Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mr. Special Effects

Hello from Seattle where starting tomorrow I again call the action and pitching changes for the mighty Mariners.  In the meantime, I'm going to dip into the "Best Of" file. 

This is one of my favorite all-time posts so I cart it out every couple of years.  Certainly one of my funniest -- and I didn't even write it.  

I've talked about the need for showrunners to hold down the budget. What I didn’t mention was how difficult that can sometimes be. Hollywood is notorious for huge mark ups. Studios charging their own shows outrageous rent for their stages and facilities, etc. And if God forbid you need a special effect look out. In writing rooms whenever we propose even the smallest stunt we turn to my partner, David Isaacs, who has created a great character – Mr. Special Effects. He will then describe what is required to pull the stunt off and how much it will cost.

Here is an example, in the form of a memo. And believe me when I say this is TYPICAL.


Report from TV Special Effects Department:

RE: Frasier

Situation: In a dream sequence, Frasier is on the air and his board explodes.

Proposal---If I'm to understand correctly from our conversation you all want the entire radio board to explode in Frasier's (Mr. Gramner's) face. filling the studio room with smoke. It's quite a coincidence since my dad created the same effect for Mr. Al Ruddy for an episode of 'The Monkee's. (For your reference it's the one where the Monkees try to outfox a Russian agent played by Mr. Lloyd Bochner). The good news is that with all the advancements in explosive delivery it's a much easier effect. (The real reason you never saw Mr. Mike Nesmith at any Monkees reunion is that he had four fingers of his left hand blown off. It's certainly not true that he was sick of being a part of a third rate Beatles knockoff. That and feeling responsible for Yakima Canutt losing a testicle on "How the West was Won" haunted my father till he fell to his death rigging Mr. Demetrious 'George' Savalas for a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Kojak.)

Anyway, the effect is fairly simple, but of course we want it foolproof and safe. (within reason) First of all we will rig a series of explosive charges across the board. That will control the blast as oppossed to one big blast which is harder to control. I will set off the charges in sequence from a specially designed phaser. That should supply our explosion and still create the effect. We also set a charge inside the board so that in the case of a fire breaking out from the initial explosion (small possibility) I'll blow that charge which in turn would smother the flames. That, of course, would also preclude a second take.

Now I'm to understand that Mr. Gramner would like to do the stunt himself (concurrent with an 'Entertainment Tonight' segment profiling sitcom actors who do their own stunts.) That's fine but we will take the precaution of covering his body in an inch to an inch and a half of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly under a flame retardant herringbone suit. (It's uncomfortable but the guy works, what, twelve hours a week?) That will protect him vis a vis a mistake in explosion deployment. (Just to warn you in spite of caution it can happen---Sometimes to a serendipitous result. My dad worked for Mr. George Roy Hill on 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId." Liitle known fact, the boxcar being blown to smithereens was not in the script. It was what we call in the S.E. business a happy accident. Thankfully the only injury was a prosthetic arm that was mangaled up pretty good. It belonged to my dad's assistant 'Spider' who had lost his real arm and half a foot working with my dad on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Long story)

So we will protect Mr. Gramner. Safety for the cameramen and crew are at your discretion. Should be a do it every day, piece of cake effect. Still it's S.O.P. for me to ask you one question that's in the order of a final safeguard. Was there originally an actor you really felt could have played Frasier in the event that Mr. Gramner was unavailable or... "a handful"? Have to ask. It many times makes a tougher call but I will remind you of 'happy accidents'.

I'm going to ball park a cost for you then come up with a final tally later. I know you have budget concerns but it's a heck of a stunt. Figuring explosives , equipment rented from the studio electrical dept., special costuming from the studio costume dept., crew, overtime, dummy board and console from studio props, studio fire chief standing by, and I figure you'll want to throw in pizza for a hard working S.E. bunch, I think I can bring the whole thing off for you, on the cheap, for about 110 thousand dollars. Again that's if we're not figuring on another take.

Loved the script by the way.

Mr. S.E.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A long night's journey into day

I’m heading up to Seattle tomorrow to begin a nine-game stretch of broadcasting for the Mariners. There was a game earlier this week between the Pirates and the Braves that lasted 19 innings and lasted over six hours. That prompted this Friday question by Joe Knucks-all (yes, it’s an ode to Joe Nuxhall):

What's the longest game you've gotten to call, thus far?

Friday, September 25, 1992. The Mariners at the Texas Rangers. Sixteen innings, but first a little background:

This was the very end of the season. Both teams were already eliminated. So the game meant absolutely nothing.

The game was held in the old Arlington Stadium, a converted minor league park that was, to be charitable, a dump.

It must’ve been 100 degrees at game time and by the end -- 95.

We were doing the game on TV that night as well as radio. That meant the rotation was that I did the first half of the game on television then switched with my partner, the great Dave Niehaus and did the rest of the game alone on the radio. Did I mention sixteen innings?

Because this was the end of the year rosters were expanded. I believe we set a major league record for the number of players used in one game. The Mariners used 29, the Rangers only used 25. The Mariners employed eleven different pitchers. Between the two clubs there were 481 pitches thrown (I think 12 strikes).

We left twelve men on base. Texas left a staggering twenty. M’s second baseman, Bret Boone went 0-7.

You can’t believe what a mess my scorebook was. Completely indecipherable. Navajo Code Breakers couldn’t figure out who batted for who when.

But the incident I remember most was this: Our bullpen was down the leftfield line. Late in the game, maybe the 13th or 14th while play was in I look out and all of our relief pitchers and bullpen catchers are running out onto the field. WTF?! Seems someone discovered a big rat in the bullpen. So while members of the grounds crew removed the rodent we had a ten minute "rat delay".

We won the game 4-3. Omar Vizquel drove in the winning run and then was thrown out in a wild rundown. It was that kind of game.

And then when the game ended – 5:08 after it started -- I had to do the postgame show. That was another half hour. One of the features was the game re-cap.  I think I said something like "A bunch of guys got into the game and made outs and didn't score, and we did that for like five hours, and then someone drove in a run.  I'll have the out-of-town scores next!"

But I will say this, yes it was exhausting but also exhilarating. You get your second wind after about four hours. And the game takes on a life of its own. The adrenaline kicks in and suddenly it’s great fun.

And the way things are going this year, I’d gladly call a thirty inning game if it meant a win.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Beaver Cleaver is back on the air

My past has caught up with me.  Great Big Radio is playing a two-hour restored broadcast of one of my radio shows back when I was Beaver Cleaver on B100 San Diego in 1976.  So for those of you who gotta have the bump, have a love hangover, or want to win passes to see that great new movie ODE TO BILLIE JOE starring Glynis O'Connor at the Grossmont Cinema, tune in to Great Big Radio. 

I'm on starting at 11 PM EDT and replayed at 11 PM PDT.  You can hear it here. I was certifiably insane in those days.  Enjoy.

Friday questions on Friday

Since I already answered Friday Questions on Wednesday and Thursday I thought I should probably answer some Friday Questions on Friday.   Thanks again to Jeff Greenstein for his fantastic post yesterday.   If you have a Fri Q, I’d love to answer it (or find somebody better). Just post it in the comments section. Thanks.

Brian gets us started.

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writing assignment on THE JEFFERSONS. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?

A new cleaners moves in across the street and George begins losing his confidence. The episode was called “Movin’ on Down”. I can’t remember exactly what led us to it. But I do recall we came up with the idea in a booth at Mario’s restaurant in Westwood late one Saturday night.   That very spot is now Table 17 at the California Pizza Kitchen. 

Tyler K. wonders:

Do TV writers have a harder time writing enough material to fill the required episode time, or cutting material down to do the same? Also, how short do you see TV episodes getting as time goes on? We've gone from 25-minute episodes of Cheers and Mash to 22-minute episodes of Frasier and Friends to some current shows being less than 20 minutes.

