Thursday, March 05, 2015

Friday Questions that spilled over into Thursday

With your questions continuing to pile up, I thought I’d sneak in another extra day.

John is first up:

We are starting to see the networks ordering pilots. It's always surprising to see them continuing to go to the same writer-producers who created this and last seasons' flops.

What does that signify? An unwillingness to take a chance on new voices? Or is it a recognition that some of those shows failed because of the process they undergo, with the networks tinkering and tinkering some more?

It just seems odd that they expect some of these people to suddenly lay golden eggs after so many fails (and especially when some of the pilot concept see so stale and lame). 

Pilots are expensive. Networks generally feel more secure with writers they know and can trust. Also, networks have their favorite writers. Those are generally writers who don’t give them much push-back when they insert themselves heavily into the process.

And so many things have to line up for a show to be a hit. Most successful writer/creators have pilots that failed and series that flopped. Kaufman & Crane had several misfires before (and after) FRIENDS. Same with Chuck Lorre, Diane English, Aaron Sorkin, Larry Gelbart, Phil Rosenthal, Norman Lear, and just about anyone else you care to name.

Pilot writing is an art. Not only must you be able to craft a script that accomplishes a lot of things, you also need the skill to identify problems and fix them during production. This takes experience.

But make no mistake, networks will never take the blame for a failed pilot -- despite their meddling, despite their insisting on the wrong actors.   

Networks do take some chances with newer writers, but usually there’s a non-writing producer also attached who surrounds them with more experienced scribes.

What surprises me however, is that there are some veteran writers who frankly are just not very good. Why the networks continue to give them pilots is beyond me. I generally get copies of the pilots that get greenlit and there are certain writers who are just mediocre and yet there they are again. I read their pilot and yep, just as bad as last year’s pilot. But then again, when has anyone been able to explain decisions in Hollywood?

Along similar lines, Bill Jones queries:

In your opinion, did FRIENDS mark a turning point in terms of network interference with sitcoms? I have read in several sources that this was the quintessential "network" show, in that--despite the talents of its creators--NBC played a big role in choosing, casting, and cultivating it. And, obviously, it turned out to be huge. Was that the point at which networks said, "We can do this," and really started to call the shots vs. creators/producers/writers? Obviously there has always been network "input" since the early days, but was FRIENDS a watershed in that respect?

No. The big sea change was when networks were allowed to own their own shows and studios. They then became the 800 pound gorilla. Before that they had to deal with independent studios. And for example, NBC might have had a show done by Warner Brothers. They had notes, but Warner Brothers stood their ground. If NBC strong-armed Warner Brothers into making the changes, Warner Brothers might be really pissed. And next development season when they were going out with a show called FRIENDS they might say, “Let’s take it anywhere but NBC.”

But now networks have full control over everything.

As for casting, networks have insisted on approving the actors for close to forty years now. The first pilot David Isaacs and I did was for NBC in 1979 and they wouldn’t approve Andrea Martin. She didn’t have the right, uh… “look.”

As far as NBC's brilliant development suggestions for FRIENDS -- after the first runthrough they said, "Make one of them the star.  Pick whichever you want, but one has to be the star."  To his credit, director James Burrows said, no, that's not what he signed on for.  The key to the show was that it was an ensemble.   NBC fortunately backed down. Today there would be no discussion.  Either one becomes the star or the network pulls the plug.  Period.   But if they had their way, they may well have screwed up FRIENDS.   So I always laugh when I see the NBC executives at the time take "credit" for developing FRIENDS. 

Luke wonders:

Hey Ken. Sorry if you've already answered this one but can you please tell us anything about the proposed CHEERS spin-off about Coach's early days?

First off, CHEERS itself wasn’t firmly established until the third season.

There was never a spin-off discussed for the Coach. Nicky developed health problems in season one. He passed away towards the end of season three.

To my knowledge there was no talk of spin-offs until much later in the series’ run. And the only one that ultimately came to fruition while CHEERS was still on the air was THE TORTELLIS, which was short-lived.

And finally, from Chris:

I've read numerous stories about writers who left a series for another one or to create their own. When that doesn't work, returning to the show they left in the first place seems tabu. Is there resentment when someone lets the showrunner know they're leaving? Why is returning almost never a possibility?

