Friday, May 06, 2011

Do I still recommend that wannabe writers try to break in?

More of your Friday questions and my answers.

Johnny Walker is up first:

Given everything you've seen in all your years working in the industry, would you still recommend wannabe writers try to get "in"?

I would absolutely recommend it. Name me a job that doesn’t have frustrations, horror stories, or faulty air conditioning. On the other hand, how many professions allow you to spend all day with incredibly funny people, and see the best actors in the business doing their material? Yes, the take-out Chinese Food gets cold and lays in your stomach like a bowling ball. Take a Tums.

It’s still a privilege to have something you’ve written be shown on national television.

But pursue it only if you really want to be a writer. If you feel you have a voice, or are just compelled to share your thoughts and imagination with others then by all means, go for it. Now with cable and webcasts there are so many more opportunities than back when I broke in during the Pleistocene Era when we only had three broadcast networks and wrote with sticks. But if you see a screenwriting career to be your fastest path to fame and untold riches, you will be sadly disappointed. Sorry Harvard grads and Boy George but the ‘80s are dead.

A few weeks ago I helped out on a pilot, which prompted this question from Gottacook:

Ken, do you have favorites among those sitcoms that didn't really take off and remain almost totally obscure today?

You mean besides my brilliant pilots that didn’t get picked up? Forget the title but Richard Rosenstock (FLYING BLIND) had a pilot a few years that starred Jason Biggs and newcomer Jordana Brewster that I thought was terrific – far better than anything that did get on.

My memory is a little hazy because these pilots come and go so quickly and I’m usually asked to help out for only a day or maybe two. And along the way there were some real dogs.  But I recall there was a funny one starring Cheech Marin. There was also one by Robin Schiff with Romy & Michele (long before the movie) that certainly had its moments. I believe Lisa Kudrow starred.


Max Clarke asks:

Ken, nothing broke the "reality" of a tv show like that fake phone number, 555 and something else.

For example, Cheers remains my favorite all-time comedy, but in the episode "One Hugs, The Other Doesn't," it ended with a doll singing the recorded phone number of Nanny G. Fine, a cute way for her to let Frasier know how to contact her, but the number was fake. Norm and some other guys even sang that fake number several times.

Did the writers and producers understand that having a character give an obviously fake phone number ruined the mood?

It’s a concession worth making because no one has a phone number with a 555 exchange. And you’d be surprised how many idiots call real numbers. I feel sorry for the poor schmoes whose phone number is Beachwood 45789 or 867-5309.

And I can tell you this first hand. When I was a disc jockey in San Bernardino I did the all-night show. So I had to sleep during the day. My phone number with a 714 area code was the same as a hooker who advertised in the LA WEEKLY (with a 213 area code). A hundred times a day my phone would ring and some mouth breather would say, “Hey, is Jeannie there, man?” I almost went crazy. And you’d think for that kind of inconvenience she’d at least give me a discount! Bitch!

What’s your question?


Mark said...

NERD ALERT: According to, "These days the 555 prefix is used for real numbers, but the 555-0100 to 555-0199 range is still reserved for the use of Hollywood productions."

GaryD said...

I was wondering if you could identify this refection of a woman, whom I is assume was a crew member.

spreng said...

In the 1940s, Glenn Miller did a song called "Pennsylvania 6-5000," which was the phone number of the hotel they were staying in in New York City. The Pennsylvania Hotel (across the street from Madison Square Garden) still has that number, although now it is (212) 736-5000.

Mork said...

Chuck Lorre responded to the "555" thing in one of his censored vanity cards:

jbryant said...

I can't believe people still get bent out of shape about the 555 thing. Like the average sitcom is incredibly realistic and the slightest deviation from believability will send the whole thing tumbling. "I can fool myself into believing these bar patrons come up with brilliant one-liners every 12 seconds, but what's with the fake phone number?!"

John said...

New York Telephone used to have a "magic number" of 660-006 you could dial at a pay phone to make it ring after you hung the receiver up. You had to wait for the dial tone to come back after the "660" part, and I can't remember for certain if you also had to pause before you dialed/touch toned the final "6" before you ran away from the scene and waited to see if some passerby would actually answer the damn thing.

