Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday Questions

Heating up the summer with Friday Questions:

Arthur Mee starts us off:

So you write a blog post. Two days later, a paid newspaper columnist takes EXACTLY the same idea, rewrites it somewhat (but not that much), and puts it up as her own column.

Is this something that vexes you? Or do you shrug it off and say "that's life"? And did/does anything similar happen in the world of TV?

Considering my article was posted July 11th and hers was July 15th it seems pretty clear she “borrowed” my idea.

It would have been nice had the author acknowledged she got the idea for her article from my blog, gave me credit, and linked to my post – that’s what I try to do when I base a post on something I’ve read, but generally I shrug it off. Had she used chunks of my post and called it her own that would be a different story.  But this happens from time to time. 

Pat from Salem asks:

What are your thoughts about actors receiving royalties for having their character mentioned in an episode even if they don't actually appear? For instance, if Frasier refers to Lilith doing something in an episode, and even though Bebe Nuewirth doesn't appear in that episode, I still get to enjoy her "performance" because I can't really imagine any other actor in that role. Its almost like she did perform in that episode.

Huh? Actors don’t get royalties if their characters are just mentioned.

From Peter:

I sometimes wonder what sort of TV/home entertainment set-up people who work in the industry have at home. For example, I would assume Spielberg and Cameron have the most expensive and state of the art equipment for watching TV and movies.

What do you have? An HD TV or have you already upgraded to a 4K TV? A DVD player or a Blu-Ray player or 4K Blu-Ray player?

Without giving an inventory to would-be burglars, let’s just say I have a television, it’s in color, and I can watch recorded things. I’m usually one K or D behind.

Guys like Steven Spielberg have their own screening rooms. His comes complete with a candy counter. I always thought that was the height of extravagance until I learned that Barbra Streisand has her own shopping mall in her house.

Dave wonders:

After watching early vs later seasons of MASH, I seem to notice much more inventive ways to film opening establishing shots of the episodes in the early years vs late years. For example, there were many long shots through tent windows or doors, versus a quick set up 3 shot in the mess tent...is there a budget or time consideration that goes into that sort of thing? Or something else?

It had to do more with what directors were hired. Also, in the early years there was more attention paid to orienting the audience to the world they were seeing. After a few years the audience knew the MASH compound as well or better than we did. And the time taken to do those pretty establishing shots is time taken away from the script.

Alan Alda is very visual and the episodes he directed all had lovely establishing shots. But his first-edits were always long and those beauty shots were the first to go.

Of all the directors MASH used, Gene Reynolds is most responsible for the look and tone of the show.

And finally, from Bob Zirunkel:

Ken, a Friday question with a preamble:

The best advice I received but did not heed was from a seventh-grade guidance counselor who told our class that now was the time to start developing disciplined study habits, skills that would serve us well in school and beyond.

How did you develop the discipline needed to succeed in so many areas - writing/directing/producing/sports announcing/DJ'ing/parenting?

If it’s something important to me I have no problem focusing. But in school if there was a subject I hated I had a bitch of time forcing myself to do the homework.

I guess I’m also a little anal. I don’t like the pressure of having to complete something at the last moment. So it’s worth it to me to manage my time and get a jump on whatever task I’m facing. Especially in television where you’re behind even before you begin.

What’s your Friday Question? Thanks in advance. Now get outdoors and enjoy the summer.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

People want to hear stories

A lot of things I miss about the New York of my youth (during my visits there). Musicradio WABC, Chock Full O’ Nuts, street corner harmony, Bob & Ray, Ray's Original Pizza or Original Ray's Pizza, or Original Ray's Original Pizza (whatever the hell it is), Joe Franklin, Palisades Park, Bob Murphy, Crazy Eddy's, and Jean Shepherd on WOR.

