Saturday, March 31, 2012

If Microsoft made the iPod

This is a hilarious video.  Apple is as concerned with its packaging as it is with its product.  Clean, cool, elegant.  Microsoft, on the other hand, is... well... Microsoft.  Here is what the iPod box would look like if Microsoft made it. 

Forget AMERICAN IDOL, X-FACTOR, and THE VOICE -- here's EUROVISION!

Singing competition shows are big deals in America but folks in Europe know the REAL enchilada is the EUROVISION.  Not just people but nations compete.  I think the grand prize is you get to occupy Norway.  Anyway, this has been going on for years and is gearing up for the 2012 edition.  Among the big winners have been Abba so you know it's legit.

Anyway, this was the WINNING song in 1969.  Let me repeat that:  WINNING song.  This one beat all the entries of all the many nations.  Nothing could top it.  Can you even imagine the song that finished tenth?

So here is Eurovision '69 winner, Lulu with... well, you'll hear it. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Keith Olbermann has been fired: My take

Quick!  Can you even name the network he was on?   The Current Network has apparently dismissed Olbermann and he is pissed.  He claims the termination was baseless and plans to (a) sue, and (b) name Current as the worst network in the world.

His tenure there has always been stormy.  On the other hand, you hire Keith Olbermann you know you're not getting an Eagle Scout.

Personally, I think he's a very talented guy and really has only one legitimate enemy -- himself.  Okay, maybe George Bush and himself. 

Anyway, no future plans for Keith have been announced.   Although the door is now open for him to star in a syndicated sitcom. 

ARCHER and other topics

A pretty funny show, by the way.  But turning to Friday Questions:


William C. Bonner has the ARCHER Q:

One of my favorite shows over the past couple of years has been Archer. I've described it to friends as a cross between Get Smart and South Park. It's seasons seem to be 10 episodes long.

For a season like this, is it most likely that all of the season will be written and sold, then the voices and animation done in one block, or is it likely to flow in a weekly timeframe similar to other longer running US series?

Can’t speak for ARCHER, but it varies. Most animated shows do prepare all the scripts and record all the actors first, then the animators go to work. That’s how THE SIMPSONS work. The problem there is that it’s hard to do anything really timely. 

But on SOUTH PARK, Matt & Trey make each episode individually over a week. And deliver it at the last second. Don’t know how they do it. I’d be showrunning from a cardiac ward.  There's a good Comedy Central show on the making of SOUTH PARK.  If you can find it, I recommend it. 


Becky has a question after reading my post on BENT:

Do shows have a choice which networks their pilot goes to? Can they opt out of certain networks seeing/bidding on it? And if said network wants to buy it, can they refuse, or would that make them complete idiots?

I wonder if Bent would've gotten a better shake on say, CBS, where the viewership is different?

If the writer is attached to a studio that means today he is attached to one of the networks. Usually they must bring their project to either that network exclusively or at least first.

If you’re not attached, you can go anywhere. Generally you pitch to all of them but first to the place you think is most compatible to your idea. If you sell it, you will almost surely do it through the studio owned by that network.

As for excluding networks, I know writers who hate certain networks and just won’t deal with them. This usually stems from a bad previous experience.  In many cases, the feeling is mutual. 

But certain ideas are better suited for specific networks. If you came up with the next GOLDEN GIRLS you’d probably be wise not selling it to Fox. Now they may buy it and say all the right things – “We’re looking to broaden our audience”, “We really want to be in business with you,” but at the end of the day, when they make their schedule they won’t pick up your show for the reasons you anticipated and they assured you didn’t matter.

More and more today there are bidding wars between networks for either specs or packages that generally include attached talent. You’re in the driver’s seat in those cases. You can choose the network that is most compatible, or gives you a commitment, or (based on their schedule) provides you the best chance at success.

I don’t know the history of BENT. They might have pitched it to other networks and were rejected.

When David Isaacs, Robin Schiff, and I were going to pitch ALMOST PERFECT, our first meeting was with ABC. They called and wanted to postpone it for three weeks. So we took it to CBS and sold it. Once the pilot aired I got a call from the President of ABC saying how much he loved the show but asked why we didn’t bring it to them first. I said, “We DID! Or at least tried to.”

From SitcomRoom attendee Wendy Grossman:

What’s with all the actors who get producer credits these days? Does it give them any extra control, money, job security, or responsibility?

Yes to all of the above and they qualify to win Emmys if the show wins comedy or drama of the year. For some actors it’s just a status thing. Others really do involve themselves creatively. Ray Romano would sit in on rewrites (and be extremely funny and helpful I might add). Alan Alda was very much involved. Other star/producers couldn’t tell you where the writers room was.

And the truth is stars don’t need a producer credit to exert their creative influence.

Finally, from Michael:

With the large number of pilots being filmed this time of year, how difficult is it to get experienced technical crews to work on them? Related question - is the competition for crew jobs as tough as it is for actors and writers?

Maybe not as competitive but yes, good crew members are in high demand during pilot season. And good crews will work numerous pilots, depending on scheduling.

Lots of times directors will bring a lot of their crew people with them and as a showrunner I support this practice. Directors will be more comfortable surrounded by people they know and work well with.

