Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My response to Roseanne

Wow! Roseanne reads my blog! Cool! In her blog she posted a rebuttal to a piece I wrote last week about her article in New York magazine. Here’s what I wrote. And on Sunday here’s what she wrote.

It’s silly to even get into a debate. I’d say the madness and paranoia of her rant speaks for itself. My reaction to it was sadness. She’s battling enormous demons. For all of her gifts and talent, that’s a steep price to pay.

I hope someday she finds some happiness in her life.

One loose end.  In her blog post she wrote this:

I took responsiblity for bad behavior, but explained that the bad behavior was during a nervous breakdown brought on by having to work in a hostile work environment, and I am pretty sure that women who have worked for you in the past (if indeed there were ANY) worked in a hostile work environment. Let me know, women writers out there--how were you treated on Ken Levine's staff?

Two women writers who worked with me and for me responded -- Robin Schiff, who was the co-creator and co-showrunner of ALMOST PERFECT with David Isaacs and I, and Linda Teverbaugh who was a producer on that show.    Also, I received a note from Laurie Gelman.  Not to stir the pot but she was the first woman producer of ROSEANNE season one.  Her account of that first year is markedly different from Roseanne's.  You decide.    My thanks to Robin, Linda, and Laurie. 

And again, Roseanne, you asked.  Let me just conclude by saying if you're reading this in Hawaii, I wish you aloha, trade winds, and anything to bring you some peace.  


From Robin Schiff:
 
I am a women writer who has worked with Ken Levine on three different occasions. Although he begged me to say nice things about him, I have to be honest and talk about my true experience.

Several (okay, many) years ago, I brought Ken and his partner David Isaacs an idea for a TV series. At the time, I didn’t have the experience (or cachet) to make it happen on my own. Ken and David loved the idea, which was about a strong, successful, likable, complex, opinionated woman trying to juggle a happening career with a satisfying lovelife. Not only did Ken and David get behind the fictional version of the woman, they instantly embraced the “real version” (me) as an equal and true partner. They were also my mentors, making sure I learned every aspect of producing. What they taught me was life-changing, giving me the tools to go on and have a career as one of a handful of female show runners. There are many sexist guys in the business, but Ken Levine is not one of them. The most sexist thing he ever did was blather on about baseball with the other men in the room despite the fact that I was visibly bored. Hardly grounds for a lynching.

One final thought. I totally agree with Roseanne that there is rampant sexism in the industry. A couple of weeks ago, the WGAw released its executive summary finding that (in addition to dismal stats for ethnically diverse or older writers), women comprise only 28% of working writers. We still make less money than men. All you have to do is look at the writers onstage accepting Emmys for late night talk shows and sitcoms to see that women comedy writers are on the endangered list.

That being said, it undermines the validity of a very real issue for all women anytime a woman explains away what might simply be fallout from her own actions by charging it up to sexism. Maybe Matt Williams should have given Roseanne a co-created-by credit for Roseanne. I can’t comment on that. But to say that this was because she was a woman doesn’t hold water since Matt Williams also took a sole created by credit on Home Improvement – which was based on Tim Allen’s stand-up act. I empathize with how unfairly Roseanne feels she was treated. But sexist? I would love to know how many female executive producers Roseanne employed on her own show. Did she foster talented women writers and empower them to become showrunners like Ken Levine and David Isaacs did with me? Just wondering…

From Linda Teverbaugh:

I hate to say it, being a great admirer of "Roseanne," the series (much of it, anyway), but Roseanne, the person, is talking out of her own asshat. She's right about one thing: She did hire standup friends as writers on the series. Tom Arnold's buddies, too. I know this because I'm a female writer from a blue-collar family who got screwed out of a job as a result. Thank you, Sister Woman. It was, however, my great good fortune to work for Ken shortly thereafter. Ken doesn't share Roseanne's fixation on "getting credit," so he'd never bring this up. But too bad, Ken, I'm going to: While Roseanne was literally farting on table drafts, throwing out scripts left and right, and as a consequence, holding all the writers' lives hostage, Ken busted his ass to keep the "Almost Perfect" room running efficiently, which meant keeping peace with the stage, the studio, the network, and all the other havoc makers who make sitcom hours exhausting or impossible. As far as I know he did not do this by threatening anyone with scissors. Instead, he made it possible for this working mother to leave work when the Paramount day-care center closed for the day, take my toddler son home and give him dinner. It meant the world to me, and, of all the female sitcom writers I know with kids, I'm one of the rare ones who ever got support like that. Sorry Roseanne, but that's fucking feminism.

And by the way, if Roseanne wanted "created by" credit, she needed to sit down with Matt Williams and help break and write the story for the pilot. That's what Drew Carey did with Bruce Helford.


And finally, from Laurie Gelman:

It didn’t take long for me to get a taste of the staggering sexism and class bigotry that would make the first season of Roseanne god-awful.

This makes me laugh every time I read it. I don’t know how she defines sexism, but she is one of the biggest perpetrators I have ever met. I was the first female writer producer on Roseanne and she absolutely refused to acknowledge me -- on stage or in the room. No eye contact. Nothing. She’s one of these women ( and I’m sure lots of your female writer friends can relate to this type) who likes to be the only woman in the room and play up to all the men. I was actually astounded by this because I expected her to be just the opposite. Now if you were below the line and kissing her tuchas to keep your job, you may have gotten another one of her many personalities, but this is a woman who is definitely threatened by smart, funny women and has to alpha dog all competitors. By the way, if the first season was so god-awful, how did we make it to number 1?

It was at the premiere party when I learned that my stories and ideas—and the
ideas of my sister and my first husband, Bill—had been stolen.

Really???? People actually broke into their minds and took them???? I was on the show from the rewriting of the pilot in New York all the way through the first season. There was never any point where Matt Williams did not include Roseanne in the creative process and actually want her input. In fact, I have never worked with an EP more inclusive or fair ( or nicer) than Matt Williams. He bent over backwards to please her. We made it a point to bring her into the room and get her take on every idea before we laid out the stories. Obviously, we also accommodated her notes on all the drafts. Additionally, Matt permitted her husband Bill Pentland to sit in on all the rewrite tables, thus giving her additional insurance that the Roseanne take on things was being adequately addressed.


The pilot was screened, and I saw the opening credits for the first time, which included this: CREATED BY MATT WILLIAMS. I was devastated and felt so betrayed that I stood up and left the party.

Great. More food for us.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Above is a photo of real MASH doctors.

Several times studios and networks have come to my writing partner, David and me asking us to create another MASH. Well, that can’t be done. MASH is unique. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s a life and death situation. And the entire premise is built around insanity. The insanity of war, the insanity of doctors treating patients who never should be there in the first place. Comedy that comes from pain, from futility.

When you watch MASH, as well as hopefully being entertained, please appreciate the sacrifice these young soldiers and all American soldiers have made for their country.

Our thanks and prayers go to them and their families on this Memorial Day.


Tomorow:  My response to Roseanne's angry rebuttal of my article about her.    Warning:  it will be a very short response.   But first, here's what she wrote about me in her blog.  Ouch. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Character actors

My heart goes out to character actors.

When you read casting breakdowns there are a lot more productions seeking, “Male, 30’s, handsome, charming” than “Overweight, 50’s, Italian/Russian mix, unibrow”.

And the few character actors that are successful enough that they don’t have to be service managers at Jiffy Lube ultimately get trapped by their own success. Producers will glance at their headshots or see them read and say, “Him again? Jesus. This guy’s been on a million shows. Can’t we find any new overweight Italian/Russians? “

When you walk into a room and the producers go, “Hey, it’s the ‘can you hear me’ guy!” or “I’ve seen that big white head before. Aren’t you Jack from Jack in the Box?” you’re dead.

Or if a production is to be filmed on location in say, Houston. They’ll cast from the local pool there. Yes, that Nazi soldier might speak with a drawl but it’s cheaper to over-dub him than fly a real Nazi halfway across the country.

And time is never a friend. They get too old to play the cute waitress, the ballplayer, or Julia Roberts’ best friend (although Julia Roberts miraculously never ages herself).

