Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "The King of Queens" executive producer David Bickel.
David Bickel has given nine years of his life to the fictional marriage between Doug and Carrie Heffernan, writing or co-writing 43 of the nearly 200 episodes aired to date. In that time he's made Doug do everything from rent an apartment above a Chinese restaurant to use as a secret hang-out; to take a picture of his junk at a couple's wedding; to pretend to work out with Lou Ferrigno. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with David, where we talked about his time on the show, his hatred of all things Flavor Flav and how the "big wheel in front, little wheel in back" bicycle business will make a comeback before sitcoms do.
Brian Ford Sullivan: So how did you originally get involved with "The King of Queens?"
David Bickel: Before we start I just want to say, this will be the last interview I'm doing for a while. I'm getting so barraged with interview requests. [Laughs.]
BFS: Really? [Laughs.]
DB: Constantly. I mean it's like enough already. Please, just give me some space. Let me live my life, that's all I'm asking. [Laughs.] All right, so this is how it started. I came off my first show, "Hiller & Diller," and that ended in January of '98, and I had nothing going on, no staffing meetings, until May. So the first meeting I went to was "The King of Queens." I met with Michael Weithorn and David Litt. And it went very, very well. We had a very good time. And my spec script, which they liked a lot, was a "NewsRadio" spec script. It's still the best thing I've ever written. I don't know how I did it. [Laughs.] And I'm driving to my next meeting and on the way my wife calls me and says, "Did you hear the news? Phil Hartman got killed." And I'm like, holy shit, that meeting is the last time anybody is going to read my "NewsRadio" without going "awww, that's sad, remember him?" And so I went on one more meeting with Matt Wickline, who created "The Hughleys." And he had the flu, so it wasn't a good meeting. I'm very germophobic, he wasn't laughing at stuff I was saying, we didn't meld well. And I got home and I got a call from my agent who said, "'The King of Queens' wants to hire you. What do you want to do?"
And the funny thing is, about three weeks before that, my friend was trying to figure out what place he's going to work at and he goes, "I think I might go to 'The King of Queens.'" And I'm like, "Really? 'The King of Queens?'" [Laughs.] I'd just read the script at that point and it was good, I mean it was okay. I said, "I think 'The Secret Lives of Men' is a better choice for you," and he went to "Secret Lives of Men." [Laughs.] But then I got the tape of the pilot and it really came alive for me. I don't know if you knew this, but the pilot was a hybrid pilot because they initially shot the show with Jack Carter in the Jerry Stiller part. So what they did was when they decided to do it with Jerry, they reshot just the first few scenes with him. So I'd be watching the show [with Jerry onscreen] and it was like, "oh, this is great" and all of a sudden Jack Carter would appear and it was like, "Ahhhh! What's happening here?" But it was great. The pilot was so well executed. Years later I was in Costco and who's there buying batteries yelling at his wife but Jack Carter. And I'm thinking our lives would have really would have been so different - both of ours - by this one event.
BFS: So why did they go with Jerry instead of Jack?
DB: I think they wanted Jerry to begin with but he wouldn't do it, couldn't do it, whatever it was. So they went with Jack Carter. And then [later on] they realized they could get Jerry so they made that hard phone call to Jack.
BFS: So what in particular drew you to the show? Was it the whole "fat guy/skinny wife" thing?
DB: Well that was very innovative back then. [Laughs.] It wasn't really done a lot. It was like, "hey, that's new!" [Laughs.] It was smart, or smarter than a lot of the shows out there that I watched, every character was played perfectly, everybody was just excellent at what they did. And Jerry Stiller was that wild card that you go, "boy, that's a fun guy to write for." I mean as a little kid, you go, how cool would it be to write for Jerry Stiller? That would be such an awesome thing. And then you get to write for him, it's amazing. I had that experience with "Hiller & Diller." I was a big "SCTV" fan growing up, in like high school I would watch it over and over again. And then I got the chance to write for Eugene Levy. And I'm like, "this is impossible! How am I writing for these people?" You know, I'm like six years removed from watching it with my friends and I'm like, "it's insane!"
