Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We all have to start somewhere

I was hoping the CNN documentary series THE SIXTIES would cause a huge national craze for that decade, and my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) would start selling like Beatles records.  I was counting on it, actually.  But alas, so far sales have been more like Freddy and the Dreamer records.  Obviously, I must do something about that.  So as an excuse to get you to pick up a copy and support this free blog (guilt guilt guilt), I am featuring a summer excerpt.  Travel back to 1966 and my first theater experience.  

No family vacation that year, not that we could go very far anyway. 35,000 airline workers from five major carriers went on strike, crippling the industry. From July 8th to August 19th, the peak summer travel season, 60% of U.S. commercial flights were grounded. And it was still easier to fly than it is today.

I had my part-time job at Wallichs and got another part-time gig as well. This one ushering at the Valley Music Theater.

The Valley Music Theater on Ventura Blvd. was a huge concrete white shell, very modernistic, very JFK airport terminal.
The big musical theater fad in Los Angeles in 1966 was theater-in-the-round. Who needed Broadway when Angelinos could be treated to smash hit musicals of the past with knock-off casts, no sets, and no piece of scenery taller than their ankles? In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (across from the Dopey section of the Disneyland parking lot), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in glamorous West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would bicycle this circuit, usually for two-week runs.

I showed people to their seats at the Valley Music Theater and could not wait for each new show to bring jaw-dropping performances by miscast actors. Dance numbers tended not to be very elaborate since the stage was the size of a conference table. (If they had lasted long enough to do The Lord Of The Dance, they would use three guys.)

Headliners tended to be of the B variety. Instead of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Julie Andrews we got Dennis Day, Frank Gorshin, and Betsy Palmer (best known as a perky game show panelist and knife-wielding crazy in Friday the 13th: Part One).

After several years of burning through the Broadway catalog the trend petered out. By 1968 they were down to It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman starring local TV news anchors.

Still, I was able to see beyond the game show-celebrity-guest-caliber casts and really appreciate the writing. That summer I also read Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One and was intrigued by the notion of being a New York playwright. It all sounded so romantic to me – writing all night in a hotel room in exotic New Haven, getting a brainstorm, and saving a play at the last minute, opening on Broadway, having a hit…and someday seeing my work performed at the Valley Music Theater by Barbara Walter.

Ironically, my new play A or B? will be performed in the Valley, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank this fall.  I would get Betsy Palmer is she could pass for 29. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

RIP James Garner

So sorry to hear of the passing of James Garner Saturday night. He was 86. I never met him but never heard one bad thing from anyone who did. And you know this town – ten people will tell you Mother Teresa was a nightmare.

But James Garner was the actor every comedy writer coveted. A handsome fella who was charming, could play comedy with ease, was self-deprecating, smart, and could act. Every TV sitcom pilot has that guy. I’m looking for that guy for my play. And there are sadly, very few. They’re harder to find than white truffles. And they make all the difference in the world.

Imagine CHEERS without Ted Danson. Imagine MASH without Alan Alda. Imagine any Cary Grant movie without Cary Grant.

And Jim's talent extended to commercials too. You have to be of a certain age, but in the late ‘70s he was the pitchman for Polaroid cameras. He had such warmth and sincerity that those cameras were flying off the shelf. He did the same as the spokesman for beef but was dropped from the campaign after he needed open heart surgery.

James Garner made it all look effortless. Probably because he was that guy. He was well-intentioned, supported causes for the public good, and was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

He is best known, of course, for his roles in THE ROCKFORD FILES and MAVERICK. But he also appeared in quite a few movies. Since comedy is never taken seriously, Garner was only nominated once for an Academy Award – for the 1985 movie, MURPHY’S ROMANCE. Some of his movies worth seeing are THE GREAT ESCAPE, DUEL AT DIABLO, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERRIF, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.