If a character actor isn’t hot agents often lose interest. There’s always some Chihuahua who’s easier to book.

The most heartbreaking casting session I ever held was on MASH. We had a USO subplot in an episode and needed an accordion player. One by one, ten accordion players came in to audition. They all looked right, they all could play “Lady of Spain”. We had to choose one, which we did. But I felt so terrible for the others. How many calls do they get from their agent saying “MASH needs an accordion player”? How many of them kissed their wives goodbye on the way to the casting session saying, “I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

So the next time you’re in Jiffy Lube or Wal-Mart or Staples be nice to the clerk. He may be one hell of an accordion player.

Off to Seattle to begin broadcasting all next week for the Mariners.  Would love to meet all of you in the area.  I'm open to suggestions. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Okay...this is AMAZING

This is amazing. It's a prediction of what a home computer would be like and some of the features it would provide. And the cool thing is -- it was made in 1966.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Mockumentary" style sitcoms -- innovative or lazy writing?

Okay, I think I’ve got the calendar right this time. THIS is the Memorial Day weekend coming up. Here are some Friday questions to kick off the summer.


bmfc1 wonders about the current sitcom trend of doing them in a “mockumentary” style.

Ken, do you think that this is a lazy form of writing? Instead of having the characters talk to each other to advance the plot, they talk to a fictional documentary crew.

And I can't get past why a documentary would be made about any of these people.

Especially in the case of MODERN FAMILY, I don’t think it’s lazy writing at all. Those MF episodes are so well crafted and have so much going on that I suspect they’re harder to write than most single or multi-camera comedies. As for the “interview” segments, yes, those can be a trap to get out lazy exposition but MF, THE OFFICE, and PARKS & REC manage to cleverly avoid that and use those segments more as comic punctuation.

As for the second part of your question, there’s no question there’s a suspension of belief required. Especially in the case of THE OFFICE. How much footage do these people need to do a documentary? They're not making TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.  A reader of the blog, Mac, contributed a comment recently that nicely explains the derivation of this genre.

The pseudo-doc form in TV comedy came out of a trend in late 90's British TV called 'docu-soaps.' These were ordinary or unremarkable people in everyday situations. They were cheap to make, access to workplaces and people was easy, and they got good ratings. There was loads of them - in an airport, a driving school, a pest control firm.

It was a format that UK viewers were very familiar with at the time. As the participants cottoned on that being in one could get you a bit of fame, they started playing up more for the camera.

Thanks, Mac. So Ricky Gervais’ OFFICE was a spoof of these. I’m sure that here in America they just copied the form for our version simply because that’s what the Brits did. So what if there's no context?  It's different!   And since the show was a success, others copied it.  I'm 1000% certain that if a sitcom premieres and is a huge hit and is in black and white that the next season there will be six more black and white pilots. 

Personally, I’m ambivalent about the mockumentary. It’s clearly just a gimmick, and for me it’s the story, humor, and characters that I’m drawn to. If they make me laugh, I don’t care if it’s a mockumentary, cartoon, or puppet show.

Rarely, does the device get in the way for me… although it did once on MODERN FAMILY. Ironically, it was in one of my favorite episodes. It’s the one where the kids accidentally enter their parents’ bedroom while they’re making love. There was a shot from the kids’ POV, which I buy. I believe a cameraman might have followed them up the stairs. But there was also a camera in the bedroom. So we’re supposed to assume that a cameraman is always present when they have sex? If so, forget about what else happens in the family. Just show THAT.


Phillip B asks:

So a serious question - is there really enough talent out there ready to fuel a sitcom renaissance?

Absolutely. Without question. You just need the RIGHT people. Trust me, there are scores of incredibly talented Emmy winning writers who can’t get arrested. And that number pales in comparison to the number of gifted actors who are telling you the nightly specials at the Cheesecake Factory. This isn’t like WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. Hollywood doesn’t have to turn over rocks to find six people who can perform without inducing projectile vomiting from the audience.

Sebastian queries: 

What do you think is the most powerful female character in the us-sitcom-history. Whose attitude was groundbraking, who is the most powerful? And did it all start with Mary Richards? What about Ellen Morgan? 

One word: Lucy.



And finally, from Terry Benish:

I have invested enough time in reading your blog to become hooked. I began to think of process in terms of your work and writing for new and ongoing projects that you are involved in, your life as it were. I enjoy humor and good wine and as an analogy a vintner over time loses the joy that say a novice like me receives when he tastes a good Syrah for the first time. Does that also capture what it is like for you? Do you taste the terroir of the joke and get lost in the technicality of the joke or bit? Are you able to laugh freely and be surprised very often, if at all? Best wishes.

Nothing pleases me more than just laughing heartily at something I’m watching. When I start noticing the technicalities that’s because I’m not fully engaged. I was on a Mariners’ team flight recently watching an episode of BIG BANG THEORY and laughing my ass off. I was getting funny looks but I didn’t give a shit. A good joke will make me laugh. And for the record, I like my jokes slightly woodsy, dry, and playfully articulate.

What’s your question? Drive carefully this weekend. And if you're traveling, buy my book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Notes from the JUSTIFIED screening and Q & A

Natalie Zea   Tim Olyphant   Graham Yost

Margo Martindale   Walton Goggins  Erica Tazel
Got to attend the special night devoted to JUSTIFIED at the TV Academy earlier this week. They showed the second season finale and had a Q & A with members of the cast and showrunner/creator Graham Yost. I have to say, despite my years in the business, when it comes to this show I’m just a total geek fanboy. I’d dress like Raylan Givens but no Jew looks good in a cowboy hat. Anyway, I was thrilled when I got the invitation (especially after my recent post on no longer being on any lists for screenings).

I excitedly called the RSVP line and the recorded message told me to leave my name, number of guests, phone number, and affiliation. I did the first three and then said, “Affiliation? Uh… writer? Mariners? Blogger? I dunno. Hey, you invited me.”

One of those affiliations must’ve worked because I was admitted. Watching the show on the big screen was a totally different experience. There’s no disclaimer that this program might contain violence. Surprisingly, everyone in the theater was able to handle the violence without the warning.  And I thought my High Definition gave me a great picture, but wow! I gotta get me one of those ‘500 foot screens.

The Q & A was terrific. Attending were Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Natalie Zea, Erica Tazel (don’t say “who?” She plays Rachel), and goddess of goddesses, Margo Martindale. Critic Pete Hammond moderated and did a superb job – and by that I mean he didn’t make the whole evening about himself (as 99.999999% of moderators do).

We learned that the show was pitched to several places before FX bought it (This is so common – short sighted networks passing on shows that become huge hits. I bet HBO wished they had said yes to MAD MEN now.).

Walton Goggins (Boyd) was supposed to die at the end of the pilot but scored so well they brought him back. Suddenly the bullet just missed his heart. (SPOILER ALERT: SEASON TWO FINALE!) When audience members asked if Graham Yost could bring Margo Martindale back he said, “You can’t just miss with poison.”

Yost, by the way, was very articulate and funny. I never saw that humorous side of him watching BAND OF BROTHERS and THE PACIFIC. I blame the directors.

There will be a third season and Yost is a little concerned because how do you top Margo Martindale’s spectacular Mags Bennett character? If she doesn’t win an Emmy then they should disband the Academy. And seeing her performance on the big screen – she should win an Oscar too.  As for next year -- this is usually when you place that call to John Lythgow.

The original title Yost wanted was THE LAW MAN but then learned there was an absurd Steven Segal reality show premiering with that name. Olyphant joked that he saw Segal just the night before in New York at the dinner awarding JUSTIFIED the Peabody Award.

Natalie Zea (Winona) wore glasses, which, to me, defeats the purpose of Natalie Zea being there. We came to see those amazing blue eyes!

What was their favorite individual episode? A lot like #12, one liked #9 and one really favored #3.

Everyone was charming and candid. There was lots of good information, lots of laughs, and most of all, lots of recognition of the great writing by the cast. And the praise seemed sincere. They didn’t appear to be saying nice things just because they know they could get shot in any episode.