For like an hour a night Jean Shepherd would get on the radio and just talk. Nothing scripted, no political rants. He just told stories. And they were mesmerizing. For those not familiar with Jean Shepherd, have you ever seen the movie CHRISTMAS STORY? He wrote and narrated that film. (He was “Ralphie.”) I remember one time glued to my radio as Shepherd described moving a piano into an apartment. GAME OF THRONES wasn’t that exciting.

There’s a real art to storytelling and very few people are masters of it.

I remember way back in the ‘60s the Dodgers were playing the Giants up in Candlestick Park and the game was on television. Vin Scully was at the mic. Fog rolled in so thick that the game was halted. For the next hour or so Vin Scully filled with stories of old Dodger-Giant meetings and tales of their glory days back in Brooklyn and New York. It was enthralling TV and all you had to look at was a grey screen.

Before my time there was Robert Trout. He was a newsman for CBS radio. One day he was on the air live describing President Franklin Roosevelt’s return from Europe via cruise ship. When the ship got 100 yards from the dock it suddenly stopped. Trout then filled for forty-five minutes – describing the scene, the purpose of the president’s trip, the weather, the birds, etc. Finally, the ship continued to the shore. As the president came down the gangplank, Mr. Trout caught up to him and asked on the air what caused the hold up? Roosevelt said, “I was listening and thought, let’s see how long he can go just filling time.”

Today we have our own version of these storytellers – podcast hots. They don’t have the audience that Shepherd or Scully or Trout had, but they do have the same opportunity to capture listeners and hone the craft of storytelling. Radio as we know it is pretty dead, but there are exciting new avenues. And you don’t have to be hired by someone to have your say. You just need a modicum of technical know-how (translation: anything more than me), a voice and desire to entertain. People want to hear stories. There’s never been a better time or medium to tell them.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Because the writer WANTS them to

Here’s a common problem we writers have. We need to get to a certain plot point in the story. But logically getting a character to be where we need him to be won’t be easy. It’ll be a stretch for him, or there are other alternative choices he would probably make first. Sometimes solving these problems are murder. Often we need to either re-think the plot or the character. One sure way to lose an audience is when they throw up their hands and say, “That’s ridiculous. He would never DO that!”

How many romantic comedies have you seen where the two leads supposedly fall in love and you say, “why?”

Because the writer needs them to is not a good answer.

It’s like those idiotic teen slasher movies. Why on God’s green earth do those kids go back to that summer camp? Every summer?  You'd think one year they'd go to the mall.

A more recent example comes from last Sunday’s BRAIN DEAD. I better explain it since, according to the ratings, no one watched it. And if you did, after this week, you might never again.

Okay, here’s the backstory. Ants from outer space have landed on earth and crawl into peoples’ ears, turning them into zombies. They become political extremists. It’s a satire on Washington.

So there’s a big buy to begin with.

Over the last few weeks our heroine, Laurel, has noticed that people around her are turning into these Stepford senators. She’s learned what the cause is and can’t get anyone to take her warnings seriously.

In last week’s episode she has sex with a guy in her apartment. Then (conveniently) decides to sleep on the couch. Ants get in and nail her booty call. She realizes this in the morning. Now it starts getting really dicey. 

First, she’s not convinced her beefcake is actually infected. He could just be acting a little weird. Except that all the signs are there and she’d have to be an idiot not to instantly recognize he’s now “one of them.” And Gustav, the ADD genius spearheading the campaign to alert the public of these creatures from outer space and inner ear TELLS her she escaped their clutches by sleeping on the couch.

So let me ask you? Would YOU go back to that apartment the next night? Might you instead, oh, I dunno, check into the 80th floor of a hotel and spray RAID wherever you go instead? If you think bed bugs are bad, ants that eat your brain are way worse. Or is it just me?

But nope, plucky Laurel returns to her apartment that night. No residual ants hanging around. You’d think fifty or a hundred would linger. If nothing else they could bring an apple back to the mother ship. But no, the apartment appears to be clean. By the way, not too smart to keep the window open, Laurel… in your first floor apartment.

