Emmy-winning writer-producer David E. Kelley

The prolific writer-producer and creator of Harry’s Law discusses why so many TV viewers loathe lawyers, yet love legal dramas.

David E. Kelley is one of Hollywood’s most successful TV writer-producers. The former Boston lawyer switched careers after writing a film script based on some of his legal experiences, which led to a writing gig for the then-new series L.A. Law. After gradually moving up the TV ladder, Kelley went on to become one of the few to produce successful shows on all four of the top commercial U.S. networks (NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX) and, at one time, had five primetime shows on air during the same season. Kelley’s Harry’s Law is in its second season on NBC.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome David E. Kelley to this program. For more than 20 years now he’s been one of the most-heralded television writers and producers, with hit series like “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal” and of course, “The Practice.” Here is just a small sample of his award-winning work.

[Montage of scenes from David E. Kelley shows]

Tavis: So you feel old or you feel accomplished, or both?

David E. Kelley: (Laughs) That made me feel very old. (Laughter)

Tavis: But it’s got to make you feel accomplished, though.

Kelley: Well, okay, I’ll take that.

Tavis: Is this what you always wanted to do, this writing and producing thing?

Kelley: I think it is, although I just didn’t know it. I grew up on the East Coast, and no one ever put that vocation in front of students growing up. You went to school and then got a job and if you went to more schooling it was medical school or law school or business school.

But becoming a writer in television wasn’t something that was put on the plate for us, so it just kind of happened, fell into place, and once I came out here, I didn’t look back.

Tavis: Yeah, I wanted to start with the back story first before we talked about the new project, and the new one is called “Harry’s Law.” It starts Kathy Bates. It’s airing Sunday nights at 8:00 on NBC, and so here now, some scenes from “Harry’s Law.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Well, if you can’t sell it, ain’t nobody going to buy it, so. (Laughter)

Kelley: Therein lies our problem, by the way. We get a pretty respectable number on “Harry’s Law,” but our demo wasn’t so hot, as it were, so Kathy’s doing her part in that scene to put the word out that she sizzles.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me more about that challenge, because this is the back story of how TV works and why you see shows moving around from one night to another night that people don’t often understand. So tell me what you meant. I got it, but for the audience, what you meant by these demo challenges.

Kelley: Well, it’s all about the 18 to 49 number, and if you fall outside that, you really don’t exist. We have a great following. Unfortunately, most of them are over 50. Doesn’t make sense to me, because this is all dictated by Madison Avenue, who are trying to find shoppers, obviously.

The research shows that people over 50 have the most discretionary income, they spend the most money, they watch the most television. It would make sense to program to them.

But for some reason, that’s not the case. The best I can tell as it’s been explained to me is that the advertisers like to hit them while they’re young because they can make better imprinting, as it were. Their message will stick.

But in terms of who has the most money and who’s watching the most television, it’s the older generation, so why not program to them?

Tavis: I’m glad you jumped into that, because it raises a fundamental question for me as to how this challenges the artist, the creator, the producer, specifically, because if Madison Avenue is dictating, essentially, with that 18 to 49 demo what you have to pull in on any given night vis-à-vis ratings, I would think that has an impact on what people bring to television.

So maybe that’s the reason why we see all this silly reality television – for those who don’t think it’s silly, sorry. But help me understand how challenged you and other producers are by that economic Madison Avenue reality.

Kelley: Well, I can’t speak for the other producers. I can tell you I’m very challenged and I suspect that a lot of producer-writers my age are similarly challenged.

The way I personally work is I like to write what I know, what I feel, and also where I am. I’m 55 years old. My sensibilities probably reflect that. My insecurities, my fears and my desires probably also reflect that. The shows that I like to write are very character-driven.

So I think a writer should write what he loves, the people he relates to. Those are the people I relate to. There are young people in my shows, too, but the older ones probably speak to me more and I write to an audience and a constituency which is also similarly older.

