Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I directed and my daughter co-wrote tonight's INSTANT MOM

Tonight on TV LAND they're showing a new episode of INSTANT MOM, starring Tia Mowry.  It was written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson.  And directed by me.  This is such a special night of television that TV LAND decided to air it at 11:30 PM.   Hey, it's not like you've got Letterman anymore.  Hope you'll check it out.

And now for today's regular new post:

The day NBC thought I went insane

Just because I was directing my very first episode didn’t mean I couldn’t take time out to punk NBC.

My first episode was WINGS. There was a steep learning curve to be sure, especially in terms of the technical aspects of the job. WINGS was a multi-camera show so it was shot like a play in front of a studio audience. As the actors move about the set performing a scene I had four cameras all in motion, capturing the action from different angles. At any one moment I would have some assigned for close ups, or two-shots, or wide masters. And if someone in the cast crossed from point A to point B that would necessitate a change in all four cameras.

As a result, every moment, every movement is carefully choreographed. Add to that my inexperience. I had a crew of a hundred people waiting around for me to assign them shot for shot.  No pressure there.

To assist me, I had a “quad split.” This is a bank of four monitors displaying what each camera was showing. I would stare at the quad split and after each blocking move I would assign everyone’s new camera mark. This can be time consuming and tricky even when you do know what you’re doing (which I of course did not). I can camera block a half-hour sitcom in four or five hours these days. For WINGS I think it took me twelve. Maybe thirteen. I lost all sense of time and the use of my limbs after maybe nine hours. 

The routine for filming day is that the cast and crew assembles at noon. I have three hours to fine tune the shots and rehearse with the cast. A dress rehearsal follows at 3:00 with full cameras. The producers give final performance notes to the actors then generally go back to the room to tweak four or five jokes or make little trims. Everyone eats, the cast gets into hair and makeup and costumes, the studio audience is let in at 6:30 and at 7:00 it’s showtime.

On this particular episode I get the new pages after the dress rehearsal. And I almost plotz.

They’ve added a new scene.

It’s now 6:30 and the audience is already streaming in. No time to block the scene, much less camera block it. The set is in full view of the audience.

I go backstage, round up the actors who will be in this scene, and say, “Okay, after the audience leaves we’ll block and shoot this correctly, but now, for their sake, just go out there, move wherever you want to move, but don’t worry about it. We’ll do it once then come back to it later tonight.” They were fine with that.

I went to the camera operators, gave them a rough idea of where people might be moving and said, just get what you get. We probably won’t use any of it anyway.

I also told my plan to the showrunners, Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angel.

So we’re filming the show. Huddled around the quad split are me, my script supervisor (also in on the plan), the showrunners, and the executive from NBC assigned to cover the show.

We get to that new scene. I say "Action!" The actors glide around the set, and the audience enjoys it. Meanwhile, what’s on the quad split is utter chaos – cameras swishing around looking for actors, people being out of focus, actors heads cropped off, moments where none of the four cameras have the actor who is speaking, etc.

Out of the corner of my eye I see that the NBC exec is completely gobsmacked. I realize I never told him what we were doing. So I decided to have some fun.

When the scene was over I yelled, “Cut!” then turned to Peter, David, and David and said, “I got what I needed. You guys good?” They instantly picked up on what I was doing and said, “Yes, we’re fine.” I yelled “Moving on!” and the cameras and crew rolled into position for the next scene.

The NBC exec was in a panic. “Whoa, whoa!” he said. “Don’t worry,” I said, cutting him off. “This is by design. I’m doing something stylistic here. It’ll look really cool when it’s cut together.” He then turned to the three showrunners who confirmed they were on board with this.

For the rest of the night the NBC exec was scratching his head. I’m sure he was thinking, “What am I going to say to my bosses when the rough cut comes in and there’s this bizarre Felliniesque scene in the middle of a WINGS episode?”

Once the audience left and we were about to do pick ups I spilled the beans so he wouldn’t have to stay an extra two hours while we re-shot stuff and did that scene for real. I had known him for ten years and he took the prank in good spirits. But curiously, every other NBC show I ever directed I noticed that the network exec watched me like a hawk.