Eventually, the audience was invited to ask questions. I was just waiting for the first really stupid one and sure enough, some imbecile with a hillbilly accent pitched himself to be on the show. 

It’s always fun (and very rare) to have a shared experience watching a favorite TV show. I’m sure everyone on the panel also enjoyed the evening. What’s not to like about being showered in adulation? Thanks to the TV Academy for holding it, the actors and writer for doing it, and my friend Howard for taking pictures so my geek fanboy experience could be complete and I now have me and Margo Martindale as my wallpaper!

But please, somebody, stop me before I download the JUSTIFIED theme for my ringtone.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The 2011 Fall Primetime Schedule: Comedy is back!

Thank God the world didn’t end last weekend because sitcoms are really making a comeback this fall. Just a few years ago people were saying the genre was dead. (Hey, maybe they were saved in the Rapture. I’ll have to check the bible to see if Tuesday night comedy blocks are mentioned anywhere.) But the point is, the pendulum is definitely swinging back. Comedy writers can put down that spec NCIS:LOS ANGELES. 

The Fall primetime schedule has been announced and you don’t need the Hubble telescope to find comedies this year. I say this advisedly though – if a show like THE VOICE or DANCING WITH THE STARS hits then expect the lucky network to clear the decks and air it twelve hours a week. But for the moment at least, the strategy is to return to the genre that in success is the biggest cash cow in the entertainment industry. Warner Brothers will make more money from FRIENDS than from the Batman franchise.

For the first time in six years, all four major networks will have two comedy blocks on the fall schedule. And they’re from 8-10. In the past couple of years NBC and ABC sprinkled in a few sitcoms in the 10:00 hour. This was not so much an experiment as content dump. They KNOW comedy doesn’t work at 10:00. It never has. If I was the showrunner of OUTSOURCED and learned I was being moved to 10:30 I’d say, “Have we learned nothing from Terry Schiavo?”

Unofficially, I count eleven new sitcoms on the fall sched (but my counting is as good as my spelling). More have been ordered for midseason. And 30 ROCK returns in January, thus allowing Tina Fey to have two babies, write and star in three movies, and solve the Middle East conflict.

And in addition to new comedies, a couple of the networks have renewed bubble sitcoms. But with a caveat -- shitty time periods. RULES OF ENGAGEMENT has been given a full season but banished to Saturday night at 8:00 to be followed by reruns. That’s like being sent out to Adak, Alaska to replace buoys. CHUCK is back but only for 13 and will play out its run on Friday night. Friday is now God’s Waiting Room.

And these are just the Big Four networks. TV LAND is enjoying great success with its boomer-targeted comedies like HOT IN CLEVELAND, Nickelodeon is premiering some youth-oriented sitcoms, over at the Disney Channel it’s the Golden Age of Tween Yuckfests, and other cable networks like USA, FX, HBO, TBS, and MTV have projects in development.

But before we comedy people all high-five and turn over cars and set things on fire (that’s how we Americans celebrate victory), for this trend to continue there have to be at least a few of these new sitcoms that are actually GOOD. ABC expanded because MODERN FAMILY, COUGAR TOWN, and THE MIDDLE clicked, CBS gets great numbers from BIG BANG THEORY and time-slot-hit numbers from MIKE & MOLLY. NBC? I don’t know. Even their terrific shows like PARKS & RECREATION don’t get the numbers they should. (Like I said, watch out for THE VOICE.)

I haven’t seen any of the pilots nor the trailers (I love that there are trailers for TV shows now. “In a world with no laughter…”) so I can’t comment on any of the new shows individually. Just know I’m rooting for you all. There’s a car across the street that I would just love to flip over and set on fire.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My thoughts on the new TWO AND A HALF MEN

Now that Ashton Kutcher has been hired to replace Charlie Sheen on TWO AND A HALF MEN, I’m getting a lot of requests from readers asking my opinion of the hiring. None from CBS or Warner Brothers but that’s understandable.

Truthfully, I have never warmed to that show. I know a lot of people absolutely love it, and God bless ‘em. But to me it’s just a half-hour barrage of penis jokes with the occasional masturbation joke thrown in to break things up. (That said, I wish I ever created a hit as big as that.) 

But it means I have no sense as to whether Kutcher will fit right in or Sheen will be sorely missed. My guess from way out in the bleachers is that they’ll create a character for him that will allow him to do the same penis/masturbation jokes as his predecessor. 

I’m sure the show will get large numbers the first few weeks out of curiosity. And then it will settle in, probably doing just fine.

I know they first made a big play for Hugh Grant, who seems a more interesting choice. Ashton Kutcher to me is just the non-crazy fucking loon version of Charlie Sheen.

But this is what I find amusing:

Grant eventually passed because he was concerned the grind of doing a weekly series would be too exhausting.

What a joke!

First off, they were going to pay him a shitload of money – waaay more than he’d ever get in features at this stage. Hollywood can be a cruel town. Time passes. Once a legit movie star, today he’s viewed as more appropriate for starring in FOUR FUNERALS AND A WEDDING.

And as for “the grind”, here’s the dirty little secret: Being in a hit multi-camera show is the absolute easiest and best acting gig in the history of show business.

First off, you don’t have to travel. You can have a life. Second, you work maybe three weeks in a row before getting at least one week off. And you only work 22 weeks total.

Here’s the typical work schedule: First day – table reading. You have to be at the studio at 11. No prep is necessary. Just show up, read the script out loud. In theory, you’re supposed to start rehearsing in the afternoon. But most established shows just have the reading and send the cast home. So that first day you work one hour.

Day two: You rehearse, holding scripts, from 10 AM till about 2. It’s all very loose. You have a runthrough for the producers and go home. Total work that day: five hours. Brutal!

Day three: More rehearsal beginning at 10. Runthrough early, around noon or 1. Total work that day: three, maybe four hours.

So far – three days: ten hours. (Features -- three days: fifty hours.)

Day four is camera blocking and runthrough. You start at 9 and usually are done by 5 or 6. And during the actual camera blocking, stand-ins do the heavy lifting while you’re off in your trailer finally memorizing the script.

Day five is filming day. You arrive at noon to rehearse with cameras for three hours. Then you have a dress rehearsal. It’s now 4. You have three hours to relax, get into hair and make up, run lines, and eat a catered dinner. From 7-11 you film the show. So that’s at least a full day. But it’s the fun day because you get to perform.

And that’s it. No round-the-clock shooting schedules. No locations. No all-night shooting. No working under freezing or sweltering conditions. First class dressing rooms and craft services provided. Never a weekend.

My sense, Mr. Grant, is in a few months you’re going to be watching the new TWO AND A HALF MEN on a break from the prestigious Hollywood feature you’re making – your next WHAT ABOUT THE MORGANS? MUSIC & LYRICS, AMERICAN DREAMZ, or SMALL TOWN CROOKS and you’ll have a bad case of penis-joke envy.

As for Charlie Sheen, I hope he gets the help he needs.  What does it say when his brother was once married to Paula Abdul and he's the sane one?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Roseanne's latest insane rant

Roseanne Barr (or Arnold or whatever she calls herself these days) recently wrote an article for New York Magazine. You can read it here. In the article she states “her” side of the story. Here’s my reaction:

But first, some disclaimers:

I greatly admire her show, ROSEANNE. It truly was one of the few groundbreaking sitcoms.

And much of the credit goes to her. She was the creative voice.

I have never personally worked for or with her. So my observations come from an outsider, albeit an outsider who has been in the trenches for over thirty years.

I've met Matt Williams only a couple of times, but only briefly.   So it's not like we're BFF.

What else? Let’s see. She hasn’t sold guns to terrorists. To my knowledge.

Okay.

Now...

In the article, she attempts to portray herself as a victim and a martyr. She is neither. She is an enormously talented woman who has enough psychological problems to keep the industry in business for the next two hundred years. I’ve always believed that fame and money and power just make you more of what you really are. And if that’s the case, than Roseanne is a monster. No amount of spinning on her part is going to change that. No amount of “woe is me”, “no one understands me”, “I’m the only one who cares” laments are going to change the fact that she treated people like shit. Routinely. Constantly. Knowingly.