I directed episodes of a show that Jamie Widdoes usually directed. He put together the crew, hand-picked from individuals he had worked with on previous shows. For me, it was like getting behind the wheel of a Porsche. Everyone was fantastic.

But since most pilots are done in the same window of time there is competition to hire the best crews, directors, and casting people. And it doesn’t stop there. Sound stages are at a premium. It’s like Filene’s basement except instead of throwing someone on the ground for a sweater you do it for stage with decent dressing rooms.

What's your question? 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Only 9 more hours to get my free book

I can't make it any cheaper.  But this promotion ends at midnight PDT.   According to the people who downloaded it for FREE, it's worth twice what they paid for it.    Even if you don't own a Kindle you can get a Kindle ap for your computer or tablet and use that.   And the aps are free.   So take advantage of this nifty offer while you can.   Just click here.   Thanks.

Advice to fellow neurotics

Do you always get sick just before a big exam? Or big performance? Or big game? Your problem might not be physical.  Take comfort.  You could just be a neurotic mess.  Your ailments could be psychosomatic.

It has happened to me.

Going back to my erstwhile radio career as a screaming top 40 disc jockey in the ‘70s, I would always get sick just as a new rating period was about to begin. Back then I was toiling in medium and small markets and ratings were only taken a few times a year. People would fill out diaries and send them in. Results arrived a few months later and since there were so few rating periods, each one packed a wallop. One bad ratings “book” and you were generally gone. Stations changed formats, people were fired, and it’s not like you were Whitney Cummings – there was no NBC to give you eighth and ninth chances.

So the pressure was on.

And I got a horrendous cold every time a ratings period started. Not that I sound great anyway, but with a cold I was Elmer Fudd. It’s hard to scream over Osmond records when you’re underwater. What came out of the radio was me at my worst.

This must’ve happened on four or five occasions.

And then one time when I was spinning the hits on KMEN, San Bernardino (and ALL of the magnificent Inland Empire), I got my usual cold and decided out of desperation to just have some fun with it. I copped to the fact that I was sick, sneezed, and blew my nose right on the air. I asked listeners to call in with cold remedies. It turned into a very funny show. One listener brought me chicken soup. Another arrived with blankets. And the best was I now had a way of dealing with my psychosomatic condition. I no longer worried about getting sick. In fact, I looked forward to it. I now had one of my better sure-fire bits. So bring it on!

I never caught another cold before a ratings period.

Better health can be yours… by fooling yourself.

(One final note: Notice I didn’t end this story by saying… “and I never got fired again!”?)

This is the final day of the free offer.  The Kindle version of my travelogue book WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED is FREE for the downloading.  But only until midnight.  What have you got to lose?   Here's where you go.   Thanks. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Last chance to get my FREE book!

The offer ends midnight Thursday PDT.  The Kindle version of WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED is FREE if you download before the deadline.  Just go here.    It's normally a book of humorous travelogues but for free they're HILARIOUS.

Imagine going to work HERE everyday

Here’s one of those questions worthy of an entire post:

It’s from Nancy Knechtel:

You have captured the history of the studios you have worked at so well - Did you ever find out who occupied your offices at the studios in the past? Rumor has it that some writers have worked in Shirley Temple's old dressing room bungalow at Fox. Were your offices old dressing rooms or writers buildings? Any great writers occupy your space before you?

For history you can’t beat the Fox lot on Pico. I never had an office in the building that was Shirley Temple’s dressing room, but I was in it frequently since at one time it served as the headquarters for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and my partner David and I wrote several episodes.  Shirley had nice digs for a six-year-old. 

But for years on MASH and AfterMASH David and I had offices in the Old Writers Building (back before we were old writers). It’s a gorgeous Swiss chalet, and to this day it was my favorite office.

You’ve seen it in many movies and TV shows. BABES IN TOYLAND with Laurel & Hardy for one. Could you ask for better ghosts when trying to create comedy than Stan & Ollie?

They were always filming CHARLIE’S ANGELS and STARSKY & HUTCH outside our office. It was always fun to look out the window and see either Jackie Smith in a tight jumpsuit or a drug dealer being gunned down in a hail of bullets.

In our time there we had three offices. The first was supposedly once F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. We found a few of Zelda’s empty gin bottles behind the couch so we have confirmation.

More impressive to me was when we became head writers of MASH and moved into Larry Gelbart’s old office. That was like having Babe Ruth’s locker.

We used that as our main writers room and one afternoon I noticed several people in the nearby apartment building looking in at us. I didn’t think four guys sitting around a table writing a Radar speech was much of a show but who knows? Later I learned that the Hello Dolly New York set was on fire across the lot. That’s what the apartment dwellers were looking at. Now I feel like an schmuck for waving at them.

Both of those offices were on the second floor. For AfterMASH we took over the entire first floor. Larry Gelbart didn’t have an office but we said whenever he was there he could use ours. The only thing better than having Larry Gelbart’s old office was actually SHARING an office with Larry Gelbart. Babe Ruth using your locker.

Back in the MASH days we parked behind the building and the old Western town from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was still up. My spot was right in front of the saloon (which explains why I was often late).

