Saturday, April 30, 2011

My favorite YouTube video

That's all I'm going to say.

Great, huh?

I'm still in Boston. Tonight the M's again face the Red Sox and I'll be calling the game with Rick Rizzs on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM at 7 PM EDT.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Does working in radio help you in TV?

Hello from Boston where I never stand down from my Friday Question Watch.  Also, tonight the M's begin a three game series against the Red Sox.  Air time on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM is 7 PM EDT.  Yes, I'm plugging my broadcasts but have you noticed I haven't bugged you about buying my book?  Although you should.

Here are this week's questions.  What's yours?

Starting us off with an a & b question is WillieB:

When you moved into TV writing full-time, did your DJ background help or hinder you -- or ever even come up in conversation?

Trying to be funny on the radio every three minutes helped sharpen my comedic skills, which certainly aided me in my scriptwriting career. Beyond that, no. Fortunately, I didn’t listen to those program directors early in my career who kept saying, “Shut up! You’re not funny! Just play the fucking hits!”

Ever have a studio guy/producer/director/actor say: "I used to listen to you all the time?"

Once we signed Tom Hanks to star in VOLUNTEERS, my partner David Isaacs and I went out to lunch with him. He mentioned that he grew up in the East Bay of San Francisco in the mid ‘70s. I told him I used to be a disc jockey in SF in 1974 and at the time went by the name Beaver Cleaver. His eyes lit up. “Beaver Cleaver! KYA -- Boss of the Bay!” He used to listen every night. He was a big fan. Even remembered which station I was on.  Needless to say, that made my day. And he was pretty good in the movie too.

cl asks:

Have you any The Doors/Jim Morrison related anecdotes? Have you met them?

I never met them but did see them in concert fairly early on. It was at the Birmingham High School football stadium in Encino, California. The Doors and the Jefferson Airplane.

Gracie Slick and the Airplane were amazing. The Doors, if I’m being honest, were disappointing. And I was (and still am) a huge Doors fan. But Jim was on auto-pilot (and probably on a lot of other things as well).

Plus, the girl I went with that night would not shut the fuck up. Chattering all night about God knows what – getting mono in the 4th grade. I dunno. I desperately tried to tune her out. And for good measure, she was chiding the people around us for lighting up joints. So I was real popular.

My other memory of that night. After the concert we were going to meet up with another couple who were also there but in a different section. I suggested we just meet after the show at the Chevron gas station across the street. Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one with that idea. We get to the Chevron station and there are already 2,000 people there. It took us a half hour to find our other couple, although it would not have surprised me if they were just avoiding us because of my chatterbox date. 

I wish I had known Jim Morrison that night. Maybe he could have slipped my date something to shut her up.

From Kris Mandt of Des Moines, IA – a lovely place to raise your children:

When That 70’s Show struck their set for the last time certain bits and pieces of that set went to the long term cast members. Did they do the same thing for the cast of Cheers, Frasier, Wings, etc?

I imagine so. I wasn’t at MASH at the end but know one of the producers could start a museum with all the set souvenirs he  uh, "collected". I personally don’t have anything from those sets.I'm probably an idiot.   But I do have scripts and residuals.

I remember walking down to Stage 25 at Paramount the day they were striking the CHEERS set for the last time. Watching them dismantle this bar that had been such a huge part of my life for a quarter of my life was so devastating I had to just walk out.

When BIG WAVE DAVE’S was cancelled I did take a surfboard and the big BIG WAVE DAVE’S sign, which now proudly hangs in my house.

50 is the new 35 has a question. It’s really long so I’m paraphrasing:

With all the internet fan forums and comment boards there are now, if you had a show on today would you be monitoring them? And would you make creative decisions based on this cyber input?

I would absolutely monitor them. I’d be combing through Twitter, Facebook, websites, newsgroups, searching out any reaction I could find. I would have to take into account that the folks who write about my show are very passionate about it, either for or against, and that the general viewer is not as thrilled or outraged.

But I would consider this feedback very seriously. Often a showrunner can get too close to his product, and hearing from the audience can be a great reality check, even if it smarts sometimes.

Here’s what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t go on these forums and respond to the comments. That would lead me down the rabbit hole where I would never be found again. But read everything? You bet.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Summer Movies Preview -- the Sequel to the Sequel

Hi from either Detroit or Boston depending on when you read this. The M's wrap up a crucial three-game series with the Tigers today at 1:00 EDT. Rick Rizzs and I provide the play-by-play on 710 ESPN in Seattle and MLB.COM. But for those who'd rather go to the movies, here's the final installment of my annual Summer Movies Preview.  The first two parts (prequels?) were yesterday and the day before

LARRY CROWE – Basically COMMUNITY with Tom Hanks as Abed and Julia Roberts as Senor Chang.

THE SMURFS – The lovable blue people come to life. To save money on special effects they just used wind up toys. Uh oh, did I reveal too much?

CRAZY, STUPID LOVE – Sounds like a rom-com for adults that blessfully is not from Nancy Meyers. Stars Steve Carell & Julianne Moore… but of course also stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone because no one will go to see a love story starring, y’know, old people.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON – Which is what you can kiss before I’ll go see this heap.

ZOOKEEPER – Kevin James talks to the animals. And they talk back. Meanwhile, Mr. Ed sits waiting by a phone that never rings.

PROJECT NIM – Sundance sensation. Documentary about trying to teach a chimpanzee how to speak. He won’t, unless it’s to Kevin James.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – See this is what happens when monkeys really talk.

ANOTHER EARTH – There’s a planet identical to ours but with better G3 reception and no Mel Gibson.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS – A couple decide to be fuck buddies. This is an idea that hasn’t been done since NO STRINGS ATTACHED in January. But who would you rather be your booty bud? Ashton Kutcher or Justin Timberlake? Natalie Portman or Mila Kunis? Me too. I’ll be seeing FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – Waving flags and whipping Nazis, this superhero is who Sarah Palin thinks she is.

THE HELP – Real Housewives of Mississippi in 1960.

30 MINUTES OR LESS – Jesse Eisenberg is a pizza delivery kid with a bomb strapped to him. It’s the Domino’s “Million Pieces for ten dollars” promotion.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER – Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks. Could be the funniest comedy of the summer, funnier even than JUMPING THE BROOM.

THE DEBT – Helen Mirren finally realizes she’s a great actress but not funny and returns to drama with a Cold War Spy flick. Will this win her another Oscar? No, but it might salvage her career after ARTHUR.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN – Maybe he can balance the California State Budget.

FRIGHT NIGHT – Colin Farrell in the remake of the 1985 cult-fave about a suburbanite who kills his neighbor. That’ll teach them to leave their trash cans out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Summer Movies Preview -- the Sequel

Part one was yesterday.  (Again tonight, I'll be callin' 'em if I see 'em -- Mariners/Tigers at 7 EDT on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM)

COWBOYS & ALIENS – “Them’s the damndest injuns I ever did see.”

AN INVISIBLE SIGN – Jessica Alba as a teacher. Will do great business only if her clothes are invisible.

PASSION PLAY – Studio synopsis: Mickey Rourke as a jazz musician and a woman with wings. So Mickey Rourke as a drug addict.

