Saturday, June 30, 2012

Vin Scully is a National Treasure

Vin Scully is in his 63rd season of calling Dodger baseball. The probation period is almost up.

But seriously, he is the Mozart of baseball broadcasters and I can’t imagine another announcer ever being as good.

And he’s always been there. Night after night, summer after summer.

Well, Scully is now 84, and Dodger fans are keenly aware that he won’t always be there. It’s hard to even contemplate Dodger baseball without Vin Scully. So we’re all savoring these precious opportunities to still have him in our lives and living rooms.

The Dodgers were in San Francisco earlier this week and one night I decided to “pull up a chair” and watch the entire game. I’m not even sure he could find the words to describe what a pleasure it was.

For the first three innings he does a simulcast on radio and television. Radio is really where Scully is the absolute master. He described the blue sky and the “smudges” of clouds. You can picture them, can’t you? 

Scully works without an analyst. No former ballplayer to jump in and tell us that the pitcher needs to rely more on his four-seamer and not his cutter. Zzzzzzzzzz.  When analysis was called-for Scully was on top of it. A runner was at first base thinking of stealing and Scully talked about how he was trying to read the pitcher. He said the runner was watching the pitcher’s left shoulder and the back of his right knee for tell-tale signs of whether he was going to throw to first base or the plate. Good stuff (I will be stealing).

But best of all was how Scully effortlessly and endlessly found interesting things to talk about.

They showed a shot of the San Francisco Bay and Scully recalled how Roy Campanella used to drive his boat to the ballpark. He had a small boat that he steered up the river and hitched it at the Polo Grounds when the (Brooklyn) Dodgers were playing the (New York) Giants.

A batter hit a screaming line drive just past Dodger pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. Scully remarked that a pitcher didn’t have to actually get hit to be shaken-up. He recalled an incident in the early ‘60s when Dodger slugger, Frank Howard hit a rocket that went right through the legs of Mets’ pitcher Alvin Jackson. Jackson needed a good five minutes of walking around, conferring with teammates, buying time before he was composed enough to pitch again.

In the 7th inning the ballpark was visited by a flock of seagulls. Scully told us that this was a nightly occurrence. When the fans all stood for the 7th inning stretch and sang that alerted the birds that the game was soon over. The crowd would disperse leaving popcorn, peanuts, and basically – dinner.

Obviously, these birds flying around can be a distraction. To get rid of them, once the fans left, the Giants began playing the sound of a hawk over the P.A. They heard the hawk, were freaked, and scattered. But after a few nights Scully said the bird figured it out. They stopped leaving. And the hawk ploy was discontinued.

If there’s anything I’ve taken from Vin Scully when I’m calling games it’s that a broadcaster has to be a storyteller. There is so much down-time in baseball. How can I fill the time in an informative but also entertaining way?

It’s been several days since I watched that game. I couldn’t tell you the score. I forget who did what. But I sure remember those seagulls and Alvin Jackson and Roy Campanella pulling up to the Polo Grounds in his boat.

And that was just one game.

Vin Scully has called over 10,000 of them. I for one, am going to listen to and treasure every remaining one I can.  You should too.  At one time you could only hear him if you were in Southern California.  But now with the MLB Network, Sirius-XM, and MLB.COM there are ways to pull in his broadcasts wherever you are in the world.   So "pull up a chair" in Altoona and Sydney.  You'll be glad you did. 

Friday, June 29, 2012

Oh no! Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are getting divorced

There is no joy today in Hollywood.   The relationship the town thought would last forever..  or at least six years, is apparently ending.  How could this not work?  I mean, the man jumped up and down on Oprah's couch?  What greater show of love has there ever been?

Get ready for an onslaught of TMZ/People/National Enquirer/ET/Gawker coverage of this monumental story.   Let the speculation begin!  Was Tom sleeping around?  Is this because ROCK OF AGES bombed?  Was their separation during his movie shoots too much for the marriage?  Did Kelsey Grammer say something to Tom?  Did Katie secretly influence Chief Justice Roberts' decision?