For several years we had a development deal at Fox and this was our office. Since it fronts a street it is always used as a location. I’ve seen it at least two dozen times on shows. And I’m always yelling, “Hey, get the fuck out of my office!”

A couple of years ago I wrote a nostalgic post about the 20th Century Lot. You can find it here. Like I said in that piece -- It was a golden time that I cherish now and happy to say, recognized and appreciated at the time. Dream factories were more dreams and less factories.

Only two days left to take advantage of this FREE offer.   I'm giving away the Kindle version of my book WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED today and tomorrow ONLY.  Click here to download yours.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Best Drama on TV

For all the hoopla surrounding the return of MAD MEN, the best drama of the year might well be JUSTIFIED. It has all the complexity of MAD MEN plus shit happens! A lot!  Personally, I was a little underwhelmed by the MAD MEN premiere even though I'm a huge fan of the show.  But that could just be me.  Critics went nuts.   What did you think?

But I digress...

Graham Yost, who may be as brilliant as Matt Weiner but doesn’t have Matt's zest for PR, had an impossible task this year. JUSTIFIED’s second season was extraordinary with maybe the best TV villain since Glenn Beck. Margo Martindale took home an Emmy for her delicious portrayal of evil matriarch and convenience store owner, Mags Bennett. I wondered, how could they possibly top themselves?

Well, they have.

This year is amazing. There are only three episodes left (it airs Tuesdays at 10:00 PM on FX), but you can probably catch up pretty quickly. Or, go back on line or on demand and watch the first ten – other than reading blogs what else is there to do to kill a day?

In case you’re totally unaware of this show, JUSTIFIED follows the exploits of U.S. Marshall, Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) who is re-assigned to his hometown in Harlan, Kentucky. Imagine Li’ Abner with guns and meth labs. His chief nemesis is also at times his one ally, Boyd Crowder. Walton Goggins, who was great in THE SHIELD is through-the-roof spectacular here.

Everyone in JUSTIFIED plays to the top of their intelligence. Considering the backwoods setting you’d imagine that would be an IQ of 9. But these folks are cagey, wily, and speak in a stylized manner that I can only describe as cornpone poetry. Yes, they’re hillbillies, rednecks, racists, murderers, and crooks, but they never say “y’know” and “like” and thus talk better than we all do.

Raylan is the coolest cat on the small screen. Fonzie with marksmanship skills. Yet, he’s clearly flawed. His bemused boss tolerates him, his co-workers hate him, his ex-wife left him (even though she’s pregnant with his baby), and so this “hero” of our show lives in a seedy room over a bar. The closest person he has to a friend is career criminal Boyd, so when he’s not beating the shit out of him the two go out for drinks.

This year there are several villains. In addition to Boyd, there’s now Limehouse, an African-Kentuckian who owns a BBQ joint, speaks folksy, and knows everything that’s going on. It’s like he has “the machine” from PERSON OF INTEREST and is somehow able to keep tabs on all that’s happening from the comfort of his meat slaughtering shed. Mykelti Williamson plays him as sort of a cross between Uncle Remus and the Samuel L. Jackson character from PULP FICTION.

And then there’s Quarles. The Emmy this year goes to Neal McDonough. He’s the ultimate champagne villain as envisioned by David Lynch. So smooth, so scary, so fucking WEIRD! His henchman is Wynn, played by sitcom vet, Jere Burns. Wynn is a bad ass in his own right but even he is freaked out by Quarles. His reaction shots are priceless.

Then, for a little spice, there’s Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies from LOST), the Fredo and only surviving member of Mags Bennett’s family. Jeremy is setting the standard for weasels that actors will be trying to live down to for years.

Things are about to come to a head in Harlan County. All the villains are jockeying for position, ready to make their move. Can Raylan thwart them all? A war’s a comin’! Somehow, Pete Campbell wanting a bigger office doesn’t seem as riveting.

JUSTIFIED, tonight at 10:00 on FX.  Rated V for violence, L for language, and if we're lucky -- S for sexual situations and nudity.

Just a reminder.  You can get my book of humorous travelogues, WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED for FREE -- Kindle version only.  And only for three days.  Just click here to download yours FREE today

UPDATE: There was a glitch but now it's been resolved and the book is again available to download for free.  Talk about the old joke -- I couldn't GIVE AWAY my book for about an hour.  Thanks to everyone for getting it... and telling your friends. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

I'm offering my book for FREE

Starting tomorrow for three days only you can get the Kindle version of my travelogue book, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED for free.   Yes, I'm crazy.  But it's another way of saying thank you for reading my blog.  Just click here.  This begins midnight PDT.  And again, it's for three days only.   Enjoy!

And now return to today's regularly scheduled post on why NBC is so half-Peacocked.

NBC screws up yet again!

Here’s another example of how an inept network can kill a good show.

Last summer I screened all the pilots for the upcoming season. I deserve a medal. The best comedy pilots I saw were THE NEW GIRL for Fox and BENT for NBC. Although I wasn’t knocked out by BENT I thought it was smart, funny, and had a good cast. Amanda Peet was fine, and David Walton as the irascible handyman was a find. Plus, Jeffrey Tambor is in the show. I was surprised that NBC didn’t at least air this show until now. I mean, it’s not like they had anything better. WHITNEY? ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA? FREE AGENTS? THE FIRM? THE PLAYBOY CLUB?

