Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What does Improv really teach you?

People think the reason to take improv classes is to learn how to be funnier (or even just funny).

Wrong.

Studying improvisation is so important because it teaches you how to LISTEN.

The best actors are not the ones who can emote or do seven accents. They’re the actors who can commit to a character, connect with his fellow actors, remain firmly in the scene even when he’s not talking. And that requires LISTENING.

On a multi-camera show, all four cameras are recording simultaneously. So when I was in the editing bay I saw all the footage of actors when they were talking and when they weren’t. And I could tell who the good actors were just by screening the footage you never see. The good ones were clearly into the scene. They were reacting, often subtly, but they were engaged in the moment. The bad actors were standing there blank, just waiting to deliver their next line.

As opposed to comedy, listening is a skill that can be learned, or certainly sharpened. And improv class is a great training ground for that. Since you have no idea exactly what your scene partner is going to say, you can’t have your next line already in mind. What you say depends entirely on what he says first. The idea is not to score a laugh with every line out of your mouth, it’s to establish a relationship and build a scene.

And if you don’t listen, you often kill scenes. Because believe me, the audience IS listening. Here’s maybe the most hilarious example of that I can give. It’s from the brilliant radio comedy team of Bob & Ray.

Trust me, I’ve seen scenes like this in improv class. From now on, whenever you get on stage, think Komodo Dragon. You’ll become a better actor.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Binge-Waiting

I was late to the party with BREAKING BAD. By the time I started watching, the show had just completed its run. As a result I missed out on all the BREAKING BAD hubbub on social media. I was out of the loop when BREAKING BAD was “a thing.” But the good news is I was able to watch the series the whole way through without having to wait the year or so between seasons. Once I went down the rabbit hole and got hooked, I couldn’t imagine waiting a day to get back to it much less a year.

Extended hiatuses are just one of the new ways we now watch television shows (although you can’t even technically call them television shows since many you watch on your watch). What a nice luxury for the production team. They’re not on constant deadline.

But asking audiences to wait a year and sometimes longer comes with a big risk. By the time you get back they may have lost interest. In that year interim another darling or three might have come along. Ask any restaurant owner how fickle the public is.

It’s hard for a show to build momentum and losing that momentum can be the kiss of death.

Also, expectations become much higher when viewers have had to wait. If the hiatus is only over the summer the viewer might watch the season premier and go “That was okay,” but if he had to wait eighteen months he might say this about the exact same episode: “Really? I waited all that time for THAT?”

So I ask producers (and the networks and streaming services that distribute the shows), do you really need THAT much time to prepare a new season? Could you shave off three months? Or six? For sixty years broadcast network shows churned out 24 episodes a year (and sometimes 39) and produced some series with extraordinary quality. You really need a year-and-a-half to make ten? (Some shows with hugely ambitious production requirements like GAME OF THRONES, sure, but most of these shows don’t have dragons.)

I have another fear for down the line. Industry strikes. Audiences have been accustomed to seeing their shows on a regular basis, and any extended interruption was potentially very damaging to the networks. Well, not anymore. If a strike means the Fall Season starts a month later, big whoop.

But, that’s the world we now live in. However, I’m sure if we wait another year and three-months it will all change.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writers' Indignity #4826

A few years ago I got a call out of the blue from Twentieth Century Fox Publicity. The 7th season of MASH was being released in Great Britain and they wanted to know if I would do a phone conference call with British journalists to promote the new DVD’s.  It would take about an hour.  I asked when the conference was planned. “3:00 today she said, cheerfully.” “Great,” I said, “If the first seven seasons of MASH are delivered to my house by 3:00 I will do the interview.” An hour later a messenger was at my door.

The point is this: not only do writers not make a lot of money off these DVD releases, the studios won’t even give us free copies. Unless of course, THEY need something. And it’s not just writers. I was having lunch with one of the cast members of CHEERS and she said Paramount never sent her a copy of the DVD’s.

