Saturday, November 27, 2021

Weekend Post on Stephen Sondheim

Like everybody, I was devastated to learn yesterday of Stephen Sondheim's death.  He was 91 and active until the end but still!  I've read numerous testimonials that list his many accomplishments in the theatre -- all the awards he's won, etc.  But they all leave out one credit.  This is a re-post from just this January.  Usually I don't re-post anything that recent, but in light of yesterday's passing I thought it would be my way to salute him in a way you won't find elsewhere.  

I should also mention that I had the pleasure of meeting him once.  Just like in TIK...TIK...BOOM!, he attended a workshop of a musical I was involved with in 2004 and 2005.  It was a Sunday afternoon in the black box theatre of a New York performance school, on the fifth or sixth floor of a building in lower Manhattan.  I just met him.  My daughter, Annie, was lucky enough to sit next to him for the performance.  Talk about a memory.  

Anyway, here's that post.  Hopefully it introduces you to a different side of the man and an even greater appreciation of his talent... if that's even possible.   RIP Stephen Sondheim.  The WORLD loves you. 

 In 1953 a new sitcom premiered called TOPPER.  It was based on the movie TOPPER (which was based on a book) about a stuffy buttoned-down banker haunted by two carefree ghosts.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett played the ghostly couple.   On TV the hot couple was played by Anne Jeffreys & Robert Sterling, and Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from THE MAN FROM UNCLE) played Cosmo Topper.  

One of the writers was a 23 year-old kid named Stephen Sondheim.  

He showed a lot of promise.  Wrote eleven episodes.  And they're among the best. But he gave up comedy writing to go into song writing.  Pity.  He could have had a very successful career. 

But seriously, how does Stephen Sondheim wind up in Los Angeles writing for TOPPER?   His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II introduced him to George Oppenheimer, a playwright and screenwriter.  Oppenheimer had been hired to write TOPPER and wanted someone to help him shoulder the load.  

Sondheim got the job although he had never written a professional script.  He moved out to LA and was paid $300 a week.  Once he had saved enough money to rent an apartment in New York he left.  

The rest of course is history.  But for one brief moment Sondheim was slumming as a sitcom writer.  He went on to become one of the greatest Broadway composers of all-time.  And me, I'm singing, "I'm still here."  


Friday, November 26, 2021

Black Friday Questions

Take a break from Black Friday to peruse some leftover FQ’s.

jcs starts us off:

Traditional multi-cam sitcoms play an important role on Netflix. Otherwise the streaming service would not pay the huge licencing fees associated with shows like SEINFELD or FRIENDS. How come Netflix hasn't tried too hard to come up with their own multi-cam sitcoms? They certainly would have the budget to greenlight handful of shows each year.

Uh… Netflix does have multi-camera shows.  The one my daughter and her husband work on — THE UPSHAWS — got picked up for a second season.  In the past they’ve had the FULL HOUSE reboot, some horrible Nascar show with Kevin James, and a series called THE RANCH.  And there may be more.  

Check out THE UPSHAWS if you haven’t.  It’s actually very funny.

From Ere I Saw Elba:

I listened to a recent podcast with showrunner Dave Hackel, and you got into a conversation about casting. Specifically, Ted Danson was pointed out as someone that no one, including himself, thought was right at first for BECKER. The question is, how often do you think unlikely casting choices go right? And is there ever a case where someone is just perfect from the start?

There are times when someone is perfect from the start and believe me, you know it instantly.  Unfortunately, those are rare occasions.  In most cases you have to ponder, maybe make adjustments, call the actor back, etc. before deciding.  And even then you hold your breath.

Casting against type has always intrigued me.  Actors tend to have more range than they’re given credit for.  They get pigeonholed in one genre, which is not fair to them.

We used David Morse and Kurtwood Smith in a comedy.  Both were terrific.  Both were not easy sells.   

I remember the network casting session with Morse.  He did great, but CBS president, Jeff Sagansky had reservations.  Morse was known for drama.  Tim Flack, the VP of Comedy Development at the time (God bless him), stood up and said, “I don’t know what the problem is.  We all laughed, didn’t we?”   David Morse was approved.

Obviously, you don’t want to go so against type that you have David Spade play LeBron James, but taking a chance on an actor playing a role you’ve never seen them in often pays off.

My favorite example:  Margo Martindale as a villain on JUSTIFIED, season two.  One of the great villains EVER.  

Jessica Miller asks:

I just saw the "bathtub" episode of MASH, which is credited to you & David plus Johnny Bonaduce. Was he related to the kid from the Partridge Family?