THE HIGH COST OF LIVING – Another Hollywood “meet cute”. Zach Braff hits a pregnant woman with his car.

JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER – Two Iraqi soldiers, with limbs missing, must crawl across the punishing desert to…Oh wait. That’s a different movie. This one is about third graders on summer vacation.

BEGINNERS – Ewan McGregor learns his dad, Christopher Plummer is gay. Really? He didn’t know? Christopher Plummer?

BAD TEACHER – I’m intrigued. Directed by Jake Kasdan, Cameron Diaz stars as the world’s worst teacher. Also features Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel. Could be funny.

HORRIBLE BOSSES – What is going on in the workforce these days???

A BETTER LIFE – Mexican gardener tries to keep his son out of dangerous gangs, or worse – Arizona.

THE ART OF GETTING BY – Sundance darling. High school student must complete a year’s worth of assignments in three weeks. Impossible for most people.  Aaron Sorkin could do it in two weeks.

GREEN LANTERN – Not to be confused with Green Hornet, Jolly Green Giant, or Mean Joe Green. Another comic book comes to life starring Ryan Reynolds as the superhero who obviously can’t see in the dark. By the way, I love the mask.  No one could ever identify him with that

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS – Remember Dick Van Dyke and the cute penguins in MARY POPPINS? Now imagine the same thing but for ninety minutes and with Jim Carrey mugging.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – The prequel to the other X-Men movies. MUPPET BABIES meets SMALLVILLE.

BEAUTIFUL BOY – Martin Sheen’s kid shoots up his school. Probably blaming Chuck Lorre.

JUST LIKE US – A group of Arab-American comics go on tour. No. Really.

TROLLHUNTER – When a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills loses a maid or chef or dog walker, who’s she gonna call?

CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP – Documentary that is supposed to be awesome chronicling Coco’s unceremonious departure from NBC and finally landing at – where is he again?—Oh right. TBS.

The Previews wrap up tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Summer Movies Preview

Hello from the show business capital of the world -- Detroit, where it's time for my annual Summer Movies Preview.   (Programming note:  I'll be calling tonight's Mariners/Tigers game with Rick Rizzs at 7 EDT on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM)

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2 – Last installment of the series. Any more and Daniel Radcliffe will be able to play Dumbledore.

THE HANGOVER – PART 2 – Same plot as THE HANGOVER, different locale. This time it’s Bangkok and a monkey. A must-see for anyone who wants Warner Brothers to make more money.

KUNG FU PANDA 2 – I’m only surprised there’s not a GHANDI 2 this summer. Animated account of Pablo Sandoval and his heroic battle with weight.

THE BEAVER – Jew hater Mel Gibson as a guy with a hand puppet. Oh. It’s the puppet who hates Jews and treats women like shit. Not Mel. Got it. Okay. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN – The lovable bum is tired of begging for food.

THOR – Batman has his Batmobile, this guy has a hammer. Superhero strapped for cash.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES -- Johnny Depp reprises (yet again) his role as Jack Sparrow. More rollicking PG-13 raping.

JUMPING THE BROOM – Is that the studio’s idea of a “tentpole”? African-American rom-com. Wedding complications in the Martha’s Vineyard crib.

PRIEST – Vampire action-thriller and sequel to THE SINGING NUN.

BRIDESMAIDS – Studios won’t greenlight rom-coms unless they have a wedding theme. Buzz on this one is DOA (Dead on the alter).

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS – Woody Allen’s 463rd movie. The premise is a secret but expect beauty shots of Paris, and a redress of one of his other 462 movies. Hopefully not SHADOWS AND FOG.

THE TREE OF LIFE – In contrast to Woody Allen, director Terrance Malick comes out with movies so rarely that when he started filming this drama about a relationship in the ‘50s it was set in contemporary times.

THE CHANGE-UP – Body switching movie with Justin Bateman and Ryan Reynolds. If the extended trailer is any indication this may be the most vile unfunny movie of 2011. And remember ARTHUR is this year.

SOMETHING BORROWEDAnother wedding rom-com that no guy will ever go see unless he's guaranteed sex later. And maybe even then.

LOVE, WEDDING, MARRIAGE – Stop already! This down-the-aisler stars Lindsay Lohan. Why not just have superheroes marry vampires and cover all the bases?

EVERYTHING MUST GO – Will Ferrell sells all of his worldly possessions in a yard sale. People buy everything but his LAND OF THE LOST memorabilia.

SUPER 8 – Will the sequel be SUPER 8-2 or SUPER 9?

The Preview continues tomorrow...

Monday, April 25, 2011

My "Sam Kinison" period

Flying today to Detroit to begin a roadtrip with the Mariners, which is an convenient lead-in to another tale of my checkered radio career. Back in 1974 I was a screaming disc jockey (literally) at WDRQ, Detroit. My tenure was short-lived but memorable.

At the time I had been out of work as a disc jockey for about six months. No one wanted a high energy, “youthful”-voiced, wise-ass-bordering-on-insane platter spinner (or, to be more accurate – music cartridge inserter). The program director of KYNO in Fresno kept me dangling for months for an all-night gig and eventually gave it to someone else. Needless to say, I was depressed. I mean, when they don’t think you’re good enough to talk to empty fields at 3 AM you tend to believe you don’t have a rosy future in this profession.

I had even gotten a different job – working in the research department of NBC. But preparing test results for Bob Crane pilots didn’t seem like the best way to fill five or six decades either.

And then, out of the blue, I get a call from the new program director of WDRQ. How would I like to come to Detroit and do 6-10 in the evening? This was unbelievable. I wasn’t qualified for all-nights in market #110 but was good enough to do a primo slot in market #5 or 6? The money was probably less than I’d get in Fresno but that was besides the point. I was heading to a major market!

The program director picked me up at the airport and drove me right to the station. It was snowing. This was mid-April. He wanted me to do a break-in show in the middle of the night – get used to the equipment and format so when I premiered at 6 PM I knew what I was doing.

I said, “Fine” without stopping to think – when am I going to sleep? I didn’t want to be rude and say, “I really should check into a motel instead of drinking beer and smoking more joints with you” so I just sucked it up. And then at midnight he drove me to the station, wished me luck, and drove off.  I went on the air – half-smashed, no preparation, and having already been up for close to 24 hours. It was my best show. 

“Oh, by the way”, I told him after we were both seeing mermaids at the IHOP, “I want to use the name Beaver Cleaver on the air.” He was so wasted he didn’t even ask me why. The answer to that is I wanted a name that stood out, was easy to say, and let’s be honest, was dirty.

I got off the air at 6 AM, met the morning man – a surely bitter fellow with a great voice and nothing else. The fact that I was funny, he hated me instantly. The program director arrived, said he was thrilled with how I sounded, and took me to breakfast at the IHOP, where it turns out, those mermaids were just the cleaning crew.

So after a good late morning sleep, the Beaver Cleaver show premiered on WDRQ at 6 that night. Got a call from the PD that I sounded great.

Things were going well and would remain that way… for another eight hours. The program director called me into his office. Apparently there was a problem. The station’s “consultant” had heard me and felt I needed a slight adjustment in my act. He wanted me to scream more. By more he meant every time I opened my mouth. The evening jock should sound super high energy and the way to achieve that (according to this moron) was to have the disc jockey scream. And I had no choice. Either scream or be fired after one day.

