Monday, August 20, 2018

Another secret of comedy

THE PLAY THAT GOES does pretty much everything right. It started in England and continues on Broadway. For all the heavy “important” plays that have come and gone over the past year, this hilarious farce continues to bring in and delight audiences.

The premise is simple. We’re there to watch a drawing room mystery and every conceivable thing that could go wrong does. Missed cues, scenery falling, effects going off at the wrong time, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. The cast was wonderful and the play was a masterclass in comic timing.

But there was something else that made the play work, something under the surface. But it was key, and without it the entire show would fail. What was it? Simply this:

The characters did not know they were in a comedy.

In other words, the actors played it straight. There was no winking at the audience. There was no acknowledgement that they were acting extraordinarily silly. To the characters, these events were real. And they were catastrophic – to THEM. To us, the audience, they were uproarious.

For my money, you get stronger heightened comedy when the characters don’t ham it up. You can put them in absurd very broad situations, but if they take it seriously then their reactions to the absurdity make sense.

The fact that the drawing room play failed was so funny was because the characters so wanted it to succeed. As the world was collapsing all around them they struggled to persevere, maintain their dignity, and control the damage. Instead of taking the stance of “Did you all see that?” they chose instead “I hope you didn’t see that.” And that one attitude made all the difference in the world.

If you’re writing a comedy, or directing a comedy, keep that principle in mind. It requires the actors to trust the material. If they don’t they sometimes get too big or try to save the day by milking laughs or breaking character. That’s the fastest way for a show to go into the tank.

Keep it real.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Another Opening, another Closing -- the same night

I'm participating in another one-day play festival at the Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica.  That's where five playwrights meet at 9:00 AM, are given a topic, two actors, and three hours to write a ten-minute play.   Actors and directors learn and stage them in the afternoon and tonight at 7:30 and 9:00 they're presented to you the lucky public.

It's a great writing exercise.  As fellow playwright, Matthew Weaver, observed:  You don't have time to question whether something is "good."   In a sense, the speed of the exercise forces you to get out of your own way.

A number of plays I've written for this project have been accepted in festivals around the world.  Two of them will be included in the Short + Sweet Hollywood Festival next month in, of all places, Hollywood.  One I'll be directing as well.

In fairness, some other plays I wrote for the Ruskin will mercifully never see the light of day again.  But that's part of the fun.  You never really know what you're going to get.  And that adds a charge of electricity to the night.

Anyway, here's where you go for more information.  And if you're there, stop by and say hello.  I'll be the one either beaming in the corner or hiding behind a plant. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

My favorite Aretha Franklin moment

So many deserving tributes to the Queen of Soul.  But do you know this story?

One year at the Grammys, Pavoratti was supposed to sing “Nessun Dorma,” the famous final act opener from Giacomo Puccini’s Turnadot. He developed a sore throat and couldn't go on. So who stepped in last minute? Aretha. And all she had to do was perform it at Radio City on live national TV later that night. My R-E-S-P-E-C-T has no bounds.

UPDATE: Thanks to some astute readers, here is that performance.    Check it out.  What a spectacular and courageous talent. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Friday Questions

Friday Questions everybody. Come and get ‘em.

Dsull leads off with a question about the five sitcoms I listed as my all-time favorites.

With the exception Seinfeld, all your favorite sitcoms come from your younger days. Do you think you have a bias toward that era or do you genuinely believe the shows were just better then? And if that's the case, any thoughts on why? Or is it possible that after writing professionally for so many years, the shows just don't feel as fresh to you? Granted, many lists would have quite a few of your shows on it so obviously your list will look different than most!

Part of the reason those older shows were on my list is because they inspired me and made me want to become a writer. Are they “better” than more current shows? That’s a matter of personal taste. But I will say this. These older shows still hold up some fifty or sixty years later. Will 30 ROCK or VEEP (I selected series that won Best Comedy Emmys) be seen and appreciated sixty years from now?

When I taught a “Foundations of Comedy” course at USC and screened an episode of BILKO to a room of a hundred Millennials, it received uninterrupted laughter. If you are a student of comedy it’s worth going back and watching these iconic series.

SK has a question regarding my recent podcast where I talked about the process of making an episode of CHEERS. Check it out if you haven’t already.

"The Making of CHEERS" podcast had a detail I never considered: there is more time to write (and rewrite) episodes earlier in the season; but episodes written later are sometimes only single drafts. That inspired me to ask ask my first-ever Friday Question (and it's multi-part!): Do those time considerations affect the order that episodes are written? Are episodes written in the planned order of production/broadcast? Or were "important" episodes (like those broadcast during sweeps, or season finales) addressed earlier to provide more time to refine them?

