Sunday, August 31, 2008

Labor Day in Hollywood

Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. In the entertainment business it means this:

The movie industry resumes after three months of vacation. When agents submit spec screenplays there will be executives there to read them. (But only for a couple of weeks. The Toronto Film Festival is days away and they’ll all be gone for that.)

Your agent returns from his-or-her vacation. They rented a villa in Nice for a month and then met up with more successful clients than you, rented a yacht and cruised the Mediterranean, buying some amazing artwork along the way. Your vacation was an August weekend in Tucson.

Sitcoms are back in production. Show three has just filmed and there is no script for show four. It goes into production on Wednesday. Pre-production began right after Memorial Day. What happened to all that lead time???

Showrunners on new shows are being bombarded with notes from nervous networks, studios, non-writing producers, actors, managers, and spouses.

Showrunners on new shows are also making those obligatory calls to the network crying that they’re not getting enough on-air promotion. They’ve seen one promo for their show while ads for STUDIO 60 are still running even though it’s been canceled.

Hour dramas are already way behind schedule. Upcoming scripts are being revised, slashing any scene that can’t be filmed in an hour.

Showrunners on ensemble dramas are receiving those calls from cast members’ managers complaining their clients aren’t getting as much to do as other cast members (whose managers are also complaining).

Network development people are a month into hearing pitches and they’ve heard the same one eleven times already. “What if we went home with the Joker and met his family?”

Writers who spent months preparing their pilot pitches only to be shot down in the first minute now scramble to come up with something else.

Mandy Patinkin walks off whatever project he’s currently on.

Oscar campaigns get sent upstairs for approval.

The Cedars-Sinai cardiac ward is reserving a couple of private rooms. October is just around the corner.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Jerry Lewis Telethon

What would Labor Day be without Jerry? To get you in the mood for this year's telethon, here again are my thoughts on last year's extravaganza.

Okay, I admit it. I unabashedly love the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON. I look forward to it every year…for both the right and wrong reasons.

It does benefit a very worthy cause, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The videos of the kids are both heartbreaking and inspiring. Let’s hope someday there’s a cure.

But the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON is the absolute height of entertainment cheese, a time warp to a Las Vegas scene that everyone but Jerry realizes has long since passed, and is the home of the most insincere sincerity that only show business can create. The treacle just oozes out of your speakers. Born in the swinging 60s, nurtured by Sammy Davis Jr. (combining over-concern, hipness, gross sentimentality, and jewelry), this style was perfected by Jerry Lewis who added his own special touches. No one could beg with such passion while sticking a cigarette in his ear. No one could deliver a biblical sermon, break down crying, then go into his spastic retard character for comic relief.

The Frech call him Le Roi du Crazy. They still shortchange him. Since his auteur movie days he has developed his own unique and delicious blend of condescension and humility. Every year I know what I’m going to get and am always richly rewarded.

This year Jerry called local New York co-host, Tony Orlando: “Only the best Puerto Rican to ever come to this country.”

Now how can you NOT love this???

Nowhere do superlatives fly like the JERRY LEWIS TELETHON. In only one half hour I caught “infamously wonderful”, “exceptional talent”, “most talented”, “most amazing”, “most exciting”, “unmatched”, “extraordinary”, “a true legend”, and “a treasure in every sense of the word.” On the other hand, Jerry described guest David Cassidy as “that little cocker”. He’s probably right but still!

And of course, hugs for all. Except one. I'll get to that later.

Jerry looked better than in years past – especially that one where he was on steroids and looked like a Macy’s balloon. And his hair is no longer jet black. Finally, at age 80 he’s starting to grey.

I miss the fact that he doesn’t emcee all 21 hours anymore. By hour 16 he used to be slobbering about Dean even when the media director from Safeway markets was trying to hand him a check.

And then there’s Ed McMahon. For sixty years America has been wondering – just what IS this guy’s talent? Say what you will, the man has made a wildly successful career for himself by playing the toady to the host. And we only get to see that obsequiousness one time a year now.

There was also Jann Carl and Tom Bergeron to interview people and pronounce the big words. Jerry is quoted as saying, “They’re GIANTS in their field” and he’s “Proud and humbled” to have them.

Since Jerry and Ed now take the late night hours off, who fills in and emcees? This is not a joke. Puppets!!

In LA we had three crawls going constantly. I’m sure other stations had local storm warnings, sports scores, news headlines, and promos for the new season of JUDGE JUDY so there were as many as six crawls.

The telethon is a throwback to a better Vegas, a classier Vegas – where all performers dressed, dyed their hair, and drank. It was elegance as only the mob could imagine it. There were dinner shows and late night lounge shows, and no gift shops right outside the showrooms. You couldn’t buy Keely Smith t-shirts, Rosemary Clooney refrigerator magnets, or Frank Sinatra lunch pails. But I digress…

Celine Dion recorded a gooey-gram and then sang a pre-taped song from her overblown Vegas show. Dancers were flying all over the place. Dion was raised on a large hydraulic pedestal as she belted out a song she selected just for the occasion. I kid you not, the song she felt most appropriate for the Muscular Dystrophy telethon was called “Drove All Night to Make Love to You”.

Other guests included some fat comic doing alfalfa sprouts jokes (“you call that food?”), a ventriloquist who used Jerry as his dummy, Ace Young, the cast of GREASE, super entertainer Ivanka Trump, John Tesh, Vonzell, Tony Danza, and of course the best Puerto Rican to ever come to this country.

Jerry’s son, Gary performed two songs. In the middle of the second song (a touching teen ballad Gary dedicated to his father called “Everybody Loves a Clown”) Jerry wandered onto the set, stood next to Gary for twelve seconds, obviously felt uncomfortable, and then just left. After the song, nothing. Jerry just moved on to the next thing.

So I guess the only one of Jerry’s kids who wasn’t showered with love and emotion turned out to be his own.

But it's that kind of weirdness that keeps me coming back for more. On the other hand, nothing would please me more than to hear that the telethon has been canceled because a cure has been found. And maybe Jerry could spend next Labor Day fishing with Gary.

Last year's telethon collected $63.7 million dollars. Let's beat it this year.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Happy birthday, Annie

Today’s my daughter’s birthday. Not only is she smart, beautiful, funny, and talented. She’s also sick. Here’s a recent sketch she wrote. Happy birthday, Annie. Your dad loves you.



A man in soldier's uniform stands on a stage in front of the
curtain. Note: everything should be as over-the-top as

France during the war is really

My name is Ryan and I’m here to be

The curtain rises, lights go up.

It’s the set of “Saving Private Ryan the Musical.” Really
flamboyant soldiers are singing in front of a set of
Normandy, France.

(Singing to the tune of
“Fun, Fun, Fun”)
Well, this evil man named Hitler
Just wanted a pure Aryan nation
And he tried to take over the world
With his administration
So we flew out to France ‘cuz
They’re under German Occupation
So we’ll need
Guns, Guns, Guns
Til we finally blow the Germans


Private Ryan stands with a French girl. There is fighting
going on in the background.

Oh Chloe. I knew from the moment I
saw you that you were the only one
for me. Fate must have brought us
together. I feel like we’ve made
the deepest connection two people
can make. I don’t want to go one
without you.

(Not understanding

They embrace.


(singing to the tune of
With more dead bodies
Than you ever saw
Things all are tres francois
Down here on Omaha


So let’s get this straight. Even
though we just made it through an
incredibly horrific battle, you
still want us to go look for one
person and inevitably die trying?