For that alone, I have no use for her.
 
Let’s break down the article, shall we? She is mortally wounded upon learning that she didn’t get creator credit for her series. Okay, there may be some injustice there, but that’s more the fault of her handlers, not the writer, Matt Williams. And when she claims he stole her life, uh, that’s not entirely true. If he had taken all her ideas, written a script, told the press it was his life story, and then hired Camryn Manheim to star in the show, then yes, I’d say we have a major case of identity theft. But everyone KNOWS the show is based on Roseanne and her material. Matt even said as much in articles back then. The name of the fucking show is ROSEANNE for Chrissakes! All she really is being gypped out of is royalties. And I think she more than made up for that in her salary and ownership position.

And it takes skill and experience to turn fragments of a stand-up routine into a cohesive television series.  Matt Williams does deserve some recognition.    He was not just the proverbial mouse on the elephant.   

Yet, it’s this betrayal that she uses to justify making everyone’s life a living hell. The tone of a set is established by its star. When the star begins reading THE ART OF WAR and keeps a list of who she’ll fire, she’s in a very real sense creating a poisonous atmosphere.

Her contempt for writers is so deep-seated that she can’t even hide it in the article. This what she says, and I quote:

Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of “writer,” even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit.

Oh really? As a male writer I find that insulting. As a male I find that insulting. And so misguided and ridiculous that it doesn’t even warrant a rebuttal.

I love how she portrays Matt Williams as such an ogre and mentions that he went on to create HOME IMPROVEMENT for Tim Allen and neglects to add that Tim Allen never had the same issues with Matt that she did. Matt & Tim seemed to get along just peachy. Later she references Chuck Lorre and how he has since hired most of her crew and supporting actors. If he were so terrible why would they agree to work for him again? He’s not the only producer in town (although it seems like it). How many of those same crew people would ever consent to work for her again? Three?  Maybe.  If their kids were being held for ransom.  And even then, I don't know that all three would comply. 

Roseanne makes a big issue over a particular punch line that she found offensive. And according to her, Matt dug in and there was an ugly standoff. I agree with her that the line was bad and needed to be replaced. But I guarantee that if she weren’t so relentlessly combative, the showrunner (ANY showrunner) would have been happy to find another joke. In this case, it wasn’t just a joke, it was the  “line” in the sand. I’ve had actors object to lines and there’s never been a problem. I’m never going to force an actor to say something he hates. But I also expect the actor to present his objection is a respectful way. Things on that set would have been different if the book Roseanne read was THE ART OF COLLABORATION.

So she fires everyone and we’re supposed to cheer. The next wave of writers was (as she says) “old guys”. One of them, Jeff Harris, took out a full-page ad in the trades when he decided to quit – an open letter to the cast and crew that said, "My wife and I have decided to share a vacation in the peace and quiet of Beirut.”

Next she hires comics and assistants to write her show. Translation: people she can control. So began the revolving door. And how about this for humiliation? Since there was so much turnover in the writing staff and she had no desire to learn anyone's names, she made them each wear numbers around their necks during runthroughs.

She concludes the article by saying she’s not bitter. (Oh really???)  She takes comfort in being such a champion for integrity, dignity, and women’s rights. Sure wish I had a picture of her women writers during runthrough wearing numbers around their necks.

I know this may seem like Ken Levine Reaction to Actors Week but tomorrow I focus on Ashton Kutcher, Charlie Sheen and the whole TWO AND A HALF MEN situation. Hey, the stories just happened to come along at the same time. Hopefully Katherine Heigl won't misbehave in the next 48 hours and I can move on to other things.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My reaction to yesterday's comedy test

Thanks to everyone who participated in yesterday’s Comedy Test. As always, your responses were fascinating. And ultimately, there’s a point to all this for you struggling writers. Stay tuned.  

I choose these scenes very specifically – showcasing different types of comedies and different eras. I try to select the funniest and/or most classic examples and yet, invariably, no matter what scene I present, there are quite a few of you who don’t find them funny.

And that’s perfectly okay There are no right answers.

But what it shows is how delicate the notion of comedy is. How many factors play into whether it works.  Here are just a few:

Your nationality.
Whether you like or dislike slapstick.
The performances.
The pace.
Your sensitivity to political, racial, or sexual material.
Your age.
The shock value.
The style.
The length.
Your mood at the time you’re watching.
Your history.
Your willingness to stick with a long set up.
The amount of similar material you’ve already seen.
Your prejudices.
Your level of intelligence.
How relatable the material is to you.
Your knowledge of the references.
The structure of the material.

And everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s.

Personally, I found yesterday’s scene amusing with some hilarious moments sprinkled in. The “Are you a racist?” test had me on the floor. Some of the other bits worked better for me than others. I happen to like Ricky Gervais. But completely understand that he’s an acquired taste. If I’m being honest, the pace was a little slow for my taste. But I was willing to give Gervais the benefit of the doubt and stick with it. Had it been another comedian I didn’t like as well, or had it been a comedian I didn’t know, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be grabbing the remote a couple of minutes in.

The Kate Winslet scene from EXTRAS that some of you made reference to is also inspired but I went with this one because it had the added spin of the racial element.

Anyway, here’s that ultimate point – I’m always asked: “when you write a script, how do you know if it’s funny?” Well, as you can see, nothing is funny to everybody. Some people hate Ricky Gervais, Woody Allen, David Hyde Pierce (they’re idiots), Jackie Gleason, you name it. There is no perfect yardstick. YOU have to think it’s funny. You have to believe in your material. I don’t think there’s a single stand-up comedian who hasn’t died on stage. There’s not a writer I know who hasn’t received dozens of rejection letters.

If you don’t like your stuff, no one will. No one might anyway, but still, you’ve got to please yourself first. Who knows? Just maybe you are right.

Tomorrow:  Roseanne wrote an article for New York magazine recently giving "her side" of the story re her series ROSEANNE.  I take issue with a lot of her points and will tell you why Monday.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Another comedy test: Do you find this funny?

Haven't done one of these in awhile. I show you a comedy clip and you tell me what you think. In the past I've mostly done classic comic scenes from the past.  Here is oneHere's another.  And still another.

Today I'm going to present something a little more contemporary. This is from Ricky Gervais' recent HBO series EXTRAS (in which he plays a movie extra). I'll share my reaction after I see yours. As always, thanks for participating. I have nothing to give away.

Tomorrow: my reaction to your reaction.

Friday, May 20, 2011

CHEERS with Danny DeVito?

Thanks so much to all of you who wrote in yesterday. To paraphrase Jackie Gleason, “Global audiences are the greatest in the world!!”

Can’t think of a better way to kick off the weekend than with Friday questions.What's yours?


First up is John Trumbull:

I'm doing a caricature of Danny Devito tonight and it got me to wondering: Was there ever any discussion of having Danny guest star on Cheers? Considering that he's Rhea Perlman's husband in real life, it seems kind of strange that he never even did a cameo in all the years that the show was on.

There was some talk about it the first season but nothing really serious. At one point we thought of including Danny in the Superbowl scene as a lark but ultimately it was decided the objective of the scene was to promote CHEERS and it would just confuse people with TAXI. Were they watching Louie & Zena?

But if you listen carefully, you can hear Danny laughing offstage. He was there when we filmed it.

The first season of CHEERS proved to be the final season of TAXI, and Danny went off to have a hugely successful feature career. I once said to him, “Now that you’re a big star, I hope you won’t forget us little people.”


Joe Pontillo asks:

Here's a different Netflix question - When I click to stream an episode you wrote, does any money filter your way? If not, is that because of the age of the show, or because the writer's strike didn't quite accomplish its goal?

We’re supposed to see some tiny fraction of money. And I’m sure we will because the studios are dedicated to making sure that writers are never screwed.


