Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Thanksgiving Day

You didn't know it but today is Thanksgiving... or at least for me.

It was on this date many years ago (before the internet even) that I entered the military.  I was in serious danger of getting drafted so I signed up to be in the Army Reserves, which is a six year commitment including six months of active duty. 

On October 16th I was ordered to report to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri to begin Basic Training.  For an uncoordinated geeky kid who didn't want to touch a rifle much less fire it and clean it and hated the cold, this was the ultimate nightmare.  I barely graduated Basic Training.  

And I made a vow at the time.  I said, "As the years go by and memories fade most people tend to forget the bad stuff and remember the good.  You look back and say, "Aw, it wasn't that bad." Well, no matter how much or little I retain, always remember this:  It WAS that bad." 

So on October 16th, every year I stop and give thanks that wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, whether I'm stuck in traffic or wrestling with a tough script, or in a dentist's chair -- it's still way better than what I was doing in 1970. 

And here's the other thing:  The reason I was in such danger of being drafted (and thus sent to Vietnam) was because in the Draft Lottery my number was 4 (out of 366).  At the time I thought I was the unluckiest son of a bitch on the planet.  But you know what?  It was a BLESSING.


If I hadn't been in the army I never would have met my writing partner, David Isaacs.  He was ultimately assigned to my reserve unit and we met in Army summer camp.  I never could have written MASH if I hadn't had a military background and really understood the culture and its thinking.  And MASH was our big turning point.  I probably would have had a much less successful career without MASH (or more likely -- no career at all). 

So today is Thanksgiving Day.  Thanks that I was in the Army.  And thanks that I'm not in the Army.

I imagine we all have our own individual Thanksgiving Days.  I'm still trying to organize a parade for mine.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Going to the theatre with Jackie O.

Since a number of people who read my post yesterday asked about my brush with Jacqueline Onassis, I thought I would reprise a post I wrote on this a few years ago.

Yes, I went to the theatre with Jackie O.

Okay, pick yourself off the floor.

We didn’t go together in the sense of “arrive” together, but we did sit together.

You’re still not buying it, but it’s true.

Backstory: Larry Gelbart had a play on Broadway called SLY FOX. (Needless to say it was hilarious.) My wife and I were in New York and Larry arranged for us to have his house seats.

We sit down, third row center, settle in and I glance to my left. Holy shit! It’s Jackie.  In the seat right next to me. 

During intermission I decide to get up and go to the lobby. As I pass by her I rub up against her knees (which were bony by the way).  Okay, that was a dorky thing to do, but that was my brush with greatness.

The next day I called Larry and thanked him for the tickets. I mentioned that Jackie O. sat right next to me. He got very excited. “Did she laugh? What did she laugh at?” I said, “Yes, and hey, you never asked whether my wife and I liked the show.” He apologized, asked us, then wondered if I could remember any specific lines Jackie laughed at.

I’d like to say that’s my favorite Jackie/theater story, but it’s not. Supposedly she was at a theater and bumped into Stephen Sondheim. She asked what he was working on. He had to really hedge. How do you tell Jackie Kennedy you’re working on a musical called ASSASSINS?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My life from A to Z

One of those dumb personal quizzes circulating the net. I'm admitting things here even my shrink doesn't know. Of course, he doesn't care.