Umm, yeah pretty much.

Alright, I’m in.


(singing to the tune of
“Surfin’ Safari”)
C’mon Ryan where could you be?
(searching safari)
All of your brothers are dead. All
three! (searching safari)
Let’s go searching now
Look at all the Germans! Wow!
Search for Private Ryan with me.


Ryan and Chloe are about to kiss when:

Here he is guys, I found him!

Other soldiers run is and start grabbing Ryan.

(ad lib)
Yay!! We found him! Hurray!

What are you guys doing?

We’re saving you!

No no. I’m OK.

We have orders to save you.

I don’t want to be saved!

Qui sont ces hommes?

Uh--une minute--mon amour
(To the soldiers)
Really guys I think I’m fine.
Thanks though.

Well, this sucks.

Suddenly, there is a lot of gun fire. Soldiers start dying
elaborately choreographed deaths. PRIVATE RYAN runs back out.

Ok! Ok! I changed my mind. You can
save me.

(singing the finale)
So we’ll need
Guns, Guns, Guns
Til we finally blow the Germans
away. Away.

Big freeze. End of the show. Blackout.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Friday questions of the week

As we hurtle into the holiday weekend and the Superbowl of kitsch – the Jerry Lewis telethon, here are some Friday answers to your questions.

What is the biggest difference (if any) between the way you shop a spec script around today and the way you did it when you were starting out?

First of all, there’s paper now, not stone tablets. But semi-seriously, the big difference is that now agents and producers want to see original material in addition to specs from existing shows. This is a big change and a big benefit to you. Producers are looking for original voices, new ideas, novel characters. You’re no longer just hemmed in by the rules of RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (although you have to show you can do that too).

You also don't have to be categorized anymore as just a comedy or drama writer. You can write specs for shows like UGLY BETTY, PSYCH, and MONK that contain both.

I would say this about new material, though. Don't make it too weird. There's a fine line between original and completely insane. Don't submit the play where the audience is expected to build a house while the actors perform in clown make-up and only speak excerpts from Hillary Clinton speeches.

Have you seen the movie The TV Set? (It's about a TV writer/creator whose dream project is turned to dreck by compromises with the studio.) And if so, how much of it rings true and how much seems exaggerated?

I have seen it. Liked it but wasn’t knocked out. It rings true at the core – ideas get distorted, you’re asked to compromise every minute – but the TV SET was so over-the-top that I felt it undercut its message.

Even the most monstrous network executive is not as relentlessly overbearing as Sigorney Weaver was in this movie. She was such a caricature that her menace had no teeth. Trust me, real network execs can be both funny and terrifying without having to exaggerate to the moon.

There were also four or five times when I thought, no writer/producer would stand for that. David Duchovny would walk in five seconds.

And the episode where the actor goes off in his own direction while the cameras are running – here’s what would really happen: The writer/producer would take him aside and say, “Hey motherfucker, if you EVER do anything like that again, I will fire you on the spot and beat the shit out of you.” Or he would just start swinging first.

As for the director, there is always a tone meeting before the shoot where the writer/producer tells him how he wants it shot. And remember, the writer/producer hires the director. He’s going to select someone he feels can best execute his vision.

If you watch the movie and just know this is the gist of what happens and laugh at the jokes you should have a good time with it. But it’s not as deliciously horrific and hilarious as it could have been. As always -- real is better.

Drive carefully this weekend.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fall Movie Preview, Part III

quantum of salceHere are the rest of the Fall releases. Actually, that's not true. There are more but my head's about to explode.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE – Daniel Craig, the best James Bond since Woody Allen is back! Why he wants to continue saving the world when he can have Pussy Galore is beyond me.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK – Charlie Kaufman writes and (for the first time) directs. Should be weird, original, play to sellout crowds in LA and NY and one art house in Kansas.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED – On the other hand, here’s the 8,535,834th send-up of Hollywood. Robert De Niro as a producer making a movie and contending with (hold onto your hats) difficult actors, directors, and the studio. But it will be the first time the movie and the making-of-the-movie documentary will be the same.

HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE – Simon Pegg from HOT FUZZ pisses off everyone in New York. Not to be confused with the Isiah Thomas Story.

BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA – The events in Germany that led to the emergence of Adolph Hitler.

THE EXPRESS – The first African-American to win a Heisman Trophy. How did Spike Lee miss this one?
Kate Winslet
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD – Leo DiCaprio & Kate Winslet make love again without a thousand people drowning.

CITY OF EMBER – Bill Murray in a fantasy world. Science fiction adventure not a movie where Murray is the romantic lead.

PASSENGERS –Anne Hathaway as a grief counselor to plane-crash survivors. Sample dialogue: “Okay, let me get this straight. There’s a polar bear on the island? And a hatch? What hatch?”

FLASH OF GENIUS – Greg Kinnear invents the intermittent windshield wiper. Goes into severe depression when he loses Nobel Prize to the inventor of the artificial heart.

FOUR CHRISTMASES -- Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn. MEET THE PARENTS times four. What's Christmas without a high concept lift from another franchise?

REPOL THE GENETIC OPERA – Sci Fi musical comedy starring Paris Hilton. Probably not as good as it sounds.

MARLEY & ME – Two of my favorite writers – Scott Frank & Don Roos, so I’ve got my fingers crossed. Based on the book about the lovable dog, it stars Owen Wilson.

DOUBT – John Patrick Shanley adapts and directs his riveting play about a Catholic School scandal. Beautifully written but possibly a tad goyish.
Twilight movie
TWILIGHT – All the kids who read Harry Potter are now older and reading the Twilight series. Teen love is tested when one is a vampire.

FROST/NIXON – The TV interview that became a play now becomes a movie and soon will become a thrill ride.

SEVEN POUNDS – Will Smith’s latest desperate bid for an Oscar. The title refers to the weight of the statuette.

YES MAN – Jim Carrey. No thank you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fall Movie Preview, Part II

For your popcorn pleasure:

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO – I can’t tell from that ambiguous title what it’s about. Kevin Smith movie. I have high hopes. At least it’s not JAY AND SILENT BOB MAKE A PORNO.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE – Samuel L. Jackson terrorizes his new neighbor. If you hear him say, “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men” move! Fast!

THE SOLOIST – Jamie Foxx as a musical prodigy homeless schizophrenic. Not that he’s trolling for another Oscar but his billing is “For Your Consideration, Jamie Foxx”.

MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL – Dane Cook so avoid as you would any toxic material.

BATTLE IN SEATTLE – Relive those crazy riots that broke out at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting. Something about Starbucks charging for WiFi.

CHANGELING – directed by Clint Eastwood so I’m in line the first day. I think it’s a drama. Whatever. When’s the first showing?

PING PONG PLAYA – Hollywood is always looking for the next great Ping Pong movie.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL – Keanu Reeves plays an alien. Type casting.

BURN AFTER READING – The Coen Brothers are back with an offbeat (big surprise there) comedy. I have high hopes. MICHAEL CLAYTON stars George Clooney and Tilda Swinton are among the heavyweight cast. Apparently, after the shoot George said to her, “Well, maybe one day we’ll get to make a film together when we say one nice thing to each other.”

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES – Don’t panic. Jerry Seinfeld is nowhere to be found.

QUARANTINE – Horror movie centered in an L.A. apartment building that doesn’t offer cable.

