Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The pros and cons of networking

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else.

It’s from Jim S:

Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job?  I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

I don’t know if it’s common, but we gave our mentor an assignment in his later years. We were thrilled to do it. And we were rewarded with a great script. It’s not like athletes. Talent doesn’t fade with age.

Showrunners will often hire writers they’ve worked with and trust. It only makes sense. That said, openings do come up that require showrunners to hire people they have no history with. Lots of time these positions will be lower level thus allowing the showrunner to groom and mentor the new scribes.

One way that new writers can “audition” is to offer their services free to showrunners when they have a pilot in production and are looking to put together a temporary staff to help rewrite and punch up.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. First of all, I feel the young writers are being taken advantage of. It’s one thing to ask a friend to help. We have a relationship, and I also feel I can reciprocate by helping out on his pilot somewhere down the road. But to ask someone I don’t know to come in for eight hours, help out, with no guarantees at all seems unfair. I would feel too guilty. I’m getting paid a lot of money; he's getting nothing but a lovely parting gift and cold Chinese food. It doesn’t seem right.

Yes, if you’re a young writer and you’re offered a chance to participate in a rewrite for a showrunner you don’t know I would say jump at it. You never know. You might impress him and ultimately get a job out of it. I will just say this tough: the odds are against it. Lots of things have to fall in place. But it does happen.  And even if chances are low, you gotta take it. 

My other concern is that when I have a pilot in production it is no time to break anybody in. I much prefer to surround myself with a smaller group of All-Star writers I know. We move quicker and more efficiently. We all have the same comic sensibility. No one is going to waste our time pitching completely inappropriate jokes. Everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I was in a room a couple of years ago for a pilot rewrite. I kid you not, there was no less than twenty writers – probably more. High level, mid level, newbies, maybe even a few people from the studio tour who just happened to wander in. And before that, at the table reading, there were five to ten more writers in attendance. It was nuts.

I’d say most of the writers in the rewrite never spoke a word. I don’t know why they were there other than to eat lunch or maybe hide out from the cops. Others were pitching drivel. Maybe four of the writers actually got jokes in. And they were primarily veterans. Most of the stuff came from the two showrunners themselves. And here’s the irony, they’re both terrific writers. If we had a pilot I would invite just the two of them to help. That’s all we’d need.

So for young writers, not only is it hard to stand out in normal circumstances, you’re trying to be noticed in a room of twenty. Depending on when you enter the room you might be stuck in the back corner – like having the farthest booth in the county fair.

What was the original question? I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot what he asked. Oh yeah. Networking.


Networking is important. Showrunners help their mentors, friends who are down on their luck, writers’ assistants that have earned a shot, staffers they’ve worked with before, and newbies that dazzle in pilot rewrites.

The trick is getting in. And if free labor is one way then you’ve got to do it. But make no mistake -- you’re doing the showrunner a favor as much as he’s doing one for you.

Somewhere in all that I hope I answered Jim's question.  Or at least touched on it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Previews

We’re now up and running. Here’s the latest installment on mounting my play, A OR B? – now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

When we last left our heroes… tech work had been completed. Now it was time to prepare for the first preview, which was last Wednesday night.

The actors pretty much have the script memorized although more changes were expected once I heard preview audiences. The thing I’m stressing now is to hold for laughs (assuming there are any). When actors don’t hold for laughs two things happen. First, the audience misses the next line or joke because they’re laughing through it. And secondly, after that occurs a few times the audience will just stop laughing for fear of missing something. Of course it’s hard to know just what will get laughs so previews are very helpful.

We had a full dress rehearsal on Tuesday night for an invited audience of maybe 15. With that small a group I was pleased to get a few big titters. As I expected, it was also the NOISES OFF runthrough. In other words, there were wardrobe malfunctions, props not being where they were supposed to be, missed light cues, lines jumped, etc. Best to get all of that out of the way now.   Do you know there’s such a thing as zipper oil? If you’re doing a play with costume changes make sure you have some.

It’s amazing how you can watch rehearsals for four weeks and everything looks great but then you see it on its feet and there are moments you go "Yikes!"  So my routine this last week has been this: show up at the theatre at 4:00. Actors rehearse trouble spots or new material. The show at 8:00, notes at 10:00, and then I go home and rewrite until 2:30.

One thing I miss about being on staff on a TV show – writing material and seeing it performed the next day. Serving it while it’s hot.

Each night gets better. In fact, a new joke I wrote Thursday might get the biggest laugh in the play. And then of course there are the “Bono’s” (see yesterday’s post for explanation). There are a couple that I think I’ll be wrestling with until opening night. The actors are good sports, gamely delivering the new lines without complaint (at least within earshot).

