Monday, October 18, 2021

Dave Chappelle and the current state of comedy

A lot of readers have asked what I thought of the new controversial Dave Chappelle Netflix Special.  This, of course, is a trick question that can only get a person in trouble.  Like “How often do you beat your wife?”  God forbid anyone says something positive about Chappelle’s material they’re instantly branded as a racist, homophobe, or worse.  (Remember the days when some people thought something was funny while others didn’t and it was just chalked up to differing senses of humor?)  

So I’m not going to speak at all about the trans material in his special or any of the subject matter.  All I will say is this:  I’m glad there is a Dave Chappelle.  I’m glad there’s one comic out there who is truly fearless.   In the tradition of Lenny Bruce, we need someone willing to be provocative, willing to ruffle some feathers in the cause of getting society to think.  

There’s a terrific article I want to point you towards.  It’s by David Zucker, one of the writers of AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN.  He’s a very funny guy.  I worked with him on a project once a thousand years ago. In his piece, bemoaning the current sad state of comedy, he brings out a great point.  Through social media a tiny minority now has a huge amplified voice and can dictate policies and norms for the majority — even though the majority doesn’t agree with them.  

The night ALL IN THE FAMILY premiered on CBS, they installed extra phone banks and operators to field the inevitable throng of complaints.  They got 12 calls.  12.  Now today those 12 could cause such a stink that they might be able to pressure ALL IN THE FAMILY off the air.  How horrifying is that?

So when you sit home, by yourself, and watch AIRPLANE, or the DAVE CHAPPELLE SPECIAL, or BLAZING SADDLES, are you really offended?  And if you are, does it really rock you to your very core and affect how you see the world?   Or, do you simply say, “Fuck you, Dave Chappelle or David Zucker,” turn off their show, and go on about your life?   It’s a comedy special not a snuff film.

I’m personally not a fan of mean-spirited comedy.  And if it’s designed to demean anyone, regardless of color, gender, age — then it’s not for me.  And it’s not the type of thing I write.  But I don’t think there should censorship when it comes to comedy.   I don’t think writers or comics should be blasted for things they wrote or said that may not be acceptable now but were when they wrote or said them.  

Anyway, here’s the article.  I encourage you to read it.


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Weekend Post

This is my worst movie meeting.

Anyone who’s been in the business for more than eleven minutes has twelve stories of disastrous meetings. My partner, David and I have had more than our share. But our worst is worthy of an I LOVE LUCY episode.

This was a number of years ago. VOLUNTEERS and MANNEQUIN had been made. JEWEL OF THE NILE (which we rewrote – uncredited) was going into production. So for the moment we had a viable feature career.

Our agent arranged a general meeting with an executive from 20th Century Fox, Dylan Sellers. These are generally just meet and greet affairs. You want to be on their radar. It’s fairly hard to screw up these meetings. They just want to be sure you’re not too weird. So if you show up on time, are dressed nicely, and can carry on a breezy conversation for a half hour without revealing that you collect tonsils or God talks to you through hidden messages delivered by Mr. Rogers you’re pretty much in.   Often they have a project in mind and if you don't scare them they offer you the assignment. 

Our meeting was set for the end of the day, around 5:30. At the time, we had an office on the Paramount lot in Hollywood and drove across town to 20th. Traffic was bad (duh) and we just arrived on time. Punctuality is important with these meetings. It gives the studio executive an idea of how responsible you are. If you can’t show up on time for a meeting, how can they count on you to turn in the first draft when you promise?

David was driving. I opened the passenger’s door, climbed out of the car, and the seat of my pants ripped right up the butt crack. We’ll dispense with the fat jokes for now because I had a much bigger problem. How was I going to take a meeting with my underwear hanging out?

There was no time to postpone the meeting. I lived way too far to race home and change. We decided to just take our chances. I know. This is like right out of THREE’S COMPANY.

We walked into Mr. Sellers’ outer office with David right behind me. We tried to look nonchalant but I’m sure in some states we were close enough for sodomy charges. The assistant told us Mr. Sellers would only be a couple of minutes and take a seat. We sat on the couch. I tried to grab a copy of Variety that was on the coffee table and as I leaned in I heard the rip get a little longer. I froze immediately.

A few minutes later Mr. Sellers was ready to see us. Instead of just cutting across the room to the door to his office I sort of hugged the walls. The assistant looked at me funny. We entered his office and again I walked laterally along the wall, trying to appear natural.

Dylan Sellers came around from behind his desk, shook our hands, and invited us to take a seat on the couch. Which we did. It was an overstuffed couch, the kind you really disappear into.

He sat in a chair across from us and the meeting began. I sat there with a big smile plastered to my face. Fortunately, David did most of the talking. I just nodded like a bobblehead. I don’t think I heard a thing Mr. Sellers was saying. All I could think was, “How the fuck am I going to get out of this giant couch?”

At one point, the conversation turned to cars. Mr. Sellers was very proud of the new one he had just purchased. It was parked right outside and he invited us to come to the window to have a look.


