Light Mode

TV Q&A: CBS’ Monday Night Comedy Block Producers

The executive producers of the funniest two hours on television. Dave Hackel from Becker, Phil Rosenthal from Everybody Loves Raymond, Alan Kirschenbaum and Greg Garcia from Yes, Dear and Michael Weithorn from The King of Queens, answer the media’s questions.

For any of you guys up there, this is a philosophical question. This has been a real tough last couple of years for people in your genre. New sitcoms have been not only not successful but not funny in most cases, and some people said, ‘What’s wrong? Why could people write sitcoms a few years ago and can’t now?’ What do you see? I mean, you obviously got some that work, particularly in the ratings. What’s going wrong right now? Why are people having so much trouble making comedies work?

Dave Hackel: None of us would know anything about that. [Laughter.]

- Advertisement -

Phil Rosenthal: Haven’t they always not worked, mostly? Think of all the great shows. They weren’t on all at the same time. I think it’s very hard to make a good show, and I don’t think this time that we’re living in is any different.

Hackel: And don’t you think you have to get really lucky? You have to have the right people and the right actors and the right time and the right politics and the right–you know, there’s no magic answer to this or we’d all have 20 shows on the air.

Alan Kirschenbaum: I think also when some of us started, there were a few less networks and there were less shows–I know the first writing staff I was on was on Dear John, and I worked with Ed Weinberger and David Lloyd and Bob Ellison and David Hackel and Peter Noah and Bob Stevens, and it was a really compact group of terrific writers. And whether sometimes the show pans out or not isn’t always as important as what you learn when you’re there. And I know for some of us, Phil and I have worked together a lot and Greg and I have worked together a lot, we’ve worked with people who really knew what they were doing and were able to pass a lot of that knowledge around, and I think sometimes people aren’t as lucky as that.

Rosenthal: And we’re not willing to pass on anything. [Laughter.]

Could you talk about how the development process helps in some cases and hinders in others of–gets in the way of a great idea that you have and you want to put up there on the screen?

Kirschenbaum: I think that sometimes the development process is unfairly portrayed as evil. I know in the case of Greg and my show, we basically wrote a script that the studio and network said, “Great, let’s do it.” We cast people that we wanted and the studio network said, “Great, let’s do it.” We produced a pilot and the network said, “Let’s put it on.” Not every experience is like that, but I think that it’s oftentimes a fairly easy way out for writers and producers to blame the process. I think if you’re strong and you know what your show should be at the end of the day, then you stick to that. The process for me has always been a fairly respectful one.

- Advertisement -

Who up there didn’t have that great experience?

Hackel: We’re all here. I mean, I’ve had good and bad development experiences, but we’re all here because, you know, we’re having a good one. It worked. I had the exact same situation with CBS this time around as Alan did. What we did was endorsed and blessed and we were told to go off and follow that vision, and you don’t hear that very often. Sometimes you get a lot of micromanagement. That didn’t happen with us. And I think maybe that has to do with why we’re all here today.

Rosenthal: The only note I got from CBS was, “Could it not be Raymond?” Other than that, smooth sailing. [Laughter.]

It seems like you guys have all been successful with the standard format, three cameras, but it seems like most of the newer sitcoms or the comedies that are working are very different, whether it’s Malcom or what Fox is doing, including some of what’s coming. Are we as the public getting more–is it more difficult to get to the public with the standard sitcom? Is it harder because they’re more worn out? Does it take different ideas? Or is the reverse possibly true, too, that the writers for the standard sitcoms have sort of done everything that’s possible and so it needs a different kind of an idea?

Michael Weithorn: I think it’s–there’s really no rule that applies to anything in this area. There’s so much–it’s so much a function of whether a given show in a given little universe that is created within a show makes sense and has a pulse on its own terms. Clearly, you know, the multicamera form has been done, you know, in such great quantity, and the vast majority don’t work because the vast majority of creative endeavors where you throw together a hundred different elements just don’t work, because when they do work, it’s that “lightning in a bottle” phenomenon. But I think the multicamera form still is a very viable one, but you do have to overcome the fact that people almost are conditioned at this point to assume that they see a multicamera with those rhythms, that it’s going to be bad. Whereas the one-camera form, in particular the modern version of it with the quick cuts and the “zooms” and the sound effects is still–you know, we’re still kind of learning what that’s all about, I guess. But…

Rosenthal: And those are entitled to be just as crappy as the other kind.