From Pat Quinn:

When someone pitches a show to a network, and one or all of them pass on it ... is that show/idea for a show dead forever? That is, can that same person come back next year, with tweaks and changes but the same basic idea to pitch to the same networks?

You can but you already have two strikes against you. But sometimes network agendas change. One year they’re looking for urban buddy comedies and you pitch a rural family comedy. They pass but the next year they’re looking for rural family comedies. So you run back in only to learn they bought the exact same idea from someone else three days before.

There are instances where a network will pass on your idea and then during the course of the season decide they really want to be in business with you. So they invite you in and ask what you’ve got. You say all you have is the idea you pitched last year. Suddenly they love it and buy it.

I also find if you wait long enough (two years) you can sometimes re-pitch an idea because the entire development department has turned over. Note: this isn’t true at CBS. Wendi and Julie and that group has been there quite some time now. And to their extreme credit, if they decide months after passing on your idea that now it makes sense for them they will call you back in.

We once wrote a pilot for FOX that was ultimately passed on because they said it felt too much like an NBC project. A couple of years later, one of the development people at FOX during that time moved over to NBC and remembered the project. It was a better fit for NBC and she bought the project. That’s really the perfect scenario.  The late great Jerry Belson wrote the movie SMILE and it was later turned into a Broadway musical.  In his Playbill bio he wrote, "SMILE fulfills a lifelong dream for Mr. Belson -- to be paid twice for the same script". 

Johnny now asks:

Do writing teams get paid half as much as solo writers? (I.e. A normal writing salary halved?) And could having a partner work against you if you're both going to cost more than a single writer?

In terms of scripts, yes. You split the fee. Unless you rise to a position where you can negotiate a fee beyond that. Same with producing. But in those cases you usually do negotiate the terms. Showrunners rarely work for scale. 

Splitting money is certainly a downside to partnerships. However, I always felt that half of something was worth more than a lot of nothing. I don’t think my career would have been as successful if I weren’t partnered with David Isaacs. So it’s a trade off. But that’s my situation. Yours may be different.

One good thing about splitting money – in today’s marketplace teams are more coveted because shows can get two writers for the price of roughly one. So you might make less but at least you get the job.

There are many instances of partnerships breaking up after they’ve reached a certain level of success and can each carve out a good career on their own.

I think the key to maintaining a good partnership is that there is enough flexibility in the relationship that each member is free to take projects on their own as well as together. For instance, I branched out into directing and sportscasting. David is now a tenured professor at USC. Hey, it just occurred to me, his side profession is way more prestigious than mine. That bastard!


Drive carefully this weekend, especially between Los Angeles and San Diego.  That's where I'm headed so hands-free cell conversations people!  Thanks.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your chance to sound-off!!!














Coming up on the 5 1/2 year anniversary of this blog. This is post #2,366 (ten of them are REALLY good!). From time to time I like to turn the tables and have me read and you write. I’d love to hear from you today – especially new readers or longtime lurkers. I’d love to know who you are, where you’re from, how you found this blog, how long you’ve been here, and most of all – what in it you like and don’t like. Not that I’m going to change anything of course. I’ll still share just enough political views to piss off those of you who don’t think Sarah Palin is an idiot. And I’ll still delve into a lot of different topics. Not only because I like variety but coming up with ideas for this space everyday is a bitch. God, I miss the Writers Strike!

But if I know your overall preferences and non-preferences I can better skew my content in the direction you want. So what do you think?

Among the crap I throw at you is….

Hollywood war stories, writing advice, reviews, travelogues, radio tales, industry rants, Friday questions, parodies, behind-the-scenes, baseball, classic comedy clips for you to weigh-in on, excerpts from the ‘60s book I’m writing, industry analysis, seasonal movie previews, contests, surveys, excerpts from scripts, profiles of comedy writers, snippets of play-by-play, miscellaneous thoughts & silliness, Katherine Heigl bashing, reality show spoofing, and pretty much anything else I think might get a couple of laughs.

Would love your feedback.  

Speaking of which, the comments section has evolved into another very big part of this blog. Just know I read every one, and there are many days when the comments you guys leave are far more entertaining than the post they’re commenting on. So it takes great fortitude not to just delete them. 

Feel free to criticize. Seriously. I only ask that you leave your name. And before you accuse me of using my blog just so I can sell my books, get more Twitter followers, and promote when I’m going to be broadcasting for the Mariners, I say, “Yeah? So what?”

(By the way, I’m thinking of doing another Sitcom Room seminar. Will let you know, but you can go here for updates on that)

Thanks so much to all of you. Thanks for your support, thanks for your comments, thanks to the nine of you who have bought my book and the four who’ve said they liked it, and thanks for spreading the word about this blog to others. It’s hard to go viral I’m sharing lost episodes of ALMOST PERFECT.

In closing, this blog had been a great outlet, and more than that – it has allowed me to meet many way cool people like yourself. Hope to hear from you today. (Or at least buy my book.) And I look forward to keep posting until I’m down to my last AfterMASH anecdote (which is also my first AfterMASH anecdote).

Thanks again,

Ken

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

THE GOOD WIFE: CALIFORNIA starring Arnold & Maria

CBS likes to franchise its hits. CSI begat CSI:MIAMI and CSI: NEW YORK. NCIS begat NCIS: LOS ANGELES. Well fear not GOOD WIFE fans. I am proposing a series to the Eye network that they can not turn down. THE GOOD WIFE: CALIFORNIA, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

I haven’t finished writing the pilot script yet, but here’s a sample of what I’ve got.

FADE IN:


EXT. SCHWARZENEGGER KITCHEN (BRENTWOOD) – NIGHT


Arnold and Maria seem to be in the middle of a discussion.

MARIA: You did what?!

ARNOLD: Don’t be mad.


MARIA: Don’t be mad?! Don’t be mad?! You had a child with our housekeeper?!

ARNOLD: Little Thor was an accident. Usually when they say they’re on the pill I make them show me.

MARIA: Usually?! Jesus! How many were there?


ARNOLD: Okay, I’m not helping myself here. This isn’t fair, Maria. You know I need to be coached before answering questions.

MARIA: Were there any other kids?

ARNOLD: Maybe Bristol but I don’t think so.

MARIA: Bristol Palin is your daughter?!

ARNOLD: No. Highly unlikely. Sarah took the pill each day and kept a record of it. She showed me. Right there on her hand.

MARIA: Our housekeeper. You fucked our housekeeper, had a child with her, and I helped raise him.

ARNOLD: Please. You can understand why I didn’t thank you.

MARIA: Our housekeeper. A woman who lived under my roof for twenty years! Do you know how insulting that is to me? How utterly reprehensible?

ARNOLD: Yes, but look at how clean everything is.

MARIA: So how long has this relationship between you two been going on?

ARNOLD: I ended it when I became governor.

MARIA: Oh, getting into office suddenly made you develop a conscience?


ARNOLD: Well, in a way, yes. Interns work so hard and get so few perks.

MARIA: Aw, Christ! You were fucking interns?


ARNOLD: It’s nice to be in a position to help young people. Do you know how frustrating it was for me in Hollywood? To promise parts to these actresses and not be able to deliver? At least as governor I can make these bright ambitious women local mayors or the heads of state agencies. It’s like a cloud of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders.

MARIA: I want a divorce.


ARNOLD: What? Why? Over this?


MARIA: Yes!! I mothered your children! Even the ones I didn’t know about! And I gave up NBC for you! If it wasn’t for you I could be Ann Curry today! Or at least Carson Daly!

ARNOLD: Hey, I’m returning to my old career. So can you.


MARIA: THE TERMINATOR? You’re making another TERMINATOR? The way to squelch the human resistance is to send a 63-year old cyborg back in time? Who’s your arch villain this time? Rocky?

ARNOLD: What have I possibly done to make you say such mean and hurtful things?

MARIA: Goodbye. I’m taking the kids and leaving.

ARNOLD: Okay. Fine. But be forewarned: you’re going to be in for a big nasty ugly custody battle.

MARIA: Are you kidding me? The judge will probably give me Thor too.

