Friday, November 12, 2010

Why John Cleese never appeared on CHEERS a second time

Time for Friday questions. First though, thanks so much for all the lovely comments and remembrances of Dave Niehaus from yesterday’s post. Like I said, he was the best broadcast partner I ever had. Nice to know that the genuine affection and respect came through on the air between us.

Okay, to your questions. The first will be answered by David Lee, former CHEERS producer (later FRASIER co-creator), who along with his partner, Peter Casey, wrote the classic John Cleese episode of CHEERS.


The query comes from John Trumball.

I've long thought that the episode of Cheers where John Cleese guest stars and provides some pre-marriage counseling to Sam and Diane is one of the all-time great sitcom episodes. Is it true that there was a sequel planned where Cleese's character returned to get the money that Fraiser Crane still owed him from his first appearance? And if so, why was it never produced?

David Lee: This episode was filmed just after I left the show, but I was around for the lead up to it. Though my memory isn't the best, this is the gist of what I remember from being around campus at the time.

Season 7, episode 22. "The Visiting Lecher" . The script was written by David Lloyd and was originally intended as a vehicle for the John Cleese character, Dr.Simon Finch Royce. Mr. Cleese had expressed an interest in returning to the show, and everyone was thrilled that he was interested in coming back to revisit the character. A story was broken specifically for him, and David went enthusiastically to work. A great script resulted and was put into the production schedule. Shortly before they were scheduled to go into rehearsal, Mr. Cleese's people called up to inform us that he was, as I remember, "too tired" or something and would not be doing the episode. It was quickly rewritten (if you knew Mr Lloyd you can imagine what he had to say about that!) and John McMartin was hired to play Dr. Lawrence Crandall, who, if you look closely, is very very similar to Dr. Finch-Royce. It turned out to be a fine episode, but the once fondly remembered name of Mr. Cleese was- how shall we put this? -- Not.

Thanks, David. I must owe you eight lunches by now.

Max Clarke asked:

I just looked at SFgate and their coverage of the documentary about Glenn Burke.


The article mentions your interview for the doc, and how you did an episode of Cheers based upon Burke's experience.


That was a good episode, it was a test for Sam Malone as well. He picked the wrong day not to read a book, but he stood by his baseball teammate.


Would be good to hear your background on this, I always thought it was a gutsy episode to run way back then.

The documentary you referred to is called Out. The Glenn Burke Story, shown on Comcast in the Bay Area and Direct TV. It’s terrific and I highly recommend it.

The episode of CHEERS was called “Boys in the Bar” and a couple of years ago I posted this background piece on it.

From Carol:

It could just be due to the nature of my favourite British shows, but it seems to me that British television writers get more credit than American ones do. Many times the writers are as least as important to the fans as the actors are. Stephen Moffatt being a good case in point. Do you think that's the case?

I only wish that were the case in America. TV writers are held in much higher regard in the U.K. Writers are even listed in British TV Guide loglines. Jessica Alba and Katherine Heigl will both sleep with me before that happens in the U.S.

For an American TV writer to achieve any notoriety (without having to shamelessly start his own blog) he has to create a huge hit. Or six. Matt Weiner, David Chase, Chuck Lorre. Otherwise, watch for screen credits but don’t blink because they go by faster than subliminal messages.

Stephen asks:

Did you see Michael J. Fox's guest appearance on The Good Wife this week? He played a character who had a similar disease to the one Michael has in real life. He clearly relished the freedom he had in not needing to restrict his symptoms.

I did see that. THE GOOD WIFE is fast becoming my favorite show. I thought he was amazing. The scene where he’s trying to pour a glass of water to distract the jury during a cross-examination was brilliant, hilarious, and something I had never seen in a courtroom show.

What do you think of actors who continue to work despite illness (a recent example is Jill Clayburgh who died after working consistently through 21 years of chronic leukemia)

I find them enormously courageous. Unfortunately, I observed this first-hand with Nick Colasanto during his final season with CHEERS, and with Mary Tyler Moore, who is in a constant battle with diabetes. There are quite a few other examples including: Teri Garr, (multiple sclerosis), Richard Burton (epilepsy), Ingrid Bergman (no one knew she was in the later stages of cancer while filming GOLDA), and who could possibly be more inspiring than Christopher Reeve?