One of the reasons networks don’t like serialized shows, especially sitcoms, is because they like the flexibility of airing them in whatever order they please. This often leads to fights between the showrunner and the network and most of the time the network wins.

Some episodes are programmed specifically for sweeps. Those usually involve stunt casting or weddings. And if filming is subject to availability of the big stunt guest star, those episodes might be filmed early and held back.

Also, holiday-themed episodes are locked into air dates regardless of when they’re filmed.

Personally, as a showrunner I liked the flexibility of being able to shuffle the cards. If we had a show that didn’t come out great that’s the one we would save to go up against the World Series or the finals of THE VOICE. Being able to hide your weaker shows is a blessing.

Tim Cabeen also listened to my podcast about the making of CHEERS.

I have one curious question: Was there ever an episode that was so good from the first draft that little or no rewrites were needed? There are so many good ones that it would be cool to know that any one of them was perfect from the get go.

There was only one CHEERS script that received no rewriting whatsoever, and it was one that my partner David Isaacs and I wrote. Now before you think, “Wow, it must’ve been the greatest first draft ever” just know that the reason it wasn’t rewritten was because there was a WGA strike and no one was allowed to rewrite it. It’s the first Bar Wars episode. It came out okay, but you know what? It could have used a rewrite.

Finally, from Mike Bloodworth:

Have you heard of or seen MASTERCLASS? It’s a series of online classes taught by some really big names. They run the gamut from Comedy with Steve Martin, Cooking with Gordon Ramsay and Photography with Annie Leibovitz. But how its applicable to this blog is they also have writing classes. Including Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes and David Mamet. The reviews I've read have been mostly positive, but not all. And of course it’s not free. What's your opinion of this kind of instruction for T.V./screen/theater? If they asked you and David to do one, would you?

Sure I would. To get folks like Aaron Sorkin and Steve Martin on board you gotta pay big bucks.Sign me up!

Are the MASTERCLASSES good? I’m sure they are. I have not seen one. I suspect some are better than others. The big question, which I can’t answer is, are they worth what customers have to pay to take them? Would love to hear from some readers who have taken one or more of these courses. Thanks.

Please leave your Friday Questions in the comment section.  Thanks for that too. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The one reboot I want to see

The reboot craze continues. There’s talk of ALF returning (thank God!) along with FACTS OF LIFE (dear God!). 24 may get a prequel. I guess the MAD ABOUT YOU reboot won’t happen, but as you all know there’s talk of FRASIER possibly returning to the airwaves.

Networks are basically admitting they can’t develop anything new. So I figure, since every show from television’s past is suddenly being considered for a revival, what about the series that began originally with a 49 share? Obviously America was in love with that show.

So I think one of the networks should do a reboot of AfterMASH. Let us finally get that show right.

First off, casting.  We need to go a year or two younger.   Liam Hemsworth for Klinger. Will Poulter for Colonel Potter. And we need to go diverse so Michael B. Jordan for Father Mulcahy. Roz Chao, who played Klinger’s young Korean wife, hasn’t aged a day in thirty years so she can still keep her role.

The show was originally set in a Veteran’s Hospital. What a goldmine for comedy that was! For the reboot we set it in the infirmary of a luxury cruise ship. That way we can work in a little LOVE BOAT action.

The show is still set in 1953 right after the Korean War (we must preserve the dignity of the franchise) but all the patients are in their 20’s and hot. The Korean War was brutal and only the handsome survived.

To ensure that the dialogue reflects the comic attitude and style of today, only Millennials will write the show. I may come by once or twice to explain what the Korean War was.

The stories will be more upbeat. Prosthetics is an area for comedy that bewilderingly was not covered the first time. Same with shock treatments.

Keep the haunting AfterMASH theme but just have KISS re-record it.

Whattaya think?

AfterMASH could be the reboot to end all reboots.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

EP85: Meet Peri Gilpin of FRASIER

Peri Gilpin, who played Roz on FRASIER talks about the possible
FRASIER reboot, working with that cast, her career, and her dad who was a celebrity himself.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

The one I'd take back

There was a good article in a recent NEW YORK MAGAZINE called “the One I’d Take Back.” They asked six comedians (like Patton Oswalt) which joke or jokes they’ve told in the past that now they now regret and wish they could take back. 

There are a number of scripts I’ve written I wish I could have back, but that’s just because with the benefit of experience I think I could do a better job. It has nothing to do with questionable content.