Maria storms out. Arnold makes himself a sandwich, as we:


FADE OUT.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wet in Cleveland: A travelogue

Flew into Cleveland during a hailstorm. I was there to broadcast the weekend series between the Mariners and the Indians for Seattle radio – assuming I survived both the landing and cab ride into the city. Happy to say the power blackout that caused the skyline to go completely dark lasted only a minute or two. Play ball!

Cleveland is making a valiant comeback I’m happy to report. Not every major city can recover from the utter devastation of losing LeBron James. The downtown area has been given a facelift, you can feel a new vibrancy, but still you look at the faces of Clevelanders, proud and plucky as they may be, and their eyes are crying out “Please, let anybody eliminate Miami in the NBA Playoffs. I hate that son of a bitch.”

Cleveland of course is known for the Cuyahoga River that caught on fire, Drew Carey, the 38th sitcom starring Betty White, the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, Patricia Heaton (whose dad was a sportswriter and is in the Football Hall of Fame), the house from CHRISTMAS STORY, Don King, the Randy Newman song (“Cleveland -- city of lights, city of magic”), Paul Newman, the great Kaye Ballard, its ranking as the 7th most dangerous city in the country, Halle Berry, Bob Hope, and great sports teams like the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers… forget that collectively they haven’t won a world championship since their presidential namesake was in office.

Dined at Lola’s Bistro. Michael Symon, the founder and also an IRON CHEF. Everything was delicious and I can see why he's on that show. So many creative uses of iron! And Fat Fish Blue is why you think of Cleveland first when you think of Cajun food. Best Creole on Lake Erie.

Cyndi Lauper was staying at the team hotel. Either she was in town for the opening of the new “Women in Rock” exhibit at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame or she’s a Mariners’ groupie. The team returns to Detroit next month. If she’s in that lobby then we’ll know.

Speaking of the Hall, I made my first trek there. Thanks to radio titan, Mike McVay, I got in and didn’t have to tag along on any of the elementary school tours! I’m sure the wee tykes really enjoyed the “roots of rock” display featuring all their favorites – Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters. Bruce Springsteen’s 1960 Chevy Corvette is on display and one of the kids asked, “Is that Batman’s car?”

There are guitars everywhere. Imagine a Hard Rock CafĂ© without food and bad service. Also saw a lot of costumes worn by the various rock stars, proving that talent is in reverse proportion to fashion sense. I wonder if that same little kid looked at Lady Gaga’s costume and said, “Is that Batman’s suit?”

As you enter the building, on the glass door there is a symbol stating “no guns”. Right away that told me they had a “Hip Hop” section, and indeed it is quite impressive. All that’s missing are the mug shots.

In a salute to rock radio there are listening stations where you can sample the great Top 40 d.j.’s of yesteryear (minus me). Too bad none of the headphones work and you can’t hear a thing. How are we going to expose the impressionable youth of today to Cousin Brucie?

All in all, the museum is extraordinary and worth a trip to Cleveland for that alone. Some features that I found particularly fascinating:

-- Jimi Hendrix was a terrific artist and they have sketches he made of PAC 10 football teams…
-- there is the letter from RSO records rejecting U2 (but hey, they’re no Andy Gibb)…
-- handwritten lyrics for such songs as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”…
-- and an entire room devoted to Les Paul whose innovations in sound recording are to Rock n’ Roll what Edison is to electricity.

Also, while it’s showing, do check out the “Women in Rock” exhibit. Everything is there except Lesley Gore’s hair spray can. When that same little kid saw the recent photo of Cher I wonder if he asked, “Is that Batman after putting on his mask?”

Most touching for me was a display honoring my dear friend, the late Ellie Greenwich.

For those who remember when the Indians used to play in cavernous empty Municipal Stadium, their new ballpark, Progressive Field is a wonder. When I broadcast from Municipal Stadium I once said on the air, “If I was out on a date Saturday night and wanted to take my girl somewhere dark where we could be alone, I’d take her to an Indians game”.

The new (I say “new”, it’s almost 20 years old now) park has all the amenities and combines the tradition of old school luxury suites with the convenience of modern-day luxury suites.

The visiting clubhouse guy is one of the most amazing artists I’ve ever seen. His name is Wayne and he makes unbelievable portraits of ballplayers … in Legos. This is not a joke. This is a very unique talent. Michelangelo couldn’t build a little car for shit with those bricks.
Attendance this year is way down despite the fact that the surprising Indians have the best record in the American League. Well, Friday night, with the Mighty Mariners in town, they got the second biggest crowd since Opening Day and their second biggest walk-up attendance in the park’s history. You’re welcome. Okay, so it was also “Dollar Dog Night” with all hot dogs selling for a buck apiece. They sold 33,000 tickets and over 55,000 wieners. HOT (dogs) IN CLEVELAND.

My broadcast partner on the radio all weekend was Ron Fairly. As a kid growing up in LA, he was one of my favorite Dodgers so how cool to be working side-by-side with someone I idolized until he was traded to the Expos! We had great fun on the air and I got to call a very thrilling and dramatic ninth inning. If only it didn’t end with Travis Hafner of the Sons of the Wigwam hitting a two-run walk-off home run with two outs to beat my beloved M’s 5-4.

Saturday’s game began on time. But ten minutes later this was our call: “There are a few raindrops. A couple of umbrellas are sprouting and… Whoa! We got a flood! They just halted play.”

Picture God with a power washer.

Fans always wonder what we announcers do during rain delays. In this case, we wrung out towels for two hours. The windows in the press box leaked. I wondered if Barbra Streisand had any sandbags left from the big Malibu storm a few years ago. Can’t you just picture Babs with a burlap sack and a shovel? There’s another exhibit for the Hall: “Women of Rock During Relief Efforts”. The Doppler map had more colors than the suit Jimi Hendrix was buried in. After two hours the game was mercifully called.

And Sunday was no better. Woke up to fog and rain and a local news anchor who looked like Urkel grown up. Checked out of the hotel and was relieved not to see Cyndi Lauper in the lobby trolling for player autographs. Got to the park by avoiding the Cleveland Marathon. I think it was the Cleveland Marathon. Could have just been thousands of people fleeing to Akron.

Like the day before, the rain just didn’t stop. I really felt bad for the Indians’ mascot, Slider. After entertaining the sparse crowd for ten minutes in the downpour that big bulbous furry suit had to weigh 300 pounds. Kinda like what Sly Stone must’ve experienced performing at Woodstock.

Unlike the day before, Sunday was frigid cold with winds strong enough to blow the tarpaulin into Cincinnati. Once it was determined by Doppler radar that this rain was going to continue until June 11th, they cancelled this game, too. The Mariners come back in August and must now play five games in three days. So the weekend was pretty much a washout. Two postponements and a heartbreaking defeat. Oh, and we had to take off from a smaller airport because the winds were too high at Cleveland International.

Still, I had a great time. I love my traveling companions (thanks Kev, Rico, Ron, Blow, and Shan), love the guys on the team (especially now that Milton Bradley has been dumped), and where else can you see Cyndi Lauper in the lobby and Andy Pettite in Legos? Cleveland Rocks!

WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED -- a collection of my travelogues is still available at prices that would destroy most publishing companies.  Check it out here.  

Monday, May 16, 2011

What's it like at a Hollywood screening?

Going to Hollywood advance screenings can be really cool… or really awful.

On the one hand, it’s very exciting. Being invited to a studio screening makes you feel like you’re really “in the biz”. You may not be on the A list but at least you’re on some list. And in Hollywood that’s pretty much all that matters. There was a brief time (real brief) when my partner and I were writing and selling features and were on several studio screening lists. I’d get a letter with the invite and instructions to call Mr. Spielberg’s office to RSVP. Cool! Of course, when I call, I’m automatically connected to voicemail. And when I arrive, half the time there’s a screw-up and I’m not on the list. (But I always bring the invite with me as proof and usually am let in.  And if not, I keep my Emmy in my trunk.)

So what's the experience like? 