And Eugene Levy would come up to me, a staff writer, and go like, "Dave, in this scene, do you think maybe I should do this or that?" And then you try and make believe you know what you're doing [Deep voice] "I think you should do it the first way, Eugene." So you know, now to work with Jerry Stiller, who you watched all your life growing up, was a thrill. And he was great. And it's such a great character to write for. Every once in a while, because Jerry's not in every episode - he's in like two out of three - we have a whole bunch of "no Jerrys." We have like a thing on the board with a "J" with a line through it - "no Jerry." And when you have to write a "no Jerry," you're like "oh, man." So you go get Chris Elliott or something, somebody to fill that void of wacky. [Laughs.]
BFS: So after nine years has the show gotten to the point that you worry you're just repeating yourself?
DB: I don't know if we're repeating ourselves, but there are times where we kind of realize we did something like that already but we'll be like, "ehhh, that was like 174 episodes ago." [Laughs.] Mostly it's times where we take little pieces of each animal and we go, "all right, that was like this one, that one and that one and put them together and they're a whole new show." But the good thing is that now that we're at 200 episodes, ideas that we pitched in season two or season three - we had so many ideas back then, we were so young and beautiful - and we went, "nah, we don't want to do that, we've got so many other ideas." Now it's like, "remember that idea I pitched in season three? All right let's do that!" And they turn out to be pretty good episodes by the way. So things that were rejected way back in 1999, we turn them into good episodes [now]. An idea that I literally pitched every year for the first seven or eight years - we finally did it last year.
BFS: Was there ever any pressure to get Doug and Carrie pregnant?
DB: Actually the studio never wanted us to do it. Because I think that, one - the audience perceives it as a life raft, a power pill that we're going to take to try and get story ideas. You can't disagree with that. And two - I think they felt that if you have a big thing happen to the Heffernan family then it kind of like dates the old shows as "pre-baby" and the new shows as "post-baby" and it kind of hurts syndication a little bit. And for us, the thing was always - Jerry Stiller is the baby.
But yeah, we did a couple of pregnancy near miss episodes and we've done it enough times that we've talked about doing it again and it's like, "c'mon, should we really jerk the audience around again?" In the end though I don't think people want it, I mean people who come up to us like "we love the show" - and we get a lot of that [Laughs.] - it's like "thank God you never had a baby." I think "Mad About You," and I don't know if it's necessarily the baby that made the show get a little bit, you know, worse, but it kind of has that perception of desperation and that things aren't going so well. We've come up with enough stories where we don't need no stinkin' baby. [Laughs.]
BFS: So when the show does end, how do you think you'll reflect upon your experiences?
DB: The free food is probably the first thing I'll miss more than anything. [Laughs.] I went to career day for my son a couple weeks ago talking about being a writer and they were bored silly. [Laughs.] But when I mentioned we get all the free candy we want, it was like "holy shit!" everyone wanted to be a writer then. So it's not the purest reason to get people into writing but getting free candy and free food has been great. But professionally, I'm very proud of the work we did. I like to think that we're going to have an "Odd Couple" like legacy where people don't appreciate us now, but down the line... well, we did good work. We've had the same core of writers for years and years so of course I'll miss them. There's not a thing we don't know about each other at this point being on this island together. It's been an amazing experience. I went from being a staff writer to an executive producer, from the very bottom to the almost very top - I'm one of the 25-35 executive producers on the show now - and so I learned a lot. Michael Weithorn, working with him, taught me an endless amount.
Not to get off on a tangent but I had been writing spec scripts since I got out of college. And the first one I ever wrote was "The Wonder Years." Because I liked the show, and that's how old I am. [Laughs.] So I had no idea how to write a script so I called up the production office and a made believed I was a college professor and put on a deep voice and said I'm with Leo Gorcey University or whatever and I needed a copy of a script for my students. And they were like, "do you have an episode in particular you want?" And I remembered there was an episode I liked, it was Kevin having a crush on his teacher. It was called "Our Miss White" and I wanted that episode. So I worked off that for a spec script. And then flash forward ten years later, maybe more, and we're talking about "The Wonder Years" at work and Michael Weithorn said "I wrote one episode of 'The Wonder Years.'" And you know the end of that story. [Laughs.] He wrote that episode and I brought him the script - I'm a pack rat, I save everything - and he signed it for me. So that's one of my great souvenirs - that everything came full circle, everything worked out.
