Thursday, November 09, 2017

That'll cost you $20

Dave Hackel was one of the best showrunners I’ve ever worked with. He created and ran BECKER and also was at the helm of WINGS for a number of years. Very organized, a great judge of talent (many of the young writers he hired went on to create their own shows like Matthew Weiner), and decisive (there’s nothing worse than a showrunner who keeps changing his mind every five seconds – you never know where you stand).

I picked up a lot of good showrunning tips from Dave.

He was also very collaborative with the actors. There was no adversarial position between the writers and cast. Everyone worked towards the same goal – making the best show possible with the least amount of internal drama.

However, Dave did have one rule with the cast. It was in jest but really only half-in-jest. BECKER and WINGS were both multi-camera shows (shot in front of a mostly live audience). Each took a week to produce. We would film three in a row then take a week’s hiatus. Production of a full-season would run from August till March.

So for every three weeks of work the cast had a week off. And they would often use that time to travel. They were making good money so off they’d fly to London or New York or Aspen for a week. We’d reconvene and they’d be asking each other about their recent adventures. And they’d also ask us writers where we went during the break.

This was Dave Hackel’s rule: If an actor asked a writer where he went for the hiatus he was fined twenty dollars.

Because the writers NEVER had a hiatus. While the cast was off doing whatever, the writers were always scrambling, often late into the night, to keep the pipeline flowing. We didn’t go to Iceland. We were stuck in the bunker. Hiatuses were a God send because it allowed us to (in theory) get ahead and (in practice) catch up.

Single-camera shows now work on a similar schedule. But how about this? When we did MASH – with all that production value – we filmed the shows in four days instead of five. Actually, we filmed them in three. The first day was used for rehearsal. So we’d start an episode on Monday and a new episode on Friday. The following Thursday we were on to next one, etc. Makes for a jam packed three weeks of shooting, right? Wrong. Because we didn’t shoot three in a row. We shot eight, sometimes seven. And each episode wasn’t 19 minutes long, it was 23. Plus, we didn’t shoot 22 episodes, we shot 25. We also had a few pick-up days built into the schedule to re-shoot scenes or catch scenes we didn’t have time to film previously.

So our hiatuses were basically two to three weeks a season.   As opposed to six or seven. 

Like I said, today a half-hour show is in production from August 1-March 20. We filmed 25 episodes between July 4-December 24. It was a mad scramble to be sure, but when you see those shows they don’t feel rushed or slapped together. For us writers it just meant a longer period of pre-production and strict organization was imperative.

So you’d figure with so few hiatuses periods the MASH cast wouldn’t do much traveling. Wrong again. Alan Alda lived in Leonia, New Jersey and every Friday night would fly home, returning to Los Angeles on Sunday night.

Alan was the one actor who had it harder than writers. I’m sure Dave Hackel would have waived the twenty dollar fine.


blinky said...

Hey Ken that's the good stuff. I love stories like that about the inside life. Thanks.

Kosmo13 said...

Sounds like Dave's parents did a great job of raising their Hackels.

marka said...

After reading this blog for these years I am convinced of one eternal truth: There is not one bad thing that can be said or written about Alan Alda.

Thanks for answering my question the other day Ken. I always feel like Steve Martin in the jerk when he saw his name in the phone book when you answer a question I submitted. Just not as funny or interesting.

thevidiot said...

Editors rarely got a hiatus break either but they allowed us to catch up.

Al in PDX said...

It makes you wonder how staffs survived in the old days of 39-week seasons ... especially "Your Show of Shows," with its 90-minute programs. Obviously the Murderers Row writing staff helped, but still ...

DBenson said...

While Alda himself is now justly revered as a mensch, I remember back in the day he was the symbol of the "sensitive guy" (liberal, feminist and a nice guy when there was still a stigma in those attributes). As such he was an easy punchline until society caught up. I read that Robert Vaughn's villain in "Superman III" was written as a satire of the Alda type, and Alda was actually sought for the part.

Jonny M. said...

Off-topic: I just saw there's a Christmas tree farm / pumpkin patch chain in Ventura / Santa Barbara area called Big Wave Dave's. You ever seen this? Is it weird to see the name used other places? Do you have some sort of copyright on the name?

ThisGuy said...

Any thoughts regarding this accusation against Matthew Weiner?

Unknown said...

Apparently, no one here has read Jackie Cooper's memoir, Please Don't Shoot My Dog, in which an entire chapter is devoted to what a self-righteous PIA Alan Alda was, at least in MASH's earlier days (meaning before Ken was there).

Of course, that could simply mean that Ken & David got the "broken-in" version, a few years on.
Or that by the time they got there Alda had assumed total control of MASH, so that everybody was on his page.

By Ken Levine said...

Jackie Cooper was a bitter guy who wore out his welcome. Alan was ALWAYS respectful to everyone -- guest directors, guest actors, guys pulling the cables. Don't believe disgruntled Jackie Cooper.

Tom Quigley said...

I met Dave Hackel following a filming of WINGS I attended after I had queried David Angell who was one of the executive producers and (to my surprise) was asked to submit a spec CHEERS I had written. Dave Hackel was coordinator of incoming submissions at the time and he was nice enough to spend a few moments with me to talk about the show and the process he followed, telling me that if I hadn't heard back from him, it meant he hadn't yet had the chance to read my spec. Was really happy for him when I found out he was the creator and showrunner for BECKER, knowing that his hard work was being rewarded.