Friday, February 14, 2020

Friday Questions

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, Happy Birthday to me, and Happy Friday Questions to us all.

James starts us off:

I was watching the Steve Gordon version of The Practice with Danny Thomas. In-between seasons, one of the tweaks they made was to completely change the set of the son's house, but with no explanation that he'd moved. But other than the entrances and exits being rotated, it didn't do anything other than redecorate with new furniture and fixtures. They also changed the theme song, and not for the better.

As a show runner, do you ever see set changes or theme-song changes as ever being for the better? Do they ever help? On a long-running show I can see it breaking the monotony, but on year 2?

I can’t speak for the specifics of THE PRACTICE. Maybe the original apartment set was hard to film. The new one might have had ports built in so cameras could get farther into the set.  Or for year two they moved to a smaller sound stage and didn't have room for the original apartment set.  I dunno. I’m just guessing.

Changing opening titles and the theme is usually rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Ratings aren’t great so the network starts asking for tweaking – like a new opening theme is going to turn the whole series around.

Bob Uecker is a National Treasure asks:

So many of The Office blooper reels are Jim Krasinski or Rainn Wilson unable to stop laughing during a scene. As a comedy writer, were you proud when actors couldn't get through a scene without giggling? As a director, were you annoyed? And of the shows you worked on, which actors were most prone to giggling during multiple takes?

First off, Bob Uecker IS a National Treasure.  Now to answer the question:  

I’d so much rather have the actors laughing than not liking the script.

Shows like THE OFFICE were “block and shoot,” meaning they’d block the scene, shoot it, then move on to the next scene so the actors don’t spend a lot of time with the material before cameras roll. Therefore when they think it’s so funny they have to laugh, I sure don’t mind that.

But for a multi-camera show shot in front of a live studio audience it’s a different story. The actors have a week to rehearse. By the time shooting begins they should be focused enough to no longer laugh.

Now obviously, if someone goes up on a line it breaks everybody up, and that’s fun. But at some point the cast needs to buckle down. So as a director I find it mildly annoying because it means the actor is not really committing to the character.

That said, I’ve had very few occurrences of this. Most of the actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are consummate professionals.

From Dave H:

Is there a topic on your blog about old shows that have not aged well, where you can’t believe that people thought they were funny?

Well, I can only speak for myself.  

The one show that jumps out at me is LAUGH IN. It’s painfully unfunny. But in its heyday in the late ‘60s it was a massive hit, and even I was laughing at the time.

Same for BATMAN in the ‘60s. Hilarious at first when I was a kid and now cheesy beyond belief.

I look back and wonder what I ever saw in THE PATTY DUKE SHOW (other than having a little crush on Patty Duke). Same with GIDGET and Sally Field.

Now BEWITCHED is an interesting case. The first couple of years in black and white remain smart and funny, and the later years (which I watched and enjoyed at the time) are awful.

On the flip side, I was channel surfing recently and came upon an episode of ALF. I was never a big ALF fan but found myself laughing. And no one was surprised at that than me.

And finally, from C. Warren Dale:

More and more shows these days - almost all streaming dramas, more and more network and cable dramas, and even a few streaming (The Kominsky Method) and network (The Good Place, The Conners) comedies embrace a serialized story structure. This can make for good television but it makes it impossible to write a spec. Any assumptions you make about the characters, setting, or storyline could be blown apart by the next episode that airs. As television moves in this direction, how do you think new writers will be able to demonstrate their skills in that context?

When I taught a spec class at UCLA I advised students that if they want to write a spec of a serialized show just pick a place in the series and write from there. The producers understand that you won’t know what their plans are and take that into account.

But yes, it’s hard enough to write a spec without having to shoot at a moving target.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Unkystan said...

Hey James...where did you find The Practice? I’d love to see that again.

Anonymous said...

