Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Questions

The great thing about Friday Questions is I don't have to think of a new subject title.   Here are this week's:

Wally starts us off:

A Friday Question based on what Wikipedia says:

Did NBC only allow Ratzenberger to attend Nick Colasanto's funeral in RI since it occurred during the season?

No. As shocking as it is to learn that Wikipedia is wrong, that is incorrect.

There was a funeral for Nick in North Hollywood that I along with the entire cast, and staff attended.

I still miss him. And as wonderful as Woody was, nothing could top Nick as the Coach.

Brian Phillips asks:

Not a lot has been written about the "Cheers" spinoff, "The Tortellis". I noticed you and David Isaacs contributed a script. What was it like working on "The Tortellis"?

Well, David and I were never on staff. The Charles Brothers asked us to write an episode, which we did.

For those six people out there who don’t remember THE TORTELLI’S, this was a 1987 spin-off of CHEERS centering on Carla’s ex-husband Nick (Dan Hedaya) and his new wife, Loretta (Jean Kasem) moving to Las Vegas.

The pilot script by Ken Estin was terrific.

But the spinoff fell into a familiar trap – making second bananas your stars. Nick & Loretta were funny characters but very broad, so they worked well when used sparingly, but on their own they could not carry a show.

I remember David and I meeting with the Charles Brothers to hammer out a story and it took two days. I asked Glen Charles, “What number episode is this?” He said, “Four,” and I said, “If we’re having this much trouble coming up with the fourth episode there are some serious problems with the premise of the series.” He agreed.

And indeed, the show lasted only 13. I don’t have a copy of our episode so I don’t really remember how bad or good it was.

Random memory of THE TORTELLI’S: it was shot at Paramount in front of a live studio audience. And visible from the living room set you could see a swimming pool in the backyard. An actual swimming pool (or at least a great facsimile) was constructed on the stage. For that alone the series should be considered a classic!

From Laura H.:

I have been watching reruns of Barney Miller, a show I loved as a kid. Happily it still stands up. It occurs to me now that virtually all of the action takes place in the squad room - only once or twice throughout the long run of the series did they step out of that setting. Cheers, of course, was the same way, although they left the bar a bit more often.

After reading your recent post about writing sharp dialogue being a lost art, I started wondering about working on shows like Barney Miller and Cheers. Do those static settings make it harder or easier to write for? Clearly you can't slack on character development and dialogue, since the story itself plays out in that one room. (Not that you should ever slack on character development and dialogue!)

BARNEY MILLER evolved into a one-set show. If you screen the very early episodes of the series, they go back to Barney’s house. His relationship with his wife (played by Barbara Barrie) was originally going to be a major element of the series. But they found their money was in that squad room. Barbara and his home life were phased out. 

The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar. The first time we deviated from that was the season premier of season two when we went to Diane’s apartment. (Remember all the stuffed animals?)

The problem with never leaving the bar was that anything that happened away from CHEERS had to be told to the audience, and it’s always better to see it.

BARNEY had less of an issue with that because their format was bring in three or four different oddballs and have them interact with the regulars. So all the action was right in front of you.

I personally like shows that basically center in one location, especially if the setting is inviting (like CHEERS). In those shows the emphasis is clearly on the characters, their interaction, and dialogue, and if done well you can really mount a smart show.  Also, the location itself almost becomes a character. 

And finally, long time friend of the blog, Johnny Walker wonders:

How do you feel about taking the time to write a character's bio before starting writing? I've heard some people swear by it, but others (including Sorkin) consider it a waste of time. I think I fall in the latter camp now. Provided I know what makes the character tick, I don't need to know what school they went (if the character is well defined enough, you should be able to infer it afterwards - in fact things like that should start to become obvious). What do you think, Ken?

For my UCLA students I recommend writing character profiles. It helps them answer the questions – what do these characters want, what’s interesting or unique about them, what’s funny about them, what are their attitudes, and what are their backgrounds? Answers to all of these questions are a must, whether you write out a bio or not. 

For myself, I do a modified profile. I’ll list key traits, objectives, and generally try to come up with an actor prototype (although I don’t expect to get him).

So bottom line – is it worth doing? Sure. What could it hurt?

What's your Friday Question?  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Happy to announce that my new play, GOING GOING GONE, will be performed for six weekends beginning October 1st at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. The Hudson is unique in that there’s a cafĂ© and parking. That's right -- parking.  The seats are comfortable and the theatre isn’t massive so you can actually see the actors without a telescope.

The play is about four reporters in the press box of a big league stadium and how their lives change over the course of one baseball game. The theme is our need to be remembered set in a world that’s all about celebrating milestones and keeping track of everything.

Plus, I’ve spent many years in these press boxes listening to these guys and trust me, it was not hard to make this a comedy. There were many nights when the byplay in the press box was waaaaay more entertaining than the game on the field.

Andrew Barnicle, who directed my other play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre is directing this too. And I couldn’t be more thrilled. The best way to learn how to direct a play is to watch someone who is a master at it. Learning to write a play was harder. I couldn’t just sit and watch Neil Simon type.