I love how in the new WGA contract, if a studio plans on having bonus tracks on a film DVD they must invite the writer to do one. That’s only fair, of course, since directors always get to do them. But here’s the catch: The studios are not obligated to USE the writer’s bonus track, nor are they obligated to pay him for his time and effort. Reminds you of Lucy teeing up the football for Charlie Brown, doesn't it?   I don’t think we’ll strike over this issue, but it’s yet another example of how the studios view us.

And this brings up another point – one that Mark Evanier brought up once in his fine blog – should writers, directors, whoever get compensated for recording bonus tracks? If you’re a director and own a piece of the film then it’s certainly in your best interests to do a bonus track and sell more copies, but what about the rest of us? Yes, it’s fun to do and nice to have your contribution recognized, but are the studios using your ego to take advantage of you? I’ve only done a couple – my two SIMPSONS episodes. It was fun. It was easy. Gracie Films gave me copies of the DVD's without my even asking for them. And the way they recorded the track was just to screen the episode and we chimed in as it rolled. So the whole thing took maybe a half hour. I never thought about compensation. 

But what if the studio that made VOLUNTEERS came to me and said they were doing a big anniversary edition and wanted me to do a bonus track for free? First of all I would plotz that anyone would want to do an anniversary edition, but then I would be faced with a dilemma. Should I or shouldn’t I?

It reminds me of a great Woody Allen joke from his stand-up days. (That's two Woody Allen jokes in two days.)  He was offered a Vodka commercial and didn’t feel it was morally right. But the pay was great. So he went to his rabbi for counsel. The rabbi told him to take the moral high ground. So he passed on the commercial. And then a few months later he saw it and who was selling the Vodka? His rabbi.

I would probably agree to do the bonus track.

And they wouldn’t use it.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

How do you know if your script is any good?

That’s always the big question for young scribes writing a spec script. You may like it but will anybody else?

Giving it to friends and family rarely yields objective reactions. Of course they’re going to love it. They want to love it. (Or hate it depending your family).

And the truth is most people not in the business don’t know how to read a script (as opposed to those IN the business where only half don’t know how to read a script). It’s difficult for many people to read stage directions and dialogue and be able to picture the scene. That’s not a knock on anybody. I can’t read a blueprint or a shopping list.

This is why I always recommend young writers take classes and meet other aspiring writers. Surround yourself with peers. There will usually be one or two whose opinions you value. Give the script to them. Be mindful that there may be some jealousy or competitive dynamics at work but you can generally sift through that.

Teachers are another good source of feedback if you value their assessment.

Generally, it’s best to give you script to several readers. There is a downside to this of course. You may get five different reactions from five different people – and some of the notes might be contradictory. Just like you'll get when you do make it in the business. You have to decide who (if anybody) is right.

But the good news is if you hear the same note from four sources it’s a pretty good bet they’re right. You can address all these issues before sending out your script.

There’s no clear-cut formula on how to know whether a note is a good one or bad. And especially, with people not in the business (dreaded “non pros”), their notes might be bad because they’re not adept at solving script problems, but you as the creator have to see beyond that. Don’t just dismiss the notes. Something bothers them and they don’t have the experience to identify just what it is. That’s your job. Based on their note, try to work backwards and guess what exactly might be the problem.

Always consider seriously the note, “I don’t get this.” You may think you’ve explained something sufficiently but you haven’t. We often get too close to our work. Those are generally helpful notes.

The very best way to judge your script is to arrange for a table reading. HEAR IT. Taking into consideration that the actors you use will often times be busboys at Costco and a foreign exchange student from Norway – not exactly Meryl Streep and Christian Bale, and the small audience will be somewhat biased in your favor (don't invite your family if they're not) – but you can hear the rhythm, hear the flow, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And if you have a comedy, laughter (or lack of it) will tell you what’s funny.

At the end of the day though, it’s up to you. YOU have to decide whether your script is good.  Just remember, Universal passed on STAR WARS.

Best of luck!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday Questions

It’s Friday Question Day with new Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Gary starts us off.

One of the most annoying trends in family sitcoms is that the children always talk like adults. In fact this is so ingrained I don't think it can even be called a trend anymore. The last TV comedy in which the children actually spoke realistically may have been Leave it to Beaver.

