Friday, February 18, 2011

What's the craziest storyline ever pitched to CHEERS?

First off, happy birthday to my lovely child bride, Debby. This has been a month long celebration but today is the actual day. Many many more, kiddo!

Time to answer some questions and debunk some myths.

Ed starts us off with a doozy.

What was the craziest storyline the Cheers writers actually considered as a story arc? Cliff/Carla romance/love child? Norm working his way to the top of Lillian?

One of the co-creators was lobbying the first year to have Norm and Cliff buy a circus. I kid you not. For the next ten years, whenever someone pitched something too far-fetched we would always say, “I know the perfect B-Story – Norm and Cliff buy a circus!”

John G has another CHEERS question.

I read the following in the book, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists":

"For example [of doing research when writing], the writers for Cheers supposedly hung out in bars and wrote down conversations they'd overhear. This is partly why, I suspect, the dialogue in that show always sounded so spot-on."

How much truth is there to this, Ken?

Well, I did write-off my bar tab for eleven years as a business deduction, but the truth is no, we didn’t all eavesdrop in taverns. Our dialogue was very character specific, although God knows there’s a Cliff in every bar.

But from time to time one of the writers might’ve heard a snippet of dialogue from someone in a bar and that became the springboard for a conversation. I wasn’t in every story meetings. I missed the early morning ones because I was too hung over. Hey, don't give me that look. I got drunk for my art!


Why is it that when the take successful movies and convert them to TV, for the most part, they tend to fail? M*A*S*H* is one of the few off hand that I can think of that made the transition. But others like "Kiss Me Guido", "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" etc. fall flat and are sentenced to oblivion. It seems they flop whether they have the original cast from the movie [or most of them] or completely new people for the TV show. Inquiring minds want to know!

Several reasons spring to mind.

First of all, the BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING TV version was just horrible on every level. But from what I hear (so I can’t guarantee this since thankfully I wasn’t there), star Nia Vardalos apparently made all the creative decisions, and every one was more wrong than the last. But I digress…

Generally, the casts aren’t as good in TV versions of movies. There are exceptions certainly (Alan Alda, Sarah Michelle Gellar to name just two), but take for example CASABLANCA. In the TV version David Soul played the Humphrey Bogart part. ‘Nuff said?

In movies, you have a beginning, middle, and end. You can wrap things up. A successful television series is open-ended. Some movies lend themselves to that transition better than others. THE ODD COUPLE is a premise that could go on and on. But how many days off can FERRIS BUELLER have? And how many final games of the season can the BAD NEWS BEARS win?

Quite often different writers are assigned to the TV adaptation. So different sensibilities and level of talent.

Movie comedies also have different rhythms than sitcoms. Some make the jump easier than others. In the case of MASH, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds created an entirely different fast-paced style from the movie’s more naturalistic pace. That was a big gamble. If they audience didn’t buy it, the show would have been dead. But they did, and it didn’t hurt that Gelbart’s dialogue was nothing short of brilliant.

And finally, sometimes a movie just captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and by the time it gets to the small screen that zeitgeist is over. Here too, MASH was fortunate. The Viet Nam war was raging on when the TV series premiered. Had the war ended in 1970 (like it should have), MASH would not have felt as relevant.

But take heart television fans. Just as many movies based on successful TV shows have flopped as TV series based on movies. I give you BEWITCHED, BILKO, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE FLINTSTONES, GET SMART, and LOST IN SPACE, to name but a few. (I’m sure you’ll fill in more. And some of you will call me an idiot for listing your all-time favorite movie in the above list.)

And finally, Amanda wonders:

When you have a comedy scene that's getting a big laugh, do the cameramen ever laugh hard enough to ruin the shot? If that happens too many times, do the cameramen keep their jobs?

It rarely if ever happens. First off, the cameras are mounted, so they won’t jiggle if the operator is having a laughing fit. Secondly, by the time the show is filmed in front of an audience, the cameraman has heard the joke seven times. The camera crew comes in the day before filming and spends the whole day blocking out the show. They hear the dialogue over and over. Then, on show day, there are three hours of fine-tuning, and a dress rehearsal.

The crews will laugh during camera blocking day when they watch the scenes for the first time. In fact, they’re a good barometer. But once it’s show night, they’re so concerned with hitting their marks, listening for line cues, and framing their shots.

And one final point – the crews that work network shows, whether dramas or comedies or live reality shows, are top notch professionals; the very best in the business. As a director, it’s an honor to work with such fine craftsmen. They deserve more credit and recognition than they receive.

What’s your question?

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