the actors themselves. Someone once said that Hawkeye would have been insufferable if he wasn't played by Alan Alda.

Stephen Robinson said...


Most companies have "contingency planning" for key staff roles (I'm the OCD geek that enjoys drafting them). Does anything similar exist for TV shows? Sort of a "worst-case-scenario" plan if one of your lead actors (or even *the* lead) leaves the series?

CHEERS and M*A*S*H had the advantage of basically being "workplace" sitcoms. Woody doesn't need to have the history and connection with Sam right off the bat. You can just introduce him as the new bartender and move on from there. Same with B.J. replacing Trapper.

But how do you handle a show like FRASIER? If you lose Martin, one of the chief premises of the series is gone. And if it happened before Nile and Daphne were a couple, how do you keep Daphne around organically? Same with Niles.

I thought TWO AND A HALF MEN, for example, didn't really rise to the challenge in revamping the series after the loss of its star and the core relationship of the two brothers. And frankly, if *any* series should have had some emergency plan in place in the event it had to move on without its star, it was that one.

DwWashburn said...

Friday question -- I've always thought that episodes that spotlight second tier characters (Father Mulcahy, Cliff Clavin, Lenny and Squiggy to name a few) are usually some of the weakest episodes in the series. In your experience, is it usually the actor or the agent who pushes for these episodes and are they difficult to write?

Andy Rose said...

On Growing Pains, there were a lot of lines where Kirk Cameron's character made jokes about his sister, basically calling her ugly and fat. The producers didn't realize Tracey Gold had a real-life eating disorder. The jokes obviously exacerbated the problem, and she eventually became so thin and sick that she had to leave the show.

Unknown said...

I have a Friday question. While watching M*A*S*H: Fade Out/Fade In, I remembered you going into very interesting detail about the Cheers set in a post a while back. I've always wondered about the MASH set. I've seen pics of filming in The Swamp in the middle of the compound, but have what about Potter's/Blake's office, Radar's/Klinger's office, OR, Post Op, etc?
Were they actually filmed behind the hospital facade or of to the side on another part of the set?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

It is my understanding that the exterior scenes were filmed on three Ranch, and the interior scenes were filmed on a Soundstage. Except for the episodes that were filmed entirely on a Soundstage.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I am always amazed by the depth and endless entertainment value of the Comments from the Readers. Seriously.