Batman is still fun to watch if you basically ignore everything but the villains.
You have some great actors and some personalities who were basically told "there is no such thing as overacting".
Frank Gorshin doing a little Richard Widmark.
Cesar Romero and the maniacal laugh.
Burgess Meredith doing an upper class twit FDR bad guy.
Victor Buono chewing the scenery.
Julie Newmar.
If you know something about those people you can't help but be entertained.

Ted said...

Happy Birthday Ken.

J Lee said...

The original "Danny Thomas Show" seemed to change apartments for the Williamses every couple of years, so the show's star might have had some input in change on The Practice. If nothing else, it kept the set builders at Desilu busy every off-season or so.

Baseball question -- Any feelings, plus or minus on MLB's floating the idea of expanding the playoffs from 10 to 14 teams and letting the No. 2-3 seeds in each league pick their opening round opponent, in some sort of reality show setting? To me, it seems like something that might work as a gimmick for a year or two, but would then lose it's excitement, while I'm not sure how great it's going to be for the league's No. 1 seed to get their starting pitchers out of their regular rotations, by giving them what would end up as about a 7-10 day break between the regular season and their first playoff game (the bye would probably help get some older starters some needed rest, but the rust factor on the starting pitchers might end up causing the No. 2 seed in each league to be more valuable than the No. 1 seed).

YEKIMI said...

Then vs. now: Watched a few episodes of "Love, American Style" on the Decades network when they had a "binge" marathon of shows this past weekend. Back when they first aired, I thought they were fairly funny. A few years under the belt and now I realize how hokey and painfully unfunny most of them were. You could tell some of the actors were there just to get a paycheck and basically were phoning it in. But it was great seeing a lot of actors I had forgotten about and wondered how many were still with us. [Gave and a workout]. I guess it probably was the show that gave birth to "The Love Boat" in a roundabout way.

benson said...

Happy Birthday, Ken.

Thanks for all the entertainment.


Jeff Alexander said...

Mr. Levine:

There is one example of a popular TV series which changed its theme song from the second to the third season, if not the first to second -- Happy Days.

As you may recall, in the 1973-74 season, it opened with Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." When the series switched from a one-camera to a three-camera in the 1975-76, "Clock" was dropped in favor of a theme written by Norman Fox and Charles Gimbel, who were responsible for the theme from "Love, American Style" (which featured the "Happy Days" pilot).

There are probably others, but this is the first one that came to my mind. The series actually did improve (like "The Odd Couple") when it went to a live audience, although, unlike "The Odd Couple," it lasted much longer than it should have.

Mike Barer said...

Happy Birthday, Ken!

Mark said...

I just finished your podcast on writing advice (with rants!) and it reminded me of a question I've had for a long time.

When plays are converted to movies I'm pretty much always disappointed. I think it's because plays require text to describe things that can't be shown on stage, and movies just show what happened off stage. And often I think they don't make the transition in a satisfying way. Do you agree? But the play IS the text and I can't imagine the playwright would be happy to have significant chunks of text dropped just because it's easier and more effective to show George in his foxhole with all his experiences, and drop three pages of text as a result.

Can you think of examples of successful and unsuccessful examples of play adaptations and why they worked or didn't work?

Thanks, Ken!

PJ said...

Happy Birthday Ken!

Tommy Raiko said...

THE ODD COUPLE tv show is an example that comes to mind of a set change as a positive. The first season was shot single camera using the apartment set the movie had used. Later seasons moved to a multi-camera format with a studio audience, which meant they had to do a totally new set. Especially for those actors, performing in front of a studio audience really made those later seasons work so much better.

John Hammes said...

Anyone smart enough to share a birthday with Benjamin Kubelsky, is all right.

J Lee said...

Happy Days' set change was interesting because they did their first live show late in Season 2 ("Fonzie's Getting Married"), which shot three-camera but with the sets used in the single-camera shows. When they went three-camera/live audience in Season 3, the front door to the Cunningham's house was moved from the left to the right side of the set. Had to be a reason for staging purposes, but I've never seen it explained.