Once inside, you feel as special and exclusive as one of 2500 people can. Usually there are celebs sprinkled in. I once sat in the same row as Nicole Kidman!  And this is when she looked amazing!  Generally the popcorn is free. Agents are there and say hello, sometimes even the ones who represent you! You frequently know people who were involved in the making of the movie. (Sometimes I’m envious… but it’s a good envious.)

Then you take your seat and there’s an air of excitement. The lights go off and the movie starts. The print is perfect, the sound is glorious, and you just know you’re in for a thrilling night of cine-magic.

And sometimes you are.

But most times you’re not.

That’s the downside.

Sure, when the screening is for THE CHAPERONE you have a pretty good idea going in that you won’t be blown away, but there have been numerous times when highly anticipated big budget summer tentpole potential blockbusters lay resounding and foul eggs. Then you’re trapped in hell.

It’s hard to slip out without being noticed, so most of the time you just have to suck it up and stay until the end (which is always 45 minutes longer than it has to be). And then there’s that horrible filing out into the lobby afterwards. Usually the filmmakers are there ready to receive you in a greeting line.

Oy.

The only thing worse then being in that line is being one of the filmmakers receiving that line. When there was a screening of VOLUNTEERS (which, to be fair, was primarily well-received), I was standing next to one of the producers, Walter Parkes. A woman friend of his took both of his hands and said, “Oh, Walter, we love you anyway.”

But by and large it’s those forced compliments that no one believes. I imagine the post-screening of BLOND AND BLONDER was the very definition of awk-ward!

An actress I know told me that she went to the advance screening of a movie she was in and it was so unspeakably terrible that when the lights came back on the entire cast was crying.

Every so often I’ll be channel-surfing and there will be a movie I saw at a studio screening. It’s 2:00 in the morning and it’s some channel from Oxnard or some cable channel that’s so bad they can’t even scare up an infomercial to fill the time. The print is bad, the sound is muddy, and I think back to the night I originally saw it. The excitement and promise. This movie was going to be the next big thing. And now an animated promo for TEMPTATION ISLAND that reruns every morning at 6 takes up 20% of the screen.  Either that or I see the DVD of the movie in a 99 cent bin at Rite-Aid.

They don’t call it the Dream Factory for nothing.

I haven’t been to a big studio advance screening in years. I imagine they’ve changed. I bet people are now texting each other all throughout. I bet the post parties are nowhere near as grandiose. You probably have to pay for popcorn these days. Fancy invites have been replaced by form emails.  Fewer celebrities attend. Getting through the paparazzi is a hassle. Red carpets have been rolled up. And traffic has gotten so bad, especially around Westwood, that more and more agents and publicists are skipping them. They're probably nowhere near as fun or as glamorous as they were even ten short years ago.   So I guess what I’m trying to say is…

Can I get back on the lists?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Flying Around the World in 3 Hours -- Pack a Sweater

Hello from Cleveland. Since I'm flying back to Seattle with the Mariners later today this seemed like the perfect day to share this post.

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.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Uncovered after 20 years: the sitcom episode I acted in

Okay, here's a rarity -- an episode that I wrote and I also appear in.  It's from a 1990 series called THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES, created by Richard Rosenstock (who also created the brilliant FLYING BLIND).  My partner, David and I wrote this episode and in the big wedding scene I play Phil and he plays my lover Steve.  Yes, we're two gay guys at a Jewish wedding.  Every Jewish wedding has one.  At one point in the show, not only do I have to deliver a punch line but I have to do it while WALKING.  This, my friends, is ACTING. 

A few things worth noting:  Marshall is well played by Joshua Beckett and Leslie is played by the truly wonderful Meredith Scott Lynn.  Marshall's mother is Jennifer Salt, now a terrific writer (notably NIP/TUCK and the screenplay for EAT PRAY LOVE).  James Burrows directed.  He since has directed one or two other things. 

This series had a short run on ABC and deserved a better fate. It was very funny. 



Friday, May 13, 2011

How hard is it to write final episodes?

Hello from Cleveland, where the Mariners battle the Sons of the Wigwam. Broadcast time today is 4 PM PDT/7 PM EDT on 710 ESPN Seattle and MLB.COM. Meanwhile, it’s time for your questions and my answers. As always, thanks for contributing them.


DyHrdMET is up first:

I was watching the final episode of Family Ties (a great sitcom, even though I don't think you were involved in it) on TV.

Okay, I will acknowledge there were a few of those.

Lots of emotion in the story. Is it harder to write the final episode of a sitcom, which usually has a sense of closure, finality and/or emotion, than it is to write for a show during its prime?

It’s much harder to write the final episode because the expectations are so much higher. Audiences want to feel confident that their beloved characters get a nice sendoff.  They've almost become friends of the family.

Plus, in sitcoms, the convention is there never really is an ending.  Whatever the conclusion of a normal episode, there is the understanding that the saga will continue next week. Now, all of a sudden, it all comes to an end. How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run. Remember, if your show is that successful, it should be around for years in reruns.

You'll have a larger audience that night so you need to be at your absolute best.  Best jokes, cleverest story turns.  You're really in the limelight. 

There is also an added pressure that sometimes now occurs. The networks try to get as much mileage from your finale as they can (i.e. sell as many spots for high fees) and often they will now ask for supersize episodes. And in a few cases (e.g. CHEERS, FRASIER, MASH, SEINFELD) that can mean as long as two-hours or even more. Your show has a rhythm for 30 minutes and now you have to expand it times four. The weight of that generally pulls down the show. That’s how I felt, quite honestly, about the last MASH. It was waaaaaay too long. Extra length didn’t help the SEINFELD swan song either.

My favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART,and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were standard half hours.

Now if you ask me my favorite last show EVER, it would be a radio show and it absolutely broke every rule imaginable. Lohman & Barkley were a morning team on KFWB, Los Angeles in the ‘60s. They were extremely funny. Lohman did a great number of voices and their show was populated with many hilarious recurring characters. KFWB changed formats to all-news and everyone was let go. On Lohman & Barkley’s last show they systematically killed each of their characters, offing them in the most gruesome ways. Now THAT’S a final show. (Of course six months later they resurfaced on KFI and all their characters magically returned to life.  Not easy to do once you've been -- for example -- buried alive. )

lucifervandross asks:

Netflix added Cheers and I have been watching it (in lieu of researching and writing my own specs to try and get work) and on the episode 'Little Sister dont'cha" Rhea Perlman plays Carla, and Carla's younger sister Annette. She is credited in the closing credits for this role. My questions is, was she paid twice? Once for portraying Carla (and her normal "starring" credit) and then another time for the guest appearance? I know it's trivial and silly and from 30 years ago, but I was just wondering how that sort of thing works... actually let me tie it in to the "now" Would Alec Baldwin be getting paid multiple times for his multiple portrayals on this weeks 30 rock?

To my knowledge, no. All in a week’s work. However, I think Andy Kaufman got paid separately for Latka and when he did his Tony Clifton character. One week, as Tony Clifton, he was a real asshole on the set so the producers fired him. But Kaufman, who was lovely, stayed. Weird, huh?

From Chris:

Why do episodes sometime air in a different order than the one they were shot in? (Wikipedia lists production codes and I'm assuming 101 is a pilot, 102 is the next one, etc).

Usually that’s the network's doing.  They juggle the episodes because they think one is stronger or weaker or more promotable. It can be maddening. I know ABC has done that to MODERN FAMILY where shows have run out of sequence. But the network feels the value of flip-flopping episodes outweighs the disruption of continuity.

It’s also why networks don’t want shows to have running storylines from week-to-week. It’s easier to shuffle around self-contained episodes.

And finally, from Naz:

How difficult is it to work product placement in a show?

Sitting here at my Apple Powerbook, enjoying a Pepsi, having just showered with Neutrogena and feeling really clean and refreshed, I can say it’s really not that hard. They key is being subtle, and making sure that whatever product you include -- whether visually or in dialogue – that it’s not random. That there’s a direct connection to the scene.

