Monday, October 17, 2016

Oh, have times changed

So far I'm enjoying DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (although when is going to just "Jack Bauer" on these people?).     Kiefer Sutherland plays a U.S. President.  There's also a U.S. President on SCANDAL.   Both shows are on ABC.   That last fact is important to this story.  Other networks and streaming services have actors are portraying the Commander in Chief as well.  There must be five or six of them.  And as I watch these, I can't help thinking back to when David Isaacs and I sold a pilot to ABC that had a U.S. President character and how that made our life so difficult.

This is a story of development hell, network interference, a flawed premise, total absurdity, and how different things were in 1980.    

The pilot we pitched and sold was centered around the White House press corps. This seemed an interesting area to us – the notion of people working closely together who were close friends but also rivals. We imagined a plethora of stories of reporters roaming the White House corridors, making friends with White House gardeners and maids, trying to out-scoop each other. We could have romantic rivals, eccentric grizzled reporters, eager newbies, etc.

We could also create this world of the administration. WEST WING long before WEST WING.

And we could include political humor, something that was non-existent in sitcoms at the time.

So the show would be edgy, smart, satiric, very contemporary.

That was our pitch and that’s what ABC loved and bought.

We went off to do research. Thanks to a friend who was a White House correspondent, we got temporary press credentials to join the corps.

What we learned was this: the reporters had NO access to the corridors of the White House. They could NOT just roam the hallways. They all had to stay together as one pack in the pressroom. All day long they just sat. They all got the same presidential itineraries, all received the same briefings. If there was a photo op they were all herded as one into the Oval Office, behind ropes, then told to return to their pressroom. Interaction with the President had to be formally requested and granted. You couldn't just happen to be next to him at the urinals.

When the president traveled so did the corps., but as one group. They flew together, were bussed together, and basically did exactly what they did at the White House – sit around and kill time. Wow!!!

This was maybe the least dynamic character comedy premise EVER. But that part wasn’t ABC’s fault; it was ours for pitching this idea without knowing what the hell we were talking about.

Still, we figured we could save it. Create fascinating characters and watch them interact with each other.  Good series are ultimately about relationships anyway.

Originally, we planned to have two young reporters who had a love/hate relationship. We changed that and made the woman the press secretary and the guy a brash new reporter who just got the White House beat.  And they had once had a thing together that ended badly.  Now you had the fun of the reporter needing this person who he had previously dumped. And there was still a little spark for both of them. There was mileage in that. (Here’s how long ago this was: our prototype for the young guy in our pilot was David Letterman.)

So we had interesting characters and we still had the unique arena of national politics.

Here’s where ABC stepped in. We were not allowed to be specific regarding the president. We couldn’t say whether he was a Republican or Democrat. Well, this was sort of a problem. How could we give him a point of view? Sorry. No party affiliation.

We also couldn’t give the president a NAME. Not even a fictitious one. We couldn’t call him President Smith. They thought even a name was too political.

We weren’t allowed to debate issues. So what was anybody going to talk about?  Does anyone know a good barber?

Imagine a lawyer show where no one was allowed to mention the law. It was madness! ABC was concerned our show would be too controversial. President SMITH was too controversial?

Why the fuck did they buy this???

It gets worse.

Our pilot story revolved around one reporter getting to do a one-on-one interview with the president. Which reporter will it be? We decided to go with this story because, well… it’s the ONLY story this premise allowed for.

The last scene was our brash reporter interviewing the president. We artfully avoided issue questions. Note from ABC: We are not allowed to SHOW the president. We can hear him voice over, but actually seeing him is too specific.

But if you ever go to the White House you’ll notice that there photos of the president EVERYWHERE. Same for most government agencies but certainly in the building where he lives. We couldn’t use an identifiable actor’s picture of course, so my solution was a photo of my dad (pictured: right) . My father looks very presidential. He has often been mistaken for Sam Wanamaker or Ted Baxter.  Nope. ABC wouldn’t allow it. No pictures, not even of a person no one in America knows.

