Thursday, July 31, 2014

The comedy writing rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Laker tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. GOOD LUCK CHARLIE was a Disney Channel show but so clearly superior to other series on that network.

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The best burger

Okay, I admit it. I love a good burger. I don’t smoke, do crack, drink Absinthe before noon, order waffles with whipped cream, munch on cereal that is frosted or contains marshmallows, or eat carnival food (which is deep-fried-anything-edible). I do eat vegetables, salads, some healthy fish, and Grape Nuts (that’s still good for you, right?).

But like J. Wellington Wimpy I enjoy a good burger now and again. My all-time favorite burger place, Cassell’s has closed (although they promise to re-open… actually, they promised to re-open a year ago – not a good sign). Bob’s Big Boy, once a chain, now still exists in Toluca Lake, and I’m still a sucker for their double-decker. Partly it’s nostalgia and partly because the location is across the street from the theater that will be staging my play, A OR B?

Burger preference is a very personal and emotional topic. Religion and politics pale. I’m sure a lot of you will weigh-in with your favorites and I’m holding my breath it doesn’t get ugly.

But recently Consumer Reports did a survey on fast-food burger chains. The winner? A California franchise called the Habit Burger Grill. I’ve had some. They’re very good. In N’ Out placed second. They’re kind of the gold standard for quality – cold tomatoes and other major features. Interestingly, of the 21 chains tested, McDonalds finished DEAD LAST.

They sell the most, but no one seems to really like them. And the other big franchises didn't fare much better. Second-to-last was Jack In The Box, and they finished just ahead of Burger King. I mean, when White Castle and Wendy’s whip your ass, what does that say? Even A & W scores higher and you have to be reeeeally hungry to order one of their burgers.

The clear message is that mass production results in mass rejection. Other categories surveyed were sandwiches & subs, chicken, and burritos. Subway finished second-to-last in sandwiches, KFC was voted the worst chicken, and to no one’s surprise – the worst burrito went to Taco Bell.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t always that way (well, except for Taco Bell. That’s FEAR FACTOR cuisine wrapped in a tortilla). McDonalds used to be very tasty – we’re talking several lifetimes ago. Subway didn’t always put material in their bread that tire companies use to make rubber, and when Colonel Sanders was still alive, there was actually quality control officers who went from branch to branch to ensure the chicken was fresh, all eleven secret herbs and spices were prepared in the correct amount, and there was less grease in a bucket than in a 1967 Chevrolet Impala V-8 engine.

Fast food is obviously not great for you in the best of conditions. So if you’re going to indulge in a burger like me, or (God help you) a burrito – pick a good one. Don’t waste the calories and cholesterol on a Jumbo Jack for crissakes. Treat yourself to whatever you feel is the best. As for me? I might wander over to Five Guys.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Happy to report

Our house is on the other side of UCLA so was not affected by the water main breaking and subsequent flood.  You can imagine the traffic though.  All we need now is for Obama to come to town tonight for a fundraiser.  But thanks to all of you who expressed concern. 

Have we loved Lucy enough?

Neil Genzlinger, of the New York Times is one of my favorite critics. And I often disagree with him. What I like best is that from time to time he will take a position that clearly flies in the face of popular opinion. Sometimes I think he does this just to stir things up. It’s like if I wrote in this blog that I want Patricia Heaton to have my baby. The comments would be off the charts.

But in Mr. Genzlinger's case, whenever he does such an article (a la “sitcoms are dead”) he always backs it up with a persuasive argument (even if you don’t buy it). And he writes for the New York Times, so it’s not Cliff Clavin ranting in the Scientology Picayune-Intelligence.

On Sunday Mr. G. made the case that old vintage TV shows should essentially be put away forever. And tops on his list is I LOVE LUCY. Talk about spitting on the cross.

Before you get out the torches and pitchforks, here’s his take:

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and occasionally dipping into our past. But with all these retro cable channels it is now possible to go down the rabbit hole and watch nothing but these chestnuts. And in his opinion, a steady diet of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and GREEN ACRES will turn your brain to mush. Can you totally disagree with him?

In terms of Lucy, he reasons: In its time, it was defining. But today the broad humor draws only the occasional chuckle. The show is like your high school girlfriend: Just because you loved Lucy once doesn’t mean you still do.

Here’s where he gets in trouble. I LOVE LUCY continues to rerun endlessly because it continues to get amazing ratings and make people really laugh. Every generation seems to discover and embrace it. And some of the comic set pieces are timeless classics. I LOVE LUCY is truly in a class of its own. It could be retitled I BELOVE LUCY. That said, I’ve seen every episode a gazillion times and have no desire to personally seek one out.