Now comes the custody battle, the statements from each sides publicists, the details of the pre-nup agreement, and the Barbara Walters specials. 

I feel bad for their daughter, of course.  TMZ's gain is Suri's loss.  But brace yourself.  This is just the beginning.  Get ready for the NON-STORY OF THE YEAR. 

Getting tickets to see TV shows

Wrapping up the week and month with Friday Questions.

Unknown starts us off. At least he’s not Anonymous.

I have a friend who is taking his wife and teenage kids to L.A. in August and wonder if you have any "insider" suggestions for studio tours and the like. Is it too late to try to get tickets to a filming of show? Or are these something they'll have the opportunity to get same day (assuming they pick the right day)?

Call or write the networks ahead of time to get tickets to watch tapings of sitcoms or talk shows. Or at least when you get here. There used to be a booth at Farmers Market on 3rd and Fairfax that would issue tickets to TV shows.  There might also be one in Hollywood. 

First thing you need to know is this: tickets to all television shows are free. That goes for THE BIG BANG THEORY, AMERICAN IDOL, even DR. PHIL. So don’t let any scalper or studio executive try to sell them to you.

Some shows are in great demand and have long waiting lists. Typical capacity for TV studio audience is about 200. Popular shows are a tough ticket as are game shows like THE PRICE IS RIGHT where audience members could become contestants and win crap.

On the other hand, new shows have trouble getting audiences and often have to hire companies to bus groups in. It’s pot luck what you get. It could be the next FRIENDS or the next JOEY.  But it's a show. And it's air conditioned. 

If there’s a specific show you want to see, contact that show directly.  The sooner the better.

Most sitcoms film from August to March.  Game shows are on cycles.  I believe JEOPARDY resumes in July.  Alex should be sufficiently recovered by then.  

Also, note that sometimes game shows tape two or three episodes at one time. They’ll tape one show, change wardrobe, take a break, and a half-hour later tape the next one. So allow yourself some time.

As for tours, they’re all very touristy. Universal is the biggest.  Don't expect to see any real movies being filmed.  You will see authentic gift shops however.  But it's cool to be on the lot.   Paramount used to have a walking guided tour that was an absolute joke.  They'd take tours into the studio barbershop.  Now that there’s even fewer shows on the lot, if the tour still exists it’s really bogus.

I don’t know whether 20th, Sony, Warners, or CBS Radford have tours. Check them out though. Either one of those lots would be worth seeing.

Tom in Vegas has a question I’m often asked.

What exactly does a show runner do? I've never seen this title listed in an credits, and I'm wondering if it's the same as a producer?

It’s fascinating that there are so many titles and yet not one for the person who’s actually in charge.

In short, the show runner is the ultimate boss. He has final say on scripts, casting, post production, hiring staff and directors. He dictates the tone of the show, and has final cut. Along with all that power comes tremendous responsibility and pressure.

The show runner must deal with the actors, network, studio, business affairs, agents, managers, and critics. In addition to whatever creative gifts they have it is most helpful if they have a Masters degree in Economics, Psychology, and child rearing.

And if possible, they should be able to function at peak capacity under severe sleep deprivation… for nine months.

You’d think for all that they’d be entitled to a less generic title. It’s like calling astronauts “space guys” or Supreme Court justices “top deciders.”

From Amy:

When stars get their own sitcoms, why do their characters tend to share their first name, even in cases (unlike Seinfeld, for instance) where they're playing an entirely different person? Do the networks think that we won't recognize them otherwise?

This is one where I’d have to take a guess, and your guess may be as good as mine. In some cases I think it’s a way for the star to subliminally remind you (and everyone else) that it’s THEIR show.

And in other cases, the actor is just so identified with their name that it would seem weird to have them answer to anything else. I mean, Lucille Ball was LUCY. You could call her Madge but who are we kidding? She’s LUCY.

And finally, Scott Miller has a question that relates to my new book, which you should buy already.