BENT finally premiered last week – to the best reviews NBC has received all season. Their previous favorable reviews were for SMASH (the show they spent half their entire budget on) and went something like this: “It’s not bad… it has promise… Debra Messing is not as annoying as she normally is.” So not exactly raves.

Meanwhile, the horse that NBC backed (and blanketed the world with posters and busboards as a result) was WHITNEY. Here’s what the critics said about that gem:

"Whitney" as a construct is more spindly than her legs.” “Tepid.” “There's just no compelling reason to throw bouquets at ‘Whitney’." If "Whitney" is bad -- and it is, at least in pilot form, bad -- you have to give the new NBC sitcom credit for coming off the blocks as belligerently bad.”

By contrast, here are some critical reactions to BENT:

“Charming new romantic comedy.” “I absolutely don't believe NBC will come up with any comedies that are better than this in the fall. The network shouldn't be cavalier with half-hours that work as well as this one does.” “We're just going to say it: We love “Bent.” “The dialogue is 75% banter, but it is crisp and tart, and the actors make even the ripostes you can predict sound spontaneous.”

You get the idea. In screening rooms last May NBC couldn’t tell which one was good and which was “belligerently bad”? Which to bury and which to roll out with a huge splashy promotional campaign?

Now comes the problem that NBC, by virtue of its lineup of underperformers, can’t launch anything. There’s no BIG BANG THEORY, no MODERN FAMILY.  There's just the Super Bowl, which you can use to promote your new shows once every four years.  Football-compatible SMASH got the lion share (or peacock share) of hits.  Why that and not their other shows?  Even the few promising ones?   NBC sunk a fortune into SMASH, it has Steven Spielberg’s name attached, and by God they were going to promote the shit out of it. Last week SMASH got picked up for a second season. How has it done in the ratings? So-so at best – crappy when you consider the money NBC poured into promoting it, but sill it attracted some viewers and critically it was decently received. We call this a “loss leader, ” which is far different from “a hit.”

But the point is NBC has no shows to provide a decent lead-in.

So how does NBC tackle this problem and launch BENT? First off, it’s March and savvy TV audiences know March is inventory dumping ground time. It’s hard to get viewers excited when they know that these are the shows that are only airing so the network can recoup some productions costs. Not exactly a sterling vote of confidence.

What they decide to do is put it in a death slot (Wednesday at 9:00 against MODERN FAMILY and AMERICAN IDOL) and since there is not another show to pair it with (smart dialogue indeed doesn’t complement endless vagina jokes) they schedule back-to-back episodes for three weeks and just burn off the series.

By doing this BENT has absolutely no chance of catching on, getting good word of mouth, or building an audience. In two weeks it’ll be gone… forever. Don’t you think NBC knew that going on? Of course they did. How many well-written smart comedies do they have that they can afford to be so cavalier with the one they’ve got?

So how did BENT do last Wednesday? It was NBC’s lowest-rated in-season comedy premiere EVER. And remember, a year ago they carted out THE PAUL REISER SHOW.

Who’s to blame?

I feel sorry for the producers of BENT (producers I do not personally know). They spent a year of their lives busting their asses to mount the best possible show they could – a show they could be proud of -- and all their hard work and passion was just dismissed in three weeks.

Shows get cancelled for not attracting a large enough audience. And that’s fair. Those are the rules. But how many of those shows could have garnered decent ratings if their networks had only supported them?

Will NBC pick up BENT? My guess is no. And they’ll point to the numbers.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Funny Fotos

Some taken by me, some taken by others.

I took this picture in Beverly Hills.
I always wondered where he ended up.  This is in Philadelphia.
Art gallery in Maui.  Tony Bennett and David Bowie in big letters and then in smaller font -- Picasso.
Also in Maui.
Concession stand at the Tokyo Dome where the Mariners are (and I'm not).  Thanks to Shannon Drayer for these next few pictures.


You can follow Shannon's informative and amusing account of the trip here.
Good advice in any ballpark.
In America you can't find bookstores anywhere.  In Japan they're in baseball stadiums.
No, this was not taken in Japan,  This was the LAX Hilton during my last Sitcom Room seminar.
Same with this one.  
This wasn't taken in Japan either.  It comes from the far more civilized Anaheim, Ca. 
For all the Jews who worried that there was bacon in ice cream.
No, this is not me.  Or anyone I know.  But just a typical patron of the Tilted Kilts in Peoria, Az. 
And finally, the ultimate spring training picture.








Calls of the wild

This is a great month for sports fans. March Madness, spring training, the NBA and NHL are roaring towards the playoffs where their games actually matter. And who can forget golf (other than me)?

I must say March Madness coverage isn’t the same this year without Gus Johnson. Yes, he’s an acquired taste because his enthusiasm sometimes spills over into raving lunatic, but during dramatic finishes of big games his excitement (read: screaming) enhances the experience.

