Friday, July 12, 2019

Friday Questions

Who’s up for some Friday Questions?

Frank Beans is.

When does a spinoff cease to be a spinoff? That is, when and how do networks, producers, audiences see the series as an original show in itself?

Classic examples like LAVERNE & SHIRLEY and FRASIER come to mind, just to name some of the most popular ones. How do they establish an identity outside of the show where their characters were created?

You establish your identity by not relying on guest star appearances from the original series. You create new interesting characters and a venue that can stand on its own. You also spin-off a character (or characters) that can carry a series. Lots of supporting characters can’t make that jump.

Oh, and you hire really good writers.

Bryan Thomas asks:

How do you keep coming up with fresh ideas for your blog? I tried twice a week and burned out but here you are 13 years, 5600 posts. Curious how far ahead you plan posts, if you do, and how you generate ideas.

I’ll be very honest. It’s hard and getting harder. I’ve cut back from seven new posts a week to five, and that has helped. Also having features like Friday Questions has been a big plus. But there are days when I wonder what the hell I can write about?

I do try to stay somewhat ahead with posts that aren’t time sensitive, but it depends. Usually, a flurry of ideas will come so I try to write a few posts at one time and bank them. Other times I’ll react to something current, write it, and post it the next day. But like I said, it’s getting more difficult.

I’m also devoting more time to my podcast.

Mike Bloodworth asks:

Have you ever considered turning one of your existing plays into a musical? Have you ever considered writing a musical in general?

I co-wrote a musical in 2006 that got produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut. It was a very different experience. Honestly, I didn’t love it.

It is so hard to make any little change without effecting the choreography, score, lighting, etc. There's a domino effect that is maddening. 

There are also Equity rules that at times handcuff the process. You can’t really get in there and make the kind of necessary changes you would like to make.

Musicals also take YEARS to get on the stage. I truly love musicals and the good ones are thrilling, and if the right composer came to me with the right idea I might consider collaborating on another one, but for now, I’ll leave it to the Broadway pros.

And finally, from slgc:

When you were making Volunteers, did you have any idea of what kind of star potential Tom Hanks had? Was there anything during his time on set that gave you an inkling that he was a truly talented actor?

We wanted Tom Hanks when we first wrote it in 1980 and he was on BOSOM BUDDIES.  At the time, no one would greenlight a movie starring Tom Hanks.

But flash forward to 1984:  VOLUNTEERS might not have been made at all if Tom Hanks didn’t agree to do it. Remember, by then he had his breakthrough movie with SPLASH. So he was already the flavor-of-the-month. But what we didn’t know at the time was just how exceptionally good he was.

We and world would soon learn.

What's your Friday Question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks and have a great summer weekend.


Andrew said...

Concerning fresh ideas for your blog, I always love your reviews of TV shows. If you're running on empty, why not just look back on some popular shows from the past, pick one, and just write a stream of consciousness post about what you liked and didn't like about it? Or perhaps choose a favorite episode. Or explain as a writer what worked and didn't work. What are your guilty pleasures? Did you like Alf? What popular sitcoms did you despise? Facts of Life, I assume? Who is your favorite character on, say, Taxi? I'm sure many readers would enjoy your thoughts on their favorite or least favorite shows.

And of course, you can do more movie reviews, whether classics or contemporary. I never would have seen The Heartbreak Kid except for your blog. Thanks so much for that. Do more!

Lemuel said...

Ken: consider Chuck Lorre's vanity cards. They're insightful, funny and blog-worthy. Although he occasionally posts "I got nothin".

James Marshall said...

Hello Ken,

I have a Friday Question for you:

I'm loving the blog and podcast and the humour and insight that they both bring!
Your stellar work with David Isaacs on 'Cheers' in particular is what led me to the podcast and this blog.

From 'Cheers' and 'Hollywood and Levine', you have inspired a friend and myself to do a podcast on 'Cheers', episode by episode,

We have recently discussed the episode 'The Boys In The Bar', and I wanted to ask, what struggles did you face when writing sitcom episodes that addressed important social themes and how did you and David keep the balance between seriousness and humour in those episodes?

Thank you,


Guffman said...

Ken, "The Andy Griffith Show" is a constant presence on cable here. More often than not, these shows end in a moral message - being considerate of the feelings of others, setting a good example for your children, freely showing patience and forgiveness, etc. Can you name any TV comedies in the last 20 years that even try to do that? Or have we as a society just become so sarcastic and jaded that reaching for laughs with self-absorbed characters is more important than stooping to something so cornball.

Pat Reeder said...