But there’s one movie he starred in I’d like to recommend. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it or stream it tonight. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY from 1964. He gives the performance of a lifetime as a wheeler-dealer in the Navy just before D-Day. The screenplay is by the great Paddy Chayefsky. He delivers a powerful speech on the idiocy of glorifying war that says in three minutes what we took eleven years to say in MASH. Here it is:

James Garner was very self-effacing. On acting he once said: “I’m a Methodist, but not as an actor.” In his memoir he wrote: “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”

From that last line alone you can see why I loved him.

The legacy of James Garner will live on. At least in my writing. I generally create two types of characters – one who is similar to who I am and the other is someone I wish I were. That’s James Garner.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside story on the CHEERS "Jeopardy episode

Sometimes a Friday question requires its own post. And someone other than me answering it. Dan O'Shannon and his partner Tom Anderson wrote the Jeopardy episode of CHEERS. When a blog reader asked about it I sought out Dan for the answer.

Dan O'Shannon became a show runner on CHEERS, FRASIER, and has executive produced MODERN FAMILY. He also wrote the definitive book on comedy analysis.    Many thanks to Dan for writing back and writing the episode in the first place. If he ever writes a blog and someone asks a question about MANNEQUIN 2 I'm happy to return the favor.

From Ed:

I loved the Cliff blows the Jeopardy show ep. I'm curious as to how much back and forth there may have been amongst all y'all in deciding categories and what questions would be asked - and most especially, the Final Jeopardy question. Any anecdotes would be much appreciated.

The idea of Cliff trying out for Jeopardy started with Tom Anderson. It was the B story in our spec script, which eventually got us on the show. (Cheers, not Jeopardy). Once it was decided to use the story in an episode, we needed to expand what we had.

As we pitched on it in the room, I came up with the notion to fill the board with Cliff's dream categories. I'd scribbled down four or five possible examples, like "bar trivia" and ending with "celibacy." Once the idea was pitched, we batted categories around the room, which was great fun. I remember us all shouting out ideas and laughing like crazy.

The final Jeopardy question came from something I'd observed back when I was doing stand-up. Anyone could win all the money on Jeopardy every night if they wanted, because for each answer given on the show, there are an infinite number of technically correct questions. The final exchange (the names of the three celebrities, and "who are three people who have never been in my kitchen") came directly from that.

PS -- I like to think that a young Ken Jennings caught my act in Warren, Ohio in 1983 and now owes me -- at the very least -- a big thank you.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Have studio comedies really sunk THIS low?

Seriously? In a trailer yet? With so-called "movie stars?"

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS DISGUSTING MATERIAL -- all from the studio approved trailer.

There's a segment in this preview of HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 not to be believed. Jason Bateman tells "movie star" Jennifer Aniston that he has to go to the bathroom. She says, "You're welcome to do that on me." He signals that it's number two. And she says "And?" In other words, unless I missed the subtlety, "movie star" Jennifer Aniston is telling Jason Bateman she's okay if he takes a shit on her. Class-eee.    And oh so hilarious. 

Remember, the best jokes are usually in the trailer.

Now I don't want to sound like I'm a hundred but has American screen comedy really sunk to that level?   Those are the best and funniest comedy writers Hollywood can employ?    Any twelve year old on the playground can write that joke.

The original HORRIBLE BOSSES was a spec screenplay by Michael Markowitz that sold.  His script was sharp, sophisticated, and hilarious.  The studio thanked him and hired other writers.  Any resemblance to his vision and characters in both films have been completely obliterated by different writers, studio notes, directors, actors, etc.  Such is the studio "process" of improving a comedy. 

I guess I won't be writing any mainstream Hollywood comedies in the near future.  I have no desire to write for children.  I have no desire to have my name associated with Jennifer Aniston defecation jokes.   And the fact that she does, is to me even more appalling.  Some "movie star." 

Creative license in technology

One of my favorite bullshit TV conventions is when the cop/detective/investigator/president/terrorist/curious bystander asks the technician to enhance the screen. Somehow they can zoom in and get crystal clear images.  Zowie!  They can see mirror reflections, read fortune cookies sticking out of pockets, identify hair follicles. If only this technology actually existed.  Here is a fun montage Duncan Robson made of all these moments.  Hopefully, it will enhance your enjoyment of procedurals... and mirrors.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

A great New Yorker cartoon

... from J. C. Duffy. 

