Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Questions. Boo!

Happy Halloween. Trick or Friday Questions?

Matt gets us started:

It seems to me that successful plays used to be made into movies. Maybe I am missing them, but that doesn't appear to me to be happening anymore. But I don't understand why. Seems like you would have a built in audience, good press already and in general plays would be more plot driven and cheaper to produce as movies. They wouldn't have to be blockbusters to be a financial success. Can you explain this to me or at least tell me I am wrong?

Plays are still adapted to movies but less frequently.  DINNER WITH FRIENDS springs to mind. First of all, there are fewer original plays getting to Broadway. Revivals and adaptations of Disney movies are clogging up the theatres these days -- an alarming trend to be sure.

Another problem is that plays often are set in one location – like an apartment. (Again -- DINNER WITH FRIENDS).  It’s sometimes difficult to open up a play and make it more visual without losing the essence of the piece. Plays are more dialogue driven. Movies are controlled by images.

Also, plays are sometimes very stylistic, taking advantage of the theatrical experience. When converted to the real world of film they often lose their magic.

That said, my play A OR B? (now playing at the Falcon Theatre) would make a great motion picture. Please contact my agent.

From Jim:

I'm just a bit curious to know what your writing process is when its just you. No partner, no assistant, and I guess no budget for anything like that, just you. Do you sit at your PC quietly typing stuff out, the benefit of years in the business. Or do you try and re-enact everything yourself, complete with impressions of your actors, using whatever you've got to hand as props.

I work on my desktop Apple or laptop Apple, just quietly typing (and mostly deleting). Often I’ll have ‘60s music playing. I like the energy and variety. And what’s better inspiration for writing comedy than “Eve of Destruction?”

When I’m finished with several scenes I print them out and revise off of that. Often I will read it aloud to hear the rhythm. I’m very big on flow and having the dialogue sound conversational and natural.

I never act anything out. I’m way too klutzy.

Steve B. has a question regarding my review of SELFIE:

I saw the pilot, and felt exactly the same way as you did. But you seem to completely dismiss the chances for the show after one episode. We've all seen shows that eventually find their legs and grow greatly over the first season. What is there about a show that will make you give up at the very beginning, and what might give you a little hope to hang in there?

Look, there are shows you watch and see something of value even if it’s undercooked and are willing to give it another chance or two. And then there are shows you see and go “Ugh!!” That’s just human nature. You hate the premise, hate the actors, don’t think it’s amusing or compelling, and time’s too short. For me it’s often the writing. For most people it’s the casting.

But now there’s a third viewing option: shows you hate-watch. There’s something about the train wreck aspect of them that just fascinates you. Watching how inept, how stupid, how unfunny they are is oddly entertaining. We’re a sick society… well, some of us are.

What shows do you hate-watch?

Brian Phillips wonders:

Who did you work with that had a bad reputation, or you heard bad things about, that turned out to be a positive working experience?

Producer Scott Rudin. I had heard horror stories but found him smart, respectful, supportive, and helpful. Of the many studio producers or executives I’ve worked with, he’s one of my favorites.

And I’ve mentioned this before, Kristin Chenowith. I directed three episodes of her sitcom KRISTIN and she could not have been nicer, more professional, and gracious – not just to me but everyone on the crew. That’s the real tell with actors – how do they treat crew members? Kristin was absolutely lovely. I would work with her again in a second.

Have a safe and sane Halloween tonight.  Leave your questions in the comment section and come see my play.  Only a couple of weeks left. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The future of network sitcoms

As I discussed Tuesday, networks are frantically rebooting old sitcoms. Soon they’ll run out of them. And then what? Original ideas are not an option. So they’ll start redeveloping drama franchises as comedies. Here’s a glimpse into the future and what TV viewers can expect:

INT. VP OF COMEDY DEVELOPMENT’S OFFICE (2019) – DAY

The Comedy VP is taking pitches from the few comedy writers who are still approved. We CUT from pitch meeting to pitch meeting.

WRITER #1: This is a can't miss idea.   HOMELAND: THE COMEDY. I want to do a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW type thing with Claire as Mary and Saul as Lou Grant. The terrorist leader could be Ted Baxter.

VP: Be careful with that. We have to be sensitive to all nationalities. The terrorist watchgroup is always on our ass. But we can now show Carrie giving a blowjob. That’s okay.

WRITER #1: "Oh Mr. Berenson."

VP:  "Who can blow the world up with her smile?"  I love it!

CUT TO:

WRITER #2: Talk about "comedy gold" --  DEXTER as a Benihana chef. Can’t you just see it? “Hey, Dexter, where’s Manuel?” “Manuel isn’t coming in tonight.” Ha ha ha.  And we set it in New Jersey. For the killings, instead of a weird abandoned warehouse, we give him kind of a fun man-cave. “Tonight we’re featuring Hibachi Mobster.”

VP: Single-camera?

WRITER #2: No. I see it multi-cam, in front of an audience.  The first row might have to wear ponchos though. 

CUT TO:

WRITER #3: THE GOOD WIFE but set in a high school.