We dutifully turned in the second draft -- which ultimately was 45 pages of absolutely nothing -- and to our great relief, it was STILL too incendiary. ABC passed. Shucks! Today we’d be able to say we once did a David Letterman failed pilot. Unless they said we couldn’t actually show the reporter, which in retrospect, was highly likely.

But ABC did say they loved working with us and implored us to bring our next idea to them first. Would it surprise you to learn we didn’t?


Kosmo13 said...

I'd feel much more comfortable voting for Ken's Father (or Sam Wanamaker or Ted Baxter) than either of the candidates in the current election.

Barry Traylor said...

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR? Thanks, but no thank you as I have had my fill of anything to do with politics for some time to come.

Diane D. said...

Ken, you don't mention the worst horror of this story---the timeline would have interfered with CHEERS!

ScottyB said...

We saw what was left of your pilot once the ABC suits got done with it. They called it 'Benson'.

Andy Rose said...

Coincidentally I had a conversation last week about this sort of thing with a CNN cameraman in Washington. Only one thing has really changed since your visit. Reporters don't charter their own plane anymore for domestic trips. Too expensive. A small pool of reporters still flies on Air Force One, but everybody else books their own commercial flights.

I'm curious... obviously, running into the president in the bathroom would be far-fetched, but why couldn't you take creative license on the other aspects of being a reporter in the White House? This was an era when TV cops regularly shot fleeing suspects in the back and TV lawyers produced surprise witnesses with no warning to the other side, and nobody batted an eye. I don't think people would watch your original premise and say, "Hey, there's no way a reporter could just walk over to the East Room like that!"

Dhruv said...

Hi Mr. Levine,

I have a Friday question:

Sometime back in one of your blog you said that, you had to run the character’s name by legal department, so that no one sues you when the sitcom airs.

I am a big fan of Seinfeld and am reading about all characters’ inspiration. I came to know that George Steinbrenner was an actual person, who was caricatured without his permission. Is that allowed? Can real life people be made fun of, especially in this case unflatteringly? Or do you think because the show was popular they got away with it?

The same way George Costanza was named after Jerry’s real life friend Mike Costanza. I believe Jason Alexander’s character resembled Mike – short, stocky, bald. Later on Mike Costanza sued Seinfeld people and lost. But in your opinion; do you think they got away by first using a real person’s personality and then refusing to pay him any compensation. Is this another case of rich and famous Hollywood people using someone’s story and personality and getting away with it by shafting the small people?


Unknown said...

Comedy central had a show called "That's My Bush" about a bird brained president, with the same name as the then current president. After 9/11 it was pulled so the country could support the POTUS instead of mock him.

BluePedal said...

I'm picturing the scenes with President Smith looking a lot like Charlie's Angels when Charlie barks out his instructions over the phone to the girls.

"Okay, reporters. I need you to go under cover and find out if the Rubik's Cube is actually a Russian Spy Satellite. Wear your bikinis."

Jim said...

THAT'S MY BUSH had been cancelled a month prior to 9/11. Trey Parker and Matt Stone said that the show's ratings were not high enough to justify its expense. It was a victim of low ratings and high production costs, not of 9/11.

MikeN said...

Andy Rose nailed it. Why didn't you just do like Suits and have your reporters all over the place. Overhear discussion of starting a war. Walk in on the president(face unseen) with another woman.

Andy Rose said...

@Dhruv: I'm not sure whether Seinfeld "shafted" anybody, but that show definitely got away with a lot in terms of potential legal issues. The most famous example was their use of the J. Peterman catalog. There was an actual J. Peterman catalog that the producers liked, so they just copied the name and the premise. NBC Legal apparently didn't realize that John Peterman was a real guy with a real company until the first episode with John O'Hurley had already aired. After that, the lawyers got the real Peterman's permission, and the fictional company started diverging more from the real one. The actual company was a small private business in Kentucky, not the major Manhattan-based corporation you saw on Seinfeld. And they eventually gave O'Hurley's character the first name of Jacopo instead of John.

Dhruv said...