Anyway, the point is I was always wishing N.Y. Telephone had added one more number to the thing so someday it could be put into a movie TV show as a fake phone number that actually did something.

BigTed said...

I find it more jarring that whenever a character drives somewhere -- often in New York or L.A. -- they instantly find a parking space right in front. (Or when hospitals see patients right away, or when big-time lawyers meet with walk-in clients, or when detectives have days to concentrate on a single case, or when bars are half-empty at night yet still populated by beautiful women sitting alone....)

Kirk said...

I have a Friday question.

A couple of years ago, TV Guide listed Hogan's Heroes as the fifth worst show of all time. Since I thought the show had some good comic acting, and the scripts could be pretty clever at times, I can only conclude it was the show's premise that TV Guide found fault with, that Nazism and humor doesn't mix. How do you feel about Hogan's Heroes?

Emily Blake said...

I used to have a phone number that had an 8 where the 24-hour wal-mart had a 0, but other than that they were identical numbers.

The Wal-Mart was in walking distance from my apartment, so after a while I just started answering questions as if I actually worked there.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks for answering my question, Ken! That's just what I wanted to hear!

MikeBo said...

Remember the70's when "520" numbers were reserved for radio station call-in contests? And did you ever work for a station whose phone number copied its dial position on the AM band? (PA-7-1390) FM always came up one digit short of a full number. God, I miss the days when you new where the station you listened actually was. Now, it's, "you're in tune with "The Mighty 4-Q," which tells you nothing but the station's mega-owners and their feelings about the audience.
PS: I know you're familiar with WEbster 8-3000.
Mike Botula

Mary Stella said...

You worked on the pilot for the Tracey Ullman Show? I loved that show!

Cap'n Bob said...

I had gotten a new phone number that previously belonged to a gas station during the original gas shortage. Got calls every morning asking if I had gas. I got that one changed quickly. Years later I got a number that once belonged to an insurance man. I got calls for that bastard for seven years. During both of these times I was a night worker and day sleeper.
One more: Right out of high school I worked for GE in White Plains, NY. Our number was one digit off from the bus campany's. After tiring of telling people they had the wrong number I started telling them when and where to catch a bus. Not that I knew a damn thing about bus schedules.
To this day I hate phones and rarely answer the one at the house.

crackblind said...

My friend in NY has a phone number with the 213 exchange (god, do kids even know what an exchange is these days?) Anyhoo, before they mucked things up and made you add 1-212 before the number when you want to make a local call, he would frequently get calls meant for Los Angeles because the people would forgot the 1 when dialing.

It sounded more fascinating before I began typing it.

LouOCNY said...

My number - which has been in the family for almost 60 years, was once 'one number away' from a local Chinese take out joint, and many times I have been tempted to take somebody's order down.

Which reminds me of my favorite worst joke - Chinese couple making the height of passion, wife starts screaming, "69!! 69!!!!!!",and the husband responds, "You want beef with broccory NOW?"

(and yes, check your local take out sheet - on 99% of them #69 IS beef with broccoli)

jbryant said...

Big Ted -- I hear ya regarding the "instant parking space," but it's likely less jarring than having the star of the show drive around the block for half the episode. :)

Wow, my verification word is "phonisms." Eerie.

E.C. Henry said...

Ken, Good to hear you on the Seattle airwaves again doing Mariner baseball. I've written a couple of football, feature length spec. scripts that I would like to get in the hands of Paul Allen (ex-Microsoft co-founder, now owner of the Seattle Seahawks) do you have any suggestions of how I can make that happen? I've dropped a couple lines on the 710ESPN blogspots hoping to get a host with that, but haven't had any luck so far. The two specs I've written are entittled, "After the Glory" (think what would a Brett Favre type do AFTER retiring and going back to his hometown where he suddenly meets what could be the great love of his life) and "Hometown Professional Football" (a story about how three failed football players get a fresh start -- and find love interests of course -- in a newly formed football league in the Pacific Northwest.


E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Derek said...

Hi Ken. I have a Friday question.

If Two and A Half Men is going to continue without Charlie Sheen, then the writers will need to explain Sheen's exit. (Unless they follow the Bewitched model.) If you were the producer and were writing the next season's premiere, and presuming you were less than happy with Sheen and wanted to send a message, how would you write him out?

Thanks for the great blog.