Sunday, March 25, 2018

My all-time favorite TV job

Readers have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.

We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.

We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)

It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.

Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.

Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).

Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.

So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.

At all.

We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)

Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.

This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.

To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.

We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson (who I mentioned yesterday in Friday Questions) to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.

And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.

The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.

Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said we single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan and was not tearful when he was later fired) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.

But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.


Pilot Joe said...

Remember watching and could not figure out why it never went on the schedule, a real shame. Did you ever try selling it to another network?

ScarletNumber said...

No mention of Kurtwood Smith?

Dr Loser said...

Um, Faye Dunaway?

(No issues with her in movies. But on TV?)

MikeN said...

I thought Chicago Hope was carried by Mandy Patinkin.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Dig those totally tubular 80s color palettes of those screencaps!

Brian said...

FQ: Andy Ackerman directed the pilot and other episodes too. Didn't he direct many other pilots too? What was he, a good luck charm or something?

Justin Piatt said...

I feel like shows that have the least studio interference tend to be the best. Seinfeld had very little interference because at first they thought no one was paying attention and then they got too big to be interfered with. The Muppet Show was made in England where they were allowed to do their own thing. Both of these shows were some of the biggest of their time.

Thomas Mossman said...

Tom Hanks has made similar comments about Bosom Buddies. ABC paid so little attention to the show that they leveraged that "neglect" into a creative freedom that wouldn't have had otherwise.

James said...

I haven't seen it since it initially ran so I have no idea if it holds up, but I remember really liking Adam Arkin's show [b]Busting Loose[/b], which ran a short time in the late 70s. I was always disappointed that I rarely saw him after that, particularly in a sitcom. I thought he was a good comic actor and very likeable.

Some people are just snake-bit on sitcoms.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I had never even heard of BIG WAVE DAVE'S until I started reading Ken's blog a few months ago. I suppose that's because I was never a MURPHY BROWN fan and wasn't watching CBS on those nights. I'm glad you enjoyed your job, however. As the old cliche says, Some people live to work and others work to live. It always helps when you love what you do. And as I always say, If you create another show write a part for me.
M.B. (NO RELATION to Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dr Loser: I remember the show - IT HAD TO BE YOU. Dunaway played a
high-powered publisher who meets and falls in love with a plumber with
three children. Robin Bartlett (MAD ABOUT YOU, THE POWERS THAT BE)
played her assistant. Dunaway was as miscast as you'd expect.

Ken doesn't say so, but all three of the shows he lists there bombed
pretty bad. I'm guessing the Peter Scolari show was DWEEBS, which I
liked; it also had Stephen Tobolowsky in the cast. Successful computer
company looking for its next big move, and settles on user-friendliness,
for which they need techno-illiterate Farrah Forke.

The Shelley Long thing was GOOD ADVICE, and I couldn't stand it enough
to watch more than the pilot.


Duncan Randall said...

Here's a Friday question: Why would a network launch a new show on Sunday nights, starting the first two shows when the time will undoubtedly be delayed by the NCAA games? I'm talking about Instinct on CBS.

MikeN said...

Duncan, feature not a bug. They are getting a huge leading audience, which hopefully peaks at the end of a close game, likely if the start time is delayed. I haven't seen the coverage, but I'm guessing that during this game, there were at least 10 promos for this show as well.
As long as the show is remotely interesting this works well. Then there was the time a game ran so long, it was removed from the schedule, and the announcers were just laughing at it, "I don't know why they would skip The Five Mrs Buchanans".

VP81955 said...

"The Five Mrs. Buchanans" was a fun show with a pre-Aunt Zelda Beth Broderick.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Justin Piatt SEINFELD actually did have some interference in the beginning: the character of Elaine was practically mandated by the network because they felt the show needed a female character to reel in the female demographic (even though the deadpan and sardonic coffee shop waitress in the pilot was intended to be a semi-regular character); likewise, they insisted she be Jerry's girlfriend in the beginning. And like with M*A*S*H in the earlier years, some episodes did not sit well with network censors, like that contest episode: they pretty much had to come up with those euphemisms like "Master of your domain," because the network refused to let them actually outright mention masturbation.

As for THE MUPPET SHOW, you're right, it was produced over in England, because Lord Lew Grade of ITV was the only one who believed in the show: all three American networks rejected it because they figured it would be a kiddy show, which had no place in primetime . . . even when THE MUPPET SHOW did air in America, it went straight to syndication via CBS O&O (owned-and-operated) affiliates across the country. When it became such a big hit, all three networks were kicking themselves for turning it down. Now, if only Disney would let the Muppets do their own thing, rather than try to bring in other mainstream writers from other mainstream shows to give them mainstream appeal, things could go a lot better - one of the reasons, I feel, the 2015 ABC show failed: they tried too hard to make it THE BIG MODERN MUPPET BANG OFFICE FAMILY THEORY.

MikeN said...

Just saw the pilot on Youtube. While it feels a little flat, I find it refreshing how the series starts. There is no introduction or exposition, but instead showing the characters.

Keith Nichols said...

I laughed more at the two episodes of "Big Wave Dave" I just saw than at any of the current sitcoms. I appreciate that in the marlin-fishing episode the seasick-landlubbers angle was underplayed in favor of miniature furniture.

sam said...

An hour ago, I had no idea about this.
I'm sure you know about it. I will go with the coincidence theory. Thoughts?

Howard said...

What's a laugh spread?

I can usually figure things out from context, but even Google isn't any help here.

DARON72 said...

I love every "Big Wave Dave's" episode. I was going through some rough times in 1993 and that show was the cure. It was funny without being crude and Kurtwood Smith was on fire! In fact I'm still waiting for new episodes.....

Justin Piatt said...

@Joseph Scarborough - hi!

On the DVDs, Larry David talks about not having very much interference over The Contest episode, aside from changing a few words. Though it's possible he forgot some of the details by then. And I forgot about the Elaine thing. Well, I guess that's one studio note that was for the best. The show wouldn't have been as good without her.

While I enjoyed the new Muppet series, it was lacking in some more Muppety things. I was expecting more from Bill Prady since he began his career with the Muppets. I think the problems came more from the fact he had to split his time between Muppets and Big Bang. And they really need to listen to the performers more. The Muppet Show days had the Muppeteers, writers and crew all interacting and contributing.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Great to see it was fun while it lasted.

I looked up GOOD ADVICE - which featured Shelley Long AND Teri Garr. "On paper" that looks good, but the important "on paper" part is the writing.

(What? Faye Dunaway was in a COMEDY?)

(well, she WAS in BARFLY which could count as a dark-comedy)

Staying even at 9:30 with your hit lead-in is quite an accomplishment.

television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.

Television IS better today with those kind of worthy writers - just not on the Networks.

And a suggestion for another interview - why not get Isaacs to chat about Big Wave Dave's (and other not-covered projects)?

Augie De Blieck Jr. said...

So THAT'S what happened to Big Wave Dave's. I remember watching it and liking it that summer and then it disappeared. I figured I was the only person who ever watched it, but the ratings disagreed.

I figured they had canceled it before they aired it and were just burning off episodes in the summer. The truth is almost more ridiculous... =(