My question is, have you ever had to write any extended dialogue for children? Did you find it unusually challenging? And if so, how did you go about it?

Okay, first off, I agree with you. Smart-ass sitcom children drive me up a wall.

I’ve rarely had to write for small children, but part of that is by design. I tend to avoid projects that require very young kids. And the few times I have had to I didn’t place any comic burden on them.

The other thing is that most child actors can’t deliver these lines. There are a few exceptions like Rusty Hamer (pictured: above) on the old DANNY THOMAS SHOW, but for the most part, they don’t have the skill, discipline, or diction to hit jokes out of the park. And frankly, it’s not fair to expect them to.

I did like the Richie character in THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, played by Larry Matthews. Here for the first time was a truly goofy kid.

But for my money, the best use of children was on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. Those kids were used very sparingly. There were some episodes devoted to them, but in many others they didn’t appear at all. And I don’t think the show suffered as a result.

Duncan Randall asks:

Why would a network launch a new show on Sunday nights, starting the first two shows when the time will undoubtedly be delayed by the NCAA games? I'm talking about Instinct on CBS.

CBS did that show a favor. The NCAA games brings a large holdover audience. Folks who normally wouldn’t be watching CBS are tuned in for the games, and a lot of them stick around. Ever notice what a big deal it is for a show to follow the Super Bowl?

Secondly, in that case, INSTINCT also followed 60 MINUTES, which that week aired the Stormy Daniels interview, and that program got huge ratings.

One final note, Sunday night traditionally has the most viewers of the week. That’s why big network specials air on Sunday night. That’s why HBO puts their marquee shows on Sunday night. So even if your show doesn’t win its time slot, it can still attract more viewers than if it did win its time slot on Friday.

Mike Doran wonders:

I've often read about how members of the Writers Guild register pseudonyms that they can use on scripts that get "noted" beyond recognition by network or studio suits. The red-flag pen names enable the writers in question to maintain their payments and future royalties for work that they slaved over, only to see the work mishandled this way and that.

What I was wondering was if you and Mr. Isaacs (separately or together) had such a pseudonym, and if you ever had occasion to use it; I won't ask exactly where you used it (unless of course you'd like to tell us ...).

No, David and I have never used a pseudonym. If I did, I think I might go with the name Aaron Sorkin.

The guiding creative force of the TV show MASH, Larry Gelbart wrote the screenplay for the movie ROUGH CUT. He so hated how it came out that he took a pseudonym. Frances Burns. (Think about it.)

José María González Ondina rounds it out.

Have you heard about the Spanish version of Cheers. I think it was aired on 2012, to very bad ratings and was cancelled after very few episodes (the original version was very successful in its time). The actors are well known Spanish comedy actors, although I don't find them very funny.

I wonder if you know anything about it. At the time it was said that the original creators "overview" the production.

Here is the awful version of the intro:

Thanks!

I did know about it. And actually saw a few dollars. They just redid actual CHEERS script, and in one case, David Isaacs and I got screen credit. I have not seen any of the episodes, but I remember at the time the reaction was quite negative. But I liked the money.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Earning moments

Nothing elevates a sitcom episode like a big emotional moment.  It gives the show depth.  The audience doesn't just come for the jokes; they become invested in the characters.  They start to really care about them.   Their problems are meaningful and you root for them to succeed. 

Shows that can pull that off tend to have staying power with audiences.   Especially if the problems are universal.   That's why you can watch a DICK VAN DYKE SHOW from 50 years ago and still identify with it.   The issues are the same.  We're just no longer in black-and-white. 

But those emotional moments need to be earned.

Some sitcoms will do 20 minutes of broad burlesque and then take a huge left turn and have a super sappy moment.   And it feels bogus.  Your teeth rattle.  You throws shoes at the screen.  All it succeeds in doing is reinforcing that sitcoms can be lightweight and disposable.   In those cases, the moments only make the show worse. 

So how to avoid that?

