Thursday, July 31, 2008

Friday question of the week


Today’s Q is from Dgm:

Beyond finding a good writing partner, how do you keep one? What happens when one wants to fly solo for a while or to "see other people" for certain projects? Do you address those issues up front in some sort of pre-nup-like agreement, or do you wait for the shit to hit the fan?

I can only speak for me and my partner, David. We generally write everything head-to-head, both sitting in a room together. But early on we decided to take one script assignment a season and split it up, one writing the first act and the other writing the second. We’d then put the two together and polish them together. The point was to feel confidant writing on our own. That way our partnership is one of choice not dependency.

The best partnerships have built-in flexibility. I won’t say “as you grow as artists” because the minute you think of yourself as an “artist” you’re destined to write “Tidy Bowl” commercials in five years, but as you fight the windmill that is showbiz your interests often do splinter somewhat. One may want to direct, write plays, or the far more common – desire to become a baseball announcer. Allow each other some room.

But make sure if you want to do something apart from the partnership you discuss beforehand. Don’t just spring it on him: “Oh, by the way, I’m going to polish the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy so I’ll be in New Zealand for the next two years starting tomorrow but I think they have cell service there.”

The key to a good partnership is that you have each other’s back. There will be times when you’ll have personal shit to deal with (your kids will only fall out of trees when a pilot is due) and he covers for you and likewise expect periods where you may have to shoulder the load while he’s in prison.

And most important: You both stand by the work you turn in together. The fastest way to end a partnership is to throw your partner under the bus during a notes meeting. “Yep, I told him it wouldn’t work.” By the time you’ve said “him” he’s texting that weird but funny guy at Starbucks asking if he wants to team up.

There will always be hurdles, tough patches. Our partnership is tested every Superbowl, World Series, Rose Bowl, and NBA Finals. We have never rooted for the same team once in over thirty years. That we’re still talking to each other much less writing together is a miracle.

What’s your question???

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Netflix pick of the month: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH

If SUPER BAD was super good than FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH was super better. Long before there was Judd Apatow there was Cameron Crowe. Adapted from his book, Cameron’s high school coming-of-age movie set in the early 80s remains a comic classic. Yes, it’s similar in tone to SUPER BAD but the raunch here is done more elegantly. Equal credit goes to screenwriter Cameron Crowe and director Amy Heckerling (who clearly got it).

Sean Penn, known for being the most intense angst-ridden, actor in America (who has never met a scene he couldn’t have a screaming emotional meltdown in), actually gives one of the most inspired and original COMIC performances I’ve ever seen on film. He plays a stoned out surfer, Jeff Spicoli and every minute he’s on the screen is comic gold. I wonder why he never does comedies anymore. Did Madonna screw that up too?

Sean’s foil is Everyone’s Favorite Martian, Ray Walston as Mr. Hand, that history teacher who is so rigid he can crack walnuts with his butt cheeks.

Jennifer Jason-Leigh gives one of her earliest and best performances. She was really good until she started thinking so herself. A young Forrest Whittaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage, and Anthony Edwards (with hair!) also appear. Not many teen sex romps feature three future Oscar winners (four if your count Cameron Crowe).

And then there’s Phoebe Cates. Some actors are forever identified with classic film moments in which they appeared – Bogart’s final speech in CASABLANCA, Peter Finch yelling “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” from NETWORK, Brando’s anguished pleas to “Stella! Stell-llla!” in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Phoebe Cates will always be remembered and revered for coming out of a swimming pool.

To me the only weak link in the movie was Judge Reinhold. I just don’t get him. Whenever he’s on screen my eyes just naturally drift to the extras or scenery, or film scratches.

But on the whole FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH is (in the words of Spicoli) totally gnarly. It somehow manages to be funny, serious, touching, silly, heartbreaking, groundbreaking, wise, and real. And even if you don’t give a shit about any of that, the soundtrack rocks! Jackson Browne, the Cars, Sammy Hager, Jimmy Buffet, Led Zepplin, and as if that wasn’t enough -- Oingo Boingo, ladies and gentlemen!

Hey, if nothing else, you’ve got to love a movie where Sean Penn says, “People on ludes should not drive.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

There must be some mistake. I didn't write that.

Part two of yesterday's post. My memoirs of 1964. This one is filed under the heading: Idiotic things I have done.

…there was Dana.

I was always in love with someone at that age (14 and I was already listening to Sinatra and getting blues in the night). In the 9th grade it was Dana. I was completely smitten by this little blond shiksa goddess. She was the perfect California Surfer Girl (except she never surfed, had alabaster skin, and was kind of a stuck up bitch). But that combo worked for me.

I may have been a nerd but I wasn’t one of those Cliff Clavin- afraid-to-talk- to-girls- without-peening-on-themselves types. I could say hello to girls I had a crush on. Even Dana. She was usually aloof but I didn’t know if that was personal or just her general raging bitchiness.

Two years earlier I had written the then-classmate-of-my-affection a birthday letter and kinda casually mentioned I thought she was the most beautiful creature who ever lived. She found it very endearing and even wrote me back. So I figured, why tell Dana how I felt about her in person and possibly trip on my tongue when I could just convey my feelings in a letter? I spent a good week crafting that letter, rewriting it endlessly until every sentence was a work of art, every sentiment expressed with pinpoint perfection. Very proud of myself, I slipped it in her locker.

What a colossal mistake.

The next day in class, not only did Dana snub me, she passed around my letter to all of her friends. Why didn’t she just set me on fire? That would have been so much quicker. I was the complete laughing stock of the 9th grade.

And how do you save face from something like that? Say there was someone going around forging my name… and handwriting? Claim to be on major psychotropic drugs? Say it was really meant for Dana Delaney? I was so dead. Today the letter would be posted on line and girls from Malaysia would be laughing at me.

For weeks the snickering behind my back continued. Thank God David Millstein took the pressure off by being caught with Maiden Form bra ads in his binder.

Not that that whole Dana experience left any lasting scars or anything, but I have never written another heartfelt love letter. Ever. To anyone.

Aw, school days. Good times.

Earthquake

...so I've driving through West L.A. at around 11:45 and I hear the announcer on the radio say "Whoa! We just had a big earthquake!" "Huh?" I said, "We did?" I didn't feel a thing. Turns out it was a 5.6, centered in Orange County. Yikes! But I'm fine and there was no noticeable damage in my area. My cable was even still working.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Free Frank Sinatra Jr.!

Here's another installment of the memoirs I'm writing -- growing up in the 60s in the San Fernando Valley. It's a look at a turbulent decade from the perspective of a normal kid with a warped view of the world. Hopefully it will bring back memories or make you glad you grew up in a different time.

My typical day in March, 1964.

Got up at 6:30, showered and put on my clothes. There was a strict dress code. Collared shirts, tucked in, long pants – no jeans. Girls were required to wear skirts. My usual outfit was a white shirt, dark pants, and sweater buttoned up the front. No pocket protector because gee, I would look like a nerd then.