Friday Questions

Who ordered the “Friday Questions?”

Bill starts us off:

What are the responsibilities of the creative consultants and how does it differ from being the writer and were you the creative consultants on the shows you are credited with writing?

Generally, creative consultants are writers who come in once or twice a week to help out on rewrites for whatever episode is being produced that week. They're not on staff full-time.  Their day usually begins with the afternoon runthrough and they stay through the rewrite. They provide another set of eyes, can offer story suggestions, but primarily they’re there to help pump in jokes.

It’s a position that has pretty much been phased out because studios don’t want to pay, but good creative consultants can be invaluable. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best. David Lloyd and Jerry Belson were amazing, but the best of all-time was (and is) Bob Ellison (pictured right). Bob is a joke machine and tireless. It could be 4 in the morning, everyone on the staff is totally gassed, and Bob is still firing in great jokes like an AK-47.   During the '80s and '90s Bob would sometime work on four different series a week.  Whenever we got a show picked up, our first call was to see if Bob Ellison was available. 

At some point I was a creative consultant on CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, BECKER, and about six other shows that came and quickly went. (We wrote episodes for most of those shows.)

This is a practice that dates well back into the American theater. Plays would tryout out of town and playwrights would enlist the help of “script doctors” like Abe Burrows who would help fix troubled projects. At least we didn't have to go to New Haven every week.

From Steve:

A couple days ago, you mentioned that you gave overuse of names a pass in the case of pilots, where the writer needs to establish who everyone is. It occurred to me that most of your viewers aren't going to start with the pilot; they'll get into the show after it been on the air for weeks or years, or even in syndication. How much do sitcom writers think about the fact that every episode is someone's first? Is any attempt made to make sure each episode works without prior knowledge?

The second episode is in many ways harder to write than the pilot. Because you have to re-tell the pilot for all those who are coming to the show for the first time, and you have to provide a new story for those who saw the pilot.  And you have two weeks to write it, not six months. 

Over the first four shows we try to keep rebooting the premise, but after that we feel viewers can either pick up on what’s going on, or go back to find the previous episodes online or On-Demand. Why should we do all the work?

Michael wonders:

Other than THE SIMPSONS, I am not aware of any shows you wrote for that included kids. Did you and David ever try to develop family-oriented sitcoms or was this something that didn't interest you?

We’ve written other shows that have had kids and we’ve done a few family pilots that didn’t get picked up. Earlier in our career we got asked to write a family pilot, but we were committed to another show so we had to pass. That family show was COSBY.  Not that I'm still bitter.

OrangeTom asks:

When a show is on air as long as Frasier do the network executives start paying less attention; i.e., is there more the writers can get away with which might be considered too offensive or "out there" in the first couple years of a show's run? "Tonight on Frasier Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

Yes, once a show has established itself as a hit networks tend to back off. But not entirely. Networks still want to know what stories you have planned and if you want to do something very different or jarring you still might have a fight on your hands. You may win that fight but it won’t just be rubber stamped because you have millions of Twitter followers.

Still, it’s quite a contrast from when we were doing MASH. CBS wanted us to submit loglines of the stories we were doing. We would send in six or seven at a time. Of course, by the time we got around to submitting them the episodes had already been filmed.  That's a great way of getting around notes, by the way. 

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

BEGIN AGAIN -- my review

Here’s another movie I really liked that hopefully your town has room for even with TRANSFORMERS 4 playing on every other screen. BEGIN AGAIN was written by John Carney who also gave us ONCE.

ONCE was a charming little movie that spawned an Oscar-winning song and Broadway musical. It was an indie darling. BEGIN AGAIN is his follow-up, also about the music scene, and also charming. But unlike every critic I’ve read, I liked it better than ONCE.

I know I’m in the minority of one, but I got so sick of that song in ONCE I could plotz.