Another difference between the theatre and TV: In TV I go down for a runthrough that consists of about 22 minutes of content. I then go back with seven or eight highly trained comedy writers to fix the script. Here it’s 90 minutes of material and just me. But I will say this – the TV training has been INVALUABLE. You learn to be facile and attack problems. There are a lot of excellent playwrights who happen to write very slowly. This is like catching a moving train. There’s also the temptation for thoughtful (i.e. slow) playwrights to keep things that should go because it took so long to write them in the first place.

I had one scene that felt too long. I couldn’t wait to get home and chop the shit out of it. Jokes I liked a week ago I couldn’t wait to cut. The next night the scene played sooo much better. That’s what often happens. You have a scene with say ten jokes and they all play okay. You cut five and the ones you keep get even bigger laughs. Don’t be afraid to cut.

I generally go into runthrough with some ideas of cuts I’d like to make. Same has been true with the play. There was one joke I was thinking of cutting because I’d like the scene a little shorter. But it got a good laugh. My first reaction was “damn, it worked.” And then I thought, “You idiot. It WORKED.” I’ll find a trim somewhere else.

We also made some lighting and blocking adjustments that quickened the pace.

The Wednesday and Thursdays previews played pretty well. The weekend was better. What’s always odd is that certain jokes that work one night don’t the next and vice versa. And from time to time straight lines will get laughs. Don’t ask me why. I’ll take it.

Something was nagging me however. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the weekend, but a lightbulb went off and the answer was clear. But it will require major light and sound cue adjustments, some new blocking, new wardrobe, and two existing scenes being intercut. It sounds more radical than it is, but still, it will take a little coordinated rehearsal time so we'll put it in this week. It’s not fair to the actors (or crew) to just throw them out there without proper preparation. Especially since I like them. But I’m excited to see the new stuff that goes in starting Wednesday.

Another problem we had to address was costume changes. Our actors, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, have to make some quick ones. They do it under 30 seconds, but that’s still a long transition on stage with nothing happening. We tried covering it with music and visually interesting things going on on stage, but it wasn’t enough. Our director, Andy Barnicle, came up with the fix – voice over funny dialogue. So I went off into a corner, wrote them, and they were recorded that night.

So a few more days of tinkering and previews, and then Friday is Opening Night. I think we’ll be okay… as long as we have enough zipper oil.

It’s been a blast meeting some blog readers who’ve attended the previews. Thanks so much. Here’s where you go for tickets, and if you do attend a performance please flag me down. I’m the one in the corner of the lobby just rocking back and forth.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's a "Bono?"

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

This was a re-post from God knows when. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

What words kan't you spell?

Thank God for spellcheck. There are some words I just can’t spell. For whatever reason my brain refuses to learn the correct spelling of a few words – words that are fairly common and you dear readers have no problem with at all.

One is jeopardy. Even as I typed it just now the squiggly red line appeared underneath. I keep putting a’s where there should be o’s or o’s where there should be a’s. And again, it’s not an obscure word. I watch the TV show all the time. The word is displayed in giant letters.

Another is privilege. I don’t even come close on this word. At any given time I may write privlige, priviledge, priveledge, privlige, privelige. None of these look any more wrong that the actual spelling.

For a long time I wrestled with guarantee. Somehow I mastered it. And I’m afraid to list the ways I misspelled it for fear that that will confuse me again and I’ll be back at square one.

In the case of pigeon, I want to always write pidgeon. And don’t get me started on pidgin.

I’d like to think I’m not alone in this brain cramp. So let me ask you – what are words that you can’t spell?

Imagine losing the final round of the National Spelling Bee over jeopardy?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday Questions

Previews continue for my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.  Get your tickets and reward yourself with reading Friday Questions.  Thanks. 
 
First, my hold-over question from last week.  From Jeff:

What are your thoughts on the usage of cliffhangers? 


For the most part I think they're a waste of time.  Especially in sitcoms.  It's not like these characters are in any real jeopardy.  

One problem is that this convention has now been done to death.  Whatever impact it used to have has been greatly diminished by over-use.  Everyone's doing cliffhangers.  Plus, shows do limited series of six or eight episodes and then go off the air for nine months.  Who can keep track of what? 

And the real problem (that most showrunners are unwilling to accept) is that the audience is not nearly as invested in your show as you think they are.   To the showrunner and writing staff the show is the center of the universe.   Unless you're working on a series that is riding the crest of the zeitgeist, viewers don't really give a shit.  Out of sight; out of mind.  

We've come a long way since "Who killed J.R.?" on DALLAS.  
 

Dene 1971 asks:

Do you consider sitcom to be less artistically valid, for one of a better term, than a 1-hour drama? I recall reading an interview with a (brilliant) English TV/radio comedy writer, responsible for a first class sitcom which had come to an end: he intimated that he wanted to 'move on' from the 30m sitcom form to the 1hr comedy-drama.