It all depends on the circumstances by which the writer leaves. Sometimes the showrunner feels betrayed.

Showrunners groom young writers. They may feel they’ve invested several years in developing a writer only to have him bolt for a better deal. I could see where there might be hard feelings.

But often the showrunner will recognize this is a great opportunity for the writer and wish him the best.

There are numerous examples of writers returning to shows if their pilots don’t work out. David and I left CHEERS to do a couple of pilots and were always welcomed back. Same with FRASIER and WINGS. Of course, in our case, we were just so delightful. Who wouldn’t want us?

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The most important ten seconds of your show

I was watching a documentary on old time television and several people made reference to 77 SUNSET STRIP. This was a detective show in the ‘50s, known more for style over substance. But it had a very distinctive theme song. And when anybody brought up the show in any context the first thing they did was sing the logo and snap their fingers. It had become that ingrained in their psyches. If you’re familiar with the show I guarantee when you saw the words 77 SUNSET STRIP the first thing you thought of was that logo.

Musical cues, especially distinctive brief ones, can be powerful reminders of your show, product, network, radio station, whatever. It’s like whatever you are selling gets put in the desired person’s memory bank. There’s a Nationwide Insurance commercial I saw recently where Peyton Manning subconsciously just keeps humming the logo. Check it out.

It only takes a few notes, but if they’re the right notes, it’s GOLD. Here’s the 77 SUNSET STRIP theme:

For a hundred years NBC has been identified by a three-note signature. If those three notes show up in that order in any song you immediately think NBC.

Before he became a pop star, Barry Manilow used to create commercial campaigns. Some of his best known songs are only ten seconds long. Here’s a medley he does in his act.

And finally, radio stations have long used the musical jingle to brand themselves. Especially in the ‘60s when there were always two competing Top 40 stations both playing the same songs, the only way to really distinguish one from the other was from the jingles. And where they were placed was also important. When Bill Drake and Ron Jacobs re-invented Top 40 radio in 1965 they only played jingles going right into songs. That way the audience subconsciously connected KHJ with music. And if they heard a lot of jingles (KHJ’s were very short) over time they figured that KHJ played more records than their competition. Pretty crafty, no? Here’s a sample of radio jingles. If you lived in one of these towns you probably can sing along.

There was a time when TV shows were allowed to have theme songs. What glorious days those were. But today networks want only ten second intros. My point here is to not just use that as a throwaway. With the right notes, the right logo, those could become the most valuable ten seconds of your entire show.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


It never got Emmy recognition. In the Golden Age of TV Comedy in the ‘70s, it was always considered second tier behind ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and MASH. And I could never see why. I loved THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. And still do.

Dave Davis & Lorenzo Music created the show, but the real creative voice belonged to showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW was centered on a married couple played by Bob Newhart and the radiant Suzanne Pleshette. Somewhat unique for TV sitcom marriages, they had no children nor did they want them. There’s a story that heading into the final season the Charles Brothers took over as showrunners and told their star they planned on having Emily (his wife) get pregnant. Newhart nodded and said, “Great. Who’s going to play Bob?”
The series balanced his home life with his work – as a psychologist. His patients were a collection of hilariously neurotic eccentrics. Who will ever forget Mr. Carlin?

The show was produced by MTM Enterprise, the same comedy factory that produced THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Mary’s show was always the crown gem of the company, and the Newhart producers did something very smart – instead of trying to emulate THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW style they veered off in their own direction.

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW quite simply, was nuttier. There was a goofy whimsy, a higher degree of absurdity to Bob’s show. And it fit perfectly with Bob’s personality. NO ONE has better comic timing than Bob Newhart, and the show allowed him ample opportunity to react in his signature deadpan delivery to all the utter craziness around him.

As great as THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was, for my money THE BOB NEWHART SHOW was funnier. And for that reason it holds up better for me. It’s less polished than it’s “big sister” and those wide lapels are ridiculous (what were we thinking fashionwise in the ‘70s? Jesus!), but it still makes me laugh out loud.

