Friday, August 31, 2018

“The Simpsons”: Woo-Hoo!

While Rupert Murdoch hadn’t bet his network on the success or failure of The Simpsons, there was a lot riding on it. The network was waiting for the overnights on pins and needles. When the ratings arrived- jubilation.

While Married... With Children had been a hit for the network, it was a slow burn, becoming a mega-hit only after several years and a misguided attempt by censors to try to shut it down. The Simpsons was a bonafide smash hit from day one.

But still, Fox was a bit unsure of whether the show would truly be a hit. The network hadn’t even tried to merchandise the show. The success of the show, just days before Christmas, meant that any of the show’s new fans would find  Nothing Simpsons-related under the Christmas tree that year. But would they find anything next year? A few merchandisers came calling, but Fox was skittish. It hadn’t renewed the show yet despite its success. Would the success continue? It would.

The show was a sensation. After several weeks, Fox embraced its success, finally ordering season two. The network’s initial skittishness was now causing problems. Stores were besieged with requests for Simpsons merchandise that didn’t yet exist. Fox realized that there was no way it could get new episodes before the Fall, yet the show’s fans were clamoring for more. Luckily for Fox, its young viewers were willing to watch the few episodes that did exist multiple times. Quick deals with JCPenney and other retailers got Simpsons merchandise into stores as soon as possible, though much of it was not the best quality.

For the first few months of its existence, there was probably more bootleg merchandise than legally licensed items. Although it was caught off guard, Fox was planning on making sure there would be plenty of Simpsons merchandise available for Christmas 1990. That wouldn’t be the only surprise it would unleash on the world that Fall. Fox’s first big hit- Married... With Children- had a working title of Not The Cosbys. Its second big hit- The Simpsons- would become The Cosby Killers.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

“The Simpsons”: But They Were Using Their Whole Ass!

In Fox’s early years, very little of its programming gained traction with audiences. Its nighttime talk show featuring Joan Rivers was a colossal failure. Each of its shows were more forgettable than the last.

Mr. Whose-its?

Beans Whats-it?

Fox’s biggest issue at the time was that it wasn’t anyone’s first choice. It also didn’t have an established development team to line up potential projects. Fox was where people took shows that everyone else had already rejected. The only show that got any traction at the time was Married... With Children. Rumors abounded that Rupert Murdoch was planning to pull the plug on his failed experiment.

Thank your father for helping keep this network alive, kids!

Murdoch, however, decided to double his bet that he could create a fourth network out of nothing. If Hollywood wouldn’t bring its best projects to Fox, Fox would make its own. The network scoured Hollywood and its own schedule for fresh talent. One critical bright spot on the schedule was The Tracey Ullman Show. Unfortunately, critical acclaim did not transfer to ratings success. After just a few seasons, the show had run its course.

Go home! No, seriously- please stay!

Ms. Ullman created a treasure trove of characters and Fox executives thought that one of them could possibly be spunoff into a new show. They quickly determined that her characters, while interesting in small doses, would probably wear out their welcome in short order. The cartoon family in the bumpers, however, did show some promise. Matt Groening’s Simpsons seemed like the sort of characters who could attract a younger audience. The show, however, would need some polish. Groening had created a family and an attitude. Keeping an audience interested in the show for thirty minutes at a time would require a city of characters. That’s where Sam Simon came in.

Matt Groening and Sam Simon

If Matt Groening was the father of The Simpsons, Sam Simon was the founder of Springfield. Sam built out the show, adding the various friends, family, neighbors and acquaintances who inhabited Springfield. Despite the fact that no prime time cartoon had been successful in years, Fox greenlit the project and it began production. Due to the huge lead time required to produce an animated show, Fox had to commit to more than just an episode or two in order to make everything cost effective. It committed to 13 episodes, half of the usual season order. The first episode produced was Some Enchanted Evening, which featured guest Penny Marshall as Mrs. Botz, a villainous babysitter.

The episode was a disaster. The animation was bad, even for a television cartoon. It was deemed unreleasable by Fox, but because most of the other episodes were already in various stages of production, it couldn’t afford to scrap the series. Some Enchanted Evening was sent back into production and the series was delayed from its schedule Fall 1989 premiere to a Spring 1990 premiere. As a result, the episode originally scheduled to air as the season finale- the Christmas themed Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire would be the series premiere. A hopefully much improved Some Enchanted Evening would be the finale.

Strangely enough, Fox’s decision to only produce 13 episodes was technically lose/lose for the network. If the show failed, those expensive episodes would be a costly mistake. If the show was successful, it would leave the network with a hot prospect that it couldn’t fully exploit because it only had 13 episodes to run. The decision was made to hold off on making more episodes until the network was fully convinced that the series was a success. As the final versions of the various episodes began coming in from overseas, Fox executives started resting easier. The show, it seemed, was good. But would the world agree? For better or worse, Fox would find out on December 17, 1989.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Sorry Folks!