CUT TO:

WRITER #4: COLD CASE but as a musical.

CUT TO:

WRITER #5: CSI: BLYTHE. Here’s the twist: there hasn’t been a murder in five years. The CSI team is analyzing each others hair and using their sophisticated equipment to determine if they need to rotate the van’s tires. Think of the fun things you could do with all that equipment if it were put to other use. For instance: two technicians compare the molecular content of their sperm. I’m laughin’ just thinking about it. You could also call the show BORED-WALK EMPIRE. Get it?

CUT TO:

WRITER #6: BLACKLIST with real blacks.

CUT TO:

WRITER #7: I want to bring back THE EQUALIZER.

VP: (after a beat) Yeah…?

WRITER #7: That’s it. Just show the original. Trust me it is now a comedy.

CUT TO:

WRITER #8: I know it’s a movie and not a former TV show but what about SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? They screw up and try to save Ryan Reynolds from making bad career choices.

Enjoy the 2019-20 season.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved and tonight is game seven of the World Series). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh no! Another TV rant from me

I guess original ideas are now out. For years networks have been “claiming” that want new ideas, fresh voices. They’re done with tired hackneyed sitcom premises. They have no use for old style rhythms. It’s time to reinvent the form. Be daring. “This is not your parents sitcom.”

Well, they're past that. This year practically everything they’re buying is either adaptations of old movies or adaptations of old TV shows. Gee, that worked so well for NBC with IRONSIDE and THE BIONIC WOMAN.

NBC is rebooting BEWITCHED. Like we need to see that bastardized again. Anyone remember the Nora Ephron film version with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell? Probably not because no one went to see it. Could it just possibly be, and I know this is a crazy notion, that the charm and appeal of BEWITCHED was Elizabeth Montgomery? Brooklyn Decker might not measure up. Or Sarah Chalke. Or “fill in blank of blonde actress who bombed in three previous romantic sitcoms.” By the way, there was a bidding war for this project.

Every day I read that another chestnut is being dusted off. The movie HITCHED recently. ABC is remaking THE BACHELOR PARTY. FOX just bought THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (that one is a real head scratcher).

NBC tried to reboot SAY ANYTHING, but Cameron Crowe (God bless him) made a stink and they dropped the project.

For every adaptation that works (like MASH) there are twenty that don’t.

And that goes the other way too. Movies based on TV series rarely connect. Without Denzel Washington I don’t think anyone would go to see THE EQUALIZER. And there weren’t long lines to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE HONEYMOONERS, CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU, DRAGNET, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, DUKES OF HAZZARD, GET SMART, THE GONG SHOW MOVIE, I SPY, LOST IN SPACE, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, SGT. BILKO, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, STARSKY & HUTCH, and S.W.A.T. Before you race to the comments section to list STAR TREK and the other franchises that were hits, I know there have been some but way more have missed.

My point is that Hollywood (and the networks in particular) is once again playing it safe.  Waaaay safe.  Trading on a name or concept. It worked once before, why not again? And if a network should also own the property then they get to double-dip in success. I’m not planning on pitching anything this season, meaning I’m not going out with VOLUNTEERS. But if you are, don’t waste your time coming up with something you’ve never seen before; go to ME-TV and attach yourself to GIDGET.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Closing in on Opening Night

Here’s the latest installment of the mounting of my play, A or B? now playing at the Falcon Theatre.

Everything was geared towards Opening Night, which was last Friday. We had seven previews to tinker. Thanks to all the guinea pigs who attended one of those shows. Come back. It’s different now.

The Saturday night before Opening we had a great crowd. I told the cast I really got the chance to hear what jokes worked and didn’t so to expect a blizzard of new jokes tomorrow. I wasn’t going to do that to them every day, and they’d have several days to learn them, but I warned them they were coming. I then went home and rewrote until 4:30.

Sure enough the new jokes helped. Most worked. I felt I was plugging up holes.

The somewhat major changes I had proposed the week before we put in on Wednesday. This required new blocking, light and sound cues, and the actors getting comfortable with a new scene (which was really the intercutting of two previous scenes). Oh… and then performing it later that night. Three hours of rehearsal were all they required to pull it off. Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert are amazing. Hey, it turns out years of classical training comes in handy.  Who knew?   (Unless you want to be a sitcom star and then just be a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.)

The Wednesday and Thursday previews played okay. The actors were still feeling their way a little. I told them I was not going to give them any more lines this week and they could just learn what they had. Of course I lied and gave them a couple.

Hey, I’m so neurotic I rewrote the pre-show turn-off-your-cellphones announcement. Why not get a few chuckles even before the show and send the message to the audience that it's okay to laugh.  (Preferred even.)

Friday was Opening Night. What they don’t tell you is that opening day of opening night is murder. I kind of walked around in a daze, just looking for things to do, but I’ll be honest, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I don’t wonder how Neil Simon wrote so many plays. I wonder how he survived so many opening days.