Surprisingly, it’s MUCH harder to write a 20 minute show than a 25 minute show. You’d think it would be easier because you had less to write. But it’s much tougher telling a good story in only 20 minutes. Everything has to be so truncated. And if you have a series where you do A and B stories, it makes things especially difficult. Imagine if FRIENDS were still around today. Or MASH.

Stories are more layered, more nuanced, more emotional when you have more time. Why more emotional? Because the emotion has to be earned. And that’s harder to do when characters have to make quick turns.

Michael writes in:

I recently saw a couple episodes of "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" on AntennaTv. 5 or 6 writers shared the writing credit for both shows I saw - I assume they were the show's entire writing staff. Are there union rules that would prevent that from happening today?

Yes. For a sitcom today only two writers or two teams of writers can share teleplay credit on an episode. So if this week’s show is written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs, we each get half. If the show is written by say Earl Pomerantz and Ken Levine & David Isaacs then Earl gets half and David and I split the other half.

You can ask the Guild for a waiver, however. That’s what we did on ALMOST PERFECT. Quite a few scripts were written by David and I and our co-creator, Robin Schiff. But it wasn’t fair that she should get half and we each got a quarter so we asked for a waiver. The Guild said okay as long as all three of us got the equivalent of half – meaning the studio essentially paid for a script and a half. Still with me?

Now things get really complicated when shows are room written like THE BIG BANG THEORY or TWO AND A HALF MEN. Because you can also assign story credit, which pays less than teleplay but at least is something. So if you’ll notice BIG BANG THEORY writing credits, there are usually five or six names. Some get shared story credit, others get shared teleplay credit.

It's a joke because the names on the screen have no relation whatsoever to who actually wrote what. Credits are just divvied up. To me that defeats the purpose of credits. 


From Bob Summers:

Why did the TV seasons of the 70s and into the 80s used to end in March, and why and when did that change to May? I think I have an answer, but I'd like an insider/expert opinion.

This changed when May sweeps were introduced. Most major agencies base their network advertising buys on sweep period ratings. So networks hold back original episodes and sprinkle in stunt programming to inflate their sweeps numbers as much as possible.  Was that what you were thinking, Bob?

And finally, LaprGuy has a question about announcing baseball:

How much does the highlight package (and, maybe moreso, the demo reel) come into play when you are announcing a game?

I don’t think about it at all. As for highlights, I’m just trying to capture the drama of the moment and be accurate. I have no catch phrases.

Re: demo reels, I don’t think about that either. I just try to stay in the moment. Over the course of a season I figure there will be one or two demo-worthy innings somewhere along the way. But my main focus is on the listener and the game at hand. I’m trying to do an informative, entertaining, and descriptive broadcast, not impress.  By the way, I'm back on the air not impressing anyone starting Monday night when the Mariners host the A's in Seattle.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The inside story on DREAM ON

Here's another Friday question that deserves a whole post... and a guest to write it. The question is from Chris, who asks:

Do you have any idea how they used to write Dream On? It had these old movie/tv sequences in between characters' lines to make things more funny. Did the writers come up with the jokes based on old tv shows/movies they remembered or did they have people to help them with those/come up with better ones?

To answer this I went to one of the writer/producers of DREAM ON, Jeff Greenstein. Jeff went on to produce obscure shows like FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE, PARENTHOOD, and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.  He more than graciously fills us in. 

The short answer is both. Here's the long answer.

Before the Dream On staff convened for our first season, we spent hours watching tapes of old anthology series like GE Theatre and Jane Wyman Playhouse (yes, there were tapes in those days, chilluns), painstakingly logging intriguing clips into our notebooks. Sometimes stories would emerge from these sessions—for example, when creators Marta Kauffman & David Crane noticed the startling number of times people offered each other coffee: "Would you like some coffee?" "More coffee?" They concocted a story where main character Martin Tupper has to kick caffeine, only to be plagued by "Getcha some coffee?" "Have another cup," and so on.

Over time, however, the writers came to depend on a research staff whose job it was to watch the old shows and log them into a computer database. (Some of these researchers, notably Greg Malins, later became successful writers in their own right.) Stories were broken without much regard to their clip content; we always believed an episode should work without them. But then, once we were off writing the draft, we'd reach an emotional moment in a scene and say something like "CLIP TO COME: A single tear rolls down an Indian's cheek." The script would then be reviewed by a researcher who'd tell us, "Well, I don't have a crying Indian, but I do have a clip of a guy playing a a tiny violin." So we'd rewrite the script accordingly.

Every once in a while, we'd come across a clip that was so delightful we'd build an entire sequence around it. Jeff Strauss and I wrote an episode where a marathon sex session was intercut with dry narration of a rocket launch: "Yes, the big rocket was off, climbing into the atmosphere with a tremendous thrust of power." And then we'd cut to Martin, well... thrusting. You get the idea.

My favorite of these was an episode called "Calling the Kettle Black," which won us the coveted and defunct CableACE award. Martin finds a joint in his son's sock drawer and gives the kid the "just say no" speech. Cut to an old clip of Nancy Reagan saying "Good for you."

There was also an entire post-production phase where exec producer Kevin Bright would insert or alter clips to punch up a scene. Hence, in a way, the writing process continued all the way through editing.

So to return to the short answer: sometimes the clip tail would wag the writing dog, sometimes vice versa. It lent an additional level of difficulty to the scripts, but it also saved us from having to write subtext. And I think we can all say hurray for that.

Thanks, Jeff.  Both for the answer and some GREAT shows over the years. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Advice for first-time showrunners...not that anyone asked

Well, actually, someone did. Brian Hennessy. He submitted a Friday question that warrants an entire post. (Note: Whenever I can't think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

Hey Ken - can I ask you what are mistakes that first time showrunners make?

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you're doing, you're re-inventing the wheel. 

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are. They’re not getting any back end deals. They’re not getting interviewed by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. This show may be your whole life but they want to go home.

11. Praise your staff. If they turn in a good draft, let ‘em know. This sounds like such a simple thing but you’d be surprised how many showrunners don’t do it.

12. Respect the crew and learn their names. When you walk onto the set, greet them.  They’re not just a bunch of convicts picking up litter along the side of the expressway. They’re dedicated highly-trained professionals who never get any recognition. Take the time to know who they are.

13. Take care of yourself. On the weekends get plenty of sleep. Eat right. Relax. It’s a long haul.

14. Never make your staff work late nights if you’re not there with them.

15. Don’t get so caught up in the work and the grind that you forget to have some fun. You’re running your own show. That’s a rare opportunity. Enjoy it… or at least as much as you can before you have to put out another fire.

16. A good way to completely destroy any morale is to automatically put your name on every script and share credit with every writer. You may win in arbitration but you lose your troops. The trade off is not worth it. You’re getting paid more money than anybody already. Let your writers receive full credit and residuals.

17. Accept responsibility. When things go wrong (and they will) ultimately you’re the one in charge. Not saying you can’t make changes in personnel if someone doesn’t work out, but don’t be constantly playing the blame game. You’re the showrunner. You take the hit.

18. On the other hand, don’t take all the credit. When ideas and scripts and jokes come from other people, publicly acknowledge their contribution.

The bottom line is a showrunner has to develop people skills and management skills as well as writing skills. You may have enormous talent but that will do you no good when your staff firebombs your car with you in it. Good luck. The work is hard but the rewards are enormous.  Wasn't Natalie gorgeous? 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Camping in Los Angeles

Going off to camp for the summer when I was a kid was a real East Coast thing. Growing up in LA, and living in the city, when I was nine my parents sent me to something called “Day Camp”. The “camp” was essentially a bus.

Every morning it picked me up and the first camp activity was driving around the Fairfax district for an hour picking up other campers.

Once we assembled with the other buses at the Big Town Market parking lot on Pico we set off for our daily adventures, which varied depending on the day and traffic.