So I did and I sounded like a complete idiot. Imagine Sam Kinison introducing Carpenters records. I generally went through a spritz bottle of Chloraseptic every show. No one will ever hear tapes of me on WDRQ, and if you have one I’m going to have to kill you.

I frantically sent out audition tapes, and a few months later was offered a job at KYA, San Francisco. The WDRQ program director thought I was crazy taking that job. If I stuck it out in Detroit for a year I could get to Boston. A year? I’d sound like Kenny Rodgers by then. Plus, what’s wrong with San Francisco?

About a month later I received a letter from the program director. He had forwarded a petition some high school circulated to try to get me back on WDRQ. I still have it of course. It’s my most cherished keepsake from my radio days.

My first time back in Detroit since those days was when I was broadcasting for the Orioles in 1991. I rented a car and thought I’d tool around the old haunts. The neighborhood where WDRQ was located in my day was an absolute war zone. Not that it was ever Park Ave. to begin with, but now the street was littered with graffiti, squalor, and the folks screaming were not introducing Motown records. I haven’t been back since. Although, I must admit, I’m a little curious. Today it’s probably gentrified and gorgeous and all the apartments have been refurbished – now with hardwood floors and the meth labs removed – and it’s the happening place to live in Detroit. Or it’s been razed to the ground.  Either way, there should be a plaque -- to WDRQ, or, as I used to call it on the air -- W-Dreck.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The biggest laugh you never saw on CHEERS

One of the biggest laughs we ever got on CHEERS was taken out when the show aired. Not that big laughs are so easy to get that it’s no big whoop to just toss one, but in this case we felt it ruined the show. Here’s the backstory.

First season. The episode was called “The Coach’s Daughter” (written by Ken Estin and directed by James Burrows). From the title you can probably get the gist of what the show was about. The Coach’s somewhat plain daughter introduces her fiancé to her dad and the gang at Cheers and he’s a real boorish lout. (He sold flame retarded reversible suits and yet he wasn’t reputable.)

Sidenote: The actor who played him was Phillip Charles MacKenzie. For the first two days we had someone else and he just didn’t work out. The trouble was finding someone really funny but still likeable enough that you didn’t storm the stage. Funny/obnoxious is not easy to pull off. And it had to be someone who could step in and be up to speed almost immediately. My partner and I had used Phillip in a pilot we created. He was great. I felt worse for him than us that NBC passed on it for PINK LADY AND JEFF. So he was our suggestion and he made us look good. In later years Phillip became a director and we used him often on ALMOST PERFECT. End of sidenote, and no I’m not going to say who the actor was that got fired.

Late in the episode there’s a lovely scene where the Coach has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, Lisa in Sam’s office. It’s clear to everyone (but the Coach of course) that she’s marrying this clown, Roy out of insecurity not love. Lisa tells her dad that Roy thinks she’s beautiful. The Coach says, “You are beautiful. You look just like your mother.” It was meant to touch Lisa’s heart.

We were holding our breaths hoping it didn’t get a big gooey “Awwwwwwww!” Instead it got this thunderous laugh. Applause even. Everyone on the stage was stunned. We shot the scene again, thinking this time they’ll see it differently. Nope. Huge laugh the SECOND time.

Still, when we assembled the show we all felt it hurt the scene and ultimately the story. Kudos to the Charles Brothers for being willing to lift the episode’s biggest laugh to preserve the emotional core of the show.

Sometimes jokes can also sacrifice the integrity of your characters -- make them too stupid, too insensitive, etc. When that even becomes a borderline call my vote is to dump the joke. Same with jokes of questionable taste. Take the high road.

As hard as it is to write big jokes, it's always much harder to discard them. But the rewards are greater and you'll like yourself in the morning.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hannspree -- the world's dumbest store

Store owners in Beverly Hills will tell you their busiest time is Saturday afternoons.  The streets are filled with Gucci clad shoppers and tourists from Iowa.  So what does the Hannspree store do?  They close at 2:30 for an hour lunch.   That's like the Cheesecake Factory closing Saturday night from 7-8, or American Airlines going on Hiatus Thanksgiving week.

Hamspree is a store that sells TV's and monitors.  High priced of course.  You can get TVs inserted into frames that look like cows.  That kind of cute shit.  I recently saw a fold up monitor that would be perfect for my baseball travels.  Unfortunately, it was a Hamspree.

When the store finally did open, a leisurely ten minutes after they posted it would, there were two salesmen.  What the fuck?  I asked why one couldn't leave while the other manned the store?  Who closes in the middle of peak customer time?   The salesman said, "Well, if someone buys a big 55 inch TV we gotta get it out of the basement and it takes two people to do that."   "How often do you sell those?" I asked.   His answer:  "That's not the point."   So for the convenience of that once-in-a-blue-moon customer (can't keep him waiting ten minutes), they keep all the other potential customers out.  Brilliant!  Just brilliant!  And again, you're paying Beverly Hills prices. This is the city that laughs at Costco.  The salesman maintained that this was company policy although I question that too.

Needless to say, this sales whiz didn't have what I wanted, didn't know it existed, didn't even recognize it when I showed him a picture.  And of course couldn't order it.  Finally, he said, "Let me show you something close to what you want" and then proceeded to show me a TV that was so completely different from what I wanted that he might as well have shown me a toaster.

When it comes to Hannspree -- the inventory, prices, sales staff, and company policy is OUT TO LUNCH. 

Have Punch-Up Will Travel

Helped out on a pilot one night this week. Some quick observations.

It’s sure a lot more fun when the show is in good shape. This one was.

There’s nothing like being in a room with side-splittingly funny people. Until you reach midnight.

Food you would never touch you eat in rewrites. We had take out Chinese food at 6. So at 9 you can imagine how cold and congealed and generally just “leftover” it was. And yet, we all seemed to grab plates and nibbled on this remaining gunk as the night wore on.

Everyone now checks their iPhone every fifteen minutes.

The room is either too hot or too cold. It seems to go in half-hour increments.

You work with people you know and people you meet for the first time. It’s great fun to work with writers you’ve only heard about. Like discovering a terrific new comedian. And the best part is, new horror stories, different dish. It’s the blood we comedy vampires feast on.

They close a lot of the exit gates at Warner Brothers after midnight. You should have seen us. A convoy of cars driving all over the lot, in and out of streets, looking for the way out. Every time we turned left, there was the damn town square from LOIS & CLARK. I kept expecting to see some lost sad writer from MAVERICK whose been trying to find the open gate since 1957. Finally, we just followed some guy in a golf cart. We figured, if he’s here this late he must know where he’s going. And sure enough! After twenty minutes we finally escaped. I hope the MAVERICK guy gets out.

Best of luck to all the pilots. Especially this one.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why do stars take producing credits? Because they can.

Ready for some Good Friday questions?

Chris asks:

I've seen a lot of canceled (some good actually) shows that have their main star listed as an executive producer since the first season. Is there a connection?

Some stars are in a position to ask for and receive a producing credit. For show writer/creators this is sometimes the deal you have to make with the devil. A producing credit gives the actor more creative say. And depending on the actor, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve had good experiences with Alan Alda and Ray Romano. Both had terrific attitudes and contributed greatly to the development of their shows. There are many others. I hear Keifer Sutherland on 24 for one.