The stories were also more subversive than MTM’s. If THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW’S classic episode dealt with the death of a co-worker (written by David Lloyd), the most memorable episode of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW was when he, his co-worker, and neighbor got together for Thanksgiving, get hammered, and Bob ordered Chinese food (written by Sy Rosen). Moo Goo Gai Pan.  If you remember that episode it's because you laughed your ass off. 

I never got to write for THE BOB NEWHART SHOW but always wanted to. I still watch it on MeTV. You can keep the Emmys. Give me the laughs.

Monday, March 02, 2015

How to get a record on the air or a Golden Globe

Here’s another one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post. It’s from Bill Jones (who did not pay me to answer it):

I was wondering if you could talk frankly about "payola" in the radio industry. From what I know, record labels and radio stations got caught in pay-for-play scandals in the 1950s or so, but the practice lasted for decades beyond (including on MTV, and may still last today in both media). Did you ever witness or hear of such conduct while you were a DJ? Who did the labels try to bribe--station managers? Playlist supervisors? DJs? And was it with money or, um, other substances? Just wondering -- thanks!

Payola was a big scandal in the late ‘50s. Record companies realized that only songs that got radio airplay became hits. Back then radio stations had huge audiences and great influence. There was no Pandora, and the only satellite was Sputnik and they only played Russian hits.

Disc jockeys in those days had much more freedom than they do today. They could select their own music. So needless to say, they were the targets of the record companies. DJ’s were paid under the table to play their songs. Many radio stations knew about this practice and looked the other way. In fact, they sometimes didn’t pay their disc jockeys very high salaries, knowing their income would be padded by the record companies.

But of course this practice was dishonest. Disc Jockeys were recommending crap just because their palms were being greased.

The result was a big scandal. Back in those days congressional hearings and witch hunts were quite the fad. Lots of DJ’s lost their jobs, including the great Alan Freed. Somehow, however, Dick Clark managed to escape unscathed. Clark didn’t take payola per se from record companies, he owned a whole bunch of them. He also received royalties from tons of hits that he essentially made by giving the artists exposure on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Clark divested of all his record company holdings and walked away clean. Alan Freed was not so lucky. His career was essentially ruined.

Stations assumed more control over the programming. By the mid ‘60s most Top 40 stations had music directors and program directors who ultimately decided which songs received airplay. So to pay off a Disc Jockey was like the stupid starlet who tries to get ahead in Hollywood by sleeping with writers.

Record companies found other ways to “encourage” the PD’s and MD’s to play their songs. Women, drugs, trips, wining and dining, free T-shirts. Is it legal? No, not really. But is this practice any different from what Washington lobbies do to win favor? Is a free junket “payola?” Or an expensive dinner? Or tickets to the Super Bowl?

Does payola still go on? Of course it does. Maybe not as overt, and certainly not as widespread – not because the radio industry is cleaning up its act, but because radio now has way less impact. Why pay to get a record on a station when you could get just as many listeners with a boombox sticking out of your car window?

As for MTV, I don’t think they even show music videos anymore. I don’t know what Music Television means if they no longer play music. To court MTV execs is like that stupid starlet sleeping with writers’ assistants.

Personally, I never took money when I was a Disc Jockey. Hey, I was never approached. A record promo man took me out to lunch once when I worked in San Bernardino. So I played his record on every station I ever worked for from then on. It was a really nice lunch. Dessert too. (Of course it helped that the record was a monster hit and every DJ played it all across the country.)

No record people ever offered me girls. I would have played polka tunes on a rock station if someone offered girls. But alas, they knew I had a very strict playlist, and in some cases the actual order of the songs was predetermined before I got on the air. So there was no reason to court me. Plus, I made fun of most records.

The key is whether the person or organization or congressman can be bought. I’d like to think that most can’t, but then I see the Golden Globes.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

My PLAYBILL bio -- aren't you impressed?

One of my plays was produced in Los Angeles last year.  Who knows?  Maybe someday I'll get to Broadway.   When (if) I do, I'll be asked to write my bio for the PLAYBILL.   The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theater critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theater crowd. What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse who he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, PROOF, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played two nights in Boston and two nights in St. Louis. It was called the 2004 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

You can't say that on the radio

Here's another tale from my misbegotten radio career.  It's also a re-post from six years ago.