Yes.  Danny’s brother I believe.

And finally, from DyHrdMET:

Could you and your writing partner write sketch comedy week in and week out (forget about being consistently funny), given your skills and talents? Or is it not necessarily the same skill set as writing a short play, a movie, or regular 22 minute sitcoms?

We have written sketches.  We contributed sketches for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW.   It’s a different genre but with the same rules — beginning, middle, and end.  We loved writing sketches.  Like eating bite-sized Snickers instead of one big candy bar.

What’s your Friday Question?   Buy me something nice today.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

EP252: The Annual Turkey Show

A yearly tradition — some of the worst, funniest, most cringeworthy songs (“turkeys”) you’ll ever hear.

More podcasts at WAVE:

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Some dumb turkey facts

“Turkey Lurkey Time” from PROMISES PROMISES is the worst song Bacharach & David ever wrote.  And they wrote THE BLOB.

Turkeys have been around for 10,000,000 years.  But Brontosaurus used to be the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Turkey feathers were used to stabilize arrows.   It worked better once they were plucked.

Benjamin Franklin wanted a turkey to be the national symbol of America, not the bald eagle.   This is why Ben Franklin needed glasses.

Thanksgiving Day really began in 1863.  If you think it takes the government forever to pass legislation now

Turkeys can’t fly.  WKRP in Cincinnati learned that the hard (and hilarious) way.

Californians are the biggest turkey eaters in America.  They eat three pounds more than the average consumer.  This is all due to one Cracker Barrel in Bakersfield.

90% of American homes eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  The others don’t because they’re afraid the result will be a chip implanted in their heads.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

TICK TICK..BOOM! My review

When Mike Nichols was finishing up his splashy anti-war movie, CATCH-22, the movie version of MASH came out.  Nichols saw it and essentially said, “Shit! That movie did everything I tried to do but way better.”   Steven Spielberg’s glittery remake of WEST SIDE STORY comes out this season.  I wonder if he saw TICK TICK… BOOM and said the same thing.

TICK TICK… BOOM is quite simply the best movie of the year — I don’t care how many Princess Diana rehashes come out.  Unlike a lot of critics, I’m not going to bore you with seven paragraphs of “major triumph!” “towering achievement!” “best film Lin Manual-Miranda has ever directed!” (it’s his first).  

Just know it’s all of those things and more.  The story, the storytelling, the visuals, the music, and even a cameo by Chita Rivera (that must piss off Spielberg too) —  TICK TICK… BOOM delivers on every front.   (Note:  there are tons of cameos of Broadway notables.)  

Lin Manual-Miranda appear to be brilliant in everything he attempts.  For this project he was clearly influenced (heavily) by Bob Fosse’s ALL THAT JAZZ.  The same quick cutting, constant motion, visually exciting presentation.  And all for a purpose — to really put you into that world and lose yourself in the emotional depth of the journey.  

To me the big surprise was Andrew Garfield.  Spiderman can really sing! And dance!  Ryan Gosling can’t carry his pitch pipe.  If Rami Malek won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury, Andrew Garfield deserves two for playing Jonathan Larson.

If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about Jonathan Larson, who wrote RENT but tragically died of an aortic dissection at 35 the night before it was to open off-Broadway.  Prior to that, Larson had spent eight years working on a sci-fi musical that went nowhere, and a one-man show about that experience and his struggles that he performed himself called TICK TICK…BOOM.   The movie opens up the one-man show by dramatizing events, showing flashbacks, and creating imaginative glorious production numbers.  

The movie was written by Steven Levenson.  TICK TICK… BOOM is the best film musical in years.  Ironically, Levenson also wrote maybe the worst film musical in decades — DEAR EVAN HANSEN.  From the cellar to the penthouse in one year.  (Says something about the director’s vision, doesn’t it?)

You might think TICK TICK…BOOM is just for Broadway and theatre nerds.  You would be wrong.  I loved this movie and I didn’t like RENT.  It’s for everyone.    If you read this blog you’re probably interested in the creative process whether you’re in entertainment or not.  Well, this movie deals with the creative process in spades.  

It’s playing in select theaters and Netflix.  Don’t watch it on your phone.

On to WEST SIDE STORY.  I plan on watching with an open mind even though there’s no Natalie Wood in this version.  Will it be another TICK TICK…BOOM or IN THE HEIGHTS?   In the meantime, I think I’ll watch ALL THAT JAZZ again. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

The brilliance of Susan Harris

You rarely see much mention of writer Susan Harris these days. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s she was Chuck Lorre, Greg Daniels, Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan all rolled into one. And maybe add Tina Fey. These are the sitcoms she created: SOAP, BENSON, IT TAKES TWO, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, EMPTY NEST, NURSES, GOOD & EVIL, THE GOLDEN PALACE, and THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN.

