Saturday, December 20, 2014

All I want for Christmas...

is Jews.

And the original (one of my favorite Xmas songs):

Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Questions

Ho ho ho. Last Friday Questions before Xmas.

Mike starts us off with a (holiday) CHEERS question.

When did the Charles brothers step down as showrunners? I had been under the impression it was after season six, but Warren Littlefield, in "Top of the Rock," said they dialed back their involvement toward the end of season two, and were barely involved by the start of season three. I noticed a few other mistakes in that book, so this may be one of them. But I figured if anyone knew for sure the answer, it would be you.

Warren wrote a terrific book that I recommend, but no, his recollection in this case was not accurate. The Charles Brothers didn’t dial back their involvement until season six when the super-capable team of Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell took over. (Casey, Lee, and Angell went on to create WINGS and FRASIER.) Glen & Les still received outlines and were involved in the direction of the show. They came back and reclaimed the reins the final season.  And of course, they wrote the final episode with that wonderful last scene late at night in the bar with everybody reflecting on their lives. 

Judith wants to know.

I read today in the H'wood Reporter that Jean Smart was attached to a role in the NBC series, Mr. Robinson, but "opted to move on when the series was shifted from single-to multicam."

I'm not asking you to read Jean Smart's mind, but, just in general, why would a shift from single to multicam be a reason for an actor to exit a show?

Some actors don’t like having to perform every week in front of a live audience. In Ms. Smart’s case, she had done quite a bit of multi-cam and single-cam so I suppose she just prefers single.

But the dirty secret is, multi-cam is a much easier gig for actors. Five day production schedules. For three and sometimes four of those days you’re done by 5:00. Single camera shows often require actors to work punishing twelve or sometimes fifteen-hour days. For my money, there’s no contest. But I’m not an actor (by mutual agreement of the industry).

T Harris asks:

Do you think the mood you are in influence your enjoyment of a film or TV show? Years back I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in the theatre and HATED it. A short while ago, I saw it on TV and enjoyed it. Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it in the theatre.   In a similar vein, I hated The Middle when it premiered and didn't watch again until recently. Now I think it's rather well made with decent acting by all.

Your mood is key. Dan O’Shannon talks a lot about that in his book, WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?   Imagine pitching a comedy pilot the day after 9-11.  David and I had that unenviable task and we actually sold it.   How good do jokes have to be to work that day? 

On the other hand...

When we were doing that series for Mary Tyler Moore we were supposed to shoot a show the night the Challenger exploded. We wondered whether we should postpone since the studio audience probably would not be in a mood to laugh. But we reasoned that by the evening they’d probably be so happy for a couple hours escape from the story that filming that night might be welcomed. (Okay, we also were told how much postponing a day would cost.) So we shot the show that night. The audience was dead. It was painful. And we had a funny show. And then it hit me. The show’s primary set was a newspaper bullpen. We had photos of news events that ringed the set. One of them was the Challenger. Ooops.

And finally, from Andrew Parker:

If you were doing BIG WAVE DAVE'S now, would you do it single cam or multi-cam?

Single-camera DEFINITELY. I think the show was hurt by not being able to show Hawaii. But back in those days every sitcom was multi-camera. We had a big fight with the network over the opening titles. CBS wanted us to do the quick ten second opening. We argued that to do a show about Hawaii and not at least see 30 seconds of Hawaii made no sense. They finally relented. Of course, they then cancelled us. But hey, we won that one.

What’s your Friday Question? Deliver it in the comments section.  You can't depend on Santa. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The year I got fired on Christmas

A holiday annual tradition.  My post on how I got fired.  It happened on this date in 1974.  Relive this cherished holiday memory. 
One of the many reasons I became a writer is that I got tired of being fired as a disc jockey. Today marks the 40th anniversary of the last time I signed off my show with “see you tomorrow” and was never heard from again.   This is a blog tradition:  the anniversary of the Christmas I was fired.  And it ties into yesterday's post.