Obviously it depends on the show. I would consider THE WIRE more artistically valid than TWO BROKE GIRLS. But there are quite a few comedies far richer than one hour dramas. And in many ways it’s much harder to do a quality comedy. To explore emotions, create characters and situations that are real, relatable, compelling, AND funny is much harder to accomplish than straight drama. Plus, in comedy you don’t have the luxury of just playing a song under a scene that expresses the emotion you’re trying to convey.  (a standard movie cheat)

But artistically speaking, I don’t think there are many hour dramas that come close to MASH. Maybe BAYWATCH.

Someone who wouldn’t leave his name wondered:

Ken, when writers do a script that includes unflattering jokes about a character's appearance, do you ever worry about how the actor or actress will personally react?

I recall episodes of MASH where Hawkeye insulted Hot Lip's weight, and an episode of All In The Family where Gloria came right out and said she was fat. More recently on Will & Grace, there were many jokes about how flat-chested Grace was.

Do actors just accept this as part of the game, or are there ever situations where the actor is too touchy about something and it's off-limits for the writers? And how can you know this until you've already ticked them off?

It really depends on the actor and how good a sport he is. No, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the phone call I’d get from Loretta Swit if we did Hot Lips fat jokes. On the other hand, Danny DeVito was fine with short jokes. And the great Jackie Gleason had no problem with fat jokes at his expense.

It’s best to diplomatically ask the actor how sensitive he might be to jokes about his appearance before he reads the script aloud in a room full of people.

The irony on CHEERS was that every character took shots at Lilith for how cold and severe she was, and off camera and out of costume Bebe Neuwirth (pictured at the top of this post) was the hottest woman on that set.

And finally, Jrge sent in this question from Spain (where they love this blog).

I've just started to watch the second season of Frasier on DVD (I know i'm late, but I was four when it went on TV).

That’s still no excuse!

I've realized that you appear as "creative consultant". Could you explain what was exactly you function?

Generally that title is assigned to a writer who comes in once a week, usually for rewrite night. Other names are “punch up guys”, “script doctors”, and “clients of agents who make sweet deals”.

They come to the runthrough then help the staff rewrite that night. Sometimes it’s very helpful to have a fresh set of eyes. A writing staff can get too close to a story and it’s great to get an objective opinion from someone you trust…AND can help actually solve the problems he identifies. That last part is the biggie. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work, go fix it”.

Ideally, the best creative consultants can also help you with jokes.

A good creative consultant is like the cavalry riding in to the rescue. A bad one is someone you’re paying a lot of money to eat your food.

I’ve worked with some great ones, notably David Lloyd and Jerry Belson. But bar none the best creative consultant that has ever been is Bob Ellison. I’m going to do an entire post on him soon. At one time he was working on four different shows a week. And not coincidentally, they were the four funniest shows on television.

What’s your question?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Different sitcom styles -- where do I fit in?

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became a rambling rant about sitcom writing styles. Notice the irony that I take issue with lengthy speeches yet this post goes on way too long.

The question itself is even long. But stay with it. It’s from Mark.

I've noticed, Ken, that the scripts you and David write and the shows you work on rarely tackle social issues (in the Norman Lear manner) or engage in the kind of sometimes over-the-top preachiness that was common in 1980s-early '90s sitcoms. Nor are yours and David's characters even particularly inclined to learn anything. (It seems like almost every episode to come out of the Garry Marshall factory had to end with the scene where the principals in that night's episode discussed the lesson they'd learned, while a slow version of the show's theme music played softly in the background.)

Does this come from yours and David's personal tastes and preferences in comedy, or is it more a reflection of the kinds of shows you guys have tended to work on?

Both… although I would argue that we did get into social and political issues on MASH; the topics were just more universal than contemporary.

But our comic preference has always been focused on character – exploring human foibles and examining relatable behavior. How people deal with frustration, obstacles, absurdity, emotions, and each other. The “funny” comes from all of us.

People do learn lessons but rarely every week. We searched more for the truth in a given situation than the lesson to be derived from it.

But let’s be perfectly honest, we were incredibly lucky. We got hired on shows that encouraged that style. Were we hired on GOOD TIMES we would have been writing long speeches about urban decay. (Those speeches were so cringeworthy. They even had statistics in them. J.J. just happened to know that “34.7% of Americans made less than $22,500 a year.”) Ugh.

My other problem with long gooey speeches at the end of the show with the requisite soft music in the background is that the speeches were rarely earned.

WILL & GRACE was guilty of this all the time. 25 minutes of rollicking burlesque humor and suddenly this unbelievably sappy speech. The show just changed tones on a dime. The sentimentality came out of nowhere. So it always felt artificial.