BEGIN AGAIN is set in New York and is one of those idyllic “Manhattan is a cool place if you’re young, artistic, in love, and conveniently there are no blizzards, garbage strikes, heat waves, or Lena Dunham characters” movies. So it’s Times Square on warm summer evenings, cafes late at night, nightclubs, views from the Empire State Building, boat rides in the East River, '60s music, clean subway cars, and of course – Central Park. It’s street musicians, ice cream cones, funky apartments, Sinatra, big breaks, dreams coming true, and rain-slicked streets but never any rain.
But I love all that shit. If I lived in Dublin I would feel that way about ONCE... although I still would be tired of that incessant “Falling Slowly."

BEGIN AGAIN'S narrative is very straight-forward and the film is designed to make you feel good the way a well-produced pop song does. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Are there shocking plot twists? Does it say something new about the human condition? Will it shake some sense into Putin? No. But there are also no diarrhea jokes, angst-ridden super-heroes, or Adam Sandler. If you’re looking for a sweet warm-hearted movie with a few laughs, a couple of heartstring tugs, and music right out of THE VOICE, then BEGIN AGAIN might be for you.

It stars Keira Knightley who is so adorable you’re willing to believe she can actually sing, and Mark Ruffalo as his usual laidback nice guy self who squints more than any other actor in history.

The big surprise was how good Adam Levine was. He has a very natural quality. Yes, he was playing a rock star asshole, but I think he has range. He could play a tech mogul asshole or a Wall Street asshole. Seriously, he can act. I actually liked his acting better than his singing, but again that’s me. And all through the movie I was holding my breath that he wouldn’t sing “Falling Slowly.”
Then there was Catherine Keener – who’s become the Eve Arden of sarcastic middle-aged contemporary indie spirit women, CeeLo Green (yo, he’s funny), and my favorite cameo in the film – Rob Morrow as the record company CEO. He channeled every CAA agent, providing just the perfect blend of realism and character assassination.

You can’t review a music movie without acknowledging the person responsible for the music so kudos to Gregg Alexander. He did an especially nice job of writing to Keira Knightley’s range, which is three notes.

The movie was a little long but that may be because there were like seventeen vanity logos before the damn thing even started. Everyone in the cast included uncredited “cheering girl”, Erika Wester must’ve had a production company.  The title of the movie should be BEGIN ALREADY. 

In fairness, I know this movie has gotten mixed reviews. This will not be the sleeper hit that ONCE was. If I’m Harvey Fierstein I’m not furiously writing the libretto for the BEGIN AGAIN musical just yet. But for a smart, fun, summer diversion I can’t think of many other films to see. And in this marketplace, that’s a ringing endorsement.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My take on the All-Star Game

Yes, this is a baseball post. See many of you tomorrow. But the combination of last night's All-Star Game and my warped sense of humor – it was a blog post that wrote itself.

I love the All-Star Game. I never miss it. I once traveled halfway across the country to see one in person. But who are we kidding that the outcome really means something? Talk about schmuck bait. The winning league gets home field advantage for the World Series. I’m sure the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs players played extra hard.

Clayton Kershaw should have started the game for the National League, not Adam Wainwright. Cardinal manager Mike Matheny clearly picked his own guy. But if the game really “meant” something he would have started the best pitcher in baseball.

Besides, wouldn’t it have been great to have the first American League batter – Derek Jeter – face Clayton Kershaw?

To me baseball has the only All-Star Game where the defense plays as hard as the offense. Compare that to the NBA All-Star Game where the final score is usually 189-174 and the NFL Pro Bowl Game where… do they still even have the NFL Pro Bowl Game?

Target Field in Minnesota is one of the most magnificent ballparks I’ve ever seen. Bring snow plows most of the year, but if you’re a baseball fan it’s worth a trip.

Nice to see Rod Carew throw out the first pitch. Who says there aren’t great Jews in baseball?

Shame on Fox for not once mentioning Tony Gwynn. Nor Don Zimmer. Nor Bob Welch. Nor Jerry Coleman. 

