Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Questions

First off, so sorry to hear about the passing of Mike Nichols.  I never met him personally and don't know what I could add to all the other heartfelt tributes, but he was a giant.  There damn well better be a special salute at the Oscars next year.   Anyway, I'm back from Atlanta with some Friday Questions.  

Marianne gets us started.

I was watching Madam Secretary last night and I noticed that Bebe Neuwirth plays quite a similar character to that of Lilith. How difficult is it for actors to avoid falling victim to typecasting?

Actors can certainly get pigeonholed. It’s up to them to not accept those similar roles (if they can), or break out and play something different.

One of the reasons Ted Danson took the role of BECKER was that he would play such a different character from Sam Malone.

This is why you see a lot of known actors doing independent films. They don’t get paid much but they get to show off other sides of themselves.

On the other hand, there are actors who don’t mind playing essentially the same part over and over. They’re working.

When I was showrunning and an agent said a certain actor I was inquiring about didn’t do episodic television I always asked, “Who else is paying him $5,000 this week?” You’d be surprised how often that worked.

On a similar note, Michael wants to know:

Some supporting actors from TV shows disappear after their show ends while others continue to pop up in new shows in varying degrees. In your opinion, which factor is most important in determining this - talent, a good agent, simple luck?

All of the above. How identified they were with their character is also a factor. How versatile they can be comes into play (again, Ted Danson).

An actor’s TV-Q becomes a factor. That’s research that determines how well-known an actor is and more importantly, how popular they are. Yes, it is pretty heartless and cutthroat. Welcome to Glitter City.

But there are some TV actors that the public just loves. Dylan McDermott is one of those guys. You’ll notice he gets a series every year. Chris Noth is another. Julia Louis-Dreyfus also tops that list.

And then there are actors from hit shows that just cash in their winnings and walk away from the table. They do theatre, they paint, the move away and live happy lives. David Schramm from WINGS would be an example of that. He’s quite content not guesting on television shows. Yes, there is life after sitcoms.

Lou H. asks:

When a multi-camera sitcom episode needs to use multiple sets, is it still shot in sequence, with everybody moving from set to set, or are things optimized a bit so that, say, all the scenes on one set are shot in a single batch, even if that makes the story a bit harder for the studio audience to follow?

It’s shot in sequence so the audience can follow it. Yes, this causes delays due to costume changes, but if the audience can’t follow the story there’s really no point. And the time it takes for the cameras to roll from one set to another is maybe three minutes.

Single camera shows (shot like movies) will shoot out of sequence. They’ll film all the scenes in one location then move to the next. Not being an actor myself I’ve always felt that had to be difficult on actors – having to adjust their attitudes based on what the scene requires. “Okay, in this one you’re distraught.” “Now you’re hopeful.” I don’t know how they can just turn on and off emotions that quickly and still keep the whole piece in their heads. But that’s why they get the big bucks and their sex tapes go viral.

And finally, from Jim S:

How do you know if an actor has "it" that x factor that makes actor A better than actor B?

There is no formula.  It's just a sense you have.  If two actors are auditioning and you can't take your eyes off of one of them, that's a good sign.

In some cases you just "know."  They have an ease, a charisma, a presence.  Almost instantly you can tell.

On the other hand, some X-factor actors can go unnoticed.   George Clooney knocked around for years.  NBC once passed on Tom Cruise for a pilot.  Madonna also got turned down.   I helped out on a short-lived series in the '80s (doing punch up one day a week).  The actress who starred in the show was God awful.  I later learned she was chosen over Annette Bening.  

So the answer is:  you never know, but you do.

What’s your Friday Question? You know you have one.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thoughts on having a blog... for nine years now

It's hard to believe but this blog is now nine years old.   Over 3900 posts (okay some are reposts).   I began by writing something new every day to help build an audience and somehow kept doing it.  The amazing thing is that I didn't run out of things to talk about eight years ago.

So why do I still do it?

Well first off I think of this as stretching exercises for a writer.   My posts are never that long.  I don't want to write all day and you sure don't want to read all day.  But it keeps my mind active.

