Saturday, July 30, 2005

I Come To Bury Eisner and to Praise Him

I have to admit I don't fully understand the recent ascension of Michael Eisner to the rank of the online pop-culture community's public enemy #1. Yeah, he overstayed his usefulness at Disney, but most executives do in fact overstay their usefulness and need to be pushed out. Entertainment executives are like sports coaches -- each one has a narrowly-focused approach to doing things that can provide good results in certain situations; when the situation changes, their approach does not, so they become out of touch and start to screw up. Eisner's approach was what the Disney company needed in the '80s; it's not even a question of whether it was an aesthetically good or bad approach, it was just necessary. For example, Eisner's decision to bring Disney into the world of TV animation, direct-to-video animated movies and overseas outsourcing was, aesthetically speaking, a bad decision. Practically speaking, it was a necessary decision at the time to keep the studio competitive.

Something similar can be said about his work at Paramount in the late '70s and early '80s, where he and Don Simpson made roughly equal contributions to bringing about an end to the experimental, risk-taking movie culture of the '70s and create the blockbuster-happy, deal-driven movie culture that we've had with us ever since. (See this for more.) Still, movie production was a mess in the '70s for all kinds of reasons, and some kind of return to a more structured situation was necessary if the studios were to stay in business. Eisner was one of the people who figured out what the structure should be: since movie studios were all run by mega-corporations, why not apply modern corporate techniques to the moviemaking process? It was crass, and it was cold, but it was inevitable. Eisner was not so much the man who ruined movies as the guy who did what somebody was bound to do anyway.

But if you want an anti-Eisner story, here's one: he, more than any other person, was responsible for what I consider one of the worst, most crass changes ever made to a TV show. It was Eisner's idea to change Happy Days from a single-camera show to a three-camera show with a live audience. Basically, the story goes, the producers of Happy Days went to Eisner (who at that time was still an ABC executive, though within a year he would move to Paramount, the company that produced Happy Days) and asked him to move the show to a less competitive time slot. Eisner replied that he wouldn't move the show, but suggested that they revamp it by changing it to a three-camera show and retooling it to focus on Fonzie. At Eisner's urging, the producers shot a "test" episode with a live audience at the end of the second season, and the episode's story was suggested by, you guessed it, Michael Eisner. The story Eisner came up with was that Fonzie is about to get married to a woman, not realizing that she's actually a stripper. Whether this says anything about how Eisner's mind works, I don't know.

The changeover of Happy Days from a sweet, funny one-camera show to a loud, crass three-camera show is often attributed to Fred Silverman, but according to contemporary accounts it was mostly Eisner's idea. So thanks a bunch, Mike.

And it is, I swear, pure coincidence that I wind up talking about Happy Days twice in one week.

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