Thank You Mr. Andy Rose for that info.

I am from India, not a writer but just a fan of Seinfeld.

After Friends its Seinfeld which is heavily syndicated here (a very large market).

Regarding shafting:

The George Steinbrenner character was badly written. Always talking non sense and ridiculously, without hearing others and making foolish decisions. I am not a writer but doesn't it show that the writers instead of creating a genuine character just caricatured a living person and made the character act like a fool to eke out a few laughs?

If it had been anyone fictional would that be funny? Probably not. We would have got tired after a couple of episodes. Since this person was a famous one (I read he was a owner of a sports team in your country) who they made to act like a fool, it got few laughs.

But doing that without his permission, isn't it wrong? He liked the show later on, I read, but still they got away with it.

As far as Mike Costanza is concerned, isn't it ethical to atleast give the person on whom you based George Costanza some sort of compensation?

Jason Alexander has subsequently said that the 2 creators made a lot of money but the 3 actors never got much. Compared to a billion or so the 2 made, they gave the 3 actors almost nothing. So I read that it was Jason Alexander who stuck to his stand that - only some royalties from DVD sales would make him give commentary for the DVDs.

Its just that I wanted Mr. Levine's take on how he saw the way, rich and famous Hollywood people cheated others by not giving them what is there due.

DBenson said...

There was a Saturday morning cartoon in 1967, "Super President". James Norcorss, who looked more like JFK than LBJ, had the power to alter his molecular structure into various elements to fight evil. As I recall, he never did anything remotely political or even presidential. He just sat behind a huge desk in the White House, unbothered by anybody, until a TV shows that robot monsters have landed. Then he stepped behind a secret panel and put on the tights. I don't expect complexity in an old kiddie show, but now I wonder if the show was that sterile from the get-go.

Tom Galloway said...

As long as you're mentioning Designated Survivor, and tying that in with a fictional President being very unformed as a character...after several episodes, what do we know about Tom Kirkman?

He was HUD Secretary, and apparently knew something about housing issues. It's been stated by a reporter he hasn't been elected to anything, but it was unclear if they meant federal office or any election at all. He's a Democrat. We can infer he's not from Michigan, as that surely would've been mentioned given the situation there. We eventually found out his wife is a lawyer (although the first few episodes where various legal points were coming up had no lawyerish comments coming from her). He has two kids.

And that's it. We don't know anything about what he was before HUD. Is he a Washington insider or was HUD the first time he'd been in federal (or any?) government? Does he have *any* friends? (it'd appear not; he's not contacted anyone, nor have any of them been shown contacting or trying to contact him. Other than his wife, he's asked *no one* for personal advice as opposed to professional related such). Is he a city boy (probably vis a vis housing) or rural? Is he from the South? West? New England? Midwest other than Michigan? Any hobbies or interests?

And the odd thing to me is that the show had/has an obvious way to do an infodump in an interesting way. Every remotely news oriented network and cable channel in that world had to be doing variants on "Who is Tom Kirkman" pieces at various lengths. Show one or two of them, particularly ones that contrast in terms of style and content; i.e. a formal CSPAN-type thing and a TMZ-type profile. A Fox News but more so vs. MTV. Etc.

Wally said...

BRAIN DEAD is dead

MikeN said...

Tom, interesting. Now here's a plot twist, Kirkman is behind the bombing, and he is instituting a tyranny. He has already jailed one governor.

Andrew said...

(What a great name, by the way!)

Do you own the Seinfeld DVD's? If so, there's a lot of great commentary, interviews, inside stories, etc. that can answer your questions. Concerning George Steinbrenner, he was already well-known in the USA as the owner of the NY Yankees before he was caricatured in Seinfeld. I can't recall the details, but he did agree to his character being used in the sitcom ahead of time. He was a good sport about it. He even played himself in a cameo for one episode, but the scene was cut out because the episode was too long. (He was going to accompany Elaine to George Costanza's wedding at the end of season 7.) There's a very funny clip on the DVD with the real George Steinbrenner at a restaurant with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Julia does a parody of the Larry David version of George Steinbrenner while talking to the real one. Great stuff - for some reason it's not on Youtube.