The age-old question for sportscasters is always how excited should you get? Fox’s lead play-by-play guy Joe Buck takes a lot of criticism for being too low key. His detractors accuse him of being dispassionate. I don’t feel that way, but I can see how many do.

On the other hand, is there anything more annoying that a sportscaster constantly out of control? I hear announcers going absolutely bat shit over a home run in spring training… by some kid who will be spending the season in Altoona.

The trick is to have something in reserve so when there are genuinely big moments your excitement level is appropriate. If you’re going bonkers over a routine play in the Grapefruit League what will you have left for a game winning play in the World Series?

The great announcers understand this. It’s been a treat to listen to Marv Albert call March Madness games. No one is better at calling a basketball game… and building the drama. Same with Doc Emerick in hockey, Al Michaels in everything, and the incomparable Vin Scully in baseball.

So here are Vin Scully’s top 5 calls followed by Al Michael’s famous call.


And now, the best of Gus. He’s become a caricature of himself but at his best, when the games came down to the last few seconds, he was sure fun to listen to… with your hand on the volume control.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Some announcements and personal appearances

I'll be speaking tomorrow evening at the Nerdist Writers Panel on Sunset Blvd.  along with Bill Lawrence (SCRUBS, COUGAR TOWN), and Richard Hatem (GRIMM).  For info and tickets you can go here.  

Then on Tuesday night, April 3rd I will be speaking at USC along with my partner, David Isaacs.  Details when I have them.   I'll be happy if they just tell me where to park.  

Later this week I'll be announcing a free book giveaway.  Because a free blog is just not enough.

No, I am not in Japan with the Mariners.   Turns out the big attraction was Ichiro not me. 

And finally, you know how I always joke that Paula Marshall gets a pilot every single friggin' year?  Paula Marshall has just been cast in the CBS pilot, WIDOW DETECTIVE. 

Okay, you can now scroll down to today's scheduled post.

The wildest wrap party ever

Most sitcoms are finishing up their season right about now.   They usually have a wrap party and take a cast & crew picture.  Here's one from either the 6th or 7th season of CHEERS.  I'm a couple of rows above Woody.  I had a beard back then. You're welcome to make fun. 

As you can see, there are a lot of people who work on a television series, and as I look back at the picture I find myself missing people I haven't seen in years.  Grips and post production people.   We had a great group at CHEERS.  The other thing I love about this picture is that the actors just blend in with everyone else.  A camera puller or production assistant is just as prominent as the stars.   Thanks to David Reid for posting this photo on Facebook. 

Several years when I was doing ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis, we did an episode centered on a wrap party.  In the series Nancy was producer of a cop show.   During the party it's learned that the show isn't coming back so everyone lets down their guard and tells everyone else what they really think of them.  Then they find out the show has been picked up.  How do they mend all these now-broken bridges?   It was written by me, David Isaacs, and Robin Schiff, and I directed it.  This was only my third directing assignment and as you'll see in part 3 it became very ambitious and complicated.  We staged a hug pie fight (that we shot live in front of the audience).   Enjoy! 

Congratulations to all the casts & crews that made it through another year.  And thanks for some great television. 



Friday, March 23, 2012

FRASIER: MIAMI

Comin’ attacha – Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Nat Gertler leads off:

Do spin-off ideas come from the creative folks, or is it mostly the suits saying "Frasier is making money; can we have Frasier:Miami?" (Actually, I was surprised they didn't follow the show with a Roz series.)

Generally it’s the network trying to squeeze the golden goose until its eyes bulge out. Procedurals are easier but sitcoms are hard to spin off since you’re generally spinning off the supporting characters. In the case of FRASIER you had an actor in Kelsey Grammer who could carry a series. Not so with JOEY’S Matt LeBlanc. And I think there was a spinoff of MASH that was less than successful.

My favorite spinoff story was SANFORD & SON. Both Red Foxx and Dumond Wilson left the show and it became THE SANFORD ARMS. In essence NBC renewed the set.

Again, with procedurals it’s the franchise that is the star so you can have CSI:SASKATOON with a completely different cast and it should work as long as they have an expert in moose tracks.

To my knowledge there was no real talk of spinning-off Roz or any of the FRASIER cast members but I can’t say for sure. Jeff Zucker was at NBC then so he probably figured who needs FRASIER when they had the American version of COUPLING?

From Chuck:

When you're developing a new idea, what criteria do you use to decide whether the concept will work best as a feature vs. a television series? Have you ever started writing an original work as one, and transformed it to the other?

Simple. Does the story require a definite conclusion or can it be essentially open-ended? Generally, high concept ideas make for better movies although TV keeps trying. I keep going back to the ABC comedy where a gang of idiots wanted to rob Ray Romano. How do you get 100 episodes out of that? Or PRISON BREAK. Once they broke out of jail the first time the series just wandered in seven aimless directions. Eventually characters were breaking out of traffic school.

No, I never started writing a movie and decided halfway through that it should be a pilot, or vice versa.  The approach to storytelling is so different and I always map out the story before beginning to write it.  So there are no surprises. 

Thomas wonders:

What other blogs do you recommend?

Check the right column for my favorite links. Of particular interest might be Earl Pomerantz’s blog, and Mark Evanier’s News From Me.