"Bewitched" pretty much followed the 1960s rule-of-thumb that on long-running shows that made it through the color conversion era, the B&W episodes are the ones to watch. But in many cases, the mindset in syndication by the 1970s was people wouldn't watch B&W shows anymore. So lots of series only ran the lesser color episodes, which made new viewers wonder what was so good about the show in the first place.

gottacook said...

Lost in Space also had a change in opening-credits music between seasons 2 and 3 (both composed by "Johnny" Williams), but it wasn't enough to get the show renewed further. The second theme has turned up in at least one really groovy marching-band arrangement.

Happy birthday Ken!

Bob Gassel said...

Since audiences today appear to be turned off by artificial laugh tracks, do you think it would be a good idea to remove them (obviously when possible) from older shows?

blinky said...

I just have to say that the picture at the top of your post of Danny Thomas with the cigar looks like Triumph the Insult Comedian Dog. Holy Toledo!

Edward said...

'Friends' changed its opening theme from an REM song to the current one during the first season. Not sure if music licensing had anything to do with it or other business/production reasons.

The "Mary Tyler Moore Show's" theme changed after season one. From what I understand, the producers needed updated lyrics to be consistent with the character. "You might just make it after all" was obsolete since Mary made it.

Michael said...

A few years ago I watched several GIDGET episodes on Antenna TV and thought it was mildly amusing escapism. But now sad to know by the time she filmed it, according to her memoir, Sally Field had already been sexually abused by her step-father and had an abortion in Mexico.

VP81955 said...

Happy birthday, Ken, and Jack Benny too (a man who truly appreciated writers). May love be perpetually in bloom.

Jeff Boice said...

I remember watching Laugh-In back then and laughing so hard my stomach hurt. Years later a 30 minute edited version of the show aired on Nickelodeon, and like you said, it was painfully unfunny. When Trio aired the original episodes intact, I thought that approach actually was better, but still Stokley Charmichael jokes haven't aged well.

Batman was really a comet ratings-wise; it had fizzled out by the start of the second season. For most of the first season the producers took actual plots from the Batman comic book and camped them up. Then they gave up on that approach, and went straight for satire. I still like the episode where Penguin runs for Mayor, though.

Batman really messed up TV in the mid-sixties as its initial success led the networks to camp up their existing shows (Man From U.N.C.L.E is the best example) only to see them follow Batman down the tubes. Luckily, that kind of interference never happened to your shows- at least as far as I know NBC never asked Cheers to add a space alien puppet to the cast of bar regulars.

WB Jax said...

For my money, "I Dream of Jeannie" was a series that was actually improved by a change to color/inclusion of new main title music (at least for seasons 2-4). By then Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman and Bill Daily seemed to really "mesh" (and of course, Hayden Roarke was terrific), Hugo Montenegro's sprightly Latin-tinged theme music made one forget the romanic waltz music theme composed for season 1.

As for "Bewitched," though the show became more "sitcomy" when transitioning to color film, IMO all the seasons featuring Dick York (he was on the first five years) feature many standout half hours.

thirteen said...

Happy Birthday, Ken.

As I recall, the producers of "Monk" changed its first-season instrumental theme because they'd routinely have a tease with murders and heads rolling down the sidewalk and so on, and then there'd suddenly be this peppy little tune. After s1 they used "It's a Jungle Out There" by Randy Newman. Both themes won Emmys, the only time a series has managed to do so.

Charlie said...

Happy Birthday Ken! Hoping you have many, many more so you can have your wish of outliving award shows and their In Memoriam segment.

WB Jax said...

Oh, and Happy B-Day., Ken..and thank you to and David for one of TV's most brilliant funny lines, in the "Room Service" episode of "Frasier' (Lilith telling Frasier about the downside of getting "the closet of her dreams").

...And no food in the bathroom! :)

Anonymous said...