There were two gangs (in the loosest form of the word) at Parkman Jr. High – the Surfers and the Greasers. Surfers tended to wear flannel Pendleton shirts and Greasers (car enthusiasts) wore leather. On rare occasions they would fight under the freeway bridge (over what I don’t know. Waves are better than drag strips? Who gives a shit?) I was in neither gang. I associated with no one in either gang. Wearing sweaters usually signified guys who spent a lot of time in their rooms.

At 7:00 I would wolf down a bowl of Special K then pour myself a heaping glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast. The more wasted calories the better! Summer was coming and I wanted to be up to 131 pounds, maybe even 132. After all, I was 6' 2".

Time permitting I would glance at the sports section. LA had two major newspapers – the Times and the less popular Examiner. Since the Times wouldn’t hire my late grandfather to be a type-setter in the early 40s our family refused to give those bastards a dime. We always subscribed to the Examiner. That was fine with me. Better sports section with a great cartoonist, Karl Hubenthal. The Times had a better news bureau but so what? What kid reads the news?

We now had Grandpappy in the White House. Lyndon Johnson might become a great president but he wasn’t JFK. There were reports that we were sending more “advisors” to somewhere called Viet Nam but that was still pretty much under the radar.

The only story I was really following was the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping case. Imagine someone trying to get back at the Corleone family so they abduct Fredo. The three nimrods who pulled off this harebrain caper were found guilty by a federal jury and sentenced to life plus 75 years (for stupidity), which is still getting off easier than if Frank had doled out justice "his way". My interest was really sparked because the buffoons’ hideout was just a few blocks from my house. It’s not often that our little berg got national attention. But I’m sure if Frank Jr. were forced to come to Woodland Hills, he’d still prefer to be tied up in a house than to play the lounge at the Woodlake Bowling Alley.

At 7:20 I walked down to the corner of Burbank and Shoup and waited for my ride to school. My best friend at the time was Gary. His older sister Gail went to Taft High and had her own car. I think it was a ’49 Ford. I dunno, it looked like something out of Toon Town. Parkman was on the way to Taft so she graciously gave us a lift every morning. I’m certain Gary’s mother made her. To get home I was supposed to take the bus down Ventura Blvd. but saved money by hitch-hiking. I never feared for my safety. It was either safer times or I’m lucky I’m not all hacked up and stored in mason jars in some nut’s basement.

Parkman Jr. High was a typical sprawling complex, with single story classroom buildings, a gym, cafeteria, library, auditorium, and just enough trees to differentiate it from a prison. If you’ve seen THE KARATE KID, it’s like that school.

First I had to report to Homeroom. That’s where we heard announcements about school dances no one would be caught dead at, and reminders that the school nurse would be in Thursday from 10 till noon so get sick accordingly.

Off to English with Mr. Lucey. It was here I first wrote my book report for “The Great Escape” that I would continue to submit all the way through college. It averaged a C+ at Taft High and an A- at UCLA.

History followed with Mr. Sima. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. I don’t remember a lot of what he taught but that’s my fault. To force us to follow current events he gave a weekly multiple choice quiz provided by those bastards at the L.A. Times. In preparation I would watch the George Putnam newscast on KTTV, Channel 11 the night before. George (pictured left) was an L.A. institution, and the inspiration for the blowhard Ted Baxter character on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. One night I tuned in, George looked straight into the camera, and bellowed in a booming voice, “Alan Ladd is DEAD!!!!”

“AAAAAAA!” I screamed and almost fell off the couch. George scared the shit out of me. And I didn’t even really know who Alan Ladd was.

I will say this for George Putnam. He could read the teleprompter and never make a mistake, never even stumble. It was amazing. Long names that looked like eye charts, tongue-twister sentences – it made no difference. He was flawless. Always. Unfortunately, unless a test question was “Alan Ladd is… A) Alive B) DEAD!!!!!!!!!” I retained practically nothing.

Next was “Nutrition” for our mid-morning sugar fix, then on to Science with Mr. Rude. Another good teacher. There was a certain relevance to this course. America was in the space race and nearby in the Santa Susana Mountains they were building the rockets. When we’d start hearing loud rumblings that almost felt like earthquakes we knew we were only a month or two away from another NASA launch.

One thing our sleepy little bedroom communities had that others didn’t was armed Nike and Hercules missiles vigilantly guarding our lawns and gardens. This was still the Cold War and the defense plants that designed and built the new space age equipment (often in secrecy) were deemed potential targets. Bel Air had rent-a-cop patrol cars to keep it safe, Woodland Hills had thermo nuclear rockets.

4th period I had Typing. It was as close to a “shop” class as I would take. Wood Shop and Metal Shop were for the Surfers and Greasers. Typing was for the people who hired handymen.

At lunch I sat with my best friend, Gary. Daily topics would include the Dodgers, our mutual love for Laurel & Hardy, Laura Petrie, the KFWB playlist, and charting the daily progress of every girls’ breast development. I think Gary still has the chart.

Gary was half a year ahead of me and that lucky bastard was graduating in June. I wasn’t sprung until January. Depending on your birthday you were enrolled in either the Fall or Winter class. I drew the Winter. Jr. High was for babies. Sr. High was so much more “adult”. You were associating with people who could drive!

It was never a great idea to eat a big lunch because (a) the Parkman cuisine was not holding to its usual excellent standards (even in the hash line), and (b) my next class was gym.

God, did I detest gym. It’s the only class I ever got a “D” in, which takes some real effort I’m proud to say. If you can do five jumping jacks you’re an honor student. And then there were…the showers. Nothing promotes homophobia and insecurity in a pre-teen like daily showers with your classmates.

But the very worst was saved for last. Math. Not because I hated the subject or the teacher, Miss Harris. It’s because every time I walked into that classroom…

…there was Dana.

To be continued tomorrow.

15 seconds of fame

Hey, my son Matt was on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball this Sunday. Well...not on camera but announcer Jon Miller did talk about him and read a great piece he wrote on his blog, dirtywatah.com. Worth sharing here. This is the graphic that went with the story. You can hear the audio on his blog. Yeah, I'm bragging. It's one of the perks of fatherhood.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The comedy writing team MATCH GAME

In Friday’s post I talked about the benefits of writing with a partner. Summary: you always have a ride when your car is in the shop.

But you have to find the RIGHT partner. Some tips from someone who’s been in a successful partnership for 35 years:

Make sure you both have similar sensibilities. If you love Patton Oswalt and his all-time favorite comedian is Pauley Shore, keep lookin’. (If his all-time favorite comedian is Pauley Shore keep looking even if your favorite funnyman is Donald Rumsfeld.)

There have been a number of sibling teams that have worked out. The Charles Brothers, the Coen Brothers. Make sure you and your sib really get along and your last name begins with C.

Getting into a writing partnership with someone you’re currently having a relationship with is like juggling with live grenades while on a tightrope in a windstorm. You better be incredibly great together – both on and in the sheets. Relationships undergo enough stress without having your professional wellbeing attached to it.

Let’s say you two get a staff job and then start having problems. Do you break up and go back to square one, establishing yourself all over again (if you can)? Or do you remain in the partnership from hell just to maintain your job?