BFS: Very cool. So do you follow any other shows out there?
DB: I honestly don't watch a lot of TV. I mean there's people who, when they find out you work in TV, to get out of saying that don't like you show, they say "well I don't watch TV." But I really don't. I do watch "Lost," even though I don't know what the hell is going on. But I watch it and I like it. I watch "Best Week Ever," there I said it - I love "Best Week Ever." I mean, I have very little appointment TV and my wife, she's one of those that really doesn't like TV, or maybe she says that because she hates our show, so that's one of the few things we'll watch together. And we love it, it's great. There's a lot of talent in the show. Anytime I'm writing one of my failed pilots I think "she would be good for this, he would be great for that." I think that's like a great breeding ground for the next wave of comedy. And my own little secret fantasy it to be on it one day. I think I'm like 10% not famous enough to be on that show.
Because there's people that come on that and the "I Love the Eighties" kind of shows who literally I've never heard of. I'm like, "c'mon, I can do that!" But I like that show a lot. I like "Earl" a lot even though I don't watch as much as I probably should but I have them all on my TiVo and they're ready. I liked the first couple of "Heroes" and then my TiVo deleted a few by mistake and now I'm so far behind, I'm like "I'll just get the DVD." Which I won't, and I kind of hate myself for it. [Laughs.] I feel so bad. So that's not going to happen. Any poker shows I like. Giraffes playing poker, whatever it is. And I watch a lot of stuff on the Food channel. Anytime they have like a food challenge, you ever see those things? Where it's like "who can make the cake that looks like the haunted house faster!" I watch that with my mouth open, it's fascinating.
No reality, not for me. I hate it all. I literally hate it all. It's so fake. It skeeves me, that's a New York word. It's so off-putting. I love documentaries but these shows are so manufactured. In fact, if may go off on a tangent again, but that Flavor Flav thing - which by the way, is the worst thing that's ever been on TV, it's literally the end of civilization - they shot that in a house that's next door to me. They rented the house next door. It's one of the reasons why I can't stand this reality stuff. Right off the bat they go in like saying "it's Flavor Flav's house" when it's not, it's the "Israeli people who live next door to me's house." He doesn't live next door to me, thank God. Every once in a while while they were filming we'd be sleeping and you'll hear "it's Flavor Flaaaaaavvvv!" It's horrible. It's ridiculous. But worst of the whole thing is at one point I'm playing whiffle ball with my son in the backyard and all of a sudden these girls - because the camera's on - start this cat fight. And it's like "you motherfucka, you bitch, you so and so!" and it's loud, super loud. And me and my son look at each other - he's five at the time - and I literally had to walk over to them and get the producer out and say, "you know, from now on you must keep the hos inside the house. No more hos outside the house. I can't have this in my backyard."
Anyway, that's just an example of why I hate it. It's so fake. Even the game show ones, "American Idol," that everybody loves. It's like, here's my problem - they sing fine, I go to Vegas once in a while, I'll see lounge singers that are just as good as these people. No disrespect to the people that are singing but they're not any better than the people that I've seen at the Aladdin. And you'll have like friends, or like family, come in from out of town and they'll go, all excited, "you'll never guess who I saw at the airport!" Who, Tom Hanks? No, Rosalinda from "The Real World 3" or whoever. I'm like, "that's not a celebrity!" It's very frustrating, it's the end of the world. [Laughs.]
BFS: With that in mind, where do you see TV comedy going in the next couple of years?
DB: I see it as a pretty dismal thing at this point. I don't know why, I don't know if anyone's taken the temperature of America, but I don't see how it's going to get better. I don't see any show coming out that's gonna knock the socks off the country. There's no "Cosby Show" that's coming out that's going... actually what the networks and studios forget is that the "Cosby Show" wasn't this big innovative thing - he wasn't talking to a big green monkey from outer space. It was a family show that happened to be well written, well acted, and I think that's what they need to do without doing something "big." And big is great and big is fun but I don't know if big is what America wants to see. I think they want to see things that they can relate to. And I think they want to see things that a live audience is watching. And can hear an audience laughing. Once in a while we get big laughs on our show and you watch at home, and it's not lost, you can kind of feel that you're watching something a little bit special. And these single-camera things, they're funny but I think they're a little antiseptic, there's a little wall between you and the show.