How did you find high school/college age radio geeks around the country pre internet? I would have joined you in NYC or Pittsburgh, but I'm a couple of years younger than you.

I used to write radio stations from around the country asking for tapes of their programs and jingles (thus making me the all-time King of Nerds). A few would comply, most would ignore, but some sent me the names of other radio geeks who had also requested tapes. I contacted them. A few already knew others and a network of guys who couldn’t get a date was born.

What's your question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Best known for something else

Lots of people have heard of the Tommy John Surgery. Done primarily on baseball pitchers, it’s a procedure where they take a tendon from your knee or hip and use it to replace a ligament in your elbow that’s shot.

Today it’s very common, and like I said well known. But how many people know who Tommy John is? My guess is most think he’s the surgeon who invented the procedure. Wrong. He was a major league pitcher who was the very first to undergo this operation. At the time, it was very experimental and risky. It’s not something you can try first with hamsters. And even if you could, how would you even know if the surgery was a success since hamsters can’t grip a baseball? The real inventor of the surgery was Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974.

Still, Tommy John will forever be linked to the surgery, long after his playing career is forgotten (which, to many is already).

But it brings to mind the question (at least to me) of how many other public figures will be remembered for something other than what they did to originally achieve notoriety?

Prime example: Arnold Palmer. Once the Tiger Woods of golf (minus twenty mistresses), his name is now identified, almost exclusively, with that refreshing drink that is half ice tea/half lemonade. I would imagine there is more than one reader who is saying, “Arnold Palmer was a golfer too?”

Quick aside:  When Arnold Palmer orders one of those drinks does he say, "I'll have a me?" 

Shirley Temple was a major Hollywood child star in the ‘30s. She even won a little Oscar. But most folks only the know the name because of the Shirley Temple cocktail – a non-alcoholic drink of ginger ale and a little grenadine.

A variation is a Roy Rogers cocktail. It’s made with cola and grenadine. Roy Rogers was a cowboy movie and TV star.   You didn't mess with Roy.  How scared would horse thieves and bank robbers be if Roy sidled up the bar and ordered cola and grenadine?  "And don't forget that maraschino cherry, podner."   

George Foreman was a heavyweight boxing champ. You might only know him as the grill you bought off the TV.

Mae West was a bawdy movie actress in the ‘20s-‘40s (a Tallulah Morehead wannabe). Now her legacy is a personal flotation device. Sidenote: My favorite Mae West quote -- I'm the lady who works at Paramount all day... and Fox all night.

John Hancock was a great American patriot and statesman.  But to most he owns an insurance company.  And for that matter, Abe Lincoln is remembered as a U.S. President not a vampire killer.

This extends to comic book characters too. Andy Gump was this loveable Sunday funnies schmoe who wound up being the name for portable outdoor toilets. What a tribute!

I’m sure there are others. Can you think of them?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More advice for young writers

There was a great exercise in Andy Goldberg's improv class recently. Yes, I still take an improv class. (You'd think I'd be better after all these years, but I take it anyway.)

This was the exercise: we had to play a character based on someone we knew. Not a celebrity -- no Al Pacino impersonations -- and not a caricature. We had to pick a real person we knew and really try to become him. Voice cadence, body language, attitude, pet phrases, endearing (or annoying) quirks.

The result was a series of wonderful scenes. Everyone in the class rose to the occasion -- even the guy who usually just gets by on glibness. Oh wait. That was me.

Anyway, the thought occurred that this is the perfect exercise for writers. So often writers create characters that are generic, or cliched, or not even that well-drawn. A great idea is to model your characters off of specific people you know. Imagine them playing the parts. Hear their voices in your head. I bet it will be so much easier to write them.

Draw up a list. Who are ten really interesting, maybe bizarre, people you know? At first you'll wonder if you can come up with ten. Then you'll hit fifteen and realize you're still just listing family.