It is incredible to now watch shows that you loved as a child but are now so unfunny and boring. On the same hand, I caught an episode of Dark Shadows recently. Wow, to think that show actually scared the crap out of me! I remember watching it with one eye covered. And that music!Janice B.

Brian Fies said...

I recently caught a "Love Boat," which I thought was mildly entertaining at the time, and couldn't believe how awful it was. Stupid, stupid plots playing out on sets that not for a moment made me think the story was taking place on a boat. Out of curiosity I watched another one, just in case I'd accidentally caught the "Spock's Brain" of "Love Boats," and it was even worse. My impression was that about half the cast was doing their best to elevate the material as much as they could, while the other half were happy to take a check and go home. It was a great vehicle for older actors, though (Lillian Gish!), and probably a big break for a lot of writers.

iamr4man said...

The Mary Tyler Moore show changed its opening theme song. I suppose that was because the first season focused on her moving to a new city and job and later years on her life in that city having “made it”.

Unknown said...

The Drew Carey Show had a few theme songs and different openings. I think it added to the show.
I think shows that are in perpetual re-run (Office, Friends, BBT, etc) I think they should cut the opening short, and keep more of the show. Of course, still have the proper credits given to the proper people, don't want to offend a key grip.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I find that watching reruns of SNL is very much hit-or-miss (even the first five seasons). I tend to focus on the openers, the guest monologs, and guest musicians. Skectches are not so reliable.

Worse - Monty Python. So experimental that much of it falls flat.

Brother Herbert said...

During the run of HOUSE, MD, several characters "moved" with no explanation. Cameron lived in at least two apartments, one with a corner front door and one with a door that opened in the middle of the building's corridor. House himself lived in several places; one of his apartments had a bathroom at the end of the hallway, then later the bathroom moved to the middle of the hallway!

The worst offender when it came to unexplained changes was THE DORIS DAY SHOW, which not only changed premises every season, but her jobs, bosses, child status, etc. all changed as well.

sueK2001 said...

Happy Birthdayy Ken!!!!!! May your day be filled with sunshine, great music and lots of laughs! Thank you so much for all the FQ you answered over the years. Thanks for all the great stories from radio to TV and to baseball. You are a true American Treasure. Enjoy your day!!!!!

DBenson said...

Will say the first season of BATMAN holds up, but by the third season the cheapness was no longer ironic and the scripts were outright bad comedy instead of tongue in cheek. For a brief while, a kid (like me) could get that it was meant to be funny but still take enjoy as superhero action -- which was then confined to even cheaper Saturday morning cartoons and tired Superman reruns. I remember being upset when the movie of the show had Batman running around with the bomb, not suspecting the show was going to do worse.

By coincidence picked up season one of "Laugh In" last night. I'll venture it ages no more embarrassingly than many other variety shows (A disc of late Jackie Gleason was painful: Monologue and maybe banter with a guest, then a dull restaging of an old Honeymooners script. And they cut of most of the variety). Observations: It's really more Playboy than flower children, what with Rowan and Martin in nightclub mode and "daring" jokes more status quo than what the Smothers Brothers were doing (Tiny Tim was an excuse for easy gay jokes; a large guest comedienne's entire bit was jokes about her weight). The regulars were an impressive bunch right off the bat. Most of the ladies all had big, serious singing voices (Barbara Felton's speaking voice gets a lifetime pass). Arte Johnson had a bunch of characters in place from the first episode. Henry Gibson brought his poetry bit, previously demonstrated as one of Sally's dates on "The Dick Van Dyke Show". And Rowan and Martin were slick and usually amusing. You can't fault the on-camera talent.

A lot of the jokes, or non-sequiturs really, depended on being on and off fast; today the pacing feels leisurely but at the time it was lightning speed. The inverse of watching a Harry Langdon silent and not being able to grasp how his stubbornly slow and careful pacing convulsed audiences used to speedy slapstick.