I feel for you. We wrote the Comedy Wire every day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year for over 20 years. I still have daily deadlines for material six days a week, between what I write for the Internet and a TV show I work on, in addition to various side projects. Thankfully, there's a whole world full of idiots out there, working overtime to provide me with material.

Here's a topic I'd like to get your thoughts on, knowing you are a fellow Neil Simon fan. Last night here in DFW, I saw an excellent local production of "The Star-Spangled Girl." It was one of the earliest plays I read when I wanted to become a comedy writer because my school library had the script. I remember thinking even then that there lots of funny lines, but it struck me as kind of contrived and the characters not very realistic. It's not considered one of his best and with the dated premise (two '60s radicals typing out a protest magazine on an Underwood while fending off creditors on their answering machine), it doesn't get produced very often these days, hence my interest in seeing it.

Before catching this production, I reread Simon's memoirs about it. It was the first play he ever wrote that he was not happy with. He felt pressured to finish it against his better judgement and thought he never got the Southern Christian conservative character right, that she was a caricature rather than a real person. At the opening night party, despite the audience liking the play, he felt so bad, he drank too much, then went home and threw up.

So I was bracing for the worst and went because I like seeing rarely-produced "time capsule" plays. But to our surprise and delight, my wife and I both loved it. Even though I knew the script had flaws and the premise was dated, neither seemed noticeable in the hands of the very deft performers. The actor playing Norman was especially good and gave what can be an irritating character a sweet, goofy twist that got big laughs throughout, even just on the way he moved or lines that weren't even jokes. It played beautifully, just a non-stop laugh riot, and got a big ovation at the end.

I wrote this lengthy comment just to tell you, as a fellow Simon buff, about this surprising experience and ask if you've ever seen something similar, where a script that you didn't think was especially good was lifted so much by the quality of the acting and direction that it seemed far better than you expected.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I rememeber GREEN ACRES was more or less something of an extension of PETTICOAT JUNCTION in its first couple of seasons, until afterwards, it seemed almost all elements of PETTICOAT JUNCTION - with the exception of Mr. Drucker and his store being the only constant crossover -had basically just disappeared.

E. Yarber said...

Perhaps what makes for a strong spinoff is not so much pulling off a corner of the original as trying to find the other side of the coin. If ALL IN THE FAMILY is built around the male conservative head of a household, you go to MAUDE, which concerns a female liberal's home, and from the affluent whites of MAUDE to the project-dwelling blacks of GOOD TIMES. Likewise, the blue collar whites of ALL IN THE FAMILY are contrasted with the upscale blacks of THE JEFFERSONS. GLORIA was not so much a mirror image of ALL IN THE FAMILY as a piece of the original show taken out of context, and could never have the conceptual force of the others.

Likewise, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY flipped the family-driven HAPPY DAYS to show a pair of characters moving out of the nest, while FRASIER moved to an intellectual domestic setting from the lowbrow gang of CHEERS who were getting away from their homes.

We find more of a GLORIA framework in fan fiction, which tends to be about pulling some obscure corner of the original into the spotlight, which is why so much of the genre tends to be more obsessional about irrelevant details than grasping the core of the source. Even Shakespeare wasn't at his best using that approach, if you compare his Falstaff spinoff THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR to the use of the character in HENRY IV Pts. 1 and 2. The fat drunk is a key player in the historical plays, serving as a polar opposite to the emotionally sterile king as Prince Hal moves between the two father figures developing his own personality. On his own, Falstaff is pretty one-dimensional, but remember Shakespeare was only playing to the crowd by dragging this popular character back.

For a classical example of finding the other side of the coin, compare Homer's male-centric ILIAD to Euripides' examination of the the distaff side of the story in THE TROJAN WOMEN. Given that Homer was considered pretty much the peak of artistic achievement within the classical world, even bigger than the Beatles for CENTURIES, you know the Greeks had to hire a really good writer to take his story further.

Mike Bloodworth said...

As always, thank you so much for answering my F.Q.

This is just my opinion, but "Laverne & Shirley" and "Frasier" are the rare examples of spin-offs that were as good if not better than their parent series.
I was NEVER a fan of "Happy Days." I thought it was dumb from the very beginning. Even though I was, at that time, the show's target demographic. But "L&S" made me laugh out loud on a regular basis. And if I remember correctly "H.D." was originally a segment on "Love American Style." Although, I don't know if that counts as a spin-off.

Sorry, Ken. But it's no secret that you occasionally rework an old blog from your archives. The recent one about the deleted scene from "Arthur" comes to mind. That doesn't bother me, but it would be nice if you labeled them "Classic Ken" or something similar.