I’m also blessed with an awesome cast. Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson. (My last play featured two actors, this one has four. I don’t know what possessed me to write a spectacle this time.)  There are also "special appearances" by Harry S. Murphy and Howard Hoffman.

Rehearsals begin Tuesday and I’ll keep you up to date on the progress like I did when A OR B? went into production in 2014.

We open Saturday night, October 1st. There will be two previews beforehand – Thursday September 29 and Friday September 30. We’ll do the previews right there at the Hudson. We’re not going to New Haven for two days. There will also be a matinee on Sunday October 2nd.

Following that first weekend, performances will be every Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00. It closes November 6th.

Yes, I’ll be there every night so if you ever wanted to meet me or see me pace, this would be the perfect opportunity.

For tickets call 323-960-5521 or go here to purchase them online.  Seats are limited. 

Thanks much. See you at the thee-ah-tuh.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Transitioning from comedy to drama and vice versa

Had lunch recently with fellow writer/blogger, Earl Pomerantz. Topics included the usual: shows that aren’t funny, baseball, health insurance, our kids, Hawaii, and of course other writers.

One name that came up was a writer we both admire, Chris Downey. We both worked with him on LATELINE, the (Senator) Al Franken sitcom of the late ‘90s. Chris is currently executive producing SUITS after co-creating LEVERAGE. We noted how well he transitioned from comedy to drama.

And that got us to thinking of others who made the switch from half-hours to hours. I am a huge fan of Shawn Ryan. THE SHIELD is one of my all-time favorite shows. But when I met him a few years ago he said his real goal when he got into the business was to write for CHEERS. His comedy scripts weren’t cutting it and he gravitated towards drama (where he is an exceptional writer). Likewise, David Shore wanted to be a yuckmeister but found much more success creating HOUSE. And sitcom hopeful Leonard Dick is an integral part of THE GOOD WIFE.

Stephen Nathan wrote on Diane English sitcoms and now is running BONES.

Matthew Weiner toiled on BECKER and THE NAKED TRUTH before sliding over to THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN. Comedy veterans Janet Leahy, Tom Palmer, Michael Saltzman, and even my writing partner David Isaacs all had stints on MAD MEN.

Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (poor guy) before writing AMERICAN BEAUTY and then SIX FEET UNDER.

Was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES considered a drama? Well if so, add a bunch of former FRASIER writers to the list – Anne Flett Giordano, Joe Keenan, Bob Daily, Lori Kirkland to name a few.

And former CHEERS scribe, Phoef Sutton worked on TERRIERS and BOSTON LEGAL.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples but they needed our table.

Here’s the interesting thing we noticed though: Whereas lots of comedy writers have transitioned to drama, very few go the other way. Writers of drama rarely reinvent themselves as comedy writers. Even Aaron Sorkin struggled with STUDIO 60. Not saying that it hasn’t happened or can’t happen (Jane Espenson goes back and forth with ease), but it’s more difficult. Oh yeah, and Shakespeare could do it pretty well.

This phenomenon makes sense to me. A good comedy is just drama with a comedic spin. Comedy writers still have to know dramatic structure, suspense, and at times, tapping into genuine emotion. But the ability to write and construct comedy requires a different skill set than drama.

Some drama writers might disagree. And often when they do attempt a comedy they treat it like they’re slumming. David Mamet writes brilliant dramas but sorry, his comedies aren’t very funny – certainly not as funny as he thinks they are.

This discussion made Earl and me feel better about ourselves, which was really the point. Especially after the discussion of health insurance. Comedy writers rule! Fortunately for you drama writers, most scripted shows are dramas. And many have dashes of humor.  Maybe one reason why drama writers aren’t getting into comedy is that they don’t have to.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My review of THE NIGHT OF

I can’t wait for Sunday night’s conclusion to THE NIGHT OF (now showing on HBO). This eight-part series has been absolutely gripping. It feels and looks like a Sidney Lumet movie. (Have you noticed that television limited series are way better and more complex than movies? Few and far between are films like THE VERDICT.)

In THE NIGHT OF you start with A-list writers in Richard Price and Steve Zaillian. And Zaillian has become an A-list director as well. But here’s the thing: they actually deliver. How many times have you seen a marquee pitching match-up like Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner and the final score is 10-9?

But Price and Zaillian both pitch perfect games.

This was taken from a British series and adapted for US audiences. James Gandolfini was supposed to play the lead character (the rumpled lawyer) but tragically passed away. (He still gets an executive producer credit.) DeNiro was in for five minutes but he bailed (probably to take DIRTY GRANDPA or some other truly terrible role). John Turturro stepped in and gives the performance of his career.

And yet he doesn’t steal the show. There are two ahead of him. Riz Ahmed as the Pakistani kid who is charged with murder goes down this rabbit hole of hell and to see him adapt to his circumstances is the stuff of Emmys.