Lookout Landing is a great Mariners’ blog. Tallulah Morehead is always good for a laugh. And for internet radio – GreatBigRadio.com is better than any rock station you have in your local market. And if you love oldies,  RichBroRadio.com is your stairway to heaven.  Also, for you Philly transplants, HyLitRadio.com. 

But scroll down the links and see if there’s anything that interests you. Or better yet, click on the book icon and buy my book.

Finally, from Kaan:

Have you ever changed a thing about a storyline, or the storyline itself, because you knew international viewers wouldn't understand that?

I mean, in the writings process, do the writers take into account that their show is sometimes watched worldwide? Is that a factor you have to consider?

Some may consider it but if I’m being honest, I never do. The sitcoms I write are designed for an American audience. What I always try to do however, is create stories that are about the human condition. So there is a universal aspect to them. The best stories are the ones that hook you emotionally, and hopefully that translates to different languages and cultures.

But if I make references that are uniquely American I don’t think that detracts from a global audience enjoying the show. Specificity is a good thing. Likewise, when I watch British or Canadian or Australian shows I want a taste of their cultures. I wonder what Syrian sitcoms are like???

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Getting you ready for the MAD MEN premiere

MAD MEN finally returns this Sunday night on AMC after a 17 month hiatus. Meanwhile, my show – BIG WAVE DAVE’S – is still on hiatus (19 years and counting. Stay tuned.). To get you up to speed, here is where they were when MAD MEN wrapped up its heralded fourth season.

The year was 1965. KHJ Boss Radio premiered, Goldie, a London Zoo golden eagle, was recaptured 12 days after her escape, "Chim Chim Cher-ee" won the Best Song Oscar, and I got a B in Health class, but none of those major events were covered.

The new agency that Don Draper started with his cohorts Roger, Pete, Peggy, Joan, and a few character actors was struggling to survive. Peggy got a pantyhose account, which gave them an infusion of cash and Roger something to wear at home. But they lost the Lucky Strike account.  Bad idea of Roger's to move Lucky Strike sponsorship from THE JACK BENNY SHOW to TOP CAT.

It was discovered that Don Draper was just a pseudonym and that his real name was Ron Paul. At the end of the season he shocked his co-workers (and would have shocked his friends if he had any) by announcing he was engaged to his secretary, Megan. She’s quite a contrast to Betty and as he explains, “What I lose in quality of gums I make up for in personality.” However, we don’t know yet whether he actually married her or balked at the last minute when he learned he was responsible for all future periodontal bills.

When we last left Betty Draper, she was torturing defenseless animals, spying for the Soviet Union, systematically poisoning her new husband, embezzling from the Red Cross, plagiarizing John Cheever, founding the Minutemen, secretly plotting to sabotage the U.S. space program, and cheating on her spouse with weird neighbor kid Glenn. Producers insist however, that we should not judge. She’s misunderstood.

Daughter Sally had a complete meltdown. The solution was to take her to a Beatles concert where that behavior was encouraged. Today she’s still a sweet kid. One joint and she’ll become Courtney Love.

The big question about son, Bobby going into this season is which actor will play him? There were fewer kids who played Annie on Broadway than this part.

Pete was last seen stealing silverware from his own house. His wife Trudy decided to enroll in a community college where her IQ mysteriously went from 135 to 40.

Roger knocked up Joan. Her doctor husband was overseas in Viet Nam at the time of conception. She’s trying to convince him the baby is his. We’ll see just how good a doctor he really is.

Roger’s wife, meanwhile, graduates from high school this year.

Peggy was into experimentation, flirting with the counter-culture – going to clubs, opium dens, political rallies, and ABA games.

Every season MAD MEN has an overriding theme, and usually by the end of the season you can figure out what it is. Last year’s was: people have different wants and desires yet all age at the same rate. I hear this year’s theme is hygiene.

The season will begin with a special two-hour episode. Knowing creator Matt Weiner, it will be compelling, complex, surprising, brilliant, and well worth the long wait. How the hell am I gonna top it when BIG WAVE DAVE’S finally returns? So far all I have is that the shave ice machine is broken.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Adventures in bad directing

Staying on yesterday’s topic of directing…

For years movie directors had to deal with their films being converted from intended widescreen dimensions to the standard 4:3 ratio of conventional television sets. A method called “Pan and Scan” is used to make the adjustment, cropping sometimes up to 45% of the original picture. You could see why directors might not take too kindly to this. There’s also “Tilt and Scan” and “Reverse Pan and Scan” (but I think that one is actually a sexual position).

Movies used to have similar aspect ratios to television until the ‘50s when Cinemascope, Vista Vision, Jumbo Whizbang, and other big screen formats were introduced. So those old classics like CASABLANCA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN transfer to the small screen and the now-outdated VHS formats rather faithfully. But epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, when adjusted for TV became LAWRENCE OF THE BORDER OF ARABIA.

Thus the letterbox format to preserve a big screen’s original composition. The trouble there was that on a standard TV you were wasting part of the screen and large-screen scenes were intact but shrunk.  Epic battle scenes became the blue ants vs. the red ants. 

