Sunday, May 27, 2018

What is one of my proudest moments in television?

The actual answer is "What is a Zamboni Machine?" but considering one of our episodes became a JEOPARDY question, the subject line could also qualify as a right answer. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Determining credits

Credits seem to be a popular Friday Question topic. Here's one that became an entire post. 

Terry asks:

A show I saw the other day had a credit for "story by" and for "teleplay by" on one of its episodes. What prompts an unusual situation such as that?

If a writer does an outline and the actual script is assigned to another writer, the first writer gets story credit and the second receives teleplay.

When the show reruns and a residual payment is issued, the various credited writers split it, but the teleplay writer receives more.

Back when David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH we wrote every outline. It was easier for us to just break the story and write the outline ourselves than explain to the writer what our complicated format was. But we never took story credit. We believed that providing the outline was part of our responsibility as staff writers and the freelance guys shouldn’t get jobbed out of some money and residuals. MTM shows also adhered to that policy. Other shows, like BARNEY MILLER, did not. But I could have had my name of close to fifty more MASH episodes. Still, I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do.

Now the teleplay and story credits on Chuck Lorre shows are essentially a joke. Every episode is room written by the entire staff. There is no outline and no writers’ draft. So credit is just assigned to people and rotated. The names you see on any single episode of one of these shows mean nothing. But the WGA limits the numbers of writers who can receive credit so in fairness to the staff, they take turns receiving credit.

And that’s fine until it comes time for awards. Ethically, you’re not allowed to submit a script with your name on it if you didn’t significantly write that script. I don’t think many Chuck Lorre show scripts do get submitted for that reason, even though their scripts are often way better than the shows that do get nominated.

Where things get real sticky is when different writers are assigned on pilots. The writer who ultimately gets teleplay credit may make more money, but the writer who gets story credit gets at least a shared "created by" credit, and that comes with a weekly royalty. So the arbitration fights are generally over story credit. I’ve been involved in arbitrations where there were as many as five writers. Deciding who is entitled to what can make your head explode. (By the way, the WGA provides a credit manual that clearly defines each credit category. But every script is different and murky.)

Credits provide the only recognition for writers. So it’s important that they be correct and represent each participant’s true contribution. It’s not just me who reads the writing credits on every show. There are at least six of us.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Questions

Time for Friday Questions. The first one I can answer is less than one word.

It’s from gottacook:

Often on Frasier, Martin will call Frasier by only the first syllable of his name. How was that spelled in scripts?

Fras.

MW is next.

You mentioned one of the scenes you wrote was assigned to a different script, not by you. I understand that and the money issues, but what happens during Emmy season and someone else's name is on a script you were mostly responsible for but they were assigned the credit? Who gets that Emmy?

The writer whose name is on the script gets the statuette. Technically you’re not supposed to submit an episode you didn’t at least provide most of the writing, but it happens all the time. There have been several instances where the Emmy-winning writer didn’t have three of his words in the script. And yes, that reeeeeally pisses me off.

DyHrdMET asks:

Are there people or services who, for a fee, would read your script with a TV insider's eye, and send feedback? And are those places trustworthy, regulated, and/or any good? Would you advise aspiring TV writers to avoid going there because they're scams?

I can’t speak for all but most are scams. These are generally not experts. And some of them charge a ridiculous amount. Many lie about their credits and background. Buyer beware.

One exception: I can strongly recommend Blair Richwood. She is absolutely terrific. I’ve used her myself and was thrilled with the results. Check out Episode 70 of my podcast. She was my guest and made a very gracious offer to writers just like yourself looking for feedback.

And finally, from Edward:

I listened to an old "Writers Room" podcast that included several people including you and Bill Lawrence. One comment made by Bill Lawrence was that he was fired several times early in his career for writing the show he wanted instead of the show the producers wanted. Are there any first-hand stories of this problem during your tenure as writer or producer?

David Isaacs and I were never fired off of any shows we worked on. But when you write a screenplay and they get someone else to rewrite you you are essentially fired. It’s just that no one tells you. That has happened a couple of times.

And then there was the time we met with a director on a rewrite. We pitched our ideas, he professed to love them and said start writing. We drove home and by the time I got into my apartment my phone was ringing. It was our agent. We were fired. I have no idea why. The only thing I can conclude is that we took Laurel Canyon over the hill instead of Beverly Glen canyon.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. I do love the ones I can answer in one syllable but that’s not a prerequisite.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Acknowlegements

Don’t you wish, just once, you could read something like this in the back of a book?  