Sometimes the bus would drop us off at a swimming school sandwiched between a beauty parlor and real estate office. We’d swim for a couple of hours and get back on the bus. We’d stop at a park and have lunch. Afternoon activities might include going to Griffith Park to go horseback riding, the Lido Theater on Pico Blvd. to see a movie, the La Brea Tar Pits (hours of fun there), a museum, and once a week – the beach. But the best was when we talked the counselors into stopping at the Rexall Owl Drug Store on Beverly and La Cienaga where we bought comic books and baseball cards.

These were all fun activities but half the day or more was spent commuting to these venues. At first the counselors (teenagers all) tried to get us all to sing rousing camp songs. That lasted three minutes. We were not a Kumbaya crowd. The resourceful counselors had a Plan B. They turned on the radio to KFWB, the big Top 40 station at the time. We could sing along to the hits of the day. Except we were eight and nine and few of us listened to rock n’ roll radio. None of these songs were familiar to us. The only music we recognized was commercials. So there we were – your typical campers – barreling down the 405 Freeway singing the Winston cigarette jingle.

We didn’t have a chance to write “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” sob story letters to our parents. We went home every night. I guess if they still have Day Camps, disgruntled campers could send “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” texts.

Still, Day Camp was preferable to just hanging around the neighborhood and doing nothing. And I accidentally grabbed one of the coed counselor’s breasts in the pool one day. At the time it meant nothing but a few years later I realized the magnitude of that event and was aroused for weeks.

My older cousin, Jeff went to sleep-away camp that summer and I went with my aunt to pick him up at session's end. The camp was in nearby Malibu canyon. We drove in, I got my first look at the facilities and HOLY SHIT!! There was a swimming pool so large it had a little island in the center. There was a baseball field and an arts & crafts cabin. At night they roasted marshmallows around a giant on-site campfire. There were rocks to climb, a handball court, and a dining hall. WHAT THE FUCK?! This was camp!

Over at Earl Pomerantz’s fine blog he’s been regaling us lately with his remembrances of going off to summer camp in Canada. Poignant, funny, and wistful tales of cookouts and activities at the lake and parent visiting days. Helping the counselors change a flat tire on the bus or getting lost on the way to Lion Country Safari and winding up in Newhall doesn’t exactly stack up.

But that Rexall Owl Drugs is still there (under a different name) and a few months ago I had occasion to stop in. They still sold comic books. And suddenly I was that nine-year-old boy again, excited and completely care free. God, it felt so good to once again commune with nature.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Is Jennifer Aniston really a slut?

Saw HORRIBLE BOSSES recently. A lot of funny stuff. But one thing that didn’t work for me at all was Jennifer Aniston. As a foul-mouthed sex crazed slut I didn’t believe her for one second. I know it’s not fair to presume. In real life maybe she’s the whore of whores (so no disrespect), but on the screen that’s just not who she is. And every time she let fly a ration of raunch it was not just unconvincing (and unfunny) but uncomfortable.

Here’s what it felt like to me. A calculated move by Jennifer and/or her handlers to change her image so she’ll be offered a wider range of roles in the future – a future that is unjustly unfair to all actresses who have the audacity to turn 40. I wanted to yell at the screen, “Jennifer, you don’t have to do this! We love you and always will -- even when you start playing moms and business women.”

Jennifer is not alone in this. Remember when cute, pert, effervescent Meg Ryan decided to alter her persona by doing IN THE CUT? Yes, I was curious to see wholesome little Meg naked… for the first minute. Then it was like I had accidentally seen my cousin taking a shower. Creeee-py. (On the other hand, can you imagine how awful HOW HARRY MET SALLY would have been had it starred Sharon Stone?)

Many actors come with an image and it’s the Faustian Contract they sign with the devil to become stars. In LARRY CROWNE we’re supposed to buy that Julia Roberts is this caustic, bitter, world-weary woman. Yeah, right. Julia Roberts. With that smile (that you know she’ll be flashing at some point in the movie).

And producers, just because you have a chance to get a star – if he or she is not believable in the role you are not doing yourself a favor. 50 year-old Kevin Spacey playing 20 year-old Bobby Darin is a glaring example. I don’t think there was a scene in HOSTEL more squirm-inducing than Spacey as Darin coming on to Kate Bosworth who’s young enough to be his daughter. Ugghhh!!

I’m sure you can think of other instances, but here are some other actors who were mis-cast in roles. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. What were they thinking? John Wayne as Genghis Khan in THE CONQUEROR. That one is truly stupefying. And then there was Denise Richards as a renown nuclear physicist in the Bond movie THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Holy shit!

Jennifer Aniston’s casting in HORRIBLE BOSSES is nowhere near that level of wrong, and to her credit, she does commit to the crude. But it’s not real. It’s Rachel with Tourettes. Seriously, Jen, we love you. We’re still here even after your last Adam Sandler movie. We’re not going anywhere. You can even do television again. (Oooh, I think I just heard her say “Fuck!” and that time it felt like she really meant it.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse 1983-2011

When you first heard the news that Amy Winehouse had died I bet you weren’t remotely surprised. And to me that says it all. Because when anyone dies at the incredibly young age of 27 it should be an utter shock. But Amy’s battle with drugs and alcohol and probably any other substance that comes in a container with a little skull and crossbones on it was so relentless and so public that no one needed a SPOILER ALERT to see this one coming.

Ironically, Amy joins Rock n’ Roll Heaven headliners Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Kurt Cobain – all 27 at the time of their deaths.

I don’t know the exact age but I remember reading somewhere that the life expectancy of any rock star is somewhere in the 50’s. Granted, they pack 90 years of living in those 50+ years but still. That’s waaaaay too young.

And it brings up the question – is it worth it? The fame, the girls, the money, the highs? For me, absolutely not. But that’s really easy for me to say because I had no shot whatsoever of becoming a rock star. When the Beatles first burst upon the scene and every kid scrambled to learn how to play the guitar I took the lazy route and tried to master the harmonica. (Hey, John Lennon played one. And so did Bob Dylan. Of course, they played other instruments and were also talented.)

But looking back, it was a blessing. Amy Winehouse was given an enormous gift, which proved to be a deadly curse. It’s easy to say she made a lifestyle choice but that’s not entirely fair. Without her extraordinary voice would she still have gone down the same path? I couldn’t say. I never met Amy Winehouse. With no music in her life perhaps she would have lived another seventy years happily selling handbags at Harrod’s. Or her demise might’ve been two years earlier.

One thing for certain though -- rock stardom takes its toll. The demands are high. Touring, recording, losing Grammys to Milli Vanilli. Some handle it better than others. Not everyone dies. Some go on to become AMERICAN IDOL judges or golfers (Alice Cooper). But others, like Amy Winehouse, are not so fortunate.

Now come the tributes, the shrines, candlelight vigils. Her CD’s will top the charts, seventeen unauthorized biographies will be available by next week (each claiming to be the real story, even the one that blames her death on corn syrup in baked goods), the E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY will play on a continuous loop until the next rapper is gunned down, and the movie will be released next May. Talk about the part Lindsay Lohan was born to play.

Amy Winehouse crosses over from troubled, fucked-up rock singer to icon, martyr, legend.

I’m sorry but all of this makes it hard to mourn. I kind of hate admitting that but it's true. And that's almost as sad to me as her being only 27 and none of us being surprised.

Classic Sam Denoff

As a follow-up to my recent post on Sam Denoff, here are two classic DICK VAN DYKE SHOWS written by Sam and his partner, Bill Persky.  The first is "Coast to Coast Big Mouth", the script I first saw in a book.  And the second is "That's My Boy", which contains one of the greatest payoffs in sitcom history.  Enjoy. 

Coast to Coast Big Mouth






That's My Boy





Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'm represented at Comic-Con!

I used to make fun of Comic-Con, especially the elaborate costumes and get-ups some attendees would wear.  But no more.  Not after seeing this.  Finally!  Someone has the good sense and taste to dress as Dancin' Homer.  Whoever you are, sir, I salute you.

Thanks to reader WillieB for the heads-up.