ROCKNROLLA – Another Guy Richie stylized London caper for you to see and go “Huh???”

FILTH AND WISDOM – Meanwhile, the little missus, Madonna makes her directorial debut. Loose adaptation of The Kabbalah – three scheming roommates.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – Brad Pitt as a man with a bizarre condition that causes him to age in reverse. Could be stunning or an adventure in bad make up.

W. – Oliver Stone, the man who kills flies by shooting bazookas, tackles George Bush with I’m sure his usual light touch.

MAX PAYNE – The video game comes to the screen. Will audiences respond without joysticks?

The Preview wraps up tomorrow.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fall Movie Preview, Part I

The summer blockbusters have all come and gone. Eddie Murphy and Kevin Costner have destroyed their careers. Batman, Iron Man, and Hellboy have all bolstered theirs. Now Hollywood turns from saving the world to more important matters like winning awards. Here is my annual Fall Movie Preview. As always, these are just my opinions based on not having seen a single one of these films. Not that that should stop me.

RIGHTEOUS KILL – Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together again as two cops. Scenes where they’re both on the screen at the same time had to be shot in Imax format in order to contain their performances.

THE DUCHESS – Keira Knightley costume drama. The true story of the Duchess of Devonshire’s stormy marriage to the Duke of Earl.

APPALOOSA – Ed Harris writes/directs/stars in this western. Co-starring Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger, and Mr. Ed.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA – Spike Lee, World War II. Guess. Brothers kick some Nazi ass!

BODY OF LIES – The trailer just announces “DiCaprio” and “Crowe”, which is all you need because everybody knows Leo DiCaprio and Louisiana State Senator A.G. Crowe.

EAGLE EYE – Shia LeBeouf and Michelle Monaghan are tormented by someone on their cellphones who assumes control of their lives. It’s the nightmare we AT&T customers live with every day. Story by Steven Spielberg. I always wonder why, if it was such a great idea. he didn’t direct it himself.

TYLER PERRY’S THE FAMILY THAT PREYS – Who cares what it’s about? It’s Tyler Perry. Should gross $200 million the first weekend.

NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST – No, it’s not another THIN MAN movie. Two teens have a wild night. Starring Michael Cera (JUNO, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) and the pictured Kat Dennings (SNOBS, a Levine/Isaacs failed pilot).

GHOST TOWN – Ricky Gervais goes Hollywood High Concept. He can see ghosts. He has to break up a marriage for some concocted reason. Not sure if he took this assignment because he really loved the script or a house opened up in the Malibu Colony.


SAW 5 – If Shawnee Smith took a chainsaw to the High School Musical kids, that I’d pay to see.

MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA – It’s a sequel. It’s from the studio that made SHREK. Expect MADAGASCAR: THE MUSICAL to hit Broadway the week the DVD is released.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED – Anne Hathaway in her most challenging role since GET SMART. She plays a recovering drug addict who attends her sister’s wedding and causes an uproar when she claims the chopped liver swan is alive.

THE WOMEN – Writer/director Diane English tells me every week at the gym that it’s good. SEX AND THE CITY without the sex, MAMA MIA! without the music. I guess what you’re left with is, well...“the Women”.

BLINDNESS – In the land of the blind the one eyed man is Julianne Moore. Based on Nobel winner Jose Saramago’s novel about a society where no one can see. Sure. Now you want to pay for satellite radio.

NIGHTS IN RODANTHE – Richard Gere & Diane Lane in a midlife crisis weeper. This is their third film together. “Everybody got excited about the chemistry we have”, says Lane. They played a husband and wife in UNFAITHFUL and audiences cheered when she cheated on him. Not sure about that chemistry thing.

AUSTRALIA – Sweeping epic starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, neither of whom had to apply for work visas. Cattle ranching saga. Explains why rib-eye prices are up at the Outback Steakhouse.

THE ROAD – from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Viggo Mortensen in touching father-son movie that Hollywood studios thought was too dark and grim. Producers were unwilling to compromise and add Abba songs.

BOLT – CG-animated version of THE TRUMAN SHOW with animals. James Lipton does a voice. Sample dialogue: “What is your favorite swear bark?”

Part II tomorrow.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Michael Phelps replaces the peacock as new symbol of NBC

NBC knows a good thing when it swims past them. Taking advantage of Olympic Golden (Medal) boy, Michael Phelps, they’ve struck a deal to carry the 2009 World Swimming Championships and the U.S. National Swimming Championships for the next three years.

But that’s just the start.

Although it hasn’t been announced yet….

Michael Phelps has also signed to star in the spinoff of THE OFFICE. Tentative title: THE OFFICE POOL.

And he will recur on 30 ROCK as Liz Lemon’s new shirtless assistant.

Phelps also will be the underwater correspondent on SNL’s Weekend Update, the new host of THE BIGGEST LOSER: FAMILIES, and KATH & KIM will now become KATH & KIM & MIKE.

Additionally, he's the voice of the car on KNIGHT RIDER.

Schedule permitting he’ll be filling in for Ann Curry on TODAY and will hold briefcase number 8 on DEAL OR NO DEAL.

And finally, SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL will have a new co-host for their halftime show (because they only have nine already).

You laugh and say, how could Michael Phelps do all these things? Even Ryan Seacrest doesn’t have that much of a workload. Regis used to but had a heart attack. You’re right. It’s super human. Which is why Phelps will also be joining the cast of HEROES as the guy who can be in nine places at one time.

Five years from now he’ll be performing four shows daily at SEA WORLD, Florida, second on the bill to Shamu.

I love this town.

Tomorrow: My Fall Movie Preview. Don't pre-order your tickets just yet.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What actors hate (besides other actors)

As mentioned in this space before, writers need to remember that actors perform their material. And there are certain things actors hate. As a public service, when writing your script, here are some of those traps that will make for unhappy actors and by extension, an unhappy you.

Actors hate having to give exposition. It’s dry, it’s informational, it’s not fun. Unfortunately, SOMEONE has deliver the exposition. The trick is to spread it around, find ways to hide it, and make it entertaining. Necessary information woven into a joke is a great solution. Exposition itself is a great topic for a later post.

Actors don’t like just asking questions in a scene. They didn’t spend four years finding their “inner center”, “emotional truth triggers” and portraying ice cream cones just to ask questions. But sometimes there is a great temptation to do that. Actor “A” knows all this information, Actor “B” needs to know it. In real life, it’s a simple conversation of Q&A. Not in actor-life. Massage the scene so that Actor “B” has some jokes or comments, or Actor “A” shares information without being prompted.

Similarly, actors don’t like just doing set-ups for other actors’ jokes. Bud Abbott is dead. Spread around the wealth. The tough thing here is knowing Actor “A” is funny and Actor “B” is a lox. Still, you have to throw him a bone or two. Or work in some jokes in the set ups themselves. Or re-cast.

Here’s a common rookie mistake: Having an actor in a scene and not giving him a line for a page or two…or four. If he’s in the scene he needs to have a purpose and needs to be a participant. If he has no purpose, find a way to get his ass out of there. You’d think actors want as much screen time as possible but they would MUCH rather be out of a scene than be a piece of furniture in it.