It’s very challenging when you put the marketing hat on and you want to sell your show, because as I just said, they want youth, youth, youth.

Tavis: So what does that – and I’m not naïve in asking this, but what does that mean for us, the viewers, in terms of what our choices are on television?

Kelley: Get your kids to watch with you. (Laughter) There are many shows that succeed, “Harry’s Law” is one of them, with an older audience, where we our challenge is bringing the younger demographic to the plate or to the couch, as it were.

“Boston Public” was a show I did where kids brought their parents to that couch, and subsequently parents brought their kids to. That was a viewing constituency that seemed to work on two different levels. “Harry’s Law” has just been more challenge. Our viewers are still older.

Tavis: But who watches television like that these days? Families – Freudian slip, but families – on your part – but families don’t eat together like they used to, so your point about bringing them to the table, they don’t come to the table as families anymore, they don’t watch TV together anymore.

Everybody’s got a TV in their room; most kids are watching TV on some handheld device or on computer. So I don’t even know how that is even possible.

Kelley: Well, it may not be, and I’m not a programmer and I can’t speak to marketing. It’s not my aptitude. Where I come from is what do I like to write. Write the characters I love and just hope there’s a big enough constituency out there to make it viable.

Tavis: Yeah, and I didn’t mean to make you a programmer. I was really trying to get at – and you answered it, so I appreciate that – just trying to get at how frustrating it must be, my word, not yours, to be wanting to write good stuff and writing what you know.

Obviously, the more seasoned you are, the better writer, I would assume, that you are, and along with seasoning comes age, and if they only want 18 to 49, then it just seems like a big, horrible matrix that one finds himself in every now and again.

Kelley: It’s challenge. It’s not a prohibitive one, but it’s certainly a challenge, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Tell me more about the new series. I love Kathy Bates, great actress, but tell me about the series.

Kelley: Yeah, she’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun to work with her. The series is primarily about her character, Harry; hence it’s called “Harry’s Law.” It’s really about an older woman, 60 years old, who gets fired from her firm and is forced to start anew in a very difficult economic time.

She begins her own law firm really from scratch and starts to build her way back to having a viable practice. It’s also a bit of an eccentric show, comedic in some ways. That’s a strength that Kathy has, that she’s able to play both dramatic and – flex both dramatic and comedic muscles, and we try to write to those strengths.

But it’s really a series primarily about her, that character, and the orbits, the eccentric clientele and workforce that she builds around here.

Tavis: I love Cincinnati, but why Cincinnati?

Kelley: Could have been any city. It just was not going to be – I apologize to Cincinnati, because we like to think it’s become hot. But we just wanted a lesser market, a city that people didn’t think of as a sexy city, like New York or Chicago or San Francisco or L.A., but more of a blue-collar, but somewhat cosmopolitan place.

Tavis: I can see why it’s connecting, though. It’s so relevant to our contemporary moment, where a middle-aged American loses his or her job, has to start all over again. There are millions of Americans who I know resonate with that right about now, so I can see the relevance of it.

Kelley: Right.

Tavis: This may be the quintessential answer, I suspect – you have a legal background in real life.

Kelley: I do. I do.

Tavis: I assume that’s why you have been so connected to these legal dramas over the years.

Kelley: Yeah, I love the law. I think the law changes, which is a nice luxury. Every day you pick up the paper, they’ve decided to zig instead of zag, so it gives you the luxury as a writer to go in a different direction. But I also love law – I think it’s society’s best way of legislating social and ethical behavior. It’s not perfect at all. In fact, it’s extremely flawed.

But it’s the best system that we have, and I think as a writer what I love to do is explore social and ethical issues, and character. The law is a great springboard for doing those three things, so it’s worked out well for me.

Tavis: I was just thinking, in advance of our conversation, and I don’t know that I’ve ever raised this issue with anybody on this program, despite all the actors I’ve talked to who star in these legal dramas.

