Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is there laughter in the writers' room?

Yes.

A lot of it.

There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh.  Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.

Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.

True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into 2 BROKE GIRLS (I caught a few minutes of an episode while on a plane recently where two characters were having sex in a dumpster), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.

You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.

The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned at one time, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.

As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.

I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.

So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room (well, maybe now that Thomas Gibson has been booted). Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Friday Questions

Who’s ready for some Friday Questions?

Justin Russo begins:

What does a show do if the lead actor becomes sick (not gravely ill where a character can be written out) but perhaps just a flu? Are they written around? What would "30 Rock" be without Liz Lemon in an episode? I recall one "Cheers" episode where Sam has the chicken pox, which excused Ted Danson from the remainder of the episode. In other instances, Joey once had a broken arm on "Friends" (which was added to the story) and I've noticed on "30 Rock" again Alex Baldwin with a stye in a few episodes.

You work around it. If it’s your star sometimes you have to shut down production. Tina Fey would qualify.  Studios take out insurance for just such occurrences.

Occasionally, you have to write an actor out of an episode. On CHEERS the first season, Nick Colasanto was rushed to the hospital with pleurisy mid-week. We stayed up quite late writing him out of that week’s show. Then on show night he was back so we had to write him back in.

But you have to be creative sometimes in finding ways to explain away absences, broken arms, and especially pregnancies.

That said, I am often in awe of how actors will persevere through ailments and injuries to do a show as planned. They are troupers.

When my play, A OR B? was at the Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles, one night our star Jules Willcox had the stomach flu. There were buckets just offstage. I had no idea about this until after the show. This was a two-character play so she was on stage the entire time. And yet, you’d never know from her performance that night that she was green. Amazing.

Dhruv from India asks a really long questions and I have a really short answer.

Recently (past few years) lot of Hollywood icons like Spielberg, Scorsese, DeNiro, others have been coming to India? [They don’t have anything to sell. But still they just come here and go on TV channels where fawning assholes and shitty audience ask inane questions of what they think of India? Its movies? Culture?]. They on their part give condescending answers and smugly go on and on about their past glory.

Since you are an acute observer of Hollywood and its people, do you think that these are icons who are fading away in America's memory, so to massage their ego and self-worth, they are coming to India for the adulation they receive here? [India being a needy country for attention from Hollywood and Indian media always looking for bones (praise) thrown by the American media and its personalities].

Or

Did Hollywood as a whole, recently discover that India is the largest English speaking country in the world (outside USA), so are they angling to connect with newer audience?
(Hence patronizing oscars to crappy movies like Slumdog Millionaire instead of Dark Knight, one Indian character with fake Apu-like Indian accents in new sitcoms etc….)

Both.

Larry Commons wonders:

You said on your blog the first season of "Cheers" is the best season. I think so too, and as I re-watch it now I'm struck by how professionally done it is, especially compared to most other sitcoms from 1982 (think: cheap videotape). Why do you say it's the best season? And were the ratings really as poor as we've heard?

The sexual tension between Sam and Diane was delicious. And very unique for a situation comedy at that time  (now every sitcom does it). Once they were in any kind of relationship it just wasn’t as sparkling. The writing was just as good, but the circumstances weren’t as ideal… in my opinion.

From cd1515:

Why were spinoffs so big back in the day but almost nonexistent today?
even on 1 of the Seinfeld DVD extras I remember Jason Alexander saying they missed a big spinoff possibility with Jerry & George's parents in Florida.

There were more spinoffs because there were more legitimate hit sitcoms that commanded large audiences. Niche hit sitcoms don’t have the same potential.

But in the feature world – sequels (the sort of equivalent of spinoffs) – is very much alive. There is so much product being introduced to audiences that having a known franchise is a big leg up. You see that on Broadway too. They’re making musicals from movies or plays from TV shows (like for instance that show about a bar in Boston).

