Since the MASH frenzy continues, here’s another anecdote. It’s a re-post but for the many new readers I think it’s worth a summer re-run. Besides I have to read a lot of crap this weekend so I won’t sound too stupid co-hosting the Stephanie Miller Show this Monday & Tuesday.
When my partner, David and I were head writers a precedent had been established during table readings whereby after the cast read the script out loud we went page by page asking if anyone had a problem or issue. Often times these notes resulted in better shows. And we were a collaborative effort.
Sometimes someone in the cast would have a real ticky tack issue with some line. And not to be upstaged, another cast member would have a “problem”. Pretty soon, they all were having “problems”. Page after page after page. We loved and admired the cast and would always be accommodating but inside we were IRKED.
This happened a couple of times and finally we got smart. The next time it occurred we went back to the room, addressed all of their minor concerns, and then made one other little change of our own to the script. We made it a cold show.
The next day filming began at the Malibu ranch. Summer temperatures were routinely in the 90’s and 100’s. Now the cast was all in parkas standing over fire barrels delivering lines about how bitterly cold Korea was in the winter.
This happened maybe twice and we never got a ticky tack note again.
If only we could do that today with networks and studios.
Friday, June 30, 2006
Since the MASH frenzy continues, here’s another anecdote. It’s a re-post but for the many new readers I think it’s worth a summer re-run. Besides I have to read a lot of crap this weekend so I won’t sound too stupid co-hosting the Stephanie Miller Show this Monday & Tuesday.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
On Monday and Tuesday I will be co-hosting the STEPHANIE MILLER syndicated radio show with the much-funnier-than-me Elayne Boosler. 6-9 AM on the West Coast and 9-Noon in the East. Needless to say, big audiences are expected for morning drive time radio on the 3rd and 4th of July.
I’m amazed by the huge reaction to MASH posts. You all realize that until they moved the show to Mondays it was getting its ass kicked by THREE’S COMPANY?
GOODBYE RADAR was supposed to be the finale of season seven. When the network talked Gary Burghoff into postponing his exit until November sweeps (it was a very short conversation, they just wrote a dollar figure on a piece of paper and handed it to him.) we decided to make it more of an event, thus the two parter. (CBS was lobbying for a twelve parter.)
Our goal was to make his actual departure as emotional as possible while still avoiding a long maudlin scene. Hence the casualties. Each character said goodbye in one sentence. I’m a big fan of tiny moments. Radar leaving his teddy bear to Hawkeye said more than any speech we could have ever written. (And you know how long it takes us to write those damn big speeches.)
The name we gave his girlfriend was Patty Haven, a former girlfriend of mine who left me to run a kennel in Fresno.
90% of the time two parters should really be part-and-a-halfs.
I think the rapid fire pace of the dialogue and story telling on MASH was much better suited for a half hour than an hour.
Saw myself on MY FIRST TIME on TVLand. What was I thinking wearing that purple shirt? I looked like a telletubby.
For the MARY show we hired newcomer Katey Segal over Kathy Bates.
Most of the real dish on Mary Tyler Moore I have I will save for my book. I will then have to spend the next few years hiding like Salmon Rushdie while Mary tries to hunt me down.
Suffice it to say I can’t watch ORDINARY PEOPLE without having Viet Nam flashbacks.
We did make reference to her in a SIMPSONS we wrote. Patty or Selma decided to wear Mary’s classic hairstyle. The town drunk approaches and asks, “Are you Mary Tyler Moore?” She sprays him with mace and he says, “You ARE. You are Mary Tyler Moore!”
Some guys live right. Minnesota Twins’ catcher Joe Mauer is batting an incredible .456 in June and goes home to former Miss USA, Chelea Cooley. Why opposing pitchers aren’t throwing at his head every at bat is beyond me.
The Twins are one of the most exciting teams in baseball. Too bad they play in that giant jello mold.
Caught the Ringo Starr All-Star band concert last weekend. Ringo was charming and it was “far out” hearing those Beatles songs sung by “the actual guy” but he wasn’t the best musician on stage. In fact, he wasn’t even the best drummer on stage. Sheila E. was absolutely phenomenal!! Meanwhile, Edgar Winters looks the same as he did 25 years ago – middle aged and paunchy. The only instrument he didn’t play was the zither.
The only National League team that can beat the American League is the Colorado Rockies. What this means is that the National League should just trade places with the Pacific Coast League.
I was not involved with the final MASH episode. The story was broken into half hour increments and divided up between the writers, who would then each write their segment with Alan Alda.
Booting Star Jones Reynolds off THE VIEW was a good start. Now get rid of the rest of those hens.
It’s hard to not get swept up in World Cup fever when there are all those heart pounding, spine tingling 0-0 games.
When Germany plays Iran, who do you root for?
Check back tomorrow for one of my favorite MASH anecdotes.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
By popular demand, more MASH stuff. (I never get this kind of reaction to my Palm Springs travelogues.) Here are some random questions and thoughts:
How did we get the medical jargon? We had a consultant on staff, Dr. Walter Dishell. When writing the script, David and I would just slug in medical nonsense.
HAWKEYE: I think his freebazzber is ruptured.
BJ: You might have to gumenford him and eeknonoogle his interior norgalflagle.
HAWKEYE: Nurse, zignuts. Stat!
Walt would send the script back replacing the zignuts. Eventually we became more proficient in operating procedures and by the end of our tenure we were taking a crack at the jargon ourselves, just calling him and running the scene by him. One of our proudest moments on the show was once writing an OR scene that required no changes. Of course the patient did die.
If you’re writing a spec script like a HOUSE that requires medical-speak, consult a doctor to get it right.
When breaking stories, we would often call Walt and say something like, “Here’s what we need -- a patient that comes in with a bad fever. He becomes delusional that night. The next day he’s better. But that night he dies.” An hour later Walt would call back with Hemorrhagic Fever or some other exotic disease.
At MASH we also had a nurse on stage who served as our technical advisor. That is why you never saw Hawkeye operate with a band saw.
A few people commented on the number of inconsistencies in the show. Yes, a show bible might have been nice. To me there were two BIG inconsistencies: Harry Morgan initially appeared as an insane general (maybe the funniest MASH episode EVER – “The General Flipped at Dawn”) and then later as Colonel Potter. And the other – we’re supposed to believe that eleven years of stories, main characters coming and going, actors aging over a decade, etc. all took place in less than two years.
The theme song, taken from the movie, “Suicide is Painless” was never sung on the series.
The show was shot at Twentieth Century Fox on Stage 9, and on location in Malibu canyon. A later brush fire destroyed most of the exterior sets. The sets from the stage are in the Smithsonian in Washington. I didn’t steal any of the props. I’m an idiot.
It took four days to shoot an episode. One day to read and rehearse, and three to film. One of the three shooting days would be out on location. But only until the end of Daylight Savings Time. After that the days were too short. The final six or seven episodes were always filmed exclusively on the stage, even the exterior scenes.
For my money the best episodes were written by Larry Gelbart and the team of Everett Greenbaum & Jim Frizzell.
I was there for the creation of Charles Emerson Winchester. The idea was to replace Frank Burns with a character that was very much his opposite. We all wanted Charles to be smarter and more gifted as a surgeon than Hawkeye or B.J. and, as opposed to Frank, a worthy adversary.
There were no auditions for the part of part. Producer Burt Metcalfe had seen David Ogden Stiers guesting on an episode of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and thought he’d be perfect. It was only after David was hired that we learned he could do that slight Boston accent.
I named several women characters after old girlfriends. They still hated me.
In the 7th season, for patient names we used the 1978 Los Angeles Dodger roster. In the 6th season there was an episode with four Marine patients. They were the California Angels infield.
MASH tribute sites have trivia contests. I often can’t answer questions from episodes I wrote.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
First off – a programming note: I will be making a rare on-camera appearance Wednesday night at 10 PM on TVLand. The program is called MY FIRST TIME (and no, it's not what you think). TV stars talk about their big break. My partner and I gave Katy Segal her first job on the Mary Tyler Moore comeback disaster we did called MARY. (A show that could be the subject matter for a series called MY WORST TIME.)
Since it appears my entire body of work is destined for TVLAND (if not there already), it is only appropriate that that's where I show up. I taped my segment over a year ago so God knows what I said or how I look. I hope I don’t regret alerting people to this.
Here’s the speech from our first MASH, “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” that took us a week and at least fifty drafts. But launched our career.
Hawkeye was temporarily blind, with no guarantee he’d ever see again. He dealt with it by staying very busy, even being a little manic. Finally, B.J. sits him down in Post Op and they have the following exchange:
Listen, Hawk, why don’t you just settle down for five minutes? I know what you’re trying to do, and I know how you really feel.
No you don’t.
You don’t want to have time to think about what might happen to you.
That’s not it. Sure, when Overman walks in tomorrow and unwraps my package, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But in the meantime, this crazy accident has taken on another meaning.
One part of the world closed down for me, but another part opened up. Sure, I’ve been seeing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers. But things are happening that take me away from that. This morning I spent two incredible hours listening to a rainstorm. I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I’ll bet you never realized that the sound of rain hitting the ground makes the same noise as steaks when they barbeque, or that thunder seems to echo forever. And you can’t believe how funny it is to hear someone slip and fall in the mud. Had to be Burns. Beej, it’s full of trapdoors, but I think I’m using this thing to my advantage. I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.