So I think multi-camera needs to make a comeback for comedy to make a comeback and I don't know how that's going to happen. Once in a while a P.A. or someone will come up to me asking to read their spec and it's like, "now's not the time to get into this." Without sounding like an asshole, go where the water is. Don't go manufacture those bicycles with the big wheel in the front and the little wheel in back at this point. [Laughs.] You might as well do that. I think those are going to make a comeback before comedy does. Yeah, so it's not a good time. [Laughs.] But hopefully, you know what they say - all it takes is one show to turn it around. Hopefully that will come really soon. Meanwhile I'm working on my spec "To Catch a Predator." It's actually not a spec, more of a video. And I didn't shoot it, someone else did.
BFS: Going back then, how did you get your break?
DB: Growing up in New York, I always wanted to do this, always. And I was knocking around for years - forever. I had a hundred different jobs. I was always writing specs. I wrote my "Wonder Years." I think I have a "Hazel" that I wrote. [Laughs.] That's about how far back I've been trying to write spec scripts. And nothing [was happening], living in New York you have almost no chance. And finally in '96, I was living in a studio apartment in Yonkers, New York [with] my wife and a baby on the way. And at this point I was selling promotional products like putting your logos on stuff. We were the middlemen, so people would call and say they need 80 mugs with their logo on it and then I'd have to go and call the vendor. It was just torture. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. So I said to my wife, in the summer of that year, I want to go out to California - I know it sounds like a cliche, "I want to go to Hollywood!" - and I want to take one shot at it before I sell promotional products for the rest of my life. And she was great and said go ahead and do it.
And I went and came out here for a month and a stayed at the Oakwood in Burbank which is beyond depressing. But I came out here and did some stand-up which I had never done before. And my cousin is a huge screenwriter, Lowell Ganz, and for years he knew I wanted to do this... and I think he saw at this point that I was serious so he introduced me to his agent who read my "NewsRadio" spec script. And he says, "great job, give me one more sample and I'll go out with it and represent you." But I had, like, my "Hazel" spec so I couldn't give him that and I had to write something new.
So after maybe six weeks here I came back to New York and I started writing my "Drew Carey" spec. And then we go to an OBG-YN appointment and it's one of those ones where the baby's heart is beating too slow, one where the doctor sort of looked panicked, which isn't a good thing. So my wife was on bed rest for the rest of the pregnancy and had the baby early. And it kind of put my thing on hold because the baby was born and he had a thing where had this underdeveloped larynx so he would get up in the middle of the night and he would like gag. It would sound like my grandfather at a seder. [Laughs.] And you'd have to go pick him up. I mean there's not any danger but it's a horrifying thing when your kid is gagging. It's not a good thing. So I kind of let all the stuff fall away and I didn't work on my "Drew Carey," I was busy with this gagging kid and a I turned 30 and I really just felt bad about myself. So it was just horrible, I just kind of let my one opportunity go away.
And then I get a call out of the blue in like early May of that year, of '97, from Lowell, my cousin Lowell, and he says, "Listen, we're doing a pilot ["Hiller & Diller"], we wrote a pilot and it looks like it might go. We're not running it. If you want, I'll take a script of yours to the people that are running it. We're not related, I'm not going to go through any hoops for you but I'm happy to do this." I mean he wasn't being dick, he was just doing what he could do without putting himself too far on the line in case I was a big embarrassment. And I said, "that's all I want." So I send it in and I get a call about a week later, and when you do something like that, every hour is an eternity waiting to hear something. I get a call about a week later from an agent at CAA who said the woman of the team really liked it, we're waiting to hear from her partner tomorrow. And then tomorrow becomes a week. And this is like everything to me, like waiting to see if I won the lottery.