I never saw the gag reel that year. I’d be shocked if that scene wasn’t in it.  I'm only sorry I don't have a copy.  How great to have that start off my demo reel! 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2: My review

Is it possible to see a summer movie these days that doesn’t have 2 in its title? Yes, I know there are exceptions -- reboots like MAD MAX where they just keep the original title. Most times, unless it’s THE GODFATHER or TOY STORY, 2’s are not better than 1’s. Such was the case for me with AVENGERS 2 and it was certainly the case with PITCH PERFECT 2.

I loved PITCH PERFECT 1. It was a delightful little surprise – funny, sweet, and certainly peppy. And you could almost believe Anna Kendrick and the other actresses were of college age. But the sequel? Yikes – this was your typical Hollywood ridiculous, by-the-numbers money grab with only moments of goodness instead of entire sequences.

Good movies start with a good story, a point, a point-of-view. This one started with “Okay, now what do we do?” The artistic exercise here was to jam in all of your favorite characters, do bigger production numbers, shoehorn in love stories, and up the stakes. If in the first one they had to win a collegiate competition then in the second they have to win the world competition. And once that’s established ten minutes into the film they then have ninety minutes to fill until the actual competition.

So what you’re left with are idiotic spontaneous singing competitions, absurd retreat sequences, and Rebel Wilson fat jokes. Every character is a cartoon, every story-turn silly. Did anyone involved with this even see PITCH PERFECT?

Yes, it’s a movie geared to kids (and it’s doing well in the boxoffice), and when I was a kid we had these stupid music/comedies too – classics like HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI. But they were B-movies, fodder for the drive –ins. They weren’t the big studio summer releases.

So what were those moments of goodness? Some of the production numbers were well-done, (although this was an acapella competition and at no time in the film was there not musical accompaniment). There were funny moments between Elizabeth Banks (who also directed) and John Michael Higgins as commentators, but it was a routine clearly ripped off from BEST IN SHOW where Fred Willard did it first and funnier.

The one true saving grace of PP2 it was Keegan-Michael Key as a record producer. He was hilarious and stole every scene he was in. He also seemed to be in a different movie. He was dry, subtle, and real, and the rest of the film was broad, goofy, and over-the-top.

Sequels are a bitch. I’ve been involved in two of them and liked neither. You’re just trying to manufacture more of the same. You’re following formulas, grasping at gimmicks, hoping to recapture the magic of the original. So sure, they’re rarely as good. But here’s the sad part -- Hollywood doesn’t give a shit. Their only reason for greenlighting these movies is to make boatloads of money. Summer movies are not ranked by quality or good reviews. They’re ranked strictly by boxoffice. PAUL BLART: MALL COP 2 got a humiliating 6% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Only 44% of audiences liked it (which is woeful). But it’s taken in $65 million so far. The studio could not be more thrilled. It’s a home run! As a lifelong hardcore movie fan; as someone who once lived to be in the movie business – I find this heartbreaking. It’s one thing to lower the bar – but 6%?

PITCH PERFECT 2 did better. It scored 67% on Rotten Tomatoes – still not great but certainly decent. You won’t hate PITCH PERFECT 2. You might very well like it. Yes, but will it like enough to go see a PITCH PERFECT 3? That’s the only question Hollywood is asking. If yes, then get Anna Kendrick back on campus even if she’s 35.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day -- and the staff work begins

First, a nod to the real reason for Memorial Day -- to give thanks to the many men and women who sacrificed (sometimes giving the ultimate sacrifice) to preserve our freedom.  We owe them a debt we can never repay. 

Besides a day of tribute and gratitude.. and the unofficial start of summer, this is also the time of the year when writing staffs go back to work. If you’re an aspiring TV scribe, I hope someday that’ll be you. Here’s what you can sort of expect…at least on the comedy side.