Some shows are better because of the star’s creative vision but they themselves are horrible people. Roseanne springs to mind. I don’t think her show would have been half as good without her input, but her writers are still having Viet Nam flashbacks.

From Cedric Hohnstadt:

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video showing dozens of movie phone calls ending without the characters ever saying good-bye. They just hang up the phone.

There must be a valid reason writers continually script phone calls to end this way. Not being a writer myself I would think that saying good-bye would make a scene feel more real, but maybe that innocent little phrase somehow breaks the tension or flow of a scene? I'd love to know the explanation. Thanks.

Cedric, you’ve hit upon a personal pet peeve of mine. It never makes sense to me that characters don’t say goodbye. How much longer would it take to add one or two words?  Even in a crisis, Jack Bauer has time to say to Chloe, "See ya... unless you don't get me the coordinates and this dirty bomb blows up and we're all dead." 

I have the same pet peeve with “thank you”. So often characters will place a lunch order, or deal with a teller, or get a lift home and they never say “thank you”. Writers grumble when actors question the script but when they say “He just poured me a drink. Wouldn’t I thank him?” I side with the thesp.

In my scripts characters always say goodbye and thank you. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never won an Oscar.

VP81955 wonders:

Just saw a "Frasier" ep where Niles is wearing a pirate outfit...including a certain white shirt. Was this "Frasier's" riposte to the famed "Seinfeld" "puffy shirt" episode? In a larger sense, have you done many sitcom vs. sitcom in-jokes?

I can’t speak to the FRASIER episode because I didn’t write that one. But it is fun to occasionally slip in odes to other shows. On ALMOST PERFECT, anytime anyone was watching TV you heard the CHEERS theme.

This is maybe the most inside example of all. David and I created three series – MARY, BIG WAVE DAVE’S, and (with Robin Schiff) ALMOST PERFECT. None of them had a “last episode”. In all three cases we were hoping to make more. But had we been able to plan a final episode of ALMOST PERFECT, we were going to bring the characters from our other two shows and wrap up all three series at once. Eight people in America might have gotten it but that’s a small price to pay for closure.

And finally, from John, a question that will probably get me in trouble.

Good shows can have their occasional bad episode that for whatever reason, just doesn't gel right. Do you have any examples of the other way around -- a show that's generally bad or just blah that somehow comes up with a really good episode (and then drops back into badness/blahness again).

I know I'm spitting on the cross but that’s the way I feel about CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. For the most part I find it uneven and sometimes tiresome. But every so often an episode will just knock me on my ass. And that seems to happen enough that I keep watching. Brilliance is hard to come by and it’s worth sitting through weeks of Larry acting like a jerk because there’s no sandwich named after him.

What’s your question?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My thoughts on Major League Baseball taking over the Dodgers from Frank McCourt

I’m a lifelong Dodger fan. Went to the Coliseum as a kid (where you were closer to the action if you were in a blimp), cried when they lost the pennant to the dastardly Giants in ’62, took off from work to go to the downtown victory parade in ’81 (okay, I also picked up some great electronics at cheap prices – probably stolen), and I still carry my Sandy Koufax autographed ticket stub in my wallet. For eight seasons I hosted Dodger Talk on the radio. I may not bleed Dodger Blue like Tommy Lasorda, but I have all the bobbleheads (although the Manny Ramirez ones can be yours for a decent offer).

The point is I have always loved the Dodgers. And the Dodgers always made it easy for me to love them. They had (and still have, thank God) the greatest announcer in baseball history, they’ve fielded winning teams (enough of the time), and their owner created an organization that was built on pride, dedication, and class.

When I see what’s become of the franchise in the years since the O’Malley family sold it, it breaks my heart. This is like Queen Elizabeth being charged for a DUI.

Major League baseball yesterday announced that they were stepping in and assuming control of the Dodgers from owner, Frank McCourt. This comes after a messy and costly divorce, almost daily revelations of financial impropriety, and a fan being so severely beaten he’s in a medically induced coma. Attendance is down, season ticket sales is way down, and right or wrong, Dodger fans despise the owner.

Something had to be done. I believe commissioner Selig made the right decision – even though I have no idea who will be running the organization in the interim and who ultimately will own it. Something needed to be done to restore (or salvage even) the faith and allegiance this town has had for this franchise for over fifty years.

I don’t know if any of the charges against Frank McCourt are true. I don’t know if he funneled team profits into his own pocket. Honestly, he’s always been very fair and respectful to me. But the perception is so prevalent that he’s running this franchise into the ground that he can no longer even hope to change that public mindset. It would be like holding back the Pacific Ocean with a broom. Someone else needs to assume control. And look, everyone else in baseball gets fired – why not the owner?

Still, a couple of points I want to address. This should not be a palace coup. Working for McCourt within the organization are many talented, dedicated, people – people that Walter O’Malley would be proud to hire. I hope they survive and even prosper as a result of this takeover.

Also, the local reporters have had a field day over this as you can imagine. Among their list of grievances is that McCourt has let Dodger Stadium turn into a dump. This is just not true. Dodger Stadium is still a wonderful place to see a ballgame. It’s clean, it’s structurally sound (completely retrofitted), freshly painted, and all the more impressive is that it’s fifty years old, for crying out loud.

So as a Dodger fan I’m going to hope that this change is for the better, still root for the team, still go to Dodger Stadium, and savor every second I still have Vin Scully behind the mic.

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The most fun I ever had in radio

Here’s another look back at my disc jockey career – when radio was great and I was passable. One thing that the industry was back then was FUN. Not so today certainly. And it’s a shame – both for the talent and the listeners.

Everything was live and local. You were encouraged to show some personality. Most radio markets had two competing stations playing the exact some music. So the only way to really distinguish yourself was in the presentation. Who had the crazier DJ’s? Who had the wildest contests? Who staged the best concerts? Who had the sluttiest girls call the request line? (Oh wait, that was just for the jocks, not the listeners)

You don’t have that competition today when the same company owns both competing stations (and seven others in the market) and to save money, one guy voice-tracks shows for all of them, they air some syndicated service out of Saugus, California, and the slutty girls are just emailing rock bands.

But the 70s were sweet. The pay was crap, there was zero job security, you had to play “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” six times a night, you usually needed a penicillin shot, and half your annual salary was lost to apartment security deposits because you skipped town so often – but we made up for it in fun.

And if I had to select the single MOST fun experience it would be the launch of KFMB-FM (B100) in March 1975.

Bobby Rich was hired to create an exciting FM Top 40 station for San Diego. SD was a tough market. There already was a juggernaut AM station – KCBQ, and FM rock had already failed once before with KSEA (a station I was on and helped kill).

But Bobby was a showman. He understood that you hire really talented people, give them all the support elements they need to succeed, and then just let them do their thing. The result was a cooking radio station that sounded like pure adrenaline mixed with laughing gas.

And to set the tone right off the bat, Bobby devised the B100 Hours to kick off the format. Here’s Bobby himself, explaining the concept:

Getting the station started I was looking for ways to promote the "100" with slogans, contests and other image branding. So having a 100 hour "Boogie-a-thon" with no commercials and giving away "B-100 Dollar Bills" every 100 minutes just worked.

