Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Getting you ready for the Emmys

With the Emmys only a few weeks away I thought I'd get you in the mood early.  This is an episode from the second season of ALMOST PERFECT.   The story hinges around the Emmy ceremony. 

A couple of things to note:

There's an establishing shot of people arriving to the event.   We got it from ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.  As luck would have it, I'm in the bottom corner for a couple of seconds.

I directed this episode and it was written by the wonderful Sue Herring (who left us way too soon). 

It was the last ALMOST PERFECT ever filmed.   We found out we were cancelled mid-week.  And yet everyone rallied and turned in great performances. 

It's one of my favorites. 

This is an example of a premise built on miscommunication.   The characters think one thing, but we the audience know something else.  So you get laughs from the dialog, not because jokes are being said, but through the misunderstanding.   Seemingly "straight" lines suddenly have two meanings.  And we laugh because we see how the characters are mis-interpreting the lines.  We know what the characters "think" they're saying and we also know how the lines are being perceived. 

This is one of those comic tropes that has been around since people wore togas.  But it works.  What it requires is setting up the misdirection -- finding a way to tell the audience what's going on but not the characters. 

To me a good sitcom will find as many different ways of making an audience laugh.  Not just zingers.  Not just set up/punch lines.  Not just pop culture references.  Not just irony. 

Yes, it's harder to break these stories, and they're a little bit more ambitious -- but for my money, they're worth it.   I wish more sitcoms today stretched themselves. 

See what you think. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Who's in the mood for a good rant?

I’m glad to know it’s not just me.

At first I thought my hearing was going. More and more now I’m having trouble deciphering what actors are saying on TV dramas. To my ear they’re mumbling.

I find myself rewinding and listening to speeches two or three times trying to glean at least the gist of what they’re saying. I should not have to worry about getting a stiff neck from craning while watching a TV show. But like I said, I wondered if it meant hearing loss. Did that deafening Who concert in 1969 finally come back to bite me? Was it watching that YouTube video of Roseanne mangling the National Anthem that did it?  (That video might explain any eyesight loss as well.) 

But lately other people have mentioned in conversation that they too are struggling with mush mouth actors. A few say they now watch shows with the closed caption feature turned on. There’s something wrong when you need subtitles for shows in your own language.

One of the reasons I never got into THE WIRE (yes, I know it’s supposed to be great) is that, in addition to being told I need to sit through season long slumps, I need to activate the closed captions. Sorry. Not worth my time and effort. There will be other great shows… spoken in my native tongue.

And the really annoying thing is that this mumbling usually comes when explaining a key plot point. So without it I’m confused for the next ten minutes.

Do directors and actors think this makes their shows more realistic or layered? For INTERSTELLAR, director Christopher Nolan purposely drowned out some dialogue with music, saying it was an artistic choice to make the dialogue “impressionistic.” What the fuck? Stop trying to be a visionary and start being a storyteller.

In comedy, I am a stickler for actors clearly saying their lines. If the audience doesn’t hear the line they don’t get the joke. Why sacrifice good laughs because the actor thinks he’s Don Corleone?

When I direct theater pieces I always go to the back row and make sure I can plainly hear the dialogue. The actors have to project. Even when the script calls for them to whisper.

What I don’t understand is this: TV dramas today are lavish affairs. The production values are extraordinary. Even series on cable channels I’ve never heard of and most people can’t get. All that money is spent on scope and special effects and eye-popping cinematography and it doesn’t mean shit if the audience can’t make out the dialogue. Again, what’s the most important aspect of any dramatic endeavor – storytelling. Anything that enhances the storytelling is a good thing. Anything that detracts is bad.

So if I may use the written equivalent of shouting:

STOP MUMBLING!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Glen Campbell

Nice to see the outpouring of affection for Glen Campbell (who died last week). You never know which passing celebrities will get a flood of Social Media love and which are met with meh.

I would have thought Glen Campbell was merely a memory in baby boomers’ lives, but it was heartening to see he was quite beloved.

I was always a fan. And coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago I put together a playlist for my iPhone of Glen Campbell songs and was reminded of just how good he was. He had that easy accessible voice and could convey heartache in a way that went right to your kishkas. Those Jimmy Webb songs from the late ‘60s were the perfect vehicle for him. (But boy was I disappointed when I finally saw Galveston for myself. Who misses oil wells on the beach?)

Campbell also had his own variety show on CBS in the late ‘60s. It was originally a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers but did so well he got his own slot. He had a real warmth and could really connect with the audience. He also had the sense to know his strengths and weaknesses. A physical comedian he was not so he wisely avoided the cringeworthy kind of sketches you saw on most variety shows. (Sonny was not funny.)