But the article did get me thinking back to my days as a wise-ass Top 40 DJ. Very rarely did I “get in trouble” because of things I said on the air. I was pretty good at walking that line. The biggest brouhaha I ever got into was on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1977. I was playing a commercial for a Donna Summer concert that was going to be held at the Fabulous Forum (then-home of the Lakers and Kings). I said, “today the Forum, in ten years Magic Mountain.” Someone from her record company had a shit fit and raised a stink. I was told to not make fun of Donna Summer. (By the way, I was right.)

What I did do was poke fun at recording artists on occasion. Believe me, I was not unique in that. Dan Ingram, Don Imus, Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, Howard Stern, and others routinely teed off on artists.

So looking back, I mocked Bob Dylan. That’s still okay. I mocked Barry Manilow. Still acceptable. Mick Jagger – no problem. Psychedelic bands – safe targets. The Partridge Family – go to town. The Temptations? I’m a racist. I would goof on how hip they tried to be. But it made no difference. Had I known then what I know now, the Temptations would have been off-limits, period. I can argue that you needed to understand the context and I was an equal-opportunity-offender but that’s one I’d like back.

I’m sure these comics felt the same way – you listen back to some of the things you said that you thought were perfectly fine and funny and now you just cringe. Yes, comedy often offends someone, but in this case I offended myself. Fortunately for me, these were live radio shows. Unless I play you the tapes, you’ll never hear them. Thank God this was before Twitter.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My thoughts on Mini-rooms

Networks and studios have found yet another way to exploit writers. Their latest brainchild: Mini-Rooms. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about it.

When a network orders a pilot for a short series (6-13 episodes) they now put together a small room of baby writers for two or three weeks to come up with future stories and/or scripts. If the show is then picked up they already have a lot of the stories broken and writing completed.  They don’t have to hire a full room of writers and even if they do there’s now less work to be done so the time frame is less and the network or studio is in an advantageous bargaining position.

So writers are hired on the cheap. And in a business where stability continues to dangerously shrink, TV staff jobs start seeming like four-week freelance assignments. Writers have to cobble together a bunch of these a year to survive. And getting any TV writing job is harder these days. Way more hoops. You have to be approved by the network and the studio and pod producers. Generally it takes meetings with three or four entities before a writer is offered even an entry-level job.

Can the WGA stop this? Not really. The networks/studios have found a loophole. They’re paying Guild minimums to these Mini-room baby writers (who understandably are just relieved to be working, even if it’s for the minimum and only for a couple of weeks) so they’re not doing anything strictly illegal.

And who is there to safeguard and protect writers from this insidious practice? Well, it should be agents. That’s their job. They could fight to ensure their clients got proper above-scale compensation. So why don’t they?  Because commissions are no longer their primary source of income.  In this new conglomerate world agencies now survive by making package deals and owning a percentage of shows.  Hard to fault them.  Everybody has to adjust to this new marketplace. But writers do receive way less protection than they used to. 

This is just another reason why the WGA wants to renegotiate their long-standing agreement with agencies.

Personally, I loathe the idea of Mini-rooms. If you hire me and my writing partner to create a series for you the pilot will be in our voice. We don’t need to enlist the help of inexperienced writers for pennies on the dollar. And quite frankly, it’s insulting to us that the studio/network would even suggest it. It’s like we can’t deliver a pilot on our own? We have to surround ourselves with help?

It’s one thing if you have a multi-cam pilot in production. Scripts have to be rewritten in one night following run-throughs. Putting together a mini-room for one or two nights makes sense in that case. But guess what? Studios/networks WON’T pay for those mini-rooms. Instead, writers have to rely on their experienced colleagues to come in as a favor, usually for a nice gift that comes out of the showrunner’s pocket.

And even that is now further exploited because writers are putting together mini-rooms to punch up pilot scripts before they go to the network. And those rooms are not compensated. In those cases I lay the blame squarely on the writer who created the pilot. First of all, where is his pride? Secondly, he’s being paid a lot of money to write a pilot. I get a free lunch in Styrofoam? I’ve helped out on a couple of pilots like this (not knowing the situation beforehand) but never again. And if I ever find myself in this situation in the future, believing I was helping out during production when it was actually pre-production, I will wish the creator well and go home.

Just remember this: All these changes in the system are designed EXCLUSIVELY to help the studio and network  and agency and save money. They are NEVER to benefit the writer. They are NEVER to improve the quality of the creative process. So pretty much anytime there’s another one of these new trends like Mini-rooms or Paper Partners you can pretty much bet that my position is I’m against it.