                                       ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

It is customary that authors submit “Acknowledgements” — clich├ęd balloon juice insisting they “couldn’t have done it without X” and the “undying support of Y,” and of course “the patience and good cheer of Z.” None of that is ever true. But what follows is.

To Chester Moog, thanks for reminding me that I know what I’m doing better than any pedestrian editor. The man who invented hot coffee sleeves performed a great service to humanity and deserves more than 400 paltry pages. Sorry sir, but this is not “drive by” reporting.

The New York Public Library was particularly unhelpful in providing research material. So was the Library of Congress, and the Los Angeles Chabad Bookmobile. No assistance was provided by Starbucks, Coffee Bean, or Mr. “Java Jacket’s” family, which is why none of them appear in this comprehensive and definitive book on the subject.

Normally an author would receive the cooperation from experts in their field, but in my case no such experts exist… apparently. So thanks are given to smart hub “Alexa” for finding some answers. And confirming accuracy by double-checking with Wikipedia.

My now-former agent, Abner Smoak, sold the book but was only able to get me a $20 advance. How is that possible? And in a further derelict of duty, he failed to negotiate the potential movie rights. On a sound stage in Hollywood at this very moment, Daniel Day-Lewis should be burning his hand saying, “There has to be a way to hold a disposable coffee cup!”

Eustasia Ig and Pixie Schlosserman profread the manuscript and disproved the notion that Millinials are lazy and do shoddy work.

To my 11th Grade English teacher, Mrs. Engle-Blatz-Guerrero who claimed I couldn’t write and should take shop class instead, thank you for your inspiration. It appears I most certainly can write, and now I also know how to change an oil filter.

Many times I thought of just abandoning this project but thanks to Percy “the hammer” Kroon I somehow crossed the finish line. His threats to foreclose on my house proved to be the light that guided me through the darkness.

To the writers in my support group (who aren’t real writers because they write fiction), I still find it curious that all thirty of you had emergencies and weren’t able to attend the nights I was reading passages from my manuscript. Meanwhile, I can’t count the nights I spent suffering through your mundane thrillers and feeble attempts at erotica.

My neighbor, Orren Dillahertz, loaned me $40,000 to allow me to finish this service to mankind, which is an extraordinary selfless gesture, but I’ve done nice things for him too.

Every writer needs close friends and trusted colleagues who will read your manuscript with objectivity and perspective. I had three such special individuals. Lucianda McClusker, Espironzo Ulmandorf, and Jim Smith. Ironically, they all had the same notes. Unfortunately they missed the point I was going for so I reluctantly had to discard them. But they forced me to defend my position and that was invaluable.

Without my family I can honestly say I would have finished this book a year sooner. My wife, Selma-Sue kept hiding my laptop so I wouldn’t continue. Oh ye of little faith. And my kids, Rusty and Selma-Sue Jr. were always getting sick or needing rides to places. Thanks to the Holiday Inn of City of Industry for putting me up for ten months so I could write unimpeded. And I apologize for any hardship I might have caused by not telling my family I was leaving or where I went.

No one showed patience or good cheer. No one really supported me (Okay, Orren Dillahertz, but he wants the $40,000 back, which will be a snap once book sales start rolling in). And I could have written this without any of them. May they all raise a cardboard cup of scalding hot coffee without a sleeve and say, “Ow! Son of a bitch! That’s HOT!”

Lester P. Gekler
Pacoima, California
May 24, 2018

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

EP73: TV sitcom Frasier - Exclusive directors commentary - Behind the scenes


Ken records an exclusive directors commentary for an episode of TV sitcom Frasier. Filled with inside stories and useful industry information, Ken takes you behind the scenes, walking you through the process of directing a hit comedy sitcom. Simply listen to the episode, or watch the episode live along with the podcast, to take full advantage of his witty expertise. “Roz and the Schnoz”,  season 5, episode 21.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

THE MIDDLE series finale

Last night was the final episode of THE MIDDLE. It was very bittersweet saying goodbye to the best sitcom on current TV that was never afforded the respect it deserved. And for the life of me I don’t know why. It was often as good or better than MODERN FAMILY but never received any Emmy love. Everyone’s making a big deal about ROSEANNE speaking for working American families – well hell, THE MIDDLE has been doing that for nine years.

