Friday, May 06, 2016

Friday Questions

Let’s dive into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Igor is up first.

About "Coupling", which I really liked. Great characters and casting. And as with Seinfeld and Curb, it always circled back around (in its own way) to cleverly bring everything together at the end. (Yes, the remake here failed quickly.)

Why do shows like that have to be remade for the US? Why not a sitcom that's set in the UK _and_ intended from the start to also play in the US? Yes, some jokes are "local", but (1) so what, and/or (2) could some scenes be shot twice, or do cut-ins?

British humor (mostly) works here. (And Downton Abbey sure works here.) I'd like to see a first-run British sitcom here w/ actual British actors speaking with their native accents. Can't happen?

You’re preaching to the choir. I’ve long maintained that the original COUPLING by Steven Moffat would be a hit in the US if given a proper platform. It has aired in the US but on a BBC channel.  COUPLING is one of the smartest, funniest sitcoms EVER.  Period. 

I should also note that the reason the U.S. version of COUPLING failed is because of casting and network interference.

British dramas like LUTHER and DOWNTON ABBEY do very well across the pond. I would think a well-constructed truly funny comedy would as well. And if not, I would sure put COUPLING on Friday night over DR. KEN.

Shea Griffin has some CHEERS FQ’s.

Had Shelley stayed for season 6, how would their relationship have progressed? Marriage? Kids? Status quo? And could Cheers have carried on for 11 seasons with the Sam-Diane relationship as the cornerstone?

Hard to say because the Charles Brothers always resisted the idea of them becoming a married couple and turning the show into MAD ABOUT YOU.

So the question becomes how long could we keep them on-again/off-again? How many different twists and turns and arcs could we devise? 

I honestly don’t think we could have gone eleven seasons with that as our primary engine. I’ve always maintained that Sam & Diane was the heart of CHEERS, but Rebecca revitalized the series and kept it going a few more years than it otherwise would have.

But that’s just one man’s conjecture. There was never any long range storyline in place. There’s no telling what might’ve been had Diane stayed and in season seven or eight we introduced a new character and that character took off allowing the show to go in a different direction and stay on the air for fourteen years. You just don’t know.

Here’s an unusual question from Peter:

If you could bring back to life three celebrities who died prematurely, who would you bring back and why? I don't mean celebrities who lived a full life and passed at a grand old age, I mean those who went before their time. I know Natalie Wood is a given, so what three OTHER celebrities?

I find it difficult to just pick three, and they keep changing all the time, but my current three I'd bring back are Robin Williams, Heath Ledger and Dominique Dunne.

Interesting question for you readers as well. Unfortunately so many choices. Like you, mine might change from day to day but for today I’d say Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, and John Lennon.

Is Larry Gelbart considered a celebrity?  Because if so then him for sure.  

And finally, from The Bumble Bee Pendant:

Improving...or even pitching jokes in a writers room... Many people have small short term memories, and the last thing they've heard is the first thing they remember. Probably why there are so many Bachelor jokes, or topical jokes in today's sitcoms. I'm worried that would be me...I'd just freeze and blurt something about Adele.

Ken, As you're going into a Sitcom room or Improv room, do you go in trying to access every memory file in your life, because other wise, all your answers would be "Beiber" or "Trump"?

I try to avoid all name references because they date your show. That’s the big reason why a terrific series like MURPHY BROWN died a horrible death in syndication. It was filled with name references that today mean very little. When was the last time you heard Dan Quayle mentioned?

I’m not saying never do it, and sometimes a well-placed name reference helps establish the time period, but for me the best jokes come out of attitude and characters. Relatability and human foibles never go out of style.

What's your Friday Question?  Or three celebrities you'd like to see take one more bow?  

Thursday, May 05, 2016

My latest podcast appearance

I did a fun podcast recently, STORY WORTHY with Christine Blackburn and Hannes Phinney.  I tell a story about my crazy first girlfriend and then we talk and play games.   You can listen here.   Christine and Hannes chat with each other (a la Kelly Ripa & ?) for the first ten minutes or so and then I'm on the rest of the hour. Whimsy and banter ensue. 

And in case you missed it, here's my podcast with Kevin Smith & Matt Mira.  You can listen here. 

Now you may return to today's regularly scheduled post.  Thank you.

Two MASH stories I hadn't heard

I had lunch recently with two MASH producers – Gene Reynolds (still rockin’ at 93) and Burt Metcalfe. It was the Mount Rushmore of lunches. Naturally we got around to trading MASH stories. They told me a couple I had never heard.