And finally, from Bob Gassel:

Did Gene Reynolds contribute much as 'Creative Consultant' when he left MASH?

He contributed much more than most creative consultants. I’ve never worked with a writer who had a better sense of story than Gene Reynolds. We would meet with him once a week and run our outlines by him. He would then fix them, solve them, find more inventive ways to tell them. He could zero in on problems and almost instantaneously formulate solutions. I’d walk out of his house every week shaking my head and saying, “We’re not worthy”.

In over thirty years I’ve never encountered another writer who can do what he does. We’re NOT worthy.

What’s your question?

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

... Jessica Alba and Katherine Heigl will both sleep with me before that happens in the U.S.

At the same time.

Rob Gerth said...

We here at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation we could not agree more. Christopher will always be THE Superman/Clark Kent. One note though Ken, and it's a pretty common mistake, it's Reeve. The name often gets confused with the other very good Superman George Reeves.

Gnasche said...

I always got Gene Reynold's credit confused with Gene Rayburn, and figured "Creative Consultant" meant he would sit at the back of the room and go, "Then Hawkeye says, 'I haven't seen this many feathers since I caught my sister with a BLANK.'"

Anonymous said...

"and who could possibly be more inspiring than Christopher Reeves?"

Well Christopher REEVE for one... :)

Michael said...

Whether or not the folks at "The Good Wife" know it, we in Las Vegas had a legendary attorney named Harry Claiborne. A great defense attorney, he later became a federal judge and wound up being impeached, convicted, and removed, partly for fouling up his taxes, mainly because the feds here were out to get him. Long story short.

Anyway, Claiborne knew every imaginable trick. One of them was that when the opposing counsel would be doing something important, Harry would go over to the water fountain in the courtroom and turn it on full-blast, nearly drowning himself. The jurors, of course, would stop listening to the other attorney to see if Harry was ok. One time, he went over, put on the water, and nothing happened. He started pounding on the thing and heard the whole courtroom laughing. It turned out the judge had ordered the water shut off. I thought of that when I read about Michael J. Fox.

Mike said...

Ken:

Because you've brought Boys in the Bar up again and because I, at least possibly, have your ear, I wanted to get something out there.

So I sometimes wonder how I could have possibly ended up being okay with being gay. Don't get me wrong - my parents are great, but they were labelled the town liberals because they didn't think n*****s was okay for casual usage. Between my father's position as a football coach (think Friday Night Lights but in Illinois) and the type of religious folks I was surrounded with, let's just say that once my hormones kicked in I was getting a lot of conflicting messages. However, somehow I realized that no amount of football playing and girl-dating was going to change me. This was pre-Internet and pre-lots of other stuff, but while I was certainly conflicted, it was all about how those around me were going to react and never (or at least hardly ever) about any sort of self-loathing.

The only conclusion I've been able to come to as how this was possible was TV - my constant (and sometimes, it seemed) only companion. I'm not talking about very special episodes or documentaries or anything that would have pounded me over the head. That wouldn't have worked. I don't clearly remember what my reaction would have been to episodes like Boys in the Bar -- especially if I'd seen them when they were on first-run (I was 9); if they struck close to home, it was more in a "this makes me uncomfortable" way (probably because it somehow felt like it knew more about me than I knew about myself. But just like bigotry and similar crap have a way of working their way into a kid's head, so does tolerance and self-respect and the fact that a masculine professional athlete can be a big old homo. Nobody else was telling me these things except TV, so that (plus hormones - which were destined to win the fight anyway) turned me out okay and gay. I know you and all involved probably only had the intention of making people laugh, but thanks for the secondary effects as well.

Mike said...
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Mike said...

So apparently if you cut-and-paste a large comment in, it gives you an error when you try to post it that looks like it isn't posting. But it is. Multiple times. Sorry about that.

Brian Doan said...

Ken, I'm curious about how you are defining "hit" in your response about the popularity of writers. I would not dispute your contention about the respect/fame that writers have in the UK versus the US, but I often think of David Chase, Matt Weiner, and others (like David Simon, or Joss Whedon, or Ron Moore, to name three that fans seem to follow from show to show) as creators of cult programs more than big hits-- they win awards and have great media penetration, but their numbers are smaller compared to "hits" on larger networks (I'm not sure BUFFY, for instance, ever got more than 5 million viewers at its peak, but Whedon has an intense fan cult that follows him from show to show to comic book adaptation).