It's a nice chance to Pay It Forward.  I've been very lucky in my career and had awesome mentors along the way like Larry Gelbart, James Brooks, the Charles Brothers, Gene Reynolds, etc.  The least I can do is share some of this largesse with today's young writers.  

I get to plug my play, books, and whatever other ridiculous enterprise I'm hawking.  

I can write whatever the hell I want and never get network notes.  

I've made a lot of great new friends through the blog.

Every so often someone really cool like Aaron Sorkin or David Hyde Pierce agrees to be a guest blogger.  

And who doesn't want a venue to rant over things that piss you off?  

Still, it is time consuming, and I'll be honest, there are times it's a burden.   Coming up with interesting enough topics is sometimes very difficult.  I can''t tee off on 2 BROKE GIRLS every day. 

But for the most part it's been rewarding.   How long will I continue?  I don't know.  I'm surprised I've been doing it this long.  I mean, nine years?  Jesus.  I'm crossing into "get a life" country.   However, for the moment I shall continue polluting cyberspace on a daily basis.

On this occasion I turn to you guys.  I do this from time to time.  I'd love to hear from you -- especially you new readers.   Where are you from?  How long have you been reading?  How did you originally find my site?  How old are you (or at least in what demographic)?   What topics do you like or dislike?    And anything else you want to get off your chest.

Thanks for hanging in for nine years.  You're the reason I still do it.  Well, that and I'm sometimes bored.  But mostly you. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The weirdest example of stunt casting

Here’s a Friday Question that resulted in an entire post.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

I see that occasionally, shows will do episodes where one of the characters actually has some kind of a connection with a real life celebrity (i.e. Felix Unger apparently was the one who discovered Richard Dawson, or Aunt Esther turns out to be B.B. King's old flame, etc.) What's the process for scripts like that? Do the writers just come up with these ideas? Are they mandated by the networks as rating boosters? Do the celebrity guest stars get any kind of say in how they're used in the script?

This is called stunt casting and networks love the concept because it spikes ratings. In almost all cases, the celebrity is approached before the script is written. Once he or she commits then the process of crafting the script begins.

A lot of times celebrities play themselves because they’re not great actors. And you’d be surprised how many of them are such bad thesps they can’t even play themselves. We also try not to give them punchlines. Don’t place the comedy burden on linebackers.

There are exceptions of course. My partner, David Isaacs, and I wrote the CHEERS episode starring Johnny Carson as himself. He was fantastic. And a very pleasant surprise was former Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. This guy was a natural. He was so funny we not only gave him jokes; we brought him back for a second episode.

This is not a new practice, by the way. In the early ‘50’s I LOVE LUCY featured such guest stars as William Holden and Harpo Marx playing themselves.

The most bizarre case of a celebrity wanting to play himself was on FRASIER. The producers were looking for an actor to play Martin’s partner. Martin (FRASIER’S dad) had been a cop. Ben Gazzara, a fine actor, was approached to play the role. He said he would do it but only if he could play himself. The producers reminded him that the part was for a police officer in Seattle. Gazzara still insisted. So the reality was supposed to be that in between acting gigs, Ben Gazzara would head up to the Great Northwest and fight crime alongside Martin Crane. For reasons I can’t fathom, the producers were uncomfortable with that. They wound up going to another actor.

That said, if I was running BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, I might consider seeing if Daniel Day-Lewis could play himself as a member of the squad. Hey, he only does one or two movies a year. I’m sure he could get a leave of absence from the force every now and again to film LINCOLN. Fox needs help launching their comedies and this could just be the ticket. You know me, always looking to help. You’re welcome.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Short Attention Span Blogging


… or “I couldn’t think of a topic today.”

 People seem to be so polarized on BIRDMAN and NIGHTCRAWLER. They either love ‘em or hate ‘em; no in between. I dread/look forward to seeing them.

Networks are always looking for safe bets. What could be safer than a Bill Cosby family comedy? Oops, NBC.