Here’s a biggie: parentheticals – those little bracketed indicators that suggest the intent of the line. Most actors are irritated, even offended by them. They feel it’s their job to discover the intent. And they like the freedom to interpret the lines as they choose. That’s fine to a point. I still use this device, albeit sparingly (same with underlining specific words I want stressed) because first and foremost I want my scene to be interpreted correctly. But like I said, I am very judicious. I never indicate (angry), (sad), or (jaundiced but insouciant).

That said, you’re probably writing your script to be READ not PERFORMED (actors hate capitol letters too.) So in the interest of having a reader better understand your script and maybe buying it, you can sprinkle in a few more parentheticals. (warning) But don’t go crazy.

Actors balk at thankless roles. The best friend, the harpy-wet blanket (see any ABC comedy wife except Rosanne), the “Ralph Bellamy” boring third guy in a triangle soon to be dumped (Ralph Bellamy -- pictured above -- played this role in HIS GIRL FRIDAY and 297 other movies), and any role played by Emily Mortimer. Find a way to make these characters interesting, complex, or maybe let Ralph Bellamy get the girl.

Long speeches: Actors like ‘em and hate ‘em. They like having a big juicy emotional speech and they hate having to memorize them. Forget that human beings don’t normally speak in long speeches, if you want to give a character a big speech, fine. Don’t give him six. And give him spots to breathe.

Actors protect their characters, as well they should. Writers sometimes have the tendency to sacrifice their characters’ integrity for the sake of a big joke. I gotta side with actors on this one. Once you’ve sacrificed a character you can’t go back. Find another joke.

And finally, most actors don’t want to be seen in an unflattering light. They may voice their objections in gobs of Byzantine actor-speech, but trust me, the real issue is they don’t want to look weak, or mean, or playing the girlfriend of the Elephant Man. They can have flaws but within reason. What you need to do here is either give the characters interesting shadings, multi-dimensions (not always weak, not always giving dogs caramels to eat) or make the parts so meaty that actors suddenly would kill to play them. Villains, in particular, can be delicious, despite how hateful and cruel they are. Is there a more fun character than J.R. Ewing? Or Simon Cowell? Or my favorite champagne villain, Alan Rickman in DIE HARD?

By making a concerted effort to accommodate the actors’ needs (and most of these are just good general writing tips) you stand a much better chance that the actors will embrace your script and even add to it. Their wardrobe and make up issues? That’s someone else’s problem.

The summer of love and subsequent penicillin

Hey, all you hippies, flower children, boomers, war babies, far out dudes, middle agers, and anybody who loves great music.

GREAT BIG RADIO begins a week long tribute to 1967 starting tonight at midnight.

All the hits and a bunch of stiffs you remember fondly will be heard. See if your favorites still hold up now that you're not stoned. Did you really like Nancy Sinatra?

Also, sometime this week -- the Monterrey Pop Festival in its entirety.

So check it out. Right here. GREAT BIG RADIO.

Right on, man!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey, let's get up a game of beach volleyball!

One of the most bizarre events in the Olympics is indoor beach volleyball.
They don't have real outdoor beaches in China? Well, it turns out they do. Lovely beaches.But then BAYWATCH premiered in China. Things changed.
God, I feel sorry for the three lifeguards.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Friday questions of the week: My favorite lines

It’s Friday question time again.

Here are a few that a number of you have asked.

What's your favorite line that you've ever written?

It’s from a CHEERS my partner and I wrote called “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”. Sam and the gang throw Frasier a bachelor party at the bar. He enters and says:

What's your favorite line that you've ever heard?

From an episode of MASH written by the great Larry Gelbart. It was the one where there were severe shortages in the camp. Radar approaches Col. Blake and says, “We’re out of toilet paper. It’s gotten so bad the men have broken into the fortune cookies.”

Of all the shows you have written for, which episode was the hardest to write; which one was the easiest?

The hardest was our first episode of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. We were so thrilled to get the assignment. It was our first script for MTM. MTM was like Camelot back then, and this was our ticket in …IF we did a good job. So there was a certain amount of additional pressure we heaped upon ourselves.

We worked out the story with the producers and went home to write the script. Did the first scene, no problem. Then we started on the second and realized there was no story progression. An event occurs in scene one and in scene two Tony goes home and just tells everyone what happened in scene one. Not great storytelling. So we tried to alter each scene to somehow move the story along. This became the chair with one leg shorter than the others. Over the next four days we must’ve revised those two scenes twenty times. By the time we finally turned in the script we were a wreck.

The producers liked the draft so much they put us on staff. We were thrilled. All that hard work really paid off.

We met with them a few days later to get our second draft notes. One of the producers said, “What’s with these first two scenes? I don’t remember them being laid out like this.” I explained our problem. Something happens in scene one. Scene two just reiterates scene one. He said, “Shit. If we’re going to worry about shit like that we’re gonna be here all night!” The rewrite was a breeze.

The easiest script we ever wrote had to be the “Room Service” episode of FRASIER – the one where Niles sleeps with Lilith. The story was so solid and the characters were so well defined that we wrote the entire script in two days. And probably 95% of that original draft made it to air. But things like that happen rarely. As in once.

Thanks to all who have submitted questions. I’ll answer as many as I can. And I invite you to leave yours in the comments section.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008



There are comedies aimed at teenagers, comedies aimed at women, at families, and urban audiences. And now, finally, comes a comedy aimed strictly for the 310 area code. TROPIC THUNDER is a riot if you’re an agent at CAA. It’s high hilarity if you’re an MGM studio executive. It’ll have A-list Hollywood actors in stitches. If you subscribe to Variety, if you lunch at the Grill on the Alley, if you only go to industry screenings – this movie is for YOU.

Unfortunately, if you’re just a regular person who pays actual money to see movies you might be very disappointed. It’s not that there aren’t laughs in the movie. It’s just that most of them are not meant for you. They’re meant for Ben Stiller’s address list.

The real shame is that TROPIC THUNDER gets off to such a great start that you think you’re in for a really fun ride. The opening sequence is a spoof of movie trailers that is dead on. But then the real movie starts. Twenty minutes later you’re bored. You’ve seen fifty big explosions. You’ve seen the stars chew up every bit of scenery on the screen – and remember they’re in a huge jungle – and you realize (a) you’re no longer laughing, (b) you don’t give a shit about this story, and (c) you now hate Jack Black more than you hate terrorists.

Oh yes, it’s supposed to be a send-up of the movie industry. But it’s done in such a slap dash, cartoony, inside-joke wink-wink way that it rarely hits its target. For better Hollywood send-ups see THE PLAYER, THE BIG PICTURE, BOWFINGER, and I’m sure you can list six others. They understand what auteur Mr. Stiller doesn’t –

play the movie straight

In TROPIC THUNDER, every actor knows he’s in a comedy. There’s more mugging than in a THREE’S COMPANY episode. And this is before enemy-of-comedy, Matthew McConaughey hits the screen.

All this film did was make me appreciate Amy Adams and her performance in ENCHANTED even more.

I just imagine Stiller and his cast watching dailies and convulsing with laughter. “You’re the funniest dude in Hollywood.” “No, man, you are.” “No, seriously, you’re incredible.” “Really. You’re brilliant.” “Well, you’re a genius.” “A thousand years from now people will be talking about you, bro.”

Meanwhile, for us, the general public, we’re the designated driver, taking home a bunch of idiots who are completely shit faced and not nearly as hysterical as they think they are.

