Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Questions

Let’s close out the month of June with Friday Questions.

Brad Apling starts us off.

Frasier spun off of a character in Cheers; Empty Nest spun off of an episode in Golden Girls. What's the thought process that makes this happen? Was there ever a character or story you and your partner spec'd out for a spinoff, but the network didn't share the same 'this would be great!" vision?

Spin-offs are not written on spec. Usually a series commitment is in place. And if not, at least the pilot script. So we’ve never written a spin-off on spec nor had any desire to.  Spin-offs only occur if a network has a desire for it. 

I always wanted to spin-off “Jack” from BIG WAVE DAVE’S into his own show but since we only made six BIG WAVE DAVE’S that seemed a little impractical.

From Jeff R:

You have posted so many interesting things about MASH - I am curious of the role of your Medical Adviser, Walter Dishell. How did you use his knowledge when writing and how engaged was he on a daily/weekly basis. With so many medical shows on TV, my wife is an ER nurse and just laughs at the "reality" they show! Thanks.

A lot of the stories we used were based on interviews with doctors, nurses, soldiers, etc. who served in Korea. In some cases they would involve a medical condition. We would call Walt and ask him to brief us on just what the condition was.

In some cases we would come to him and ask him to find a medical condition that fit what we wanted to do in the story. I remember one example. I called him and said, “We need a disease where a patient comes in with a fever. He gets better but suddenly dies.” He said he’d call me back. An hour later he gave me the name of some exotic fever. I said, “And he could die, right?” He confirmed that he could and I blurted out, “Yes!”

If we had a complicated medical procedure or operation he would walk us through it.

Then, when we wrote the script we would send it him and he would make the necessary adjustments. Our O.R. scenes were filled with: “Nurse, hand me the frabberzabber and begin draining his crenelemuffin.” Walt would put in the correct terms or at least spell-check frabberzabber.

We also had a nurse on the set to ensure that the actors didn’t hold the surgical instruments upside down.

In short, we took a lot of care to make sure the medical portion of the show was as accurate as possible.

Terry asks:

Ken, your talk of crossovers brought to mind a possible Friday question (or questions as the case may be): Can you elaborate a little more on the logistics of writing crossover episodes? Who writes what? How is the story fleshed out? Who has ultimate creative control? Etc.

Usually crossovers are requested (demanded?) by the network as a rating stunt. In most cases, if the two shows agree the showrunners collaborate on the logistics. And there are many.

On ALMOST PERFECT, when we did a crossover scene with CYBIL. The first thing that had to be determined was whether Nancy Travis would film the scene on Cybil Shepherd’s set or whether Cybil would do it on ours. I don’t have to tell you which way that played out.
Then I got together with CYBIL showrunner Howard Gould and sketched out the scene. I believe Howard did the first draft. From there we kept going back and forth revising it. And I must say this was a completely enjoyable process. Howard is a terrific writer and a pleasure to work with. All the while I kept thinking, how could we steal him away from CYBIL?

Eventually, the scene was filmed on the CYBIL set with the CYBIL director. And if memory serves, it aired on CYBIL, but that was a network decision.

As a viewer, I’m a fan of crossover shows. It’s fun to see characters appear on other shows. I'd love to see Saul Goodman show up on GAME OF THRONES. 

And finally, from Jahn Ghalt:

Are Academy member required to cast votes - or can you abstain - a great tradition honored for centuries by American citizens?

Would they kick you out for not voting? If you quit (one way to avoid getting those screeners) what would be the consequence - what are the benefits of membership?

My own policy is to abstain from voting when uninformed (or indifferent) - why add to the noise? Indifferent would seem to apply to mediocre shows.

There’s no penalty for not voting. I only vote for shows and categories I feel I’m qualified to judge. I don’t want a deserving show or artist to be denied a nomination because I made an ill-informed choice instead.

The advantages of membership are that you’re part of the creative community. The various academies have yearly seminars and programs. And for the TV Academy you get screeners! I’m catching up on a lot of amazing TV thanks to those screeners.

What’s your Friday Question?


Honest Ed said...

I used to write on a successful medical drama. We had doctors and nurses read every draft of everything. Sometimes you'd do what a doctor asked and another doctor would read it and tell you you'd kill the patient doing that. I even, one time, had the main advisor tell me that he'd never heard of anyone actually getting a particular disease (scurvy), then the script editor sitting next to me half her hand up - she'd had it once. So the advisor's objection went away instantly.

Apparently it was a popular drinking game amongst med students to watch the show and take a shot every time they spotted an inaccuracy. Of course, you're also advised to not get ill the week those same med students start in hospitals as the death rates spike...