The real magic came when we started bringing in guest dj's from all over the country for the party. It was a reunion of something that hadn't even happened yet. All of our talent was encouraged to invite jock buddies (like you did with Billy Pearl) who would want to "play radio" with our gang of wacko and wild Boogiemasters.

Oh, doing the math it turns out that is FOUR DAYS and FOUR HOURS. So that required much complicated back timing. To say nothing of the jocks being required to start each hour with the countup "and this is hour 78 of 100 hours of Better Boogie", etc.

Tapes of that insane weekend went viral in the radio industry. I still encounter people who say they have airchecks of me and Billy Pearl (at the time a jock for KHJ Los Angeles) on the air together, doing a limerick competition while we kept re-starting the record over and over.

You never knew who was going to be on the air at any hour, and often disc jockeys were paired off. I got to do an hour with the legendary Chuck Browning – maybe the most caustic human being that ever lived. Great jocks from all over the country would come in, sit down, and just blast. One or two were even sober.

The line-up was crazy. I was there all weekend. I’d work 8-9 PM, then come back and do 4-5 AM, 11-noon, 7-8 PM, etc. No one got any sleep.

I recall doing a morning show with Rich Brother Robbin, and at the time there was a syndicated program going around that basically was a fantasy Woodstock. All these live performances from various albums were woven together as if this amazing rock festival actually took place. We did a mock version. Doing my Ed Sullivan impression, we hosted the Concert for Rock n’ Roll Heaven and played all these dead artists. What we lacked in taste we made up for in audacity.

The launch was a huge success. The entire town was talking about it. And within months B100 dethroned longtime stalwart, KCBQ.

Would something like that work today? I bet it would. Just don’t ask me to work that 4-5 AM shift though, please.

Assuming this works, here's a sample of me on any typical day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Women I love

Here’s who I have major crushes on (this week)…
Margo Martindale – If she doesn’t win an Emmy this year there is no justice and no JUSTIFIED. At least this season. Margo is a wonderful character actress whose portrayal of Mags Bennett on JUSTIFIED is so deliciously evil she steals every scene she’s in. And that’s not easy when she’s playing against Timothy Oliphant or that mongoloid family of hers.

Aubrey Plaza – Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones get all the kudos but Aubrey’s deadpan attitude makes me laugh every time. Her timing is impeccable.

Abbie Cornish – Those of you saying “Who?” won’t be saying that long. She starred in LIMITLESS and is just on the verge of breaking out. Beautiful, plays smart, and has a real presence. This was even apparent in ROBOT CHICKEN. Best thing to come out of Australia since the Bloomin’ Onion.

Kathleen Madigan – Just simply the funniest, sharpest comedienne working today. Imagine a female comic whose act isn’t endless Lesbian jokes or crass insults.

Julianna Margulies – They should change the title of her show to THE GREAT WIFE. I love how real she is and how subtle. It’s especially noticeable when she plays opposite Norma Desmond… I mean Christine Baranski.

Carrie Fisher – In between shock treatments she remains wickedly funny.

Julie Bowen – Finally getting the chance to show what a good physical comedienne she is on MODERN FAMILY. And to me she’s sexier than Sofía Vergara. Call me crazy but I’ll take the girl-next-door over Charo.

Nicole Atkins – Singer/songwriter with a voice that’s been compared to Roy Orbison. Her music is sort of ‘60s Brill Building meets David Lynch. Also was excellent in an American Express commercial, which is how I judge all talent.

Teresa Strasser – Heard locally in Los Angeles every morning on 790 KABC but formerly Adam Carolla’s radio sidekick, author, journalist, Emmy winning writer, and host of talk shows on cable networks no one ever watches. Funny in any medium. Has probably appeared on more Countdown Shows than any other human being since the dawn of time.

Grace Park – A stand-out in BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, she’s totally wasted on HAWAII 5-0. I don’t know what happened. At first she was this bikini-clad badass action hero. Now she’s been reduced to cross checking fingerprints for McGarrett.

Carolyn Hennesey – Sorry Courtney, I watch COUGAR TOWN to see Carolyn. She makes me laugh way more than you. And I’m sure if I gave a crap about soap operas I would like her on GENERAL HOSPITAL, too.

and finally:

My wife -- so these other girls are safe from me hitting on them. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Comedy 101 is back in session

From time to time I like to deconstruct a half-hour episode of comedy and give you some insight into the thought process we went through in writing ALMOST PERFECT.   If you're writing a spec, it might be especially helpful.  Otherwise, it's a glimpse behind the curtain. 

ALMOST PERFECT was a CBS show that ran for almost two seasons in the mid ‘90s. It starred Nancy Travis as Kim, the head writer of a cop show and Kevin Kilner as Mike, an assistant D.A.

The episode was “Your Place or Mine” and was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It starts about a minute into the video (I don’t know how to edit out title cards).

The hardest part of writing any show is finding stories. That’s why a solid series premise can make your life sooooo much easier. We originally had that (until CBS made us lose the boyfriend). Here’s the premise: Kim is a bright, attractive single woman in her 30s. She’s struggling with her career and struggling with her personal life. On the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life and both are full-time jobs. Very simple, very clear. And it set up a series of stories exploring the various stages of their relationship.

About eight or nine episodes in we decided it was time to do the story where the woman stays at the man’s place for the first time. We tried not to tell stories that were too complicated. We wanted room to let the characters breathe. I recognize that today the style is way more frenetic but dramatic structure is still the same regardless of pace.

So the general arc of the story was that Kim stays overnight at Mike’s for the first time, hates it, but he loves it and now she’s stuck. What does she do? How does she tell him? And more importantly, how’s the funniest way to tell this story?

In the first scene we needed to set up that Kim has never been to Mike’s place. Easy enough to do – someone could just ask her. But we were always looking for more interesting ways to get out exposition. So the solution was Kim and the writers would be on the stage of their fictional TV show and she had to approve the set of an assistant D.A.’s apartment. Her lack of familiarity led to the revelation that she’s never seen Mike’s place. The thought is planted that maybe she should.

One character trait we gave Kim was that she was a princess. She didn’t think so but she was. So the more basic and generic his apartment, the more uncomfortable she’d be. One commenter yesterday said that that trait made her unlikeable.   But without flaws characters are not funny.  That Kim is materialistic doesn't make her a bad person.  Just as being vain doesn't make Sam Malone a bad person.  

Next scene is Kim’s bedroom that night. She’s in bed with Mike. Objective of the scene: Arrange to stay at Mike’s the next night. Kim casually brings it up, he’s ambivalent. Why? Because she’s such a princess. We needed to re-establish that for the audience.  She needs a fan to provide white noise in order to sleep. Now this upcoming first night is more than just a sleep-over, the gauntlet has been dropped. Can she prove she’s not a princess?

Here comes the fun part. We had to make this night as absolutely horrible on Kim as we could. And every dreadful feature had to be something that occurred on a regular basis. So every night would be this bad.   (That's another aspect of comedy -- if a character has some failing, it's fun to see them pay the price.)

The best ideas, invariably the most painful and embarrassing, come from real life.  