And, by the way, I'm still in this studio apartment that we can barely fit into with a baby in a corner of it, literally an oven that the door won't stay closed. It had a broom holding it closed, wedged against the wall. We're living like "Good Times." [Laughs.] So I get a call a week later and the partner likes it too. And the agent says, "it's 95% they're going to hire you." And all I'm thinking about is the other 5%. So he says, "I'll call you in the morning." And then the morning becomes a week. And it's like every time the phone rings, you go nuts. And finally, they called saying "you're hired. They're going to give you money to fly out. And here's what your deal is, etc., etc." So this is like a Wednesday and they say I'll start a week from Monday. So we have 10 days to kind of move our family and all that stuff. So they go, "call the showrunner and introduce yourself."
So I call up Tracy Newman and introduce myself and I'm trying real hard to be funny and nothing's really landing but I did whatever I could. And she goes, "by the way, we're starting this Monday, is that okay?" And I'm like [nervously] "no problem at all." So in like three days we had to box everything up, you know, and just move to the Oakwood place again. But now we were moving to a two bedroom and it was like "The Jeffersons" now. [Laughs.] It was magical. So that was it, and that was my training ground. I mean, I kept my head down for most of it but I felt comfortable enough to you know, pitch once in a while. And Tracy and John Stark were awesome. So I have a room in my house with a plaque on the wall that says "The Tracy Newman and John Stark Room." Metaphorically not literally. That would be ridiculous. [Laughs.] 'Cause then there has to be "The Lowell Ganz Room" and "The Michael Weithorn and David Litt Room." [Laughs.]
BFS: And now, do you guys have anything planned for the [potentially] final episodes of "The King of Queens?"
DB: Yeah, the last four or five episodes will be kind of an arc which I'm not at liberty to discuss. It's very top secret. And I know America is clamoring for information [about it]. [Laughs.] I mean, you know, people who actually know the name of the show...
BFS: Are you kidding? KingofQueensSpoilers.com is huge! [Laughs.]
DB: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] We can't let that stuff out. It's big, it'll be mind blowing. Like once the parades are over to celebrate our final episode, then you'll be able to reflect on the whole thing but it'll be pretty great. [Laughs.]
BFS: Speaking of reflection, what was your first impression of Kevin [James]?
DB: We always had a love of food in common. We could always talk endlessly about New York pizza or New York egg rolls. Professionally, like I said before, he made that script come to life. I mean the fact that he has been overlooked by [the various award shows] and just kind of critically ignored in the past nine years is absurd to me. He's so good at what he does, so facile - I'm using a big word there [Laughs] - he's just, whatever you give him he sells it. Her too, she even moreso I think. Awardwise, there were years that they would nominate the same people over and over again and it was like, "why are you overlooking her?" She couldn't be better. C'mon, she's at least one of the five funniest actresses on TV - I don't know how you could say otherwise. I'm not saying that because I work on the show, you know, because she's unbelievably good at what she does. And Jerry, there's no reason why he's not being looked at, everybody - Victor Williams, Gary, Patton - they're all so good. In the beginning, Patton was like - he was good - but you know, a little raw. But now we go to him and Gary for B-stories, we never used to do that. But they're very funny together.
So to answer the question you probably didn't ask, Kevin and everybody who are so overlooked, I think will be appreciated much more in 10 years when we're on TV Land or something. Again, like "The Odd Couple." Personally, he's generally a fun presence but with any star there's times where things don't go as peachy-keen as you'd like. That's an expression the kids use today, right? I think I got that from my "Hazel." Overall, he's carried us all through this kind of miracle run that nobody expected to have. I mean, he did lose $44,000 to me in cards a few years ago and has yet to pay me the whole thing. Sooooo... kinda hold that against him a little bit. [Laughs.] He did buy me a home gym, which was very nice. But that was only worth about $2,000. I'm just saying.
BFS: Isn't he big into the whole "ultimate fighting" thing?
DB: Big into ultimate fighting. He's like crazy into it. And literally, he trains with them. It's like a thing, you're not supposed to train with ultimate fighters if you have insurance for a show. And there was a time where he was obviously training with them before and he came in the next day and his back was killing him. And we're like, "did you train with the ultimate fighters?" And he'd be like, "I hurt my back putting." [Laughs.] I don't think you hurt your back putting - somebody elbowed you in the head, that's probably what happened.
BFS: Did you like "Hitch?"