Couples always maintain that they can separate their working and personal lives. So if they do break up they’ll be able to continue writing together. Uh huh. That’s fine until the first one starts going out with someone else. That’s when objects start flying. Sharp objects.

There are a few husband and wife teams that have pulled off successful partnerships. I’ve also been witness to one marriage that literally ended in violence over a script for a series that has long since been canceled. The only residuals they’re getting from that show is bitterness.

He/she partnerships? If you complement each other and are sleeping with other he/she’s (in any combination) then go for it. Some of Hollywood’s most successful teams are this configuration. Certainly one of my favorites – Anne Flett Giordano & Chuck Ranberg.

Do you and your potential partner have similar work habits? If you like to work in a quiet office during the day and she is only comfortable writing at the Viper Club after hours, continue your search.

Have similar aspirations. If your goal is to be a writer and his is just to use this as a means to move into directing or to get chicks, pass. If he wants to write Oscar winning movies in five years and you want to punch up Bette Midler’s Vegas act, shake hands and run.

Figure out just how you’re going to work. Head-to-head? Splitting the assignment up and each taking individual scenes? One person writes the rough draft and the other rewrites it? There’s a screenwriting team of women who sit around the pool and get smashed. One mans the computer while the other floats on a raft. That works for them. I could see it working for me. What works for you?

The Odd Couple would not make a good writing team. Felix would want to start the assignment right away and turn it in early. Oscar would wait until legal action was threatened. Both of you need to be one or the other.

Now the essential stuff:

You must trust and respect your partner. If you don’t think he’s the talented one of the two you haven’t found the right person. And that’s not saying you always have to defer to your partner. I don’t know a single writing team that doesn’t argue. But here’s the key:

Don’t make it personal.

Let me repeat in all-caps:

DON'T MAKE IT PERSONAL.

Think of TV wrestlers. They kill each other on camera and after the show all go out for beers. Argue over script issues but don’t let the disagreement bleed into personal feelings. And along those lines…

Fight fair.

No passive-aggressive bullshit, no mind games, no guilt trips. My partner and I have a policy. First off, we both have to agree before a line goes in. Secondly, if we can’t agree, and one can’t quickly convince the other, we just throw the line out and come up with something else. Trust me, it takes less time to craft a new joke than spend all afternoon arguing and ultimately one person ends up unhappy.

I know this sound like a lot of rules but the rewards if you find the right person can be enormous. And don’t kid yourself. Your car will need servicing sometime.

Happy hunting.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Dave Niehaus

Today my partner gets inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Dave Niehaus, the longtime voice of the Seattle Mariners takes his place alongside the immortals in Cooperstown. It’s an honor long overdue.

Since the team’s inception in 1977 Dave has been their lead announcer. Can you imagine how many truly bad, ugly games he has called over the years? The Mariners for the first twenty years were just God awful. And yet people in the Pacific Northwest clung to his every word. The attraction was not the team, it was listening to Dave. His passion for the game, vivid descriptions, and magnificent voice made any baseball game sound exciting, even a Mariners’.

Prior to joining Seattle, Dave worked alongside Dick Enberg calling games for the then-California Angels (now Los Angeles Angels of California in Anaheim). Team owner Gene Autry once said to Dave, “You call a hell of a game. It’s not the one I’m watching but it’s a hell of a game.” Actually that’s only half true. It is the game you’re watching, only better. Because Dave has something that so few announcers have today – SHOWMANSHIP. You’re not just getting play-by-play, you’re being told a tale by a master storyteller. Name me a better way of spending a warm summer night sitting out on the front porch.

Dave, I wish I could be there today, sharing in your shining moment. But just know I couldn’t be more thrilled for you and truly the highlight of my broadcast career was that I was privileged enough to work alongside you.

My oh my!

Friday, July 25, 2008

TELL NO ONE

I don’t know if it’s playing where you are but TELL NO ONE, a French thriller is the best movie I’ve seen this year (although to be fair, I haven’t gotten around to SPACE CHIMPS yet). Like all movies today, there are twists but here’s the shocker – they actually surprise you. You’re not going “Okay, since he’s the Pope he must be the serial killer” or “I bet it’s going to turn out she’s his mother and his sister and his Farmers Insurance Agent”. The movie does ask you to pay attention (which is why, despite winning a gazillion awards in Europe, they couldn’t get a U.S. distributor for two years), and you need to be able to read (Yes, there are subtitles).

But it holds your interest throughout and in addition to being a thriller worthy of Hitchcock at his best (i.e. not FAMILY PLOT – what the fuck was that???) TELL NO ONE also is a very touching love story.

Standout performances all around, although Fran├žois Cluzet (the French Dustin Hoffman) stands out among the standouts. And keeping his streak alive of being in every French movie ever made, Jean Rochefort (pictured) makes his obligatory appearance.

I’m not going to say anything more. No spoiler alert necessary. But if it’s playing in your neighborhood and just for variety you want to see a movie without some guy in a cape, check out TELL NO ONE. And see it in this version. Don't wait until Hollywood remakes it with Keanu Reeves.

Now – that said. There were a lot of plot twists that were tricky and if you have seen the film you might have a question or two and maybe someone else who saw it might have the answer. So I’m opening up the comment section today for a discussion of TELL NO ONE. If you haven’t seen the movie, avoid the comments. There will be spoilers galore I’m sure. See ya in the comments section.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why write with a partner?

Pictured: writing team Alan Burns & James Brooks, creators of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.
Here’s the Friday question-of-the-week. If comes from a number of you. And it’s one I can answer with some authority having been in this situation since the Hoover administration (I saw on a blog someone referred to me as an “old warhorse”).

Why write with a partner?

It’s a big decision, especially when you’re starting out. There are many pluses to being in a partnership. And then there’s that little negative that you’re giving up half the money.

Comedy writers find the arrangement more beneficial generally than drama writers but that’s not always the case. Richard Levinson & William Link (pictured right) wrote hundreds of mysteries, dramas, and westerns and created (among other shows) COLUMBO. The award winning stage play INHERIT THE WIND was penned by the team of Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee. But by and large, comedy writers benefit most from having someone else to bounce their material off of. You’ll know at least if one person thought your joke was funny.

Often times when you start out you are stronger in one area and weaker in another. You may be a joke machine but clueless when you have to construct a story. Or you’re great with structure but struggle writing funny dialogue. Or, you’re a fabulous writer in every way but have absolutely zero social skills.

The truth is, especially in your early stages, you may NEED a partner because you’re just not good enough yet on your own. The competition is very tough out there and your script has to really rise above. And as for the money, isn’t it better to have half of something than all of nothing?

There’s also the social aspect of writing in a team. Sitting alone at a computer staring at a blank screen listening to your pulse race is usually not the best way to create a carnival atmosphere. Much more fun hanging out with someone who makes you laugh. And if your car ever has to be serviced, you know you always have a ride. Trust me, it’s worth half the money just for that.

And in a town where networking is so important, you double your chances of glomming on to some unsuspecting soul who can help you.