So she’s back in her cozy apt., seemingly unconcerned, when zombooty call calls again, bearing gifts – a pizza and bouquet of cherry blossoms. Even terrestrial ants know to hide in cherry blossom bouquets. Instead of being freaked, Laurel lets him in. Huh??? Why?

Because the writers want her to.

He begins to molest her. She hits him nine times with brass knuckles. (Gustav conveniently provided them. You never know when infected souls like Margo Martindale might want to fight back.)

The bloodied guy leaves. I’m screaming, “Laurel! Get the fuck out of there!” But no. I guess she paid the rent for the month so by God she’s staying.

Gustav arrives. Tells her to leave (like any sane person would). Not a chance. She’s staying. He says at least put up this mosquito netting he brought along with five dollar headphones to cover her ears. Somehow it doesn’t feel like a very satisfying science-fiction story when the space invaders can be thwarted by Radio Shack.

So Gustav leaves. Laurel goes to bed. But first, decides to put up the mosquito netting. She climbs in. It’s not sealed very well. She brings the headphones to bed but decides they’re not necessary. Moments later she’s fast asleep. Could you fall asleep wrapped in mosquito netting knowing that just the night before ants got another victim right where you’re lying now? I’d need an Ambien the size of a manhole cover.

So Laurel saws ZZZZZZ’s and guess who crawls out of the cherry blossoms making a beeline for the girl with ears. Yep. They don’t stop for kitchen crumbs, they head right to the bedroom. Mosquito netting is only good for keeping out earth ants it seems. This is definitely a defect. Obviously the manufacturers cut corners and didn’t bother to test their product on Mars.

The episode ends with an ant going into Laurel’s ear and Laurel waking up startled.

I have no problem with the producers deciding to infect Laurel. Or it was one ant that she removes with a Q-tip next week. Whatever. But the ants could get her anywhere. It’s not like the ONLY place they were was her apartment.  These aren't the Oakwood Gardens. The whole sequence made absolutely no sense.

On a Robert & Michelle King show I’m very surprised this scene got through. I’m guessing they were concentrating on THE GOOD WIFE when this episode was being fashioned down the hall.

Laurel had other choices. Laurel is not stupid. Hell, the ants are not stupid.

Look, when characters make idiotic choices the audience stops rooting for them, stops caring about them.  If Laurel is such a nitwit she goes back to her apartment then she deserves what she gets.  

I’m giving the show one more week. But if she expels the ant, then still stays in that apartment I am throwing a shoe at the television screen.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hot town, Summer in the City

Back from a week in New York, which in the hot humid summer is like being inside Fidel Castro’s mouth. I was there to teach a weeklong comedy writing workshop at NYU. All the money that usually goes towards football programs goes to teachers at NYU (which explains why you never see NYU at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl).

Landed late Sunday night so the taxi line was only six miles. Took close to an hour to get a cab. Then I find out I could have called Uber. If that’s true or Google Maps has a shortcut for walking into Manhattan, I’ve stood in my last JFK taxi line. And then there was gridlock traffic at 11:00 at night getting into the city. Was there a Sharknado attack in the Hamptons?

Stayed at the Club Quarters in Midtown, conveniently located near Times Square and the dressbarn. The rooms are somewhat smallish -- MRI tubes with hair dryers.

There was a whole group of Rhodes Scholars staying there so I didn’t feel too stupid not knowing where to insert my card key to activate the elevator.

At midnight Sunday Times Square was still packed. Everyone had their iPhones out taking snapshots. Huckleberries posing in front of Ruby Tuesday’s. I’m guessing none of the Rhodes Scholars were among them, taking selfies in front of the Sunglass Hut.

And the new thing they have at Times Square (well, new to me) are naked girls in body paint taking pictures with tourists (for a fee). They were not getting many takers. They're not exactly the "Statuesques" of Liberty. 