And besides all of that, he was a remarkable guitarist. Prior to his singing success he was a session man on the Wrecking Crew – a collection of the very best studio musicians in the world that backed most hit records in the ‘60s.

Oh, and he was a Beach Boy. Well, a substitute Beach Boy. But sometimes when Brian Wilson didn’t want to tour Glen Campbell would trade his spurs for flip flops.

He’s had Alzheimer’s for years. There’s that documentary about him that’s very hard to watch. But for the most part he’s been out of the public eye for several decades. And in a time where you’re forgotten before you can say “Taylor Hicks” Glen Campbell has happily remained on peoples’ radar.

Now that we all have Spotify and Pandora and other services that allow us to access any music we want, treat yourself to a little Glen Campbell today. But don’t be fooled by Galveston.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Dumbest Friday Questions I've received

Sometimes I get bizarre questions so I thought today I’d try to answer some of them.  Names have been withheld to protect the embarrassed. These were actual questions submitted.  NOTE:  I post these in the spirit of fun, not to be mean-spirited (which is why I'm not identifying anyone).  I love your questions and answer them every week.  But I do get some goofy ones and people are always asking me to share some of those.  My answers are tongue-in-cheek.   So please, just have fun with this.  

Question one:

I've noticed that when a character is writing something he (or she) is usually left handed. I don't know why I notice this or why it bothers me. My question is, is this my imagination?

No, you’re correct. Research has shown that audiences prefer left handed penmanship. So if the actor is right handed they just flip the film. Congratulations on being the first viewer to ever spot this phenomenon.

Question two:

Have there been porn parodies of any of the shows you've worked and, if so, have you seen them?

Yes, but I haven’t seen them. I prefer pornographic parodies of procedurals. My favorites are BONE and CS&M.

Question three:

I was at a casino recently and saw a "Cheers" slot machine. You getting anything from that?

I’m getting as much as I’m making on the porn CHEERS.

Question four:

As a baseball announcer maybe you can answer this – is there an inning where not a lot happens and you can go to the bathroom or concession stands without missing too much?

Any inning the Philadelphia Phillies bat.

Question five:

When is the best time to pitch a show? Time of year, time of day, day of the week?

Summer. 11:13 AM. Second Tuesday of the month.

Question six:

Do you like killing characters?

What writer doesn’t?

Question seven:

It seems alot of people that have recurring roles on series have been popping up as guest stars on other series (Peter/Neil from White Collar on Body of Proof/The New Normal as an example). I never really noticed that much before, is there any reason why it seems to be happening now?

Yes.  Actors like to eat.

Question eight:

Ken, I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the drop in sex scenes in mainstream Hollywood movies. I'm curious as to your thoughts on this trend.

Until I get royalties on the porn version of CHEERS, I’m against it.

Question nine:

An Anyday Question for you:
Have you ever written into a script someone breaking an object during a scene? A glass window, chair, or whatever?

Yes, but unlike killing actors, I get no real satisfaction out of it.

Question ten (this is a FRASIER question… I assume):

Did Eddie have actors that he preferred working with?

Kelsey Grammer because they both went to Julliard. Eddie, however, graduated.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments file. Woof.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Do I know how to read women or what?

A few years ago I went to see a rather unusual play called TAMARA. The theater is actually a mansion and the audience follows around the various cast members as they perform their scenes simultaneously in different rooms. The idea is to attend with a few people and each person follows someone else. Then at intermission you get together and catch everybody up. I know. It’s a lot of work. And the story is a complicated mess. But it’s an experience and they serve chocolate covered strawberries at intermission.

So I’m following the cute little chambermaid (me and about nineteen other guys). In one scene she goes up to her room to get ready for a date. We follow her and stand against the walls.

She turns to me and starts talking to herself, excited about this upcoming rendezvous. Bad writing but that’s not the point. She’s imagining being in his strong embrace and how she’ll melt in his arms. And all the while she’s looking directly into my eyes.

The vibe is clear. This chick likes me. The suggestive dialogue, her bedroom eyes locked onto mine. There’s no doubt. For whatever reason I turn her on. I had just had a pilot not picked up and was feeling somewhat inadequate so to have this smoking hot girl pick me out of a room full of men really boosted my bruised ego. The hell with CBS! I was a stud!

So I start making eyes back at her, letting her know the Fonz has received the message.