Hollywood’s version of campaign stumping has begun. Potential Oscar contenders are schlepping to every film festival they can to hype their film. If you folks in Kalamazoo or Altoona want to meet Michael Keaton or Paul Thomas Anderson or Julianne Moore, start a film festival, screen their films (which you show anyway) and give them your “Outstanding Whatever” awards.

Paramount and AMC theatres have introduced a novel offer. You can buy tickets to see INTERSTELLER as many times as you want. Is this because the movie is so good or confusing?

Imagine how many BILLIONS Disney would have lost if it had made that offer last year with FROZEN. Although released last November, it still has made more money THIS year than all but four movies.

What was that goofy CBS “Hollywood Film Awards” show that aired a couple of weeks ago? How do you have a movie award show before most of the real Oscar contenders are released?

Keep an eye out for BIG EYES this Oscar season.

Best NFL announcer on national television: Ian Eagle.

Best NFL announcer on national radio: Dave Sims (pictured right).

Best national sportcasting newcomer: Kevin Burkhardt.

After yesterday’s post, a number of you have to asked to see the pre-show announcement I wrote for my play A OR B? Here ya go:

Welcome to the Falcon Theatre!

Please be advised that the taking of photographs or recordings of any type are strictly prohibited.

Please take a moment now to turn off all cellphones, tablets, blenders, power tools, Geiger counters, and leaf blowers.

If you think you may need a lozenge or hard candy during the show, please unwrap it now. The two loudest sounds on earth are sonic booms and crinkling candy wrappers.

The Falcon parking lot closes shortly after the show, so if you decide to go to any of the nearby establishments afterwards, either A – drive there, or B – walk there and then continue walking home.

Thank you for coming and enjoy A OR B?

Others asked if I’d post the actual script. I think that would hurt its chances for future productions, but I am exploring getting it published. If I’m successful I’ll point you to where you can then obtain it. When have I ever not shamelessly promoted something I've done?

Even Jack can't stand watching the Lakers.
Say what you will but Aaron Sorkin is a good sport.

Kathy Griffin is the next Joan Rivers.

Sorry to hear of the passing of former LA TIMES theater critic, Charles Champlin.  He was 88.  Champlin wrote for the TIMES for 26 years, back when they really had a theater section.

Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins are on the verge of a 13-year $325,000,000 deal. He’s a great kid, we go to the same dentist, but Jesus! Name me one mega 100+ million dollar deal that hasn’t been a complete disaster the last few years of the contract. From A-Rod to A-Pujos and every Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder in between.

But at least Stanton has an opt-out after 5 years because, y'know, you don't want to be tied down to a shitty deal like that if better ones become available. 

In Rodriquez’s contract with the Yankees he has a stipulation where they have to provide a tent for him to sell his merchandise at spring training. This is not a joke. There are stories of rock stars that demand bowls of only green M&M’s in their dressing rooms. I wonder if Alex had that too but the greenies he demanded weren’t M&M’s.

THE GOOD WIFE is having another banner year. Last Sunday’s episode where you saw how political campaign spots are really created should be shown in ever Poli-Sci class in America.

Best Actress who just hasn’t found a hit series yet: Kathryn Hahn.

Huffpost Headline: What Is Going On With Robert Pattinson's Hair?

I’m already sick of Feliz Navidad.

Off to Atlanta for a few days.  You just can't get Coca Cola anywhere else. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

25 things I learned by doing a play

My play closed last night at the Falcon Theatre. As you read this they’re probably taking my name down from the marquee. (At least they didn’t do that during the final curtain call.) 

It was an absolutely awesome experience and I can’t thank the staff of the Falcon, the crew, and my terrific cast (Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert) enough. Special thanks to my director, Andy Barnicle, and the Godfather, Garry Marshall.   (all pictured below with me.  Notice, how as the playwright, the light is shining out of my ears?)  

I’ve also enjoyed sharing the process with you dear blogniks. So as a wrap-up I thought I would post 25 things I learned from the experience.

The first thing you do is scope out where the local bars are.

As in every form of show business, casting is the most important decisions you will ever make. Everything else you can fix. 

At some point you have to lock the script, although if I had my way I would be rewriting after every single performance.