The bottom line is this: (with apologies to Neil Sedaka) Breaking in is hard to do. The more support systems you can have in place the better. I once received a letter from a guy named Ken Levine asking my advice for getting into the business. I said find a guy named David Isaacs and team up. Getting a partner could be the best thing you ever do. On Monday I’ll offer some suggestions on what to look for and avoid in selecting that partner. Preview: Andy Dick. Avoid people like him.

And as always, best of luck. Someone has to make it. Why not YOU?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Stop me before I play again!

Hi, my name is Ken and I’m a Free Cell addict.
For years I blamed my assistant. She was the one who introduced me to the game. But over time I’ve come to realize I have to take responsibility for my own actions. I still should have fired her sorry ass but that’s not the point.

I’m the addict. I’m the one who can’t turn on his computer without playing just one game. And as you all know, one turns into two, which turns into ten, then twenty, and before you know it you’re out in the street living in a Maytag box.

Oh, it started off so innocently. “What’s that?” I asked my assistant Luciferita. “It’s Free Cell,” she said casually, drawing the helpless moth to the flame. “It’s kind of like a Solitaire game. You like Solitaire, don’t you?” I admitted that on certain social occasions I had imbibed in a game of computer Solitaire or two. “Well, this is better,” she said. “Let me show you how it works.”

I should have known better. That’s the same thing someone said to me about Tetris. By the time that was through I was eating Hamburger Helper right out of the package.

At first I had a little trouble getting the hang of Free Cell. Little did I know that that degree of difficulty, that “challenge” was what made the game so insidiously addictive. Anyone could win METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS, but Free Cell – the triumph over that game produced such a greater high, a euphoria that few have ever known.

But that high is somewhat transitory. It’s usually gone in one second, two if you’ve trained yourself to really savor it. So you must have more. That window pops onto your screen. “Would you like to play another game?

In the background you can hear your kids say, “Daddy, come out here. The lunar-eclipse is about to begin. It’s the last one earth will see until 3052.” “Be right there, guys!” I call out. But that little window beckons. "Would you like to play another game? Would you? WOULD YOU??! Sweat beads form on your forehead. You try to resist. You’re almost up from the chair when…

“Aw hell, one more game.”

And now I can’t stop. Emails pile up. I haven’t checked my Nigerian bank account for months.

And eventually it’s not just winning the game. You need more kicks! How many in a row can you win? How fast you can win? How few moves do you need to win? How long can you go without peeing?

Obviously, I need help. I can’t control this on my own. I just found out today that Hillary’s no longer in the race. So hopefully, with all of your support I can rid myself of this destructive habit and return to the light. I have a sponsor assigned to me. I just got an email from him introducing himself. For the first time in months I'm starting to feel there is a way out. One quick game and I’m going to write him back.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dumb critic questions

...Speaking of TV critics (or at least two days ago), they’ve all been in Los Angeles lately for the big annual TCA convention, a month long hypeorgy where networks trot out their new stars and show runners in endless panels of “We’re the next great thing” presentations. Every creator is super excited, every cast just immediately clicked on day one and now are a big family. I’ve been on those panels. I've said those same things. But in my case of course it was true. For both shows.

Uh huh.

Lying your ass off and fooling no one aside, there’s nothing like looking out at 200 people who are bored out of their skulls, knowing you’re the seventh panel of the day and this is day eleven. Do the math. They just want to go home.

The networks try to help your case by wining and dining the critics. There are usually lavish cocktail parties complete with shrimp. At least now each critic must pay his own way (i.e. his paper pays). Years ago the networks popped for the entire junket. And they would provide perks like laundry service since they knew this was a lengthy stay. One critic one year brought his living room drapes from home and had them dry cleaned at the networks’ expense. But you gotta give that guy credit for chutzpah.

Most of the questions asked at these presentations tend to be the same (as do the answers). But every so often the monotony is broken by someone asking something really stupid. Here are a few from this year:

One guy asked Lucy Lui how it was to be 40.

When Dave Attell, hosting a new GONG SHOW (what took so long to revive that masterpiece?), said the show would feature a beer pong act, one of the critics asked him what a beer pong act did.

One critic informed Jonny Lee Miller that she had seen HACKERS ninety-five times, and later asked him if he was going to call Angelina Jolie (his ex-wife) to guest star on the show. (Miller, annoyed but diplomatic: "You'll have to call her, I'm afraid.")

To Kevin Reilly, whom the critic had clearly confused with Ben Silverman: "Have you made up with Steve McPherson?"

To the showrunners of LIFE ON MARS: "If it's set in New York, why is it called "Life on Mars"?"

And just a few from years past (I’m sure there are thousands more):

A critic who was a sci-fi fan once asked Dawn Ostroff whether VERONICA MARS would be adding any "genre elements" -- because apparently nobody clued this person in that film noir is a genre.

Terrence Howard was once asked why he was dressed like a pimp.

Ron Glass was asked if his hair was real.

And finally, when I was on a panel for BIG WAVE DAVE’S I mentioned that the show would be shot multi-camera in front of a live audience on a soundstage in Hollywood and one critic asked, “So will there be actual surfing on the show?”

These cocktail parties obviously feature open bars.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The CHEERS episode I'm still writing in my head

Recently I was asked by TVSquad.com to contribute an article for their CHEERS week. For those who didn't see it, here it is. For those who did see it, here it is again in a different font. Enjoy.Sometimes you just never know.

David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of CHEERS the first season called “Boys in the Bar”. We were also producing the show at the time with the Charles Brother and Jim Burrows.

The subject matter was a little tricky. It had been reported in the papers that a former player for the Dodgers, Glenn Burke admitted he was gay. We thought, what if Sam’s roommate during his playing days made the same admission? It seemed like a great way to explore the homophobia you find in some sports bars. Okay…most.

So came up with this story: When Sam’s ex-roommate reveals he’s gay Sam must decide whether or not to support him. There is concern from the bar regulars that if Sam does the bar will go gay. I never said these were smart bar regulars. Still, Sam does back his former roomy and the regulars are very on edge. The next day, when they suspect two patrons of being gay they try in their clumsy oafish way to “encourage” them to leave. The suspects eventually do and Norm, Cliff, and the gang are feeling very good about themselves until they realize they chased out the wrong pair. The real gay guys are standing on either side of Norm and both kiss him at once.

There was concern from the get-go that this story might be a little too risky for a series that at the time was struggling to find an audience. (It’s bad enough CHEERS was losing to SIMON & SIMON at the time, it was getting its ass kicked by TUCKER’S WITCH too.) We forged ahead anyway and wrote the draft.

Everyone seemed to like it but was still a little worried. To their credit, the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows did not back away. They put the show on the production schedule.

The first day of production a table reading is scheduled. The cast sits around a large conference table and reads the script aloud. Writers gauge how it’s playing and begin rewriting the things that didn’t appear to work. “Boys in the Bar” seemed to go okay. Not through the roof but decent.

As I walked out of the room Ted Danson approached and said, “Don’t change a word.” I was a little overly defensive and didn’t appreciate the sarcasm, “Hey, give me a break”, I snapped, “We tried for something, okay?” He waved his hands. “No, no, I mean it. It’s great. Don’t change a word.” Needless to say I felt like a giant ass… but was relieved.