The first week will just be sharing vacation stories, home remodeling nightmares, and trashing reality shows. You’ll go out for long lunches, bitch about how much other writers make, compare Prius prices, convince non-Mac using colleagues to finally wise up and get a Mac, and discuss the upcoming summer movie slate. My blog might come up. Half will like it, half will think it’s a piece of shit.

You’ll mosey back to the office, maybe talk in very general terms about the season ahead, some scattershot thoughts on characters and stories, then go home at 4.

Week two you’ll come in and the show runner will panic. He’ll realize you’re now hopelessly behind. From there you get to work, really delving into the characters, spitballing story areas, eventually breaking stories. You still go home at 4 but at least you’re getting something done.

Over the next few weeks the stories will be outlined, assigned, written, turned in, and rewritten by the staff. You start having lunch brought in, going home at 6…and then 7… and then 9. By the time you go into production in August you might have four scripts ready to go with a few others in the pipeline. And hopefully you’ll have seen every summer movie you wanted to see, made your vacation plans for next year, bought that Mac, remodeled that kitchen, fulfilled every dinner obligation, read all those books in your Kindle, caught up on my archives, and took pictures of sunsets so you’ll remember what they look like…because now the real fun begins.

The actors come in rested and the first day of production you’re ready to kill them. And so it begins.

Your first real break comes when you can say "Happy Thanksgiving".

Note:  for new writers these are all exciting steps, even the long nights.  Enjoy every minute of it.

This is a re-post.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Gentlemen, start your engines

Today marks the annual running of the Indianapolis 500. Today it’s on television, but back in 1967 it was not. Here’s a story from my book, THE ME GENERATION…BY ME (perfect for summer reading… so buy it) about the Indy 500 – its spectacle and personal violence.

Of course I didn’t only usher musicals. The Indianapolis 500 auto race was a huge annual event. But back then there was no network television coverage of it. You either listened to “the greatest spectacle of racing” on the radio anchored by Sid Collins, or you went to selected theaters to watch a closed circuit feed.

The Valley Music Theater was offering the telecast and I volunteered to be one of the ushers. Hey, they were paying $2.50 an hour! I believe the race started at 8:00 AM on the west coast. All I know is we started letting people in at 6:30. By 7:00 AM the place was packed. There were numerous full bars going from the moment the doors opened. USC football players were hired as the bartenders, just to make sure things didn’t get too out of hand.

The race started and literally within the first ten seconds there was a fourteen-car pile up. Roadsters were caroming off each other, smashing into the wall, catching fire, tires flying, drivers scurrying, some scaling the fence. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. But the race was halted for another hour-and-a-half. Needless to say, the natives were getting restless… and hammered.

By the time the drivers rounded the very first turn, 3,000 boisterous rowdies had been drinking for three hours.

The next six hours were insane. There was almost a riot when they ran out of snacks. It was not uncommon to see someone vomiting. Me and three other ushers tried to break up a fight and I got punched. I think it was someone from my temple.

The race finally ended and these lushes staggered out to their cars. God knows how any of them made it home – if they did. We ushers had to comb the building to make sure everyone was out. Yeah, big concern that some were going to hide in the bathrooms for five hours so they could sneak into that night’s performance of The World of Susie Wong starring Connie Chung.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Robert W. Morgan

I’m often asked who were my comic influences? Aside from the usual – Nat Hiken, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Marshall & Belson, Kaufman & Hart, and Dan Ingram – I’d have to put at the top of my list Robert W. Morgan. For almost thirty years Morgan ruled the morning airwaves in Los Angeles (and briefly in Chicago).

He passed away seventeen years ago yesterday.

I still miss him. I still look at something I’ve written and wonder, “what would Robert W. think?” He was never shy in telling me. We worked together briefly in 1974 at a station called K100. (I say briefly because I was fired long before he was.) Robert W. could be a tough critic on you (if you call threatening to come down to the station and beat the shit out of you tough). But he also could inspire you to new heights if he believed you had it in you. There was no middle ground in his eyes. You had the potential to be great or you were Judy Tenuta.