A number of years ago, a friend in San Francisco loaned my wife and I his apartment for the weekend while he went out of town. That was great except we discovered he had a waterbed. Neither of us could sleep for two nights. So we gave Mike a waterbed.

Once when I was shopping for condos I was shown a place that was surprisingly cheap considering the neighborhood. I soon found out why. It was on the ground floor right next to the complex’s tennis court. That meant a bright light shined in the bedroom all night and you’d hear people playing tennis at all hours. That was perfect for our story, too.

One of the other writers once had a neighbor when he was living in an apartment, who played a radio talk show all night.  That kept him up all hours. We thought, let’s change that to Headline News so it’s like the Chinese Water Torture Test. Every half-hour it goes on again… and it’s the exact same show.

Okay, we were almost there. We wanted one more thing. Something inside the room. All these other atrocities were big.  For contrast, we also wanted something small.  Someone came up with the idea that Mike mutters something annoying in his sleep (that he doesn’t when he’s in a regular bed). The on-the-nose answer is snoring. We wanted something a little fresher. Hence: “puh”.

So Mike ushers Kim into his apartment. We see it’s an Oakwood Gardens cookie-cutter no-frills dry-wall place with standard rented furniture. Kim is already bracing herself.  Then they go into the bedroom and Kim discovers the waterbed. It’s fun seeing her try to be the good sport when already you know she’s in hell.

Then the scene where they try to sleep and we pile on these nightmarish features. (Trivia note: the two idiots playing tennis off screen are me, and my partner, David Isaacs.)

On to the next morning. She’s had the worst night sleep ever. He’s had the best. To make matters worse, he now has new-found respect for her. And he wants them to stay over at his place again that night. That sounds like an act break to me.

Now we’re at the office. Two reasons. We needed to service the other characters. And we needed Kim to express her frustration. This leads to the question of whether she should be honest and tell him her real feelings. It’s also a chance for us to get to know our characters better – something we put a high priority on. The more the audience knows about your characters, the more they will care about your characters. So we felt this was a good place to have Rob tell this long story, which gives you a real insight into his dysfunctional background. (By the way, Matt Letscher was great, wasn’t he?)

The ultimate objective of this scene was to get Kim to agree to tell Mike the truth. So in the next scene, when Mike goes out of his way for her, you know it’s really blocking her intentions.

First and foremost, the audience needs to be able to track the story. They need to know what the characters’ attitudes are. How the characters react may be surprising, but only if the audience is following along.   And characters don't just say what their attitudes are.  You have to artfully convey them.

We needed a device in the office scene to tip the scale and get Kim to decide to come clean. Just presenting arguments until she finally says, “Okay!” isn’t interesting and certainly isn't funny. The solution was Neal’s “fake orgasm” speech. It gave us a very funny beat, and then allowed us to play back on it while she’s on the phone. He made his point while getting laughs. And it’s another case where laughs don’t have to come just from constructed “jokes”. By setting up the situation right, we got big laughs from every “Oh yeah”, and “Uh huh”.

Back to the apartment, Mike goes out of his way, and even bought her a fan (reprising that device from scene two). She can’t bring herself to tell him. So now she has a bigger dilemma – another night of hell and she’s unable to call it off.

We go back to the bedroom for the second night of Kim futility trying to sleep. Obviously, we didn’t want to just repeat what we had done in act one. Yet, we needed to reprise all the incidents we saw before. Our solution was to have Kim take action this time. See her try to solve all of these issues, one by one. It’s always best when a character tries to actively solve a problem.

We needed to build to Kim having no choice but to tell him. The best way to do that was to have him catch her going to all these lengths. But what would be the funniest reveal? We decided that puncturing the waterbed was the answer. The geyser of water between them as they sat on the bed was a terrific visual, and then after all that build-up, Kim matter-of-factly telling Mike she wasn’t happy here got a huge laugh.  The end.

If you’re writing a spec script, especially a spec pilot, don’t feel you have to tell a twisty complicated story. You don’t. Devote your time and energy to getting the most bang for your buck in every scene. Trust me, I know the scripts that are floating around out there -- you will be way ahead of the curve.

Best of luck. Class dismissed. Mid-term in a couple of weeks so study up.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Homework for tomorrow's lesson

Hello, everybody. This is Comedy 101. Check to see if you're in the right class. For those new to the course, what we do is show you a half-hour sitcom episode and then tomorrow I deconstruct it. This is from a series I co-created in the mid '90s for CBS called ALMOST PERFECT.  It starred Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner.   She's the head writer of a TV cop show and he's an assistant D.A.  The series explored their relationship.  This is about episode seven or eight.   Tomorrow I break it down.

Note:  I have no idea how to edit these things so the title card is still there.  The show starts about a minute in.  It's easier for me to run a television show than learn how to use ProTools. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thats it! I'm officially done with AMERICAN IDOL

Finally got around to playing back this week’s AMERICAN IDOL. I’ve been reviewing IDOL for this blog (originally every week) for the last five years. Well, after screening this week’s episode I can categorically say “I’m done.”

What the hell were these judges watching because it sure wasn’t the show I was watching? There’s not a single contestant this year that doesn’t bore the crap out of me and yet the judges think each and every one is the second coming of Christ. There’s such an utter disconnect with reality that AMERICAN IDOL has become the O.J. murder trial with a band.

And I’ve had it.

This was “movie week”, which was a joke.  They could choose any song that’s been in any movie ever. Other than “Sweet Black P*ssy” that’s pretty much every song ever recorded. So of all the great songs that have been in feature films, one knothead girl does an inane Miley Cyrus tune (standard tripe about moving mountains and reaching for your dreams. Yawn.), and the judges were moved.

Some kid croaked a Boyz II Men song and was so overwrought I thought he was going to have a breakdown right there on stage. It was a song from that tear jerker BOOMERANG. The judges thought it was brilliant.  Huh???

The 13 year-old country crooner who sings the exact same song every week and is about as contemporary as buggy whips was hailed as a new star. On what planet?

Contestant Casey’s schtick is to do something unusual every week. This week he struck out big time.  He tried to do a jazz version of Nat King Cole's “Nature Boy”. He was a sketch, adding “yeahs!” in the middle of stanzas for no earthly reason. For this unintended parody he received a standing ovation from the judges.

One girl was so bad singing “Call Me” that even the judges were forced to admit she wasn’t brilliant. But Jennifer said to vote for her anyway because too many girls are getting booted off. That’s objective.

The kid whose only real talent is pretty teeth made a mockery of “Old Time Rock n’ Roll” and for good measure, dressed like a jester. Randy named him the next great rock entertainer. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL had a better grasp on reality.

Another kid mimicked a metal rocker while the big African-American dude, whose style went out with the Platters in 1958, slaughtered “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (a song that qualified because it just happened to be in the movie, PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS.) Paul Simon was probably making a noose but Jennifer had chills.

Over the past two seasons I’ve gone from bored, to aggravated, to downright insulted. This show has become so contrived and so bogus and if the producers seriously believe that I’d buy into this balloon juice, they must think I’m a blithering, drooling, brain dead idiot.

But they’re wrong. I’m smart enough to delete my season pass for AMERICAN IDOL. And believe me, that was the only decent performance of the entire night.