Monday, June 26, 2006
Last week’s MASH posts sparked a lot of questions about the show. I’m always amazed there’s still such interest in a thirty year old show but I couldn’t be happier. So keep those cards and letters coming in.
A number of people wanted to know how David Isaacs and I got our first MASH assignment. We had sold a JEFFERSONS and a couple of episodes of another series, JOE AND SONS, cancelled one nanosecond after we turned in our second script. (Surprisingly, there are no JOE AND SONS tribute websites.) Our agents moved up to the agency that also represented MASH executive producer, Gene Reynolds. He read and liked our JEFFERSONS and invited us to come in and meet. My partner and I had met in the Army Reserves so we were very comfortable writing a military show. This was season five, Larry Gelbart, had just left, and Gene was looking for new writers. Forget for a moment that the two of us together couldn’t carry Larry Gelbart’s pencil sharpener, we jumped at the chance.
We had a good meeting, were loaded down with research material, and told to come back when we had some stories to pitch. I asked how many stories? At the JEFFERSONS writers were allowed to pitch only three. Gene said as many as we had.
A week later we were back in his office with FIFTY stories. There was no way we were going to walk out of there without a sale. Needless to say, he was a little overwhelmed. By idea number fifteen he put two of them together and gave us the assignment.
We were over the moon. (Quick aside, a little over a year later we became head writers of MASH and wound up using most of those fifty stories.)
The two stories for that initial assignment were:
A gas heater blows up and Hawkeye is temporarily blind.
And Frank bets on baseball games aired by Armed Forces Radio live in the middle of the night then rebroadcast during the day. Thus he bets knowing the outcome. (This came from a true story I heard about from the Far East Network in Viet Nam.) Our spin was that Hawkeye discovers this and he, B.J., Radar, and Klinger do a recreation of a game to fool him.
The episode was called OUT OF SIGHT/OUT OF MIND. Our draft was very well received and proved to be the turning point of our career.
It took us two weeks to complete -- one week to write just one speech. But that speech was key to the episode.
Tomorrow – that speech.
Sunday, June 25, 2006
FINALLY!!! An election that is IMPORTANT and has real significance. The Mascot Hall of Fame is looking for its next inductee.
Yes, there is such a thing as the Mascot Hall of Fame. I don’t know where it is. Probably in the back of a Chuck E. Cheese somewhere. As the creator of the Capitol City Goofball on the SIMPSONS I’m frankly a little hurt he is not among those luminaries already enshrined. A write-in vote or sixty thousand from you would be welcomed. The website is www.mascothalloffame.com. And for that matter, Dancin’ Homer deserves some consideration…although, honestly, I think he’s still a year or two away. His ants-in-the-pants dance lacks, well…nuance and elegance.
The three ‘cots already in the Hall are the San Diego Chicken (the Babe Ruth of bulbous belly laughs), the Phillie Phanatic (the perfect blend of pratfalls and Noel Coward), and the Phoenix Gorilla (who thankfully gets more airtime on NBA telecasts than Dyan Cannon).
Among the candidates for this year’s elite class – the Mariner Moose. His claim to fame was breaking his ankle while crashing into the outfield wall while rollerblading behind an ATV during the 1995 ALCS. And now it’s his most requested routine.
Then there’s Clutch the Bear from the Houston Rockets. He is so beloved that fans have stopped spitting on him.
The Cleveland Indian’s Slider is also on the ballet. The ‘95 ALCS was apparently a tough one on mascots. In addition to the Mariner Moose’s crash-with-greatness, Slider fell from the right field wall and had to leave the game with a serious knee injury. The man KNOWS funny. People still talk about it in Cleveland. (Of course, what else is there to talk about in Cleveland?)
And don’t forget KC Wolf from the KC Chiefs. Nicknamed the “Grand Daddy” of NFL mascots (because he had a kid with one of the Dallas Cheerleaders). Imitates Elvis. His 85 inch hips help.
Still, with all due respect to these costumed Chaplins, I still say not one of them is in the same league as the Capitol City Goofball. He INVENTED belly sliding. He can perform seven DIFFERENT dances to “Love Shack”. Kids are entranced when he picks up a live ball and runs around the outfield while livid fielders and security guards chase him.
Vote what’s in your heart of course, but do consider the Capitol City Goofball. And please don’t confuse the Mascot Hall of Fame with American Idol. Many people did and that’s why Taylor Hicks won.
Yesterday was the big annual Hollywood Stars Night at Dodger Stadium. This is a tradition that dates back to the late 50’s when the Dodgers had just arrived from Brooklyn and were playing in the cavernous Coliseum that seated 100,000 people. Back then, for the price of admission (which was probably $3.00 for the best seat in the house), prior to the Dodger game you could see an exhibition contest that featured Cary Grant, Jack Lemon, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Jerry Lewis, Walter Matthau, Jackie Gleason (not much range in right field), Danny Kaye, Nat King Cole, and then there was the second tier that only starred in major television hits. (Oh, and Billy Barty)
I remember going one year and Dean Martin was announced as the hitter. A limo pulled onto the field and drove up to home plate. Dino got out, dug in at the plate, called time, and signaled the car. A scantily clad cocktail waitress emerged with a martini on a silver tray. She brought it up to the plate, Dean took a sip, thanked her, and took his swings. Forget the bases, the batter was loaded!
The event was the brainchild of then Dodger marketing wizard, Danny Goodman. Vin Scully told me that when Danny proposed this idea to club owner, Walter O. Malley, Walter said, “Yeah, but will you be able to get stars?” Danny replied, “Are you kidding? I’ll get you stars you’ve never heard of!”
Among this years Hollywood “Stars” – Mia Hamm, James Van Der Beek, Michael Clark Duncan, and Corbin Berson.
Friday, June 23, 2006
From reader Beth C: “If you have time or are so inclined, could you delve a bit into your process? How long does it take you to write a script? What IS your process? That sort of thing.
I’ve been lucky enough to be in the same partnership for 33 years. Some time ago I got a letter from a young writer named Ken Levine saying, since we had the same name, could I give him any advice? I said, “Yes, find a partner named David Isaacs.”
Writing teams all work differently. Here’s how we work and it’s a tad unusual. A lot of teams will split up the script – one takes one scene or act and the other takes the other. Then they switch. We write head to head and we dictate the script to a secretary who takes great shorthand. We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. This forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.
It now takes us four or five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where 33 years of experience comes in handy.
We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.
Do we have arguments? Sure. But we never let them get personal. And if we ever have a disagreement over a particular joke and can’t reach a consensus quickly we just toss it out and write something else. It takes less time to come up with a new line than to argue and have one of us ultimately pissed.
And you can't be defensive. The best idea wins even if its the other guy's, that bastard.
We’re also not afraid to throw stuff out – a line, a run, a whole scene. And scripts can ALWAYS be trimmed. No matter how long our rough draft is we always look for and find cuts.
Although the head to head process works well for us (which isn’t to say it works for everybody) early on in our career we began a practice whereby once a year we took an assignment and divided it up. The purpose was to feel confident that we could write on our own if we had to. We’re partners out of choice not dependency. And it’s amazing – we’ve been writing together so long that when we do split up a script I defy anyone to tell who wrote which act. They’re equally in need of major work.
There are many advantages to having a partner. The obvious ones you know. It’s more social, you have someone to share the burden/blame with, and it’s nice to get feedback (especially in comedy) – in our case not only from each other but our assistant, Lana. On more than one occasion we’ll laugh uproariously at a pitch, I’ll say to Lana, proudly, “Put that in” and she’ll say “Really???”
But here’s the biggest advantage to being in a team -- when you have to bring your car into the shop you know you can always get a ride.
A good partnership is like a marriage except you give up half your money BEFORE you get divorced.
Maybe I should start my own match.com on this comment page. If you're looking for a partner leave your contact info, a little about yourself, what you're looking for and who knows? A few of you might hook up.
You must thank me if you ever win an Emmy however. And I mean before your spouses and certainly agents.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
I thought for today I’d recommend some of the other blogs and sites on my links list. I’d hyperlink them right in the text but that would require that I’m not a computer retard so you’ll have to click the links on the side. I recommend all of them and if I had the time would include a blurb about each but since I must spend an hour on the phone trying to straighten out a Verizon bill from 1998 I can only offer a sample. So these are a few of the sites I visit and think you’ll enjoy too.
SHOULD’VE ASKED ME -- Michael Markowitz is one the funniest comedy writers on the planet. His site is filled with hilarious observations, Ann Coulter hate, and the latest tech toys.
JANE ESPENSON – A former BUFFY writer who generously offers great advice to writers and reports daily on what she had for lunch.
DIRTY WATAH – My son’s Red Sox blog. Well written, very funny, and a wonderful substitute for therapy for him. If you despise the Yankees more than the Taliban this is the site for you.
A WRITER’S LIFE – Hour writer and mystery author Lee Goldberg offers sage advice to writers and somehow seems to know everything that is going on in the blogosphere. One stop cyber shopping.
POP BYTES -- The holy grail of pop culture. Blogmaster MK knows when Jennifer Aniston is going to use the can even before she does.
JOHN AUGUST – Screenwriter supreme – Tim Burton’s go-to guy. Read him everyday and learn more than NYU and USC writing students.