I have no problem with TROPIC THUNDER being politically incorrect. I have no problem with the “retard” business. The point the self-appointed watchdog groups miss in their righteous indignation is that the filmmakers are skewering movie stars who take these “however-you- want-to- call-them challenged” roles as a means to win an Oscar.

Re the black face flap, the trouble there is that it’s one joke… played over… and over… and over… and over… and over… and over again. But in dailies, everyone’s sides must’ve been splitting. “I tell ya, you’re a genius.” “No, dude, it’s all you.”

But I do have a big problem with Stiller & Co. letting vanity and self indulgence compromise what should have been a rollicking comedy.

Thank God there was one actor who truly was funny. So much so that I'd love to write a comedy for him. I can't believe I'm going to call my agent and see if Tom Cruise is available.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Nick & Nora go suburban

Here's another installment from my memoirs of growing up in Woodland Hills, California in the 60s. The full explanation of this folly is here. More as I write them.
I know this is a very un-60s thing to say but I never rebelled against my parents.

Yes, there was the issue of smoking and drinking but they were the ones who smoked and drank. I was never embarrassed by my folks, appalled by their value system, or at odds with their religious beliefs. I hated that my father made me mow the lawn and pull weeds with him every Saturday morning but that’s not like being forced to practice Scientology.

Cliff & Marilyn Levine were in their mid 30s in 1964. But they could have been in their 40s or 80s, it made no difference. They were “adults”. And as a teenager you swing back and forth between thinking they know everything and nothing. Generally I gave them the benefit of the doubt. They were hands-on parents who clearly loved us, cared about our wellbeing, and in my case, tolerated a weird kid who wanted to be a baseball announcer, screaming disc jockey, NY Times theatre caricaturist, Rob Petrie, TONIGHT SHOW host, Broadway playwright, or Looney Tunes animator.

My brother Corey is four years younger. He was 10 in 1964 and much more your regular kid. He wanted to be a ballplayer, not the guy describing his at-bat and reminding you that “an ice cold glass of Blatz beer sure would go good right about now.” We fought as most brothers did, usually over vital issues like who had to sit in the back of the Impala. But neither of us ever sent the other to the Emergency Room so I guess we really did love each other. Blood is thicker than blood.

My parents socialized with other couples, went out Saturday nights, played weekly card games (she was heavily into something called “pan”) and in general were far more youthful and active than parents I saw on TV. My dad never wore a tie around the house, my mother never put on a dress to bake a meat loaf. Every night my father would come home from work and they’d have a cocktail together at the kitchen table. Nick & Nora Charles go suburban. We always ate dinner together as a family. We never said grace but every meal did end with mom saying, “So what crap is on tonight?”

Our parents had us early. Prior to me, my mother was one of the first TV models. They’d break away from Ben Hunter’s “Mid-day Movie” on Channel 11 and there was my mom pointing out fine china settings, which you could order by calling the number on your screen. I like to think my mother blazed the trail for Vanna White.

My father was a radio station time salesman. He sold air. More specially, air time. He worked for KRKD, a station that played Sinatra during the day, followed by horse racing results, religion in the evening, and Polynesian music all night.

It was owned by the Angelus Temple, founded by flamboyant preacher Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920’s. L.A. just seems to attract these nut cases. As proof of her healing abilities she had a wheel chair and crutches museum in her church. Ms. McPherson is best known for faking her own abduction in 1926, banging some married employee in some motel while her loyal parishioners kept day-night vigils. She finally stumbled out of the desert a few months later saying she was kidnapped, whisked off to Mexico to be tortured and held for ransom. Only problem was she was last seen at Venice Beach wearing just a bathing suit and she emerged fully dressed, even wearing a wrist watch given to her by her mother. At least Frank Sinatra Jr. really was abducted.

When the station wasn’t praising Jesus Christ or Sea biscuit it billed itself as “the Album Station”, playing middle-of-the-road artists like Frank, Tony, Sammy, Steve & Eydie, and of course Pat Suzuki. As a result, when the station received promo copies of 45 r.p.m. singles they would just toss them into a box and dad would bring them home for me. It was great. In only two years I had amassed the largest collection of stiffs in the entire world!! Friends would come over after school and we would listen to them in horror and amusement. One of these friends was Mike Monarch. He went on a few years later to record some songs himself. But they weren’t stiffs. Mike Monarch became the lead guitarist of Steppenwolf. I’d like to think that sitting in my room, absorbing Neil Sedaka singing “Alice in Wonderland” inspired him to go off and do “Goddamn the Pusher Man”.

I look back at my relationship with my parents with great fondness. I can honestly say I’m in therapy for other reasons. Key parental memories of 1964: Coming home from school and playing gin rummy with my mom. Going to Dodger games with my dad.

Getting to those games was an adventure. Since dad worked in town and I didn’t drive, I would just take a city bus from Ventura Blvd. all the way through the valley to the corner of Hollywood & Vine. It took about 90 minutes. There I would wait for fifteen minutes or so until dad drove up and off we’d go. The amazing thing was – you could do that in 1964. It was actually safe. A 14 year boy could stand at Hollywood & Vine without being mugged by a crack head, checked out by two drag queens, flashed by some pervert, peed on, propositioned by a 50 year old hooker, or asked directions to the Frederick’s of Hollywood Museum of Bras by some tourist.

My favorite photo of my parents was taken in 1964. It was my dad’s 20th high school reunion. They look so vibrant, so happy, so clearly in love with each other. It’s hard to rebel against people you hope to become.

Monday, August 18, 2008

These are the big important stories that Americans are following today.

With expert analysis, this is your correspondent, Ken Levine.

Kate Winslet’s recent sex scene with Leonardo DiCaprio was directed by her husband, Sam Mendes.

Proving she’s just a regular down home gal she acknowledged it was “awkward”. Even more awkward was when Mendes asked her afterwards, “How was I compared to James Cameron?" Cameron directed her sex scene with Leo in TITANIC. There's soon to be a specific category for this in the next DGA awards.

Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi got married this weekend.

Portia was gorgeous in her wedding gown. Ellen was striking in her sweater and pants. Ellen is quoted as saying, "She’s taught me lessons about myself, and I feel like I’ve taught her." Yes, Portia now cries a lot and dresses like a 1950s frat boy.

Donald Trump bought Ed McMahon’s California House.

Thus sparing Ed the need for a 24 hour telethon. Trump said, “When I was at the Wharton School of Business I'd watch him every night. How could this happen?" Simple. There was nothing else on.

Who’s hotter? The U.S. women gymnasts in the Olympics or the U.S. women volleyball players?

Who cares? Have you seen Brazil??

Ernest Borgnine reveals at age 91 that he still masturbates a lot.

It’s a practice he began when married to Ethel Merman.

John Mayer and Jennifer Aniston have broken up.

I remember the days when Jennifer Aniston stayed in the national limelight by making movies.

Paul McCartney and new girlfriend, Nancy Shevell traveled around the U.S. in an old Bronco.

Nancy must’ve been thinking, “Heather Mills gets billions and I’m in a fucking Ford?”

Dodger outfielder, Manny Ramirez trimmed his dreadlocks one inch.

Local stations discontinued their 24 hour coverage.

Lindsay Lohan might be going back to men.

Now that Ellen is spoken for I guess what’s the use?

And finally, Nathan Lane is releasing a lip pumping machine.