Levine, OUT.  For good.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Happy birthday Liz Montgomery... and other stuff

You may think of this as Friday question day, or tax day, but it’s also Elizabeth Montgomery’s birthday… or at least would have been. God, I miss her.

William Gallagher starts us off:

What's it like for a showrunner when their show hasn't officially been cancelled but the star takes a role in a new pilot? I'm thinking of Kyle Bornheimer and Perfect Couples: could there be a case where the original show gets picked up for a new season and they can't get the cast back?

Usually it means the handwriting is on the wall. Not always but when actors are looking for other projects as back-ups, the sense is the show is not coming back. But the showrunners generally have that vibe already.

After ALMOST PERFECT was cancelled I was freelance directing for awhile. One show I did was on the bubble. The showrunner came to me with the numbers, trying to put a good spin on it, asking me what I thought. I said, “You don’t want to come to me. I know how this ends.” Sure enough….

Now when an actor from a show takes another pilot for the same network then it’s almost certain his original series is toast.

I find this amusing because in some cases the reason a show didn’t work is precisely because of a certain actor. And that actor gets cast in something else.

Lou H. has a question relating to my post on “Three-percenter” jokes.

It's interesting that the shows cited here that are heavy on the obscure jokes aren't filmed in front of live audiences. 30 ROCK, COMMUNITY, animated shows. Does having a live audience put any pressure on the writers to use broader jokes?

Absolutely. Without question. When you have a live audience your aim is to get big laughs. The jokes tend to be more structured as well. Set-ups and punch-lines. And the set-ups are the key. They must provide the necessary information to make the joke work. On single-camera shows you can just toss in one-liners and quips as afterthoughts. The viewer either has the information (understands the reference) or he doesn’t. But the joke is not held accountable. On multi-camera shows you have to really earn each laugh. People malign the form but in many ways it’s much harder to write a good funny multi-camera show.

From morgan:

Do you consider call-backs to the series own mythology to be in this genre or a separate thing (from obscure 3%er jokes) altogether?

If you’re able to do call-backs to previous episodes it means you’ve got a big hit show and a sizable portion of your audience will get the jokes. We did that on CHEERS a lot. There would be references throughout the last few years to Diane leaving Frasier at the alter, an event from season three. Off screen characters take on personalities after awhile, too. Vera from CHEERS. Maris from FRASIER. But again, the key, is you have to have a large enough fan base to justify it.

Earl Pomerantz, in his blog, once did a good article about SEINFELD and a wallet being discovered in the couch that had been lost weeks ago. He points out that these jokes are a big delight because they’re so unexpected, and that most sitcoms have amnesia when it comes to past events. That's true and a show's lore only evolves over time. 

And finally, Laurel has a CHEERS question.

In the last episode of series 5 of Cheers (I do and adieu) Sam and Diane don’t get married so that Diane can go and finish writing her book. In reality was the episode filmed exactly as it was broadcast or did you film a different ending in front of the live audience so that they wouldn’t know the real ending and the fact that Shelley Long was leaving the show?

I had a different answer originally but was informed by an astute reader that indeed there was one filmed where they got married that was only to throw people off the scent that Shelley wasn't coming back.  Honestly, I don't remember that.  I wasn't there the night they shot it.  Perhaps the memory lapse was because we knew she wasn't coming back so there was never any room discussion of how to proceed with Sam & Diane now married.   In many ways, the series got a shot in the arm with a new character (Rebecca) and gave us new stories.  But on the other, I think CHEERS lost a lot of its soul when Shelley left.

Gotta question? Lemme know.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

SOURCE CODE -- my review

SOURCE CODE is a techno-thriller meets GROUNDHOG DAY. I guess because television now does drama and suspense far better than the movies (and you never have to worry about Matthew McConaughey starring in any of them), Hollywood now believes every feature thriller has to be high-concept. Hence INCEPTION, THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, HOP. But of all these recent big idea films, SOURCE CODE is by far the best.

And here’s why.

You probably know the premise. A decorated soldier gets put on a commuter train to Chicago to try to uncover a bomb and a terrorist in eight minutes. And when he fails he just keeps going back and going back. So a large portion of the movie is set on this train. And when it is, SOURCE CODE becomes a movie about human behavior. There’s no whiz-bang special effects. No one walks through portals. The city doesn’t fold into itself. Thor doesn't save the day.

It’s just a regular guy trying to solve a tricky puzzle and along the way establish a romantic relationship… while the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the guy and is terrific. Michelle Monaghan is the girl and you could see why Jake, or anybody, would want to fall in love with her. Too bad Jake wasn’t a Zoloft salesman like he was in his last movie. The sex scenes between him and Monaghan would have been sweet! So the world blows up? Earn that Hard-R!

Another standout in the movie for me was Vera Farmiga. I just find her so sexy. And when you can look hot when wearing your hair up and in an Air Force uniform, to me that’s the true test.

Kudos to Ben Ripley for a wildly imaginative script. And Duncan Jones' top notch directing made the implausible premise seem almost plausible. 

Oh sure, you’ll walk out pondering, “Just how does this time warp concept work again?”, and "Isn't there a food car on this train?"  But at least they set up rules and seemed to abide by them. All too often in these techno-thrill rides they just keep making up new ones as they go along. Well, it turns out there’s a black hole that if you go through while in REM sleep during Passover you have your choice of being invisible or getting zero down on the purchase of a new Prius.

But I highly recommend SOURCE CODE. And the great thing is, if you get to the theater a little late, it pretty starts over every eight minutes!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You're going to think I'm making this up

But I'm not.  Compare my flight on a commercial airliner to any you've ever been on. 

This is another excerpt from the other book I'm writing -- on growing up a teenager in the '60s.  It could also serve as my very first travelogue.  (More current travelogues are contained in my hilarious current book, WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED -- available at ridiculously cheap prices in both paperback and ebook versions.  Order seven today!)   

It's 1969.  I've lived in the San Fernando Valley my entire life but always wanted to go back east, New York in particular.  So I saved my money and hit the road. 

The plan was this: Three weeks. First week in Gotham. Then meet-up with one of my radio freak buddies and drive with him to his home in Pittsburgh. Spend a day or so soaking in the wonders of the Steel City and then fly to D.C. See those sights and stop off in Louisville to visit my cousin on the way home. I had introduced him to the Sunset Strip a couple of years ago. He could return the favor and show me where they filmed some scenes from Goldfinger.

The airlines were all regulated back then; all required to charge the same fares. The carriers all cried that they couldn’t make money this way so in the ‘80s the government relented and dropped pricing regulations. Within months several long established airlines went bankrupt.

But in 1969 fares were standard. And all the airlines had a great deal for students. You could fly for half price. And you could get huge discounts on hotel rooms if you were a student. So for maybe a couple hundred bucks I booked all my flights and reserved a room in New York at the prestigious Statler Hilton across the street from Madison Square Garden for $9.50 a night.

My how traveling has changed. I checked in my suitcase (for free) and my family escorted me right to the gate. People dressed nice to fly on airplanes. You didn’t see one “SHIT HAPPENS” t-shirt.