Now that High-Definition TV is pretty much standard with it’s 16:9 aspect ratio movies are once again seen as they were intended. That’s fine for David Lean if he weren't dead. But a few years ago it was problematic for us TV directors.

There was that long transition period where we had both HD television and the old standard. Not every show was even offered in HD. In fact, most weren’t. If a sporting event was in HD that was a big deal. I’m sure a lot of local newscasters dreaded the flip to HD because it brought out every wrinkle. HD probably shortened the career of many news anchors by five years.

Back in the ‘90s I was directing a lot of multi-camera shows. They were done on 35 mm and adhered to the standard 4:3 ratio. I would have four monitors (one for each camera) and would use those to compose my shots. In the early ‘00s shows began converting to HD. The four monitors were upgraded as well. They were now in the HD 16:9 ratio with an outline of the 4:3 ratio inside the screen. I had this on a number of shows including BECKER.

I was asked to frame my shots to accommodate both standard and HD formats. The trouble is many times if you framed right for one the other was weird. A shot would look good on HD but the bottom of someone’s head was cut off in standard. So you’d widen the shot to include the person’s head on the standard screen but on HD the shot was now so wide you could see a boom shadow in the top of the screen. Or worse, you could see off the set. So the picture would look fine on regular TV’s but on HD you’d think only Ed Wood could compose a shot that shoddy. If I tried to compromise, both shots looked awful.

So on those occasions I had to make a decision – one or the other. At the time most TV’s were still standard and BECKER going into syndication was not a certainty. So I opted for the standard option. Plus, I figured, if HD does take off the questionable shots could be fixed optically down the line. Consulting a lot of other multi-camera directors, they made the same decision as me.  I should have asked James Cameron. 

Well, HD did take off. BECKER did go into syndication. It’s probably showing somewhere right this moment. I’ve seen a few of my episodes on HD and every so often there will be a bad shot, a master so wide you can see tape on the floor for marks, the tip of a boom shadow, and in one case the edge of the set. When I first saw that I was pissed. How could the post production technician miss that? Jesus, doesn’t anybody take any pride in their work anymore?

Yeah… like it’s his fault.

The next time there’s a format change I’m going with the new one, even if the new ratio is 26:1. I’ll put it in 3D, 4D, Smartphone, postage stamp, IMAX, whatever. It took seven or eight years to complete the transition to HD. The next format – whatever it is – the transition will probably be the time it takes to go to the commissary for a burrito.

When you watch BECKER episodes that I directed in HD would you please do me a tiny favor?  Can I ask you to put black tape on the screen to crop it?   It'll only take you about ten minutes.  Thank you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Getting my start as a director

Sometimes a Friday Question is worthy of an entire post. Like this one by reader, Michael:

How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?

I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.

This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong.  All I knew was -- we were fucked.  There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down.  This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch. 

So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.

Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.

Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit.  I went home and drank heavily. 

Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes.  Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.

And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them.   Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.

Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.

Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.

I was extremely fortunate. I had been consulting and writing on WINGS since the show’s beginning. Showrunners Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell graciously gave me my first assignment. I obviously knew the show very well and had a good relationship with the cast.

So that was my first. I’ve written about the specifics of that experience elsewhere. But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.  

It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.

“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.

It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?

Monday, March 19, 2012

By the time it hailed in Phoenix

Is there a more breathtaking sight in nature than the Arizona desert set against the Hooters’ sign? It’s Spring Training time again and I spent a week in the Phoenix area covering the Seattle Mariners. Fans of all teams (except the Dodgers) flock to the Valley of the Sun to watch baseball players in their natural habitat.

The M’s train in Peoria, a western suburb of Phoenix. Seven or eight other clubs also have their facilities in this part of town. If you’re traveling on the I-101, when you see the football stadium (which looks like the world’s largest Jiffy Pop bag) and Johnny Rockets you know you’re in the area.

A local article offered restaurant recommendations for tourists doing their baseball pilgrimage. They had choices in Scottsdale, Mesa, downtown Phoenix, Chandler, Tempe, and when it came to West Phoenix – nothing. Chains. Franchises. Personally, I think that’s overstated but okay.

Checked in at the La Quinta Inn, which shares its parking lot with a Red Robin. Got a nice room overlooking Buca di Beppo and headed out to the Peoria Sports Complex, making a left at P.F. Chang’s and the Corner Bakery.

Scottsdale has the largest median age of all big cities. So take that Ft. Lauderdale! You know you’re in a retirement community when the Arizona Republic’s big headline is: British doctors warn against metal hip joints.

Had a game in Maryvale, where the Milwaukee Brewers train. Take the I-10 to the IHOP turnoff then go north. Maryvale is in such a bad part of town Popeye’s Chicken doesn’t even have an outlet there. The stadium itself is very nice though, except for the wrought-iron bars on the dugout.

But got to visit with Mr. Baseball, Bob Uecker – a comic if not national treasure. Shared some laughs and got caught up on all his latest off-season operations.   I don't think he has one original organ left. 

Here’s all you need to know about Arizona: a House bill that would let guns in all public buildings is quietly moving toward passage. This comes AFTER a shootout outside the Clubhouse Music Venue that left 16 people injured.