It’s called “Lane’s Pillow Lips”. Yes, I don’t believe it either. It is in Google News but still! Hey, no one believed he could play a womanizer in ENCORE ENCORE either.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Engineer Bill Stulla

When a beloved kid show host dies it’s like losing a member of the family. That’s the way I felt about Engineer Bill. Engineer Bill Stulla passed away last week. Yes, he was 97 and went peacefully, but I don’t care. I’m still very sad.

The Cartoon Express with Engineer Bill ran locally in Los Angeles on KHJ-TV, channel 9 from 1955-1966. Back then all kid show hosts had a schtick, played a character. We also had Skipper Frank, Sheriff John, Buffalo Bob, Captain Kangaroo, and Hobo Kelly. I guess that’s how you knew the difference between kids show hosts and grown up show hosts. If an announcer wore a sailor’s hat you knew he wasn’t reporting the news.

Bill Stulla’s theme was trains. He wore stripped engineer overalls and a cap, was surrounded by model train sets, introduced horrible cartoons (Looney Tunes, Crusader Rabbit, and Popeye were on the other stations. Channel 9 was left with “Sheepish Shamus” and that caliber of classics.), kept you company while your mom made dinner, and best of all, played “Red Light/Green Light”.

I look back at it today and it was insane but when you’re six it made perfect sense. I suppose as a way to get kids to drink their milk, Engineer Bill created this game called “Red Light/Green Light”, which became his trademark. We kids would all have a big frosty glass of milk and would play along with Engineer Bill. An announcer would say “Green Light!” and we’d all drink. He’d say “Red Light!” and we had to stop. And of course he would try to fake us out.

At least once a week I’d get caught mid-gulp and start choking. Milk would come out of my nose. It was such a great time to be a kid.

The announcer would always fake out Engineer Bill. We young home viewers would win, he would lose. And they would ring the lead bell for him. I think the moment of reaching adulthood is when we realized he had been letting us win.

Another feature was the Bad Habit Express designed to help kids break bad habits like nail biting and sibling torturing. Every Friday a little choo-choo would push a bad habit up and over the hill. There were a lot of bad habits I learned about by watching that feature.

On weekends Engineer Bill made personal appearances at supermarkets. I never got to see him. He always seemed to be in Downey or Torrance, but it could just as easily have been Rangoon or Stuttgart. If I couldn’t ride my bike to it I couldn’t get there. He used to come armed with engineer hats, toys, and prizes, and of course played “Red Light/Green Light”. I don’t know what it took to win a prize. Maybe if milk from your nose sprayed the farthest.

Anyway, those were warm happy times. Bill Stulla was also a war hero, a one time announcer for Rudy Vallee, and later a successful stockbroker. But for me he was this jolly uncle who dressed ridiculously (as did my real uncle now that I think about it), made me laugh and taught me stuff, and most important, made me feel good about myself.

A toast to Engineer Bill Stulla. Thank you for everything.

Green light!!!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

I'm on TV again... for six seconds

That 30th ANNIVERSARY MASH SPECIAL that originally aired on Fox in 2002 is running again on cable channels above 200. I know this because people come up to me and say, "Hey, I saw you on television. Or at least I think it was you. You were gone in a second." Actually, it was six seconds. And that was more than any of the other writers got.

When they were putting together the special they invited groups of us longtime MASH writers to be interviewed. They broke us up into two groups of five. My group was interviewed for two hours. Same with group two. We all told great anecdotes, had wonderful concise overviews of the show filled with insight, great pith, and social perspective. We were funny, charming, articulate, dazzling – you would have been proud of us. The end result: my six second sound byte and one master shot of us sitting at a table like loxes made it to air. And I imagine the production company had to be arm wrestled into using that much.

Fortunately, in the round table discussion with the actors, Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and Burt Metcalfe were included. You never see them in any cast photo but these three men really were the heart and soul of MASH. I always maintain that when my partner, David and I were head writers during the middle seasons we were just allowed to take the wheel and drive daddy’s car for awhile. But it was Larry, Gene, Burt, and later, Alan Alda who really established the series, gave it its tone, humor, humanity, and voice.

The actors roundtable segment was seemingly done on the MASH set. In truth, it was a replication, filmed not on Stage 9 at 20th Century Fox but on some rented sound stage in Hollywood. But walking on that set, seeing those familiar tents, and reuniting with the people who were so much a part of my life for so long, it was very eerie. And impossible to even fathom that 30 long years had passed.

I was six when I was on MASH so of course I still looked good, but I was happy to see how well everyone else looked.

It was a wonderful reunion. We writers told the same sparkling stories we did at the interview, desperately hoping someone would listen. Thank you, Jaimie Farr, for indulging us.

Being a part of MASH was like being a member of a Superbowl winning team. It was an experience I will always cherish.

Networks are so intent on shaking up the sitcom format. They’re frantically grasping for anything different and new. Maybe instead of looking forward they should be looking backwards…

30 years.

The battle of the Joshes

How would you like to tag along with me and my partner Josh Suchon as we prepare for Dodger Talk at Dodger Stadium? WOW!!! There is an on-line auction as part of THINK CURE, the Dodgers' charity for cancer research. We have a friendly little rivalry with Josh Rawitch, the V.P. Communications of the Dodgers. One of the other items offered is a chance to follow him around for the day. And at the moment he has way more bids than our Josh. We can't have that.

Plus, Rawitch has a blog on the Dodger website to solicit bids. Ah, but two can play that game. It occurred to me that I have a blog. So here's where you can go to bid on Josh Suchon. It'll be much more fun. You'll get to hang out in the clubhouse, the dugout, meet Joe Torre, watch the game from the press box, and best of all, be in the booth when we host Dodger Talk. With Rawitch you get to proofread game notes.

Did I mention it's for cancer research? Did I also mention we don't want to lose?

Other great items you can bid on are:

"the House of 1000 Corpses" CD soundtrack.

Marilyn Manson's "Golden Age of the Grotesque" CD, signed by Marilyn. (In blood is extra)

A Dodger Stadium Timeline Collage with game used dirt!

Did I mention it's to find a cure for cancer?

Thank you.

Friday, August 15, 2008

On the topic of Tropic

A coalition of disabilities groups has called for a national boycott of TROPIC THUNDER because the film refers to the “intellectually disabled” as “retards”. Here we go again. Angry zealots in a big uproar because of a word they find insensitive. I guess the fact that a character is in blackface for a good portion of the movie, that’s just peachy.

Don’t these self appointed watchdog groups realize that when they call for a national boycott it only makes people want to see the movie more? And all they’re doing is providing free publicity and buzz for the flick? Who’s the intellectually challenged now?

I haven’t seen the movie. I hear it’s equally offensive to all but very funny. Throw in gratuitous nudity and it sounds like a picture made just for me.

But if it’s not your cup of tea…. Don’t see it. And don’t tell others not to see it unless you want the movie to beat the DARK KNIGHT this weekend at the boxoffice.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Friday question of the week

Leave your questions in the comment section. I’ll get to as many as I can. Thanks.

From PP:

Any thoughts on the challenges of transitioning from stand-up comedy to writing for television? Any specific insights you've gained from working with such people over the years? Their strengths/weaknesses, etc.

When a stand up wants to leave the glamour and glory of working comedy clubs in Omaha on Thursday nights for eight drunks, I generally wonder if (a) he’s really funny, and (b) whether he can adapt his comedy to other characters? And the short answers are yes and no depending.