DB: I did like "Hitch." He didn't want us to see it. Because there's this internal thing we call a "douche chill" - I don't know if you're familiar with this expression - it's like when something is so embarrassing to somebody else that you kind of feel embarrassed by it. It was originally a Howard Stern thing but we kind of adopted it. By the way, another tangent - I think the greatest legacy of our show is we were the first network show to use the word "douche" on TV. It's something we're pretty proud of. [Laughs.] But anyway, I went to see it. I went and I expected it to be, you know, a douche chill and dammit if I wasn't charmed by it. And it was all stuff he'd never do in our show. Like if we ever said, "Kevin, we want you to kiss a guy on the show." Never in a million years would he agree to that. Or have him trip on marbles. He would literally kill us. He would have an ultimate fighter beat us to death. [Laughs.] But he did stuff we'd never do and it was hilarious stuff.
BFS: But you had him hanging upside down on a stripper pole?
DB: [Laughs.] But that was in the context of the show. It's a little bit different. It's not quite marbles. Marbles was, like when the Ritz Brothers were doing it, it was already old. But it was funny and it worked. Everything turned out to be a nice thing with that, he's doing good. He's got a little movie career going. What other dirt do you want? [Laughs.]
BFS: I don't think I've ever heard any dirt on you guys. [Laughs.] The only thing I could find is fans online complaining about Carrie's weight.
DB: Yeah, that was a big deal. And she's in all the rags now talking about it and all that stuff, because she lost it. But yeah, she gained a lot of pregnancy weight. Her weight saga was, in the beginning she was perfect. And then she got really skinny the year that all the "Friends" gals got skinny - like distractingly thin, like scary. So then it was like, "gain a little weight." And then she got good again and when she got pregnant, she got kind of real big. And the problem was that we obviously never said she was pregnant [on the show] so we just kind of ignored it. And we did a couple episodes where we did kind of speak to it a little bit, and she was a good sport about it. But it was a couple of years of constant things on the web sites going, "she's a pig!" And just like terrible things like that. And the whole "fat guy/hot chick" thing was [in flux] because like the stripper episode we couldn't do until she lost some weight because we didn't want it to seem like the reason he was turned off to her on the pole is 'cause she's heavy. So we made sure she lost the weight for that and now she looks as good as ever. Now she's back. But there was a couple years of kind of writing around this. It was one of those things were after she gave birth to the baby, we're like [jokingly], "have you tried smoking again? Maybe that will help." [Laughs.] That always helps people lose weight.
BFS: So if you had 30 seconds to sell people on watching the show, what would you tell them?
DB: It's funny, well-written kind of slice of life show - that's probably about eight seconds. I could do some impersonations for the other 22 seconds. I do a good Jack Carter buying batteries. [Laughs.] I'd say watch a show and I think you'll like it. I mean you have to watch it. A lot of people discover the show when they see it on a plane. Captive audience. And I think we've done out of 200 episodes, we've done 180 probably really good episodes. And sure there's a few clunkers in the bunch including a bunch that I've written and not that proud of. There I said it. Everything doesn't come out great, you can't bat 1.000. But I think we've batted pretty high.
BFS: Any favorites of yours in particular?
DB: It's like choosing between my babies. There's one where [Doug] takes a picture of his penis at a wedding, that was very well received. And we had one of our biggest laughs from it. I also wrote the one where he staples his testicles, so you see what my specialty is. I wrote one with Ilana Wernick, one of our talented scribes, a few years ago called "Horizontal Hold" where they decide to give up sex for two weeks to try and improve their relationship in other ways. And that's during the arc where Spence was in love with Deacon so that was in there. I haven't seen that one in a long time, but I remember that being a favorite. I did one last season called "Apartment Complex" where Doug got an apartment upstairs from a Chinese restaurant. And that had some very big laughs. And Kevin, God bless him, there was a scene where he kind of invites Deacon over and now it's his place and he's a little prissy. He sold it, boy, he really made it like as gay as he possibly could go without making it ridiculous. And it was hilarious. So that's one of my favorites. I've written so many over the years that I'm probably forgetting some. So the ones I'm forgetting, please forgive me. I don't watch a lot of TV.
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "Desperate Housewives" consulting producer Jeff Greenstein.