But they took time out to show Terry Crews sitting in the stands and smiling like a Cheshire cat. Note to Fox: When you feature one of your “stars” and have to identify who he is and what show he’s on, he’s not a “star.”

The home run hitting contest is boring. Three hours of batting practice and rules that seem like they’re making them up as they go along. Here’s how you fix it: Put ESPN’s Chris Berman in a booth just beyond the centerfield fence. First home run to hit him wins.

The Derek Jeter tributes were lovely because the affection and admiration everyone has for him is genuine and earned. Compare that to any Hollywood function honoring Harvey Weinstein.

It was a great moment when Jeter left the game and received a huge standing ovation. However, I feel he deserved a bigger gesture. I would have had Jesus Christ rise and present him with a Chevy Tahoe.

Very cool having the late Bob Shepherd deliver the PA announcement for Derek Jeter.

And Jeter does have a flair for the dramatic. Two more hits last night. Those may be the only two hits on Fox this summer.

Note to field reporters:  Don't ask players what "emotions" they're feeling right now.  It's a stupid question.  What do you think their emotions are?   No ballplayer has ever answered that question without seven cliches -- even the ones who can't speak English.  

Tom Verducci is a welcome addition to the Fox broadcast crew. And Harold Reynolds is… a nice guy. Still, it was just a pleasure not hearing Tim McCarver confuse Barry Bonds with Barry Manilow.

Let the hate begin but I'm a Joe Buck fan. 

God, I’m getting tired of Idina Menzel just belting the shit out of every song. It’s not the home run hitting contest for singers.

Glad Mike Trout won the MVP award. Attention Dodger fans: the best, most exciting outfielder in Southern California is not Yasiel Puig.

Spiffy beards, guys. Half the players looked like the French prisoners chained to walls in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK. Tell me girls, does that look do it for you?

Late in the game when there were substitutions in the field, Fox never bothered to show them. For many of these guys it was their one moment in the sun. Instead, Joe Buck would have to say “ground ball to Starlin Castro, who’s the new shortstop…”

David Price didn’t get into the game. I was hoping he’d come in with a big “For Sale” sign on the back of his Rays uniform.

Nice that commissioner Bud Selig said his legacy is that baseball is now making way more money. Of course only 30% of Dodger fans can watch the games now, playoffs last until Christmas, and cheater Alex Rodriguez is practically a billionaire, but yeah, owners can all give you change for a ten.

The last time Minnesota had the All-Star Game was 1985, the first year Bud Selig wore that suit. Considering he's worn it every day since, it still looks pretty good. 

Not shown on TV:  A protester jumped from a parking ramp, scaled a ladder, and hung a banner on the Diamondvision Board that said LOVE WATER, NOT OIL.   Instead we saw Derek Jeter's parents for the millionth time. 
If this were a regular game, how many of those calls would be challenged? And overturned?

Has an umpire ever thrown anyone out of an All-Star Game?  

I marvel at how great these athletes are.

Seriously, I can’t get over them not once mentioning Tony Gwynn. Truly disgraceful.

Since each team must have at least one representative there were a couple of All-Stars that wouldn’t even make some of the other team’s major league rosters. All-Star Tyson Ross of San Diego has 10 losses and only 2 wins in his last 10 starts.

Meanwhile, Garrett Richards of the Angels is 10-2 and didn’t make the All-Star cut.

It pissed me off that ballplayers negotiate bonuses in their contracts for making the All-Star team. For the multi-millions they’re being paid they’re SUPPOSED to make the All-Star team. They should give back half their salary if they DON'T make the All-Star tam. 

Once you get down to the end of the game the All-Stars are people most casual fans have never heard of. Charlie Blackmon? Devin Mesoraco? Terry Crews? Oh wait. One of those is the Fox star.

Congratulations to the American League for winning. We’ll see you back at Target Field in November when the Twins get in the World Series and have the home field advantage.  Bring a sweater.

And now that there have been a gazillion tributes to Derek Jeter, if you want to use Idina Menzel, let her sing "Let It Go."