HOFFMANIA – Who says Democrats aren’t funny? And prolific. Howard Hoffman posts five times a day. Worth checking out…every couple of hours.
KUNG FU MONKEY – John Rogers is the grand poobah of screenwriting blogs. His site is eclectic, unpredictable, challenging at times, and always fun.
LLOYD THAXTON – Return to the 60’s with Lloyd Thaxton, a TV dance show host who was as much Ernie Kovacs as Dick Clark. He brings the same spirit and inventiveness to his reminiscences as he did to his show.
PEOPLE WE LOVE TO HATE – Hilarious often inspired captions to celebrity photos. It’s the bitchy best!
MR. POP HISTORY -- The ultimate research source for the 50’s - 80’s. Week by week. Perfect for reliving every single moment of your life. Pack a sandwich.
L.A. RADIO PEOPLE -- Don Barrett’s comprehensive look at Los Angeles radio, past and present. And you don’t have to be from LA to enjoy (although it helps). For radio geeks like me, this site is a daily must.
GREAT BIG RADIO – What the “Jack” format should be. A streaming variety of tasty music from the 60’s to today. “The Greatest hits and near misses of all-time.”
TABLOID WHORE – Very funny celebrity gossip that may even be accurate.
THE SEXY HUMORIST – Lives up to her title.
COMPLICATIONS ENSUE – Alex Epstein dispenses great advice to writers and offers many thought provoking discussions on the craft. This guy cares.
BOB SASSONE – The webmeister of TV SQUAD has his own blog. After informing the world of the new BAYWATCH DVD or who’s guesting on THE VIEW he still has time to offer his own thoughts, keen observations, and love letters to Amy Sedaris.
Happy surfing. And when you visit any of those sites, tell ‘em Kenny sent ya, will ya?
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Here’s the Potter scene from POV. But the reason this scene was so special was not the words but the superb performance by Harry Morgan.
INT. POST OP – NIGHT
Rich is LYING in bed writing a letter to his parents. He writes the date then “Dear Mom and Dad.” Potter steps INTO view and sits down next to Rich.
Howdy, Texas. (re letter) Be sure to remind them to clean up your room. You’re going home soon…Now that you’ve got that pad, we can finally have a talk. Which part of the Lone Star you hail from?
Rich scribbles “San Antonio” then hands the pad to Potter.
(handing the pad back) You don’t say. Took my medical training at Fort Sam Houston. Good ‘ole San Antone. A bowl of chili down there would keep you alive for days.
Nurse Baker walks up.
Uh, Colonel you forgot to sign this chart.
I didn’t forget. I’ll sign it on the way out. Now shoo!
Rich quickly scribbles “you okay?” on the pad and hands it to Potter, who reads it, then looks at Rich.
I guess it shows, huh?
Rich SHAKES his head yes.
It’s Mildred, my wife back home. Lovely gal. We’ve been married thirty-five years as of last Saturday. Every anniversary, no matter where I am, I manage to call her. Tell her how much I…well, you know. This year…This year I clean forgot. My thoughts are so filled with this damn war that I forgot her on our most important day. I just can’t forgive myself for missing it.
Rich scribbles “call her” on the pad, hands it to Potter, who reads.
I’d like to, son. Even picked up the phone about twenty times. But there’s just no excuse my forgetting. I don’t know what to say to her.
Potter is a little misty-eyed. Hawkeye ENTERS and approaches Rich’s bed.
Potter gets up and moves by Hawkeye.
Excuse me, Pierce.
(calling after him) Colonel?
Potter ignores him and EXITS. As Hawkeye walks away, Rich rattles the pad to get his attention. Hawkeye turns to him. Rich beckons him over.
What? What is it?
Rich scribbles “Forgot his anniversary,” and hands it to Hawkeye.
Oh, so that’s what’s been getting under Dr. Jekyll’s hide.
Charles ENTERS holding a book.
All right, Pierce, admit it. You broke into my footlocker and read through my personal diary, didn’t you, Swine?
Charles, in all the times I’ve broken into your footlocker, I never looked at your diary.
Then who drew these faces in the margins?
It’s dry reading. You need illustrations.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Thanks much for your great response to POV. Here’s the first scene. It’s not your typical sitcom beginning. By the way, the first time we see a member of the MASH cast is on page 5. I can imagine the notes we'd get on this today.
(NOTE: THIS ENTIRE EPISODE IS SUBJECTIVE CAMERA, AS SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF PRIVATE BOBBY RICH.)
UNDER TITLES WE SEE:
EXT. KOREAN COUNTRYSIDE – DAY
PRIVATE BOBBY RICH is on patrol with his platoon. There are several Soldiers spread out in front of him. They are all walking very cautiously, on the lookout for trouble. Rich LOOKS FROM SIDE TO SIDE as he walks. (END TITLES). Up ahead, a SERGEANT turns to the Men.
Spread out. Spread out. Ferguson, Rich – don’t sit on top of each other.
PRIVATE FERGUSON turns to Rich.
If we were all in a phone booth he’d still tell us to spread out.
(o.s.) Take a couple of giant steps, Fergy.
Ferguson moves further ahead of Rich. The patrol continues until the shrill SOUND of incoming mortars is HEARD.
Incoming! Hit the dirt!
An EXPLOSION up ahead. The line starts to scatter, people hitting the ground. Before Rich can find cover there’s another EXPLOSION to his left. Suddenly the ground is yanked out from under him, and he’s LYING ON his side, dazed and wounded. Another EXPLOSION goes off up ahead. (Intermittent EXPLOSIONS continue throughout course of SCENE.) SCREAMING and CONFUSION is HEARD as other Soldiers scramble for better cover. Rich is lying helpless when another SOLDIER crawls up to him and looks him over.
Rick, Rich, you okay?
The Soldier TURNS Rich OVER ON his back to face him. He looks at Rich’s wound which is in the vicinity of his throat.
(grimacing at Rich’s wound) Oh, God! (calling out) Medic! Medic!
Rich tries to say something. All he can manage is a low wheezing. The Soldier squeezes Rich’s hand.
Don’t talk, Rich. You’re hit there. (calling out) Medic! Dammit, Medic! Easy, Rich, easy.
An EXPLOSION goes off nearby. The Soldier covers Rich with his body. MEDIC NUMBER ONE runs up to them.
Where you been?
MEDIC NUMBER ONE
What’ve we got?
He took some stuff in his neck. He’s bleeding.
MEDIC NUMBER ONE
(to Soldier) Okay, take it easy. (calling out) Litter! (to Rich) You’re gonna be all right, fella. We’ll get you out.
Medic Number One opens Rich’s first-aid pack, removes the pressure bandage, and starts to apply it to Rich’s throat. Rich TURNS his head AWAY.
MEDIC NUMBER ONE
Don’t fight me. I’m here to help you.
Rich TURNS his head BACK and SEES Medic Number One apply the pressure bandage to his throat. LITTER BEARER arrives. The litter is placed alongside him on the ground.
MEDIC NUMBER ONE
Let’s get him on. I’ll hold his head…okay move.
Rich feels himself being lifted, and put on the litter.
MEDIC NUMBER ONE
(to Rich) Things’ll bounce a bit so hold on…Good luck, fella. (to Soldier and Litter Bearer) Go!
Rich is LIFTED and carried off. The litter BOUNCES ALONG. As the sights and sounds of the battle pass by, Rich BLACKS OUT.
I can also post the Potter scene later in the week if you don’t think I’m going to well once too often. Let me know.
Monday, June 19, 2006
My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote 19 episodes of MASH. I’m often asked which is my favorite and the answer is easy. POINT OF VIEW. It was from the 7th season when we were the show’s head writers.
We wanted to simulate the experience of being in a MASH unit as seen through the eyes of a wounded soldier. The viewer would be the soldier. We would see him get hit, transported by chopper, rushed to OR, recuperating in Post Op, mingling with the doctors and nurses, etc. The actors would talk directly into the camera.
We pitched the idea to our producer, Burt Melcalfe, telling him it would either be the best show of the season or a colossal embarrassment. But we wanted to shake things up. Larry Gelbart had so brilliantly done that a few years before with “The Interview”. We wanted our opportunity to tell a story a different way. To Burt’s credit, he gave us the okay. And this was back in the day when the creative staff of a series decided the show’s stories and direction, not the studio or network. (Allow me a moment of wistful reflection)
First off, though, we needed a story. On the surface it was simple. A soldier is injured, treated and saved by those lovable medicos at the 4077th. But what’s his injury? Where’s the suspense? And more importantly, how does he connect with our central characters?
We heard of a 1947 movie that used this first-person device called LADY IN THE LAKE. It was a Raymond Chandler mystery with Robert Montgomery as detective Philip Marlowe. Or, more accurately, Robert Montgomery’s voice. So we screened the movie. Holy shit! What we found was that when someone talked to Marlowe it was fine, but when Marlowe spoke the other actors had nothing to do but stare uncomfortably into the camera and try to react (this was not Jayne Meadow’s best work). It was sooooo dicey. Not to mention static, boring, and…well, downright creepy.
It seemed to us the key to making this device work was not having the soldier talk. And that sparked our story. What if the patient is hit in the throat? He can’t speak. He must undergo a series of tricky operations (the suspense) until finally he is able to utter only two words –
Now the story laid out pretty easily. We created a B story where Potter forgets his anniversary and the patient informs Hawkeye which leads to the resolution. That way the soldier is directly involved in the story. One of the show’s highlights for me was how masterful Harry Morgan played the scene in which he confided in the young soldier. Not a dry seat in the house!