- Advertisement -

Krischenbaum Yeah, I would also say that Malcom is a–with a lot of bells and whistles–a fairly conventional if terrifically well-done family show. And I think that one of the other things we’re lucky about, to speak to that same question, is we work at a network where classic, well-made forms, whether it’s an hour or a half hour, are respected and they’re not–different for different’s sake is not sought out, but good versions of either, you know, conventional shows or unconventional shows are appreciated.

Rosenthal: And I would say that in that regard, those values are what makes CBS, I think, their development people better.

You were talking earlier about passing the wisdom on, passing stuff on. How is the
trend toward younger and younger writers and producers
affecting the quality of comedies and the fact that
they–there isn’t a lot of older and wiser–or the
people who are older and wiser aren’t that old or,
perhaps, not that wise, either?

Hackel: Again, it’s case-by-case. If you came
to my writers’ room today–we just had a reading of
next week’s script before I came here–you would see
people from age 28 to age 65, spread equally between
men and women.

Rosenthal: Us to. We don’t listen to the old
guy a lot, but…[Laughter.]

Hackel: I do. I really try to be the old guy.

You’re watching what’s happening with other
productions and it seems that there is a trend towards
younger and younger writers. How does that affect the
quality of things if there’s no-one–

Rosenthal: You see. You see how it affects it,
right? I think you’re writing for the general
audience and the life experiences that are made up
from young people’s point of view and older people’s
point of view. Why would you want to cut one of them
off? You want all the experiences, so its that

The other day, Scott Sassa at NBC was
talking about how there are pretty much no children on
his entire network. And he said that they tried to do
family comedies and they didn’t work. For Raymond and
Yes, Dear you’ve got kind of like a compromise. The
kids aren’t on the air that often, but the subject of
parenting is important quite often. Could you kind of
talk about that? What do you think its important to
having a family show? Why do you want to have a show
with families? And why do you think that TV has kind
of fallen out of that?

Greg Garcia: When Alan and I decided to create
Yes, Dear, it was because we were having similar
experiences with our wives and children. And we
wanted to do a show that was relatable about raising
kids. We didn’t want to have scenes with just the
kids off talking and having their own story, but we
wanted to do those stories about the insecurities of
parenting and I think that’s what has really helped us
succeed, is people watch it and they see their lives.

Kirschenbaum: We don’t have kids in the show
because we’re hoping kids out in the world will want
to watch these kids on TV. We are using the kids to
dramatize the things that parents go through. I think
our kids are in the show maybe a little more than your
show. I know that most of the day when Greg and I
aren’t at work we’re dealing with issues at home about our children, and that’s clearly what we wanted the
show to be about.

Phil, let me ask you the same thing,
because your kids are hardly ever on the show and yet
they’re referred to a lot. And being parents is a key
part of the show. Kind of talk about why you like to
do it that way and what’s important about it.

Rosenthal: I think our values were that we
wanted to do a show about people that have kids, but
not necessarily about the kids. It was never about
the kids. We even went so far to say that in the
opening credits. “It’s not about the kids.” We
didn’t want to–the show, on the surface, could look
like a Full House type of show, and we wanted to
avoid that. We wanted to do an adult sitcom, a
nine o’clock show. And it was something we hadn’t
even seen a lot of. That’s just what our values were. The other thing you get is–I think child actors, in
general, can wear out their welcome in a short amount of time. [Laughter.] If you show them a little bit, then
when you do see them, “Oh, look at those cute kids.”
But if they’re there all the time, you don’t have that
chance to say, “Oh, look at those cute kids.” I
wasn’t interested in doing a show with cute kids. I
wanted to do a show about real people who happened to
have children.

A few months ago we did a lot of writing
about “When can you be funny after the terrorist
attacks?” “When is America ready to laugh?”
Obviously, we’re kind of past that, but I’m

Rosenthal: He was funny right away with the–

Kirschenbaum: Right away. Terrible. I can’t stop.