I flew TWA. This was one of the major carriers, equivalent to United or American – now dead (yeah, deregulation was a GREAT idea). Once in the air they distributed free headsets so we could listen to seven channels of music. Moments later, carts were wheeled down the aisles and we were all served a hot breakfast – omelets or French toast. And the utensils were genuine metal! Then a big screen was lowered and they showed a free movie (Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner). But that was nothing. Here’s the kicker: I’ve never seen this on any other flight I’ve ever taken – they set up a big brunch buffet. We all lined up down the aisle and helped ourselves to lox, bagels, cold cuts, and fruit and various salads.

And this was coach!

The guys in First Class must’ve been getting blowjobs.

Landed at JFK around 4:00 and taxied into the city, getting my first look at that Manhattan skyline. Wow! The Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies didn’t do it justice. I was Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy – a wide-eyed rube taking in the “big city” for the first time. This was a world unlike any I had ever witnessed. Just the sheer number of WIGS stores was staggering to me. How many New Yorkers need wigs?

Was deposited at my hotel, a grand old structure of stature and grace, and then shown to my elegant $9.50 a night room. It was the size of litter box. There was one single bed, a window that looked out at the back of the Gimbels’ Department Store neon flashing sign, and a TV that was so old it said “the Dumont Network” above channel 5. But I didn’t care. I was really in New York. I turned on my transistor radio and there was Dan Ingram on WABC trashing some sponsor’s frozen clam dip.

I just walked around that first night. Saw the Empire State Building, Macy’s, seventeen WIGS stores. I had dinner at Howard Johnson’s. I didn’t feel self-conscious that I was eating alone because everyone there was eating alone.

After dinner I wandered into Madison Square Garden. There was a Billy Graham Crusade that week. Billy Graham was a charismatic TV evangelist who rose to great prominence with lavish stage extravaganzas… I mean, religious services. But admission was free (donation cups were passed around like joints) so I checked it out. I didn’t find God but I did see where the Knicks and Rangers played.

Join me on the radio

This morning I will be doing a virtual book tour, shamelessly plugging WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED on radio shows all across the country (and hopefully being entertaining, too).  Here's the schedule, subject to change.  All times, Eastern.   Hope you can tune in if you're in one of those towns.  A new post follows at 10:30 AM Eastern.

8:00 WTKW Syracuse
8:10 KQRS Minneapolis/St.Paul
8:20 WNDB Orlando
8:30 KTOE Mankato, MN
8:40 WBAL Baltimore
8:50 WEGE Lima, OH
9:00 KRWK Fargo, ND
9:10 WHAM Rochester
9:20 WWMX Baltimore
9:30 WIMT Lima, OH
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writers' torture: waiting for your script to be read

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Opening Night -- My Oh My

Okay, this is kind of a personal one.  My account of opening day last Friday.  Might not be subject matter that interests you (in which case I invite you to click here for my other post today), but it held a lot of meaning for me so I thought I'd share it. 

Even though it was not my weekend to do play-by-play, I had to fly up to Seattle for the Mariners' home opener and Dave Niehaus tribute. Dave was the voice of the M's for 34 seasons -- a couple of them even winning. But the great thing about the city of Seattle -- they don't shoot the messenger; they exalt him. As well they should. Anyone can call a walk-off home run, but to make a game come alive and sound enthralling when you're losing 12-0 in the fourth inning, that takes an artist (or magician). Dave passed away last November at 75 and I'm one of his former partners brought back this year to keep the torch lit and give Rick Rizzs a break once in awhile (although he does get 10 seconds off every half hour during station breaks, so I don't know what the problem is).

Arrived Friday morning, took a shuttle, walked ten city blocks, weaved in and out of traffic, and finally made it to baggage claim at Sea-Tac airport. Lunch at F.X. McCrory's -- my favorite eatery in all of Seattle (Cheers with Dungeness crabs) then a long stroll back to my hotel where I encountered two guys at a table at the Safeco Field third base entrance. They were all alone; there wasn't a soul. I just naturally assumed they were two nuts passing out pamphlets for some screwball religious cult but in fact they were Bob & Groz, two sports talk hosts from our station (710 ESPN). They were broadcasting live, capturing the excitement of the fans arrival. Somebody should have told them the game wasn’t for seven more hours. They were nice enough to have me go on with them for a few minutes. I’d like to think it was because I’m a part of the Mariners’ broadcast team and not just cause I was the only one there.

Back to the hotel to get dressed for the game. Opening night requires an ensemble that is both dignified and elegant. Jacket, tie, and white shoes. Yes, white shoes. This was in honor of Dave, who always sported the uh ..."deck look". Hey, at least he didn't wear those loud "who shot the couch?" plaid jackets.

So I wore those white shoes proudly, happy to show the world I was a big fan of Dave Niehaus and  Miami Vice.

First ceremony was the unveiling of Dave's street sign on 1st Avenue. The corner was packed with adoring fans. Also present were members of the city council and the gentleman who wears 200 stuffed Mariner Moose. Dave's wife, Marilyn, surrounded by family members did the honors and a huge cheer erupted from the big crowd when we saw for the first time "Dave Niehaus Way South". I hope it's there for a hundred years. We'll all be gone but Jamie Moyer will still be pitching.

Then to Safeco Field, which was all decked out for opening night. You know it’s a special occasion when red-white-and blue bunting is festooned on the grandstands. For some American League parks that's the only bunting their fans will see all year. Went down to the field for batting practice. Reunited with all the players who didn't remember me from two weeks ago.

Caught up with my broadcast partners, also wearing spiffy white shoes. Dave Sims looked like Superfly and Rick Rizzs looked like the social director of a Carnival cruise. As a little feature for the game telecast, the three of us re-enacted the My Three Sons opening.

From there it was up to the booth to cover all the pomp and circumstance. Mariners Talk host, Matt Pittman and I described the scene on the radio. I thought we did well. If one of us was a woman I bet we'd be approached to host the Rose Parade.

The on-field tribute to Dave was tremendous. The Mariners did a spectacular job. A video montage on the Times Square-sized video board, complete with some play-by-play highlights had 47,000 people in tears. Local hip hop artist, McLemore has a YouTube hit honoring Dave and he performed it live. I’m sure if Dave were here he’d say it was off the hook, off the chain.

Dave's longtime colleagues Rick Rizzs, Kevin Cremin, and Ron Fairly unveiled a large sign of his name to be permanently displayed on the facade above the press box. As I’ve said many times, if Yankee Stadium is the House That Ruth Built then Safeco Field is the Haus that Nie Built.

Then the real killer moment when Dave's wife, children, and grandchildren all walked out to the mound. Marilyn, wearing a Mariner jersey with the number 77 (the first year of the franchise), threw out the first pitch to Cy Young winner, Felix Hernandez. We have much to thank Marilyn for. She and the family shared Dave with us for 34 years. That's a lot of missed school plays and birthday celebrations so we could hear the Veteran Spieler sing The Wabash Cannonball anytime the M’s were down by at least ten runs.

The crowd stood and cheered for a good fifteen minutes. And then, during the game, the absolute highlight, the coupe de ville, as Dave used to say (mocking a manager who once used that expression incorrectly), through the wonder of tape we got to hear Dave sing The Wabash Cannonball one more time on the air. My oh my! Thanks to the Mariners for giving up ten runs to Cleveland in the fourth inning.

I know I’ll never be able to forget that emotional, magical, special night. Just as I know I’ll never be able to get rid those white shoes.