A lot of those old classic shows don’t hold up when you watch them today. You realize your love for them is rooted primarily in nostalgia. There are old shows I remember liking as a kid that I see now and say “what was I thinking?” LAUGH-IN for one. In it’s heyday I thought this was the most hilarious show on television. Today I can’t watch two minutes without cringing and wanting to kill myself.

But I will say this:  When I taught my class on comedy last year at USC, the half-hour sitcom that got the biggest laughs from my one hundred college students was THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.  Funny is funny.  

To his point about the danger of immersing yourself in these evergreens at the expense of watching anything else, I tend to agree. And I am sometimes an offender. But not in television. Radio.

My favorite era of music is the ‘60s. Thanks to Sirius/XM and internet stations I’m able to listen to ‘60s music 24/7. And at times I do. But after a few days I just have to listen to something else. For every Beatles record I could hear on an endless loop there’s also the 1910 Fruit Gum Company. Get me to the Reggae station. Where’s my Nicole Atkins playlist? I’ve even been known to flee to sportstalk radio in desperation.

The bottom line though is I’m thrilled that these retro networks exist and that these old shows are still available. And, like everything else, take in moderation.

What troubles me, and this is not a point that Mr. Genzlinger addressed, is that now some of MY shows are on these retro channels. Those nostalgia networks are for shows I watched when I was six.
What the fuck?

Monday, July 28, 2014

What can be done about stealing jokes?

Read a recent article on what recourse a comic or writer has if someone steals his jokes. The short answer: nothing. If you sue for copyright infringement it’ll cost all parties involved anywhere from $373,000 to $2.1 million. It better be one fucking great joke.

Stealing gags have been around since the beginning of time. The article cites an example. Milton Berle – notorious for stealing other people’s material – used this joke: “A man comes home and finds his best friend in bed with his wife. That man throws up his hands in disbelief and says, ‘Joe, I have to—but you?’ ”

Now compare that to this joke from the 4th century tome Philogelos, the world’s oldest-known joke book: “Someone needled a well-known wit: ‘I had your wife, without taking a penny,’ He replied, ‘It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’ ”

Proof positive that Milton Berle was sixteen centuries old when he died. I will give him this; he improved the joke. The early version really explained the joke. What was with these people?

So if you can't take legal action, what’s to stop someone from pilfering jokes?

There is somewhat of a code between comedians (although enforcing it is probably laughable). If there’s a question of ownership over a particular joke, the comic that delivered it on TV first gets it. This seems unfair to me. Struggling comics don’t get on TV, while Robin Williams merely has to pick up the phone.

Comics tend to ostracize other comics who steal material. Jerry won’t let them ride in his car.

If the problem gets too severe some clubs blackball them. For poor Dane Cook that means he can only work in arenas.

You can always beat the shit out of the guy. Although, admittedly, not a lot of ex-Marines or former boxing champions go into comedy.

As a comic you can develop a persona that’s very unique to you. Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Emo Phillips, Steve Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Wendy Liebman (to name but a few) – their material is dependent as much on delivery and character as the written words themselves.

You can try to monitor your material and cut off the pipeline to plagiarists if you can find it. Before I had a blog I would review the Oscars and send it to everyone in my address book. One was a highly rated major market talk show host. I found out from several listeners that he was using my material the next morning and claiming it was his. That’s the last thing he ever received from me.

Sometimes people can get caught stealing material and look stupid as a result. I remember seeing a lounge performer at the Burlingame Hyatt who stole routines from Steve Martin. And this was when Martin was at the height of his popularity. Everyone in the room looked at each other and thought, “Is this guy an idiot?” (I then thought, “What the hell am I doing in a Burlingame Hyatt looking for entertainment?”)

A recent study has determined that there is less joke stealing among comics now than the old Milton Berle days (of the 4th-20th centuries) and they conclude this informal “code” has made the difference. Personally, I think it’s the internet. Up until a decade ago it was possible for a comic to play clubs, work the circuit for years and no one other than drunks and fellow comics knew who he was. Now every comic is on Twitter, has a website, and clips of their stand up act is on YouTube. And all entries are dated. It’s much easier now to point fingers.

But fear not, comedy warriors.  I have the answer. I know how to end joke stealing.   Just have an announcement at the start of every comedy show that lifting material is illegal and hurts artists. You may say, “C’mon, that’s not going to work.” Oh really? How do you think the big Hollywood studios put an end once and for all to film piracy? I rest my case.

And this is my idea. Don’t you go stealing it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

All-night radio -- hookers, brawls, and dead presidents

More on my ill-fated disc jockey career. 