We wanted to really utilize the visual, give the viewer a different perspective whenever possible. What did it look like actually being in the chopper, gazing down at the camp, being on a stretcher during the insanity of triage, being wheeled into OR? So much credit for the success of the episode goes to director, Charles Dubin. And remember, he had only three days to film this, not three weeks…or months. And this was 1978, before steady cams. I think D. W. Griffith used this camera to shoot BIRTH OF A NATION. It couldn’t have been heavier or more unwieldy.
The cast was marvelous, really rising to the occasion. It’s hard enough to relate to fellow actors, but to play highly emotional scenes looking directly into a camera has to be nearly impossible. Additionally, scenes all had to play out in one take. We couldn’t cut back and forth between characters and angles and takes. To this day I marvel at their skill.
Trivia note: We gave the patient the name Bobby Rich. Bobby is one of my dearest friends, currently hosting a morning radio show in Tucson.
When the show was completed we watched the finished product in a screening room. I was horrified. There was Radar’s giant head filling this huge screen, addressing all of us tiny ants in the theater. AAAAAAGH!!! As I sat in the dark, contemplating my next career, I wondered how I could reconcile the fact that I personally had destroyed MASH. How’s THAT going to look on my resume?
The show aired on a Monday night during November sweeps. I almost didn’t watch it. When it began I cringed. A few moments into it Radar appeared. And a strange thing happened. The show suddenly worked.
Seeing Radar’s head on a TV screen, the comparable size of most human beings (Only Barry Bonds has a head the size of Radar’s on the silver screen.) the audience was able to buy the conceit. I can’t tell you how relieved I was. By the act break I cancelled my 11 PM flight to Antarctica.
I look back at that show today with great pride. We were allowed to take risks. Encouraged to take risks. And even if the show had been the “GLEN OR GLENDA of television” that it appeared to be that dark day in the screening room, I would still be proud to be a part of it. To the cast and crew and everyone involved in POINT OF VIEW, all I can say is –
Tomorrow: the opening scene from POV.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
I was recently asked to submit my bio for the program for the musical I’m co-writing. The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theatre critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theatre crowd. What do you think of this?
Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse who he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.
Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, PROOF, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHOSE AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).
An experimental work of his own played two nights in Boston and two nights in St. Louis. It was called the 2004 WORLD SERIES.
He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Especially to my own father, Cliff, who is both my hero and role model.
Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch the World Cup or Arena football amateur draft in peace.
Or watch FIELD OF DREAMS.
And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:
FEAR STRIKES OUT
WALK THE LINE
OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:
THE MARVIN GAYE STORY
THE BEACH BOYS STORY
Any CBS family comedy
Some unfriendly father plays:
ALL MY SONS
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
Some books to avoid:
Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)
Records to skip:
PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
MY DAD by Paul Peterson
Any other suggestions are welcome.
Again, happy Father’s Day – the most sacred of the bullshit Hallmark holidays.
Friday, June 16, 2006
I received a number of email requests from folks saying they missed Gina and other new people wondering who she was. Since it’s another fabulous low-traffic weekend I thought I’d reprise the post that introduced her. Subsequent chapters can be found in the February archives section if you’re interested.
The Sunday LA Times CALENDAR section ran a big article on the lack of great parts for women in features. It maintains that studios are reluctant to cast women in romantic comedy parts that shoulder the burden of comedy or make them appear unlikable. I can speak first hand that this is unfortunately true. A few years ago I thought it would be fun to write a balls-out R-rated comedy where the woman was the star. It’s always a man. Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Robin Williams, Rob Schneider( God help me). Why can’t a beautiful actress like Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, even Julia Roberts be the comic star? So I wrote the movie, I DREAM OF GINA, about an agoraphobic (Jimmy Fallon type) with a million neuroses who worships this goddess from afar, only to meet her and discover she is the wildest, raunchiest, most out-there girl on the planet. She winds up dragging him to Paris where adventures and hilarity ensues.
The screenplay was very well received. Several major producers wanted to be attached. I hooked up with one, developed it further with him, and when it was submitted to the studios they all passed saying, “we can’t cast it” and “she’s not likeable.”
With Lucy and Carole Lombard as my witnesses, I swear there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be given the chance to prove they’re just as funny or funnier than men.
Below is a sample of I DREAM OF GINA if you’re curious. Gina has just coaxed Hank (who has a fear of heights) to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
EXT. EIFFEL TOWER - DAY
The elevator rises to the top platform.
EXT. EIFFEL TOWER - OBSERVATION DECK - MOMENTS LATER
The elevator door opens and a throng of PEOPLE disembark, Gina first. Last off is a rather green Hank.
Atta boy. You were very brave. Mama's gonna give you a hummer. (then) So let's check out Paree. Would love to hock a loogie off this thing.
She crosses to the railing and spits through the fence.
That's for the six cylinder Peugot!
Hank takes baby steps to join her. He peers over the side.
The entire city appears to be in miniature.
Hank gets a real blast of vertigo. He clutches the railing for support then begins sliding to the ground.
Y'know, I'm guessing you're one of those "therapy is for other people" kind of guys.
It's okay. I'm fine. Just a little dehydrated. I could use some water.
You got it.
She quickly crosses to a French SECURITY GUARD.
Excuse me, is there a drinking fountain up here?
The guard gestures that he doesn't understand.
What? You don't speak English? (he looks at her blankly)
How could you not speak English? Who do you think comes to the top of the fucking Eiffel Tower?
(from the railing)
Uh...Gina. That's okay.
How many people from Hooterville do you think speak French? This man needs Perrier.
Not anymore. Really.
Here's two English words you better learn --(enunciating slowly) Ep-cot Cen-ter. (then) 'Cause that's where we'll all be, motherfucker.
Hank tries to get up but just can't.
Don't need the water. See? Look. I'm great.
The security guard calls for assistance.
What, you're going to call for help? Over this? God, that is so France. Well fine. I don't give a shit. Call your whole fucking army.
Two more SECURITY GUARDS join him.
You don't scare me. (taunting) ACHTUNG!
They begin shouting in French. She responds with a torrent of profanity.
Remember when I said my fantasy girl in Paris was Audrey Hepburn? Audrey Hepburn never said motherfucker!!
Gina is really into it now. A SMALL CROWD begins to gather. The shouting escalates. Finally:
That is it! We workers are now on strike! Stop the elevator!
Hah! See I told you. You can speak English!
Sarah Silverman was born to play this role!!!
Thursday, June 15, 2006
Dealing with rejection is never easy. Especially when starting out. Barry Diller (the Dali Lama of sharks) has the philosophy that when a deal falls through or is rejected, his automatic response is: “Next?!”
Writers need a thick skin, belief in themselves, and five times a week therapy (prom rebuffs linger large). The good news is if you’ve written a spec, all you need is one person to say yes. (I know, you could say that about the prom, too. Get over it already!)
I’ve saved all my rejection letters and wouldn’t you know, a number of the writers who initially said I sucked eventually submitted scripts to me looking for a job years later. (No, I didn’t just send back their rejection letters and flip flop the names…but I wanted to.)
Keep striving to improve, maybe find some constructive use in the rejection (if it’s offered and useful), but never let your worth be decided by someone else. Supposedly, Richard Wagner once wrote back to a critic who panned one of his works by saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “I am currently sitting on the toilet. At the moment your critique is in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me.”
I’ve written spec screenplays that have sold and others that haven’t. I used to ask my agent if they gave any reason for passing. I would hear such explanations as: too broad, not broad enough; too edgy, too soft; too familiar, too out there. And all these regarding the same script. My favorite rejection of all-time was from an idiot studio executive who said this about one of my screenplays:
“The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this script.”
How do you react to that other than laugh and drop him a note congratulating him on the success of FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY? I no longer ask for explanations. I no longer even wait to hear the reaction on one project before launching into another. I don’t consider any of my screenplays rejected, just “not having sold yet”. (And portions of them make nifty blog entries. Thanks again for all the nice comments on I DREAM OF GINA.)
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Back from New York. I was there all of spring – Sunday through Wednesday.
Can’t say enough about JetBlue. You’ve got to love an airline that announces “we’re now turning off the cabin lights so the flight attendants will appear more attractive.”
Arrived at JFK and drove into the city. That was an adventure. Even the Mapquest instructions said: “Don’t do it! Are you nuts? Didn’t you see BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES? You’re still better off with the cab driver with the turban.”
My purpose for the visit was to attend a table reading of the new musical I co-wrote with Janet Brenner called THE 60’s PROJECT. It’s a sweeping look at the events of the decade featuring the hit music of the era and embarrassing fashions. We open at the Goodspeed Theater in Connecticut in August (good tickets still available). Happy (and relieved) to report the reading went very well. It’s a little long so I think we’re going to cut 1966.
Unlike a TV sitcom table reading, only one actor kept us all waiting 45 minutes.
Unfortunately, the biggest laugh came not from one of our jokes but during Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” A cast member said, “When the men on the cheeseboard get up and tell you when to go.” We left it in.