The week of rehearsals went smoothly. Just a little tweaking here and there but no major rewrites.

CHEERS, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in and the technical work is done. Finally, on day five the show is shot in front of a live studio audience.

The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We’ve now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They’re hearing the material for the first time.

The crew LOVED “Boys in the Bar’. Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.

So we felt great heading into show night. Sure enough the audience was with us from the first minute. One joke (Sam telling Diane he should’ve known his roommate was gay, in a piano bar he once requested a show tune) got such a thunderous prolonged laugh that they had to stop cameras. Too much film was being wasted.

The show and the laughs barreled on. I was having the time of my life. There’s nothing a writer craves more than hearing big laughs. Now we’re at the end. The two gay guys lean in and kiss Norm, and…

Silence. Dead silence. You could hear crickets.

It wasn’t like some people got it and others didn’t. Nobody laughed. Not a single person.

I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff and is in mid-air for a few seconds before he realizes it, then plummets to the ground. That was me and the rest of the staff.

We quickly huddled. No one had an explanation. The best we could come up with was that the audience didn’t realize that was the end. They were waiting for something else. So we reshot the scene and after the kiss we added a line. Norm points to one and says, “Better than Vera”. That got a sort-of laugh but was the best we could do. Cut to the closing credit and get the hell out.

We received an Emmy nomination for that show and won the Writers Guild Award for it. It’s still one of my proudest episodes. But to this day I scratch my head.

The crew liked it! They all got it!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

TV critics

In a recent post I mentioned that uber TV critic Tom Shales had hated the BIG WAVE DAVE’S pilot and Tom then filed the actual review in the comments section. I don’t completely agree (I mean, Jesus, it’s not THAT bad. You can judge for yourself here.), but bad reviews are part of the bargain if you want to be a television writer. When you write for a mass audience you put yourself out there. And sometimes that means you relive the final scene of BONNIE & CLYDE.

But you can’t take it too seriously, just as you can’t start believing you’re a genius just because the TV critic from MERCENARY LIFE loves your new comedy.

Yes, it stings when you get a bad review. You take comfort in knowing it’s only in the paper for one day (although in the case of Shales’ slam of BIG WAVE DAVE’S the LA Times chose to print it in their weekly TV guide so it was around for everyone to enjoy for seven lovely days). But if you can force yourself to read the review objectively sometimes those sons of bitches make good points.

What kills me though, is when you agree with their criticism but had to do it that way because of pressure from the network, studio, actors, etc. You’re the one thrown under the bus. My partner and I did a pilot one time and I wanted to change the name of our production company to “It’s Not Our Fault Productions”.

I sure wouldn’t want to be a TV critic though. Certainly not today, with newspapers all in the shitter and cutbacks occurring almost hourly. And then there’s the little matter of having to watch television. How many VIVA LAUGHLIN and K-VILLE pilots can one screen before blowing their brains out? One? Two maybe?

The truth is TV critics can’t kill a show but they can help save one. No matter how excoriating the reviews for CAVEMAN, had the show gotten ratings it would still be on and its stars (in full make up) would be hosting next year’s Rose Parade. But being a critical darling can protect yourself from cancellation. Do you think the exceptional MAD MEN would be going into its second season and collecting all those Emmy noms were it not for its glowing reviews? The Scott Baio reality show kicked its ass in the ratings. That’s like Beyonce losing a beauty contest to Phyllis Diller. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is another show that had a longer life thanks to critical bouquets.

Like everything else, there are better critics than others. Some are thoughtful and perceptive while others are just plain imbeciles. The morons you ignore and make fun of mercilessly in the writers room , but there are a few critics worth checking out. Some of my favorites are Maureen Ryan in the Chicago Tribune, Alan Sepinwall in the New Jersey Star-Ledger (he watches fifteen hours of television a day, he’ll be dead soon), Aaron Barnhart from the Kansas City Star, and yes, even Tom Shales of the Washington Post. There’s also the former Seattle P.I. TV critic who is hilarious and now has her own blog. Melanie McFarland.

And my last thought is that TV critics exist because there is such a great general interest in television. There are very few insurance salesman syndicated critics. It’s nice to be in a field where people even have opinions about what you do. Even if you don’t always share them. I still say BIG WAVE DAVE’S had some laughs.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Comedy savers

To be a TV comedy writer you have to have thick skin. Generally you’re in a room with other comedy writers, all neurotics, competing against each other to get your ideas or jokes in the script. Eight puppies and one Milkbone.

Many times you’ll pitch a joke that doesn’t get a laugh or doesn’t get in. You’re out there with egg on your face. I find it’s best to develop a series of savers. As a public service, here are a few I use. (Note: if you find yourself using all of these in a five minute span consider other employment).


Hey guys, don’t all hoist me on your shoulders at once!

Okay, but you’re denying America pleasure.

Oh God, it’s my prom night all over again.

If Jon Stewart pitched that you’d put it right in.

I hear laughter but I don’t see the pencil moving.

Okay, don’t see your kids tonight. Stay all night. I’m doing this for you. Some thanks I get.

Sure, it’s not funny when I say it. But when (actor) says it…

You’re only mad because you didn’t think of it first.

Nurse! They’re being mean to me again!

The laugh machine will LOVE it.

I bet at CSI:MIAMI they’d be hysterical.

Fine. I wasn’t meant to be appreciated in my time.

I don’t feel the love, you assholes.

You try being funny when you’re having a stroke.

See it typed. You’ll think differently.

Okay, what if they said it in a funny accent?

I’m sorry. Are there no more seats at the Algonquin Round Table?

So you’re saying perfection isn’t good enough?

Hey, you hired me!

(In Forghorn Leghorn voice) I say, I say, I keep pitchin’ ‘em, boy, and you keep missin’ ‘em.

Jesus, people, doesn’t ANYTHING make you laugh?

You all remember. I used to be funny, right?

And of course, the ultimate saver and perennial crowd pleaser – Go fuck yourself.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Favorite American Expression

Non baseball fans will laugh just as hard at this. Ichiro Suzuki is All-Star player for the Seattle Mariners after being a legend in Japan. Over the last few years he has been learning English. Here he is being interviewed recently by Bob Costas. I think he should be awarded citizenship for this answer alone.

I don't suck!

Thanks much to Tom Hoffarth of the L.A. Daily News for his all-too-kind article today on the radio show I co-host, Dodger Talk. Here's the link. He also includes more on his blog. That link can be found here.

This was sure a lot better than the review of BIG WAVE DAVE'S I received from Tom Shales where he basically said I single-handedly destroyed network television.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Friday questions of the week (yes, more than one)

Two questions today. The first from Mike:

I recently read a review of the Season 9 DVD of Cheers, and was saddened to see that, in the episode where the bar gets a karaoke machine, the part where Frasier sings "Isn't it romantic?" is cut. As was the very brief part where Norm and Cliff load up on helium and sing "Lollipop." And it's because Paramount didn't want to spend the money on licensing the songs for the DVD release. How does that make you feel, as a creative talent, knowing these moments are cut, all because of money? And when you were working on Cheers, did you guys have to be concerned with the cost of having a character on the show sing a song? Particularly when they only sing a little snippet of a song like in the karaoke episode. Or did you have to pay to have a song sung, regardless of how much of it was actually sung on the episode?