In March 1973 I was hired by KMEN San Bernardino to do the all-night show. My salary was a whopping $650 a month to work the coveted midnight-six shift six nights a week. As with Bakersfield, I was not allowed to use my real name. Let’s just say Levine sounded too, uh… “New York”. So again I was Ken Stevens. Of course how do I complain that my name is too generic when my program director goes by Buddy Scott?

So I did all-nights and never got any sleep. The phone number I was assigned was the same as an LA hooker’s (just a 714 area code instead of 310). She advertised in the LA WEEKLY and a hundred times a day I’m getting calls saying, “Hey, man, is Jeannie there?”

On the air, talking to cows for six hours, I needed something to occupy my mind. So I started a friendly little rivalry with the evening jock, Doug DeRoo. Doug is amazingly talented. Imagine the character Robin Williams played in GOOD MORNING VIET NAM only funnier. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn was the big hit then. We wanted to see who could come up with the most one-liners while introducing it. For days this Titanic tug-of-war continued. One bad one-liner after another. Proud to say I won. Not proud that my winning quip involved urine.

Is it any wonder that the program director kept sending me memos to just shut up and stop trying to be funny?

KMEN’s promotion budget was zero. So we were sent out on appearances that wouldn’t cost the station. A favorite was the high school basketball game between the disc jockeys and the faculty. By “faculty” they pretty much meant gym teachers vs. six out-of-shape mostly drugged out radio nerds. It was an exhibition but invariably there’d be one Cro-Magnon teacher who thought he was Reggie Evans – throwing elbows, and clotheslining guys. I don’t think this is what the station had in mind – we got into a brawl with the Redland High faculty. So in addition to always being sleep deprived I did the show that night holding an ice pack to my head.

June meant school graduations so in the spirit I brought my high school annual from home and read the idiotic things people wrote about me or to me.  It was a good schtick.  If anyone was listening I'm sure they would have enjoyed it.    But as the records were playing at 3 in morning I began leafing thrugh the book, perusing the senior pictures.  All those girls I had a crush on, I thought they were probably sleeping in nice warm beds with loving former football stars/husbands leading a contented life.  And where was I?  In a fucking cow pasture in the middle of the night.  "Most Likely to Waste His Life".  That was more depressing than playing Elanor Rigby. 

Every morning from 4-4:15 I had to do a farm report. So I’d rip all this stuff off the teletype machine and read it verbatim, having no fucking idea what I was talking about. Giving sorghum updates, pork belly prices, and harvest predictions.  Let's just say guys with uh, New York last names know shit about farming. 

I also had to do an hourly newscast. And there again I’d race into the newsroom the last minute, rip off the headlines, and read them on the air. I never pre-read them. No disc jockey ever did. God knows if I ever pronounced all those Cambodian villages correctly. Of course, it’s not like I got any calls complaining. But hard to pronounce names were always the bane of our existence. One former KMEN disc jockey got around that once with what I believe to be the smoothest save EVER. This is how he reported the following news story:

“And in other news – the President of Brazil has just died. His name is being withheld until the family has been notified”.

Genius. Sheer genius. You gotta love radio.

By the way, I called the phone company, changed my number, and explained why.  A week later the guy I talked to called back to thank me. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The wackiest minor league stunt ever

Getting a prostate exam while singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

Minor league teams are known for their goofy stunts. Cow milking contests, etc. But I think this one takes the cake. Andy Milovich is the GM of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Thursday's big promotion was Prostate Cancer Awareness Night. So to celebrate, Mr. Milovich had his prostate checked in the press box. A doctor donned a rubber glove and checked around while Milovich sang during the seventh inning stretch. This beats Speed Dating Night, Christmas in July Night, Political Correctness Night, Scientology Night, Noah Bobblehead Night, and even Toilet Seat Cushion Night.

You may now return to the Who, What, or Which Game.

The "Who, What, or Which?" game that I just made up

I did this originally as a Tweet but thought it might expand into a fun readership-participation post. This is the kind of crap you'll get if you follow me on Twitter. You don't have to answer them all.

Who, what or which?

Who is more famous? John Denver or Bob Denver

Who was better on CHEERS? Shelley Long or Kirstie Alley?

What's the best sequel? GODFATHER 2 or MANNEQUIN 2?

Which show was better? THE BOB NEWHART SHOW or NEWHART?

What show is better? MAD MEN or BREAKING BAD?

What show is worse? 2 BROKE GIRLS or GIRLS?

Who do you love to hate more? Simon Cowell or Ann Coulter?

What’s the most hated team in America? The New York Yankees or the U.S. Supreme Court?