As the playwright, be ready to defend and justify every line and bit of punctuation in your script. Trust me, you will be asked. This, by the way, is a good thing.

Actors can see and function in the dark.  You must be part cat to be a theater actor. 

There’s no editing afterwards.

Things will go wrong. Zippers will break. A cue will be missed. But considering how many little things all have to happen with complete precision it’s a wonder that most of the time everything comes off as planned. Let me amend that: It’s a wonder that everything EVER comes off as planned.

I’m canceling my subscription to the Los Angeles Times. Not because they gave me a bad review. Because they never even bothered to review it in the first place. Better they should review New York plays than productions that take place in their own city.

Equity is a stronger union than the Longshoremen.

People laugh more on weekends.

Lighting, sound, set, and costume designers are not technicians. They’re wizards.

Actors are very aware of the audience. They see you sleeping in the third row.

Tech week is like binge-watching C-SPAN.

For a comedy, rewrite the pre-show “turn off your cellphone” announcement. Put some jokes in it. It helps get the audience into the mood and it’s nice to get a running start on laughs.

The stage manager is like an air traffic controller but under more pressure.

Listening to the actors and director talk, I realize I know shit about classical theater.

Green rooms are never green.

There are a lot of good actors out there that no one has ever heard of.

Staged readings are really helpful. Even when they suck. This from personal experience.

Use plastic glasses for props. Real glass breaks. And backstages are dark.

The one question everyone asked me when I greeted them at the theatre was: “Will there be an intermission?” The answer they were all looking for is YES.

Understudies have the most thankless job in theater.

There are a million details you never think about. Like somebody has to wash the wardrobe each day. God, my heart goes out to the guy who does that for CATS.

There is usually one skeesix in the audience who coughs through the entire second act.

Working in the theater is a labor of love. But not by choice.

Thanks so much to everybody who came out to see my play. Hopefully it will live again someday somewhere.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A funny sketch on network interference

From last night's SNL -- more truth than fiction.

Trying to solve a 30 year mystery

There was a 1973 movie called THE LAST OF SHEILA. It was a murder mystery written by, of all people, Stephen Sondheim and Tony Perkins. More surprising, Tony was not in the movie and Stephen didn’t do the music. Producers really need to check out writers’ resumes.


Anyway, it was an intricate whodunit very well received. I didn’t see it. I was too busy that year watching SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, THEATER OF BLOOD, and Oscar favorite HELL UP IN HARLEM.


A bunch of years later I saw that Channel 2 was going to play it at 11:30 that Saturday night. I had just purchased a VCR so set the timer. This was in the early days of VCR. They weighed as much as a Kia, tapes were ¾ inch not ½ inch, they only recorded at one speed, and maximum length of tape was two hours.


But that was no problem. The movie was scheduled from 11:30 – 1:30. So I taped it and the next night my wife and I watched the movie and enjoyed it very much.


Until the end.


Stations dump a lot of extra commercials in the middle of the night. Who cares if a show runs a little long?


Us!!!


Right at the part where they’re just about to reveal the killer – and the tape ends. AAAAAA!!


The next few days we frantically called around to friends asking if they saw the movie and remembered who did it? Nobody did. Like I said, it was a very complicated screenplay. Thank you Stevie and Norman Bates. We finally gave up.


Several years later we were on vacation at a resort on St. Thomas. It was a rather rustic resort. Little huts, no phones, no TV’s, not even Wifi. You walked around at night with flashlights. Your evening entertainment was finding your hut after leaving the dining hall. I bet every morning the sun would come up and three couples who had given up were sleeping on the beach.


So one day we saw they were having movie night and the featured film was THE LAST OF SHEILA. We were ecstatic. Finally we were going to learn the murderer.


So we’re the first two people in the Activity Room. Another four sauntered in and the film began. Only one problem.


The film was dubbed into Spanish.


Neither of us spoke Spanish. Nor did any of the other couples. So they left. We stayed and tried to decipher what was going on. Not a chance.