I'm asking this not to nitpick about definitions, but to genuinely ask what defines "hit" to a hypothetical executive, and how this might shape the pitch one gives at a meeting. Does demographics, or "this show will have a popular cachet that exceeds its ratings" (as MAD MEN seems to) fit into how one might shape a pitch (not directly using those words, maybe, but thinking about how to sell it, how to frame the plot or characters or whatever)? And is that different than how a show might have been pitched in the 70s or 80s, when cable and smaller networks like WB/CW wouldn't have been an option?

Love your blog!

Mike said...

When I'd heard John Cleese's second appearance on Cheers was quickly re-written after Cleese opted against appearing, I just assumed it would be The Visiting Lecher. The psychiatrist character just seemed way too similar to Cleese's. I'll admit, it's not one of my favorites, but not one of the worst either, and it would've played better with Cleese in the role, given the history between Simon and Frasier that we already know, and the hotel room scene at the end could've been hilarious, considering Simon's unfortunate experience with Sam and Diane two years earlier.

Hank said...

Cheers question: I vaguely recall that when Coach died on Cheers and Woody replaced him, that at first Woody's personality was very different from Coach's, but over time his personality morphed until he basically became a younger version of Coach. Was this my imagination? Is there a behind the scene story here?

Thanks,
Hank

willieb said...

Ken,
I remember reading an article about MASH's finale -- I think it was in TV Guide -- in which one of the cast members said of Gary Burghoff's Radar; "Loved the character, hated the actor." Since you guys wrote Radar's last episode, can you elaborate or debunk this? And how do you handle it on a show when the actor playing a major character is in diva-land?

Tracy said...

I'm almost embarrassed at the length of my question. Almost.:

As an avid TV viewer I often wonder about how the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors - their chemistry and like or dislike of one another - plays into their performances and how it affects the writing and direction of a show. Obviously if they enjoy working together it is only a plus, I would imagine, but what about when they can't stand each other and they're supposed to be best friends or, worse, madly in love?

A favorite show of mine, now cancelled, had a compelling romantic couple that in the first season was well-written and acted but by the second was painful to watch. I later learned - through connections to people with connections to the guy who sells coffee at craft services - that the leading lady had come to dislike her leading man or, more specifically, didn't like that her character chose his, and also expressed issues with how much she was required to work since she was in almost every scene, etc. Rumor was that when she wasn't making fun of her leading man behind his back, she was playing her own character differently when they were in scenes together and championing an entirely different romantic pairing for her character in every interview she gave. The show runner said little about the main couple but did admit to writing things so the poor, over-worked leading lady could have break now and again.

Once I was aware of all of this my eyes were suddenly open to the "whys and hows" of my problems with that second season. Whether or not the writers and/or directors catered to her every whim I don't know but in the second season her fictional romantic counter-part was given an arc almost entirely separate from her which both allowed for that much needed rest and kept the two from having to be romantic for upwards of fifteen episodes.

So, does that happen, where a main actor uses their weight to sway storylines because they don't like where things are going or, more specifically, do not like their co-star? Are the writers aware when the actors dislike each other, or the story? What if it's obvious the actors are phoning in their performance or trying to passive-aggressively sabotage things by playing things differently than the way they're written/directed? And does all of that change how things are written and directed, or does the creative staff simply power through, write what they always intended to write and grumble under their breath when the actor sucks?

Edit at will, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us every day.

Tracy said...

I'm almost embarrassed at the length of this. Almost.:

As an avid TV viewer I often wonder about how the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors plays into their performances and how it affects the writing and direction of a show. If they enjoy working together it is only a plus, I would imagine, but what about when they can't stand each other and they're supposed to be BFFs or, worse, madly in love?

A favorite show of mine, now cancelled, had a compelling romantic couple that in the first season was well-written and acted but by the second was painful to watch. I later learned – through minor , distant connections - that the leading lady had come to dislike her leading man, while also expressing irritation at how much she was required to work (since she was in almost every scene, poor thing.) Rumor was that when she wasn't making fun of her leading man behind his back, she was playing her own character differently when they were in scenes together and championing an entirely different romantic pairing for her character in every interview she gave. The show runner was diplomatic about the main couple but did admit to writing things so his over-worked leading lady could have a break now and again.