What annoys me most is that studios would rather just eliminate the music rather than paying the license fees. The musicians deserve their royalty just as much as the writers, actors, and directors. But since their contribution is easily removable and unlike the writers, their contractual participation is significant the studios would much rather just cut them out than pay them. And if the shows suffer, so what?

The worst example is WKRP IN CINNCINATI. The studio has practically destroyed that show by substituting generic music for what was originally there. And of course the studio claims that if they didn’t do this they would not have released the DVDs at all, so at least fans of the show can see episodes in some form. Gee, thanks soooo much.

Each studio has a different policy. When your show is in production most will allow you to use songs from the library that they own. If a Paramount show needed a romantic ballad you’d always hear “Autumn in New York” , “Moonlight in Vermont”, or “Moon River”. Need a Hawaiian tune? “Blue Hawaii” or nothing. On ALMOST PERFECT we had a big fight with Paramount over having a character sing a few seconds of the old Vikki Carr song, “It Must Be Him”. It got down to just how many words would we want to use? At 20th I’m sure you could always use the soundtrack from CLEOPATRA.

Wayne asks:

Question. How jealous do regulars get when a weekly player (like Kelsey first was) score big enough to get brought back?

I can’t speak for every show but on CHEERS I can tell you that Kelsey was accepted almost immediately. Especially after a show has been on a while the cast recognizes that adding new people can freshen things up, and possibly add a few years to the run. So they may lose a few lines but they end up with a lot more money.

I do know of some other shows where new characters were viewed by the cast as a threat and that can sometimes lead to ugly situations. I’m not at all privy to what goes on but I can’t imagine the original cast of HOUSE being all too happy over last season. They went from stars of the show to having fewer lines than the coma patients.

My big question (and maybe someone from the show is reading this and can respond) is how do the original cast members of LOST feel? Every year they’re squeezed out more and more, usually by better, more interesting characters. A lot of the original survivors have been killed so they’re no problem, but I do wonder about the remaining Oceanic Six + two. I guess they can’t bitch too loudly or they’ll be in Davy Jones locker with Charlie. Ironically, some of the “others” became the stars and they became the others.

If I find out more, I’ll let you know. Keep those questions coming. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A boy named Moxie Crimefighter... or is it a girl?

Celebrities complain that they’re not taken seriously and then they do stupid things like give their babies ridiculous names. The most recent example is when Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban welcomed Sunday Rose into the world July 7th. What were they thinking? Was that the day he got out of rehab and the flower a street vendor gave her?

I don’t know which attention hog exactly to blame for starting this absurd trend. Sonny & Cher named their daughter Chastity way back when. And of course Frank Zappa’s children are Moon Unit and Dweezil (but they may just be named for his maternal grandparents).

Bruce Willis & Demi Moore thought Rumor would be a pretty name for a child to go through life with. And Gwyneth Paltrow is the proud brain dead mother of Apple.

But it gets worse. Lil’ Mo (a great name in itself) has a child named God’iss Love Stone. INXS former lead singer, Michael Hutchence left behind a daughter named Heavenly Hiraana Tiger Lily. And Jermaine Jackson named his off-spring Jermajesty. Guess he wanted to keep that tradition going of "JER" being the first three letters. He himself should change his name to "JERk".

Continuing the theme of royalty, don’t blame rapper T.I.’s son for thinking he has a God complex when he goes through life as Messiah Ya’majesty.

Kal-el was Superman’s birthname on the planet Krypton. It’s also Nicholas Cage’s son’s name. If he’s smart he’ll change it to Clark Kent and go live in a foster home.

Is Moxie Crimefighter a boy’s name or girl’s name? Ask Penn Gillette because that’s the idiotic name he gave to his son… or daughter.

Tamika Scott (Xscape) has no sense and also can’t spell. O’shun? And Ving Rhames, the word is “rainbow”, not Reign Beau.

Speaking of bad spelling and horrendous judgment, Jason Lee takes the prize with his son, Pilot Inspektor. He’ll be the first baby to go into therapy while still in the maternity ward.

Bob Geldoff’s daughter Peaches Honeyblossom was probably named for a room freshener.

Jaimie Oliver writes recipe books. I guess that explains Poppy Honey.

Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and Erykah Badu (now there’s a handle) must like the 70s music channel on satellite radio because their child is Seven Sirius.

Brandy went for AMERICAN IDOL finalist type name, Sy’rai.

And what drug was John Cougar Mellencamp on when he named his son Spec Wildhorse?

And finally, Rob Morrow from NUMB3RS went for the simple but elegant Tu. I’m guessing that’s his second child.

YOU IDIOTS!!!! These kids will likely be seeeeeriously fucked up. And you will wonder why. Oh well. Just send them off to boarding school and adopt some new ones from Africa.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

They won't have Levine to kick around anymore!

Here's another installment of my 60s memoirs. It was a decade far more exciting than my life but still. This was my initial post on this feature. From time to time I'll be sharing more these memories as the sodium pentathol kicks in. Enjoy.
There were two big elections in 1964. The presidential and the more hotly contested “vice president of the student body” race at Parkman Jr. High. I was one of the candidates (of the latter). I don’t remember whom I ran against. All I know is: I lost, learned a valuable lesson in comedy, and got expelled.

Meanwhile, Henry Cabot Lodge, Nelson Rockefeller, and the far scarier Barry Goldwater were duking it out in the Republican primaries while President Johnson was opening the World’s Fair in New York. (The two big attractions were Michelangelo’s Pieta and Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small Small World”.)

For the life of me I don’t know why I ran for a student body office. It’s not like I was particularly popular and I had no idea what the vice president even did. I suppose I thought it would make me more attractive to girls. Power is an enormous aphrodisiac.

My campaign consisted of a poster, cardboard buttons, and a speech to be delivered to the entire student body. Every good campaign needs a great slogan and I had mine. Personally I thought it was way better than “All the way with LBJ” or Goldwater’s “In your heart you know he’s right” (in truth: “In your heart you know he was a fucking psycho who would start World War III).

Mine was “Ken Satisfies Best” which was a slight modification of Kent cigarettes very popular catchphrase “Kent Satisfies Best”. To stay with the theme I drew my poster to look like a package of Kent cigarettes.

I unveiled my campaign and handed out my buttons and it was an immediate sensation. Everyone wanted to wear one of my buttons. Most people just added the “t” back to Ken and suddenly the campus was filled with minors advocating smoking.

The principal absolutely freaked out. I was immediately expelled and my buttons and posters were banned from the school.

After a day of my parents assuring the administration that my campaign was not underwritten by the Lorillard Tobacco Company -- and that nowhere do I mention the benefits of the Micronite Filter -- I was reinstated and even allowed to remain in the race.

I no longer had a slogan and buttons but I now had that whole martyr thing going for me so that helped in the pre-election polls.