I don’t go to comedy clubs anymore because on any bill there are invariably three or four deluded souls who are so painfully unfunny it makes my teeth hurt. Who EVER told these idiots they were funny? If anything is going to cause the downfall of modern civilization it’s not drugs, it’s “open mics”.

So there are any number of failed comics trying to transfer their magic to the written page.

On the other hand, there are also some hilarious stand ups who just get tired of the road and seeing that Dane Cook is a success and decide to give writing a try. To them I say, “Welcome!”

And it’s not like you can’t do both. Patton Oswalt is equally brilliant on the stage and page.

But caution: It’s been my experience that most comedians have this insatiable need for love and attention. That usually doesn’t sit well in a room with others. Imagine being trapped in a small office twelve hours a day with Ant. And some comics find it hard to adjust to being behind the scenes.

Other problems.

Good stand ups all have developed very well defined comic personas. The angry guy. The put upon guy. The Asian/Swedish/mother/lesbian/figher pilot/model. Many times they’ll write spec scripts and suddenly all the characters from OLD CHRISTINE sound like them. The good news is you have a strong voice. The bad news is you’re not Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Stand ups tend to be stronger on the jokes than on story (big revelation). It’s a different skill set but one that can be learned. You can’t teach funny (although a lot of community colleges misguidedly try).

At the end of the day talent trumps all. Comedy writing is a big adjustment if you’re a brick layer too. But if you’re good, and funny, and your name isn’t Gallagher you’ve probably got a good shot.

Thank you, ladies and germs. You’ve been a wonderful audience.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The madness to our method

Here’s the thinking that went into the episode I posted yesterday. Did you watch it yesterday? Okay, I’ll wait.

Dum de dum… check it out now, funk soul brother, check it out now, funk soul brother… dum de dum de dum… movin’ on up, to the eastside…

Done? Great. Here we go.

Again: the task (see Tuesday’s post) was to break up the central relationship, reintroduce the other characters, work everyone into the story somehow, be funny and hopefully touching. And we only had one half hour to do it. We could not do a two-parter or an hour. I’m sure there are better ways to achieve this goal, but here is what we (me, David Isaacs, Robin Schiff) did.

We didn’t want to go for with a big argument. That seemed the easy path. Also, we didn’t want a long shouting match. That would get old and tedious, and we’re not doing WHO’S AFRAID OF VIGINIA WOOLF:THE SITCOM. Kim & Mike could have a fight and it could get heated but it had to be short and somehow motivated. And most important, we didn’t want the audience to hate either one of them. Or us, but still better us than them.

It was nice to see that you guys didn’t guess it on Tuesday.

Anyway… the discussion led to “what triggers arguments?” We thought, if there was one universal sentence that kicked off major arguments that would be a great device to get us going. And we could use it to break up other characters’ relationships too. Great! Just one little hitch: what is that question???

Several days and many blind alleys later we landed on this: “Any couple could break up in five sentences, no matter how committed they are, if the first sentence was ‘if that’s the way you feel then what are you doing with me?’”

We would use it for comic effect twice and then have Kim & Mike unconsciously fall into the same trap.

Where we left the series after season one: Mike & Kim had vowed their undying love (we sure shot ourselves in the foot with that one, didn’t we?), Gary was divorced from his wife Patty but still was smitten by her, and young Rob had a party girl, Shannon, who drove him insane but the sex was unbelievable so of course he stuck it out. Insanity is a small price to pay for nookie.

The one thing we had going for us was the finale of the first season was the wrap party of the fictional show they all worked on. That gave us like a two month hole before they returned to work. We could fill it with whatever necessary backstory we needed. One of you astute readers picked up on that.

To break up Gary & Patty we first had to get them back together again. We decided to have them re-marry. That allowed for a big wedding scene. Lots of room for fun and interaction with our characters. And the Gary/Patty split would occur right at the altar. We could exploit some quirk of Shannon’s to push Rob over the edge and they too could break up at the wedding. We needed to set a pattern. It had to happen twice before Kim & Mike.

Device aside, at the heart of Mike & Kim’s break up had to be the fatal flaw of their relationship. Opposites attract but they also repel. We had established that she was a Type-A workaholic and he was more laid back. For the most part he catered to her schedule in the first season. So during the hiatus we said she catered to him. And hated it. It drove her crazy. She was bored out of her skull. But he loved it. That felt like a good place to start.

So now we went to the greaseboard and beat out the story.

For the teaser we needed to reintroduce Kim & Mike to the audience. Kim wanted to have sex on the balcony. The more conservative Mike didn’t. Right away you see how different they are.

The first scene takes place in the office. We catch up on what’s been going on and set up the wedding. Rob enters in dreadlocks. I don’t know if any sex is worth that but still. You can see it’s starting to get to him. By contrast, Neil is studying the Kabbalah (I like to think Madonna got the idea from US.) and wants no human contact. We thought it would be a fun payoff to have Neil be the only one in a relationship at the end of the show. We love that ironic shit!

Then we go to the wedding. Establish the fatal flaw in the Gary/Patty relationship – she’s a materialistic bitch. And I should mention that Lisa Edelstein was GREAT. It’s not easy to pull off an unlikable character like that and still be so funny and likeable. Lots of jokes about Patty’s extravagance. Oh how we loved that marble staircase! Patty's fall down the stairs was my favorite gag from the series. I've seen it a hundred times and it still makes me laugh every time. (That was a stunt double, by the way, we who did the fall. One take.) However, the reform joke is truly one of my favorites.

Gary & Patty split, Rob & Shannon split, and Mike & Kim get out while they’re still a couple. Act break.

We also re-up Mike’s conservatism. With every joke in some way we try to better define our characters.

Now we go back to Kim’s house for the party post mortem. Their discussion offhandedly leads to their relationship issues. Many big arguments just seem to evolve and escalate without the participants realizing it.

By the time Kim utters the trigger sentence hopefully we’ve brought them to a place where there’s no turning back. They each want different things in life and it’s clear they’ll never be able to accommodate the other. Kim says “Can we just come in again and start over?” and Mike says, “What would be different?” They both realize it’s over.

We follow that with a scene the next day. Kim, Gary, and Rob are alone lamenting their fate. We say that Kim & Mike talked all night but got nowhere. We wanted to establish that ultimately their break up wasn’t a five minute conversation and that was it. We also wanted to establish that this was the new direction of the series – our lovable test-friendly characters each finding their way alone. And then button the scene with Neil showing up with the rabbi.

For the tag we often would try to callback something from the show. Nothing seemed funnier than Patty falling down the stairs so we constructed a way for Gary to fall down them as well. (Again, we used a double. No actors or animals were hurt during the filming of this show.) I love the last line. Patty asks if he’s okay and he says “No, you crazy bitch!” It’s not a constructed joke. It’s just an attitude line. The best laughs come from character.

So that was our game plan. It might be fun to watch the show again now that you know how and why we constructed it that way. I actually think it’s the best show I wish we never wrote.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

See for yourself

Yesterday I presented the pickle we were in trying to figure out how to break up Nancy Travis & Kevin Kilner in one episode on ALMOST PERFECT. Here's another one of my little blog experiments. Today I will show you the episode. Tomorrow I will discuss the thought process that went into it. So yes today is homework but hopefully enjoyable homework. And it does have my favorite joke from the series.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How's this for a writing problem?