Once I was aware of all of this my eyes were suddenly open to the "whys and hows" of my problems with that second season. Whether or not the writers and/or directors catered to her every whim I don't know but in that sophomore season her fictional romantic counter-part was given an arc almost entirely separate from her allowing for both that much needed rest and to keep the two from having to be romantic for upward of fifteen episodes.

I’m assuming that at least part of what I heard was true, so are writers typically aware when the actors dislike each other, or the story? If so, does the creative staff give in when a main actor tries to use their weight to sway storylines ? What if it's obvious the actors are phoning in their performance or trying to sabotage the story by playing things differently than the way they're written/directed, does any of that change how things are written and directed later, or does the writing staff or director simply power through, write/direct in the way they always intended and grumble under their breath when the actor sucks?

Edit at will, and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us every day.

Jim S said...

Ken,

You said that in the past both you and your longtime writing partner David have written stories alone.

How is that different than writing with a partner? What are the fears and how do you compensate for the input from the partner?

Anonymous said...

About a month ago, I started re-watching Cheers for the first time since 1993, after discovering HDNet runs two widescreen HD versions daily (not sure how you feel about seeing it in this format?) Quite impressed with how well this series holds up. "Boys in the Bar" ran this week and is still very funny.

Jamie said...

I'm not sure writers truly are held in any higher regard in the UK than the US.

The same principle of having to create a huge hit or cult show seems to apply. I doubt many average viewers can name a single writer currently working on a TV show that isn't Doctor Who.

Household names like Steven Moffat fall into much the same category as US equivalents like David Chase, etc. The majority of writers in the UK don't get any more recognition than their US counterparts, and I can think of only one TV Guide that publishes writers' credits in loglines (and even then, not always).

I guess the grass is always greener.

John Trumbull said...

Thanks very much for using my question Ken, but my last name is spelled Trumbull. Two Us, no As.

I was able to track down the Dr. Lawrence Crandall episode on YouTube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srzhoYcE9fE&feature=related

It's definitely a funny episode, but I'm sure that Mr. Cleese would have made it even more so. Shame he bailed at the last second like that. I should've known that you wouldn't let a good script go to waste.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the writers question. How we as viewers can regard writers when there is 20 producers in various forms and no writers or only one? If you guys want to be call everything other than writers is not the viewers fault. Why not call it: staff writer,head writer, episode writer, etc.

Producers and writers do different jobs. And my question about this is: Why show runners are writers(the majority)? Always though that to run a show is more management (dealing with the studio, actors, writers, clients,etc) than writing? I have a great respect for writers, b/c I can write to save my life,writers just curious.

And would you do a show with a show-runner that is not a writer?

JM

michelle said...

I was reading an article about this week's "Community" episode which was a bottle episode. The author stated that it seemed that this type of episode would be much more challenging to write. Did you find this was the case?

Anonymous said...

People magazine never apologized to readers for reporting a week early (in its cover article about McLean Stevenson) the surprise MASH ending of Henry Blake dying. What was the reaction of MASH producers/writers when People ran that spoiler?

sephim said...

Have you ever written, what is unfortunately called, a "backdoor" pilot?

Tom Quigley said...

Ken/David,

Danny Simon used the John Cleese episode that David and Peter wrote in his comedy writing course I took from him as an example of how a good sitcom episode should be written... God bless Danny! He not only knew how to write great comedy, he was always willing to give credit to others who could do so too.

l.a.guy said...

I'm sorry to hear Cleese bailed on a second appearance, I thought the episode he did appear was about as well written, directed and acted as any sit com episode I had ever seen.

I guess he didn't need another Emmy.

Anonymous said...

Ken,

I don't mean this as an insult and I have no idea who wrote the episode, but did anyone ever seem to notice (or care) that the "Frasier" episode, "A Lilith Thanksgiving" with Paxton Whitehead was a virtual carbon copy of the "The Visiting Lecher"?

-Garrett

Mike from Atlanta said...

Love your blog.

Peter MacNicol's character in Ally McBeal would often pour himself a glass of water (very slowly, carefully, loudly)in the courtroom to disrupt the concentration of the jury.