Part Three of our Simpsons series is delayed until tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

“The Simpsons”: Crudely Drawn Filler Material

After Fox approved the project, James L. Brooks and Matt Groening began choosing voice actors for the major characters. They didn’t have to look far; Tracey Ullman castmembers Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner were chosen to voice Homer and Marge Simpson. While Dan Castellaneta had previous voice over experience, Julie Kavner did not. Most importantly, however, both of them were already under contract to Fox.

Nancy Cartwright had been a veteran voice actor and was brought in to test for Lisa Simpson. After reading the script, Nancy decided that she wanted to be Bart- not Lisa. Despite their original doubts, Matt and Albert knew she was the right voice for Bart Simpson.

With most of the family cast, that just left Lisa Simpson. Yeardley Smith, who had not done much work up until then, was called in to read for Lisa. She had originally thought the role would be a one off, but she quickly realized it would be a much bigger project.

With the main characters now properly voiced, production started on what would become 48 one minute shorts. Crudely drawn and produced, the shorts quickly gained a cult following. As Matt Groening’s Life in Hell fans discovered the shorts, they quickly outshone The Tracey Ullman Show itself. Could Fox turn this crudely drawn filler material into something bigger? They thought they could.

Monday, August 27, 2018

“The Simpsons”: An Old Drunk Pays Off His Gambling Debts

Australian businessman Rupert Murdoch was attempting the impossible; he was trying to use his then recent purchase of Twentieth Century Fox to setup a new American television network from scratch. Both Paramount and DuMont had previously tried to become a fourth network, but neither had succeeded. Murdoch was hoping to succeed where others had failed by starting small, building up and pursuing a more youthful audience. Originally, Fox only programmed on Saturday and Sunday nights and its initial programming was quite risky. One of its biggest risks was The Tracey Ullman Show, a half hour comedy sketch show starring a British actress who was relatively unknown in the United States.

Produced by television titan James L. Brooks, the show wanted to signal from the very beginning how it was not your father’s comedy show. Fox decided to have animated bumpers that would play before and after commercial breaks that were technically unrelated to the show. After seeing the Matt Groening comic strip Life in Hell, Brooks and Fox knew they’d found an edgy talent whose work could attract the younger audience they craved. Life in Hell was a popular comic strip that was found in alternative newspapers. It seemed like a great fit for the network, so Matt Groening was approached to turn his strip into a series of shorts to be aired on Tracey Ullman.

Matt was surprised to be contacted by Fox; after all, he was just an independent cartoonist at the time. His characters had been a smash hit in the alternative press, but mainstream success had eluded him. Despite his surprise, he still decided to take the meeting. As he sat in the waiting room, panic kicked in, however. The Life in Hell characters were how he made his living. If he accepted Fox’s offer, he would be essentially signing over the rights to the characters to them. How would he make a living if that happened? What if he lost his indie cred as a result of this deal? Matt frantically took out his drawing pad and made a split second decision that would change his life- and popular culture- forever.

Unwilling to sign over his existing creations, Matt sketched out a picture of a strange looking family. There was a mom with a crazy beehive hairdo, a grumpy, bald father and three bratty kids. Best case scenario- Fox picks up these characters he designed just a few minutes before the presentation. Worst case scenario- they reject them, but at least he’d still have his Life in Hell rights. Matt Groening entered the room and history was made.

Fox loved the idea. They quickly signed Matt Groening to a contract and began producing these bizarre cartoon shorts with this bizarre looking cartoon family. Little did anyone know that everyone involved with the show would soon become more successful than they had ever imagined. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Temporary Layoffs Website Announcement

Temporary Layoffs will now feature a new schedule beginning this week! This week we’ll feature one of our popular new “Feature Presentations”- a week long deep dive into the development and production of a legendary or notorious television project.

The following week will feature our brand new posting schedule with a different topic every day:

“Happy Days” - The world of sitcoms.

 “Serious Business” - Dramatic television shows and TV movies.

“Toon In” - TV cartoons.

“Love in the Afternoon” - Soap Opera stories.

“And All The Rest” - Anything else related to television.

The schedule will alternate between a Feature Presentation and our new posting schedule every other week. Thank you for your continued support!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

“Mr. Ed”: Hollywood Meets Mister Ed

Mister Ed’s success gave him the pull to get big name celebrities to make guest starring appearances on his show. One of the first was George Burns.

As a producer and the man who financed the pilot, George Burns had a financial reason for doing the show. His decision to finance the show had originally earned him little more than scorn from his fellow Hollywood denizens who mocked his talking horse show. After the show’s success, however, Burns had proved them all wrong and his guest starring role as himself was like a victory lap for him.