1974, I’m Beaver Cleaver on KSEA, San Diego, playing “The Night Chicago Died” and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” five times a night and seriously considering blowing my brains out. Yes, I know – why “Beaver Cleaver”? Ken Levine sounded too Jewish.

The fall rating book came out, the numbers were not good, and at 3:00 I was told to hurry down to the station for an all-important staff meeting at 4:00. We all assembled and were told the station had decided to change formats to gospel and we were all being let go. “Even me?” I said in mock amazement. “Especially you.” “But I could change my name to Eldridge Cleaver.” “I’m going to need your station key”.

Quick aside: a year earlier at KMEN San Bernardino they wanted to get rid of me by moving me from the evening shift to the all-night show. The cheap bastards were hoping I’d quit so they wouldn’t have to pay severance (maybe $300 at most) and be on the hook for unemployment insurance. I asked the program director to at least do the humane thing and fire my sorry ass. “Nope”, he said, “Starting tonight you’re midnight to six.” So I stopped off at the local record store, picked up an LP, and dutifully reported on time for my shift.

Like KSEA, we were a high energy Top 40 station. (Our program director was in love with WLS whose slogan was “the Rock of Chicago” so we became the much catchier “Rock of the Inland Empire”.) I signed on and started playing the hits. Then at 12:30 segued smartly into FIDDLER ON THE ROOF….in Yiddish. The entire album. I was fired during “Anatefka”.

Back to the KSEA staff meeting -- Our morning man, Natural Neil asked when this format change was taking place. A month? A week? The program director looked at his watch and said “45 minutes”. And with that we were all canned. KSEA was gone…along with the promotion we were running at the time --

“Christmas the way it was meant to be!”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advice for young writers trying to break in

This is in addition to the standard -- just keep writing – the more scripts you write; the better they will be – advice (which, by the way, is still sound.)

But beyond that..

Immerse yourself in the industry. If you want to break in to sitcoms, watch every sitcom (at least once or twice). Know who is on staff on all these shows. Know their background. Did any of these working writers go your college? That’s a connection. Utilize it. Are any of these writers from your hometown? That’s also an in. Do you know if they are rabid New York Jets fans (although I don’t see how anyone could be this season)? You get the point. Do your due diligence.

Information is so much more accessible these days due to this interwhozits thing the kids all yammer about. IMDB is invaluable, as are industry websites. You don’t have to buy Variety or the Hollywood Reporter anymore to keep up on who sold what to whom. Nowadays if someone sells a pilot pitch it’s a big story.

What are the networks buying this development season? There are some clear trends. Have you spotted them? Who are the writers the networks are buying? Why is that important? Because if you know the style of the writer you can get a sense of what the networks are looking for.

Which current shows are on the way out? Which are on the way up? I would not recommend writing a spec PARKS AND RECREATION. The show is ending its run this season. But the announcement of that was made months and months ago. You should not be surprised that it is going off the air. (If you are writing a spec PARKS AND REC, don’t junk it. Just know it will have a very short shelf life.)

Kevin Reilly is now running TBS and TNT. First off, know who Kevin Reilly is. Second, if you’re trying to break into sitcoms, TBS does a bunch of original sitcoms. What impact has Kevin Reilly had? How is he making his mark? This is a story you need to follow.

Who is Wendi Trilling? You hope to sell a pilot to a network? It behooves you to know who Wendi Trilling is.

If you’re going to spec an existing show, binge watch it. Take copious notes. How do they construct their stories? What joke forms do they use? Go to the effort of obtaining a copy of one of their scripts. Know their specific format, the general lenth. FINAL DRAFT has the templates of many current series. Take a minute to scroll. See if yours is among them.

If showrunners are speaking at the Paley Center or UCLA or WGA or Walmart, go see them. If they’re interviewed on podcasts, go listen to them. If they’re interviewed by the TV Academy or WGA for their archives program, go watch them. Attend conferences. Read how-to books on writing. Read scripts. Assemble support groups of fellow aspiring scribes. Sit in all-night diners debating THE MINDY PROJECT for four hours.