I struggled to my feet, felt a little more rip. Pretty soon the pants were going to just fall off. That would make a great impression. I casually hugged the walls, moving towards the window. David hopped in right behind me so that when Mr. Sellers was behind him he (hopefully) couldn’t see my now-officially fat ass.

It was back to the couch. Was he starting to sense something was weird? Most people turn and walk to a couch. They don’t backpedal.

More charming chit-chat for about fifteen minutes and that was it. Again, I had to hoist myself out of couchzilla. The ripping sound could have been mistaken for a fart but that’s hardly better. We shook hands, said goodbye, I hugged the wall all the way out the room then bolted.

Our agent followed up with him the next day. He said the meeting went well. He liked us but thought we were a little reserved. Worried that our sensibilities were a little too sophisticated for the project he had in mind. It was a very broad comedy. Lots of slapstick. Humiliating situations. That just didn’t seem like us.

Talk about taking one in the shorts.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Friday Questions

Halfway through the month.  Here are some Friday Questions for your Halloween shopping weekend.

Owlchum gets us rolling.

You'll read every once in a while about actors who are so in tune with their characters that they will decline to do a line or a scene stating their characters wouldn't say/do that. I'm curious if you've had that problem in the writing room i.e. a scribe who felt so possessive about a character that he/she actually became too disruptive in finishing script(s)?

Yes, it happens, but let me say this.  Fighting for your script to the point of being disruptive is the fastest way to get yourself fired off a staff.

Here’s the thing:  You’re not going to win.  

The showrunner is not going to put back your material because you put on a full court press.   So you lose the battle and lose the war when you’re out of a job.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re right.  It’s not your call. 

Suck it up.   That’s part of being a professional.  It's happened to all of us.  Multiple times. 

The showrunner points the boat and you all row in that direction.  Someday if you pay your dues you might be the showrunner and you change other writers’ scripts at will.   But for now, don’t jeopardize your job, reputation, and career. 

Philly Cinephile wonders:

How far in advance do you write your blog posts? Is every post "written to order" or do you have a cache of essays that you can pull from if you're short on time?

Both.  I try to have some posts prepared in advance to lesson the burden of constant deadlines.  But I also love the immediacy of something happening one day, being able to write about it, and having it post the next day. 

Friday Questions I usually prepare in advance.  

I probably shouldn't divulge these closely guarded secrets, but what the hell? 

Jeff asks:

Ken, do you get personally annoyed when you watch modern shows and the credits list half the cast as a "producer" or "executive producer"? Are you worried these stars and their agents will next push for writing credits?

You need to write a script to get writing credit.  And if you’re a staff member rewriting a script it’s harder to get shared credit.  This is to prevent people in power from arbitrarily piggy-backing their name on writing credits.

As for number of producers, I don’t mind at all if they’re writers.  More producers mean more working writers.  And you move up in pay grade as your title improves.  So more power to ‘em. 

However, I don’t like all the non-writing producer credits.  “Pod” producers who basically do nothing, managers, and stars.  These are all vanity positions that eat into the showrunner/creator’s potential profit in success, and are often sources of obstruction.  They’re the partners you don’t need. 

And finally, from marka:

I was watching an unnamed movie which was fantastic until the end, which seemed slapped together. It seems to be a thing where someone has a great idea, develops the story really well but then has some disappointing conclusion. Like they just can't figure out how to end the darn thing. Could you comment on this? It doesn't happen all the time, but more than it should it seems.

Most studio films have preview screenings, and if the audience doesn’t like the ending, or the studio feels it’s too much of a downer, whatever — the filmmaker will often scramble to quickly come up with a new ending and shoot it.  So it becomes a mad scramble with other factors that must be worked out.  Which actors are available for re-shoots?  Which sets are still up?  How much will it cost?  How much will we have to cut from the existing film which led to the ending you’re throwing out?  How much time do you have?  When is the release date? 

More often than not what you end up with are band-aids and endings that are “better” in that they address the audience’s concern, but not really “good.” 

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

EP246: Meet comedy writer Dave Hackel

Dave Hackel is the creator of BECKER, and worked for years on FRASIER, WINGS, and many other shows. This week he talks about breaking into the business on game shows and has a hilarious Truman Capote story (who doesn’t?). Also, some great things he learned along the way coming up through the ranks of sitcom writing and producing. You’ll laugh and shudder.

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CATS and a dog

 This is from a Variety article that really made me laugh.  Here's the full article.  

It's about Andrew Lloyd Webber.  And here's the part I loved:

Alan Parker’s 1996 version of “Evita,” he concludes, was the best of the lot and that’s due to Madonna’s performance. “To this day, I don’t think anybody else could have done it better,” he says.
And then there’s “Cats,” which hit theaters in 2019 and was a cinematic bomb that launched a thousand memes, one that was excoriated by critics and ignored by the public. Lloyd Webber says the source material was sold to Amblin, which after trying to turn it into a Steven Spielberg-directed animated feature, eventually handed the reins to Tom Hooper, who had helmed “Les Misérables” and “The King’s Speech.” That proved to be a disastrous decision, according to the composer.