The Mets have one of the best records in baseball and yet all you see are Yankee caps. Meanwhile, the Amazins are finally getting a new stadium to be erected in the parking lot of current eyesore Shea Stadium. Construction has begun, but since that area is always dug up, fans don’t realize it and are still parking there.
When the time comes they won’t have to demolish Shea Stadium, someone will just have to slam a door hard.
Julia Roberts play is closing this weekend. She wasn’t nominated for a Tony. You’ll never see her on Broadway again.
The big new trend is turning Hollywood movies into Broadway musicals. Up next are MARY POPPINS (after its insulin inducing run in London), LEGALLY BLOND, ELF, and (this is not a joke) GLADIATOR. What will the big show stopping number be? “Gonna kill me an emperor”?
Jogged around the Central Park reservoir (okay, I walked). Picking up little snippets of conversation between the tony Upper East side spandex challenged collagen moms I learned that the most powerful person in New York is not the mayor, it’s the Dalton Lower School Admissions Director.
Tuesday night my collaborator, Ms. Brenner, and I went to see HISTORY BOYS, which just won the Tony for Best Play. We hopped in a cab at 90th & Park Ave. at 6:10 to begin the fifteen minute ride downtown. Cutting through the park we discovered that due to a stabbing all traffic was diverted uptown. The first chance to escape the park was at110th on the Westside (in the Columbia or HARLEM district depending on your nationality).
The streets were gridlocked. Spring in New York is not heralded by the first robin but the first construction crew patching up post winter pot holes. So there are construction crews and reduced lanes EVERYWHERE.
Ms. Brenner said “There’s a subway.” I said, “You want a sandwich NOW?” I had forgotten there was a secondary use of the term subway – an underground transportation system. So we scrambled out of the cab ($25 to take us in the wrong direction) and hopped the C train at 110th, not realizing that the stabbing had occurred on the C train at 110th. We were hardly surprised though. Looking around our car, we were trapped with the cast of PRISON BREAK.
Finally got to Times Square (which is now the entire Vegas strip jammed into one block) at 7:30, just in time to wade through the population of Lincoln, Nebraska and Toledo, Ohio who were gawking at the ESPN-Zone, and make our curtain.
Alan Bennett’s HISTORY BOYS was extraordinary! It had it all – funny, compelling, lyrical, pedophilia. Julia Roberts should have been in THAT. Celebrity sightings included Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (at the theatre, not in the subway), recent Tony winner Cynthia Nixon (which reminds me, I saw a great name for a restaurant: MEX IN THE CITY), Blythe Danner, O.C.’s Peter Gallagher, and the one that blew me away – singer/national treasure, Barbara Cook.
I’m sure I’ll see them all again at the opening of GLADIATOR. And at intermission they’ll all be humming “Take it to the Maximus”.
Post theatre we blew into Edie’s Starlight Diner, a 50’s style eatery with (gulp) aspiring Broadway stars as servers. I knew we were in big trouble when this very flamboyant little ferret in a car hop uniform grabbed the mike and said in the swishiest Jewish accent imaginable: “We didn’t have many singing waiters in Anatevka.” He then proceeded to sing “If I Were a Rich Man” setting Judaism and gay rights back two centuries.
No one in Manhattan has a dog. They all have these miniature little puff balls. I’m sure the stabber would be scared off by any one of ‘em. (“Stop that yipping! Anything but that yipping!”)
All in all a very productive trip. And someday I hope to return to see the Broadway opening of the 60’s PROJECT. And maybe coaxing Barbara Cook to sing “the Shoop Shoop Song” at the party.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Someone asked me to list my top ten favorite comedy screenplays. Fine, as long as I don’t have to do it in order and don’t have to limit myself to ten. These are my favorites, which means these are the movies I wish I had written.
ALL ABOUT EVE – Joseph Mankiewicz. Sharpest dialogue I’ve ever heard. The film is 56 years old and still crackles. Saw it again just this week on AMC. What a pleasure to watch, especially now during the dumbing down of America.
SOME LIKE IT HOT – Billy Wilder & IAL Diamond. Disproves its classic last lane. Somebody IS perfect.
HEARTBREAK KID – Neil Simon (although the hand of director Elaine May is clearly evident). Jewish men generally love this movie, Jewish women hate it. A young Charles Grodin gives the comic performance of his career. And Eddie Albert (yes, Eddie Albert) will make you laugh out loud.
THE LADY EVE – Preston Sturgess, story by Monckton Hoffe & Preston Sturgess. Screwball comedy at its funniest and most sophisticated. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda – not who you naturally think of as a comedy team but they pull it off with ease.
HIS GIRL FRIDAY – Screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell trade quips at a pace that makes WEST WING seem slow. And every word out of their mouths is a gem.
TOOTSIE – Larry Gelbart (although fifteen other writers also had a hand in it). If there seems to be a pattern in the comedies I like its men posing as women or “Eve” in the title.
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN – Woody Allen. This movie was a revelation, especially when you consider that at the time (late 60’s) most “comedies” were lame Doris Day type films.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN – Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder. “Putting on the Ritz” scene alone puts this in my top ten.
ANNIE HALL -- Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman. For my money the perfect romantic comedy. (How could the same guy write HOLLYWOOD ENDING?)
MOONSTRUCK – John Patrick Shanley. Okay, so there are two perfect romantic comedies.
CHASING AMY – Kevin Smith. Funny, real, pitch perfect, and you actually root for Ben Affleck. Now that’s good writing!
AMERICAN GRAFFITI – George Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck. A consistently funny movie that doesn’t even try to be a comedy. And what a soundtrack!
DR. STRANGELOVE – Stanley Kubrick and Peter George and Terry Southern. The perfect black comedy. And there are no other perfect black comedies.
THE PRODUCERS – Mel Brooks. The movie not the movie of the musical based on the movie. That was dreadful.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – Jean Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, Marcello Damon. Even the subtitles were funny.
SHOWGIRLS – Joe Eszterhas. So unspeakably terrible on every level that you can’t help but laugh throughout. (Okay, so that’s one I’m glad I didn’t write).
Monday, June 12, 2006
I'm in New York and was unable to watch the Tonys. But my daughter, Annie did and files this report:
Tony Tony Tony
Half of this years best musicals were supposed to take place in Jersey. Clearly somebody
made an offer than the Tony Committee couldnt refuse.
And I just have to say that I cannot believe they turned The Wedding Singer into a
musical. Whats next? Billy Madison? Water Boy? Or perhaps a musical version of
Spanglish featuring such hit songs as" Please dont fall asleep, its not even intermission"
and "Where are you going? The shows not over."
The song "Hell No" was performed from The Color Purple, which is appropriate since
tha'ts probably what most people said upon hearing that they were turning Alice Walkers'
book into a musical.
I do not get the huge Harry Connick Jr. appeal. He was probably the only straight person
there aside from Joe Pesci, and I still didnt find him all that attractive.
Jesus, does Hal Prince really need another Tony? A couple more and he'll have a full
backgammon set. Its like giving Oprah more money for producing a Broadway Show
Oh, waitt, hey did that too.
I was so thrilled to watch Andrew Void Webber lose. He only got one nomination for that
awful musical and couldnt even take that home. I love it!
And for those of you keeping score at home here you go:
Number of unenthusiastic British winners who claimed to be astonished: 4
Number of Female Make-Out Scenes: 2
Number of Northwestern Alums:0
Number of jaws that dropped when LaChanze won: 6, 000
Number of jaws that dropped upon learning that Patricia Neal is still alive: 6, 000
Number of People who could understand Rosie Perez: 0
And here are a couple awards of my own:
Best Gay Actor portraying a straight role: Cynthia Nixon
WORST Gay Actor portraying a straight role: Nathan Lane as Oscar Madiso
Person I would LEAST want to run into in a dark alley: Michael Cerveris
Coolest Name: eljko Ivanek
Best Comeback from a washed-up 80s star: Cyndi Lauper
o Runner up: Molly Ringwald
Worst acceptance speech: John Lloyd Young
you can now afford therapy, use your
acceptance speech for something else.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
Recently, in London, I caught an episode of DEAL OR NO DEAL. A staid, proper host conversed with the staid proper contestant and all was very civilized. Then I saw the US version. Holy shit!!! It’s like we slammed together a game show, live informercial, Vegas, and Victoria Secrets Lingerie special.
Contestants can win a million dollars just by choosing the right suitcase. It’s the perfect American game show. No knowledge of anything is required other than maybe being able to count to 26 and point. And the willingness to jump around the stage, scream, and act like Jerry Lewis in the ERRAND BOY. One contestant I saw last week said his dream was to become a professional mascot. The adoring studio audience went WILD.
Of course they go wild over EVERYTHING. They react with the same delirious cheering, stomping, and clapping at the news that we’ve killed Abu Musab Zarqawl as learning that “we’ll be back right after this break.” This must be the same studio audience that has a collective orgasm when the man explains how the pocket fisherman works.
Here’s the premise: A contestant selects one of 26 suitcases, each held by a drop dead gorgeous model. From there he opens other suitcases revealing dollar amounts from $.01 to $1,000,000, thus eliminating them. At certain intervals the “banker” calls and offers a cash amount to end the game. The contestant can accept it or keep going (deal or no deal) until ultimately he takes the cash or whatever’s in the suitcase he originally selected. That’s it. Keno with tits.