Spinoffs are also hard to pull off (says someone who worked on AfterMASH). WHO you spinoff and what the new situation is is key. Second bananas often can’t carry shows. And characters that are funny in small doses rarely work when they have to do the heavy lifting. George’s parents from SEINFELD to me would have a tough time sustaining a series.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The process continues

Getting closer now!  My new play, GOING GOING GONE! opens for previews ONE WEEK FROM TONIGHT. Tickets are discounted. Here's where you go for discount tickets. It’s a very funny play set in a baseball pressbox. And I've got a great cast. 

I’ve been taking you through the rehearsal process each week (my version of HBO’s HARD KNOCKS except without the violence). And today is another chapter.

Last Saturday we had a “Designers’ Runthrough.” All of the technical people involved in the production watch a full runthrough of the play. This includes our set designer, costumer, lighting director, sound director, prop master, stage manager, producers, etc.

I personally find Designer Runthroughs hard to sit through, especially with a comedy, because rarely does anyone laugh. They’re all viewing the play in relationship to their own department’s involvement with it.

Following the runthrough, our director, Andy Barnicle presided over a production meeting. Questions and concerns were discussed along with timetables and when dinner breaks would be.

This week, for the first time, the actors are rehearsing in our actual theatre.  It seems it makes a difference performing on your actual stage and not a chalked out outline.  Who knew?

The thesps pretty much got the play memorized and I’ve stopped torturing them with new pages after every rehearsal. This is the week when it’s all starting to really come together. Actors no longer are holding scripts, and they’ve really started to make the piece their own. And the sense I get is that they’re having more fun.

This weekend the tech rehearsals begin. Less fun will be had. More on that next week.

Again, come join us for previews and opening weekend. I’ll be there pacing.

Note: The photos of our cast (Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson) were taken by Ed Krieger.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Do you scream at the TV?

Even though we all know they can’t hear you inside the screen (you do know that, right?), how many of you still scream at your television? How many of you have “Living Room Rage?”

And I don’t mean sporting events. All proud sports fanatics do that. It’s either scream or break lamps. We scream at ballgames knowing the players won’t hear us (except at Oakland A’s games in September).

I’m talking about entertainment programs. What brought this to mind was Sunday night’s Emmys. During long acceptance speeches I find myself yelling at the screen, “Get off! Shut up! Where’s the music?” And “Fuck your agent at CAA!”

Do you do that too?

Do you yell at the screen over some absolutely idiotic story turn? Or vile 2 BROKE GIRLS vagina joke?

My father once threw a shoe at the TV.

Elvis was once so upset seeing Robert Goulet on the screen that he shot his television set.

Tell me you didn’t curse loudly at the monitor or throw something during the finale of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

I don’t believe it’s possible to watch THE PRICE IS RIGHT without screaming out prices. Or WHEEL OF FORTUNE without screaming out vowels. And if you’re with friends, it’s fun to play along with JEOPARDY (until you look like an idiot for not knowing Hawaii is a state).

I’m guessing way more people scream at their TV’s (or computers or tablets or phones) than ever before. Hate watching shows has become a national pastime and what good is sitting through some cringeworthy piece of shit if you can’t let them have it?

I don’t think “Living Room Rage” is a bad thing. It’s a crazy thing and a futile thing, but not harmful. And generally it’s in the privacy of your own home so who’s going to know except your neighbors, but they already hate you?

So rejoice TV screamers. What you’re doing is totally natural and won’t cause you to go blind. And if you don’t yell at your TV screen, if you have more self control than that, if you recognize that it’s a pointless exercise, if you are restricted by religious beliefs -- I say to you: Wait until the Presidential Debates.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How do you handle breasts?

How’s that for a subject heading? My traffic should explode today. Actually, that was a Friday Question that became an entire post.

It’s from Igor:

Friday question: How do you handle breasts?

I mean as a director. I thought of this when I recently saw an episode of Taxi in which Marilu Henner in a silk top was clearly braless. (No, at that moment this question is not all I thought of.) Certainly that was a different time. Today, if an actress's top is too tight or there's too much cleavage I assume it's easy to request less. But what if you as an (honorable) sitcom director want more? "Could you undo one more button?" "I think this scene would be better if you didn't wear a bra." Have you had to do that? Awkward? Changed over the years?