1972. I’m a relief engineer at KABC and their sister station KLOS-FM. That meant I played the records on KLOS and played the commercials on KABC. My shift on Sunday nights was to play the public service shows. As preposterous as it sounds now, radio and television stations once were expected to actually serve the community. A certain amount of their programming had to be devoted to public affairs. So of course stations would bury these shows in the middle of the night or early and late Sundays when no one was listening.

One Sunday night I see we have a new program scheduled. IMPACTO. It’s a talk show geared to the Hispanic community. I’m thrilled. It was live. Normally I played half hour tapes on how to fill out Social Security forms.

The host is Joe Ortiz. He’s relatively new to radio; primarily a community advocate. I ask, “What’s the game plan?” He says he’ll take calls and if there’s a lull I’m to just play a record. What kind of record? He says it makes no difference, just grab something KLOS normally plays. Sounds easy enough to me.

So he starts taking calls. And every other one starts off like this: “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” Whoa! Every two seconds I’m diving for the kill button (we were on an eight second delay). I tell Joe on a break to remind his callers they’re not allowed to swear on the radio. He gets pissed at me. That’s censorship. No it’s not, I tell him. It’s the FCC. We could lose our license. He ignores me.

So for weeks I’m hitting the kill button so often you’d think I was tapping out Morse Code. Needless to say, our relationship was frosty.

From time to time there are lulls and he calls for a record. He says, “We’ll be back right after a little music” and I play Crosby, Stills, & Nash or whomever. KLOS was your classic rock station even before we knew the stuff was classic.

So one night the swearers aren’t calling. He signals for a record. I grab one from the rack and cue it up. He announces on the air, “We’re going to take a break but here is a record that expresses the perception of the Hispanic community.” I let the record fly. It’s “Dead Skunk In the Middle of the Road”.

Joe goes nuts. I show great restraint by not falling to the floor in laughter. I say, “It’s on the playlist. Who the hell told you to introduce it like that?”

So Joe files an official union grievance on me. I have to go before a board of the Chief Engineer and union representatives. I’m charged with being a racist. Once they hear my side of the story they fall on the floor laughing. The grievance is dropped and I’m completely pardoned. Better yet I’m taken off that shift.

For years I had no idea whatever happened to Joe Ortiz. He hasn’t befriended me on Facebook. I understand he's no longer in broadcasting. But ironically, his last on-air gig was hosting a talk show on a Christian station. I wonder how “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” would go over there.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from somewhere in the Far East.   Here are some Friday Questions although where I am it's Saturday.

willieb asks:

Any truth in those "everybody has a screenplay" stories ("My hairdresser/valet/dry cleaner gave me a screenplay to read")? Have you been bombarded with sample scripts? If so, what's the weirdest situation you've had to deal with?

I’ve received scripts at my high school reunion, I’ve told the story about getting pitched a movie while making funeral arrangements for my grandmother, and a couple of years ago one of the host helpers during my mother’s condolence wanted to pitch me a pilot idea. When I announced minor league baseball people would come up to the press box all the time with scripts. It's not like there was great security in ballparks in Rochester and Toledo. If someone had the lung capacity to climb those stairs they could get in.

A director I know was attending High Holiday services one year at his temple and a fellow congregate pulled a script out from under his prayer shawl.

I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier wonders:

I just saw a M*A*S*H episode written by MacLean Stevenson. When actors do this are massive rewrites usually required or are they pretty good to start with?

I don’t know about that particular episode but yes, massive rewrites usually are required. One reason: they often give 90% of the good lines to themselves. But in fairness, they’re not writers. If I were to suddenly have a big guest role in a MASH or CHEERS episode I’m sure I’d suck. I’m not an actor.

I will say this though, Alan Alda’s scripts were terrific and we changed very little.

From Steve:

On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season.  Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED has said recently he doesn't know how the series is going to end.  Hopefully he does by now.  We're halfway through the final season. 

Some shows have built in endings. the war ends on MASH.  And of course, the final scene of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER? was filmed only a couple of years into the series, and since kids were involved and they have the audacity to grow, the producers were pretty locked into that ending. 

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that's one reason why.

My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, "You're canceled! Now get out!" that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

Ask your question in the comments section. Thanks. Have a great weekend wherever you are.