The pilot -- run as a special -- included direct swipes from a Richard Lester short and a lifted Woody Allen line. A running gag involved a man and an elevator. At one point two "geisha girls" join him. The doors close not horizontally as usual but vertically -- a racial joke, and possibly a reference to several dirty jokes. The first official episode brought back the elevator gag with new variations. Near the end the two geishas reappeared, but the man made a "Don't do it" gesture at the camera and the doors didn't close -- a coy admission the original joke was too tasteless?

Tom Galloway said...

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend changed its theme song every one of its four seasons.

Brian said...

Happy Birthday Ken, and happy Valentines day too. I believe you once said you were a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm. How is it holding up for you in season 10? I will admit that after a few years off, I'm enjoying season 9 now.

Anonymous said...

The Practice is on Amazon Prime Video

Pam, St. Louis

TimWarp said...

Happy Birthday, Ken!

One show that I ADORED as a kid was The Carol Burnett Show. A few years ago some network had a marathon, and I found I couldn't sit through 10 minutes of it. So painful. I couldn't agree with you more about Bewitched, except that even at the time I found the last few seasons awful.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've noticed that many shows change the opening theme throughout the run. "M*A*S*H" did it. The arrangement differed from year to year. "Barney Miller" also. I figured it was intentional. i.e. A way to tell one season from another.
Jeff Alexander, "Happy Days." You beat me to it.

I disagree about "Laugh-In" and "Batman." Obviously, jokes about Nixon and L.B.J. are terribly dated, but I still enjoy many of the sketches and characters. And I still have a mad crush on YOUNG Goldie Hawn. As for "Batman," I still like it. If it's on I'll watch, but I don't make an effort to find it.
The shows I can't watch any more are the cartoons of my youth. "I bought the first season of "The Flintstones" on DVD. I could barely get through one disc. It's currently on Me-TV, but I've only watched a few episodes. "Alvin and the Chipmunks" is another example. I'm kind of torn about "Rocky and Bullwinkle," however. As an adult I get a lot more of the jokes and references. But otherwise it's kind of eh. "Bewitched" is a show that I ca
don't watch. Even the ones with Dick York.
The early, black and white episodes of "Lost in Space" were very good. But after it went to color it got too silly.

Speaking of "Alf," do you have an opinion on the so called, "Space Jews?" I was on one website that claimed "Alf" was antisemitic because he was a thinly veiled depiction of a Jew. The same goes for the Ferengi on "Star Trek TNG." They listed other examples as well.
Not an F.Q. Just curious.

Is it really your birthday? Sorry. I must have forgotten. It must be gettin' harder and harder to blow out all those candles, huh? HAPPY HAPPY!

VincentS said...

Happy Valentine's day and happy birthday, Ken.

71dude said...

Happy birthday, Ken.

"Facts of Life" got a rewritten and rerecorded theme (by Gloria Loring) from Season 2 onwards, as well as new sets and a smaller cast, since NBC was desperate to have another comedy on the air besides "Diff'rent Strokes" and the only other option was "Hello Larry".

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

No question that "Bewitched" started aiming for the kiddies by the time Dick Sargent and Alice Ghostley came along--so much so that ABC aired reruns on Saturday mornings for a while.

Charles Bryan said...

This says it all! Happy Birthday, Ken! (It's got to be tough finding birthday dinner reservations.)

Myles said...

Recently binged all of Alf on some Roku App actually holds up surprisingly well. Some of it even feels eerily fresh or relevant to things happening today. There was a reboot in the works but not sure if that's going forward anymore.

tavm said...

I've watched the first five seasons of "Laugh-In" and found most of the eps funny. Perhaps it was because George Schlatter was in charge. Perhaps Lily Tomlin's addition during the middle of the third season was also a factor. Having watched some of the sixth on Ruku, the quality seems to mostly disappear perhaps of Schlatter's departure and reduced appearances of Ms. Tomlin. Certainly having a lack of topical jokes especially those concerning Nixon may also be a factor and that's probably due to NBC's banning such jokes and the fact Rowan & Martin and producer/head writer Paul Keyes being such friends with Nixon. I hope to eventually finish the show by the end of this month and then hope to then find the later version that had among the cast, Robin Williams...

