Wednesday, June 29, 2022

EP281: Inside JEOPARDY

JEOPARDY has become a nation obsession. This week and next Ken talks to head researcher Suzanne Stone who was with the show for 38 years. Go behind-the-scenes and learn how the questions are assembled, the contestants are chosen, what happens during production, etc. It’s a show and podcast for smart people (y’know, like YOU).

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ELVIS: My review

People of different ages have very different opinions of Elvis Presley.  He’s been gone for like 45 years now — that’s a long time out of the public eye.  If you’re a boomer you lived through the phenomenon that was the King of Rock n’ Roll.  Gen X might better remember the old fat Vegas Elvis who became a caricature of himself, younger still might think of him as a joke who had many impersonators.  And I’m sure lots of twenty somethings  don’t even know who he is.  Or, at best, just some old geezer my grandparents liked.  

If you’re not that familiar with E (as his band, his bodyguards, and I called him), it’s hard to explain.  You see girls in vintage clothes going crazy over a performer and you go “huh?”  The beauty of the new Baz Luhrmann movie, ELVIS is that he really captures just what made Elvis Presley so extraordinary.  I foresee anyone watching this movie under 40 going “Okay, I get it now.” 

Granted, it’s hard to convey that sense of performing genius and its affect on people.  And to me, that’s what makes ELVIS so special.   And also why Austin Butler was so amazing as Elvis.  The moves, the charisma — he really delivered.   He’ll be going to the Oscars.  There have been countless Elvis movies and TV series and for my money, none of the other Hollywood “impersonators” could wear this young actor’s cape.

Along the way, you also see Elvis’ influences, his private side, and his evolution.  Since it’s Baz Luhrmann, the screen is constantly filled with a kaleidoscope of dazzling images and colors better suited for the big screen than your phone.  And you get Tom Hanks, as Colonel Tom Parker.  It’s fun to see him in a sleazy role (besides his most famous role —  that of Lawrence Bourne III in the iconic classic VOLUNTEERS).  The key relationship in the film is the Presley-Parker partnership.  Elvis certainly signed a Faustian contract.  The fame and fortune came at an enormous price and ultimately a tragic end.   It’s hard to fathom when you see the young vibrant Elvis of the comeback TV special of 1968 that less than ten years later he would be dead.   But such is the lore of this larger-than-life modern-day Icarus.  

Go see ELVIS.   How odd that it’s better to see a movie about Elvis than a movie starring Elvis. 

Monday, June 27, 2022

Writing a script in 45 minutes

This is the post I teased on Friday.

David Isaacs and I wrote an entire half-hour sitcom episode in 45 minutes.  It would have been less but our assistant couldn’t write that fast.  

Yes, some background is required.

In 1993 David and I created a little show for CBS called BIG WAVE DAVE’S.  You’ve all heard of it.  It’s become part of popular culture.

We were given six episodes in the summer.  The show premiered to excellent ratings (and should have been picked up), but CBS did give us three back up scripts in addition to the episodes we were producing.   We took one and assigned the other two to our other writers.  We worked out the stories with the other writers and they went off to write their episodes.  Meanwhile, David and I were busy writing the last episode of production.  We figured when we got the pick up for more episodes (which we stupidly thought was a slam dunk) we would produce those two scripts first, giving us time to write ours.

Then CBS canceled us.  Yes, we got good numbers but they didn’t need us.  In the fall they had blockbuster comedies by Bronson Pinchot, and their real ace in the hole — the hilarious Faye Dunaway.  Big surprise that neither of them got the numbers we did and neither of them lasted more than 13 weeks. (Dunaway didn't even last on her own show.) 

But CBS at least had to pay us for the backup scripts.  We put in the payment requests.  They said fine but we had to produce actual scripts.  No problem for the other writers — they had finished or were in the process of finishing their drafts.  But David and I had nothing.

I’m sure I mentioned this on countless occasions but the way David and I worked was to dictate scripts to a writers assistant who took shorthand then typed it up.  So we brought her in and said take down whatever we pitch.  We’re not going back.  The first line one of us says goes in.  And so we blazed through the script in 45 minutes.  The assistant said, “Do you guys want to proof it?” and we looked at her like she was crazy.  

So she typed it up, we turned it in, and got our money.  All well and good except I have a concern.

I imagine our script is in some file container somewhere buried in a basement.  I further imagine some apocalyptic event wiping out the population.  And then, thousands of years from now when the planet is repopulated someone will find that container and the only remaining trace of our career is the “Marshall’s Brother” episode of BIG WAVE DAVE’S.   What a legacy.  50,000 years from now people will be saying “Boy, those guys were hacks.”  

And no, I don’t have a copy.  Why the hell would I? 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Weekend Post

As a long time radio guy I’ve pretty much done it all. I’ve been a disc jockey on numerous formats (Top 40, classic rock, rock of the ‘90s, oldies, chicken rock, country-western, standards, beautiful music, Broadway), talk show host, sportstalk show host, movie critic, newsman, field reporter, play-by-play, disaster coverage anchor, charity radiothon anchor, host of swap meets, and even co-host of a car talk show (despite the fact that I know nothing about cars).