We were talking about censors, and they said there was an early episode called “Tuttle” where Radar reveals he had an imaginary friend. And she was a girl. Trapper asks him to describe her and Radar says, “Like me, only with tiny little breasts.” CBS had no problem with this in the script or dailies, but once the show was finished and turned in they freaked out. When the episode aired they actually bleeped “breasts.”

Compare that to today when every CBS comedy must have the words vagina, penis, and jugs in the teaser.

The other story they told was even more incredible. When MASH aired the famous episode where Henry Blake died there was a huge uproar. To their credit, Gene and Larry Gelbart responded personally to every letter of protest they received. (No, that’s not the incredible part… although it was pretty incredible.)

When it came time to rerun that episode, CBS said “We got a lot of complaints the first time so we think we’re going to cut that scene.” Needless to say Gene and Larry had a fit and CBS aired the episode in its entirety. Can you believe that?

I’m still laughing. That’s a suggestion worthy of Colonel Flagg.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Writing that very tricky series finale

DOWNTON ABBEY ended recently.  THE GOOD WIFE bids a final adieu this Sunday (I'm already crying).   One of the toughest assignments a writer will ever have is crafting a series finale. 

They're much harder to write because the expectations are so much higher.

Some producers make it even harder on themselves by sprinkling in all these mysterious story turns with the promise they'll all be explained at the end.  When they're not (because there are just too damn many of them) their fans are let down.  Such was LOST and X-FILES (although X-FILES keeps coming back... and disappointing more). 

Audiences want to feel confident that their beloved characters get a nice sendoff.  They've almost become friends of the family.

Plus, in sitcoms, the convention is there never really is an ending.  Whatever the conclusion of a normal episode, there is the understanding that the saga will continue next week. Now, all of a sudden, it all comes to an end. How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run. Remember, if your show is that successful, it should be around for years in reruns.

You'll have a larger audience that night so you need to be at your absolute best.  Best jokes, cleverest story turns.  You're really in the limelight. 

There is also an added pressure that sometimes now occurs. The networks try to get as much mileage from your finale as they can (i.e. sell as many spots for high fees) and often they will now ask for supersize episodes. And in a few cases (e.g. CHEERS, FRASIER, MASH, SEINFELD) that can mean as long as two-hours or even more. Your show has a rhythm for 30 minutes and now you have to expand it times four. The weight of that generally pulls down the show. That’s how I felt, quite honestly, about the last MASH. It was waaaaaay too long. Extra length didn’t help the SEINFELD swan song either.

My favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART,and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were standard half hours.


Now if you ask me my favorite last show EVER, it would be a radio show and it absolutely broke every rule imaginable. Lohman & Barkley were a morning team on KFWB, Los Angeles in the ‘60s. They were extremely funny. Lohman did a great number of voices and their show was populated with many hilarious recurring characters. KFWB changed formats to all-news and everyone was let go. On Lohman & Barkley’s last show they systematically killed each of their characters, offing them in the most gruesome ways. Now THAT’S a final show. (Of course six months later they resurfaced on KFI and all their characters magically returned to life.  Not easy to do once you've been -- for example -- buried alive. )

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

And the rich get richer

Celebrities continue to take over the world.

A recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (Yes, I read EW, what of it?) centered on celebrities getting “imprint” book deals with major publishers, in other words their own divisions within publishing empires. Literary giant Gwyneth Paltrow has launched Goop Press at Grand Central Publishing, just to mention one. Lena Dunham (of course), Reese Witherspoon, Chelsea Handler (dear God), Mindy Kaling (at least her books are very funny), and Johnny Depp are others. (Paltrow has said she won’t be editing, just assisting in procuring material. Wouldn’t you love to see J.K. Rowling getting editing notes from Gwyneth Paltrow?)

Good luck to promising new authors getting deals when Reese Witherspoon is available. I mean, it’s understandable. There is so much product and so many options for the consumer that major publishers feel they can cut through all the noise by presenting known entities who already have a fan base and can sell themselves. Hey, it’s just good business.

But the trend extends beyond book publishing. Try getting a play or musical on Broadway without stars. Even if it means Ashlee Simpson starring in CHICAGO (and no, that’s not a joke).