At the moment the show is a huge hit. I fear, however, that in time it will start to get old. So I have a suggestion for how to improve it. First off, make half of the gorgeous models men. Then put a million dollars in every suitcase. Each contestant picks a suitcase. He or she then has one decision to make. Take what’s in the suitcase or the model. Weeks will go by before producers have to pony up any money at all.
If there was a studio audience here they’d be going wild.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
I’m winging to Gotham Sunday for a Monday table reading of the musical I co-wrote (with Janet Brenner), THE 60’s PROJECT. We go into rehearsal in another month so this will give us a jump on fixing whatever still doesn’t work. I’m afraid that whole Battle of Gettysburg scene might have to go. Wrong 60’s. But who knows? That Beach Boy song could just pull it all together.
Thankfully, I’m on JetBlue so hopefully I can watch either the WORLD CUP or the Hitler Channel (that’s what I call the History Channel since every time I tune in, there he is again plotting against Poland.)
The good news is it’s Tony Awards night, which of course, is ALWAYS the biggest night of the year in New York. The whole town goes nuts! The streets will be EMPTY on my drive in from the airport.
By the way, my predictions for this year’s Tony winners:
Best Musical: JERSEY BOYS.
Best play: HISTORY BOYS
It will be “boys night” at the Tonys…but then again, isn’t it always?
Friday, June 09, 2006
Another re-post from when I had only family members reading my blog. Timely advice for aspiring writers and non-writers who want to see what stupid things aspiring writers have done.
I have read some bad specs in my time and now offer some suggestions of what not to do based on actual scripts I have read…or at least attempted to read.
Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.
Don’t put yourself into the show and make yourself the lead character. I once read a CHEERS where Alan had more lines than Sam & Diane combined. Alan? Who’s Alan? Alan was one of the extras. And so he remained.
And just because people tell you you look like Debra Messing doesn’t mean you should write a WILL & GRACE entitled “Grace’s Sister”. If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.
Don’t hand write your script, no matter how good your penmanship. Send your spec in a UCLA blue book and you’ll get an F.
Don’t invent a format.
Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!
Keep in mind the production parameters. A MASH I once read featured this:
EXT. YANKEE STADIUM – DAY
Hawkeye is on the mound during the World Series. 60,000 people cheer.
Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Peter Jackson or James Cameron make this? And if the answer is no, especially for a multi-camera show that takes place in a living room, then don’t do it.
Similarly, avoid dream sequences. The GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW is not looking for the next Fellini.
Don’t hinge your show on stunt casting. I read a BECKER where former President Jimmy Carter came in for a check-up and offered dating advice. Yeah, President Carter gets his physicals in the Bronx. And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.
Don’t change the characters’ reality to fit your story. Ray Barone is not Jewish. THAT’S why he can’t have a bar mitzvah.
I was going to recommend you don’t do like one aspiring writer and make a joke in a CHEERS about Diane’s pussy because it’s crude, offensive, and inappropriate, but I saw the same joke two weeks ago on STACKED.
Still, I’d like to think there is some line of decorum and taste left. I once read a NEWSRADIO where the story was the Dave Foley character comes into his office in the morning and discovers a semen stain on his couch. Then the episode went downhill.
Don’t marry off any of the main characters.
Don’t kill off any of the main characters.
Don’t go the first ten pages before doing a joke. This even applies to many drama specs.
Don’t do the “supersize” hour episode.
The last sentence in your script should not be “To Be Continued”.
Don’t include a cover letter telling the producer that you sent him a copy of the script months ago and that he was shirking his responsibility by not reading it. Our agent did this once and trust me, David Lloyd was not amused.
And finally, avoid this ploy: I once received a spec MASH with a note that read “This script was written by my brother. On his way to the post office to mail it he was hit by a car and killed. I’m sure he would have wanted you to read it anyway. P.S. If you want any changes I can make them.” He received a touching rejection sympathy card.
Just remember this, when producers read your script they want to like it. They want to discover the next Larry Gelbart. It only helps them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like relying on Jimmy Carter to get your laughs.
Saw the DA VINCI CODE. Now I can tell people I read the book.
No wonder it’s a big hit. Who needs action and suspense when you can have two hours of exposition? And at the end of the day it’s still confusing.
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE THREE PEOPLE WHO DON’T KNOW THE STORY AND STILL CARE TO:
Audrey Tautou is supposedly the last direct heir to Jesus Christ (and don’t you wish if this theory were true the last direct heir would really be Kellie Pickler???). So what was the secret society intending to do if they found her? Kill her? Force her to mate with Billy Graham? Bow down to her? Get her to host the 700 Club?
Audrey, by the way, looked scrumptious. She couldn’t be on the run from the “evildoers” in a thong? If nothing else it would’ve given Paul Bettany a reason to whip himself.
When you can replace the hero (Tom Hanks) with an audio-tour headset you haven’t serviced the lead character very well.
Since this was a movie about questioning faith, it would have been nice if the protagonists found themselves in a situation where their faith was challenged. Even once.
Plus, how much suspense can there be when Indiana Jones has already found the Holy Grail? And it was a cooler one, too. Nazis melt. This one sits under a gift shop.
Is there a French law that you can’t film a movie in Paris without casting Jean Reno?
There’s absolutely no surprise that Ian MacKellen turns out to be the villain. If he were playing Gandhi I’d be saying, “Watch out! He’s got a gun under that robe!”
Towards the end of the movie my mind drifted back to Paul Bettany’s self-flagellation scene and I thought, “Now I know how he felt.”
But regardless of what critics have said (those Godless heathens!) the DA VINCI CODE is such a runaway smash that the producers are rushing a prequel into production. In that movie Tom Hanks will uncover evidence that Audrey Tautou is also the daughter of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, thus entitling her to 1/58th of his estate to be divided by all his children.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Actually this is a re-post from about six months ago but since there are so many new readers to the blog, and it's the time of the year when specs go out I thought it was worth another reminder.
Whenever I teach a writing class I always start by saying "there are (let's say) thirty in the class. Two of you will make it." If you hear that and go "Jesus, those are terrible odds. How am I gonna compete with that?" you're dead. However, if you say "Hmmm? Me and who else?" then read on. You've got a chance. And here's the good news: Those odds just went from 15-1 to 3-1.
You have to believe in yourself first if you ever expect anyone else to.
More good news: If you are good you will be recognized. It may take some time but it will happen. Remember, readers WANT to like your script. They're BEGGING to like your script. But the key is to stick with it. Don't rely on one spec. Often times I'll meet young writers who will say "I wrote a great FRIENDS four years ago and can't get an agent." L-O-S-E-R-S. It might take five specs, it might take ten. But all you need is one person somewhere who sparks to your material. And once you're in you're in.
In future posts I'll be giving tips on what I look for in a spec. In the meantime, start writing. You're already beating the odds.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
In 1978 my partner, David Isaacs and I were head writers of MASH. That fall we also signed on to write a pilot for CBS. Our producer was Allan Carr. He was this rather flamboyant character famous for throwing lavish parties in the “King Tut Disco” in his home, producing such films as SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE, and winning a Tony for producing LA CAGE AUS FOLLES on Broadway. He looked like composer Paul Williams -- short, cherubic, bespectacled.
We arranged a meeting to pitch our pilot story. Since we were dealing with MASH all day the meeting was set for 6 PM at his Benedict Canyon mansion (“Hillhaven Lodge”, complete with a giant eight foot Oscar statue in the driveway.)
We show up and are told by the butler he’s not ready. He ushered us onto the lovely outdoor patio where a bottle of wine was waiting for us as well as a Chasen’s ice mountain of fresh seafood. An hour later we’re still waiting although the bottle is now empty. And we start getting a little giddy. We were wondering how we could steal one of his ceramic flamingos. Would Allan notice the two long flamingo legs sticking out of my briefcase? We were really starting to get punchy.
Finally, we hear “Hello, hello” and quickly put on our serious game faces. A moment later Allan sweeps in wearing nothing but a flowing white caftan…and a layer of thick white cold cream all over his face. Holy shit! We almost lost it.
And now, not only must we somehow maintain decorum, we have to pitch a complete pilot story. Behind Allan sat the flamingos, making it even worse.
We somehow managed to get through it. Imagine this surreal scene – a normal pitch meeting, the producer and writers polishing a story, trading ideas, everyone acting as though there’s nothing unusual even though the producer is in a dress with Crisco dripping from his face.
We wrapped up the meeting, said goodbye, shook hands, he closed the front door, and we rolled around on his front lawn for 45 minutes laughing.
The pilot didn’t go thank God because shortly after that Allan had his stomach stapled. Lord knows what the story meetings were like following that.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
I recently was asked how we constructed farces on CHEERS and FRASIER. I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.
First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.
Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.
Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.
Generally, farces take place in real time. There are no fade outs, no dissolves, no relief. And as the piece builds the pace quickens. If done right, a farce should be a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and size.
Neil Simon, who wrote the wonderful farce RUMORS, is quoted as saying “At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.”
They’re incredibly tough to pull off but unbelievably satisfying when you do.
For a great example of a farce, check out Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE. And stock up on oxygen.
Fascinating (if not terrifying) article in Tuesday’s LA TIMES Calendar section about the lengths a writer must go to today to sell a movie pitch. By and large you must polish your pitch, have rehearsals in front of your agents, videotape your spiel and analyze it, and the article suggests that in some cases even enlist focus groups to get feedback. It’s now officially insane.