I know men everywhere are going to hate me for this answer, but as a director (and writer) I don’t want anything to distract from the comedy. Even if it’s a seduction scene, I would rather focus on the person being seduced and his reactions.  So, to borrow an expression, breasts get in the way. 

I’ve never directed a cable or streaming show where I had the freedom to show exposed breasts, and I’m sure some shows like CALIFORNICATION required partial nudity, but personally I’m way more interested in making the story and comedy work than titillating viewers.

Even directing episodes for Fox I’ve never had an executive or showrunner tell me to have an actress unbutton a button or push up her breasts. Maybe it happens. Just never personally encountered it… although restrictions are much looser now than in the past.  I'll never be accused of being the next Russ Meyer.

Back in the AfterMASH days (I can’t believe I’m telling an AfterMASH story), we had an episode introducing a new doctor. This was 1983. David Ackroyd was a brash doctor. And we wanted to show that doctor Wendy Girard was even brasher. So we did a scene where Wendy was supposedly naked in a whirlpool and David comes into the room. He starts flirting and we wanted her to stand up and basically say, “You want to see a naked woman? Is that it? Are you happy now?” The point is to shock and embarrass him.

Our plan was to show Wendy from the back, and focus on David’s reaction. We would see her bare back but costume her so she wasn’t really topless. And even then, after she stands up and we establish that, we cut to a close-up of David’s initial surprise, and then a close-up of Wendy delivering her speech, back to a close up of David reacting.

So we’re talking three seconds on her back, maybe four?

CBS wouldn’t let us do it.

We said, okay, what if we comprise? Show the top half of her back. Mostly we’d be seeing David over her shoulder.

Sorry. “Half” was too much. We had to literally negotiate how many inches of Wendy’s back we could show.

At one point we said, instead of showing her back, what if we showed the back of her bare legs?

Nope.

The back of knees was apparently too racy for the Tiffany Network.

Through it all I might add that Wendy was a terrific sport.

Today on CBS I bet the argument would be reversed. We’d want to show less and they’d be saying, “Can we see her entire back?” “Can we play the whole scene on her back?” And then they’d use it for the promo.

I’m sure network standards have relaxed because of the competition with other delivery services that can show much more. But only to a point. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction was ridiculously a huge deal. There is much more leeway with language than actually showing something risqué. Hence, 2 BROKE GIRLS can get away with saying “vagina,” which they do twelve times an episode.

But if someone wants to see nudity, it’s there in unlimited quantities on the internet. Less easy to access is decent comedy.

If you want to see that AfterMASH scene, it's 15:06 in and the quality of the print is pretty bad.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Thoughts on last night's Emmys

No actual Emmy review because I was flying back from New York during the ceremony. I thought, perhaps I’d be in luck because I was flying JetBlue and they have DirectTV. But the ONLY channel they didn’t carry was ABC. 17 Fox news and sports channels, 12 ESPN’s, 4 Nickelodeon channels but not the American Broadcast Company.

However, they had a CW affiliate that did air the Sam Rubin red carpet show. Without sound it’s just this tuxedoed elf and malnourished former Miss Pacoima shamelessly fawning and drooling over everyone they come in contact with. The woman next to me watched for three minutes then turned to the Food Channel where they were cutting up beets.

Here’s the only thing I saw of the actual ceremony: We landed at Burbank Airport at the farthest gate. As we were walking through the terminal there were monitors along the route. We noticed that Jeffrey Tambor was giving his acceptance speech. Five minutes later we’re still walking and Jeffrey Tambor was still giving his speech.

Even though VEEP is not my favorite comedy I was thrilled it won because it is a COMEDY and sets out to make people LAUGH.

Glad Tatiana Maslany won. I’ve been lobbying for her for three years. Now I know how long it takes the Academy to react to this blog.