But I was wondering are there still some
things you can’t talk about? Is this anything that
affects you even now? some storylines you won’t pursue
or gags that you won’t go near?

Kirschenbaum: For us, it just means altering a
couple of little things. We had a couple–one story
where it was going to be a gigantic pain in the ass
flying through the airport and–

Garcia: And one of our characters was getting
very upset that the flight was delayed and stuff, and
we kind of changed that around the tiniest bit because
of what had happened, but–

Kirschenbaum: But I mean, as far as how long do
you wait, I grew up in a house where my dad was and is
a stand-up comic. And he, you know, for 40 years, has
been–you know, tragedies have happened in the
world, and he’s put on his tuxedo and gone to work.
People want to laugh. And I think sometimes it takes
a little bit longer for people to feel ready to make
somebody laugh than takes for the audience to be ready
to laugh so. When we’re ready, they’re ready.

Rosenthal: Our first week back, we were very
nervous. “Will the audience laugh?” And it turned
out to be one of our best audiences because they
really wanted to.

Hackel: We had the same experience.

There was a while where everybody thought a
comedy had to start with a specific person. They’d
find a stand-up comedian, then build it around him.
And it seems like it doesn’t always have to work that
way now. The extremes might be Raymond, which is
built around Raymond, and Yes, Dear, which was
probably written–

Kirschenbaum: Not at all.

And I was wondering, for the ones in
between, was Becker partly written with Ted Danson in
mind, and was King of Queens partly written with
Kevin James in mind? Or how did that work out?

Hackel Becker was not written with Ted in
mind. I sat down and wrote the script because I had
an idea for a character like this, and I started
sending the script around once we decided to pursue
it. And it found its way to Ted, and I’ve told this
story in front of Ted. The first time his name was
mentioned, I went, “Gee, I don’t know. Ted Danson,
Becker?” And he called me on the phone one day and
said, “I know you don’t think so I’m right for this
part, but would you talk to me about it?” And I went
to his house, and we talked for, like, six hours one
Sunday afternoon. And it was so clear to me that he
got this and could do this, and it’s absolutely the
luckiest phone call of my life.

Weithorn: I hear he’s a nice guy, but six hours, that’s– [Laughter.]

Hackel: He’s an actor.

Weithorn: That’s too long with any actor. I said it out loud. [Laughter.]

Did you have Kevin James in mind…

Weithorn: In a loose sense, King of Queens was–it was in development, and Tom Nunan, who was
head of NBC Studios, sent me a tape of the comics they
had deals with. Kevin was the one I responded to.
And I called him and said, “You know, what do you have
in mind for Kevin?” And he said, “Well, we want to do
kind of a modern-day Honeymooners.” And I thought,
“That sounds right” and worked on this show. But they had several other projects that they were developing
for him simultaneously, which is a fairly common
network practice now. And actually, Warren
Littlefield didn’t like the King of Queens script at
all and was not interested in doing it. But
fortunately, Kevin James liked it very much and held
out and refused to do the other projects they were
trying to sort of funnel him into. And his deal was
expiring at that time at NBC, so we were able to just
take the whole package over to CBS. But, yes, it was
essentially developed for Kevin, although not in a
strict contractual sense.

How much importance is a good sense of
place to a situation comedy? I mean, there obviously
have been plenty that have sort of been generic, but
do you think that — most of you, you know, have
specific places in your comedy. Does it make a
difference? Does it become a character? Does it
color or give some extra credibility to the show, do
you think?

Rosenthal: The more specificity you can add in
any area, the better the script, the better the show.
We–even though you’re writing for many people, we
all deal in specifics. So even if, you know, this
town in Long Island isn’t your specific, you at least
recognize it, and it means more to the people in that
world because it is specific. We all deal in
specifics. That’s what I’ve learned the most in my

Hackel: In our show, I think the place is sort
of a character because of–it’s a more downtrodden
area, and it sort of speaks to Becker’s character.
Why would he go there? Why is he there giving of
himself? It is the other side of his character. So
we draw from this mythical neighborhood in New York.
What we did was just say, “It’s probably been all of
these things. We’ll keep a little bit of every one.”
So it becomes important to us.

- Advertisement -