When Mae West signed onto the show, the gossip mongers theorized that she had taken herself out of mothballs because, like Chico Marx, she needed the money. It was true that Mae West had been out of pictures for years, choosing to retire after the Hayes Code made her trademark ribald situations and double entendres impossible to include in films, but Ms. West had invested her money wisely. Her legendary penthouse sat atop a luxury Hollywood apartment building that she owned outright, renting out the other apartments to wealthy celebrities and studios. She did spend money a bit lavishly, reportedly buying new cars every year and selling the old ones to friends for $1, but she could afford to spend as she wished, leaving behind an estate valued in excess of $75 Million. So why did she agree to star with Mister Ed? Only Mae knows for sure, but she possibly sensed that the Hayes Production Code was on its last legs and thus tested the waters to see if she could triumphantly return to Hollywood once her favored risqué types of films could be released again.

It was no secret why Zsa Zsa Gabor did her guest stint. Ms. Gabor was the prototype for useless celebutantes who were famous for being famous. She would attend the opening of a screen door if the paparazzi were involved. Mister Ed was a way for her to get more exposure and keep her name out there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Mr. Ed: No One Can Talk to A Horse

The success of Mister Ed not only led to him making the jump from syndication to network television, it also inspired a seemingly never ending array of merchandise. There were comic books:

Board games, even in Germany:


and even buttons:

Mister Ed even began making personal appearances; at least his impersonators did. While the actual Mister Ed was a horse named Bamboo Harvester, a few lookalike horses toured the country to meet his fans. Television production limited Bamboo Harvester’s availability, so the lookalikes were seen as a way to satisfy the demands of his fans. The lookalikes were often used for publicity pictures, but only Bamboo Harvester ever appeared on the show because he had already been trained to “talk”.

Alan Young once commented that he always preferred working with Bamboo Harvester over the lookalikes, who were apparently more temperamental than the actual star. Apparently, his Hollywood success never went to his head.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

“Mr. Ed”: Of Course, Of Course

Having figured out a way to bring a talking horse to television without attracting the ire of Universal Pictures, Arthur Lubin began taking his George Burns produced Mister Ed pilot to the networks. Would they be as optimistic about the show’s viability as he was?

Of course, they would not. Mr. Lubin had put so much effort behind this show that he wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. Taking some of the notes he had received from the networks, he re-cast Wilbur and reshot the pilot with new new actor: Alan Young. This time, he teamed up with Filmways Productions and sought to produce the show in syndication.

A syndicated television show has to be sold town to town, which can be quite a daunting challenge. A network show only has to be sold once - to the television network - which then requires its affiliates to air the show. With no such backing, Filmways had to find enough stations across the country that would be willing to carry the show to make its production worthwhile. Arthur Lubin personally took on this challenge, selling Mister Ed to local stations himself. The gambit worked and Mister Ed premiered in 1961.

The show was a huge success, proving Arthur Lubin correct. The show’s seemingly instant success prompted CBS to make a rare decision- it was picking up Mister Ed’s second season. Most of the time, shows go from network television to syndication. This amazing horse would do the opposite- a huge sign of its initial success.

Monday, August 13, 2018

“Mr. Ed”: A Horse is a Horse

In television’s early years, most of its comedic programming centered around the family unit. Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show and many others derived laughs from family situations. With the sameness of such programming, some television producers sought to make their pitches stand out from the pack. Would a show with a talking horse stand out? Mr. Ed creator Arthur Lubin hoped so.

Arthur Lubin had been directing the lucrative Francis the Talking Mule series of feature length pictures for Universal Pictures and thought that the concept would make a successful transition to television. The series was about an army mule who would only speak to a young soldier, thus making many people think he was crazy. Lubin wanted to acquire the television rights and produce a weekly series. Universal, however, was unwilling to sell the rights at any price; though the series had fizzled out by the late 1950’s, it thought that the series might possibly make a comeback. Thus Lubin would get his first setback in his quest to get a Talking animal program produced.

Hard to say who is the biggest jackass in this picture.

Lubin could have just changed the name of the mule and pushed forward with his project, but since he was the director of five Francis films and had tried negotiating with Universal Pictures for the rights, a copyright case against him would have been a slam dunk. His secretary found an answer to this problem- a series of children’s stories by author Walter Brooks about a talking horse named “Mr. Ed”. Lubin could buy the television rights from Brooks to protect himself from any litigation from Universal. The gambit worked. Lubin, using financing from George Burns, produced a Mr. Ed pilot.

The initial pilot started Scott McKay as Wilbur “Pope”, who owned the titular Mr. Ed. Lubin proudly carried the pilot around town, trying to sell it to network television. He was soundly rejected. Sure, the pilot was unlike anything the networks had ever seen, but while Lubin had seen that as a positive, they saw it as a negative. He would have to come with a new strategy to get his talking horse on television.