What’s better? Coke or Pepsi?

Who’s the best Jr.? Ken Griffey or Cal Ripken?

Who has better original series? HBO or Showtime?


Who would get rustier going through a carwash? Robocop or a Transformer?

Who is more famous? Honey Boo Boo or the President of the United States?

Who’s more famous? Sweet Caroline or Caroline Kennedy?

What’s worse? Brussels sprouts or cauliflower?

Who’s better? Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Which is better? Mac or PC?

What's better? DQ or KFC?

Who’s scarier? Jason or Jigsaw?

Who’s scarier? Faye Dunaway or Liza Minnelli?

Who has the better cereal name? Coco Crisp or Sugar Bear Flyod Rayford?

Who’s more annoying? Flo from Progressive Insurance or the Geico lizard?

Who’s a better hitter? Mike Trout or Liza Minnelli?

Who’s the funnier Jimmy? Kimmell or Fallon.

Who has the best shitty pizza? Dominos or Pizza Hut?

Who is more famous? Marilu Henner or Mary Lou Retton?

Which is better? Facebook or actually having friends?

Thanks in advance.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Questions

Here are some Friday Questions since it's, y'know... Friday.

RockGolf leads off:

Who do you consider to be the best COMIC actor on a current DRAMA series? I'd suggest Tim Kang on The Mentalist, whose deadpan 6-year Sgt. Friday imitation slays me.

I don’t think of Tim as a comic character. I suspect he doesn’t either. I’d be surprised if anyone on the staff does.  And Miguel Ferrer does a way better Sgt. Friday.  Check him out in TWIN PEAKS and the original ROBOCOP. 

No, for my money, I’d have to go with Damon Herriman as Dewey Crow on JUSTIFIED. Not just as the best comic character in a drama but the funniest comic character on television period. No one on any sitcom makes me laugh as hard as Dewey.

Julian Brown has a question on a post I wrote about the need for a theme and the importance of your show being about something.

This really resonates with me; I'm grinding away at a making an album, and this week I'm trying to determine what it's about.

If you feel like it, I'd be interested in what, if any, process you go thru to get to the bottom of yr premise/story/what have you.

Well, the first thing is I do is determine what the theme is before writing. The story, or in your case, album, should reflect that. Taking a finished product and sifting through it looking for gold is rather counter-productive.

This is a question I get a lot (and answer a lot).  It's an important point that needs to be repeated.   Sort of like a "theme." 

When people tell me they just want to start writing and see where the story takes them, I tell them most often it leads to Death Valley.

Put in the time and effort to determine your theme first. And yes, I know – it’s HARD. The hardest part actually. But once you have it, the rest falls into place and it’s much easier to determine if you’re on track or straying. The theme is your compass.

Bottom line: what is it you want to say? And if you don’t have anything, then why are you even bothering?

And finally, from Jay:

Hi Ken,

I've heard and read all about how rough writers' rooms can be, and that if one wants to be a working TV comedy writer, one needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for anything. What's been your experience with a fellow writer (or, maybe it's been you) who's going through a rough time (read: depressed) and may be a little more sensitive to things? Did his or her fellow staffers been sympathetic or just see this more fodder to throw around the room?

I ask because I am going through a rough time right now and am prone to depression from time to time. I'm not a working TV writer but one of those aspiring types. I know me, and I know that when I'm feeling good and confident in myself and my abilities as a writer, I'm sharp and on the ball with a good balance of being amiable but with an edge. But during my downturns, I'm much more sensitive and distracted than I'd like. So this makes me question, do I have the personality to make it in a comedy writers' room.

Thanks for your time!

First off, Jay, my heart goes out to you. Battling those demons are rough.

What I would suggest, in your best interest, is that staff work might not be for you. You may get a supportive room; you may not. It depends on the personalities in the room, the pressure they’re all under, how well the show is working, etc.

I would suggest you concentrate on your drafts. Time was you could make a living in TV as a freelance writer. No more really. But if you write great drafts you may get a show to give you multiple assignments.

And a better avenue might be to write screenplays. Or stage plays (although there’s not a lot of money in that).

There are a lot of terrific comedy writers who just don’t have the temperament for staff work. Guys like Neil Simon. Yes, it’s harder to break in, but once you do you can create a working environment more to your comfort level. And the more comfortable you are, the better the work will be.

One last point – comedy writers who suffer from depression is more common than athletes who drink Gatorade. It needs to be addressed, but there’s no reason why you can’t ultimately enjoy a long successful career. You’re already ahead of the game by recognizing your condition. Again, best of luck to you.

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. I do try to get to as many as I can.  Thanks.