Other stupid Arizona laws (and these are real, folks): It’s illegal for more than six girls to live in a house. It’s illegal to play cards with Native Americans on the street. It’s illegal to have more than two dildos in the house (okay, well that one makes sense). It’s illegal for women to wear pants in Tucson. It’s illegal to sell fake cocaine. And it’s illegal to hunt camels. This is one Looney-Tunes state.

Spring training games are hard to call because there are so many substitutions. Among the players whose exploits I described: Jabari Blash, Irving Falu, Roger Kieschnick, Munenori Kawasaki, and that rightfielder for Kansas City – I still have no idea who he was. Thank God no one hit a ball to him.

Stopped off for a postgame cocktail at Tilted Kilts Pub & Gawkery. It’s Hooters but with that distinctive European touch that frat boys and redneck assholes so appreciate.

There is a Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. A real one, not a supersized Sam Ash Music Store. Well worth seeing. And soon you’ll be able to bring in your weapons!

Camelback Ranch is where the White Sox and Dodgers train. (Take Camelback Road past the Circle K, Denny’s, and CVS pharmacy.) There was an auto mishap earlier in the month in their spacious parking lot when a noted sportswriter crashed his rental car into a cement mixer. His explanation: “I just didn’t see it.” Didn’t see a cement mixer? What, you lost it in the sun? From now on when he describes a pitcher’s release point as being just an inch off I’ll be saying, “Yeah, right!”

How bad is local traffic? A woman gave birth on the Seventh Avenue off ramp of Loop 101 on Thursday. These people will do anything to get into the carpool lane.

Among the notables that hail from the Grand Canyon State: Wayne Newton, Cochise, Ofelia Zepeda, Billy Graham (the wrestler), Alice Cooper (the golfer), Danica Patrick, Jordin Sparks (American Idol), Andy Devine, and the Meat Puppets.

The Phoenix bus strike finally ended. Relived commuters grabbed their 31-day passes and citizenship papers and once again boarded city buses.

Went to dinner at Dillons’ with Ed Farmer of the White Sox and several cronies. Yes, it’s a chain, but there are only three Dillons’ locations in Phoenix…although one is literally in the middle of the zoo. The idea of looking out the window and seeing the animal you’re eating does not appeal to me. On the other hand, Arizonians will soon be able to bring their guns and select their own entrees!

Friday’s temperature: 90 degrees. Sunday’s: 56. When it’s not the Valley of the Sun, it’s the Valley of the thunder and dust storms. No outside seating at the Cheesecake Factory.

Combine Spring Break, St. Patrick’s Day, Saturday night, Tilted Kilts, and gale force winds and no one in Peoria could walk a straight line including the cops. And yet, for all the tosspots staggering into traffic and walking into trees, not one hit a cement mixer. Luck of the Irish I guess.

On Sunday the rain probability was 100% for our game time. 100%. The game started on time under brilliant sunshine. Of course an hour later it was canceled due to hail. (Picture by my iPhone.)

The ride home couldn’t be more perfect. I was on the same flight as Vin Scully. Of course he was in 4B and I was in 37F next to some guy who was moulting. But still!!

All in all, it was a great week. My thanks to the Mariners. Don’t miss the chance to go to Spring Training at least once. Of course you can simulate half the experience by having breakfast at the Waffle House.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Another thing about CHEERS you didn't know

CHEERS IS FILMED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

You hear that at the top of every show. But most people don’t know that after six or seven episodes that almost changed. That disclaimer almost became:

CHEERS IS TAPED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

As has been chronicled almost to death, CHEERS got off to a slow start (if you believe “dead last” is considered slow). And it was an expensive show to produce. All those lemons that Teddy cut each week alone! But one of the big ticket items was that the show was filmed rather than videotaped (like ALL IN THE FAMILY or the more highly regarded SILVER SPOONS). Tape is cheaper than film, it requires one operator per camera not three, is edited primarily during the show not after, easier to light, post production is less complicated, and the turnaround time is less.

Paramount and NBC were losing tons of money on CHEERS and it was on the brink of cancellation. So the studio felt if it could be produced cheaper NBC might have more incentive to pick CHEERS up for a back nine.

They went to Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and asked if they’d consider flipping from film to tape. They agreed to at least make a test scene.

A first rate tape crew was enlisted to light the set. Video cameras were wheeled in, and Jimmy directed a scene. It featured everyone from the cast, and there was a lot of movement so we could view every angle of the set. It went through post-production, was color-corrected, and made broadcast-ready.

The Charles Brothers, Jimmy, my partner and I, and our line producer Tim Berry sat down and watched the test.

GAAAAA!

It was horrifying. All the warmth and depth of the set was completely obliterated. The rich colors became day-glo. And this dark, rich bar setting suddenly looked like a police station.

It was like those photos of Britney Spears without make up.

To Charles-Burrows-Charles’ credit the experiment ended right there. I don’t know if a copy of that test still exists. My guess is Glen Charles backed over the tape with his car in much the same way Tony Soprano had Phil Leotardo whacked in the SOPRANOS finale.

Ironically, if they had agreed to switch to the tape format I think it would have caused the show’s cancellation, not prevented it.

Ah, the little decisions producers have to make every day.