The campaign speeches were to be given at three assemblies, one for each grade (7th, 8th, 9th). I decided to make my speech funny since that was more my forte and I had no clue what the office entailed.

And here’s where the valuable lesson comes in.

First up was the 9th grade and I KILLED. Huge laughs all the way through. Forget votes, it was that laughter that “satisfies Ken best”.

Next up was the 8th grade and much to my surprise the reaction was only lukewarm. Laughs along with way but not huge like before. Hmmm?

By the 7th grade – death. Not a single laugh. Not one. Hundreds of kids just staring at me. And of course, my pausing for the laughs that weren’t there didn’t help either. I practically crawled back to my chair. For the first time in my life I WANTED a Kent cigarette.

“Know your house!” as comics say. That seems so obvious now but not when you’re 14 and a major smartass. I lost the election but it serves me right. Learner’s Permit jokes for 7th graders? What the hell was I thinkin’??

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hey now you're an All-Star

It’s time once again for the big mid-summer’s classic – the All-Star game, held this year in historic Yankee Stadium soon to be torn down because they can’t jam enough luxury boxes into it. Come on you non-baseball fans, there may be some humorous tid bits in this post for you too.

To make the game fair they just start by giving the hapless National League a 3-0 lead.

Now that the All-Star game COUNTS I notice a much greater intensity on the part of the Seattle Mariner and Pittsburgh Pirate players for that coveted home field advantage in the World Series.

What good is the home run derby when elite power hitters like Alex Rodriguez decline to participate? Come on, Madonna, let him play.

Best home run derby moment was a few years ago when Barry Bonds stepped up to the plate and the Astros bullpen catcher signaled for an intentional walk.

Does anybody in their right mind keep score of an All-Star game?

The All-Star game is the only time a member of the Texas Rangers is ever on national television.

A number of ace reporters have blasted the fans for voting in Boston catcher Jason Varitek who’s hitting only .220. That’s fine except he’s a reserve so players voted him in not the fans.

Only one player (not active) was selected in All-Star games every year of his career. Answer below. Hint: It’s not Coco Crisp or Choo Choo Coleman or Hee Sop Choi.

Here's what I'd REALLY like to see in an All-Star game -- a benches clearing brawl. Would guys get suspended from future All-Star games? Would Yankees and Red Sox start wailing on each other even though they're on the same team?

Remember the year Lou Whittaker forgot to pack his uniform? He had to buy a jersey from a concession stand and he wrote his number on the back with a Sharpie.

NL manager Clint Hurdle did not name Joe Torre to his coaching staff so the former pinstripe manager won’t be returning to Yankee Stadium for one last time. And he couldn’t be more thrilled.

Josh Groban will sing “God Bless America” and Sheryl Crow will attempt the national anthem.

When the Indians decided to trade C.C. Sabathia there was a huge frenzy. He was like a Snickers Bar in a fat farm. Anyone notice that he didn’t make the All-Star squad? Same with Rich Harden.

Another question: Had Sabathia been selected, which team would he play for? He was with Cleveland in the American League and now is with Milwaukee in the National League. Harden went from the American League A’s to the National League Cubs.

This exact situation happened a few years ago. Carlos Beltran was voted into the starting line up of the AL as an outfielder of the Royals. Between then and the game he was traded to the Astros in the NL. Originally he was told he just couldn't play in the game at all (that'll show him for getting traded!) but when Ken Griffey Jr. bowed out due to injury he was allowed to take his spot on the NL roster.

At least there’s defense in a baseball All-Star game. Were it played like its NBA counterpart (or in Colorado) the final score would be 69-58.

The bunt sign is the third base coach yelling “bunt”!!

If you’re a relief pitcher and you’re not a closer you’ve got no shot. Several have better statistics than the glory guys who got in. Sorry to say it but “Chicks dig the long ball, not middle relief”.

And Fox analyst, Steve Lyons on my KABC radio show recently felt that there should be a spot for utility players. That’ll happen the day they give Tonys to understudies.

Fun betting pool: Which player will get seriously stabbed by a broken maple bat?

Kevin Youkilis is Jewish. Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun are both half Jewish. So there are two Jews in the All-Star game. And then there’s Alex Rodriguez studying the Kabbalah.

More people watch the Home Run Derby than divisional playoff games (this is true).

I like the fact that every team has to have at least one representative to the All-Star game. That way viewers can say, “Hey, Kansas City is still in the league!”

There is one Los Angeles Dodger but three Tampa Bay Rays on the rosters. As it should be.

Now that you can vote on-line from anywhere in the world I bet American Idol David Cook got more votes for centerfield than Andruw Jones.

Joe DiMaggio is the only player to have played in All-Star games every year of his career.

The All-Star Game is a lot like the Academy Awards. It never lives up to the hype, you don’t recognize half the stars, and it’s usually too long, but every year you gotta be there. See you next summer in St. Louis.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The new iPhone hates U

Apple Computer, Inc. is misogynistic!

This is the claim of Erica Watson-Currie, a consultant and lecturer of some renown (I guess) who maintains that it’s hard to operate the new iPhone if you have long fingernails. She says, “Considering ergonomics and user studies indicating men and women use their fingers and nails differently, why does Apple persist in this misogyny?”

She wants Apple to go back to a stylus so women with long nails can use the keyboard. Um, isn’t one of the beauties of the iPhone the fact that you don’t need a stylus?

Somehow I can’t imagine the Apple design engineers all getting together and saying, “Women won’t date us for some completely unknown reason. What can we do to get back at them?”

Are contact lens manufacturers also misogynists?

And guitar makers?

How about the folks who make single-ply toilet paper?

And the ones who made rotary phones? Those couldn’t have been easy to dial with Vampira nails, even the “princess” models.

This goes back to my rant on political correctness. Why do we have to take everything so personal? It’s a friggin’ cellphone with a bunch of extras! It’s not a statement. It’s not the revenge of the nerds.

Seems to me you could touch the screen with the side of your finger, or the pad of your finger, or your thumb, or new nose? Or, just not buy one.

Now the people who make that Ikea furniture you have to construct yourself...that’s a different story. Those man-haters ought to be SHOT!!!!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What I learned on my first musical

Cast of the 60s PROJECT: Michael Gillis, Andrew Rannells, Megan Lewis, Maggie Benjamin, and Rodrick Covington.
It's the summer stock time of year! Having spent a recent summer in Connecticut where the musical I co-wrote (the 60s PROJECT) went into production at the Goodspeed Theatre, I learned quite a bit about the process. For those of you hitting the boards somewhere in our nation's heartland, here are a few things you might want to know.

The director must encourage everyone to share ideas. He must then discard 80% of them, especially the ones from the prop guy who's taken the liberty of writing new songs.

You need six weeks to rehearse a musical. But if you have six weeks, you'll need eight.

If the choreographer had her way, seven of the eight hours of rehearsal everyday would be devoted to the dance numbers. If the music director had his way, those same seven hours would be devoted to teaching and practicing the music. If the book writer had his way, scene work would fill the day. And if the director had his way it would be a one woman show with Bernadette Peters who could do it all in five hours.