My favorite weekend

Yes, I'm dipping into the archives but it's one of my favorite all-time posts, so what the hell?  I've picked up a few new readers since it first ran three years ago. 
The Thursday Calendar section of the LA TIMES always has a feature called “My Favorite Weekend”. A celebrity is asked to describe his or her favorite southland weekend. It’s always bullshit, but now it seems they’re running out of real celebrities. At one time it was Sharon Stone. Now it's one of the models who holds briefcases on DEAL OR NO DEAL. Like anyone gives a crap that she likes to go to Catalina with friends on Sunday then have dinner at someone’s house and let his chef prepare the meal.

So I wrote up my favorite weekend. Or at least, a typical weekend for me. And God bless the TIMES, they ran it. Here it is again just in case you're looking for something to do today and tomorrow.

Friday I like to get an early start and hit the cockfights in Tijuana. I enjoy the action and it’s fun to see all the young couples out on their first dates.

From there I’ll go to the Hotel Del Coronado for a swim to wash any blood off.

There’s a Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus restaurant in Oceanside right off Interstate 5. They have a three-course dinner for two that includes two sides. And on Friday you can get their signature clam chowder, just like the cowboys used to make.

Saturday morning I power walk from Westwood to Malibu, get the paper, then power walk home. Along the way I may stop at an artist friend’s house and pose for a bust.

For lunch I’ll meet some ex car thieves at Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake. Their Big Boy hamburger is an LA classic, but I order their Super Big Boy hamburger because that one has meat in it.

After lunch and checking to see that one of my dining companions didn’t steal my XM radio, I amble over to the Twin Swallows Oriental Massage Parlor in nearby Inglewood for some pampering at negotiated rates.

Once that ends happily I head back home to work on my “project”. It’s been a ten year labor of love. I’m assembling a table I bought at Ikea in 1998.

For drinks at sunset, especially in the summer when the sky turns an awe inspiring crimson, I prefer the bar at the Shangri-La motel at the beach. Only wish it had a window so I could see outside.

If I went whale hunting the week before I’ll come home and grill it for dinner. I’ll invite some close friends I met on MySpace and we’ll eat, discuss the theater, sample fine wines, and toss water balloons at the useless neighborhood watch patrol car.

Early Sunday morning I reserve for calling back everyone who called me during the week. For some reason I usually wind up leaving messages on their voice mail. I’ve yet to reach my dentist.

For breakfast I’m cutting down on eggs so it’s back to the Shangri-La motel bar for a Ramos Gin Fizz. Those eggs can kill you.

Next I steal a horse and play polo at Will Rogers State Park. The guys love me because I usually bring the little orange juice boxes when we break for snacks.


I love star watching so for lunch I zip out to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills. Last week I saw the remaining cast members of MCHALE’S NAVY.

Sunday afternoon is culture time. You can’t be well informed if you don’t read. Currently I’m poring through Helen Reddy’s autobiography.

Sunday evening is sushi so that means Angel Stadium in Anaheim. There’s nothing like watching the Halos duel the Kansas City Royals and hearing that vendor come down the aisle yelling “Hey, sushi right here! Get yer yellowtail!”

I get home, use the neighbor’s Jacuzzi if he’s not home, watch the CELEBRITY FIT CLUB and then it’s time for bed. The great thing about LA is that it’s not just me – EVERYONE here has weekends like this.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Can Emmys cause tension on the set? Does Raggedy Ann have cloth tits?

More Friday questions for your mid-summer pleasure. What’s yours???


Wendy M. Grossman gets us started with an Emmy question:

I note that one of my favorite shows, The Good Wife, has multiple nominees in a couple of categories. Do the actors manage to be genuinely happy for each other and regard it as a joint reward for a team effort, or does it cause strain when this happens? I imagine a lot depends on the general atmosphere on the set - and TGW is full of experienced stage actors who are (I would think) more geared to thinking of themselves as a team. But it has to be tricky on the night.

Can’t speak for THE GOOD WIFE but on some shows Emmy competition can cause tremendous tension. When Christine Baranski won an Emmy for CYBILL and Ms. Shepherd didn’t that merely set off World War III on the set.

From what I hear, on MODERN FAMILY no such friction exists.  I have a feeling it's that way on THE GOOD WIFE too.  There was never a problem I observed on CHEERS or FRASIER.

I was directing an episode of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND that began production the day after that year’s Emmys. Both Ray Romano and Patty Heaton were nominated. Ray lost and Patty won. This was my first directing assignment for that show. I didn’t know what to expect but I was holding my breath. Ray could not have been more gracious. He gathered the entire cast and crew to congratulate Patty and celebrate her win. No wonder everybody loves that guy.

Steven asks:

I recently started watching episodes of Cheers again and one thing that struck me as peculiar was the camera angles and how on many episodes there will be scenes where you can clearly see the edge of the set and background of the studio (i.e. one being the episode where 'John Hill' has a heart attack and in the scene where 'Carla Tortelli' visits him in the hospital room you can clearly see about a foot off the set to the left). Is there any reason for this or was it just an error in production?

I’m guessing you’re now watching the episodes on HD. Those shows were filmed before HD. They’re framed for the traditional TV set. The HD borders are larger and that’s why from time to time you may see off the set.

By the time I was directing BECKER in the ‘90s I had to frame shots for both and at times that was very difficult. The HD picture would look fine but horribly composed for the traditional frame. Heads were cut off, little things like that. But if I set the shot for the traditional frame I’d encounter that same problem of shooting off the set. And if I compromised, neither shot looked good. At the time I cheated more towards the traditional frame. Today I would do just the opposite.

Back when we had a multi-camera pilot in the late ‘70s, one of our cameramen was maybe the worst ever. He pulled back for a master so far that you could literally see the guy on the catwalk perched over the set. And we didn’t know this until we screened the dailies. There was no video assist back then. We had to rely on the camera operators to tell us if they had missed a shot. I guess seeing a guy in the catwalk did not qualify as an unusable shot to this moron.

From bettyd:

You have called baseball for both the National League and the American League. You also said you didn't like interleague play (although I assume the World Series is OK with you!). Which league do you prefer to call, or doesn't it matter?

It doesn’t matter. It’s the particular game itself rather than which league it’s in.

There’s more strategy in the National League, which is fun. But there tends to be more scoring in American League games due to the Designated Hitter so I get more highlights on postgame show, and really, isn’t that what it’s all about? I’ll be back on the air with the Mariners starting August 1st for nine games, by the way.


And finally, from Steve J.:

As a Cheers viewer, it always bugged me when there'd be an episode where Sam and Woody would be off having adventures, as I pictured poor Carla tending bar and waiting tables all by herself. Then, of course, there were also episodes where all three of them would be away from the bar at the same time, presumably leaving it either closed or unmanned.

Was there ever a temptation to explain on the show how Cheers stayed in business when the staff was constantly skipping out? A throwaway line about other employees at the bar we just never saw or something? Or were you fine with not overthinking it?

Oh, this is a topic came up almost weekly. We decided to not try to cover this inconsistency since there really was no plausible explanation.

But trust me, someone in the writers room was always saying, “So who’s running the bar? Is Cheers on the honor system?”

Billy Wilder used to call it "Movie Magic".  I prefer to go with that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jeff Katzenberg says today's movies suck

If you think the current crop of summer releases are bad….

You’re not alone. No less than Jeffrey Katzenberg agrees with you. Katzenberg, former head of Touchstone, Dreamworks, and currently grand poo-bah of Dreamworks Animation in a recent interview for Fortune magazine in front of a Brainstorm Tech audience bitched about all the subpar 3-D entries and blamed it on "a singular and unique characteristic that only exists in Hollywood, greed."

Ouch!

Okay, so lowered interest in 3-D movies hurts Dreamworks Animation, which is making all of its features in 3-D, but why quibble? (If we’re going to be real picky we might suggest that greed also exists on Wall Street but that’s getting off the subject.)

Jeff was just getting started.