If you do a Google search for "Steinbrenner Seinfeld" you can find out more. Also look up his Wikipedia page.

Concerning the character being "badly written," much of his dialogue was stream-of-consciousness improvisation from Larry David.

Again, they didn't "get away" with anything. Steinbrenner gave permission for a double of his character to be used on the show. I'm not sure if it's legally required for a parody. (I doubt that Saturday Night Live needs to get permission to parody Trump, Hillary, Palin, etc.) The law is different for public figures, and I don't know if Steinbrenner qualified. But certainly Steinbrenner could have filed a lawsuit if Seinfeld used his name and character without permission.

Concerning the actors not getting paid much, that's not true. The four main actors were very successful and well-compensated.

Love, from the US to India! Keep watching Seinfeld, and you will change the world!

Jahn Ghalt said...

Andrew wrote (about parodies of public figures):

The law is different for public figures, and I don't know if Steinbrenner qualified.

George Steinbrenner might be the MOST famous (therefore "public") sports owner of his time, if only for his willingness of fire managers (he fired many of them).

He famously fired and re-hired Billy Martin several times. Their "relationship" was so well-known that they used it for an advertizement (Miller Lite?):

Steinbrenner: "You're Fired!"
Martin (grinning): "Again!?!"

Paul Duca said...

A few years later, Showtime attempted the same concept with the one-off GOOD MORNING, MR. PRESIDENT.

Al Leos said...

Dear Dhruv,
In the U.S. George Steinbrenner was considered the worst owner in sports: the Yankees always had the most money, but George fired managers on a yearly basis and was infamous for interfering in even the smallest signings. So the "Seinfeld" version of Steinbrenner was not too off the real one, which made it so funny to American audiences. Ironically, later in the 90s Steinbrenner stuck with a single manager and the Yankees dominated baseball.

Al Leos said...

Dear Dhruv,
In the U.S. George Steinbrenner was considered the worst owner in sports: the Yankees always had the most money, but George fired managers on a yearly basis and was infamous for interfering in even the smallest signings. So the "Seinfeld" version of Steinbrenner was not too off the real one, which made it so funny to American audiences. Ironically, later in the 90s Steinbrenner stuck with a single manager and the Yankees dominated baseball.

Dhruv said...

Thank You Mr. Al Leos for the reply and comment,

I wasn’t supporting or standing up for George Steinbrenner. I was just pointing out how caricaturing someone was used as a crutch for bad writing.

I love Seinfeld as anyone and believe it has some of the best writing.

Anyway, America seems to have loved the fun at his expense, so who am I to question?

Seinfeld has got this haloed position in America along with its creators so it seems a bad idea to question that sitcom or its creators or anything related to it.

I tap out……

VP81955 said...

Steinbrenner eventually learned how to build a stable organization (it helped that much of it was built while he was suspended from MLB). On the other hand, he hired John Sterling as radio play-by-play announcer in 1989, and that pompous hack is still doing games. (On the new CW series "Frequency," where a woman from 2016 is in audio contact with her father in 1996, she should tell him Sterling remains on the radio, as inept as ever.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I knew nothing about Steinbrenner, and didn't care for the sequence.

However, back to DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. It's a great idea, but so terribly executed I can't watch it. There is just no emotional resonance in it at all. 1,000 people in the US government have been wiped away and people are jockeying for position in an empty White House? Kirkman isn't constantly surrounded by guards? The power goes out and no one rushes to protect him? Caricature military personnel want to start a war without thought?

Watching someone put together a plan for recovery and execute it would be really interesting. For various reasons, I never loved THE WEST WING, but I really wish Kirkman would watch the designated survivor episode and follow Bartlet's program of work. And you know, a modest outpouring of grief by the fictional country would be appropriate.


Baylink said...

Episode 4, Ken. That's when he's going to go all Jack Bauer on these people.

Two of them in particular.

Chuffed that I called both of them halfway through episode 1. :-)