Know your history. Just as today’s ballplayers need to know who Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams were, wannabe sitcom writers need to be aware of Larry Gelbart, Nat Hiken, Jim Brooks, Alan Burns, Norman Lear, Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Phil Rosenthal, David Crane, Marta Kaufman, Bill Persky, Sam Denhoff, Danny Arnold, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Diane English, Treva Silverman, Susan Harris, Steve Gordon, Carl Reiner, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, Gene Reynolds, Linda Bloodworth, Glen & Les Charles, Sherwood Schwartz, Bud Yorkin, and many more. Tina Fey did not invent TV comedy. There were people before her.  And I don't mean Amy Poehler. 

I suppose the big question aspiring writers have to ask themselves is – is this a full-time commitment or a hobby?

If it’s a hobby, something to do to fill your spare time, that’s fine. And why knows? If you’re super-talented you might get lucky. But truthfully, that's like winning the lottery.  For the most part, success comes to those who almost treat breaking in as a full-time job. And if you’re a newbie to this, let me tell you, those are your real competition. Young writers who are passionate, driven, and know everything that’s going on around them. They eat, breathe, and sleep television.  You stand a much greater chance of success if you’re one of these people.

Yes, it’s hard work with no guarantee of reward. But I will say this – someone has to break in. We all did. Why not YOU? As always, the very best of luck. Thank me when you win an Emmy.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BIRDMAN -- my review

BIRDMAN is a cinematic triumph. Unfolding in seemingly one continuous shot, director Alejandro González Iñárritu proves to be a virtuoso in choreography.

I just wish I liked the movie better.

When you are constantly paying more attention to the technique instead
of the narrative that is problematic. The picture is over two hours long and twenty minutes of it is either watching people walking down theater hallways or just watching the hallways themselves.

Themes of art and pretense and commerce are explored, but the movie falls into the trap of the themes. For a supposed absurdest comedy it takes itself very seriously. Oh, the tortured artiste. At the end of the day, for me, it felt like the world’s most ambitious college film. There is even a section with quick cuts of random images just like you see in every student thesis project. Ooooh, the symbolism.

Michael Keaton has the kind of showy role that attracts Oscars, but in this case the praise is deserved. Edward Norton plays an impossible pretentious actor -- the role he’s been perfecting his entire career on and off camera. But for my money, Emma Stone stole the picture. The girl can play attitude without you wanting to smack her.  This is not easy to do. Everyone else was terrific as well. It’s hard to go wrong with Zach Galifanakis (who’s now so slim he could do Subway commercials), and Amy Ryan. And what a pleasure to see Naomi Watts not battling tsunamis or other natural disasters.

BIRDMAN is listed as a “comedy,” which is like listing WHIPLASH as a musical. It has received tremendous critical acclaim, and most people I know who have seen it either are blown away or are underwhelmed. You decide.

It’s worth seeing for the cinematography alone. But is it a satisfying story with an emotional message that really resonates or is it just an elaborate exercise? Again, you decide.

I just hope there’s no BIRDMAN 2 with Val Kilmer.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The number one song of all-time is...

We’re fast approaching the “List” time of year. Top movies of the year. Top TV shows. Top sex tapes. And of course these are all bullshit.  The amazing thing is we get pissed when we read them but we KNOW they're absurd. 

Back in my disc jockey days in the swingin'  ‘70s, every station I worked for would put together their “all-time Top 300” or “500” to play over a long holiday weekend. Listeners were invited to send a postcard (email? What’s that?) listing their three ALL-TIME favorite three songs. Invariably, two of the three would be current hits. If we tabulated the audience’s actual entries the number one song of all-time would be “The Night Chicago Died.” Number two would be “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.”  Worse -- if this was done in 1968 "Honey" would be the all-time greatest rock n' roll record ever.

Obviously, we couldn’t go with that and keep our FCC license so we essentially just threw out the cards and two or three of us jocks were assigned to assemble the list. We referenced Billboard Magazine's year-end sales surveys and skewed towards the bands that were popular in our market. Beach Boys songs were more plentiful in San Diego than Four Seasons' tunes, but I’m sure in New York it was just the opposite. In Detroit, Motown ruled. Elvis topped the charts in Memphis. And in Seattle, Marilee Rush & the Turnabouts kicked some serious ass.