What the article didn’t say was that generally pitch sales (for all of that) pay less than spec sales, only top echelon writers are invited to pitch (unless they’re attached to top echelon talent), and for all the hoops you must go through, pitches are sold more because the studio has a need for that particular genre, or wants to be in business with you or a member of your team for some reason (heat, Laker floor seats), or the idea is so bulletproof that Stuttering Larry could sell it.
And after they buy it they STILL make you change it. “Can you make the Chinese Warlord a high school ballerina instead?” “Does the fall of Rome have to be a period piece?” “Yeah, I know the part is the Grand Wizard of the KKK but I hear Samuel L. Jackson is looking for a project.”
And by this time you’ve put so much time and effort into making the sale you’re sure not going to let it get away.
What this new trend means is that in addition to being a great writer you now have to be Elmer Gantry. Or even, INSTEAD of being a great writer you have to be Elmer Gantry. Forget those pesky writing courses, go to Zig Zigman seminars.
The trouble is, many screenplay writers I know ARE screenplay writers because they feel most comfortable locking themselves alone in a room for months at a time. They hope to impress all the girls in high school and college they were afraid to talk to by writing dazzling movies. Now they must pitch, and who do they pitch to? By and large those same girls. All that’s missing is the Chinese Water Torture.
The reason pitching has evolved (sunk?) to this level is simple: studios spend less money. They buy fewer pitches. Writers have to do more to make a sale. And the added benefit for the studios is that writers now must practically develop the whole movie, with jokes, comic set pieces, trailer moments, one sheet suggestions, maybe even have talent attached all up front, all FOR FREE. Don’t expect this policy to change anytime soon.
The bottom line is, for that amount of pro bono work, it’s almost easier and certainly more satisfying to just write the damn spec. Sell the movie doing what you do, not what Professor Harold Hill does.
The point of this was not to depress you but report on the reality and encourage you to just write that spec. No notes, no interference. And if it sells you probably make more than had you sold it as a pitch. So in that regard it's a win/win. And you won't have to sign up for any Karl Rove personal consultations.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Happy 6-6-6. I’m celebrating by getting my Dirt Devil fixed.
Bookies are now taking bets on boxoffice performance. So just as it’s illegal for a fighter to take a dive, any studio that hires Rob Schneider should be arrested for purposely tanking a movie’s chances.
I doubt if bookies are getting any action on next Sunday’s Tony Awards. Unless it’s the over-under on how many people even know the Tony Awards are next Sunday. Sight unseen, take the under.
The Tonys, by the way, is the only awards show where the winners never thank their wives.
My son, Matt now has his own blog, DIRTY WATAH. It’s his daily rant about the Boston Red Sox. I’ve added it to my links section. I’m starting to worry that my son is right on the dangerous cusp of “Fever Pitch” but his musings are insightful and funny and well worth a look.
For the third week in a row, movie audiences have flocked to pictures the critics panned. And in the case of MI:3, they stayed away from a critics’ darling. I’d like to think this means critics have less influence. I’m sure what Hollywood gleans from this trend is that it’s okay to keep making bad movies.
Kelsey Grammer as an X-MAN mutant? I haven’t seen the movie yet but what is his power? He can turn any gathering into a farcical dinner party?
Audrey Tautou now joins Irene Jacob in my “Pepe LePew category” (French women I lust after and have no shot with).
TV drama writers – welcome to the TV comedy writers nightmare. The evil reality show menace has invaded your territory, too. With shows like LAGUNA BEACH and now the new CBS entry, TUESDAY NIGHT BOOK CLUB” the “docu-soap” is born. Networks are saying that following the romantic struggles of real people instead of scripted ones might be the audience’s new preference. If so, there goes the next five Selia Ward series.
Apparently, on that BOOK CLUB show there’s an episode dealing with a “Key party”. That’s where suburban couples get together, drop their car keys in a bowl, the women reach in, select a key, and whoever it belongs to she sleeps with that night. (Remember ICE STORM?) Do these things really exist? I mean, REALLY? I’d be more excited if I had better looking couple friends.
A week doesn’t go by when someone doesn’t say they just discovered BECKER and what a great show it is. (I wrote, directed, and consulted on the show) Interestingly, that never happened when the show was on CBS…for FIVE years.
What am I going to do now that the SOPRANOS are done? I haven’t been following BIG LOVE. Has he married Za Za Gabor yet?
Fucking DEADWOOD fucking returns for another goddamn motherfucking season.
If Keith Richards had any brain damage from his fall, how would anyone know?
Katic Couric hopes to end the “pretentious era” in news. Meaning, she’ll be reporting on the Iraq war from the Macy’s Day Parade.
Seth MacFarlane from FAMILY GUY is the commencement speaker this year at Harvard. At first blush you might be thinking, how low has this self-proclaimed most prestigious institute for higher learning sunk? Didn’t they used to get presidents and Nobel prize winners to do that? Yes, but that was in the days when Harvard graduates sought to enter the world of finance, or politics, or law. Today they all want to be comedy writers so it makes perfect sense. Who needs a Harvard education today when you can sign up for Judy Carter’s Comedy Workshop?
Big week for Paris Hilton. She’s kicking off the 4th season of SIMPLE LIFE (this year trying to blend in in a Kibbutz), AND she has a new reggae single out (“Stars are Blind”…and apparently deaf too). I hear she’s such a good singer she’ll make you forget all about Jennifer Lopez.
Idea for a satanic buddy movie: ROUTE 666.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Big article in a recent LA TIMES saying that it’s now okay to sport gray hair because of Taylor Hicks winning the AMERICAN IDOL competition. Are we the most shallow country in the history of the world, or what? Do we really need to take our cues on how to live our lives based on celebrities? Following the Taylor Hicks logic, it’s now okay to be drunk like Paula and illiterate like Randy. Social graces are no longer required. We can now all be blunt and insensitive like Simon.
Which is well and good except if you do try to act like Simon in the real world you’ll get the crap beaten out of you eighteen times before lunch. If you drink like Paula you’ll be fired and hopefully lose your driver’s license (or at least your gig on LOST). And if you’re a moron like Randy you’ll wind up in the White House.
I just don’t understand the notion of making celebrities role models. Why would anybody give a shit what Barbra Streisand or Tom Cruise thinks about anything? Why is Martin Sheen’s opinion any more valid than the skeesix who fixes your snow blower? If you want to give to a worthy charity because Bono supports it, that’s fine. But to base any life decision on the advice of “self help author” Teri Hatcher is INSANE.
With the June elections coming up I’m getting three calls an hour from my “close personal friends” Ed Begeley Jr. and Sally Field pimping some candidate. If I’m on the fence over who to vote for do I study up on the issues or take the word of the Flying Nun?
Here’s a novel concept: how about thinking for ourselves? Or at the very least realizing that celebrities are there to merely amuse us and when we do need to seek the council of others we turn instead to people who actually are qualified to help – namely bloggers.
Several readers wanted more details on the famous O.R. scene in MASH where Henry Blake’s death was revealed. When was it decided? When did the cast know? How much did the cast know? When did they film the scene? Why didn’t they kill off Trapper too because he left the show at the same time? Did everyone feel lucky that there was no ET yet to provide “exclusive coverage”?
MacLean Stevenson announced to the cast and producers that he was leaving several weeks prior to the end of production for that season (the 3rd). Wayne Rogers (Trapper) did not. His parting came after the show had wrapped so producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had to deal with his departure at the beginning of the 4th season.
Larry and Gene decided to take the bold step of killing Henry Blake because of the message it sent – people you love die in wars, sometimes in wars that make little sense. They did not do it for the shock value. They were, in fact, somewhat surprised by the enormity of the reaction.
The episode was the last one filmed. The script the cast was given did not have the final scene. All they knew was “O.R. scene to come.” They often received scenes last minute so didn’t think this was anything odd.
They filmed the rest of the show, and got in wardrobe for the last scene. Moments before it was to be filmed, Gene and Larry came down to the set with the pages. The stunned cast had only minutes to digest the news before the camera rolled. The reactions you saw were real. Interestingly, the portion of the scene where Radar (Gary Burghoff) comes in and reads the telegram was not the first take. There was a technical glitch so Gary had to do it again. Imagine making an actor play that moment twice? It’s hard to believe anyone could do it any better.
If any viewer wrote to the show or network protesting the decision to kill Henry and left their name and address, either Larry or Gene wrote them back a personal explanation. Every one and there were many thousands.
And finally, to CBS’s credit, they supported the decision and did not exploit it. But that was way back in the day when the audience decided what was a “very special episode” and not network promo departments.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Since a number of you mentioned that you enjoyed the travelogues, I’m up in Marin slaving away on a movie rewrite, the Tony awards are only a week away and I imagine you all are already gripped in Tony fever, here’s my New York/Syracuse report from several years ago to get you over the hump.
No, I didn't see THE PRODUCERS. Especially now when seats are reserved for Tony voting members it's impossible to get in. Scalpers want $500 a ticket. For that kind of money I can get a hooker and rent the movie.
No, I didn't eat at Peter Lugar's Steakhouse. Tried to make reservations three weeks ago and they laughed. Tony voters need to eat before the show I suppose. But I did bring home two bottles of Peter Lugar Steaksauce which you can't get here...other than in markets.