In 1996, after completing the first season of ALMOST PERFECT, my partners on the project (David Isaacs and Robin Schiff) were summoned to New York. We had a hunch it wasn’t because CBS loved us so much and wanted to treat us to a few Broadway shows. It probably was to ask for some tweaking before they picked us up for a second year. The show wasn’t a break-out hit but we were getting decent ratings. And over the summer we were moved into Monday night where we were attracting new fans (at least five that I know of).

The premise of the series: Nancy Travis was juggling the career of her life with the relationship of her life, Kevin Kilner.

Much to our surprise, we were told by the network that they wanted us to drop the boyfriend character. They felt Kevin didn’t test well. Actually, that’s not accurate. Kevin did test okay, but everyone else tested higher. The real goal should have been to do more with Kevin so we could get his scores to match the others. But the network didn’t see it that way. And they sort of had control of things.

I must say I disagreed with them for every possible reason. Kevin is a terrific actor and has a special quality – he is very real. We were able to make Nancy’s character more out-there because Kevin grounded the show and their relationship. No, he didn’t get the huge laughs every week but we didn’t give him the huge laughs every week. Yet whatever jokes we gave him he always hit out of the park. It was a total win-win.

Plus, he was the lynchpin of the series. The relationship is what made the show unique in our eyes. Otherwise it’s just Nancy juggling her career and her career.

They weren’t buying it.

In that second season I thought we wrote some very clever episodes but the heart of the series had been taken away. It was never as good.

CBS did offer one concession. We could bring Kevin back for one and do the episode where he and Nancy break-up.

How do you tell an actor he’s fired and then ask him to come back for one more show? To his enormous credit, Kevin Kilner was the ultimate mensch. He accepted the situation and graciously agreed to do the break-up episode. The only time in my life I ever left work to go to a bar and drink in the middle of the day was when I had to have that conversation with Kevin.

When it was announced someone called our office. David answered the phone. The person was irate and railed on and on about the idiot producers who made this stupid move. David said he was the P.A. but would pass along the message.

So here is the writing problem. We ended the last season with them declaring their unending love for each other. How do we suddenly break them up in one episode, making it organic and not just arbitrary? How do we do it so you don’t hate one or both of them? How do we work the other characters into the story? And how do we make the show funny? It will be the season premiere, we don’t want it to be a complete downer. We also don’t want a long argument scene of two talking heads. And this was before LOST so we couldn’t just conveniently kill anybody.

Quite the thorny little problem. I want to hit that bar again just thinking about it.

Tomorrow: what we did.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Herzengovina Idol

Olympic coverage continues…and continues… and continues. I love all the human interest stories. It’s like I’m watching the open audition rounds of HERZENGOVINA IDOL.

Question: Since I have an audience that extends beyond the U.S. borders (not in China because my blog is blocked there) but are you other-than-Americas really into these Olympics?

In 1984 the Big O's were held in L.A. as opposed to this year where (despite all the positive spin) they’re being played in the Detroit of China. For six months prior to the event we Angelinos were warned that the traffic was going to be an absolute nightmare. Citywide gridlock was predicted. But the result was a mass exodus of the locals and there was no traffic at all. We should have the Olympics at least every Friday.

For those of us who stuck around, it was a three-week party. The athletes were housed in the UCLA dorms and on the weekends would walk down the hill to the student union and mingle with the crowd. Vendors were selling commemorative pins and tacos and my family would swing by from nearby Westwood. Security measures were in place but mostly around the dorms. At this makeshift street fair the athletes roamed freely with us riff-raff. It was fun to talk to them about their countries and culture and answer their questions about America – like what was the appeal of Sylvester Stallone, and Prince.

I was fortunate enough to attend several events. Sat on the street and watched the marathon go by. I had my “Emil Zátopek rules!” sign but it turns out I had missed him by thirty-four years.

Got tickets for the ladies gymnastics finals at Pauley Pavilion. Thank God I brought my little Sony portable TV. There was no P.A. announcer telling you what was going on. All of these events were taking place simultaneously. Nobody had any idea what was happening except me. The one thing that did become clear, even to the people whose only exposure was watching it themselves, was that Mary Lou Retton was something special and on the verge of greatness. Beating out Romanian minx Ecaterina Szabó for the Gold Medal was truly thrilling -- only eclipsed by getting home with no traffic.

Since the Russians and 14 Eastern Bloc-countries boycotted the games, the U.S. kicked ass and American jingoism was at an all-time high. But what a joke. It was like the New York Yankees playing in the World Series against the Hooters girls.

Anyway, I must end here. The women's 10 meter air rifle event is about to start and I can't miss a minute of that.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Flying around the world in three hours. Pack a sweater.

Superhero movies are all the rage this summer. But I must admit, still my favorite superhero show is the old SUPERMAN TV series from the 50s.

I know it dates me but I was the target audience when it first came out but I still watch it in reruns (it’s now on cable channels so obscure they don’t even have names) and bought the first season DVD the day it came out. I’ve since given up running around the neighborhood employing a towel as a cape. My wife finds it humiliating.

When I watch the episodes now I am filled with a warm sense of nostalgia. I also am struck by how incredibly STUPID I was as a kid. There are moments in that show that are so preposterous that even as a seven year old I should have said, “Heyyyy, wait a minute.”

Okay, forget that no one can tell the difference between Clark Kent and Superman just from the glasses even though they look alike, have the same voice, and build. (Teri Hatcher had the same problem in the later series although in her case she was probably just too distracted terrorizing the crew because her Perrier was three degrees too cold.) I’m talking about these little gems (and I bet some of you have a few too):

In one episode Superman flies a little girl around the world. In three hours. At that speed with the g-forces I’d guess she’s be vaporized just outside the Metropolis city limits. And she’s just wearing a little sun dress and flimsy sweater. In one scene they’re flying over Mount Everest. He asks if she’s cold and she assures him she’s not. That must be some sweater because at that altitude it must be minus 300 degrees. But I bought it.

Remember the episode in which Superman was frozen? Oh no! How will he pass for Clark Kent? Simple, with some shoe polish and Lois Lane’s make up. Son of a gun, it worked!! No one noticed there was anything different between a normal person and a man wearing pancake makeup on his face and hands and jet black shoe polish in his hair. It worked for me.

The Daily Planet was a great metropolitan newspaper with a staff of three reporters. Yeah, that sounded about right at the time.

They were always quite liberal on their definition of X-Ray vision. Instead of just looking through objects, this Superman was able to see things from miles away. The one catch was that he couldn’t see through lead. There’s no lead anywhere in a straight line between the Daily Planet building and India?

Which brings me to my favorite moment of all. In one episode the bad guys got the brilliant idea that if they wore lead helmets that fitted completely over their heads that Superman could never identify them. Okay, forget fingerprints, they went to so much trouble to have these helmets made. And wasn’t it hot in those things? I guess not.

So in one scene two of these lead heads are going up to Perry White’s office in the Daily Planet. We see them walking down the hall. Picture this: Two men in suits, lead helmets, with fedoras. Two extras (“staff members”) pass them in the hall AND DON’T EVEN NOTICE THEM. Ho hum. Nothing unusual. Just two businessmen in helmets and hats. Now I fall off my chair. Then I thought “those helmets look good with those suits”.

Yeah, today Hollywood can turn out dazzling productions with spectacular special effects, starring A-list actors, shown on humongous IMAX screens. But they still can't mesmerize me like those cheesy black-and-white episodes that flickered on my twelve inch TV set, even if Superman did fly with strings and wore a gurdle.