This is not an F.Q., but will we be seeing a blog about the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing? I was ten years old in '69 and a total space nut. Still am. Were you as jazzed about the space race and the Apollo missions as the rest of the country? I'd love to know.

Stephen Robinson said...

I've argued that the FRASIER pilot is so good that it worked if you'd never watched an episode of CHEERS. Grammer had played the character for 8 years already, which I'm sure helped immensely, but I really think the pilot script -- and the writing for the first season -- is so strong that he still could've "found" Frasier without having played him previously on CHEERS.

Tangentially, I've often pointed to the season 6 premiere of CHEERS as a "stealth pilot" that sets up character dynamics and setting beautifully. Again, you didn't need to have watched an episode of the show prior.

E. Yarber said...

A few further thoughts:

RHODA reversed THE MARY TYLER MOORE show. MTM was about a woman leaving home to become independent, RHODA was about a woman returning home and dealing with family matters. PHYLLIS, which was less successful, pulled a character from the show out of context, as did JOEY (though I'm sure at least one executive asked, "Couldn't we call it FRIEND?")

Then there are "backdoor pilots," which introduce new characters in a single episode of an established show hoping to turn the story into a series. Since these premises go off to their own orbit, the connection might not be considered a complete spinoff. That's how THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was introduced, while MORK AND MINDY might be considered a backdoor pilot as well since the original ending established it wasn't actually part of HAPPY DAYS continuity.

There are reboots, like THE MEN FROM SHILOH pushing THE VIRGINIAN a decade later, or WISEGUY returning in a truncated fourth season with Steven Bauer replacing Ken Wahl and the continued story format being dropped after an initial arc).

Then there are shows like TRAPPER JOHN MD which purport to reintroduce a character from another series though the two programs are basically unrelated. Another MTM "spinoff," LOU GRANT, might fit that category, since like TRAPPER the weak connection to the previous show was quickly dropped from dialogue and LOU went on to be as much a continuation of MARY TYLER MOORE as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT took over from ALL IN THE FAMILY (though I'm sure at least one executive asked, "Couldn't we call it ARCHIE BUNKER'S POLICE?")

Patrick Wahl said...

I'm a fan of "Volunteers", Hanks was great in it and I've always thought it was a much under-appreciated comedy. Hanks was so good at comedy, I've always wondered about his switch to serious acting, if that was the plan all along or if his thinking evolved to wanting to make serious movies (Carrey and R. Williams two more who went that direction). Not a question, just rambling out loud.

Stephen Robinson said...

JOEY is an example of a spin off that could have worked but failed because of a faulty premise. Joey himself is the most likable of the all the FRIENDS characters and is the most likely to work on his own -- unlike everyone else, his family life was not indelibly linked to FRIENDS. It also made sense that he'd move to Los Angeles. It is a natural next step in his career. (It's not like he was a theatre actor.)

What doomed JOEY for me is that his new supporting cast didn't surprise us. Compare this to FRASIER: Martin wasn't an older Frasier and Niles wasn't a version of Sam or Woody (which a lesser series might've done). Joey's nephew was Chandler-lite and his sister was the cliched Italian sister we'd seen multiple times on FRIENDS all ready.

FRASIER had great conflict with its established dynamic: The father having to move in with his son, who is very different from him. Yet, this living arrangement brings them closer together than if Martin hadn't been shot. There was no such complexity or thought behind JOEY.

IIRC, Kelsey Grammer insisted on FRASIER not in any way being a retread of BOB NEWHART, which I think led to the radio show format, which was brilliant and also opened up the series and introduced great characters/stories.

There are so many ways FRASIER could've failed like JOEY and everyone would shrug and say, "How did anyone think that character would work outside of FRIENDS."

ScarletNumber said...

@Joseph Scarbrough

This is the same vein as Family Matters being a spinoff of Perfect Strangers. It's not like the husband ever asked his wife how Larry and Balki were doing.

@E. Yarber

Legally M*A*S*H and Trapper John, M.D. are unrelated, as they are both separate adaptations of the movie MASH, much like the Matthew Perry Odd Couple isn't related to the Garry Marshall Odd Couple.

Peter said...

If you haven't seen it yet, I strongly recommend you see the documentary film Apollo 11. Make sure you see it on the biggest cinema screen you can find. The footage is absolutely stunning. They've restored 65mm and even 70mm film from 1969 and it looks beautiful. The picture is so pristine that, except for the hairstyles and fashion, it looks like it could have been shot last week.

I had no idea so much footage had been shot leading up to the launch. Even the opening shot of the launch rig being driven into position is awe inspiring.