Unkystan said...

The Practice with Danny Thomas is not on Amazon Prime. They have the Dylan McDermott lawyer program.

Sean said...

Happy Birthday Ken.


Liggie said...

Funny is in the eye of the beholder. I still enjoy watching "Laugh-In" clips on YouTube, particularly Ruth Buzzi's Gladys Ormphby banging her purse on Arte Johnson's elderly Tyrone B. Horneigh and Johnson's "veeeery interesting" German soldier. BTW, Buzzi is a great follow on Twitter.

On an unrelated note, French cinema's having its own Harvey Weinstein moment, thanks to a certain fugitive director:

Anonymous said...

Question: when are the '60s and the '70s 50 years apart? Today. Happy birthday, old man, from an older man.

StoicJim said...

I bought the complete I-Spy set because it was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. I lived to see each episode every week. I started watching the DVD and could not believe how (like you said) "cheesy" it was.

Mike said...

You’ll notice on the Happy Days season 2 live-audience test episode that they moved the dining room set from the separate dining room out into the living room for that episode. And the front door was at the front of the set, and it was awkward.

Breadbaker said...

I"m with the ones who found a lot of Laugh-In holds up. I watched the first two seasons awhile back and found them pretty funny. There are obviously bits that don't fit into the mores of fifty years later (in particular some of the sexism), but they were way ahead of their time on racial equality and standing up for free speech. Plus, there's just so much talent in the cast. And as someone said, the jokes don't last long, so it's not like watching a five-minute SNL skit that doesn't work for you. If you don't like a joke, they're on to the next three before you can figure out why you didn't.

And I'd absolutely forgotten how sexy Barbara Feldon was on that show, after being pretty buttoned up as 99.

Edward said...

I just recalled that "The Twilight Zone" changed its theme beginning in season two which is the memorable one frequently used as a sound drop.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Completely changed their theme songs:

The Flintstones (Rise and Shine to Meet the Flintstones)
Space 1999
Laugh-In (I always thought the first one had a bit of Batman in it)
Hollywood Squares
To Tell the Truth
Merv Griffin Show
I Love Lucy (originally Philip Morris "On the Trail" from Grand Canyon Suite)

Kept their themes but changed the arrangements (and/or added lyrics):

The Bob Newhart Show
The Flying Nun
That Girl
Dennis the Menace
All in the Family (to clarify the "La Salle" line)
Laverne and Shirley (departing Shirley)
Land of the Lost (departing Rick Marshall)
Gilligan's Island ("all the rest" to Professor and Mary Ann / Wellingtons to studio quartet)
The Brady Bunch (studio singers to Brady Kids)
The Partridge Family
The Avengers
Star Trek (with and without soprano Loulie Jean Norman)
The Dick Van Dyke Show (photos do not bend to trip over ottoman)
The Munsters

Now I must carry on with my day.

The theme from "The Practice" sounds similar to the "Mayberry RFD" theme to me. Maybe that's why it changed? Anyway, you can get the whole series on Warner Archive DVD.

ScarletNumber said...

ICYMI, last night on Curb Your Enthusiasm there was a mini-Becker reunion with Ted Danson and Saverio Guerra.

JS said...

Chronic Insomniac here - I usually leave the TV on when I try to fall to sleep. Alf is funny. 3rd Rock from the Sun is incredible. If you close your eyes and just listen to the lines, you can tell the well-written sitcoms.

Keith R.A. DeCandido said...

A question for an upcoming Friday: Both as a former staff person and as a discerning TV viewer, what did you think of the M*A*S*H finale "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen"?

---Keith R.A. DeCandido