With BAFTA's you can choose to press abstain at any stage, but you have to log in and do it. I believe that if you simply don't vote you lose your voting privileges.

Roger Owen Green said...

When those crossover shows take place over two shows, do the syndication packages, or DVD/Blu-Ray, for program A ever include the episode for program B? I'm thinking Law & Order/Homicide but there are many others.

Michael said...

Dr. Dishell also got a co-writer credit with Alan Alda for the episode where they had to replace a heart valve within about 20 minutes. And what an episode it was.

Unknown said...

You got me with frabberzabber and crenelemuffin, Ken. Not just a chuckle but a full belly laugh, which earned me a dirty look from my dog who was using my crenelemuffin as a pillow at the time and didn't appreciate the jiggle.

Roseann said...

Re: Dr Walter Dishell, Medical Consultant - Was that disease you needed hemorrhagic fever, where the patient gets better and then dies?

I've never forgot that episode and I saw it first run. I also remember that it is part of the Ebola problem. Some things stick with you when you are a kid.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm returning temporarily (don't worry people, I'm not staying, so I won't burden the rest of you) because I have a new Friday question that I'm curious about:

I know there was once upon a time when proper series finales were discouraged for successful series, because of the fear that it would kill the series' chances in syndication (a la THE FUGITIVE). Nowadays, I notice that many shows run for so long that the last episode of the seasons are often written as series fauxnales for the event the show isn't renewed beyond that season - then, whenever the series is renewed, the previous season's closer is often retconned or they act as if the events of that episode never happened. I kind of feel such series fauxnales are becoming a tad gimmicky, but I suppose in the uncertainty of the television landscape, writers, producers, and/or show-runners can never be too sure. What are your thoughts on such series fauxnales?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

(Please fix the spelling of Cybill (and CYBILL)...the 2nd "l" is right there in the ad...)

The recording a friend included in some tapes he was making for me back then had the crossover bit at the beginning of ALMOST PERFECT. But it may have been one of those occasions where they simply ran them together, like the end of SPIN CITY and the beginning of SPORTS NIGHT that time.

btw, the Guardian has an article today on TV shows that were deservedly cancelled. You'll be happy to know BIG WAVE DAVE'S is not on their list (though MY MOTHER, THE CAR is).


Mike Bloodworth said...

Thank you for the discussion about Walter Dishell. A few years ago I asked you a similar question. I was thinking about trying to write a spec script for The Big Bang Theory. I figured that being able to correctly state the scientific theories and formulas was very similar to the medical situations on M*A*S*H. Needless to say, I never wrote that script.

Unknown said...

In his memoir, Raymond Massey (Dr. Gillespie) told this story on himself.

When Dr. Kildare was getting underway, Norman Felton, the showrunner, gave Massey and Richard Chamberlain each a copy of a medical encyclopedia, so they'd know something about the Diseases of the Week as they came up.

The problem: Raymond Massey was a devout hypochondriac, who would invariably start showing the symptoms of the DoW each week, usually at the table read.

This happened one week, and as Massey feared for his life from the DoW, Chamberlain took him aside and told him:
"Ray, I've read further in the book than you have. You can't get this one. You're too old!"
They both had a laugh, and their friendship was cemented for their respective lifetimes.
As I mentioned above, Massey told this story on himself in his memoir, which tells you what you need to know about him.

Maurice Gran said...

Friday Q

Hi Ken, have you ever thought about writing for a sitcom produced overseas, say the UK or Australia? Or even thought about pitching one there?

Secondly, do you have a personal favourite overseas sitcom? A couple of my favourites are PORRIDGE and GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART.


Danny said...

I'm not sure EMPTY NEST really qualifies as a spin-off, at least not as I think of a spin-off. To me, a spin-off is when a character introduced on a series is given a series of his or her own. Maude made a couple of appearances on ALL IN THE FAMILY, and the character went over so well that she was given a series of her own. Maude's maid, Florida Evans, eventually got a spin-off of her own (GOOD TIMES). After a few seasons on SANFORD AND SON, Fred's friend Grady got his own spin-off (however short-lived). EMPTY NEST, though, was developed independently of THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Series star Richard Mulligan's character had never been seen or mentioned on GOLDEN GIRLS until the night EMPTY NEST premiered, scheduled immediately after GIRLS, when he was introduced as the ladies' next-door neighbor. Both shows were created by Susan Harris. That was their only real connection, and presumably Harris and NBC thought EMPTY NEST would benefit from having a connection to GOLDEN GIRLS, which was going great guns at the time.