• A-Available/Single? Not according to my wife
• B-Best Friend? My partner. I'd be a lot poorer emotionally and financially without him.
• C-Cake or Pie? I'll have to go with Elvis and say cake.
• D-Drink Of Choice? Makers & ginger ale but only after 7 a.m.
• E-Essential Item You Use Everyday? My Pocket Fisherman.
• F-Favorite Color? Green. They asked me this for the Dewar's ad, too.
• G-Gummy Bears Or Worms? Whichever one is not banned from commercial flights.
• H-Hometown? Los Angeles
• I-Indulgence? Irene Jacob movies even though I can't understand them.• J-January Or February? February. Pitchers and catchers report.
• K-Kids & Their Names? Matt, Annie, and maybe some in Bakersfield.
• L-Life Is Incomplete Without? Laughter.
• M-Marriage Date? July 8. Same date that crime boss Soapy Smith was shot to death in 1898.
• N-Number Of Siblings? 1
• O-Oranges Or Apples? Apple, if we're talking pies or computers. Orange if we're talking women's prisons.
• P-Phobias/Fears? Mimes.
• Q-Favorite Quote? Enough is as good as a feast to an idiot.
• R-Reason to Smile? Linda Eder singing
• S-Season? Bob Gaudio
• T-Tag Three or Four People? I don't know four people.
• U-Unknown Fact About Me? I touched Jackie Kennedy's knee.
• V-Vegetable you don't like? Fucking Republicans
• W-Worst Habit? Sweating the small stuff
• X-X-rays You've Had? Teeth, chest, and what kind of stupid question is that?
• Y-Your Favorite Food? Lobster...but must not still be alive.
• Z-Zodiac Sign? Aquarius man.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Scary Time for Boys

Discovered this video by Lynzy Lab. She took the (many) words right out of my mouth. Great video worth seeing.  It's a song called A SCARY TIME FOR BOYS

Friday, October 12, 2018

Friday Questions

Thanks as always for your Friday Questions. Here are this week’s batch:

Dhruv leads off:

In early 80s Hollywood changed forever after UA sank due to 'Heaven's Gate'. Due to the prevailing situation, were all the studios overtly cautious on script buying and approving the projects?

Were any of your scripts, including 'STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE', affected due to 'Heaven's Gate' debacle?

Studios were more cautious about big budget movies and especially more cautious about directors. Usually it was the director who would go wildly over-budget. Studios really started clamping down. HEAVEN’S GATE was not only a financial disaster but it was a huge embarrassment to the studio. Studios don’t like to be embarrassed.

As for our work, since we wrote comedies there was less concern. I don’t recall ever getting a studio note telling us to scale back a scene because it might be too costly.  David and I were never hired for our "scope."

Phil also has a question regarding that STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE screenplay we once wrote for Columbia

Do you get back your script's rights after some time. It's 25 years now. Will it revert back to you, since it's not made?

There is this strange window that after a certain number of years – I believe it’s seven – you can ask for the rights back. But that window closes after a few years. It’s pretty bizarre. We never tried to get STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE back, but we did once try to get another screenplay we had done for Columbia back and the window had long since closed.

Mel Agar wonders:

I was watching first season episodes of Cheers, and I was struck by the depth of the writing staff in terms of talent and previous experience. That got me wondering ... how does a first season writers' room get assembled?

Well, first it depends on budget. In the case of CHEERS, it was a different era. The original staff was very small – The Charles Brothers and me and David Isaacs.

Ironically, we had never worked with the Charles Brothers before coming aboard CHEERS. Usually you try to surround yourself with writers you know and have worked with. The Charles Brothers came from TAXI and since that show was still on they weren’t able to use any of the TAXI writers they were familiar with. In a sense they took a real chance with us. Considering we stayed with the show for nine years I think it worked out.

And finally, from Keith:

I'm curious--what did you think of Newhart (the later show set in the Vermont inn)? The best ending for any series ever.

I liked the new NEWHART and thought they surrounded Bob with some very funny characters. Larry, Daryl, and Daryl always made me laugh. I loved Tom Poston and Julia Duffy. I wish Bob himself would have done more. In most episodes he just stood behind the front desk in the lobby.

But overall there was a nutty level of writing and I enjoyed the show thoroughly.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Starr. To Taylor. Touchdown."

Voice of the Baltimore Colts -- Chuck Thompson
The NFL is well underway. There are even articles NOT about the protests in the papers. But I must say, watching games now I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic for days gone by when I watched as a kid.