Today it’s less about quality and more about the zeitgeist. What shows are hot? Or worse, perceived as hot even though they’re not? How many ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY articles have there been for THE MINDY PROJECT? Or shows on networks no one can get?

Meanwhile, THE MIDDLE offered consistently high quality entertainment and humor and was beloved by millions of people – just not the RIGHT millions for any recognition.

The truth is THE MIDDLE was more deserving of the Best Comedy Emmy than a number of winners over its nine year run. Eden Sher should have nine Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Emmys. NINE.

The finale was lovely, very much within the style of the show (I always love Heck family car trips), satisfying, and (SPOILER ALERT) I love they had used a cellphone Family Plan to be a metaphor for their family. “Minutes” are precious.

Congratulations to Eileen Heisler & DeAnn Heline, their terrific writing staff (pictured above with me), and cast and crew.

I suspect time will be very kind to THE MIDDLE. People will be watching and enjoying this series long after the more edgy and ironic shows fade from view. Maybe ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY will even do a reunion article. Nah, they’ll do four TRANSPARENT reunions instead.

Cheers to THE MIDDLE.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

It's the PICTURES that got small

There’s nothing like seeing a classic old movie on the big screen. And it’s getting harder and harder to do that.

There used to be revival houses – theatres that would show double-bills of old movies. I can’t tell you how many classic movies I discovered at the Fox Venice, the Nuart, or the Beverly Cinema. These were grungy LA theatres – Milk Duds wedged under every seat, a popcorn machine from World War II, and prints that were not always “pristine.”

Because there were always double-bills, I’d go because there was one movie I wanted to see – like THE MALTESE FALCON – and its companion would be something I’d never heard of – THE BIG SLEEP. More than half the time I was blown away by the movie I hadn’t come to see. But that was the fun of revival theatres… along with the occasional joint that got passed down the aisle. How else are you going to watch THE BLOB?

There are still some revival houses, but a very few. Museums have film festivals from time to time, and colleges sometimes screen ancient cinema (i.e. before Millennials were born so 1995).

Along came VCR’s and VHS’s and DVD’s. You could see THE BLOB anytime you wanted (I don’t know why you would, but still). And then cable television arrived. Channels like TCM serve up film freak heaven 24/7. And it’s great to have access to these old chestnuts. But there’s something truly missing not seeing them as they were intended – on the big screen with people texting.

TCM has a new project where every month they feature a classic movie that you can see in a theatre. Ben Mankiewicz introduces it just like he does on TV. This month the feature is the Billy Wilder classic, SUNSET BOULEVARD. I’ve seen this movie many times but haven’t seen it in a theatre in a gazillion years.

So I went this weekend.

And it was GLORIOUS. When you see it on TV you really lose the full impact of Gloria Swanson’s huge face on a massive screen staring down at all the “people out there in the dark.” Yes, 60-inch flatscreens are big, but 60-foot silver screens are considerably bigger.

The other advantage is that these classics (especially in black and white) tend to be idiot-teen repellent. So there is less talk and iPhones in operation. I saw the movie in West Los Angeles and it was heartening that a number of college kids were in attendance along with us senior-discount viewers.

If you haven’t seen the films of Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges, John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens, the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, and a hundred others – you’re really missing out. Screwball comedies, westerns, noir, WB gangster films, Technicolor musicals – way better time-suck than binge-watching SUPERGIRL.

And if you can, watch them in a theatre. When Norma Desmond says: “I am big – it’s the pictures that got small” – they don’t have to be. The trick is finding them.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The 25th anniversary of the last CHEERS episode

It has been 25 years since CHEERS aired its final episode.  There have been a number of articles to pay tribute to that event and the show itself.  Thanks to both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety for including me in your pieces.   If you're a fan of CHEERS these are both fun reads.

Here's the Hollywood Reporter's story.

And here's Variety's story.

Now if you want a detailed account of just what it was like that final night, I devoted one of my podcast episodes to my first-person account of it.   You can find that here

I can never express just how lucky and grateful I am to be a part of CHEERS for 9 of its 11 years.  David Isaacs and I wrote 40 episodes and I am extremely proud of each and every one of them.  My thanks to Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows for including us in this extraordinary television show.