Morgan himself on the air was truly amazing. Hilariously funny, wickedly subversive, a master of comic timing, and ALWAYS spontaneous. In the moment. One “morgan” (you never said “morning”, you said “morgan.”  If I pronounced my name Le-Veen and did a night time shift I'd be on from 6-10 in the E-veeng. Fortunately for all concerned, I'm not ) when he was on KMPC he had to do a live phone interview with Ray Malavasi, the head coach of the Rams. He asked his first question and Malavasi fell asleep. Instead of trying to wake him, and without missing a beat, Morgan just kept asking him questions and pausing while Malavasi snored.

There is a Robert W. Morgan tribute website well worth checking out containing this and many other classic bits. Comedy on the radio is a lost art. Robert W. Morgan was one of its great artists. Morgan also was blessed with a gorgeous voice. Rich, mellow, and warm (as if I wasn’t envious enough of his talent). In 1969 while at KHJ he narrated a 48 hour radio special – THE HISTORY OF ROCK N’ ROLL. This epic work painstakingly traced the roots and trends of rock music and to this day is considered a masterpiece. (back in the days when the only hits Phil Spector was known for were records)

Robert W. was only 61 when he passed away. Way too young. Lung cancer. DON'T SMOKE!! He should still be around, probably writing biting comments in this blog.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the long Memorial Day Weekend with Friday Questions. What’s yours?

kelly childress starts us off:

Thanks to you I found Fresh Off the Boat, the only funny new show on the air. And now I've looked up YOUR FAMILY OR MINE. It's one of those shows where I like the actors involved but don't like the characters. It also feels "forced". I hate that in comedies. That was never felt in Cheers or Frasier, where the actors had to deliver the punch line in such a noticeable way. Is this the director's fault? Are they being told to act like this?

A couple of reasons for this: One – the actors don’t trust the material. So they push and try to wring laughs out of tepid lines. I can spot actors working too hard almost immediately.

The second reason is merely stylistic choice. There are some shows that prefer heightened, more in-your-face performances. It’s not my personal taste but hey, it works for some shows.

Stormy asks:

What do you do with all the screeners you receive year after year? Is there some village in Africa or Central America that gets all the losers, like they do with the t-shirts and caps of the losing Super Bowl team?

No. You’re not allowed to pass them on. I take a scissors, cut them up, and recycle them.

I will admit that there have been a couple of occasions where I was curious to see a show so I kept the screener but didn’t get to it until months after the Emmys were awarded and I really liked the show and thought, “Shit. I would have voted for this.”  Oops.

Mike opens up old wounds.

Reading Wikipedia, I see AfterMASH came in 10th in the ratings its first season on the air, when it aired in MASH's timeslot of Mondays at 9. For the second season, CBS moved it to Tuesdays at 8 to take on The A-Team (which had essentially killed off Happy Days the season before), the show got killed in the ratings, and was canceled in December. Given the show's success the first season, do you think it deserved more of a chance?

No. It should have been canceled after the first season. The ratings from week to week just kept falling (free falling actually). We were making midcourse corrections constantly in a desperate attempt to stop the bleeding.  I was shocked when it was picked up for year two.  CBS comedy development that year must've really been God awful. 

We returned the second season with more new cast changes, new opening titles, new time slot, new theme song, and even a new color scheme. But America had voted.

And finally, from CL:

With your background in both TV and sports, it seems like you'd be a natural to write/direct an episode of ESPN's 30 for 30 series. If they came calling (and they should!) what sports-related story would you like to tell?

They may have done this.  I don't know.  If they did, I didn't see it.   But I would do a profile on what a scumbag owner Robert Irsay was for not only relocating the beloved Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis but for the cowardly way he did it. He just packed up the offices and moved unannounced in the middle of the night.
The Colts enjoyed a fiercely loyal and supportive fan base (see the movie DINER) and deserved way better.

To this day I root against the Colts every game. And hey, I wasn’t even a Colts fan growing up. I was a Rams fan. But Baltimore got a raw deal.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Boy, it didn't take CBS long

You want a metaphor for show business these days?  How about this one?