Many were huge hits. Some were groundbreaking. SOAP introduced the first gay character as a regular cast member (played by Billy Crystal). And GOLDEN GIRLS was a show about women in their 60’s or older. Can you imagine someone pitching that to a major broadcast network now? Today an older woman is considered 35.

But when GOLDEN GIRLS premiered in 1985 on NBC it was an immediate breakout hit. Twice GOLDEN GIRLS won the Emmy for Best Comedy and even more remarkable – all of its stars (Bea Arthur, Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan) won individual Emmys.

And today the show continues to enjoy a tremendous following in syndication. I don’t think you can turn on the TV at night without finding GOLDEN GIRLS on at least one channel. And I don't know one young person who doesn't love THE GOLDEN GIRLS. 

The show holds up nicely, remains extremely funny, and the creative voice was Susan Harris’. When idiots say that women don’t write big jokes, Susan Harris wrote BIG JOKES. Lots of them. Along with heart and depth. Prior to creating series of her own she wrote the classic abortion episode of MAUDE.

She’s won Emmys and numerous other awards, and in 2011 was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame (something even Babe Ruth can’t get into). 

I never worked with her, but we were at the same agency (does that count?).  I always wanted to though, she's one of my comedy writing idols. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Weekend Post

This is a traditional post.  My annual tips for flying during Thanksgiving week.  Fly (and read) at your own risk.

Leave for the airport NOW. Don't wait until the last week .

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Don't be an asshole.  Wear your mask.  And don’t slug a flight attendant who tells you to put it on. 

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t have reserved seating never sit next to anyone who is already eating or reading Ann Coulter.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, THE CAPE, won’t be there (thank God).

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Friday Questions

Last FQ’s before Thanksgiving.  What’s yours?

Michael starts us off.

I know you hated a lot of the music you played as a disc jockey, but could you have survived if you had to play 2 months straight of Christmas music like some stations do today?

Yes, it might drive me a little crazy, mostly because it’s the same songs.  I see that Sirius/XM has 19 channels dedicated to playing Christmas music.  There aren't 19 Christmas songs

When I was a DJ I would always work extra shifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day since the holiday meant more to the other jocks than me.  So I’d be playing Christmas music for eight hours at a time.  But it was tolerable because…

As a teenager I worked in record stores.  Usually during the Christmas break I worked a 12 hour shift. So I was bombarded with Christmas music 12 hours a day for ten straight days.  There was no escaping Johnny Mathis.  

So I imagine I could tolerate playing Christmas music on the radio today as long as it was no more than a four-hour shift.  And I was allowed to drink... and not egg nog. 

cd1515 has MAD ABOUT YOU FQ:

I also noticed watching that show that in year four or five when Helen Hunt became a producer suddenly there were a lot more references in the scripts to how “beautiful” her character was.

Ken, do you think that was a coincidence or is that something a Star Who’s Now Also A Producer would do?

Well, first of all I never worked on MAD ABOUT YOU nor know any of the staff.  So I have no idea whether Helen Hunt used her producer credit to achieve the goal you suggested.  

But I will say this, an actor doesn’t need a producer credit to force the producers into showing them in a more favorable light.  Make a big enough stink and be worth it on the screen and an actor gets his way.  

From Irv:

What is your opinion on showing text conversations? I get that this is how we communicate now, but the type on the screen is usually so small that I almost always have to stop, rewind and move closer to read them (and then also have to read aloud to my wife). I don't find this any different than your pet peeve about inaudible dialogue. Thanks.

I hate it.  I can’t read them on the screen and unlike you, I’m not willing to go back and see it again, or get a bigger big screen or an eye operation to read texts on TV.  

It’s annoying and if done too often can turn off a viewer.  

And finally, from Brian:

I see this a lot and it drives me nuts. A story will hit the web--[Actor X] joins cast of [Awesome Forthcoming Project.]

But, the thing is, I know for a fact that [Awesome Forthcoming Project] has been wrapped for months. And there have been no major reshoots to incorporate a new actor/character. So why say someone has "joined" a cast that late into the process when it's obvious they've been with the project the whole time?

Blame this one of the PR machine.  Outlets and trade sites print what they’re sent.  I think in some cases, these stories are floated out there just to get a little extra publicity.