One change, no matter how small, is like pulling a string in Penelope's Tapestry. It effects everything. If the music director adds a bar in a song, the choreographer will want to reblock the entire dance number. If the book writer changes one line it effects the underscoring, next cue, choreography, lighting, sound, background visuals, upcoming costume change, transition into the next scene, and future of the American musical theatre. So it better be a good new line.

If there's a fight scene or even fight moment there has to be a daily fight rehearsal before a performance. For West Side Story you can rehearse without the knives.

Wireless mics that stick out of cast members foreheads produce better sound and are not noticeable and distracting beyond the fiftieth row.

The cast elects an Equity Deputy whose job it is to snitch behind the director's back if an Equity rule is broken. Rules include looking at an actor with an expression that might hurt his feelings.

To learn even one dance number I would need to practice eight hours a day for six months at which time maybe I could do the whole thing without elbowing someone in the face. These kids get it down in six minutes.

You need a good drummer. A real good drummer.

See a night time performance rather than a matinee.

Actors need to yell out their dialogue. Not just speak loud, but YELL. Even if the line is "Pssst, let me tell you a secret." Only Renee Taylor can talk in her regular speaking voice.

When your wife or girlfriend needs forty-five minutes to change her clothes, just know it can be done in as little as ten seconds.

Every performer comes from a dysfunctional family but thanks them profusely in their Playbill bio.

Most people pad their Playbill bios, listing every credit since they played a kitty in grammar school. So my favorite Playbill bio remains: Jerry Belson, who wrote the 1975 movie SMILE that got turned into a musical, submitted only this -- "SMILE fulfills a lifetime dream for Mr. Belson, to get paid twice for the same script."

During performances there are nine people walking around with headsets. No one knows who they are or what they're doing.

A good running time, including a fifteen minute intermission is 2:20.

The song you loved the most before going into rehearsal is the song you need to cut.

No two people have the same script. Everyone is on stage working off different drafts.

The Teamsters are pansies compared to the Equity Union.

Actors will tell you: it's hard to be sung to. And offstage it's even harder.

When you're in the orchestra section, don't think the cast can't see you. If you're going to be Pee Wee Herman you're going to have an audience.

It's always better to say it in a song rather than dialogue. But those few lines of dialogue can galvanize the entire story.

Since there is limited rehearsal time once a show opens, it can take up to a week to put in some changes. You have to prioritize fixes, based on how needed they are and how long they will take to implement. What that means is you take notes every night and they're always the same notes.

Casting decisions are still the most important. Everything else can be fixed. Except if you want to do C-SPAN: The Musical, that idea might kill it.

Actors are not allowed to talk to conductors. There's a very strict chain of command. Book writers are not allowed to talk to anybody.

The guard at every stage door is named "Pops".

When it works, a musical can be more than entertaining, it can be thrilling. There is an electricity, a magic that is so powerful it transcends whatever's happening on stage. Yes, it's a tall order and rarely achieved but that's the goal. And if you don't hang yourself in a hotel room in New Haven it can be quite exciting.

Friday, July 11, 2008

CHEERS gag reel

When you're on a series, one of the highlights of the wrap party is the gag reel. Kudos to all the editors who save the out-takes and put these together. Here's one from CHEERS from the second season. A tradition on CHEERS and many other shows is to end with a montage of all the guest actors who appeared throughout the season. To fully enjoy this gag reel you must be like we were at the time -- drunk on our asses. So grab four beers and come along.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Friday question of the week

I couldn't think of an appropriate picture so as is my policy, here's another photo of Natalie Wood.

Today’s question is from reader Matthew Price:

You write about Cheers, Frasier, and MASH a lot, and it's obvious that you really loved working on those shows. I'm pretty sure you were well compensated for your time, too.

I was wondering if you've ever worked on a project that you loved, but you didn't make much money on. An indie comedy, perhaps, or a spec pilot that didn't go anywhere?


It's great to hear about getting paid to do what you love, but if most of your readers are like me, we're not getting paid much (or at all), yet. What was that time like for you?


It’s easy to look back nostalgically at those “hungry years” since I made it but the truth is I loved that period. After years of saying I’d like to be a comedy writer I was actually doing it. Yes, there was the tiny detail that no one was paying me and there was no guarantee anyone ever would, but still. I loved the process.

And still do.

I have a running joke with my friends now that my quest is to write as many things as I can that will return no money even in success. This blog is a great start!

I also have a play that has cost me money, a musical I co-wrote, several spec pilots, and numerous spec screenplays (some romantic comedies, two indie type features, and even one straight drama. My coffee table is littered with unsold scripts.

Side trip: When I called my feature agents and told them I was bringing in a new spec they were very excited. I then mentioned it was a drama and the silence was deafening. They didn’t even hide their disappointment. “Why would you do that?” they asked incredulously. I told them it was subject matter that resonated with me and I wanted to stretch myself. “Yeah, but you’re a comedy guy,” they said. “I know, but I’m also a writer.” Another long beat of silence and they said, “Well, are there any jokes in it? Maybe we could sell it as a dark comedy?” I am no longer with that agency. And by the way, I love that script.

If you intend to be a writer solely because you see it as a way of making fast money, find something else to do. It’s hard work. The money's not as fast as you think. And when people pay you they have the right to make suggestions. That can make it VERY hard work.

But real writers are compelled to write. They’ll suffer through those assignments just so they have the opportunity and freedom to write what they want, what’s in their hearts, without the benefit of helpful notes.

That said, if someone would like to buy my 60s memoirs, travelogues, play, musical, pilots, screenplays, outlines, treatments, beat sheets, articles, college essays, letters from camp, or advertise on this blog I'm open for business!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The trial of the century (so far)

Have you been following the Christie Brinkley custody trial?

Here’s what we’ve learned:

Her husband was banging a teenager, sometimes in their house.

The husband, Peter Cook, also allegedly stuck his stepdaughter’s head into a bucket of water.

When Peter and Christie needed to get into the “mood” they watched downloaded porn and he had spent untold thousands on it.

Had he been checking he'd learn there are hundreds of free sites.

To prove Christie is a good mother she had introduced as evidence an elaborate dinosaur diorama (complete with a volcano and flying raptors!) that she helped build with her son for his science class. The woman is a saint!

Cook also gave the teen he was carnalizing a $300,000 payoff.

Christie testified that she tried to spare her young children the details of the messy break-up (of course now it’s a public trial).

A psychologist charged Cook with being a raging narcissist.

The same psychologist made the shocking assessment that Christie needs to work on "her choice of male figures".

So my question is this?

How come this is not a bigger story? What is happening with this country? Are we so consumed with higher gas prices, the presidential election, and a war to focus on what’s really important? I’m disappointed, Americans! Where are your priorities?

I mean, this is good stuff!! Rich attractive privileged socialites, sex scandals, character assassination, online porn, payoffs, adultery, betrayals, science projects – what moves you people anymore?!

Because if this trial can’t spark your interest then Lara Logan getting pregnant or Alex Rodriguez dating Madonna while his wife diddles Lenny Kravitz or George and Sarah splitting up will mean nothing, and if that’s the case – well, let’s just say the terrorists have won.