We also juggled the music for tempo and variety. There were never two ballads in a row; never two instrumentals. We made sure the years were properly shuffled so there wouldn’t be a stretch of all ’69 records followed by a stretch of ’61’ers. Bubblegum was kept to a minimum. And I don’t care how many records it sold, “Dominique” by the Singing Nuns was not going to make the list. (Ironically, KHJ, the big rocker in Los Angeles just went to an all-Catholic format. “Dominique” would probably now top their chart.)

So without the benefit of exhaustive computation and scrupulous crosschecking to ensure complete accuracy the “Top 300 of All-Time” was assembled. Three guys and a six-pack of beer put it together.

Don’t you think the same is true when ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY or E! television or PEOPLE magazine compile their all-time lists? I would assume young staffers are assigned these tasks, which is why THE MINDY PROJECT might come in as say the #4 sitcom of all-time while ALL IN THE FAMILY ranks #62. Or Dwayne Johnson is considered a bigger all-time movie star than Gary Cooper.

So as these lists begin appearing in the next couple of weeks, remember they are all bogus… except any that ranks MASH or CHEERS or BIG WAVE DAVE’S the greatest sitcom of all-time. Those are legit.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Okay, you can play Christmas music now

Now that we're less than two weeks away from Christmas instead of the day after Labor Day, I think it's finally appropriate to play Christmas songs. Here are some of my favorites and not-so-favorites. What are yours?

Personally, I get a warm feeling when I hear Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song”, which was written by Mel Torme. One Christmas night I saw Mel eating alone at Delores coffee shop. It was ironic but sad.

The Phil Spector Christmas album is still my favorite. Putting aside that he killed someone, we thank Phil for a real musical gift.

And Darlene Love's , "Christmastime for the Jews" which is a recent parody of her own work on the album is maybe the funniest Christmas song ever.

I fancy the oldies. Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”, Bobby Helm’s “Jingle Bell Rock”, and the Beach Boys’ “Little St. Nick”.

The Boss’s Xmas ditty is pretty catchy as are the King’s.

Re: “White Christmas”, give me the Drifters over Bing. (Interesting that so many classic Christmas songs were written by Jews.)

Some obscure holiday songs I recommend: “Run Run Rudolph” by Chuck Berry, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” by the Four Seasons, “Monster Holiday” by Bobby Boris Pickett (that one always tears me up), and “Santa Claus is Watching You” by Ray Stevens. Super obscure but worth finding is “Lost Winter Dreams” by Lisa Mychols. And for the motherlode of bad taste fun, try to find Claudine Longet singing “Winter Wonderland”. Before she shot skier Spider Sabich in cold blood she and husband, Andy Williams, were the first couple of the season. Their annual family Christmas special was a must-see. They even have a kid named Noel.
Songs I can’t stand: “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano, “Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, and “the Little Drummer Boy” by anybody. Whey do stations overplay TO DEATH the songs that are the most repetitious? I seem to recall Paul Anka singing Christmas in Japan, which was like a drill to the head. Also, anything sung by kids usually makes me cringe.

I’m only sorry Kurt Cobain left us before he could give the world his Christmas album.

For a more vocal pop sound, you can’t beat Linda Eder’s holiday album. Her version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would bring a tear to a glass eye. Listen for it the next time you’re in an elevator. Streisand is great but there’s more ornamentation than on the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Johnny Mathis is a little too sugar plum fairy for my tastes, and you can always count on “Mr. Peace and Goodwill to All Men”, Sinatra. The Carpenters have their fans too. And The Manhattan Transfer's acapella album is gorgeous.

But if I had to pick my all-time favorite Christmas song, the one that most expresses my feelings about the holiday season, it would have to be “The Christmas Song” by the Chipmunks. Sometimes the right song and the right performers just combine for sheer perfection.

This is a repost.  From July.