EMPTY NEST trivia: their was an earlier pilot for the series, rejected by the network but eventually aired as an episode of THE GOLDEN GIRLS, that starred Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley. Only the living room/kitchen set and a neighbor, played by David Leisure, made the transition to the later version of EMPTY NEST. Must have been galling for Moreno and Leisure to be told, "Well, we love the set and we love the wacky neighbor, but you two, you're out."

First sitcom spin-off is generally agreed to be radio's THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE. The Gildersleeve character had been introduced on the FIBBER McGEE AND MOLLY radio show a couple of years before getting his own series in 1941. GILDERSLEEVE was on radio for seventeen years and was also seen on early television as well as in half-a-dozen feature films. They wrung 'em dry in those days. Can you imagine trying to come up with fresh story ideas for a series that had been running for fifteen years, thirty-nine episodes a year?

Re: Crossovers. In later seasons of both shows, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and PETTICOAT JUNCTION did some cross-over episodes. Watching the episodes in syndication today can be confusing as hell, since a storyline that started on HILLBILLIES would continue on PETTICOAT, then wander back to HILLBILLIES, then back over to PETTICOAT. Sort of like reading a novel with some of the chapters removed.

Unknown said...

Hi Ken!

This is Pietro, who you met last week, from Utah. I have discovered your blog and will definitely be making it a part of my daily read.

Thanks so much and have an amazing weekend!
- Pietro

Roger Owen Green said...

Danny - per the gods of TV, EMPTY NEST is a spinoff. Just like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was a spinoff of THE ANDY THOMAS SHOW (or was it MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY?) when Danny Williams drives through Mayberry.

Sheila said...

"Empty Nest" enjoyed very nice ratings as long as it had "The Golden Girls" running before it on Saturday nights. When "Golden Girls" ended, though, and "Empty Nest" had to stand on its own, its ratings started on a steep downhill slide.

I've seen that Danny Thomas episode that served as a pilot for "The Andy Griffith Show." Demonstrates how different a pilot can be from the series proper. The Danny Thomas episode in question was multi-camera, filmed before a live audience and is broad and raucous and loud in the way Danny Thomas's show tended to be, whereas "The Andy Griffith Show" was single camera and was a much quieter, more low-key series, albeit still sometimes very funny.

"The Danny Thomas Show / Make Room for Daddy" gets on my nerves. Danny yells for 25 minutes, then the show abruptly switches gears so he can suddenly be nice and reasonable and understanding for the wrap-up. It was obviously popular back in the day, though, since it ran for something like ten years and got an unsuccessful revival a few years later as "Make Room for Granddaddy."

Honest Ed said...

C'mon, Maurice... Goodnight Sweetheart isn't even your best sitcom!

Edward said...

Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction both were created by Paul Henning. He was also the Exec Producer of Green Acres. There were plenty of crossovers with those three.

@Ken Levine - When there is a crossover episode, do the actors get SAG scale for appearing on another show? How is that worked out?

Greg Ehrbar said...

On November 9, 1991, NBC ran a one-hour Golden Girls called "The Monkey Show" followed by "Empty Nest" and then "The Nurses." All were crossovers connected by a Miami hurricane. It was the only time a full primetime night of crossovers was produced by one company, Witt/Thomas/Harris.

Jeff :) said...

Hi Ken I have 2 somewhat related questions in regards to studio notes. You've mentioned many times on your blog about times you've received strange, confusing and outright bizarre studio notes.

My first question is, have you ever received a note, that at the time was either frustrating or seemed crazy to you, but you adhered to it and the end result was a better script?

My second question is also about studio notes. After you've handed in a script that in your mind is polished and ready to go and then you receive a studio note, on average how much does that script change from the product you handed in previously? How do you determine how much of your already polished script to revise?

Richard said...

Friday question (s)

What character was your favorite to write?

What character did you write that most closely compares to you?

Mike said...

I also agree that Empty Nest is technically not a spinoff because none of those characters appeared on Golden Girls before their own series started. The Andy Griffith characters DID appear on The Danny Thomas Show prior to their series starting.

Petticoat Junction and its sister series, Green Acres, originally had no relation to Beverly Hillbillies other than having the same producer, Paul Henning. Bea Benaderet appeared in both BH and PJ, but playing different characters. In fact, one episode of Green Acres was about the town putting on a play based on their favorite TV show: The Beverly Hillbillies! But when Benaderet died died and the ratings of PJ faltered, the producers began crossovers with the Hillbillies in order to prop it up. And suddenly, it was revealed that Benaderet's two characters on the separate series were cousins.