Full-length animated films are now voiced almost exclusively by big stars. Lots of terrific experienced animation voice people now have trouble making a living. Are you saying an animated movie won’t open unless Bridget Mendler does a voice? Or Casey Affleck, or Tempestt Bledsoe, or Anna Kendrick, or Leslie Mann, or Isla Fisher, or Winona Ryder, or Conchata Ferrell, or Cee Lo Green, or Molly Shannon, or Sean William Scott, or Peter Dinklage, or Joy Behar, or Rebel Wilson,or Jessica Chastain, or Frances McDormand, or Jada Pinkett Smith, or Taylor Swift, or Jeremy Piven, or Imelda Straunton, or Lea Michele?

Ditto for voice over commercials. You can’t sell your product without the pitchman being Will Arnett, Zach Braff, George Clooney, John Krasinski, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr., Mandy Patinkin, Tim Allen, David Duchovny? You can’t sell Pampers without Julianna Margulies? Normally I would say, “who cares?” but these celebrity endorsements are taking jobs away from voice over talent who are trying to support their families.

For the celebrities it’s a lark. Just a quick windfall. Julia Roberts goes into a studio, knocks out some copy for an hour and walks out with a bundle. I don’t blame the celebs. Julia Roberts didn’t hold a gun to the ad exec. Someone offers her a lot of money for very little effort she’d be nuts not to take it. And if she didn’t take it, they’d give it to Gwyneth Paltrow, not a voice over artist.

And I understand the appeal of celebrity endorsements IF you can recognize them. It’s one thing when June Allyson was on camera hawking Depends; it’s another when you just hear Julianna Margulies’ voice pitching Pampers. Two hundred seasoned voice-over actresses couldn’t do that Pampers spot just as well or better? And cheaper? I’m pretty sure Julianna Margulies is not getting scale.

Celebrities take advantage of the opportunities they’re afforded. Again, can’t fault them for that. For years TV stars have been given their own “production companies.” A few like Desi Arnaz, Danny Thomas, Henry Winkler, and Kelsey Grammer took them seriously and produced multiple series but most are just vanity companies. The stars get bored, or the hit show they’re on gets cancelled, or they realize there’s some actual “work” involved and they’re out of the producing game. Longtime writer/producer/creators have trouble getting development deals but co-stars get to hang their shingles.

Like I said, I totally get the reason for this trend. I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of non-celebs just trying to make a living.

Maybe I’ll write a book about it. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow is accepting submissions.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Larry Wilmore bombed at the White House Correspondents Dinner

I keep wanting to like Larry Wilmore.

From what I hear he’s a lovely guy. And I sure liked THE BERNIE MAC SHOW, which he ran.

I know he’s talented. I know he’s funny. I was pleased when I heard he was taking over for Stephen Colbert.

But when I watch that show it just doesn’t do it for me. It feels smug and I rarely laugh. Samantha Bee – I laugh. Trevor Noah – Well, I wasn’t expecting much anyway. But Larry Wilmore – it’s like when your five-year-old hits the ball in T-ball but runs to third.

I still tune in from time to time hoping he’s settled in and finally knows to run to first base. But there he goes up the third base line.

Fortunately, I know other people who find his show entertaining, so maybe it’s just me. You can’t tell from his studio audience because those bleachers are filled with screaming hyenas that go batshit over every line.

In any event, I was looking forward to seeing how he’d do hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night. And honestly, I was rooting for him.

Ohmygod. He was painful.

Now, it didn’t help that he followed President Obama who was hilarious. Say what you will, the man knows how to deliver a joke. And apparently how to hire excellent comedy writers.

Larry absolutely bombed. And without the benefit of his Red Bull/orgasmic normal audience his material was getting groans. In many cases, the best he could hope for was silence. The only real laughter was sporadic nervous chuckles – coming from Larry himself.

Hard to know who to blame – bad writers, bad judgment on his part, or a less-than-polished delivery. But his monologue was a disaster. Lame jokes and cheap shots. Kelly Ripa jokes. Ha ha. Bill Clinton hooker jokes. Snicker snicker. Jeb Bush jokes. Yawn.   Ben Carson jokes. Zzzzz. And Bill Cosby jokes. Outright disgust. At times I thought people were going to storm the stage.  CNN Correspondent Don Lemon gave him the finger. 

He had no less than twenty jokes about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac killer and not a single one worked. You would think after the fifth one tanked he would know enough to scrap the remaining fifteen.

And it’s not like he didn’t know he was bombing. At one point he said, “Hey, groans are good.” Another time he said to the audience, “You guys are tough.”  No, they weren't.  They laughed uproariously for a half hour before he got on. 

He wrapped it up by saying to the President of the United States, “You did it my n*gga!”

Yikes.