But it is kind of fascinating for me, for a society that has so many jokes about lawyers, for a society that loves to beat up on lawyers all the time, we are people who watch legal dramas. Have you figured that out, why it is that we disdain them on the one hand – everybody knows a lawyer they hate, and everybody’s got a good law – I got a few of them – everybody’s got a good lawyer joke, and yet we’re drawn, we suck up these legal dramas.

Kelley: Yeah. Well, I think we love winning and losing. The cases have winners, the cases have losers. The stakes are typically easy to locate, because in many of these cases they’re very life and death, especially to the litigants involved.

So it’s a natural way to tell stories with beginning, middles and endings, and the lawyers are very, very active people. They are real players in that system, and whether it’s a – I think that so many of our series are about people trying to save, rescue or help other people, whether it’s policemen, doctors, private investigators or lawyers.

This is a very tried-and-true format, and your protagonists, you get to put your protagonist in a position where he gets to make somebody else’s world a little better than it was, and that’s a very romantic notion to start a series with.

Tavis: Speaking of romantic notion, how do you – and I’m thinking of over the years watching your work in various -

Kelley: I never do, actually. I watch the episodes we’re working on, but I never go back and watch old episodes. I saw these clips and I figure nothing good can come out of it.

Either I will see the mistake that I can no longer fix, (laughter) or I saw – I prefer just to keep looking forward.

Tavis: Is there a – we’ve talked about the successes you’ve had, and they’ve been many and they’re still coming in this career, they’re still ongoing. Are there one or two series that come to mind that didn’t fare as well? Because obviously you’ve had hits and misses.

Kelley: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: Of the misses, are there one or two that you took particularly hard because you really thought that it was going to work or thought that it should work or that it wasn’t given a fair chance? Are there a couple of ones that you were just really more emotional about when they didn’t work?

Kelley: Well, you’re disappointed with all the failures because you put a lot into them. I would say when they get nipped in the pilot bud the devastation is less, just because you’ve spent less time with those people so the loss is lessened.

The more you are inside a series, the more inside those characters I tend to become. Not only do I get to know the company and the crew and the actors who play them, but the characters themselves. So when that series goes down, you actually do experience loss. When I look back at this clip, I miss Ally McBeal.

I still get to run into Callista from time to time, but Ally’s gone. I miss Denny Crane. I miss Alan Shore. Those were, even though those characters were fictitious, they were really – they were extremely real in my life for five, six, seven years. You live them, you breathe them. So when it’s over, there’s very much a void.

In terms of a series that didn’t make it, as I said, I put my heart into all of them, so I’m not sure that there’s one -

Tavis: “Chicago Hope” was your series too?

Kelley: “Chicago Hope” was my series.

Tavis: Yeah, see, I – let me answer the question that I asked you.

Kelley: Okay.

Tavis: Not that you asked my response. But I was disappointed about “Chicago Hope,” and I really was disappointed – you may know where I’m going with this – as an African American. What you tried to do with that series, and it wasn’t about race, but the point was that the actors who got a chance to star in that series, and the location of the hospital and the kind of patients that they were seeing, et cetera, et cetera, there isn’t enough of that on television.

So I was rooting for that thing. I really wanted that thing to work for the reasons I’ve just kind of laid out. So I took it kind of hard when “Chicago Hope” didn’t work.

Kelley: Yeah, it was tough. We had gone, I think, six years with that show. I think everyone felt that its race was fairly run when it went down, so you are somewhat mollified by the fact that you got to tell your stories and develop your characters.

“Picket Fences,” that was extremely difficult on me. I remember the day I walked to the set and said, “Okay, this is our last one, it’s over.” It was very emotional for a lot of people, including myself, because those characters were so dear to me.

Also, that was my first series, so I think that there’s something about every creator’s first series. “Boston Legal” was tougher than I thought. Even though we went into it knowing it was going to be a very finite series, we had no expectations that it would run in perpetuity. Five years was, in fact, a long time for that show.