Blogger problem

Blogger has been having technical issues. They've dropped some posts and hopefully wil soon restore them. Please check back for Friday questions. Thanks.

I'm at the mercy of technology.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lost in translation

When my writing partner, David Isaacs and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE for Michael Douglas we had to have the script approved by the Moroccan government before they'd be allowed to film there. Make sure no international crisis would be caused by one of our jokes. So the screenplay was translated into French. I was given a copy of the French version. I don't speak French (or any language including English sometimes) but my wife does. She knows at least enough to yell at desk clerks in Paris.

She read the new version and said it made absolutely no sense. Jokes were translated word by word. So characters were just speaking gibberish.

The script was approved. (Oh, if only networks had the same high standards.)

And recently I came across an episode of ALMOST PERFECT that was dubbed into German (German being the universal language of comedy). I have no idea how faithful the translation was. All I know is that everybody seemed to be angry with everyone else, even in the love scenes.

I have a lot of readers abroad so let me ask you -- do US comedies make sense in different languages? Other than pratfalls, are they remotely funny? (Watch – YES DEAR is considered the funniest US sitcom on three continents.)

There's a reason action movies do better in foreign markets than comedies. You don't have to appreciate irony to enjoy a good explosion.

I've seen a few French comedy movies and have enjoyed them, even with subtitles. And you know a joke is bulletproof if the subtitle can get a laugh. But if the comic premise is clever and the actors are good the movie should work. Interestingly, I've seen several US remakes of French comedies and despite the English-friendly dialogue, I always prefer the originals. Maybe it's just the relief of never having to see Jim Carrey.

I always wonder how faithful the subtitles are to the actual dialog. Haven't you seen this before? A character chatters for thirty seconds. And the subtitle is "Sure". Huh? Or when the subtitle occasionally gives directions. I've seen "nodding" and "takes a puff". Uh, we stupid Americans can see that.

I'm going to try to find someone German who can translate ALMOST PERFECT now. I'm dying to see if our frothy little romantic comedy became Nancy Travis in DAS BOOT.

Heading off today for Cleveland to broadcast the Mariners' three-game series with the Indians.  Join me tomorrow night at 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT on 710 ESPN Seattle or MLB.COM for all the action and pitching changes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Confessions of a pathetic TV addict

I’ve never been a fanatical TV viewer. I’ve never been obsessed over a television show. I’ve never been a Trekkie, a Gleek, or whatever the BATTLESTAR GALLICTICA crazies call themselves. I loved LOST but never built a hatch in my backyard. I was a huge fan of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW but never constructed the WJM newsroom in my dorm.

I have favorite shows, like THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN but when they’ve completed their runs for the year I have a wistful pang for eleven minutes then move on with my life.

But not this year. This year I fear I will need to check myself into the Betty Ford Center for Pathetic Viewers. Everything seems so empty, so meaningless. My life has no direction. I have no idea how to fill my days. It’s the existential crisis I did not dare to even consider.

What do I do now that THE GOOD WIFE and JUSTIFIED are wrapping up for the season?

Yes, that’s right. Two shows. I’ve gone from no shows to two. And that makes it almost the perfect storm of epic one-hour-drama-deprivation.

People try to comfort me. They tell me a new season of BURN NOTICE is starting. And COVERT AFFAIRS is coming back. As is WHITE COLLAR. That doesn’t help. Those are just guilty pleasures. Piper Perabo in a cat suit shooting people is not the same as Julianna Margulies preparing briefs.

HAWTHORNE is returning (for some inexplicable reason). And some well-meaning nimrod suggested DROP DEAD DIVA. They just don’t understand.

JUSTIFIED and THE GOOD WIFE have been absolutely captivating this year. Best television in years.  I’d give Emmys to everyone involved (other than Christine Baranaski).

So what do I do? There aren’t GOOD WIFE conventions. I certainly can’t dress up like Alicia Florrick. I could wear a cowboy hat like Raylan Givens but on me it would look stupider than if I wore one of Alicia’s dresses. I guess to get my JUSTIFIED fix I could vacation in Harlan County, Kentucky, but no Jew has done that since 1937.

Oh well. I guess I’ll just wander around aimlessly. Maybe there will be GOOD WIFE action figures.  And perhaps I’ll stumble upon JUSTIFIED “ignorant hillbilly assholes” coloring books.

Mostly, I’ll just be envying you – you who haven’t seen these two remarkable television series. Because you can spend the summer watching the DVD’s and catching up. You can get swept away by the rich characters, engrossed in the sophisticated storylines, chuckle at the moments of humor (I laugh more in those shows than 95% of today’s current sitcoms), and marvel at the superb acting. Think of me, sitting alone in my basement, trying to construct a moonshine still.

But WARNING: Both of these shows are highly addictive and one year from today you too will be on the GOOD WIFE and JUSTIFIED websites, playing endless trivia games, collecting badges, moving up the leaderboard, and changing your wallpaper – replacing your kids with Raylan & Winona.

JUSTIFIED ended its season last Wednesday. THE GOOD WIFE’S season finale is May 17th. So I only have one week. I must make every moment count.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Double-dating with Sinatra

Here are a couple of excerpts from the book I'm still writing about growing up in the '60s in the San Fernando Valley.  It's 1965 and I'm in high school.

Meanwhile, willowy 19-year-old actress Mia Farrow began dating a “real” senior – Frank Sinatra. He was 49 at the time. It would have been great to double date with them. Maybe go to the Friday night Taft football game, and grab a pizza at Shakey’s. You know what else Frank would like? A popular activity among the in crowd was TPing someone’s home. That meant showering the house with streams of toilet paper. I can just imagine Frank tossing a roll, saying this house looked vaguely familiar and then realizing, “Hey, this is where the kidnappers held my son!”

School rivalries were big in the San Fernando Valley, especially in the fall when football reigned supreme. Taft had two rivals – Canoga Park High and Birmingham High. Canoga was our nearest competitor. They had an older stucco campus and a much rougher, uh… diverse population. Families routinely avoided buying homes within Canoga Park High’s district just to spare their kids from having to be enrolled there. The rivalry would have been bigger had we not been scared shitless to set foot on the Canoga campus.

So we needed another rival more our socio-economic level. Birmingham High in Encino fit the bill. Good football program and instead of knife fights you just had Jews taunting each other that their temples had superior air conditioning.

It usually came down to Taft vs. Birmingham and this year the big game was held there, in their gleaming new stadium. The P.A. announcer was Dick Van Dyke whose son was a member of the “Braves.” Then they were the “Braves”; now they’re the “Patriots” – don’t you just love political correctness?

We won the big game and the West Valley title. Our road to the City Championship ended however in the first playoff game when Dorsey High from South-Central beat us by 50 points. 300-pound future NFL stars proved to be a tougher challenge than Dick Van Dyke’s offspring.

****  

1965 was really the last year of the 1950’s. We still thought and acted like we were in The Donna Reed Show or Ozzie and Harriet. There was an innocence that steadfastly persisted despite pesky flashes of reality – riots, a war, civil unrest, drugs, teen rebellion.

We boomers were growing more and more uneasy, to the point where we had to finally take action. We sang. My generation could not have a thought or a feeling or bowel movement without singing about it. So out of this unrest came “the protest song”. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were the vanguards, but the tune that perhaps had the biggest impact was “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. Barry McGuire had been the lead singer of The New Christy Minstrels, a wholesome collection of apple-cheeked young goody-gooders who sang about hayrides and gooseberry preserves. McGuire veered somewhat from the Hootenanny by singing a tale of imminent world doom. Within weeks it was the number one record in the country. Written by P.F. Sloan, these were the catchy lyrics we were all singing along with:

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'


But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
of destruction.


Don't you understand what I'm tryin' to say
Can't you feel the fears I'm feelin' today?
If the button is pushed, there's no runnin' away
There'll be no one to save, with the world in a grave
[Take a look around ya boy, it's bound to scare ya boy]


And you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
of destruction.

That gives you an idea of the terror and foreboding fear we all lived with every single day… although it wasn’t so terrifying that we didn’t buy the record and dance to it at parties.