I picked up some Opening Night gifts for the cast and some crew members. That killed a little time. I stopped off at nearby Vendome Liquor and bumped into my radio friend, Rick Dees. He had this bottle of bourbon and invited me to take a sip. I did. It was good. He then told me the bottle cost $2000. Wow. It’s a good thing I didn’t ask for some ginger ale to go with it. We made plans to get lunch and I’ll return the favor by offering a sip of some vintage Mogan David’s.

At 7:30 the theatre started filling up. Garry Marshall, who had been in New York directing a play, flew back for this. I love the fact that he did, but no additional pressure there. My son Matt and his wife came down from Silicon Valley. A few other familiar faces including my writing partner David Isaacs and Treva Silverman who is my unofficial dramaturge. Lots of others streamed in who I didn’t know. Which ones were critics?

Some playwrights like to pace in the back during the show but there’s no space to pace. So I sat in the last row with my family and the Marshalls two seats over.

Boy, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear the first big laugh. And the second. And that they came within the first couple of minutes not hours. Garry was even laughing. I still couldn’t breathe because at any moment the laughs could stop. But thankfully they continued, the cast rose to new heights, and everything finally came together. I was able to exhale for the first time in two days. Seriously, how does Neil Simon do it?

The Falcon always has a great reception in the lobby after the Opening. Fantastic meatballs. I was able to eat everything AND keep it all down.

Now the show is in its run. Five performances a week. Come see it. I’m there every night. How often do I have a play in production? Am I still giving them new lines? Only a few. And not every day. Honest. Like today. No new lines today. Okay, today is a day off. But still.

Hope you enjoyed this series on the making of my play. If I ever become a Benihana chef I will chronicle that journey too, assuming I still have any fingers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

R.I.P. Dale Dorman

So sorry to hear of the passing of Dale Dorman. Most people don’t know him. But those that do – and I’d bet it’s about a million – loved him. Dale was a longtime disc jockey in Boston. So many listeners felt a closeness to him that he was not just a friend; he was almost a family member. He was known affectionately as Uncle Dale, a nickname he received when he was 21. He was 71 when he died, after battling a long illness (which he always downplayed). 

We were close friends for over 40 years.

I first heard Dale on the radio in 1966 at KFRC, San Francisco. They were the powerhouse Top 40 station back then, one of the pillars of the Drake format that dominated radio in the late ‘60s. But he was very different. Most Drake jocks had rich deep voices. Dale had a high squeaky voice. He was the last person you could imagine would ever get an on-air gig on a major market station.

But Dale compensated by his personality. He was warm, engaging, and wickedly funny. He did the kind of content I appreciated (and adopted although not as well) – all off-the-cuff. In short, he was a revelation.

In 1968 he was transferred to WRKO in Boston where he became the morning man. Almost instantly he was a sensation. For all the announcers with deep authoritative pipes, the guy who sounded like Mickey Mouse kicked their butts. (It’s a lesson that radio still hasn’t learned.)

After 10 years at WRKO he moved on to KISS-FM where he ruled the ratings for another 20 years, then ending his career at WODS.

Getting together with Dale meant either steaks (LA), lobster (Boston), and enough laughs to fill the space in between. As funny as he was on the air, he was twice as funny off. Irreverent, satiric, and sooooo damn fast. If he had gone into comedy writing instead of radio he’d be a legend in that field. He’d be a premiere comedian if he had chosen stand-up as his career. Or he would’ve out Dave Barry’d Dave Barry if prose was his dish. He was just that good, just that hysterical.

My trips to Boston would always include a day just watching him do his show. I was a middle-aged geeky fanboy.

Dale Dorman is proof that one can beat the odds with talent, heart, and dedication. He had a high voice but a deep mind. And he leaves behind a million nephews and nieces who will forever love and miss their Uncle Dave.

How we plotted stories on MASH

MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekhov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one is better at story than Gene Reynolds. It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.   Check out my archives sometime.  There are one or two decent entries.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

First review is in

I'll take it.  Any review that starts out with WOW! I'll take.  It's from Stage Scene LA.    Am I allowed to thank a critic?  Oh hell, I'll do it anyway.  Thanks Steven Stanley.

Opening Night

Details Monday when I continue my series on the making of my play, A or B? but thrilled to say that the official opening last night came off extremely well.  I can exhale for the first time in two days.   Opening "days" before Opening Nights are nerve wracking as hell I've just learned. 

Don't know what the reviewers will say, but there were a lot of big laughs, and the cast of Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert just crushed it.  They were thrilling to watch. 

Here's a big difference between Broadway and Burbank:  On Broadway you have Sardi's nearby, the ritzy watering hole of the theater set.  Sondheim, Simon, etc.  In Burbank there's Sardo's.  It's a bar that has porn star karaoke.

Lots of people to thank.  My amazing cast and crew.  Andy Barnicle for proving I was so right not to direct this play myself.  The audience certainly.   And Garry Marshall and the incredible staff at the Falcon Theatre.  

A or B? runs thru November 16, and I'll be there every night.   Come see it.  And say hello. I promise to breathe.