If ever there should have been walk-off music, if ever there should have been a hook or a gong five minutes into a monologue this was it.

It’s as if your five-year-old hit the ball then took off his pants – moments after Roseanne sang the National Anthem.

And I like Larry Wilmore. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

May Day (Malone)

With this being May Day, I thought I’d focus today’s post on Sam “Mayday” Malone (not that I haven’t mentioned him 46 times already this year).

First off, as I’m sure you know, I greatly admire Ted Danson, both as a person and an actor. So I’ll skip the two paragraphs of fawning that would otherwise go with this profile.

Some things you may know; some you may not.

As originally conceived by the Charles Brothers, Sam Malone was a former football player for the Patriots. Fred Dryer was more who they had in mind. And he was a finalist for the role (along with William Devane).

Ted however, was so charming and there was such chemistry with Shelley Long that they decided to cast him instead. But Ted as a football bruiser is only slightly more believable than me as an NFL lineman so they made Sam a baseball player instead.

The supposed photo of Sam in uniform at the bar was really Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg.

To prepare for the role Ted went to bartending school.

Over the course of eleven years he must’ve cut up 18,000,000 lemons. Actors always like to have some “business;” something to do. The obvious thing for him would be to make drinks all the time, but then the waitresses would have to get them, deliver them to tables, etc. Cutting lemons was an activity that required no further logistics. (I jokingly used to say that Sam should sell the bar and become a sushi chef.)

Ted really struggled finding the character in the first season because in real life he’s so unlike Sam Malone. He’s not a womanizer, not a jock, not vain, and not a recovering alcoholic. The fact that he appears so convincing and so effortless is a real testament to just how excellent an actor he is. (Again, jokingly, I used say it was okay if he wanted to model the character after me.) 

Over the course of the series Sam became dumber, a decision that offered more room for comedy, but I never liked it. Most characters grow and evolve over time. Personally, my favorite version of Sam Malone was the one in the pilot.

Ted never threw his weight around as the star. One day the Charles Brothers, Jimmy Burrows, David and I, our line producer and editor were in Les’ office going over a roughcut. Ted wandered in and sat down. Glen hit pause, Les politely told Ted that actors were not allowed to sit in on editing, and Ted apologized and ducked out. I can think of ten other stars who would have reacted quite differently.

Ted was always protective of the other cast members, guest cast, and extras. Oh wait. I said I wouldn’t fawn.

Ted never watched the show when it was on the air. He felt he would be too self-critical and would tinker with his performance – possibly ruining it.  Years after CHEERS ended Ted finally began watching, and guess what? He really liked it.

How accurate is testing? In one of the later seasons Sam’s arc was that he was trying to get Rebecca into bed. We had him do some of the most horrible deceitful things. Audience testing came back and Ted ranked the highest. He was most likeable – seen as a father figure to everyone at the bar. What show were they watching? (Meanwhile, Frasier tested the worst.)

Ted rarely complained about the material. And when he did, he was always respectful. And most always right.

CHEERS ended after eleven seasons because Ted decided he no longer wanted to do the show. Many blame Whoopi Goldberg (his girlfriend at the time). They felt she swayed his decision. I think he left for another reason. I’ve never discussed this with him, but my feeling is he knew that at a certain age the character would border on sad. The slick player might seem very charming in his 30’s but a little pathetic in his 40’s. I think he left because he was protecting Sam Malone.

A few years later, he reprised the character on FRASIER – an episode my partner David Isaacs and I wrote – and we tried to address that by getting him engaged. Ultimately, the wedding was called off, but we wanted to convey that Sam was aware of his situation and was actively trying to move on. Even with that, I still got the sense Ted was somewhat uncomfortable playing Sam Malone again.

BECKER was a spec script written by Dave Hackel. The main reasons why Ted responded to it was (a) it was very well written, and (b) the character was so unlike Sam. Ted wanted to distance himself from Sam and play something very different and age-appropriate. For that I give him so much credit. How many sitcom stars have you seen who continue to play essentially the same character in series after series, even after they’ve long since outgrown that character? (Who remembers LIFE WITH LUCY?)

And finally, Ted truly found his soulmate in Mary Steenburgen. If ever there was a perfect match it’s those two. Sam & Diane could only dream of such a marriage.

Happy May Day. 
This is a re-post from a few years ago.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Louis CK could have been a silent movie star

This is from the very cool folks at AV Club, edited by Dominick Nero. He doctored some footage from Louis CK's LOUIE series and showed how well it could work as a silent movie. Check it out.