Katzenberg asked for a show of hands of audience members who "would say the last seven or eight months of movies is the worst lineup of movies you've experienced in the last five years of your life." Tons of hands shot up. Mr. K. agreed. "They suck. It's unbelievable how bad movies have been ... right now today it's a particularly dreary moment."

And that’s before THE CHANGE-UP has even come out!

I can’t say that I disagree. This has definitely been a summer of bad sequels, bad teachers, and bad bosses. Even Pixar had a misfire. Every comic book hero other than Little Lulu has been brought to life. We were even subjected to another Jim Carrey movie. Star power has meant nothing. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, and even fan-favorite Mel Gibson couldn’t open a film.

Lots of people grouse about the state of today’s movies (when they’re not grousing about the movie experience – talking, texting, ticket prices, teenagers). But what’s significant here is that it’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Hollywood’s OWN. Not just some disgruntled blogger idiot but a legitimate power player. He has to bump into the studio heads who greenlit these cow pies at Spagos, screenings, and ski slopes. He travels in the same circles as the creative community he just crushed. I applaud his candor. These were statements made not without risk. Labor Day weekend with the Hanks in the Hamptons might be in jeopardy.

Will his words have any effect? Of course not. If he was right about the movies sucking he was even more right that the industry is run on greed. I’m sure next summer there will be BRIDESMAIDS 2, TRANSFORMERS 4, and if we’re real lucky – ZOOKEEPER 2. Even Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE 2 is on the fast-track to be released summer 2024.

But he said it. He didn’t blame the recession, Netflix, Carmageddon, Global Warming, the Tea Party, Ohio State football, or iPads. Today’s movies are bad this summer. And if nothing else, it will be a topic at Mastro’s. At least until someone brings up HARRY POTTER and how much money it’s making and everyone will feel good about themselves again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sam Denoff & Sherwood Schwartz

Sam Denoff
I always wanted to be Sam Denoff. And Sherwood Schwartz (for different reasons). We lost them both last week.  This is the first chance I've had to write about them but I couldn't let their passings go without comment.   And deep appreciation. 

1975 was when I quit my radio job (okay, I was fired, but I was offered another radio job and didn’t take it) and moved back to Los Angeles to seriously pursue a career in TV comedy writing. I worked at a dead-end job during the day and at night furiously wrote spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs.

One Sunday – and this will tell you how very long ago it was – I walked into a bookstore. (Note: there used to be retail establishments that carried books you could buy. You could browse the shelves, stand around and skim through a portion of one, and then if you decided to purchase it, you would approach a live person, hand him money or a credit card, and then get to take the book home that day. Wacky, huh?)

At the time, I devoured all books on comedy writing. (There were also no blogs back then.) In one a full script was included. This served as an example of the perfect teleplay. It was “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I bought that book and must’ve read that script a hundred times. I was in awe. It was a major inspiration to me. And the gold standard. Someday I wanted to write a script – just one – that was that good. So good it was in a book!

That script was written by Sam Denoff & Bill Persky.

Sam became one of my idols. I followed his career. And he shaped mine. Sometimes it seemed he was writing directly to me. I wanted to be a comedy writer – he wrote on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW about a comedy writer. I also wanted to be a funny radio disc jockey. He co-created GOOD MORNING WORLD about a funny morning disc jockey team. I desperately wanted a girlfriend. He co-created THAT GIRL. If I may paraphrase the Roberta Flack hit, he was “Killing Me Softly With His Jokes”.

I only got to meet him one time and it was a somewhat surreal experience. I was invited to be on a nationally syndicated radio show to discuss comedy. Turns out the broadcast emanated not from a radio station or a recording studio but some dude’s backyard in the Valley. I sat around a pool chatting on the air with the host, Sam Denoff, and crazy-person, Marty Ingels. On the one hand it was great to be thought of as a peer of one of my comedy writing heroes, on the other I was also a peer of a total nut.

After the broadcast, Sam and I spoke for awhile. He couldn’t have been nicer. I’m always interested in the creative process, especially in teams. Sam told me he and his partner always wrote head-to-head, never just splitting up scenes and going off separately. That’s the way David and I work too. We must be doing something right if the great Persky & Denoff wrote that way.  I told him of the book and he was delighted that his work was used as a tool to help teach young writers.

A few years later FRASIER put out a book of selected scripts including one of ours. You can imagine the significance of that to me. When as a young struggling writer I used to dream of that and saw it as a great “I have arrived” moment. Now I view it as a great “Pay it forward” opportunity. Thanks for everything, Sam Denoff.

Sherwood Schwartz
In an industry that believes when you turn 30 you automatically lose the ability to make people laugh, Sherwood Schwartz proved that being funny is ageless. I got to know him a little in his later years. His granddaughter was dating my son for awhile. Well into his 90’s and Sherwood was sharp and funny and insightful as could be. I once got the chance to drive him home after a family brunch and it was a treat just to hear him to riff on the topics of the day. I’d say the man forgot more about comedy than most people ever knew but Sherwood never forgot anything.

He’s much maligned of course because the two hit shows he created – GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH – were hardly sophisticated fare. But I’m here to tell you, to create a monster hit television program that made such a big impact and remains on the air today is damn near impossible. It’s a once-in-a-billion chance. And this man created TWO. I envy his success and what a kind-hearted person he was. A lot of the fortune he made off those shows have gone to worthy charities. I so wish he had owned the Dodgers.

But because GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH were not considered high art, the industry never took him seriously. Explain to me why Mark Burnett creates mindless reality shows and is a considered a genius while Sherwood Schwartz created beloved long-enduring sitcoms and Hollywood looked down its nose at him. I dare say more kids benefited from lessons learned on THE BRADY BUNCH than from CELEBRITY APPRENTICE.

Sherwood was also a good sport. The 1995 BRADY BUNCH MOVIE directed by Betty Thomas was hilarious. But it was also poked a lot of fun at the TV series. A more thin-skinned creator would have nixed that script in a minute. But not Sherwood. He thought it was funny like everyone else. You don’t get the Midas Touch by accident. THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE was a boxoffice hit. Sherwood Schwartz knew what worked.

Sam Denoff was 83. Sherwood Schwartz was 94. I will miss them both.  But I take comfort in knowing their laughs will go on forever.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

All that was missing was Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn

Back home from my son, Matt’s wedding to Kim in Palo Alto. I’m left with precious memories and bills. Thanks so much to all of you who have offered best wishes and mazal tovs.

Here’s a brief recap of the festivities:

We arranged for guests to stay at the Palo Alto Westin and their sister hotel, the next door Sheraton. Everyone who booked at the Westin got great rooms. Large, spacious, adjoining patios, some received suites. We got a room the size of a closet next to an ice machine, complete with faulty plumbing and a broken safe. And we’re Gold Card members. The Sheraton was also very accommodating to our guests except they wouldn’t upgrade the bridal party. But in a nod to romance they did offer them one night’s free parking.

My lovely wife provided all of our out-of-towners gift bags filled with the essentials like water, cookies, sunscreen, maps, “things to do” suggestions, Kettle Korn, and lip gloss. Not one wedding photo was ruined due to chapped lips! Debby also hosted two fabulous parties. This woman deserves a medal or at least her own reality show.

One plus to the hotels is that they’re only a few blocks from University Avenue, the main drag of Stanford University. Great bars, restaurants, and (look quick) a Borders bookstore. But you’re advised to walk there instead of drive. It’s a little tricky to get from University Avenue to El Camino (where the hotels are) and for some reason it completely baffles the Prius GPS system.  The route kept looping in and around itself. It looked on the screen like an instruction manual for tying a shoe. I think we ended up in Napa Valley.

The weather all weekend was ideal. Sunny but not hot, and 56% humidity – the perfect number for keeping all bridal party dresses wrinkle-free (after numerous portable steamer touch-ups).

The site itself was breathtaking. Mountain Terrace in Woodside, a gorgeous setting overlooking the San Francisco Bay and China. You wind up this steep mountain for seemingly ever and there it is… next to a biker bar. This is where Opie and Lyla on SONS OF ANARCHY should have gotten hitched. Also, across the street is Alice’s Restaurant (where I’m sure you can get anything you want except Alice). I’m guessing they don’t get a lot of walk-in trade.

But once on the grounds you enter a different world. One of serenity, beauty, and free of exhaust.

Had the rehearsal. Not like anything I’ve ever directed. I’m used to people saying, “Why can’t I stand over there?” “What if I gave her the ring?” “You mean I have to follow the grandmother?”

On the morning of the wedding all of the bridesmaids went off for five hours to get their hair and make up done. Now I can understand why they'd need five hours when they try to make Cher look 50, but these are pretty girls in their 20’s. Some lip gloss from our welcome bags and they should be good to go.

Why have a “Maid of Honor”? Doesn’t that just piss off the other bridesmaids?

Am I the only nimrod who can’t figure out all the clips and studs when putting on a rented tuxedo? Invariably I put my cummerbund on upside down, and asphyxiate myself with the bow tie. And borrowed formal wear is one thing, but wearing rented shoes is just weird.

Still, as I Tweeted at the time -- it was nice to wear a tuxedo and not lose an Emmy.

Shuttle vans whisked the guests up to the venue. There may be some who took their own cars. If so, they’re still up there somewhere.

Kim, the bride, was absolutely radiant. And she made the wedding dress herself. Next year at the Oscars when Ryan Seacrest asks Anne Hathaway “Who are you wearing?” I fully expect her to say “Kim Shultz!”

The ceremony was very moving. I decided not to live-blog during it. The rabbi was terrific and even did a few biker jokes. At one point Matt and Kim circled each other seven times. Good thing they didn’t do this before they walked down the aisle. If you’ve ever seen that contest held at minor league ballparks where fans have to circle a bat ten times and then run to first base, you see they get totally disoriented. Bride and groom might have veered off and crashed into trees or trampled through the audience. You don’t want that.

Fortunately, that was at the beginning of the service, stepping on the glass was at the end. If the glass breaking immediately followed the circling, both Matt and Kim would be stomping around for ten minutes trying to find the glasses.

What struck me the most about the ceremony was that I had never seen my son happier. Nor Kim. This is one couple that truly is meant to be together.

The key to any good wedding of course is the efficiency of the bartenders. And I’m happy to say Charlie Sheen would be proud to hire this crew. 

Matt’s sister, Annie was a big hit. The dessert was gourmet cupcakes and Annie designed a replica Fenway Park to showcase them (complete with a hand-drawn Green Monster). And then her speech was one of the highlights of the night. Example: “When my brother told me he had a new girlfriend who was also an engineer and loves the Red Sox I thought, ‘my brother has an imaginary girlfriend’.”

For their first dance Matt and Kim selected “Sweet Caroline”, a Bosox staple. Thank goodness the Dodgers aren't their favorite team. Their first dance might have been “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Here’s one tradition I never understood: The bride and groom on chairs hoisted into the air. Held up by eight drunk groomsmen. Safer to me would be walking into the biker bar and telling them to keep it down.

Wow! Matt is marrying into a family that can really dance.

My speech was delivered during the rehearsal dinner. Here is an excerpt -- wedding tips for the happy couple. You’re welcome to heed them yourself.

Find out what Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward did for fifty and just do that.

If you decide to have children, the best way to love them is to love each other first.

Find something other than a Red Sox win to set the mood for sex.

Remove your names from Match.com.

Intimacy is vitally important. At least once a day text each other that you love them.

Making mix tapes is douchy. You’re married now. Cut that crap out.

Move your parents down on your speed dial. Your spouse is number one.

Breathe Right strips help prevent snoring. Get some.

Be supportive of each other’s work. Since neither of you have a freaking clue as to what the other does, at least be positive.

Never eat at Jerry’s Deli.

And finally -- Love will keep you together. Laughter will keep you in love.

All in all, a spectacular event. Even the bikers got a little choked up.  Congratulations again, from your sappy old dad.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Minor league announcer quits on the air

Life in the minors isn't as idyllic as BULL DURHAM would have you believe.  Recently, the Lake County Fielders, from the North American Baseball League, experienced a mutiny.  On July 9, Lake County manager Tim Johnson resigned before a game and eleven of his players refused to play in protest.  Apparently they were not getting paid.  (No, Frank McCourt had nothing to do with this.  Actually, a part owner of the Fielders is Kevin Costner.) 

Things got wackier.  A few nights later, Jose Canseco player/manager of an opposing team pitched against the Fielders.  The following day, Lake County traded nine players and released fourteen others.

And then their play-by-play announcer, Qumar Zaman, quit on the air.  Here's his final sign-off and it's a doozy. 

Let's go shopping at the Sky Mall

Summer is officially here, which means summer travel. After you’ve had a relaxing morning removing all your clothes in front of a thousand strangers who are also shedding their garments, getting a full-body X-Ray, finding no room in the overhead compartments for your carry-on, being squeezed into a center seat between a fat person and a screaming baby, and sitting out on the tarmac for an hour before taking off, you’re duly rewarded by the chance to shop from the comfort of your undersized seat. Time for another look at the SkyMall magazine to see what great gifts at great prices are currently being offered.  These are actual items. And still more functional than some of the wedding gifts my son Matt & Kim received. 

You’re welcome, by the way.


“The Peeing Boy of Brussels” Statue and Fountain – Class up your joint with this delightful fountain of a boy urinating. $175 (includes pump but you must provide your own yellow dye)
 
Sunglasses That Float – For really stupid people who think this is a great life preserver. $89.95 (but what’s the price of saving your life?)


A electronic grocery list organizer – Now you’ll never have to write a shopping list ever again! Just think of all the paper and ink you’ll save! Only $89.99.

The Weed Whacking Golf Driver – Brings new meaning to multi-tasking. $39.95


The Grand Tiki Table – Who wouldn’t want this tasteful item in their home? $99.95.

The Headache Relieving Wrap – Yes, it may appear to be like any other normal head wrap, but it was developed by a neurologist (although they don’t say who). And don’t let the fact that people are laughing at you for wearing it take away from the supposed benefits. Sure you could take a Tylenol for thirty cents, but isn’t it better to buy this for only $49,95?

The Eye Fatigue Preventing Fit Over Sunglasses – They go over your regular glasses and dwarf your face making you look 80 years-old, but at only $79,95 they’re a real bargain. Unless you go into CVS and get the same thing for six bucks.

The Always Cool Pillow – As opposed to taking any pillow and just putting it in the refrigerator for ten minutes. $89.95. Unless of course, by “cool” they’re referring to being in style – in which case, this item is a steal because you know hard it is to keep up with pillow fashion.


Bone Shaped Pillows – For your dogs. Comes in seven colors even though dogs can’t see colors. $19.95. Buy a bunch because dogs tend to eat bones.


Authentic Notre Dame Bench – along with authentic Notre Dame splinters. $249.99. I’d get a couple of dog bone pillows because those benches are hard.


Captain Jack Sparrow’s Sword Letter Opener – Because you know how much mail pirates get! $19.95.

Captain Jack Sparrow’s Onyx Flower Ring – Something like this should cost an arm and a peg leg but it’s yours for only $129.00!

The World’s First Hands-Free Home Use Laser Hair Therapy Treatment to Combat Hair Loss – Hannibal Lector-type helmet for men who can’t be embarrassed enough by wearing jaw-dropping toupees. $499.

Chemistry Clock – Each number relates to the corresponding atomic element. Here’s what it says about you – you’re organized, scientific, and will never get laid in a million-trillion years. $29.95.

Have your credit card ready! 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Levine/Shultz wedding

This is a very special day.  My son Matt managed to find "the one" and today he and Kim are getting married.  (She found "the one" too.)  I couldn't be more thrilled.  Talk about two people made for each other.  They both watch Red Zone every Sunday during football season.  They both are crazed Red Sox fans.  They both can provide tech help when I need it.  

We're so delighted to welcome Kim into our loving-albeit-strange family.  I know she and Matt will enrich each others lives and provide each other with joy, laughter, and Fantasy Football tips for years and years to come. 

I love you both.   And I'm going to sign off now before someone sings "Sunrise/Sunset" and I start to cry.   Mazal tov. 

Dad

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Carmageddon

In honor of Carmageddon here's a very funny video.  They have been alternate versions but this is one devoted to LA's current situation -- the 405 Freeway, which connects the Valley to the Westside is closed all weekend for repairs.  Look, when you're talking comedy gold, you can't beat Hitler.   For the folks in Los Angeles, you might as well watch.  You're not going anywhere.

Friday, July 15, 2011

From the 405 to the 4077

The main corridor between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside of Los Angeles will be closed starting tonight all through the weekend. The traffic should be so bad that even though I’m currently in Palo Alto, we should still have grid lock. Anyway, here are some Friday questions to ponder while LA people frantically try to get out of town, and non-LA people laugh hysterically.

Gazzoo starts us off:

Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) till the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

No one had any special requests, but David and I were very adamant that we didn’t want a sappy ending. That’s why we constructed the final sequence so that all of the final goodbyes were during triage and the farewells had to be quick and on the run.

I’m a big fan of “little touches”. Hawkeye discovering Radar’s teddy bear on his bed says more about how Radar matured from the MASH experience than any speech could have ever done, no matter how eloquently it was written.

We also wanted to send Radar home happy. Henry Blake was killed and Frank went bonkers. We wanted Radar to return home having benefited somewhat from the experience. He grew up and found love in Korea.

Originally it was a just a single episode but when CBS decided to push it back into the 8th season they asked that it be expanded into a two-parter.

The new staff rewrote very very little of our draft (thanks for that, guys). I don’t believe a line was changed from the entire final act. One day I’ll get Gary Burghoff to write about the episode from his perspective.


Richard Leslie Lewis is a British writer who just came back from a BBC Writers’ Festival. Showrunners there claimed they only wanted to see original specs. So here’s his question:

Why do American companies insist on writers specing current shows?

Because we want to see how you write other peoples’ shows. Can you capture the tone and style? Do your characters sound like the actual characters on the show? Yes, everyone is looking for that fresh new voice, but in America, more than likely, your first job (or several jobs) will be toiling on someone else’s show. Can you adapt to their vision? 


Mirror James (also from England) wonders:

Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, his predecessor on Doctor Who, often seem to be the targets of abuse from people who claim to be fans. Everything from saying they can't write to accusations of running a so-called "gay agenda", in which the mere acknowledgement that gay people exist is apparently "shoving it down their throats".

Have you ever had a bad experience with a fan who claims to love a show yet can't seem to do anything other than hurl insults?

Only all the time. Fans are passionate about their shows. I got a hate letter on MASH from someone who thought Hawkeye was being too mean to Radar. Other loyal MASH viewers claimed in profanity-laced missives that I was a liberal Commie dupe hell bent on destroying America.

The "gay agenda" complaint was a staple on FRASIER.  Referring to this and the "we're too liberal" charge on MASH, I like to think we had an "open minded agenda". 

My favorite was a letter I received when David and I were showrunning the MARY series. It started out like this:

Dear Producers,


Recently I read an article in TV GUIDE that spoke of the growing cocaine problem in the television industry. At first I thought they were grossly exaggerating, but then I watched an episode of your show…

I will say this though – no one ever called me an “asshat”.


And finally, from Chris:

How do they shoot/do those scenes when the audience laughs just when the camera zooms on something, like a silent opening with the camera zooming on what a character is reading and just then the audience starts to laugh?

I assume you mean a studio audience. There are always monitors overhead and they will be invited to watch them for particular scenes or moments. Often special scenes will be pre-shot and just shown to the audience. What they see is what you’ll see at home so they receive the same surprise.

What’s your question?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My thoughts on the Emmy nominations

The Emmy nominations were announced today. I slept through them. I hope I don’t do that through the ceremony too. The first thing I did was scan down to make sure Margo Martindale was nominated for her work on JUSTIFIED. She was. I’m happy. Glad that a few of the JUSTIFIED cast members got noms – Timothy Oliphant and Walton Goggins – but sorry the series didn’t get a Best Drama nomination or writing nomination. That said, it’s hard to argue with any of the choices for Best Show in either Comedy or Drama. As for Mini-series – whatever. They’re probably all amazing. I don’t watch Mini-series.

BIG BANG THEORY got Best Comedy love for the first time. BREAKING BAD got zero nominations due to a technicality – they didn’t have any shows air during the eligibility period.

I don’t watch GLEE. Did the actors who got nominated from that show survive the recent firings? If no, if one of the fired cast members got nominated, then that’s who I’m rooting for.

They should just change the category of Guest Actor/Actress in a Drama to Guest Movie Star in a Drama.

I think BOARDWALK EMPIRE is going to have a tougher time winning an Emmy for Best Drama than Golden Globe. I’m guessing MAD MEN wins again this year. They had one of their strongest seasons.

Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy got recognized for their work in BRIDESMAIDS by each receiving Emmy nominations.

What a shock – Betty White got nominated.

I wonder how many actors who were nominated were originally not approved by the network and only got the gig because the show runners fought for them? I bet a half dozen at least.

My sincerest congratulations to all the nominees. Now begins that lovely bask period.

Again this year I’ll be reviewing the Emmys… if I’m awake. I imagine the theme will be Celebrating the Rich History of Television Excellence and then not show any program that aired before 1990.

This is my second post of the day so if you’re just arriving for the first time, stick around for my HARRY POTTER post just below.   My Ted Danson to CSI thoughts will be on Twitter.  You're welcome to follow me.  Thanks.

The new Harry Potter movie

I hate to be out of touch! I always feel so inadequate when there’s a national phenomenon and I’m out of the loop. As a blogger of popular culture (not that anybody is paying me… or even asking me to be a blogger of popular culture) I do sort of feel it’s my responsibility to stay up with current trends. That’s why I watched AMERICAN IDOL (until it became too mind numbing even for me). That’s why I watched Oprah (well, maybe not “watch” per se, but I did see clips on THE SOUP). I’d watch MTV to see the hottest new bands but they don’t play music on MTV anymore (so the “M” now just stands for what, Money?). I’m familiar with video games like Bio-Shock (so I can accept compliments from people who think I’m the Ken Levine who created it). I own an iPad. The point is – I make it my business to ride zeitgeists like they were plow horses.

So it pains me to say, with the final HARRY POTTER movie coming out this week, that I am not into Harry Potter.

I tried. I read the first book and loved it. So brimming with imagination. Saw the first movie and thought they did an excellent job of translating it to film. But by nature, I’m not a big fantasy guy.

I read another Harry Potter book along the way. Enjoyed it but not as much. 700 pages is a lot of wizards and wands for me. Saw one of the other Harry movies. Same thing. Okay but didn’t grab me.

And then last year, all the hoopla about the final two installments coming out. And the emphatic declarations that this would indeed be the end of the series. The kids in the cast are now old enough to star in THE SUNSHINE BOYS.

I didn’t catch part one when it was released during the holiday season. Misreading the zeitgeist horribly, I just naturally assumed everyone was going to be flocking to BURLESQUE.

But I was curious. Not curious enough to do anything but mildly interested just the same.

And then recently my daughter Annie and her writing partner, Jonathan rented the DVD of part one and invited me to watch it with them. Perfect! I thought. I’ll be able to catch up and at the same time enjoy a rip-roaring movie.

I made it through an hour. I was so confused. And that’s with Annie & Jon trying to fill me in.  Harry and the gang fly to some house somewhere in the moors to hide from someone, but the location is not so secret that they can’t entertain guests and even have an outdoor party. And then suddenly they’re back in London at a present day coffee shop and then another old house where a creature arrives and then someone else, and then they go through a portal to another world where they have to get a locket, and then it becomes MAD MEN meet THE MATRIX, and now Harry has to wear the locket, and every so often he has dreams where he can see what evil his nemesis is doing, and… WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING??

If you’ve followed the series and are up on Harry Potter lore all of this made complete sense. Annie & Jon were having a rollicking good time. My head was about to explode.

So I won’t be seeing the new HARRY POTTER movie that opens this weekend. I feel bad about that. Not bad enough to go back and watch six movies or read 15,000 pages, but I do feel like I've been excluded from a club. And not a real exclusive club either. A club that’s easier to join than Costco.

Still, this is one worldwide craze I’m going to have sit out. Enjoy the final HARRY POTTER. I hope it lives up to all your expectations or even exceeds them. And don’t worry about me. I’ll be in the theater next door, hedging my bet just in case there will be a BAD TEACHER 2-9.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meeting Prince Charles

Thank God I’m getting out of town. My son Matt is getting married on Sunday in the Bay Area so I’m outta here. But he could not have picked a more perfect weekend (or girl for that matter) than this one because starting late Friday night it is CARMEGEDDON in Los Angeles. You’ve probably heard about it… even in the outer reaches of Bhutan. The freeway that is the major artery between the Westside of LA and the San Fernando Valley will be closed for over 50 hours this weekend as they make improvements and knock down a bridge. Why they can’t knock down the bridge during normal traffic flow is beyond me. So a few cars are crushed? We’re talking MAJOR inconvenience here. Fortunately, I’ll be miles away heavily drinking.

There was a rumor that the reason for the closure was the visit by Will & Kate. Not true. And even if it were, they need 55 hours to get from the 110 to the Santa Monica Freeway? W & K are in town but just getting around via simple motorcade and police escort.

Still, it reminds me of when Prince Charles came to Twentieth Century Fox to visit MASH. This was 1977 or ’78. I meet so much royalty I never can keep the dates straight. Truth be told, he was really there to see CHARLIE’S ANGELS but since he was in the neighborhood…

The studio wanted to look its best for the prince so all the buildings were re-painted. Well… not all the buildings. Only the sides of the buildings that were in his view along his motorcade route. So it would be the front of one, the side of another, etc.

And before you say, “that’s unbelievable” let me just correct you and say “that’s typical”.

I did get to meet Prince Charles. Was in a receiving line on the MASH stage. When I shook his hand I just couldn’t resist. I asked, “What career advice would you give young people thinking of getting into your profession?” To his credit he laughed. But my reception on BBC America is always bad and every British Airlines flight I’ve ever taken since has been delayed.

Happy driving, Los Angeles.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: A post about spoiler alerts

Mary McNamara wrote a great article yesterday in the LA Times on SPOILER ALERTS. In this age of Twitter and instant communication it’s more difficult to keep endings secret.

As a blogger I try to be sensitive to this issue (I’m also a screenwriter and would hate to have my surprise ending revealed before I have your money or Neilson has recorded that you’ve watched my show), but at some point you have to say, come on, I’m not leaking atomic secrets here!

At what point is it reasonably fair to discuss a movie or show’s plot points? Emily Post’s etiquette guide has no guidelines for internet and social network traffic. What good is she?!

Ms. McNamara contends that once a show airs on NATIONAL TELEVISION it should be fair game. I agree. As a producer, my beef with networks was always giving away surprises in the promos before the episode even aired. Same with movie trailers. But once a project is out there for public consumption, then all bets are off.

You want to wait until the end of a season, rent the DVD, and watch a whole year of THE GOOD WIFE at one time? Fine. Then avoid any blogs, articles, Twitter mentions, and any of the 20,000,000 people who have already seen the show.

I get angry readers all the time who complain that I have spoiler alerts. Even if I hold off a couple of days. One guy from England was really pissed because I discussed an episode of 24 and they were a season behind over there. I’m supposed to wait a year after a show airs in America before I can post about it?  Is it okay yet to reveal who shot J.R.?

It’s almost impossible to write a review without giving away something. Otherwise, what are you writing?

BRIDESMAIDS is a very funny comedy about… some women who have something in common all tied to a certain event. If you plan on attending such an event you really should see this movie.

I never read reviews of movies I’m looking forward to seeing. And if I know it’s one everybody is going to be talking about I see it as soon as possible. If there’s a TV show I DVR, the onus is on me to see it before the cast is on INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO.

If you’re in a restaurant and you overhear some loudmouth at the next table give away the ending to THE CRYING GAME there’s nothing you can do (unless you just want to never leave your place – and avoiding spoiler alerts is a really poor reason for becoming an agoraphobic), but you don’t have to always be on Twitter, or Facebook, or ESPN (if you don’t want hear a certain score).

Spoilers are annoying but to me the trade off is that we now get information so much faster – almost instantaneously. Isn’t it better in general to know too much instead of not enough?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Has the sitcom bar been lowered?

In a hotel room not long ago I found myself channel surfing. First I checked the pay channels. None of the recently released Hollywood features were any good. God, Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston have made some bad movies. And their one together is biblical in its badness. I bet hotels are really starting to take a bath on this feature. Now that everyone has a laptop we can Netflix and see the same “blockbusters” for free (although warning: that Sandler/Aninston bomb will likely crash your computer faster than any Trojan Virus). And who needs to pay for softcore “Adult Fare” when there are only a billion hardcore porn sites right there at your idle hand fingertips?

So I just surfed through the stations. I had seen the LAW & ORDER, LAW & ORDER SVU, LAW & ORDER: UK, and LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT that were all playing. ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT has become CHARLIE SHEEN TONIGHT. Some college basketball game from only two months ago was being replayed on ESPN “CLASSIC”. And FOX NEWS was blaming Obama for the tornadoes.

Finally, I came upon a CHEERS episode. It had just started. From the teaser I recognized it as one my partner, David Isaacs and I had written. It was from one of the later years and I remember it not really being our best work. When you write 40 episodes of a series there are going to be your favorites and your least favorites. This was in the latter category. Not that I thought it was bad per se, just… “okay”. One of those episodes that fills out the season.

So needless to say, I hadn’t seen it in awhile. Years actually. Why would I want to go back and watch something I didn’t particularly like?

Okay, I can almost hear you screaming at the screen. “Which episode was it??!!”

It was the one where Norm & Cliff, as a goof, cancel Frasier’s credit card, so the card is rejected when Frasier tries to settle up his tab, and this ultimately escalates into a big fight between Sam and Frasier. The B-plot is Woody becoming addicted to the shopping channel.

Anyway, I decided to watch it. And was pleasantly surprised. There were some really good laughs in there. The stories, although trifles at best, zipped along. Woody, in particular, was terrific. It was a lot funnier than I had remembered it. And let me just say that’s not always the case. More often than not a show I originally liked I see again and want to give back my WGA card.

But when this episode was over I was left with an odd reaction. You’d think I’d be very pleased but I wasn’t. I was more puzzled than anything else. Why? This one question kept surfacing:

Was this episode actually better and funnier than I had recalled. Or has the bar of television sitcoms just been so lowered now that what still is an average episode of CHEERS seems better than it is?

Now I’m not talking about the truly excellent episodes of today’s best comedies. I’m sure you can put this year’s Emmy nominees up against the best from any era. But this was hardly an Emmy-worthy episode of CHEERS. So pitting this against the general quality of sitcom today, does it stand on its own or rise in comparison?

I have no answer.

And you, from your perspective, might say this episode of CHEERS is far worse than what’s usually on today. That’s fair too.

So I’ll throw it open for discussion. One middling episode of CHEERS aside, do you think the bar has been lowered in today’s situation comedy? I’ll be checking back from time to time to see what you say. At the moment though, I’ve got to chase a few kids off my lawn. Thanks.

On another note:

I just made 20 short videos in which I answer the questions I'm most commonly asked about writing sitcoms. You can check 'em out here. I'll be hurt if I don't go viral.