Debby joined me for the most of the trip and we had a fabulous time. I say "most of the trip" because I went to Syracuse for a night to see the new ballpark (I used to broadcast minor league baseball for them in 1988 when they played in a rickety old wooden bandbox) while my wife said she would rather drive her mother to doctor appointments in the rain and traffic all day instead. And she still maintains she had a better time but I disagree.
Syracuse has not changed save for the ballpark. Everyone looks like John Goodman and Rosie O'Donnell. And it's easy to see why. Drive down any street. There's a Denny's, Friendly's, Bob Evans Sausage, Ground Round, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC all in a row. Exotic food is available but only in mall food courts. Syracuseniks are very proud this year. They broke the record. 200 feet of snow. It got so bad they were running out of provisions. They had to ration out the Sara Lee. But seriously, I wish the people in LA were as nice as those in Syracuse.
I was invited to join the Syracuse Sky Chief broadcast and did a couple of innings of play by play. It's just not the same. Rent-a-Wreck is no longer their major sponsor. You may think it's harder to call a minor league game if you don't know the players. This tilt featured Izzie Molina, Ryan Balfe, Ryan Freel, Felipe Lopez, and Amaury Garcia. But it's actually easier because the audience doesn't know any of these clowns either. So I just made shit up. Statistics, back stories (“Ryan was originally a Siamese Twin”). Who's gonna check? I bet listeners were wondering why the new guy sounded so much more informed than the regular announcers.
Stayed at the Parker Meridien hotel in Manhattan. Faux chic. Small room but view of the park. Whenever David Letterman has exotic animals on his show they stay at the Parker Meridien. Hence the raw meat in the honor bar.
My favorite store was no longer in operation. The guy with the card table on Broadway selling "Cool As Shit Jewelry" was gone. Hopefully just on vacation in Aruba.
A big thank you to my agency for getting us theatre tickets. INVENTION OF LOVE by Tom Stoppard. The person sitting next to me bought hers from "Half Price Tickets" an hour before for less than what we paid. Then FOLLIES where all we could get was fourth row, corner, mezzanine...which is actually good because if you're asked to believe that Blythe Danner is playing 50 you better be in the mezzanine...or on the roof. I hated the Stoppard play, Debby liked it. If I just sent Stoppard a notarized letter that said I acknowledged he was smart would he go back to writing accessable plays? This was the story of poet A.E. Houseman (already a popular folkhero) that was so filled with scholarly mumble-jumble that it even contained bantering and jokes in Latin. I really love paying top Broadway dollar to be told I'm dumb. Don't invest in the road company of this cause you're gonna see tumbleweeds in the theatre should it open in Syracuse. And FOLLIES was fine if this were the La Mirada dinner theatre version. Blythe Danner as 50? Blthe Danner singing? Greg Harrison singing and dancing (with a cane yet a la Astaire)? Treat Williams walking and saying lines? The best thing in it was Marge Champion. Yes, she's 127 but she can still dance and I wouldn't be surprised if CBS doesn't build a sitcom around her.
Footnote: check the PLAYBILL of any Broadway show. Every cast member gets a bio that includes his or her credits. Under TV appearances you will find for every single one of them: LAW & ORDER.
Did my Dodger shows from Shea Stadium over the weekend. One of the highlights of the trip was taking the team bus out to the park and having Vin Scully regale me with tales of baseball and Broadway in the 50's. More poetic than Stoppard.
The front page of the NY POST on Sunday had the screaming headline WHO'S GETTING WHACKED? and featured pictures of SOPRANOS cast members with bullet holes in their heads. Nice.
One of the reasons for this trip was to peddle my play, UPFRONTS AND PERSONAL. I'm trying to get a NY agent or producer interested. It's hard because I'm represented for all other literary arenas and because I'm not 22 and living in Sojo. As opposed to LA where the literary agencies are giant powerhouses, in NY they're all botiques. The Neisha Cohen Agency, the Libby Goldberg Agency, etc. It's like every Jewish girl I ever went out with now has an agency. Met with a few of them, even have a couple of nibbles. Their offices were all right out of Broadway Danny Rose...which was great.
Along the way I also encountered some snobbism and pretension the likes of which I had never seen. One agent advised me not to stage the play in Los Angeles because if it gets good reviews the NY scene will automatically think it's shit. By the way, coming to Broadway next month: THOUSAND CLOWNS starring Tom Selleck in the Jason Robards role. I kid you not. Yeah, the NY theatre scene has reason to believe they're so far superior to everyone else.
Another highlight: lunch with NY radio great Dan Ingram. Throw in six Tony Award winners and seven Obie winners and I'll take Dan Ingram.
Only celebrity sighting: CSI's Jorga Fox at the Parker Meridien coffee shop. (I thought I might've seen the cougar from DR. DOOLITTLE but not sure). Jorga looks better in person than on TV. I almost went up to her and said, "excuse me, you were in MEMENTO. Explain the last ten minutes, would you?"
All in all a great trip. Bought a Hirschfeld lithograph of William Powell and Myra Loy from THE THIN MAN. Dinner at the Russian Tea Room, lunch at the Carnegie Deli, and a Scandavanian place called Christers -- 17 entrees, every one of them herring. See you at the gym.
And I'm sure we'll see the PRODUCERS one day. Probably starring Greg Harrison and Treat Williams by then.
Friday, June 02, 2006
Today marks the 31st anniversary (yikes!) of the first assignment my partner, David Isaacs and I ever did. It was an episode of the JEFFERSONS. (Who better than a couple of Jews, one from the San Fernando Valley?) The staff was very happy with our script. We got our first MASH assignment based on that draft. And yet we never did another JEFFERSONS. And almost never did another episode of any show. Here’s why.
The JEFFERSONS taped each show twice. First at 5:30 for one studio audience and then again at 8:00 for a second audience. The best performances of the two shows were melded together.
We showed up for the 5:30 taping and couldn’t be more excited. One of the executive producers, an older gentleman with a hearing aid, did the warm-up. Throughout the taping he was introducing everybody on the staff and crew to the audience. Everybody but us. By the end of the show he was asking the crowd to give a nice round of applause to the cable pullers. Still no acknowledgement of the writers. (Back then I was surprised.)
The show ended and we figured it must’ve just been an oversight. We saw him between shows. He said it had gone great, he was very pleased. We didn’t want to be schmucks and bring up the oversight so we just let it slide. But he knew we were there. Maybe he didn’t know we were at the first taping.
For the 8:00 show we had invited everyone we knew. Parents, relatives, close friends, agents. Again, this exec producer began introducing everyone and his brother but us. The craft services guy got a big intro. Finally, my agent raised her hand and asked, “Who wrote tonight’s show?” The exec producer hemmed and hawed.
I was sitting in the front row. And my date for the evening was a hot looking Carla Tortelli type from New York. When the exec producer stalled she yelled out, loud enough for him and the entire audience to hear:
“THEY’RE SITTING RIGHT HERE, FUCKER!!!!”
I’d like to think the longevity of my career can be traced directly to never bringing her again to a taping.
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Hello from Tiburon, Ca where I’m on a writing assignment for a few days. Charm is everywhere but the internet is nowhere. For my money, that’s too great a price to pay for charm. Where’s a goddamn Starbucks when you need it?? Anyway, posts will still be coming…somehow. Chloe O’Brien would hate it up here.
There’s one trend in television that as a writer I’m all for in a big way. Killing off main characters. Among the casualties this season are Denny from GREY’S ANATOMY, Shannon and the DUI twins from LOST, Tony, Michelle, President Palmer and (sniff) Edgar from 24, and of course Kenny gets killed every week on SOUTH PARK. The cast of the SOPRANOS is quoted as saying they hold their breath every table reading.
What this means for an audience is that in dramas jeopardy suddenly becomes real. Used to be when Peggy Lipton got in trouble you knew she’d get out of it. The best you could hope for is that they made her take her clothes off first. But now, anyone other than Jack Bauer is fair game (and even that may change in the series finale).
When a main character dies fans of the show are now sad, usually for a day, maybe two if they don’t have lives themselves. We’re now so used to series regulars being whacked, people voted off islands, fired, or told they can no longer sing “On Broadway” on national television that the impact is lessened. The downside of this practice is you begin to protect yourself by not investing too much emotion in the characters going in for fear that they’ll be taken away. (although I don’t think that was a problem for Paris Bennett or Amarosa.)
None of the current deaths will ever have the wallop that MASH killing off Henry Blake did. The entire country was stunned, and in many cases, outraged. But it also made a point. This was a show about war and in war people die, even the people you care about. For my money that one episode (written by Jim Frizzell & Everett Greenbaum, produced by Larry Gelbart & Gene Reynolds) turned MASH into a classic. It was groundbreaking, shocking, and people forget -- very funny for the first 27 minutes.
Killing main characters does keep the viewing audience on edge. But even better, for writers, it keeps the ACTORS on edge. Finally, some leverage over idiotic ticky tack actor notes, diva tantrums, forgetting lines, keeping a whole company waiting twenty minutes while the co-star is on the phone to another co-star across town who’s keeping that company waiting. No more will staff writers ever hear: “I don’t think my character would say that.” Gone are the days when scenes must be rewritten because a certain star doesn’t think he’s “likable enough” in them. It’s a beautiful thing. And kinda fun to play God.
Now if we can just find a way to kill executives.