NYU has something like eighty-seven different campuses. It’s the Starbucks of city universities. The senior quad is the subway platform at 14th and Union. My classes were downtown in the Woolworth Building – an easy commute. I just headed to Times Square, past the body painted Courtney Love to the subway and stretched out in air-conditioned comfort. Returning at 5:00 it was the cattle car scene from DR. ZHIVAGO.
I don’t love the heat, but I don’t mind it either. The good news was that no rain was expected. So I get out of class on Monday and it was pouring. Out of nowhere, on every corner, there was a tosspot selling portable umbrellas for $4.00. For $5.00 you can get one that’ll go two blocks before breaking into nine pieces. These must be the same guys who sell printer cartridges. By the time I got to Times Square the rain had subsided. I was curious as to what the body paint girls looked like post downpour – probably what all heavily tattooed Millennials will look like in thirty years – but alas, they were nowhere to be found. I might’ve paid for a picture of that.

The newlyweds, my daughter Annie & Jon, were also in New York for a mini-honeymoon. I said, “Great! We can hang!” For some reason they weren’t keen on that idea, even after I promised to show them some radio stations.

Living in Manhattan has gotten so expensive that enough young people have flooded to Brooklyn to make Brooklyn almost too expensive. As kids keep moving out farther and farther the five boroughs might become six with the addition of Syracuse.

The weather Tuesday and Wednesday was magnificent! Temps in the low 80’s, no humidity or clouds. These are the glorious days when New York really IS the greatest city in the world!

A trip highlight was having dinner with Paul Rudnick. “Line by line, Mr. Rudnick may be the funniest writer for the stage in the United States today.” And that from Ben Brantley of the NEW YORK TIMES who hates everything including raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. It was a super-fun dinner. Paul is a one-man Algonquin Round Table.

You always see big celebrities in Gotham. In the past I’ve spotted Woody Allen, Gilda Radner, Al Pacino, Bernadette Peters, Peter Jennings, Stephen Sondheim, Phoebe Cates, and once stood on a street corner with Mikhail Gorbachev. This trip I saw Gary Thorne, the TV voice of the Orioles in the taxi line and Elizabeth Vargas scarfing down a pizza.

There’s a Hilton “Garden” Inn in Times Square. That’s a very liberal use of the word “garden.” It’s a high-rise hotel jammed in between two other skyscrapers. On the other hand, Madison Square Garden is hardly what you’d call “botanical.”

My wife, Debby arrived on Wednesday night and was not in town an hour before nineteen police cars swooped in and completely closed Sixth Avenue ten yards from our hotel. Some nut driver threw a suspicious package at a police van in Times Square (that turned out to be nothing thank God) and took off down Sixth. This resulted in a seven-hour standoff. DOG DAY AFTER-THEATER.

Saw two Broadway shows that weren’t HAMILTON. FULLY COMMITTED by Becky Mode starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson from MODERN FAMILY. If this were LA, instead of flowers, people would be throwing spec scripts onto the stage. Also saw FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Danny Burstein was Tevye, although by now everyone in New York has played Tevye except Bartolo Colon.

I had forgotten how little legroom you get in Broadway theaters. It’s like flying Delta.

In Washington Heights a lot of barbershops these days are undercover bars. Easy to spot the residents. They’re the ones with short hair. If anyone wants to do a sitcom about that a good title might be SHEARS.

The heat and humidity returned in full force on Friday. It was Africa Hot, and not just at THE LION KING and BOOK OF MORMON. If I could only body paint shorts and a #NeverTrump wife-beater shirt on myself, that would have been my wardrobe for three days (although where would I put my Metro Card?).

On Saturday there was a big street fair on Broadway. Temps in the high 90’s and nimrods grilling up kielbasas. Smoke and grease to go along with the oppressive heat. The “Glazed and Confused” mini donuts melted into one giant sticky bust of Chris Christie.

Sunday morning we went to Central Park (to see real gardens) and encountered a Triathlon in progress. I thought to myself, “Some of these people have to die before me.” Then I went off to brunch.