And then I realized…

I’m standing in front of a mirror. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking through me. She was just playing the scene as if I weren’t even there. Talk about major shrinkage.

For the rest of the night I followed the Fascist Colonel.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s the dog days of hot August Friday Questions.

Richard Anderson starts us off:

I'm thinking about writing a pilot based on an existing movie. Would this be a good idea, or is it better to just stick to writing an original pilot?

By all means, write something original. Why take a chance of writing something you don’t have the rights for? Plus, the reason for the exercise is so that producers and agents can see what you do with original material. Otherwise, just write a spec of an existing show.

But on the off-chance that you write a pilot that someone actually wants to buy, why risk the deal blowing up because the movie rights holder won’t cooperate?

Similarly, an anonymous reader (please include your name) asks:

What do you think about doing a spec script of an older show as a possible reboot? Two years ago it would have been unthinkable to spec "Will & Grace," and now it's coming back in the fall. Similarly, "Arrested Development" has two more seasons coming from Netflix. In this day and age, when a show is never truly dead, is anything ever really off the table?

Don’t do it. If you’re going to spec a show, pick one that is current, on the rise, somewhat well known, and you feel you could do the best job on.

Don’t get cute. Don’t do “stunts.” Even if the vintage show you’re specing comes back, they’ll now be going in a direction you’re not privy to.

Get noticed for your writing, not the novelty of the script.

From Ted O'Hara:

I was reading the original MASH novel, and Hawkeye and Duke Forrest arrive at the 4077th in the snow. We never saw snow on the series, probably due to the expense. It made me wonder - were there any story ideas you would have liked to have done that were too expensive to shoot?

I think we did do snow for a Christmas episode. Yes, having the capability of showing snow would have opened up a new avenue for stories, but the practicality and cost would have been insane. It was bad enough we sometimes made the actors do cold shows. They would go out to the Malibu ranch in 110 degree temperatures and have to don parkas and stand over fire barrels. I don’t think we could keep a snow-cone in tact for twelve seconds under those conditions.

Linda asks:

Was just going thru your Wiki page

It seems longer and detailed now. I remember a year or so ago, it was very short. I don’t know how this wiki page editing works, but did they ask you to send more details or just someone researched your profile and updated.

Is it complete and accurate now or is something still missing?

How do you feel when you first saw your own wiki page? Quite exhilarating I bet.

I’m not sure how Wikipedia works, but I believe people are not allowed to edit their own page. So for the most part I have no idea who is updating my page (or why).

No, it’s not complete, but at least it’s more accurate now than it has been in the past. They had my birthdate wrong, had me as location manager of JURASSIC PARK, and dialogue coach for FLIPPER (I kid you not).

Yes, it’s kind of cool to know the page is out there. But I hardly ever look at it. Cooler still is that I’m now in WHO’S WHO IN AMERICA. That’s the kind of thing that would really get me laid if I were single.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Give comedy its due

How’s this for a premise of a play or movie? A single-mother abandons her young son and her brother is forced to raise him. Her brother works in a soul-sucking job that he hates more than anything.

So he quits his job and tries to lead an unorthodox life, all the while teaching his young nephew the joys and absurdities of life. All the while, he and the boy become very attached to each other.

But this nonconformity lifestyle attracts the attention of social services who feel the unemployed man is providing an unhealthy environment and threatens to take the child away from him. So in order to keep the child the man has to not only get his job back but eat shit in the process.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

It actually IS. It’s a comedy.

The play (and later movie) is called A THOUSAND CLOWNS. It was written by Herb Gardner. It also happens to be my all-time favorite play. It’s from the early ‘60s but practically everything in it is universal and relevant today.

I’m always rankled by “comedy” being considered a second-class citizen to drama. And the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I get a note that starts with, “Well, yeah it’s funny but…”

Do you know how hard it is to make something really funny?

And how much harder it is to make a dramatic point but through humor? How many movies use the crutch of soundtrack music to create the dramatic tone they wish to set? A jilted lover walks down rain slicked city streets late at night while “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by Sinatra plays. How much more difficult is it to create that same mood but with dialogue that isn’t on-the-nose dramatic?

Through comedy you can make dramatic points in a way that doesn’t seem off-putting. You can get tough points across easier and reach more people. Yes, it’s a tightrope act, but that’s why comedies should get more respect and not less.

As a writer I’m always searching for the truth. The best drama and the funniest comedy comes out of the truth. We laugh because we identify with it, we recognize it, we’ve experienced it ourselves. Comedy writers may not win Tonys but we do win hearts. And that’s good enough… although we also want Tonys. Or at least nominations.