It’s shocking how many winning shows and actors I don’t watch. Is it just me?

HOUSE OF CARDS lost pretty much everything. At least the Television Academy knows not to vote for an asshole president who views the public with nothing but contempt.

I see Jill Soloway won for directing. It’s like the Academy wants to recognize TRANSPARENT but doesn’t know where to put it, so they give Jill a directing Emmy. I’m sure she deserves it, but it’s kinda like giving Barbra Streisand a Grammy for Best Album Cover.

Fortunately, there are now two non-televised Emmy ceremonies to go along with the Primetime show. They probably needed the extra time on the televised show just for Jeffrey Tambor’s speech. I wonder if he was still talking when we got in the cab.

Happy for all the winners but did wish that FARGO won more. Ted Danson deserved an Emmy for his FARGO performance. Oh well, Ted. Now we know. You’ll receive it in three years.

John Oliver is the new Jon Stewart.

Another flame out year for the big broadcast networks. Forget HBO, FX now kicks their asses. And CBS, don’t expect to reverse that trend with KEVIN CAN WAIT.

Glad THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. won, and especially glad that Sarah Paulson won. If she had tried the case instead of Marcia Clark she might’ve won.

Congratulations to Steven Moffat and SHERLOCK.

I’m glad Jimmy Fallon lost. And after that shameful interview with Donald Trump last week I hope he never wins. (Actually I hope they both never win).

I think to increase interest among the industry, the TV Academy decided to nominate EVERYONE in television this year.   Let's see how the ratings are.  If it worked and they went up, then next year maybe EVERYONE in television will WIN an Emmy.   Congratulations to those few thousand who did win this year.

I'm still on East Coast time and have been up now for almost 24 hours.  I'm going to bed.  If I missed anyone, I'll catch you next year.    What did you guys all think of the show? 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What it's like to win an Emmy

The Emmy Awards are tonight!  Unfortunately, I will not be reviewing them this year.  I am in New York and will be flying home during the ceremony.   I'm sure there are some of you who are thrilled I'm not reviewing the Emmys.  Sam Rubin for one. 

But since "Emmys" are in the air, I thought I'd take advantage of that to tell you what it's like to actually win one.  And it puts winning in perspective.

You're in the audience suffering through the show. Finally it's your category. You wake up. The envelope is ripped open, your name is read, you can’t believe it, and you race up to the stage. You stand at the podium.

What’s going through your mind at a monumental moment like this? For me, honestly, I thought of all the assholes I went through basic training with in the army who thought I was such a fuck up. I was hoping they were watching and having heart attacks from shock. I was also aware that everyone in the audience was glaring at me. I saw the red light of the camera, knew that yes, this was my one big moment on national television. But I also knew that if I didn’t get the hell off quick – I mean REAL quick -- millions of people I didn’t know were going to hate my guts.

So I rushed through my prepared speech, thanked my wife, son, and I think Drill Sgt. Miller then was led off.


Backstage, you take photos with your presenters. In our case, Arthur & Kathryn Murray. Who knew they were even still alive? Then we were led from one interview room to the next. National TV, national radio, local press, national press, foreign press, magazines, food product surveys, I dunno. Light bulbs flashing. Questions coming from all sides. Microphones shoved in my face. And after a few minutes we’re ushered into the next room because the next winners are breathing down our necks. We were in a daze. We just went where they told us. Finally we were told to go through “that door”. We did. It closed and locked behind us.

And we found ourselves outside. In the alley. Next to the garbage dump, surrounded by buzzing flies. In our tuxedos, holding our shiny new Emmys. What the fuck?! We banged on the door to get back in. Nothing. We walked along the side of the building, trying other doors. All closed. I thought of maybe using the Emmy to jimmy one of the locks. No dice. It took us fifteen minutes to finally get back into the hall.

Which more than matched the fifteen minutes of fame.

Good luck to all of the nominees tonight.   I'll save up my snark for next year.