That meant the Redeye Grill. Did you know Sunday Blue Laws are still in effect? They weren’t allowed to serve alcohol until noon. I wonder if any barbershops in Washington Heights serve Sunday brunch?

The best part of the week was teaching at New York University. Look for some very sharp and funny new pilots to hit the marketplace soon. Thanks to everyone who showed up Wednesday night for the NYU panel I participated in. Don’t know if I gave great advice but I was able to find the building. And happy to say I walked my 10,000 steps – 1430 a day.

A week is not enough time to do everything you want to do in Fun City. I look forward to my next trip to New York, or as my friend Michael McManus calls it: “Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups.”

For many more fun travelogues, go here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

One actor, one desk, two phones

One of the shows I saw while in New York last week was FULLY COMMITTED by Becky Mode. It’s a one-man show that starred Jesse Tyler Ferguson (from MODERN FAMILY). He was amazing and I recommend seeing it when you don't want to mortgage your house to get tickets for HAMILTON

In her Playbill bio, Ms. Mode notes that since 2001 FULLY COMMITTED has been one of the ten most produced plays in the United States. Very impressive. And not to take anything away from it…

But…

It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. When I wrote my first play it was extremely well received and got big laughs during staged readings. But the late Garry Marshall summed it up. He read the play, called me, and said: “Very funny. Too many people.” Neophyte that I was, I had written a play with seven characters. In today’s world, that was like writing LES MISERABLES on spec.

The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write, but I feel worse for the actors. Twenty years there were a lot more parts out there for thesps. And unlike writing where all we need is an idea and Final Draft, actors have to be hired in order to practice their craft.

Even plays that you think of as two-handers “back in the day” usually had more. ODD COUPLE for example. In addition to Felix and Oscar there are also three poker players and two Pigeon sisters.

If Shakespeare were writing today, HAMLET would be reduced to one prince and a skull.  

Getting a play on Broadway, even a modest one, requires a bankable star. If Jesse Tyler Ferguson was in THE MINDY PROJECT, as sensational as he is in FULLY COMMITTED, no chance does he do that play on Broadway.

In Los Angeles, we have the added hurdle of the ridiculous Equity mandate that actors be paid minimum wage for all performances and rehearsals for shows playing in venues of 99 seats or less. Two-thirds of their membership voted NOT to enact that provision but the Equity board in New York ignored them and instituted it anyway.

This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, isn’t it the union’s obligation to follow the wishes of its membership? There is a big lawsuit now filed by members of Equity to block this new ruling. When have you ever heard of members suing their own union?

Secondly, in LA, no one makes money in small theatres. We playwrights sure don’t. Producers don’t. And if this new provision goes into effect in December as scheduled, the result will be fewer productions and eventually fewer theatres. As I said, there are fewer roles for actors as it is. There will eventually be no roles.

Or, actors will break from the union, or start their own union, or non-union actors will be hired instead.

The truth is there are very few full Equity productions each year in Los Angeles. There are only a handful of large theatres and in many cases they import road shows of Broadway musicals so bring in their own casts. Local Equity actors are shut out of those. So where they gonna go?

Had the Equity actors voted to enact this provision I would just have to shake my head and deal with the consequences. If small theatre in LA is killed, well, it was their wish. I can still write plays and land productions elsewhere. But clearly it’s not their wish.

One actor, one desk, two phones. FULLY COMMITTED might be the only show LA theatres can produce. If that.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why people don't laugh

When you do a show multi-camera in front of an audience you always run the risk that unforeseen circumstances will affect the crowd’s reactions.

There have been a number of times in my erstwhile career when shows that should have played through the roof played through the floor. Here’s why.

The most common enemy of all multi-cam shows: the air conditioning going out. I've have had this happen a number of times. And with all the blazing hot lights and no cross-ventilation a sound stage becomes Satan's rumpus room in ten minutes. Comedy evaporates at 80 degrees.

Power failures can also curtail things. I’ve found that audiences do not enjoy sitting in pitch-black darkness. Who knew???   Generally generators restore the electricity pretty quickly, but the audience is still unnerved. Anxiety is not the best warm up for promoting laughter.