The NFL’s first commissioner, Pete Rozelle, was a brilliant guy. One of the things he instituted was a national TV deal. Every team received the same amount from the TV rights. So unlike baseball, there is parity. Small market teams like Green Bay get just as much money as the New York Giants. Granted there are less than 20 games a season as opposed to baseball where every team plays 162, but Rozelle smartly realized that there needed to be consistency in how the game was presented.

So here’s how it worked in the late ‘50s and ‘60s – if you had an NFL team in your market you saw all of their road games. The weeks they were home you saw a different game. If you didn’t have a team in your market you got a variety of games. CBS broadcast the games.

But unlike today, CBS had no assigned announcers. Each team had their own play-by-play man. So if the Rams, for example, played a road game in Cleveland the Rams announcer Bob Kelley called the game. If Cleveland played the Rams in Los Angeles then Browns’ announcer Ken Coleman called the game.

There were several advantages to this arrangement. First off, your announcer knew way more about your team than a network guy who just flew in for the game. Secondly, and most important, each team’s announcer back then was distinctive and gave his team a real character.

I used to love listening to these men who all had very different voices and styles. Compare that to today. Especially if you get the B or C team the games are called by generic interchangeable announcers who offer nothing but rudimentary play-by-play.

Bob Kelley had a great whiskey voice and a real sense of urgency to his broadcasts. Chuck Thompson of the Colts brought an elegance to his call (and always wore his signature hat). Ray Scott of the Packers was the voice of God just punctuating plays with two or three word sentences. “Starr. To Taylor. Touchdown.” Jack Brickhouse of “da Bears” had a friendly fatherly quality, Ken Coleman of Cleveland and Van Patrick of Detroit had signature voices, and then there was Chris Schienkel of the Giants who I never liked. We rarely got 49er games so I don’t remember who called them but I’m sure he was on the same level as these other gentlemen.

Were they homers?  Some were.  But so what?   So were all the fans in the stands.  

The three number one network NFL guys, Al Michaels, Jim Nantz, and Joe Buck all are exceptional announcers. But I bet even they would agree with me. Today the games are in glorious HD color with drone cameras and amazing angles and telestraters and whiz-bang graphics – but there’s something missing – personality, localization, familiarity, team identification. Sorry but I’d trade the first down stripe for Chuck Thompson.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

EP93: The Man who Killed Jim Morrison

Well, he didn’t really, but Ken talks to Neil Ross, a voice over artist who has announced the Academy Awards, and in his prior life was a disc jockey filled with crazy and colorful stories… including one with Jim Morrison of the Doors.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Keep an open mind

Casting is always hard. Especially in a comedy. And when you cast a network sitcom pilot the actors who read for you all have a certain level of proficiency. They’re all in SAG, most have been in series or at least have guested on series so they generally know their way around a joke. They know where the punchlines are and what words to hit to sell the joke.

But when I’m casting I look for something more. A very intangible quality. There are people who on some gut level are just FUNNY. They hear the rhythm, they feel the timing, you get the sense it’s effortless. They find laughs that aren’t there. A look, a gesture, even a tiny one, a raised eyebrow – almost without trying they make something funnier. David Hyde Pierce is a prime example.

I was watching a few minutes of THE COOL KIDS last week (don’t ask me why), and I realized that Vicki Lawrence has it. I had never given her much thought actually. She was Carol Burnett-light on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, played that broad character in MAMA’S FAMILY, and spent much of her career appearing on disposable shows like YES DEAR and THE LOVE BOAT. (She also had a hit record in 1973 that I played the crap out of when I was a disc jockey – “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”)

But seeing her on THE COOL KIDS it struck me that this woman was way more special than I had ever given her credit for. And like I said, it’s an intangible quality. I can’t totally explain it, but I know it when I see it.

And to me the lesson here is to always keep an open mind. If I were assembling a pilot two years ago and my casting director suggested Vicki Lawrence I would not have been excited. And I would have missed out. People can surprise you. Be open to it.


A new Vicki Lawrence fan