You ground the show going in.   The tone has to be realistic throughout.  When a character says something and another character says something no normal human being would ever say but it gets a laugh, there goes your credibility.  When characters act like idiots or two-year-olds and sacrifice any shred of dignity for the sake of a joke you do so at the expense of true emotion. 

What world do your characters live in?   If it's heightened and cartoonish, fine.  Just don't switch gears and suddenly become WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?    At this point, some readers will race to the keyboard to point out exceptions.  Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part this is the rule and it behooves a writer to try to do it right.

The litmus test we have in the writers room is that the moment must be earned

And as for the moment itself, generally speaking, the more economical the better.  Avoid cliches.  Avoid going over-the-top.   Often times the best moments are one or two sentences, not long overwrought speeches.   When David Isaacs and I wrote GOODBYE RADAR for MASH we purposely designed the story so that there were casualties arriving when Radar had to leave.  So his final goodbyes were all on the fly.   Each character got a sentence or two.  To me that was way more effective than long heart-to-heart speeches where each character revealed how much Radar meant to them.  

In short, beware of sentimentality.   Like a good spice, you need just a pinch. 

Usually I find the shows that do moments that aren't earned are also the shows that do the least artful moments, which is not surprising. 

Emotional moments, like I said, are worth striving for.  But they require effort.   Along the way, don't settle for jokes that compromise characters.  Don't do stories so silly that they can only be called sketches at best.  It's the difference in being a sitcom writer and a writer writer. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

EP68: Meet Nancy Travis


Ken talks with actress Nancy Travis about her career, her process, her ups and downs, and lots of fun stories along the way. Nancy is very candid and you’re going to love her. 


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Could this be the end of Oscar?

Don’t look now but the movie industry as we know it could well be going the way of newspapers and bookstores and Atari.

The movie industry’s target demographic (18-34) has been fleeing the Cineplex in alarming numbers. Double-digit defection. Other demographics have already abandoned the movie house – all in favor of staying home and watching on their own devices.

And why not? Ticket prices are absurd, popcorn is ridiculous, people around you are texting and talking, you have to sit through ten minutes of commercials before the show, and none of that includes the cost of parking, maybe dinner, a baby sitter, and online charges for reserving your seats.

Compare that with watching comfortably at home on a big screen TV with surround-sound and your own bathroom.

Yes, you miss the communal experience of seeing a film in a full theatre, and everyone is either laughing or screaming or cheering. But those experiences are happening less and less. Instead, we’re force-fed more TRANSFORMERS movies.

Studios are making fewer and fewer films and the ones they are making are expensive comic book action summer tent pole franchise flicks that hopefully will do well globally. The smaller budget films, like comedies and God forbid films for grown ups are being phased out. Again, do you want to spend $60 to see an Amy Schumer movie?

Streaming services are now picking up the slack. Netflix, and Amazon, etc. are making movies direct-to-TV and attracting top talent.

Pretty soon the only reason to see a film on the big screen is if it is a huge spectacle. No need to see LOVE SIMON in IMAX. Studios tried to sell 3-D but after a short while audiences found that meh. Now some theatres are offering waiter service, but that too is just a novelty (not to mention expensive). 

AMC stock dropped 70% last year. Mark Cuban is trying to unload Landmark Theatres. The writing is on the wall.

So my question is, if the movie industry essentially goes away, what happens to the Academy Awards? If they continue to insist that eligible films must be shown in theatres they’ll be left with DESPICABLE ME 9 vs. FAST & FURIOUS 17 for Best Picture. Vin Diesel will edge out the Rock for Best Actor.

And if they relax their eligibility to include movies made for Netflix et al, then what is the difference between the Oscars and the Emmys? Might the Academy Awards eventually become meaningless? Considering how ratings for the Academy Awards continue to dwindle year after year, we may just reach a point where they’re no longer relevant. Robert DeNiro’s statuette won’t mean as much when Vin Diesel has one too.

I guess the only hope movie studios have in turning things around is making better pictures, but I’m sure their analysts are working overtime to find solutions that don’t involve that. In which case, would the last person out of the door please turn off the lights.