And when the power goes out, so does the air conditioning. See paragraph three.

Rain is a problem. Usually an audience is asked to line up outside the stage before being let in. There are no retractable roofs over movie studios. Sometimes you can find shelter for the two hundred brave souls or let them in earlier, but more times than not they’re exposed to the elements. It’s hard to really yuck it up when your sweater smells like a dead raccoon and your socks are soaked.

There are companies that help fill audiences, especially for new shows. Once a show is a hit there’s a big demand for tickets. (FRIENDS used to have two audiences for every taping. They took forever to do that show. The first audience would come in at about 4:00. By 8:00 they were burned out and the show was only half done. So they were mercifully released and a new audience took their place. Fans were just so excited to be at a FRIENDS taping they didn’t care. Good luck pulling that on a new show that hasn’t even premiered.) These companies arrange for buses and in some cases even pay people to attend the tapings. (Considering some of the shows I’ve seen lately that’s a hard way to earn a buck.) They are not always conscientious when it comes to selecting groups for specific shows. Imagine a hundred 80 year-olds attending a 2 BROKE GIRLS taping.

One time we had a group of convicts. Who did they kill in the yard to warrant that punishment? Again, there’s that unnerving factor for the rest of the audience seeing armed prison guards. And then at 9:00 they were herded out – right in the middle of a scene. Then we were left with a half-empty house. 

I’ve told this story before but a script my partner David and I thought was very solid died on the stage. And only later did we learn that half the audience couldn’t speak English. 

But the worst audience I ever had was for an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore comeback show David and I created. And this was no one’s fault but ours. We had a terrific show. One of our funniest. We were very excited.

And then the morning of the filming the Challenger disaster occurred. Seven brave astronauts perished. Our first instinct was to cancel the filming, but the studio (protecting its investment) argued that we should film anyway. Their reasoning: after a full day of inescapable sorrow, people would gladly welcome the diversion. They would love the opportunity to just laugh for a few hours.

So we gave in. After all, we had a good episode. Sometimes the release of laughter is a Godsend in times of grief and this show was funny.

We filmed as planned. And the show absolutely died. Silence. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. DEATH. I don’t think there were three laughs the entire night. Even the audience that couldn’t speak English laughed at a few things. Not this group. If someone dropped a coin on the floor you could tell by the sound whether it was a quarter or dime – that’s how quiet it was.

As they were filing out I happened to glance at the set and suddenly it all made sense. This was a large newspaper bullpen set along the wall most prominent to the audience was photos of current events. Right in the middle, in plain view of everyone, was a photo of the Challenger.

Oops.

Still, part of the fun of shooting in front of a live studio audience is the unpredictability. Each filming night is different. And the pros outweigh the cons. Plus, the cons leave at 9.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A stupid photo is worth a thousand laughs

Some taken by me, some taken by others.

This is a real place.  Taken by Jon Emerson
I dunno.  Somehow I think there's a better title for that show.  Thanks again to Jon Emerson.
I took this picture in Beverly Hills.
I always wondered where he ended up.  This is in Philadelphia.
Art gallery in Maui.  Ronnie Wood is in big letters and then in smaller font -- Picasso.
Also in Maui.
Concession stand at the Tokyo Dome when the Mariners were there.  Thanks to Shannon Drayer for these next few pictures.
Good advice in any ballpark.
In America you can't find bookstores anywhere.  In Japan they're in baseball stadiums.
No, this was not taken in Japan,  This was the LAX Hilton during one of my Sitcom Room seminars.  These were not my students.
Same with this one.  
This wasn't taken in Japan either.  It comes from the far more civilized Anaheim, Ca. 
For all the Jews who worried that there was bacon in ice cream.
No, this is not me.  Or anyone I know.  But just a typical patron of the Tilted Kilts in Peoria, Az. 
And finally, the ultimate spring training picture.