Mere hours after David Letterman's last show and the myriad of tributes and tears that led up to it, his set was dismantled and is already being hauled away in dumpsters.    Don't believe me?  Take a look.

For all the "love" and gratitude, this is a tough business. 

The pros and cons of doing LIVE shows

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole long-winded post:

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

Ken, a favorite show of mine, Undateable, has been renewed, but according to NBC, all of its episodes will be broadcast live. While the Live episode the show recently had worked, what would you think (as either a director, writer or showrunner) if the network forced this on you? How would it change how you drafted scripts or blueprinted the series?

To me it’s just a gimmick, and the novelty will wear off quickly. What you’re then left with is a sub-quality product. Yes, there’s the fun of the unpredictability of watching a live performance. And there will be mistakes. But most of the time they won’t be major gaffes, there’ll be mangling lines or killing good jokes because they’re not told correctly. And a level of nerves that will permeate the performances.

The regular cast may get more proficient but the guest cast won’t. You might see two levels of acting going on. There also may be actors you’d like to hire for guest star roles who will pass because they don’t want to go on live.

Actors may not always hit their marks or cameras will be late in getting to shots resulting in some ragged on screen moments. Boom shadows and other technical problems may arise from time to time. A light blows out and suddenly an actor is in shadow in the middle of a room. Yeah, these are glitches but they’re not fun glitches.

On these live shows now the cast and crew are generally given more time to rehearse. And everyone is on their toes. What happens when you’re cranking them out every week? There will be many sloppy moments.

And good luck if someone gets sick. There are no understudies.

Scriptwise, you are very restricted. Stories must be plotted that can be shot in real time. Wardrobe changes must be finessed. You must design the scripts so that you can add or subtract in the last five minutes. It’s not like SNL where they just feature silly skits. One story has to carry through the entire episode. And the actors must never break character. If there is a flub that’s noticeable it can take the audience right out of the show. Or if an actor accidentally drops an important piece of information then the audience will be confused as the story unfolds.

Writers won’t have as many opportunities to tweak the script in live situations. You need to give the actors sufficient time to learn their lines – especially if they have only one chance to get them right (or two if they do a separate version for the west coast, which they should otherwise it’s not live to them). Normally on a multi-camera show, we’ll give actors new lines right before they go on camera. But we can always shoot it again if the actor flubs.

You can’t fall behind on scripts either. You can’t just juggle the production schedule to add a hiatus week. And in this day and age, networks note you to death. Do you think that will change just because the show will be live? No. Showrunners will still have the logjam when network notes on outlines and story notions and drafts are late in arriving. Everything will be a mad scramble. Not the best way to mount a show.
It’s almost impossible to accurately gauge the time of a sitcom episode – especially one shot in front of a live audience. You don’t know how long the laugh spread will be. Generally, when we tape shows they come out a few minutes long. This gives us the opportunity to cut jokes that didn’t work, adjust the pace, select the best performances, and really craft the episode. If a joke bombs on live TV it bombs. And if enough of them bomb then the actors get scared. It’s bad enough they’re nervous. Nervous and scared is a lethal combination. And I don’t blame them. They’re out there for the world to see without a net.

Here’s the good news for showrunners – no pick ups, no post production, no editing, no network editing notes. The show’s over – you go home. But that’s the only good news.

At the end of the day, you’re going to turn out a product that’s less than your best. Showrunners are going to cringe when watching it back. There will be fifty little things the showrunner would want to correct if he could. If the show was filmed he could correct forty of them.

To me, the only reason to do it would be if you had a series that was extremely topical.  That way the jokes could reflect news events or pop culture events in a timely fashion.  

For UNDATEABLE, it’s the Faustian contract they signed. Without the “live” gimmick they most likely never would have gotten renewed. But they’ll be paying the price. It’s a bitch to do a decent sitcom even when you have time. This just adds a whole extra layer of pressure.

Is it worth it? We’ll see when the ratings come out.  I sincerely wish everyone concerned the best of luck.