And then, a few years ago, I did traffic reports.

At this point, let me pause and say part of the fun of radio is pulling pranks – either on other jocks, other stations, or the listeners. But for the most part these are done in small markets. There is too much money involved and too much scrutiny to be pulling shit on major stations in Los Angeles, New York, and Boca. If you get fired in Modesto you can probably find a comparable job. If you get canned in Chicago that’s a different story. Of course, I never adhered by that rule. Gee, and you wonder why I got fired from so many stations.  Okay, back to this weekend's post, but this paragraph will tie in.

From 2008-2010 you might remember I co-hosted Dodger Talk with Josh Suchon on KABC, Los Angeles. It was a fun gig and I only left to do play-by-play for the Mariners. In 2009, one of the salesmen at KABC sold a nightly traffic report to be done during each Dodger pre-game show. Traffic reports are big deals in LA where everyone commutes by car (despite the subway system that no one knows about and rarely goes anywhere anyone would want to go). Stations in LA boast “Traffic on the 2’s”, “Traffic on the 4’s”, “Traffic on the 8’s.” Some stations have helicopters. Smarter ones have helicopter sound effects.

So KABC sells a traffic report in the Dodger pre-game show, but who’s going to do it? The Dodgers announcers sure aren’t. I’d like to see the salesman who asks Vin Scully if he wouldn’t mind reporting on fender benders. Since I hosted Dodger Talk after the game they thought, why not dump it on Ken? I graciously declined. They said they’d pay me double my salary. I graciously accepted.

How do you do traffic reports? There are websites you log onto that have the latest traffic info for every major city. I’d log on, enter my password, click “Los Angeles” and cut and paste the most pressing traffic slowdowns. I asked the salesman how long the report should be and he said, “I don’t care. A minute. Forty-five seconds. Whatever. All I give a shit about is that you read the Sprint commercial at the end of it.”

So that’s what I did. It took maybe five minutes to prepare and a minute to deliver. I was usually reporting from the “Massive high-tech space age KABC traffic center sequestered in a secret location.”

Doing this was no problem during home games because I was at the stadium, but when the team was on the road and I wasn’t traveling, I’d have to go to the station to do them. I wanted to record a week’s worth at once and just air them over the course of seven days but that idea didn’t go over very well.

But I always wondered – was anybody actually listening to these traffic reports? One evening, late in the season, the Dodgers were in San Francisco and I was at the station preparing for my big minute. I was hanging out with Howard Hoffman, the production director, and I suggested a way to see if listeners paid any attention. He laughed and said, “you wouldn’t dare.” (This is where that paragraph on pranks pays off.) I gave him a sly smile and headed for my booth.

I opened the report by saying, “If you’re going to the Dodger game tonight, there’s a fifteen minute delay on the Golden Gate Bridge, the 880-Nimitz in the east bay reports slow and go from Concord…”

I just gave the San Francisco traffic report. Super straight, as if this were a San Francisco station. And I tagged it with the Sprint commercial.

Howard came into the booth hysterical. Now we waited to see how many phone calls we got. This was 6:45 in the evening, during the peak afternoon commute.

So how many did we get? I bet you’re ahead of me. That’s right. None. Not a single one. Zero. The big goose egg. No one from the station ever called me. No one from the Dodgers. Nothing.

The following year there was no traffic. I hope Sprint took that money and used it to buy another repeater tower.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions.  Also, I haven't posted a Natalie Wood photo in awhile. 

Mighty Hal starts us off:

Ken, how long did it usually take for you and David to write a television script? Did you ever take weeks or months to write one? What's your record for one written in the least amount of time?

That depends on where we were in our career.  Originally, it would take two weeks to write a half-hour script.  By the end, usually three or four days.  Sometimes two if we were really under the gun.    We wrote “Night at Rosie’s” for MASH, “Bar Wars” for CHEERS, and “Room Service” for FRASIER all in two days.  I don’t recommend it as a general policy. 

Movies obviously take several months.  I can write a first draft of a full-length play in a month if I have no other obligations. 

And then we once wrote a half-hour script in 45 minutes, which will be the topic of next Monday’s post.  (How’s that for a cliffhanger?)

Michael asks:

Ken, did you ever have to deal with a star insisting that they should get the funny line instead of a supporting player, and what did you do about it?

No.  That never happened and never would because we would have quit immediately.   We told our stars in advance we wouldn’t tolerate that for a second nor counting lines.  I worked too hard to write scripts actors would be proud of to put up with that shit.  

Fortunately, like I said, that never became an issue.  The actors that I worked with were very respectful.  That’s not to say they didn’t have script issues and believe me, we rewrote plenty and spent many long nights — but it was always in service of the show and making it better.  