And then about nine years ago I was in New York at a play reading and there was Stephen Sondheim. He sat right next to my daughter Annie. During intermission I asked her to ask him who killed Sheila. She of course was mortified and refused. Curses! Thwarted again!


So my point: People ask me why I bother to maintain a blog, updating it every day, since it pays me nothing. Well, here’s one reason –


Who the fuck killed Sheila???!!!


Thank you.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Proof that the MASH crew worked with antiquated equipment


Aaron Sorkin parodies

Here's a pretty great one. From Seth Meyers.


And here's one I wrote back in 2006. IF AARON SORKIN WROTE A SHOW ABOUT BASEBALL. Little did I know that he eventually would (the screenplay for MONEYBALL). Yes, he's fun to spoof. But I never miss an episode of anything he writes. So I present it again... with affection.


EXT. KAUFFMAN STADIUM -- NIGHT

THE MANAGER, LEO, TROTS OUT TO THE MOUND TO TALK TO BELEAGURED PITCHER, DANNY (THERE’S ALWAYS A DANNY). THE BASES ARE LOADED. THE CROWD IS GOING NUTS. IT’S GAME SEVEN OF THE WORLD SERIES.

LEO
You can’t get a good lobster in this town.

DANNY
Last I checked we were in Kansas City.

LEO
4.6 billion pork ribs sold every year and 18.9 tons of beef consumed annually since 1997 –

DANNY
They like their beef, what can I tell ya?

LEO
But you’d think just for variety’s sake.

DANNY
I can still throw my curve.

LEO
For strikes?

DANNY
I’m not throwing enough?

LEO
I’ve seen more lobsters.

DANNY WALKS TO THE ROSIN SACK, GIVES IT A SQUEEZE, DECIDES TO KEEP WALKING. HE AND LEO NOW WALK OUT INTO CENTER FIELD.

DANNY
It’s just that…

LEO
What? Kathy?

DANNY
No. Cabs. There’s no cohesiveness on this team. After road games, 25 cabs for 25 players. There used to be a thing called “the greater good”, forgoing your needs for the betterment of the team and community who looks to us for their identity and self worth. When I’m trying to save a game I’m really trying to save a factory. If baseball is a metaphor for life, then responsibility is its first cousin simile. And Kathy.

LEO
That’s a “1” on your back and not a “2”.

DANNY
I can’t help it. She knocks my sanitary socks off.

THEY CROSS THE CENTER FIELDER, HECTOR.

HECTOR
(in thick accent) Hey, Skip. You know where we could get a lobster around here?

LEO
Order a steak with butter sauce.

THEY REACH THE WALL AND BEGIN WALKING AROUND THE WARNING TRACK.

DANNY
I only became a pitcher because of her.

LEO
Does she know that?

DANNY
She knows that a human arm is not supposed to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour. And she knows that Jesus Christ could strike out Babe Ruth every at bat for ten years without so much as a rotator tear. But to answer your question – what was your question again?

LEO
Can you still throw your curve ball for strikes?

DANNY
No. The other one.

LEO
Does Kathy know you became a pitcher for her?

THEY REACH THE RIGHT FIELDER, AN AFRO-AMERICAN NAMED CHET.

CHET
Look up in the stands, guys. Not four black faces. Would Jackie Robinson even want to break into this game now? If this sport speaks to minorities now it speaks in Spanish. Afro-Americans make up less than 5% of the major leagues. Compare that to basketball, football, or even golf. Satchel Paige said, “don’t look back, something might be gaining on ya.” I just did. It’s now hockey.

LEO
Play a little closer to the line.

THEY CONTINUE WALKING AROUND THE WARNING TRACK.

DANNY
I think she knows.

LEO
But do you really know if she knows?

DANNY
No.

LEO
Then you know what you’ve got to do.

DANNY
Yeah.

LEO
Throw strikes.

DANNY
Right. Thanks.

LEO
And when you get home –

DANNY
Yeah?

LEO
Tell her.

DANNY
I’ll take her out for a lobster.

LEO
What do you mean, 25 cabs for 25 players?

AS THEY START AROUND THE WARNING TRACK FOR ANOTHER LAP, WE:

FADE OUT.