Of course the footage of outer space and the moon is breathtaking. It really brings home what a momentous accomplishment it was for America. The three astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, are all-time legends and heroes.

It says it all that the most spectacular footage I've seen at the cinema this year isn't CGI fights against a green screen but film shot 50 years ago.

Mike said...

“Happy Days” was not produced for “Love, American Style”. It was an unsold pilot for ABC called “New Family in Town”. To get back some of its investment, ABC and Paramount turned it into an episode of “LAS” called “Love and the Television Set”. It was later retitled “Love and the Happy Days” for syndication (after “Happy Days” became a successful series).

I liked the first couple of seasons of HD, when it was true to its time period and filmed with a single camera. After it turned into a multi cam with a studio audience, it became unbearable, with all kinds of cliches, sappy moments and catch phrases.

“Laverne & Shirley” was so good the first four seasons. The leads had fantastic chemistry and the writing was clever. But even before the setting changed from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, it was starting to get stale. The good writers left. And the supporting characters, outside of Lenny and Squiggy, were weak.

Frank Beans said...

Thanks for taking my question Ken. In hindsight, my inquiry was probably pretty nebulous, since all shows need good writing and a solid premise. But I do see that a lot of spinoffs were dominating the television scene in the 70s-80s, and others that were trying to re-invent themselves, often to no avail. It seemed like a weird, but creative time.

JS said...

My Question - why when shows get desperate they bring in a baby. It never works. It is the sign of death,

Covarr said...

I have a good friend who played a major role in a play my wife and I wrote for our local community theatre a few years ago. The character is really zany and over the top, and was a definite audience favorite in an ensemble cast that spans the gamut from normal to ridiculous. This actor has asked me on multiple occasions if there were any plans for a sequel, prequel, or spin-off play focused on his character.

I always have to tell him the same thing: that character could not work as a lead. He's too silly and too exhausting, and his primary gimmick (he tells stories which are decidedly not true and it's unclear whether he himself believes them or not) could not carry a show. It needs balance from something more grounded.

You know who I always wished had gotten his own spin-off, though? Harry the Hat, from CHEERS. I know, utterly impossible at the time thanks to NIGHT COURT (which itself was quite fun), but a guy can dream.

JS: What about shows that already have a baby, but then give him way too much screen time in later seasons? DINOSAURS was a good show at first, but completely fell apart in the fourth season by shifting the show's emphasis to Baby Sinclair.

Scottmc said...

I watched the 80's episode of the CNN series on movies. Noticed your appearance during the section on Woody Allen. The best part, for me, was Philip Rosenthal's game/question. He said what if all of your favorite movie directors released a movie on the same day which one would you see first? His choice was Stanley Kubrick. It is such a great question.

Anonymous said...

If you want to cut back to 4, maybe pull a throwback on thursdays. You have 13+ years of material. I did go back through some of your older posts through the search feature once but I probably only saw the tip of the iceberg. Show me and others some of your favorite posts from the past. :)


Dixon Steele said...

As a baseball fan and writer, any thoughts on the late Jim Bouton?

I was a kid when I read and loved it. Hilarious and showed the human side of ball players in a way I hadn't read before.

Janet said...

Hi Ken,

What are your thoughts on this essay by Washington Post critic Hank Steuver on the ongoing popularity of FRIENDS and THE OFFICE?

Janet said...

Oops, not sure if I included the link to the essay:

My own thoughts are (speaking about FRIENDS, as I'm not an OFFICE fan) that folks wouldn't be stuck on FRIENDS if contemporary stuff was up to similar quality.

And, and Steuver points out that was a time when people weren't staring at their phones and would engage each other in the episodes.

Well, perhaps people do miss that and that needs to be written into more current series.

Loosehead said...

Just watched the most amazing cricket match (yes, honestly). You're a baseball fan. How would the game be played differently if there was only one inning each side, with the team batting first or second chosen by a coin toss?

Stephen Robinson said...

@Janet -- My own personal "pet peeve" is contrarians. The people who have to shout, "Well, I don't like VERY POPULAR THING." Gee, no one assumes that everyone in the world likes something. But FRIENDS came the closest in recent sitcom memory. And it's almost gaslighting to have folks try to use its popularity on Netflix as evidence *against* its good writing and timelessness. 30 ROCK and many other very clever shows didn't endure because they were so much of their period.

I love FRIENDS and it's not just because it aired entirely during my 20s (1994 - 2004), though I do like how well that synched up.

Shane said...

This past Sunday, Antenna TV ran an episode of Becker you directed called, I believe, " Spontaneous Combustion." In it, Ted Danson and Nancy Travis' characters do several soliloquies. How do you go about shooting those?