Of course, no sitcom was more guilty of this than MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. This was a series back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s starring Danny Thomas.
 They’ve been running it again on one of those nostalgia channels. Every week Danny yells and screams and then has this long, maudlin, treachly speech that makes your teeth rattle. At least when Gleason got sappy on THE HONEYMOONERS it was only for a moment. “Alice, I’m a mope.” He didn’t deliver the State-of-the-Union.

David and I try to avoid long life lesson speeches at all costs. I know I’ve told the story before, but for “Goodbye Radar”, which we wrote, we purposely constructed the story to have casualties arrive just as Radar was departing. That way all the goodbyes were one or two lines delivered on the run. Otherwise, we felt the show would just be a series of graduation commencement speeches.

But I reiterate, we were lucky. Had we not landed on MASH early in our career we might have been writing for GOOD TIMES or THE SMURFS. Work is work, especially when you start out. I see bad shows today and often wonder if the next Larry Gelbart is a staff writer on that piece of shit. Writing stupid speeches is still better than the Dairy Queen. The fact that we were allowed to write what we write is a true blessing. There’s a lesson in that. I’ll wait until the soft music starts. Where’s the music? I gotta have music! It’s just not the same without the music.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What makes a good Warm-Up Man?

A key component to any multi-camera taping is the warm-up man. It’s a tough job. I did it the first year of CHEERS. Tapings can take four hours or more (I think they’re still in the middle of taping a FRIENDS episode from season five). You’re expected to fill a lot of downtime between scenes. And then there are costume changes that can take forever. (Again, I think Jennifer Aniston is trying things on for that FRIENDS taping that’s still going on.)

(Seriously, FRIENDS tapings took so long they literally had two audiences. The first came in at about 4 and the second around 9. No one wanted to stay for the eight or nine hours it took to film a single episode.)

You need to keep the audience focused on the show and in a heightened state of excitement. They have to be in such a good mood they’ll laugh twice or even three times at the same jokes depending on how many re-takes of a scene there are.

And God forbid the air conditioner goes off.  I've had that happen.  I've also had a power blackout.  Fun fun fun. 

A good warm-up man can have a major impact on a sitcom taping. A good crowd energizes the cast and performances can really be lifted.

But a bad warm-up man can have the opposite effect.

Different warm-up men have different styles. Some are stand-ups, some are just high-energy cheerleaders, and a few are dynamo entertainers. I hate the dynamos. I mostly hate the high-energy dudes. Why? Because they upstage the show. A recent warm-up guy I saw had the crowd dancing wildly in the aisles and was giving away prizes. and when the bell rang signaling it was time to film a scene, the entire audience groaned. The show became an imposition to the party that was going on in the bleachers.

As writer/blogger extraordinaire Earl Pomerantz so accurately says – the audience is not there to watch a television show. They’re there to watch the MAKING of a television show. (I passed on the CHEERS warm-up baton to Earl in season two.) The unique experience of watching a TV taping is to see all the behind-the-scenes shit – the cameras, the director, the confabs with the actors, the bustling going on on the stage. Writers huddle and suddenly new jokes are introduced. Based on instructions from the director, actors make acting adjustments. You’re privy to live bloopers. Actors go up on lines. How do they handle it? You’re on the inside. Create the “drama” behind-the-scenes. Have them watch a confab and be curious to see what the outcome is. Bring them into the loop. And remind them that they’re PART of the show because their laughter is recorded and becomes a permanent part of the soundtrack.

To me, a good warm-up man is a tour guide, explaining exactly what is happening down on the stage – who all those crew people are and what do they do? People can dance and win silly coffee mugs anywhere.

Before each scene Mr. Warm Up needs to recap where they are in the story. There may have been a ten-minute break since you saw the previous scene. He should know the cast’s resumes. He should know the history of the series. He should know the producer’s background, what shows he’s worked on in the past. Same with the writers, same with the director. Again, THE SHOW is the star; not the warm-up man because he can balance a table on his nose.

He should budget his time. If he's whipped up the audience into a mad frenzy at 7:00, what shape are they going to be in at 9:00 when you’re on the final scene? They’ll be gassed. Regulate the enthusiasm.

And finally, warm-up men have to be spontaneous. They can’t just rely on their forty-minutes of stand up material. They need to converse with the audience. Their patter should be humorous but more importantly, be engaging. They must put the audience at ease. Create a good mood. Convey the idea that the audience is getting a real treat. Very few people ever get the chance to see how a television show is made. It’s a rare privilege. And just like when you go to a baseball game you never know if you’re going to see a no-hitter; if you go to a TV taping you never know if you’re going to see the best show of the year, or the Pope makes a guest appearance. Bottom line: make the audience feel like they’re participating in a special experience (which they are).

So junk the hula hoop contest, leave the magic tricks at home, and turn around. There’s a television show going on behind your back. Tell the folks about THAT.