So we all had the sensibility that this is finite and this is going to end sooner rather than later, and yet it, too, when it ended, it’s difficult, and mainly Denny Crane and Alan Shore, they had just become so dear to me after those five years. I also happened to love those actors, working with James Spader and William Shatner was a real treat, and I miss them personally as much as I miss the characters.

They’re all tough, but “Picket Fences” was probably the one that sticks out as the most emotional goodbye that I ever had to say.

Tavis: Here’s a question I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times, but you’ve not been asked it by me, so I want to hear your response to it, which is what has most changed about this business over the last couple of decades that just grates you, that just annoys you, about the way the business has changed.

Kelley: Well, I’ve dealt mainly on the broadcast network side, so this would speak to that, and that would be first the commercials. The commercials, it’s just gotten insane.

Tavis: Too many? Too many?

Kelley: Too many.

Tavis: Okay.

Kelley: When I started on “L.A. Law,” I think our shows were 48 minutes plus some, with four acts. We’re now down to 41 minutes, six acts, in a one-hour presentation, and it’s absurd.

With big, loud commercials coming in every six and seven minutes it’s become incumbent upon us to noisy, to pound, pound, pound, much more difficult to do the slower-paced, emotional stories that build over time.

It’s just very, very frustrating to cut to a commercial every six, seven or eight minutes, if you’re lucky. That’s first.

Then also the challenge of doing shows for network television is, again, I’m 100 years old, so when we started on “L.A. Law” there were only three channels. The same was true with “Picket Fences,” “The Practice.” When we got to “Ally” Fox had emerged, so there were four.

But by and large, if you made a good show, the audience would ultimately be able to find it because word of mouth would push you up the hill. That’s no longer true today.

There are so many options, so many channels; the word of mouth is more about ratings than it is about content. Where it used to be people would watch an entire episode before making their judgment, then it came down to okay, we’ll watch the first act before making a judgment.

Now we’re down to we’ll watch until the first main credits roll, and we’ll make a decision, because that remote is in their hand, they can flick to this channel, go to that menu with the push of a thumb, and it happens.

So it’s become much more incumbent upon us to really declare who you are, what you are, and come out of the gate swinging hard. As a result, maybe the slower-paced series that really necessitate a development of character before you get that audience investment, you just don’t get the time.

Tavis: So this one, “Harry’s Law,” came to hiatus, has come back.

Kelley: Oh, this one had a very bumpy journey.

Tavis: Yeah, but it’s back, though.

Kelley: It’s back, it’s back. We made a pilot. NBC liked half of it but not the other half. We excised the half that they did not want to put on the air; we made a second half, put it together. That basically really, which was the second pilot that debuted last year at mid-season, really against some pretty significant odds, survived.

Came back this season, struggled in a very difficult Wednesday time slot where if you walked into the living room at 9:00 at my house on a Wednesday, you’d find my family watching “Modern Family,” laughing along with them. (Laughter)

Then afterwards, can I get you to put in this disc and watch “Harry’s” after it? It was tough. “Criminal Minds” and “X-Factor,” it was tough sledding.

We somehow made it and we’re happy about that, but everybody realized the network included that we’re better off getting out of Wednesday. So here we go again on Sundays, but we had a similar progression with “The Practice,” and Sundays was our ultimate home and where we -

Tavis: Yeah, and it worked.

Kelley: – where we flourished, so my fingers are crossed that “Harry” will have a similar fate, but we’ll see.

Tavis: Well, “Harry’s Law” is on Sunday nights on NBC. If you like good writing, David E. Kelley delivers, and if you love great acting, Kathy Bates definitely delivers. So you might want to check it out. David, good to have you here.

Kelley: Good to see you. Thank you.

Tavis: Nice to meet you.

Kelley: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: March 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm