Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or Tweets

For those of you who don’t follow me yet on Twitter, I got on a tweet jag this morning. Here are my latest Halloween tweets.

When I worked at MTM everyone who wasn't a girl dressed as Mary Tyler Moore for Halloween.

2 worlds collide on ONCE UPON A TIME as Storybrooke citizens dress as fairy tale characters for Halloween. "Hey, this costume really fits."

Kids! Don't go to Frank McCourt's house. He's selling trick or treat candy.

For Halloween Lady Gaga is dressing as mousy Italian girl from New York.

Kim Kardashian files for divorce. This is why her weddings need to be televised LIVE.

Okay, this one's gonna stick -- Kim Kardashian & Hugh Hefner.

This year for Halloween I'm going as the Ken Levine who created BioShock.

Happy Halloween

This has always been one of my favorite holidays, especially when the kids were little. Taking them trick-or-treating and seeing them so excited and happy was one of the true joys of parenthood. And then eating the candy they collected was fun too. Of course there’s always that one eccentric house. We had a dentist who gave out toothbrushes. Thank goodness he wasn’t a proctologist.

And where I live, near UCLA, there was always a second wave of trick-or-treaters.  After the kids had turned in for the night, sorority girls in yummy costumes would ring the bell. I’d be holding the candy bowl for them in one hand and my Emmy in the other.

During Matt & Annie’s elementary school years there was also the annual Halloween carnival. This was a public school catering to the local neighborhood but we were hardly a typical neighborhood. One year I volunteered to make snow cones and Hugh Hefner and his six bimbos strolled up to my cart. He had a kid in the school. A noted soft-porn actress whose children attended the school offered this for the silent auction: A two hour nude session where you could photograph or paint her. The principal graciously declined that offer, but I bet it would have brought in a lot more money than the autographed WINGS script I donated.

For the school’s “Haunted House” Gene Simmons participated. He would pop up and stick out that four-foot tongue. One mother was so freaked she literally sued the school.

Ah, good times.

One thing I learned though -- Halloween is an OUTDOOR holiday.

My son’s birthday is November 2nd. (Happy upcoming birthday, Matt!). When he turned five Halloween night fell on a Saturday. So for his party we invited a bunch of his friends to the house where I would take them all out trick-or-treating and then they’d come back for pizza and cake. 5-7 PM. No muss. No fuss. Great plan.

Except it rained. No, it POURED.

First off, as parents deposited their kids they asked if we’d take siblings since they couldn’t take them trick-or-treating in the rain. Of course we said yes, and so at 5:00 I had forty screaming crazed children running around my house – chasing each other with hatchets, and fairy wands, and Star Wars blasters. After relentlessly trying to wrangle this supercharged mob I finally sat down on the stairs and took a breath. I was so proud of myself. I had gotten through it. It’s almost 7. Then I checked my watch. 5:20.

If you have little kids enjoy these precious Halloweens. Soon enough they’ll outgrow you, want to be with their friends instead, and trade blasters for tequila shooters. At least I still have my memories… and the sorority girls keep coming around.

One last Halloween note: I’ve always found it odd that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in this holiday so they stay home…on the only night of the year when people would actually open their doors to them.

Happy Halloween.

Boo!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Your scariest movies

Thanks to everyone for chiming in with your scariest movie of all-time.

A number of you made a good point -- there are movies that scared us as kids and movies that caused permanent psychic damage as adults. The motherlode is when the same movie can do both.

Reader Zirbert also suggested that it’s not so much the blood and gore but “creepiness” that really causes our skin to crawl. Bottom line seems to be films that can elicit the most visceral reactions. Just tap into deep-rooted primal fears and let the fun begin!

A lot of you cited POLTERGEIST. The illusion of that movie was spoiled for me because I was there when they filmed it. It was on the MGM lot when I had an office there. For days I would see pieces of a giant twisted tree outside a soundstage. When told they were for a horror picture called POLTERGEIST I wandered onto the stage. Somehow seeing crew people sitting around eating their lunch on the scary sets took a bit of the menace out of them. I imagine if you saw all the disfigured zombies from WALKING DEAD hanging around the craft services table eating donuts you’d be less unnerved.

Another movie that worked for you but not for me was THE SHINING. Nicholson’s character was so over-the-top I just found him amusing. I always thought Kubrick screened the first few days dailies, took Jack aside and said, “This thing just ain’t clickin’, babe. Go to town.”

If you check your local listings, I bet a number of the movies you all nominated will be shown this weekend for Halloween. I’ve never seen THE THING and a lot of you really recommend it (recommend being another term for scarred forever). If that’s on and I can borrow some Xanex I’ll check it out.

I agree with you guys about THE BIRDS, DON’T LOOK NOW, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and THE VANISHING (the only other thing I've ever seen Nancy Travis in that was more frightening was THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW).

I’m kind of surprised that BLUE VELVET only made one person's list.  Just when you thought no one could be as strange as Dennis Hopper, along came Dean Stockwell.

For TV creep-o-rama, check out the CSI written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. You’ll want to avoid being buried alive after watching that.

Among my favorite facetious entries: JESUS CAMP,  SHOWGIRLS, YENTL, MEET DAVE, and IT’S COMPLICATED.

My heart goes out to the reader who was traumatized as a child by THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.

And I applaud you all. Not one person selected BOXING HELENA.

Some movies transcend time while others were only effective in context. Some of those old Frankenstein-type movies that terrified audiences in the ‘30s and ‘40s are almost comical today. But I don’t know a single woman who would take a shower in a Best Western or Super 8 motel today without checking to see that Norman Bates isn’t peaking through a peephole. And I guess you gotta be at a drive-in theater stoned, drunk, and alone to fully appreciate THE BLOB.

I would love to write a horror movie someday. I’m not a huge fan of the genre, but just as a writer, I would like to see if I could create situations strong enough to cause an audience to scream, or gasp, or the ultimate compliment for an artist – wet themselves. I thought I had achieved that with MANNEQUIN 2 but apparently not.  Maybe next year.  Or lifetime.  Or afterlifetime. 

Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

CHEERS Bar Wars V: The Final Judgment

Okay, hopefully this works.  For Halloween weekend I'm trying to show the Bar Wars episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote that took place over Halloween.  It's Bar Wars V: The Final Judgment.   So assuming this works, click on this link and it should take you to a site where you can watch.   If it doesn't, you can always just scroll down to my World Series post.

Of all the Bar Wars episodes that we wrote, this is my favorite.

Note: When this show originally aired, the song that the juke box was playing was "Monster Mash" by Bobby Boris Pickett.  I guess Paramount didn't want to pay for the rights for syndication so a different song is substituted.  And it's not nearly as funny.

Tomorrow:  Results on your scariest movies.  Boo.

My thoughts on the World Series

It’s too bad the World Series has to come at the end of the season. I bet more people are jacked up about baseball right this moment than at any time of the year. Oh well. If they can show a Batman trailer that essentially says “coming whenever we finish making it” they can expect us to wait until March before the next pitch is thrown in anger.

Of course I’m being facetious, but this was the World Series I never wanted to end. For sheer action, drama, suspense, improbable events, rainouts, anthem singers, heroics, miscues, triumph, and heartbreak I can’t think of another Fall Classic that comes close. And don’t tell me 1911 because I was at most of those games and with the exception of game five when Bonehead Merkle drove in Laughing Larry Doyle with the winning run in the 10th, this year’s Series was better.

The highlight (or lowlight if you’re a Rangers fan) was Game 6. 4 1/2 hours of the most riveting theater you’ll ever see (or -- if you were lucky enough to be tuned in to Rangers’ broadcaster Eric Nadel -- ever hear). Texas blew the lead five times and twice was within one tantalizing strike of winning the World’s Championship. Even if you’re a diehard Cardinal fan your heart has to go out to them. To come so very close only to suffer such a catastrophic end. I feel for those players. I also feel for the poor clubhouse attendants in the Texas locker room. Can you imagine? Game 6 -- they had the champagne all ready, the plastic over the lockers. Suddenly Freese hits that walkoff homer in the 11th and they’re like, “Uh oh. We got two minutes to get all this shit outta here!”

On the other hand, the Cardinals played like champions, and have been playing like champions since the end of August. I’ve always believed that if a Wild Card team gets into the World Series they should be favored because they’re so used to pressure games and fighting and clawing that they go into the competition with a real head of steam. They knocked off the heavily favored Phillies, the tough Brewers, and powerhouse Rangers. Forget their regular season record – they deserved this championship trophy.

Some random thoughts:
It was a shame that more people in the East didn’t see Game 6 live because it was on so late. How is baseball going to capture the next generation of kids if their most exciting games conclude four hours after their bedtime?

From my time calling games in the National League, Cardinal fans are among the very best in baseball. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and respectful. Somehow they manage to create a real comfortable family atmosphere in a ballpark where more Budweiser is served than any place in America.

Ranger fans are also great. When I did a Mariners-Rangers series in early August it was 104 degrees at game time every night, and still 40,000 people came out to see them. Even Bush showed up (once but still…).

Maybe now the Cardinals can afford Albert Pujols.

The last day of the regular season was pretty spectacular too.  

If you’re rooting for a team based on their manager, you have to root for Texas.

I thought it was a brilliant homage to his father when Joe Buck called the game-winning home run in Game 6 the same way his dad did in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. “We will see you tomorrow night.” Very classy, Joe. 

Everyone today talks about what a classic call that was by Jack Buck. They forget that CBS fired him right after that World Series.

Without the rainout before Game 6, Carpenter doesn't pitch in Game 7.  I'm just sayin'.  

You can’t allow two runs in Game 7 by walking a batter and hitting a batter with the bases loaded.

Had the Rangers won the World Series on Friday night there's a slight chance their story would be on the front page of the Dallas sports sections.  After all, it is high school football and Cowboys season.

From comedy writer Danny Zuker:  When you think about it the World Series is like the Superbowl of baseball.

From truebluela blogger Eric Stephens:  Overheard in some small African village next week: "World Series Champions Rangers t-shirts, AGAIN? Ugh"

Ohmygod!  The All-Star Game really did count. 

The final score of the now-classic Game 6 was 10-9. The score of the classic Mazeroski Game 7 of the 1960 World Series where the Pirates defeated the Yankees – 10-9.

At least for the Rangers there was no one Bill Buckner.

I miss Jon Miller on the radio.

The last team to win a Game 7 of the World Series was the 2002 Angels. And they too had to come from behind in a thrilling Game 6 to avoid elimination.  Does anybody remember that?   Sure but you all remember Bonehead Merkle. 

I still say Texas in six – just not this year.

116 days until pitchers and catcher report.  I can't wait.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What's Harry Morgan really like?

Still recovering from last night's World Series game.  As Colonel Potter might say, "It was the oyster's iceskates!"  Speaking of Colonel Potter, here are Friday Questions with the first one being about him.  And you can still tell us which scary movie traumatized you most.  Thanks.


Becky is up first.

I was wondering what Harry Morgan was like in real life?

Becky, you’ll be happy to learn he’s a wonderful guy. Harry has a wicked sense of humor. Very droll. And is a great storyteller. During breaks he would regale us with stories of doing movies with Spencer Tracy and Elvis. And there were a lot of tales about DRAGNET and how, uh… “frugal” Jack Webb was. You’ll notice he and Jack were always in the same suits, every week. That’s because they filmed exterior shots of them entering and exiting buildings, their car, etc. and were able to use the same shots every week.

Harry is the ultimate pro. Could scan a page of dialogue once and have it perfectly memorized. Would lock in on a performance and do it perfectly the same way every time, every take. He was courteous to every member of the staff and crew and knew everyone’s name.

I saw him last at a tribute to MASH producer, Gene Reynolds a couple of years ago. Harry hadn’t seen me in ages. But he was still as sharp as ever. Remembered my name, that I was now involved with baseball. And he must’ve been only 93.

What few people don't know is that Harry is also an excellent director. Once a season he would direct an episode of MASH. During our tenure we made sure Harry got to direct one of ours. If he wasn’t such a terrific actor he would have had a great career behind the camera.

Harry has one of those faces and voices that even when he was 20 he was able to play 60. So it’s no surprise he’s a young 96. He’s been a young senior citizen for 70 years.

From Chris:

Here's a Friday question: why do some shows give the same writer a consulting producer and a written by credit in the same episode?

Those are two different assignments. Consulting producer is a staff position. A written by credit means he wrote the script for that week’s episode.


DyHrdMET asks:

Have you ever worked a playoff game?

Yes, with the Padres in ’96.  We lost.  But I never worked a game as magnificent as last night's.  Very ever have. 

From Mark:

This is a question for Friday and you may not want to answer it but I bet that tons of your readers are wondering the same thing, so what the heck, I'll be the guy who asks:

You come across as a very modest, self-effacing, middle-class (okay, upper middle class) kind of guy, and yet you've been involved at a very high level with several extremely successful TV shows. Are you collecting fat (or thin) royalties from those programs, or is that money ancient history?

I am still collecting royalties but not enough to allow me to finally become a dick. Seriously, though, since the 1977 WGA Basic Agreements residuals are into perpetuity (God bless you, Writers Guild). The amounts have dwindled down through the years but royalties are still dribbling in. Even more exciting at this point is that shows I wrote 30 years ago are still being shown and enjoyed today.

And finally, from John based on a post about Charles Winchester of MASH:

There was an episode early in Season 6 written by Laurence Marks entitled "Change Day" in which Charles' scheme to scam people out of their script comes across more like something Frank Burns would do. Was the writing staff still trying to get a handle on who Maj. Winchester was at the time, or was this an idea thought up earlier, when Frank Burns was still the show's main foil, and then reworked to try and fit David Ogden Stiers' new character?

You were right the first time, John. We were still trying to nail down Charles. This was one of the first stories broken with that character. It came from an actual incident we discovered in the research. Unfortunately, it’s confusing as hell. If I’m being honest, it was one of our worst episodes that year, and it was not Laurence Mark’s fault. It was ours.

What’s your Friday question? And movie that sent you into therapy?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's your scariest movie?

With Halloween fast approaching, what is the scariest movie you’ve ever seen? We all have one. An experience so frightening that it kept you up for weeks, resulted in therapy that is ongoing to this day, and accounts for your aversion to clowns. Could be Freddy or Jason or Chucky or Fran Dreschler – but surely there is one horror movie stalwart that still sends shivers up your spine. Maybe a Gothic classic where an old Hungarian actor skulks about in the night shrouded in a black cape. Or a maniac named Jigsaw terrorizes Shawnee Smith through six sequels. (By the way, when a parent names their son Jigsaw, what do they expect?) Perhaps you’re more of a science-fiction buff and Alien makes your skin crawl. Or the Creature From the Black Lagoon still comes to you in dreams and wants to borrow your girlfriend for the weekend. What movie frightens you the most?

For me, it’s one you probably have never heard of. It’s called THE 27th DAY, and it was a low-budget black-and-white film made in 1957. I saw it a few years later during a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee at the Stadium Theater on Pico Blvd. near Robertson in Los Angeles. It was on a double-bill with a film about giant ants threatening civilization and picnics.

THE 27TH DAY had hardly any special effects and there were no hideous monsters. Gene Barry and no one else I recognized starred. The storyline was utterly confusing and the movie was very talky. I didn’t scream even once. And yet, it scared the shit out of me.

Here’s the plot. An alien from outer space beams up five people from around the world to his spaceship, which I just assume is hovering over New Mexico. They’re each given three capsules enclosed in a clear little case. Today they'd be mistaken for birth control pills.   Only these five can open their cases with telepathic brain waves. Once open, these people have the power to send the capsules anywhere they want and they will destroy everything and everyone within three thousand miles. So let’s say that Pez dispenser you bought from a guy in Florida was cracked and he wouldn’t take it back. Just vaporize the son of a bitch… and, y’know, 40,000,000 other people.

If these five people can go 27 days without blowing up the world then the Alien would either leave or the five people would get a space-age home tanning salon, or something – I forget.

For the next hour these five run around. They’re chased. One opens his case. One commits suicide. In the end, someone figures how to reprogram the capsules and it sets off this worldwide piercing sound that kills enemies.  Don't ask me why Eydie Gorme hitting a high note kills evildoers but in this case it does. 

You’re probably going, “Gee. People have capsules. That’s waaay more scary than a psychopath who cuts out your boyfriend’s entrails and then makes you eat them.”

But it was.

Remember, this was the ‘50s during the height of the Cold War. We lived in fear every day of worldwide nuclear obliteration. This little movie tapped right into our visceral panic and paranoia that we were all going to die. Eating your boyfriend’s entrails would be really gross but seriously, what are the chances that was going to happen to you? But this! The capsules were a metaphor for “the button” and at any moment some guy who looks like a Russian Howie Mandell could hit it and blow us all to kingdom come. Oh yeah, and then there was an Alien from outer space. Those don’t tend to sit well with little kids.

I was traumatized for about a month.

Did not see it again for a long time. It never showed up in old TV movie packages. And then about fifteen years ago TBS had a weekly sci-fi feature and I saw that it was going to be on. Excited, I stayed up to watch it.

Here’s the weird part: I’m sitting with my wife and saying, “Okay, now they’re going to go to the space ship” then “Now they’re going to Gene Barry at a race track”, etc. I hadn’t seen the movie in like a gazillion years and had previously only seen it once and yet I was able to call out scene-by-scene in order. That’s how much it made an impression on me.

Watching it again, I could see why it unnerved me so. The notion of paranoia and leaving the fate of the world to potential idiots is fucking SCARY! Real fucking SCARY!

So that's the movie I found the most frightening.  I doubt if Wes Craven will ever do a remake. I don’t think the original print will be re-mastered for 3D and IMAX. But these movies have a lasting effect on you. Some people are scared of birds, or showers, or chainsaws. I see Benadryl capsules encased in clear plastic and I have to leave the room.

So what’s your scariest movie?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Scene I'd Like to See

From THE MENTALIST

EXT. HOME – DAY

Nicely appointed, framed in large proud lemon trees.

Patrick Jane and Teresa Lisbon pull into the driveway, get out of the car, and approach the house.

SUPER: OAKLAWN HILLS, CA.

Lisbon knocks on the door. A woman in her 30’s in a waitresses uniform, CAROL, answers:

CAROL: Yes?

LISBON: Yes, I’m Captain Lisbon, this is Patrick Jane.

CAROL: So?

LISBON: (a beat then) You’re supposed to tell us your name.

CAROL: Why?

LISBON: I don’t know. People just do.

CAROL: Just because you said your names?

LISBON: Yes.

CAROL: I don’t know you. Why should I tell you anything?

LISBON: Because we’re from CBI.

CAROL: What’s CBI?

LISBON: The California Bureau of Investigation.

CAROL: What the hell is that? I’ve never heard of it.

LISBON: Of course you have. Everyone has.

CAROL: Not me. I bet if I called ten friends none of them would have heard of it either.

LISBON: Well, pretend that you have. We need to ask you some questions.

CAROL: What do you do that the police don’t do?  Why aren’t the police here?

LISBON: We have jurisdiction.

CAROL: Based on what?

LISBON: Jane, are you gonna help?

JANE: Could I have some tea and snoop around in your house?

CAROL: No.

JANE: Everyone else lets me in.

CAROL: Everyone else tells you their name.

LISBON: What is your name?

CAROL: Why do you call him Jane?

LISBON: That’s his name.

CAROL: He’s a girl?

LISBON: No. We call everybody by their last names.

CAROL: Why? It’s confusing.

LISBON: It’s policy at CBI.

CAROL: What’s CBI again?

LISBON: California Bureau of Investigation.

CAROL: How’s that different from the State Troopers?

JANE: They wear uniforms.

LISBON: Jane!

CAROL: Don’t people make fun of you because everyone calls you by a girl's name?

JANE: You’re the first person who’s ever noticed that.

LISBON: Can we get back to the investigation?

CAROL: So who has more jurisdiction? State Troopers or you?

LISBON: Us.

JANE: Really?

LISBON: Shut up, Jane!

JANE: She’s right. Call me Patrick,

LISBON: Shut up, Patrick!

JANE: Can I call you Teresa?

LISBON: Fine. I don’t care.

JANE: Can I call you Terry?

LISBON: A man is dead and you want to talk about this now?

JANE: What did they call you in kindergarten?

LISBON: Lisbon!

JANE:  That explains a lot.

LISBON:  What does it explain?

JANE:  Oh, I just say that and never follow up.   That way I come off smart and never have to do anything.  Hey, that is smart!

CAROL: What about the California Highway Patrol?

LISBON: You’re not helping!

CAROL: I don’t have to help. You’re questioning me.

JANE: You sure I can’t come in and just go through your drawers?

CAROL: What’s NCIS?

LISBON: Naval Criminal Investigation Service.

CAROL: Are they real?

LISBON: (losing it) Nothing’s real!!

JANE: Well, CSI.

LISBON: CSI is bullshit!

JANE: No, they really exist.

LISBON: Oh yeah. And every CSI department has twelve-billion dollars in space age lab equipment right there at their disposal. Why send out for results when they have a contraption that looks like the Hubble telescope that’s only function is to cross-match snow tires? In Miami! Oh, Horatio, we better requisition a second one at four billion dollars just in case the first one breaks down. And talk about a stupid name – Horatio? First name, last name, makes no difference. Unless you’re wearing a fucking cape and reciting Shakespeare out your ass that’s the name of a pussy!

JANE: Lisbon, you’re getting a little hysterical.

LISBON: I don’t care. I have a thankless role anyway. I just have to stand around and make one dumb assumption after another while every Goddamn week you figure out the case. I won a Volpi Cup for Chrissakes!

CAROL: Is that real?

LISBON: Yes, Goddamn it! For Best Actress in the 1997 Venice Film Festival for a film called. NIAGRA NIAGRA.

CAROL: Sorry. It didn’t play in this town.

LISBON: Of course it didn’t! This fucking town doesn’t exist! There is no such place and Oaklawn Hills, California! Or Cedarplank Beach, or Hernia Falls or any of the other bogus towns we patrol so diligently! And that’s why CBI has jurisdiction. Because if it’s not us then it’s the Golden State Sheriff Patrol – or the Cal-I-A, or Califorensication.

Jane gently begins leading her back to the car.

JANE: Okay, Lisbon, let’s go.

LISBON:  T.W.A.T  -- "Torpedo Weapons and Tactics".

JANE: Easy does it. 

LISBON: Oaklawn Hills. It even sounds made up.

JANE: I’ll get you a nice cup of tea.

LISBON: Bitch wouldn’t even tell me her name.

JANE: It’s Carol.

LISBON: And just how the fuck do you know that?

JANE: She was wearing a name tag.

LISBON: And again I look like an idiot.

JANE:  I'll drive back to headquarters.

LISBON:  Fine.

JANE:  Where is headquarters?

LISBON:  That's never been established.

JANE: Then I'm sure we'll be there in ten minutes.

FADE OUT.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BARNEY MILLER: An Inside Look

BARNEY MILLER was a great show. A couple of years ago I wrote about our checkered experience writing for it. Here’s that post. Tom Reeder had much better luck. He stayed and worked on the show for several years. This week Shout! Factory is finally releasing the complete BM series set. In honor of that, reader LouOCNY suggested maybe I could ask Tom to write about his experience. Among Tom’s scripts was the “Hash” episode, which to me is one of the top ten sitcom scripts of all-time. Anyway, I did ask Tom and he graciously wrote me this:

Hi, Ken -- Here are some recollections about the experience of writing for Barney Miller. I went on for more than your requested "few paragraphs", so feel free to trim as needed...

Writing for television is never a stately minuet, but the process on Barney Miller was something like "Everyone into the lifeboats!" It was chaotic, but back then I had no way of knowing it wasn't like that on every show, since it was my first TV writing gig.

Danny Arnold
Danny Arnold was the creator of the show, and especially in the early years, he was a marvel. When he was "on", he could spin out entire scenes, ad-libbing dialogue -- and great jokes -- for every character. By the time those scenes got to script form, though, he obsessively rewrote them.

That's true of a lot of showrunners, but Danny couldn't seem to stop himself. Sometime during season 2 (or maybe it was 3) the show was no longer taped in front of an audience, partly because the script was rarely done by show night. When one season began, 6 pages were in print. Not 6 scripts -- 6 pages of one script.

This meant that on the day the show was taped, the actors would hang around on the stage, waiting for pages to be sent down. Then -- sometimes at 2 a.m. -- they would have to learn new scenes. Ron Carey (Officer Levitt) would get his fairly quickly: "Here's your mail, Captain." On the other hand, poor Steve Landesberg (Dietrich) might have to memorize long speeches explaining how nuclear fission works.

In the early years, Danny benefited from the heroic writing efforts of Chris Hayward, who was a veteran writer, and rookies Tony Sheehan and Reinhold Weege who, like me, didn't know any better. They were the Barney Miller writing staff. My agent wisely turned down Danny's annual offers of staff jobs, negotiating freelance assignments (so-called "multiple deals") for me instead. Even so, the pace was frantic -- on one assignment I was given 3 hours to write the story outline. On another occasion, a friend came into my office at ABC-Vine Street and said, "Hey, Reeder, want to go get some lunch?" I pointed to the paper in my typewriter and said, "This script is on the stage -- thanks anyway."

I wasn't there the day Danny developed chest pains, but I was told that he was still pitching changes as he was being wheeled to the ambulance.

As for the episode called "Hash"... my first draft was titled "Pot", but one of my colleagues remarked that the effects of hashish would be more potent and felt more quickly. I took his word for it -- there was no time to do field research. I should also give credit to Reiny, who contributed some very funny stuff, especially in Act Two. Man, that was a long time ago. It's nice to know that people still remember Barney Miller.

I'm also pleased to be writing at a more leisurely pace these days. My boss on Tom Reeder's Blog gives me a lot more slack than Danny Arnold did.

Come to think of it, Ken, you might be the only person I know who regularly works at a pace that comes anywhere close to Danny's!

Best,
Tom

Thanks again to Tom Reeder and LouOCNY for the suggestion. Tom has a blog you need to bookmark.  You can go to it here. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tweets from Gettysburg

Thanks to Twitter, angry bitter disgruntled people now have a place to take pot shots at everybody from the safety of their mother’s basement.  The hate is starting to trump even the narcissism. There will probably be 40,000 tweets ripping me because of this post.

Twitter can be a great forum. For comedy writers it’s a chance to toss off your one-liners and have them heard (or at least read). Some of my best stuff has been wasted on waiters and strangers in line. Now my best stuff can be wasted on strangers on line. (I enthusiastically invite you to follow me and be one of them.)

But Twitter can also be a snipers’ paradise. I’ve noticed that all of the national sportscasters calling these baseball playoffs have been absolutely pummeled by members of this social network. Death by a thousand tweets. The announcers are stupid, they’re biased, they don’t care about baseball, they’re too old, their ties are an affront to society. Yikes! The truth is they’re not biased, they’re under a lot of pressure, and producers often pick out their ties for them.

So it got me to thinkin’. What if Twitter existed during the time of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? I imagine this is the kind of stuff we'd see.

@lunkhead – I’m at Gettysburg Address w/ 67 others.

@dissgrntled – Shit! Linken is tall!

@shorty – I hate tall people!

@bobballoobobballoo – At least we can see him.

@shorty – Who WANTS to see him?

@mauron -- You are fucking hilarious dude! RT @shorty – Who WANTS to see him?

@loserboy4 – Is that a beard or a beaver on his chin?

@zippy – Abe’s making a pubic appearance.

@lunkhead – HA! RT@zippy – Abe’s making a pubic appearance.

@lunkhead – Talk louder pussy chin! I can’t HEAR YOU!!!

@shorty – Who WANTS to hear you?

@zippy – 4score + 7years. What the fuck is that?

@bobballooobobballoo – Math???? In a MF’ing speech?

@loserboy4 – I want to punch him in the face.

@dropoutat9 – LINCON YOU SUCK!

@dissgrntled – Why does he hate the south? Fuck you, Abe!

@zippy – How much is 4score +7years?

@mauron – 150

@bobballoobobballoo – 16.

@lunkhead – His voice makes me sick.

@zippy – Choke on your beard, dickwad!

@loserboy4 – What does konsecrate mean? He uses all this $10 words.

@dyspeptic – I want to punch him in the face.

@dropoutat9 – Can we get a president who doesn’t hate the north?

@lunkhead – Or can shave.

@zippy – HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA RT @lunkhead – Or can shave.

@bobballooobobballoo – Where’s his wife? I hear she’s hot.

@dissgrntled – She’s a whore.

@mauron – This guy is so LAME. He just said the ground is hollow. Really? Then how come we’re not all falling in?

@loserboy4 – That’s weird. I thought the same thing you did. Great minds…

@lunkhead – With that beard he looks like Ape Lincoln.

@shorty – The missing Link-n.

@dyspeptic – LMAO! You dudes should entertain the troops.

@bobballooobobballoo – Hi, I’m Ape Lincoln and I’ve come here today to say blahblahblahblahblahblahblah.

@zippy – Yeah. Nobody cares dude!!

@dissgrntled – By the people, 4 the people, of the people – WTF? did you run out of words for people? You suck! No, you really suck!

@loserboy4 – I want to punch him in the face.

@mauron – That’s it? That’s the whole speech? That was like 5 minutes.

@shorty – What a gyp.

@dyspeptic – Yeah. We want more!

@lunkhead – I hate you!!!!!!!!

@dropoutat9 – You’re a tool!!

@loserboy4 – And a douche!!!

@dissgrntled – And an A-hole!!

@dyspeptic – LOL Just got that. RT @zippy – Abe’s making a pubic appearance.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Problem with Multi-Camera Shows


After several years of being out of favor, multi-camera shows are having a renaissance this season.  But I caution the writers -- the reason they went out of fashion is the joke rhythms became tired and stale.  For a long time they worked, and the jokes themselves may be funny, but audiences have grown weary of their predictable form.  And more and more this season I'm starting to see these shows fall into old ruts -- even the new shows.  

So here are some over-used joke forms to watch out for:  

The “No…(blank)” joke.

COACH: They call me Red.

CUSTOMER: Oh, cause you used to have red hair?

COACH: No, cause I once read a book.

The problem is you’re asking the customer to set up the joke by saying something she probably wouldn’t say. Straight man seeks clarification by asking the seemingly obvious only to learn it’s something else. Plus, it usually makes the set up person seem incredibly dumb.

The “Lenny & Squiggy”:

Named for those two characters because of how they entered every scene.

LAVERNE: Who would be stupid enough to drink sewer water?

LENNY & SQUIGGY ENTER.

LENNY/SQUIGGY: Hello!!

An alternate version of this is the “Flip scene”.

MOLLY: I wouldn’t sleep with you Fred if you were the last man on earth!

CUT TO: MOLLY IN BED WITH FRED.

The trouble here is you can see the joke coming from nine miles away. A third version of this is the “Stan Daniels Turn”, named after one of the funniest comedy writers ever, who used this form to perfection. Character rattles off a list and does a 180.

LOU: She’s brash, she’s obnoxious, she’s rude… I’m in love.

Again, thirty years ago this was a fresh form. But now you’re waiting for that turn.

Stock comic characters are also tiresome. The wise-ass precocious teenager you just want to smack into next Tuesday, the “sassy” housekeeper, the befuddled foreigner (complete with fractured English), the wacky neighbor, and the oversexed oldster (“Once you’ve had an octogenarian, honey, you can never go back. Hoooo hooo!)

Punch line catch phrases can send you scrambling for the remote as well. “I’m too stupid to live!” “Oh, did I say that out loud?” I’m sure you can find ten others – just by watching TVLand tonight.

And my main pet peeve: characters not acting the way real people act. The “No…(blank)” is one offender. Here are more:

Ever notice how in traditional sitcoms no one ever leaves a room without a joke? And if people insulted each other right to their faces like they do in sitcoms half the population would be walking around with black eyes.

Which brings me to my final point – one character saying something completely inappropriate and the other character conveniently ignoring it. Here’s an example. I like BIG BANG THEORY. There are always some good laughs. But they did something in the pilot that drives me crazy.  Since BIG BANG THEORY is going into syndication this year, the pilot is airing a lot lately. 

The show opens with Sheldon and Leonard at a sperm bank. They return home to find smoking hot Penny has just moved in across the hall. Smitten, they clumsily engage her in conversation. So far so good. Lots of funny lines. They invite her to lunch. She accepts (why, I don’t know but that’s another story). As they’re crossing the hall she mentions that she’s had a rough day unpacking, then asks what they did that day, and one says, “We masturbated into a cup for money”. She just nods and follows them into their apartment. Huh??? What??? She wouldn’t be horrified? Or shocked? Or completely puzzled? She just accepts this as if he had said, “Oh, we went to Starbucks for coffee”? And she still enters these weird guys’ apartment? Ten minutes later she uses their shower and enters the room wearing only a towel. I’m guessing most women on the planet would not do that if placed in the same situation.

BIG BANG THEORY can get away with it (sorta) because the jokes are generally very sharp. But heap unreality with bad, forced humor and you have a comic form best put on display at the Museum of Natural History.

And here’s the thing: multi-camera shows don’t have to be formulaic. SEINFELD wasn’t. RAYMOND wasn’t. COSBY (in its early years) wasn’t. All it takes is good writing, fresh ideas, and a desire to take the art form further. Otherwise the form may eventually die, it may indeed be too stupid to live.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

And then there's Maude

I miss TV theme songs. One of my favorites from the '70s was MAUDE. It was one of FAMILY GUY'S favorites too.  Feel free to sing along.


What I did last summer

With the World Series still in full swing, thought I'd make this a picture day with some photos I took while covering the Mariners this year. 

Most beautiful stadium in AL -- ours.  Safeco Field, Seattle
The great Bob Uecker
The statues in Comerica Park, Detroit
Comerica Park in beautiful downtown Motown
Any time I was in Cleveland it rained
Just before the monsoon
Fenway, home of the beer-drinking, fried chicken-eating Red Sox
Wrestler mask night in Anaheim
My perch
The Yankee museum at the impressive new Yankee Stadium.
Sunset at empty Dodger Stadium
I think this is Texas
The team bus breaking down in Texas
Stunning Target Field in Minnesota.  Where's the roof?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary

It’s Friday Question Day, complete with a special guest expert!

Jim S. starts us off:

How did the guest celebrity callers to Frasier's show do their bits? Did they record them, do them live, some combination of both?

How did you choose them? Were they favors, a cool inside baseball thing to do?

When I don’t know the answer I try to go to the person who does. Jeff Greenberg was the award-winning casting director on FRASIER and handled that aspect of the show. Jeff graciously took time out from casting MODERN FAMILY to answer your question Jim S.

We mostly used good non-name actors to record the callers when we filmed the show in front of a live studio audience in a special sound booth we built onstage and replaced those voices later with our namier guest actors. We often recorded those by phone or at a sound facility at their convenience, but occasionally they'd come to the show and record them live. One I can remember who did it live was Jay Leno. I remember that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio recorded hers from a payphone in Lincoln Center in NY.

Initially we did call in a few favors to get it going. For the pilot, Linda Hamilton did it as a favor to me, and Griffin Dunne was a friend of Chris Lloyd, one of our producers. Other early favors were Patti LuPone and Judith Ivey.

David Lee, one of the creators of the show, and I would decide whom we would ask to be our celebrity callers. We paid them a favored nations $1000 for a few minutes work.

Thanks so much, Jeff. By the way, Timothy Leary was the caller on an episode my partner David and I penned. How many people can say they wrote comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary?

From Michael:

With the recent trend of re-making old dramas such as Charlie's Angels, Hawaii Five-0, 90210, why do you think it has not been attempted with old sitcoms? Or have there been attempts that just never made it to air?

There are attempts from time to time. BEWITCHED is in development this season. There was THE NEW ODD COUPLE in the ‘80s. Also variations of GIDGET, TOPPER, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, WKRP IN CINCINNATI, and I’m sure you guys can think of two or three more.

It’s harder if the show was built around the star. You’re less likely to see a new ANN SOUTHERN SHOW or TONY RANDALL SHOW.

Jack wonders:

When M*A*S*H was originally aired they always showed the title of the episode. As someone interested in the writing and producing process, I was always interested in those details. I was probably the only 10-year-old who knew directors and writers names. When the show went into syndication these titles were cut off. I am assuming this was done for time considerations; to squeeze in a few more seconds of commercial time. How do you feel about this, as a writer?

MASH rarely put the titles of episodes in the credits. As a couple of commenters pointed out, it occurred a few times for hour episodes. That was because after the show was originally run in its hour form it was split up into two half-hours and we needed a way to connect them. Just saying “Part 2” wasn’t enough. “Part 2” of what? So we showed the titles.

I’m not a fan of showing the title because often times they give away key story points. This is especially true on FRIENDS where every title begins with “The one with (or where)…” “The one where Old Yeller Dies” is an actual episode. You really want that to be shown at the beginning of the show?

And finally, one from Dave Arnott:

Since I've been enjoying post-season baseball so much (and without "my" team in the hunt, even), I was wondering... if you know...

Where do Umpires come from?

Too easy. 

Now that I've likely set you up, seriously... are they mostly old players, because it seems like they aren't, which kinda surprises me. Do you have any inside knowledge in this area? Thanks.

There are umpiring schools. The two I would recommend are the Wendelstedt Umpire School and the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring. Jim Caple of ESPN did a great story and video about the experience. You can find it here. The truth is it’s a lot harder and more demanding than you think.

Like players, graduates begin umpiring in the lower minor leagues and slowly work their way up. My feeling is, if want to take that kind of abuse, why not just be a comedy writer?

What’s your question?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Best New Show of the Season

For my money it's HOMELAND. Three episodes have aired. It’s on SHOWTIME and if you haven’t seen it, they’re replaying all three on Saturday night. Set your DVR. (Or, I suppose you could actually watch them, but who does that anymore?)

The point of this post is to show the contrast in styles between two shows that essentially have the same premise, but I’ll get to that. First, some love for HOMELAND.

The wondrous Clair Danes is a CIA agent who is very good at her job. If she has any tiny weakness it’s that she’s a borderline psychotic. She must take pills to keep her from turning into Nancy Grace on Red Bull.

She learns from a terrorist contact/snitch/BFF that an American prisoner-of-war has “been turned”. A year later, an American POW is rescued from captivity and although the country hails him as a hero Clair suspects he’s a Taliban bitch. So they’ve created a fascinating dynamic. Is she right or simply paranoid? Is his strange behavior due to eight years of torture or is he in fact, now working for the evil dooers (as a certain Texas Rangers fan calls them)?

Damian Lewis plays the returning soldier and is absolutely brilliant. Sorry Jon Hamm but this guy should get the Emmy next year. (Maybe if he thanks Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund in his acceptance speech we’ll know for sure what side he’s on.)

His wife is the luminous Morena Baccarin. Imagine Laura Petrie but doing sex scenes nude. Clair’s boss/mentor is Mandy Patinkin, who is delightfully reserved in this role. He’s finally learned he can steal a scene without leaving teeth marks on the scenery.



The storyline is layered and suspenseful and thoroughly engrossing.

Now, let’s compare HOMELAND to COVERT AFFAIRS as a study in contrasts.

They both have essentially the same premise: Single woman CIA agent, dealing with bad guys and agency bureaucracy. Both even have sisters who don’t approve of their chosen profession.

HOMELAND is a sophisticated adult drama. COVERT AFFAIRS is THE GIRL FROM UNCLE.

In HOMELAND problems are solved very slowly, which is the cause of much frustration for the heroine, Clair. This is a grueling job that eats away at her soul.

Piper Perabo plays the star in COVERT AFFAIRS. It’s as if Gidget traded her surfboard for an Uzi. Piper (who I admit, I enjoy ogling) is the cheeriest, perkiest CIA agent that’s ever been. She also speaks nine languages, is an excellent marksman, and can beat the shit out of Rambo. In other words, a comic book character.

Unlike Carrie, Piper solves a new international crisis every week. And she’s always home in time for her niece’s viola recital. One week Paris, the next week Rio – she sweeps into town, saves three people, attends a formal state dinner, secures the secret biological weapon formula, bonds with a contact over cocktails, and shoots six infidels.

Carrie watches surveillance monitors, attends briefings, eats Spaghetti-O’s that she bought in college, sleeps an hour a night, picks up guys in bars, and arrives too late to save a contact she promised to protect.

Piper’s co-workers think she’s adorable. Clair’s wonder if she needs to be hospitalized.

Clair’s superior is a world-weary lifer with a Talmudic attitude. Piper’s is one-note Kari Matchett, whose worldview is pretty much “I can wear a dress without sleeves!” That’s what she shows up in every day at Langley – sleeveless gowns.

COVERT AFFAIRS is a USA show, where there are always bright colors and blue skies. It’s strictly escapist fare. And that’s fine. Watch the pretty girl run and shoot and tail a guy while wearing a bikini. HOMELAND deals with the complexity of the horrific real-life problems these people have to face.

And the scary thing is this: HOMELAND is probably an idealized version of what that world is really like. For now on I’m sleeping with the light on.  But watching HOMELAND every week. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

To kick off the World Series...

Here's Cardinals' manager Tony LaRussa, on TO TELL THE TRUTH. When have you ever seen Tony LaRussa and Kitty Carlisle in the same room?

My prediction, by the way -- Texas in 6 and 64 pitching changes.

Nicole Atkins: Living Her Dream... On Credit

Here’s the final part of my interview with singer/songwriter/credit card abuser, Nicole Atkins. Part one was yesterday. Her new album, Mondo Amore is available here.

Ken: How did you get the American Express commercial?

Nicole: My manager called me and said “I got the most random call about you to be in an AmEx commercial, like the one that Ellen and De Niro did.” And I was like, “What? Why would they want me?” “They want a young female artist to talk about living her dream” and I said, “Yeah, but I can’t even get an AmEx card. My credit was so bad. Literally, before I signed, I was getting harangued by people from my old AmEx card. And then when I did that AmEx commercial I was able to pay back my old AmEx bill. And get a new card.

Ken: So if anyone out there is in a lot of debt, the answer is to just get a commercial.

Nicole: Right.  It was fun, though there were a couple of things that were uncomfortable. That fancy hotel. We stay in Econo Lodges.

Ken: Ah, yes. The glamorous life on the road. Have you ever played at someone’s Bar Mitzvah?

Nicole: Not a Bar Mitzvah, but I played on someone’s rooftop while he proposed to his girlfriend. We’ve done some weird shit. We had to play in a Best Buy. People were like checking out home stereos and I’m singing. I played at a jewelry designer’s gallery opening. And have you ever heard of that show on MTV, MY SUPER SWEET SIXTEEN?

Ken: Are you kidding? That’s my favorite show!

Nicole: Well, we did one of those.

Ken: Great exposure. Which leads me to this: did you ever try out for AMERICAN IDOL?

Nicole: No. It’s funny, when I graduated school my dad offered me $4000 just to go and tryout. And I was like, “I couldn’t because if I do this I’ll never get to tour with Wilco." I still haven’t gotten to tour with Wilco, and I’d probably be rich right now.

Ken: So your parents were supportive?

Nicole: Yeah. Really supportive. For my confirmation – everybody else, their parents bought them big gold crucifix necklaces and stuff – my parents got me the Led Zepplin box set.

But I went to college and got my degree in art, and when I was doing the open mics and trying to get a band they were always like, “It’s great that you do this, but you should get a degree and a job with benefits” and I’m like “I went to school for painting. What are you talking about?”

Ken: Yeah, I don’t think the Teamsters have a chapter for Impressionists. So let’s turn to a more serious subject. Why has yodeling gone out of favor.

Nicole: Does it have to do with Jewel?

Ken: I think you nailed it.   One of my favorite songs of yours is “The Way It Is”. Very dark and haunting. I could see David Lynch using it for his ringtone.

Here it is.

Ken: How did that song come about?

Nicole: That song was the turning point for me. I was on the train going from New York back to my parents’ house in New Jersey and the line (she sings) came into my head. I didn’t have anything to record it on since my phone was dead so I just kept singing it for an hour-and-a-half until I got to my dad’s house. It was crazy. So I came up with the whole melody, and there’s this ’64 black Galaxy that my folks have wanted forever. I used to always leave notes on it saying that I will buy this from you if you ever sell it. And then I got signed by Columbia and I was like, “I can buy this car now!” So this song was going to be all about a black Ford Galaxy.

And then, I got in a fight with the boyfriend. I was sitting on my parents’ deck and my dad was like, “This guy’s scum! Forget about him!” And I was saying, “Dad, you don’t even know him.” And then it was like “booosh”, the words came out in ten seconds.

Ken: So that spooky song was originally supposed to be about a car? Even in Brian Wilson’s darkest days I don’t think the Beach Boys would have covered that for their Little Deuce Coupe album.

Nicole: Yeah, it’s very hard for me to get away from melodrama. I’m pretty sure all of my records will be breakup records… even if I’m married for twenty years. It’s ‘cause they’re more fun to sing. When I think of a heartbroken record I think of “Layla” by Derek & the Dominos, where it’s more like an epic journey than like Alanis Morissette: “Yo, I’m gonna diss you!”

Ken: It seems like all rock singers eventually want to do their album of the Great American Songbook. Rod Stewart singing Cole Porter and that sort of thing. What about you?

Nicole: I don’t know about the Great American Songbook but I’m definitely planning on doing another album of covers… that’s only going to be piano and voice.  Really dramatic drinking music… for those nights of scotch and tears.

Ken: Have you ever thought of doing an album of duets with people who have yet to do a duet with Tony Bennett? There are only seven of them left.

Nicole: I’ve always wanted to do a duets record, but I’ve always wanted to do it with just one other guy, like in a Lee (Hazelwood) and Nancy (Sinatra) kind of way. Lee Hazelwood is my A-1 songwriting influence.

My voice can sound bigger and angrier and more powerful than I am in stature… and personally. So I always wanted to do a duets record with the scariest vocal dude I can find. Mark Lanegan or Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age – somebody really big and looming.

Ken: I’ll have Art Garfunkel call you. Okay, final question: Do you ever sign up for karaoke under a pseudonym just to see the reaction when you blow people away?

Nicole: Yes, yes. My pseudonym is Senor Enchilada.

My thanks again to Ms. Atkins/Enchilada for agreeing to this interview. Go see her if she’s in your town or Best Buy. And again, her album is Mondo Amore and her diet is the Atkins Diet. Next month, with luck, I’ll be interviewing Benjamin Netanyahu or the Phillie Phanatic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meet Nicole Atkins

I’m introducing a new feature – occasionally interviewing talented people you may not know but should. Think of it as the blog equivalent of James Lipton’s INSIDE THE ACTOR’S ASSHOLE. 


Today’s guest is singer-songwriter, Nicole Atkins. I’ve mentioned her before. Great soulful voice who’s been compared to Roy Orbison (and not by me… by real music people who actually know this shit!). She’s recorded a couple of albums. Mondo Amore, her latest, gets five stars from me (a rating system I’ve just made up on the spot). You can hear it and get it here. She’s also toured extensively, appeared on Letterman, Ferguson, Conan & Jools Holland, and starred in an American Express commercial.

Here’s a sample of her work, a cover of the Roy Orbison classic, “Crying”. I think her drummer might be Silent Bob.

Whenever I read celebrity interviews they always take place over a posh lunch and the subject picks at their Waldorf salad. We did this over the phone. I have no idea what she was eating. For all I know – White Castle.


Anyway, here’s the interview:

Ken: How does a recording artist break through these days? It used to be you’d play, get discovered, make a record, it would become a big hit on the radio, and then you were the next Madonna. But now radio doesn’t have the same audience or influence, MTV is no longer showing videos, what do you do?

Nicole: You tour yourself to the bone. That’s what we’ve been doing. I just finished touring.  I probably did over two hundred shows this year.

Ken: Wow.

Nicole: Yeah, I’m tired. But I wouldn’t trade it, though. I love it. I’ve never felt really at home anywhere except for a Holiday Inn Express.

Ken: Who were some of your influences growing up?

Nicole: Stevie Winwood with Traffic, Derek & the Dominos, and Cream. And then as I got older I really got into the band Love with Arthur Lee.

Ken: A weird guy he was.

Nicole: Oh, I know. I always tend to gravitate towards scary-genius men… in real life as well. (THEN) Cass Elliott, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash. Echo & the Bunnymen was always a huge band for me. Right now I’m on a strict diet of Mark Lanegan and Pulp.

Ken: Let’s talk about writing. I’m always fascinated by the creative process. I know so little about music I could be a mentor on AMERICAN IDOL. But how do you write a song? Do you write the melody first, or the lyrics, the theme, the chords?

Nicole: Well, they’re all kind of happening simultaneously.  I do a little bit of writing every morning or every night. Sometimes it’s just free writing, or journaling, or a line will come into my head, like inspired by a book I read.

But the melodies are a little trickier. I can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song right now”. They just come to me. And some months they come like rain. Two or three a day or three good ones a week out of nowhere. Usually when I’m walking or showering. Or in a dream. Like right before I wake up, laying in bed, beating myself up about sleeping too late, and slip back into that limbo-like state. Then it’ll come to me and I’m like, “Awesome! I’m working right now!”  Trains are a good one, too.

Ken: Yeah, well… we don’t have many trains out here.

Nicole: Right. Basically, I’ll get a melody that comes into my head and I record it into my phone. My last Blackberry I lost one night in a cab. And it had 42 song ideas in it.

Ken: You're kidding? Yikes!

Nicole:  I went through two months thinking I lost months and months of song ideas. And then about a week and a half ago, a cab driver called me. He found my Blackberry wedged into the seat of his cab.

Ken: That’s amazing. But I thought you were going to say you turned on the radio and heard Kellie Pickler singing one of your songs. What about the lyrics? Are they very personal?

Nicole: Yeah. Most of them are just me talking to myself telling me what I need to do.

Ken: Do you get different creative results writing songs in Ashbury Park (where you grew up) or Brooklyn (where you now live) or on the road? Is there a certain kind of vibe you get being in certain places?

Nicole: Not really. I write country songs in Brooklyn and Lou Reed-type sounding songs in Texas. It has no rhyme or reason. Although I do notice I’m more comfortable finishing my songs in my parents’ house in my childhood bedroom. When they’re not there. I have a hard time working on songs in my own home.

But I try to approach it as a job. Every morning, there’s this coffee shop in Brooklyn called “the Shop” – it’s actually a motorcycle shop but it’s a coffee shop too, and I just go there and try to write every morning for a couple of hours. Even if I have no idea what I’m going to do I just write about nothing.

Ken: Writers need that discipline.  And you never know.  Sometimes that "nothing" eventually turns into "something".  It's all part of the process. 

Nicole:  And it’s weird – the Shop has this certain smell of gasoline. I grew up, my family are landscapers, so a really familiar smell to me is lawnmower gasoline, so when I found this place I was like, “Oh, I need to work here!”

More with Nicole tomorrow:  How she got her American Express commercial, did she ever try out for AMERICAN IDOL, craziest gigs, thoughts on yodeling, and more!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Network Interference at its Most Insane

If you think network interference in pilots is a recent thing, think again. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to ABC in 1980. It was centered around the White House press corps. This seemed an interesting area to us – the notion of people working closely together who were close friends but also rivals. We imagined a plethora of stories of reporters roaming the White House corridors, making friends with White House gardeners and maids, trying to out-scoop each other. We could have romantic rivals, eccentric grizzled reporters, eager newbies, etc.

We could also create this world of the administration. WEST WING long before WEST WING.

And we could include political humor, something that was non-existent in sitcoms at the time.

So the show would be edgy, smart, satiric, very contemporary.

That was our pitch and that’s what ABC loved and bought.

We went off to do research. Thanks to a friend who was a White House correspondent, we got temporary press credentials to join the corps.

What we learned was this: the reporters had NO access to the corridors of the White House. They could NOT just roam the hallways. They all had to stay together as one pack in the pressroom. All day long they just sat. They all got the same presidential itineraries, all received the same briefings. If there was a photo op they were all herded as one into the Oval Office, behind ropes, then told to return to their pressroom. Interaction with the President had to be formally requested and granted. You couldn't just happen to be next to him at the urinals.

When the president traveled so did the corps., but as one group. They flew together, were bussed together, and basically did exactly what they did at the White House – sit around and kill time. Wow!!!

This was maybe the least dynamic character comedy premise EVER. But that part wasn’t ABC’s fault; it was ours for pitching this idea without knowing what the hell we were talking about.

Still, we figured we could save it. Create fascinating characters and watch them interact with each other.  Good series are ultimately about relationships anyway.

Originally, we planned to have two young reporters who had a love/hate relationship. We changed that and made the woman the press secretary and the guy a brash new reporter who just got the White House beat.  And they had once had a thing together that ended badly.  Now you had the fun of the reporter needing this person who he had previously dumped. And there was still a little spark for both of them. There was mileage in that. (Here’s how long ago this was: our prototype for the young guy in our pilot was David Letterman.)

So we had interesting characters and we still had the unique arena of national politics.

Here’s where ABC stepped in. We were not allowed to be specific regarding the president. We couldn’t say whether he was a Republican or Democrat. Well, this was sort of a problem. How could we give him a point of view? Sorry. No party affiliation.

We also couldn’t give the president a NAME. Not even a fictitious one. We couldn’t call him President Smith. They thought even a name was too political.

We weren’t allowed to debate issues. So what was anybody going to talk about?  Does anyone know a good barber?

Imagine a lawyer show where no one was allowed to mention the law. It was madness! ABC was concerned our show would be too controversial. President SMITH was too controversial?

Why the fuck did they buy this???

It gets worse.

Our pilot story revolved around one reporter getting to do a one-on-one interview with the president. Which reporter will it be? We decided to go with this story because, well… it’s the ONLY story this premise allowed for.

The last scene was our brash reporter interviewing the president. We artfully avoided issue questions. Note from ABC: We are not allowed to SHOW the president. We can hear him voice over, but actually seeing him is too specific.

But if you ever go to the White House you’ll notice that there photos of the president EVERYWHERE. Same for most government agencies but certainly in the building where he lives. We couldn’t use an identifiable actor’s picture of course, so my solution was a photo of my dad. My father looks very presidential. He has often been mistaken for Sam Wanamaker or Ted Baxter.  Nope. ABC wouldn’t allow it. No pictures, not even of a person no one in America knows.

We dutifully turned in the second draft -- which ultimately was 45 pages of absolutely nothing -- and to our great relief, it was STILL too incendiary. ABC passed. Shucks! Today we’d be able to say we once did a David Letterman failed pilot. Unless they said we couldn’t actually show the reporter, which in retrospect, was highly likely.

But ABC did say they loved working with us and implored us to bring our next idea to them first. Would it surprise you to learn we didn’t?

All of a sudden the notes you pilot writers got today from ABC don't sound too bad, do they?  Good luck to everyone currently in development.

Tomorrow:  A blog experiment.  A new feature.  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lost in Translation


I was directing a show for ABC called BROTHERS KEEPER in the late 90s. During rehearsals sometimes tours would come in, sit in the bleachers for ten minutes, get incredibly bored, and leave.

On this particular day I was blocking a scene where Billy Ragsdale (who played the dad) was scolding his eight-year-old son (played by Justin Cooper) for something he had done (lost his homework, killed someone, I forget). Since Justin was required to spend so many hours a day in school we would rehearse with a fifty-year-old stand-in who let’s just say was only Justin’s height.

A group of Japanese tourists came in and sat down in the bleachers. None of them could speak English. What they saw was this:

Me, making a guy in his 30’s scold a middle-aged dwarf to such a degree that the dwarf breaks down crying and runs from the set.

They were appalled! Outraged! As one, they got up and marched out, glaring at me and calling me things that did not need any translation.

Needless to say I have not been invited to direct any Japanese sitcoms. And I don’t think Billy Ragsdale has had too many offers to appear over there either.

And from my friend Dave Hackel comes this experience. (Among his many credits, Dave was the creator of BECKER and longtime showrunner of WINGS.)

The show was in good shape. Laughs were there. Actors were on the money. But after each joke -- nothing. Then fifteen seconds later, a titter. The writers were thrown off. The actors were thrown off. I couldn't figure out what was going on. Then I turned around and saw the man signing our show to a large group of deaf people.
The amazing thing is that every writer who has worked on a multi-camera show seems to have at least one story like this. It's why we all have facial tics.

The late brilliant comedian Mitch Hedberg said it best: "Y'know, you can't please all the people all the time... and last night, all those people were at my show."