“‘Cats’ was off-the-scale all wrong,” says Lloyd Webber. “There wasn’t really any understanding of why the music ticked at all. I saw it and I just thought, ‘Oh, God, no.’ It was the first time in my 70-odd years on this planet that I went out and bought a dog. So the one good thing to come out of it is my little Havanese puppy.”

That puppy has been a constant companion of Lloyd Webber’s during lockdown. They have grown so attached that he’s even figured out a way to bring the dog to New York the next time he travels to the city.

“I wrote off and said I needed him with me at all times because I’m emotionally damaged and I must have this therapy dog,” says Lloyd Webber. “The airline wrote back and said, ‘Can you prove that you really need him?’ And I said ‘Yes, just see what Hollywood did to my musical “Cats.”’ Then the approval came back with a note saying, ‘No doctor’s report required.’”

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A writer's torture

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Kim Kardashian again?

So Kim Kardashian was on SNL last Saturday night.  Really?

Is Kim Kardashian even a thing anymore?

I didn’t watch it because it, well, I never watch anything Kim Kardashian is on.  She’s a person with no noticeable skill or talent and a product of how reality shows can turn vacuous people into vacuous celebrities.   What does Kim Kardashian contribute to society in any way?  

Yes, she benefits from nepotism, but nepotism alone isn’t to blame.  There are some very successful and deserving offspring of famous people.  Ken Griffey Jr., Rob Reiner, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Steph Curry, Hannah Einbinder, J.J. Abrams, just to name a few.  

But not all are worthy.  And I was reminded of that recently when TCM replayed a Nancy Sinatra TV special from 1967 recently.  Being a big fan of the ‘60s I tuned in for the nostalgia and what I found was this:

Nancy Sinatra was terrible.  She has a two-note singing range.  She can’t act. She can’t dance. Her attempts of being sultry and sexy are laughable.  If she weren’t Frank Sinatra’s daughter, and didn’t get a record deal on Daddy’s label she couldn’t pass the open auditions of AMERICAN IDOL.  “Daddy” even appears in the special (probably why the greenlit it) and the guests included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra Jr., and singing group Dino, Desi & Billy.  Wonder how she got 'em.  And if she was trying to show how "groovy" she was in 1967, those were not the guests to get.  

The entire show was cringeworthy, lowlighted by a scene where Nancy basically sings a creepy love song to giant posters of her father.  And in one of the posters he’s holding a gun  (I laughed out loud).  

The kitsch factor was off-the-charts, which is the only reason I stuck around.  

But looking back, I really resented Nancy Sinatra.  Not her personally; she might be a wonderful person — but I resented that she was foisted upon me.  I never liked her songs, even “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and the love duet with Daddy — “Something Stupid” — is beyond creepy.   For years I’ve been hearing about the Kardashians — their idiotic exploits, ridiculous marriages, etc.  When I hear people talk about them I think, “Why???  Who gives a shit???”   

So I didn’t watch SNL this week.   My boots were indeed made for walking. 

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Weekend Post

Charlie Hauck was a terrific comedy writer (FRASIER, MAUDE, etc.) and a hilarious author. Sadly, he passed away this year.  

His comic novel about a writing team launching a sitcom starring the diva from hell is both hilarious and all-too-real. The book is called ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES and well worth reading. 

On one page he explains how you can tell a bad sitcom. Simple rules, worth repeating here.

1. Any show in which any character at any time during the life of the series says the words “Ta da!” is a bad sitcom.

2. Any show in which one character says to another, “What are friends for?” is a bad sitcom.

3. Any show in which a character says “Bingo!” in the sense of “Eureka!” is a bad sitcom.

4. Any show in which an actor or actress under the age of seven says cute things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

5. Any show in which an actor or actress over the age of seventy-five says vulgar things in close-up is a bad sitcom.

6. Any show that resorts to the use of Dr. Zarkov dialogue (named for the villain in the FLASH GORGON series, where one character tells another character something they both already know, for the benefit of the audience) is a bad sitcom.

7. Any show in which a character, in the closing minutes, says, “I guess we’ve all learned a lesson,” and then goes on to explain what that lesson is, is a bad sitcom.

And if I may add a few of my own:

8. Any show where the studio audience says “Awwwwww” and the producers leave it in is a bad sitcom.

9. Any show that makes a Willard Scott joke is a bad sitcom.

10. Any show with opening titles that show close-ups of the cast and then freeze frames to catch zany expression on each is a bad sitcom.

11. Any show with Jim Belushi is a bad sitcom.  

UPDATE:  Getting a number of commenters fact checking minor points and pointing out exceptions.  I invite you to focus on the spirit and gist of the post instead.  There are always exceptions to everything.  I don't quite understand this need to dispute any opinion someone might have.   Yes, there are exceptions.  But you write a spec script trying to break into the industry and ignore these points and see how well you do.  And then defend your rejected script by pointing out the exceptions.