Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part 30E"

In a classic western, a Bad Guy gang member gallops to the marshal’s house in the dead of night, reins in his horse, dumps the lifeless carcass of the marshal’s deputy brother at his front door, and then races away.

One night, shortly after Kristin debuted on NBC, I heard a heavy-sounding parcel bang against my front door, then drop to the porch. I opened the door, as a car sped away. I picked up the parcel. It was a bulging manila envelope. I took the envelope inside and curiously opened it. Inside, was a thick stack of clippings of Kristin reviews.

They were all terrible.

I never found out who delivered that package. It was very strange.

I just skimmed the stack of reviews. To do any more would border on masochism. Apparently, everyone hated the show. A show I thought was professionally produced, skillfully performed and pretty darn funny.

Is it possible that I missed something?

The show’s “terribleness”, for example? Is it possible, because I was too close to the project and working so hard on it that I’d lost sight of the “Big Picture”? Is it possible that over the years, while I was focusing on trying to make the best show I knew how, the standards had so drastically changed that what I saw as good was now actually awful?

The scathing reviews were disturbing. And highly disorienting. If I were the type, I’d have poured myself a stiff drink. Instead, I didn’t.

I did a mental post mortem. We’d had a multi-talented star. Kristin Chenoweth was attractive, she had comedy-friendly timing. She could also sing and dance, which she’d done for years on Broadway, to tumultuous acclaim. To me, that was a bonus, unique elements we could incorporate advantageously into the show.

Many of our cast members were New York-trained actors. This is a major plus. Actors with backgrounds in the theater were conditioned to the idea of making the material they were presented with work, rather than reflexively calling for rewrites.

(A Brief Explanation: In the theater, the script, contractually, belongs to the writer. If the writer’s unwilling to rewrite, the actor has to find ways to make what’s on the page work. In television and movies, the writer, contractually, owns nothing. As a result, producers can demand unlimited revisions, which continue until they come up with something the actor can do.)

Stage actors come to work with bags of helpful tricks that they picked up working in the theater. I remember, one scene called for Kristin to tap dance on a coffee table. The actress Kristin knew a problem-solving strategy. To keep from slipping, she first poured a can of Coke over the surface of the table. Try and find a Hollywood actor/waiter who’s familiar with that one. They may have spilled Cokes in their previous line of work, but it’s unlikely they tap danced on the spillage.

We’d had the talent. We’d had experienced writers, many of whom went on to noteworthy success. We’d had a breathtaking set conceived by an award-winning art director. Our music was composed by a highly regarded Broadway composer. We’d had a magnificently stocked Crafts Services table.

What exactly had we done wrong?

I still don’t entirely know. But a large part of it concerned the issue of tone, style and sensibility.

You work with the elements you’re given. Kristin, the character, was a generational throwback Rather than symbolizing the twenty-first century female, Kristin, the character, was more like a Doris Day movie character from the early sixties – unironic, trusting, Pollyannaishly bubbly and unswervingly morally upright.

This is not necessarily a problem, until you consider what the competition was offering. During the same period Kristin was being aired, Jerry Seinfeld was whining about his new masseuse girlfriend, who treated him to unbelievable sex, but refused to give him a massage. The Friends, in one not untypical episode, had a brother and sister (Monica and Ross), about to have sex (with different partners) in the same apartment, wrestling desperately over the last available condom.
Such behavior was totally alien to the character of Kristin. Flexibility would not have been the answer. We couldn’t simply adjust to current sitcom sensibilities without obliterating the character on which the entire series was grounded. (Not to mention that some of us were not a natural fit with current sitcom sensibilities.)

At its core, Kristin was, arguably, dated. Even the positives turned out to be negatives. The actors’ bags of tricks seemed stiltedly “theatrical”, the comic timing, calculated and contrived. As for those unique offerings of singing and dancing, it turned out the audience didn’t miss those elements in the more successful situation comedies.

Kristin had its chance and failed. The price of that failure was substantial. The lifeless carcass that landed heavily on my front porch that night was my career in television.

Too much?

Well, that’s how it felt.


angel said...

I KNEW the business was heartless...but WOW!
I am so sorry.

Corinne said...


I was watching Friends and Kristin but not Seinfield.

Then again, I still watched MASH, Barney Miller, I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyck Show, ....

I was- am- able to appreciate a mix.

And I still get pissed off when great shows disappear because, apparently, my tastes don't fit the "The Bachelor", "The Hills", and the in-your-face reality shows of today.

And today I would still watch any show you make because to me, classic never gets old, it simply ages to perfection like a fine Scotch.

A. Buck Short said...

At least they didn’t make you sign for the package.

I agree that Kristin Chenoweth is among the major talents on Planet Earth, and I’d go anywhere to see her live – given enough accumulated air miles. Little she can’t excel at, with the possible exception of girls basketball. Maybe too talented? Somehow the word may have gotten out the woman was capable of committing opera.

The more conservative choice for unswerving moral uprightness might have been found one state south with somebody like the equally perky, yet slightly less diminutive Chrystal Bernard. I hear she also knows how to really tack up a table, albeit in Texas it’s done with the nectar of the Gods, Dr. Pepper.

Brian Scully said...

I always hate to see a magnificently stocked crafts services table go to waste... RIP "Kristin"... :)

Linn said...

Personally, I LOVED the show. I still watch tapes of it. It was funny, refreshing, well-acted and old-fashioned good comedy. Chenoweth is a genius, at comedy ... at everything.

Anonymous said...

In the 1970's a network executive was quoted as saying that Sid Caesar was no longer on TV as a lead comedian because "Sid Caesar is too good for television." Seems like a parallel to the fate of Ms. Chenowith in "Kristin"