And he still wasn’t my favorite.

Bill Camp was. I’ve mentioned him before. Camp is a character actor who has a bunch of credits although he’s one of those guys you never remember. Well, that will change with this role. His portrayal of the chief detective is so real, so riveting, so better than anything you see on CSI that for me, he was the stand-out of stand-outs.  And isn't it fun to see someone NEW (or at least new to you)? 

The supporting actors were equally terrific. Notably Jeannie Berlin, Peyman Moaadi, Glenne Headly, Amara Karan, and of course, Chip Zien.

This is probably not a series you can binge. The intensity level is pretty high – especially when they go to Riker’s Island. This is OZ with better lighting. I think I’d last eleven seconds – and that’s if I had protection. What’s bizarre is that I watched an episode of this and then an episode of SUITS where their lead character Mike is in prison, and compared to Riker’s it is like a W Hotel.

Sunday is the finale. We’ll hopefully learn who committed the murder and whether Turturro will keep his cat? Now THIS to me is a cliffhanger (the cat part I mean).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Gee, that "sounds" great! But...

At first blush, this sounds like a fantastic thing for writers. A newly formed production company, Adaptive, is going through discarded studio screenplays and giving some of them new life.

All screenplay writers bitch about the dreaded “Development Hell.” You do draft after draft and eventually the studio says “Nah, we’ll just reboot SPIDERMAN again” and your project is dead. Sometimes you can get it in turnaround, and sometimes another studio will be interested, but most of the time the script just sits in a warehouse that must look like the final scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

Once it goes there, rarely is it ever heard from again. I don’t know a single feature writer who doesn’t have at least two screenplays in that graveyard. Maybe three.

Only one time did David Isaacs and I enjoy a second life with a screenplay. We had written a movie for Columbia (now Sony) called PLAY-BY-PLAY, based loosely on my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. By the time we turned in the draft there had been a regime change at the studio and as is usually the case, the new execs toss out everything developed by the old execs. I don’t know if anyone there ever read it.

Years later, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE became a big hit and its director, Tom Shadyac became the flavor-of-the-month. He was given stacks of scripts to consider for his next project. Somehow, through all the rubble, he unearthed and loved PLAY-BY-PLAY. It was once again in play. We spent that summer with him rewriting it, and the day we turned in what I still believe is a killer draft he got offered to step in last minute and direct THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. He took that, moved on, and our project was once again “strike three.” Welcome to the world of Hollywood – and this was 20 years ago when the business was way better.

But that was still one of the GOOD stories because at least we got paid.

Getting back to Adaptive. They bought up a number of screenplays that languished in development purgatory. Then they novelize some and make movies from some. (Their first movie hasn’t been released yet. Let’s see how well they fare. Lots of start-up production companies come and go. There seems to be an article in the LA or NY TIMES once a year about this. Here’s the recent one for Adaptive. )

So all of that is the good news.

But…

The scripts get torn apart and re-imagined by the Adaptive executive team. And the original writers are usually kicked to the curb. Plus their compensation is minimal. Something like $1000. And Adaptive then owns the intellectual property. If it goes on to be the next HUNGER GAMES, everyone gets rich but the writer.

If Adaptive decides to novelize the script they “audition” five or six writers, who are asked to write sample chapters, ON SPEC. And I’m sure Adaptive asks those writers in the bake-off to come up with treatments, their take, suggestions, etc. FOR FREE.

Something about the original script had to spark the Adaptive execs. It seems to me that original writer is entitled to more involvement or more compensation. The whole approach by Adaptive is ingenious in that it can develop terrific material while still paying very little. Not that they’re remotely interested in anything I’ve done, but my discarded screenplays are worth at least the WGA minimum. I also deserve the option to write the novel or redevelop the project with them. And you know what? If the resulting book and/or movie is a hit, it was still a bargain for them.

When something sounds too good to be true it usually is.

The one place you won't find Hollywood endings?  In Hollywood.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.

This is a re-post from five years ago.   There is some good stuff in the archives.  Check it out if you're bored with life. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

I hate Robert Hall

When I was a kid this was one of the worst times of the year. “Back to School” ads started appearing on the radio. The biggest offender: Robert Hall Clothiers. You have to be of a certain age to really remember (over… uh 30) but Robert Hall ran these truly tacky 40’s style jingles well into the ‘60s and maybe even the ‘70s.

You’d be at the pool enjoying the day, blissfully believing that summer would never end. The radio would be blasting the latest rock tune and all of a sudden, there it was – that first miserable Robert Hall commercial.

That’s it. Summer was as good as over. It was only a matter of time before you were gearing up with new school supplies (we never shopped at Robert Hall) and trudging off to another endless year of doom.

The Robert Hall jingle might as well have been the Volga Boatman.

Listen to these commercials and see if they still bring back that feeling of dread even though you are long past about to enter the seventh grade. I bet they do. They did for me. And I don’t care if it means I get a lunch box. I hate "Back to School!"  And Robert Hall.