From Bronson:

Looking back, was there a time when there was a clear zenith in your career?  I'm thinking a story like "I was working on X, consulting on Y, and in talks with Z about producing a movie.  Everyone wanted a piece of us."

If so, did you realize it at the time?

Over one utterly insane 24 hour period in 1995 CBS picked up my series, ALMOST PERFECT, I sold a spec screenplay, and was hired by the San Diego Padres to do play-by-play.  Hard to top that day.  And yes, I realized it at the time.  I should have bought a lottery ticket.

And finally, from SueK2001:

I did have a FQ that relates to MASH. I recently watched the episode where Houlihan loses her voice and can't speak. Is there a certain skill to playing "sick"? Was she sick during the shoot? Does acting hoarse hurt your voice in the long run?

There is definitely a skill to playing sick, especially if you also have to be funny.  The trick is not to go overboard and sound like Elmer Fudd.  

And yes, acting hoarse does put a strain on the vocal cords.  Do you know there is a woman who is a professional screamer?  That’s right, she can do various different screams and she is quite in demand.  She must have leather lungs.  But it saves the stars from straining their pipes.  

Too bad WHAT’S MY LINE? is not still on.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

EP280: How to write the script that gets you in the door

If you want to be a TV comedy writer you have to write a pilot on speculation. In this episode Ken will tell you just how to do that.

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A network note I respected

One time my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got a network note that we didn’t necessarily agree with.  These were second draft notes on a pilot we had written for Fox.  

The premise was sort of in the DEVIL WEARS PRADA arena.  A hugely successful but terribly intimating media giant queen hires three young bright assistants but plans to only keep two.  So it’s all about competition set in a swank New York skyscraper.  

The note from Fox was this:  Add a hot babe.  I was somewhat thrown by this. “Where?” I asked, “there’s no real organic reason for adding a bombshell to a sophisticated corporate environment.  These people are all Aaron Sorkins.”

They said, “We know.  She doesn’t have to be in the corporation. We don’t care where you put her, but we want a super hot girl in the show?”

“Why?” we asked.

Their answer:  “Because this is Fox.”  

I said, “Okay, I have to applaud you for your honesty.”   

It also ended all push-back.  Clearly this was not an argument we were going to win.  But at least we knew why. 

We decided she would could be the waitress at the first-floor coffee shop, which we had to invent.   We then took one of the scenes between the battling assistants and set it in the coffee shop, bringing the hot waitress over two or three times.  

Fox was happy.  The president didn’t pick up the show ultimately, but they were happy.  

A couple of years later NBC bought the pilot.  (One of my favorite things in the world — getting paid twice for the same script.)   They had one note.  Take out the useless hot waitress and do that scene up in the office building.  

I hate when you get notes with hidden agendas that networks try to cover up by saying they’re artistic concerns.  Fox at least told it like it is.  I have to tell you, it was a lot easier addressing that note when we knew the real reason for it. 

UPDATE:  You can watch the play adaptation of it here:

Monday, June 20, 2022

"Directed by James Burrows"

James Burrows is a TV legend.  He’s directed over a 1000 sitcom episodes (along with a feature and full length plays).  Credits include THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, TAXI, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS,  and WILL & GRACE.  As a director he was my mentor, and as a writer I have Jim Burrows to personally thank for getting on CHEERS.  Talk about a huge favor.

David Isaacs and I first met Jimmy (as we all call him, even at 80) in the mid 70’s when we were working together on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM.  Flash forward to early 1982 and I get a call out of the blue from Jimmy saying he and the Charles Brothers were going to be doing this new show on NBC called CHEERS and would we like to produce it with them?  We read the pilot script (so early a draft that Sam was still a former Patriots football player), loved it, met with the brothers, and thus began a nine-year relationship with CHEERS.  

Jimmy, quite simply, is the best sitcom director of all-time.  He has eleven Emmys and countless DGA awards (I say “countless” because I don’t know how many, but it’s a lot).  He’s currently making the rounds promoting the book, sharing a lot of the funny stories he’s experienced along the way.  

However, a couple of years ago Jimmy did my podcast and we got into a lot more detail on the process of directing.  It’s a fascinating interview well worth hearing or re-visiting.

Part one is here.

Part two is here.

You can order the book here.  I recommend it (and not just because I’m mentioned).

It’s been an honor to work with Jimmy Burrows.   Of those thousand shows he's directed, probably 50 are ones David and I wrote.  Each one is 10-25% better because he directed them. 

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Weekend Post


Happy Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year)  I miss my father every day. He  was my hero, mentor, and best friend. And he was a damn good actor when playing against Nancy Travis.
I also want to wish a Happy Father's Day to my son, Matt and son-in-law, Jon.  Becca and Charlotte won the "Dad Lottery." 

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there.  Note to my family:  I hate power tools.  I'm more of a "free trip to Europe after COVID" kind of guy.