We all know people who are naturally funny. Most don't try to be. But their take on the world, their reaction to frustration, the way they eat their food -- that's all comedy gold when you're developing your script. Especially now since agents and producers all want original material along with spec scripts for existing shows.

So don't just create slacker dude -- model him after Chad who you buy your weed from. Looking for a real asshole? How about that guy, Scott, who dumped you at your aunt's funeral?

A great example of this is GIRLS. I'd be shocked if Lena Dunham didn't model all of those characters after people she knew. And then took actual conversations from them.

Now you might say, yeah but the people I use as models will see themselves and hate me. 90% of the time when I have done this the person in question will come up to me and say, "hey, I know someone just like that!".

Start writing that list.

As for the character I chose? He was a writer friend who always whined. Not that he was always complaining. That's just the way he talked. So I played him at a restaurant on a date, and all he did was deliver good news. He got a promotion, increase in salary, etc. And he whined through the whole speech. Without a single "joke" I got laughs throughout.

And there are countless other people I could have used.  Just in the class alone.

Seriously, start writing that list. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Aaron Sorkin is back!  I loved THE NEWSROOM.  It's the perfect vehicle for his whip-smart dialogue.  (It was also nice to see the wonderful Emily Mortimer finally not in a thankless role.)

But essentially THE NEWSROOM was BROADCAST NEWS as written by Aaron Sorkin.  James L. Brooks wrote that terrific movie along with co-creating THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.  So that got me thinking -- what if Aaron Sorkin wrote THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW?   Here, with great affection for Mr. Sorkin, is how I envision what a scene might look like: 



SUE ANN: Hello, union mules. I’m in a wonderful mood. Care to guess why?

MURRAY: You just learned you’re not part of the 17.8% of the population that has a venereal disease?

SUE ANN: Oh, Murray. Oh -- bald, condescending, working drone under the delusion that your pension will cover you in retirement despite inflation now at 4.3% while the cost of living rises at a rate of 11.5% -- Murray, you should be more worried than I. Those statistics are even higher for homosexuals.

MURRAY: I’m not gay.

SUE ANN: Oh, Murray. Oh – confused, indignant, cross dressing – Murray. We’re a more tolerant nation now.

MURRAY: Tell that to Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King, Merv Griffin, Cesar Romero, Waylon & Madame...

MARY: Merv Griffin?

MURRY: So I hear.

MARY: Who’s your source?

MURRAY: That’s confidential.

MARY: Is he reliable?

MURRAY: Who said it’s a he?

MARY: It’s a she?

MURRAY: I’m not saying that.

MARY: Then it is s a he.

SUE ANN: Unless it’s both.


LOU: It was Joan Rivers who Murray bumped into in the owner’s box at Metropolitan Stadium where the Twins were hosting the Tigers and beat them 4-2 on a come-from-behind double by Cesar Tovar. Time of game: 2:55. Paid attendance: 23,710.

MARY: Joan Rivers?  That still doesn’t answer whether the source was a he or she?

SUE ANN: Or whether Cesar Tovar is related to Caesar Romero?

MARY: One’s with an extra ‘a’.

MURRY: How did you know, Lou? It was a private conversation. There was no one else in the suite. I’ve never told a living person.

LOU: I’m smart. Everyone who's smart on this show knows everything.


TED: Lou, what is the name of that big glowing thingy in the sky? I think I saw it again.

LOU: That’s the sun, Ted.

TED: I knew you’d know, Lou. (then) Are you sure?

SUE ANN: Doesn’t anyone want to know why I’m in such a good mood?

MURRAY: Or why Cesar Tovar is missing an ‘a’?

TED: You got laid.

MURRAY:  Wow.  When even the dumb guy gets it...

LOU: You met a drunk insurance salesman at that new Tex-Mex place on Marquette – Diablo Cody’s. He was despondent that the life expectancy in the U.S. just climbed to 71.2, which means unless rates went up another 3.676548% the insurance industry will lose $6.2 billion this year and $8.5 the next. So you fellated him.

SUE ANN: You bet your missing ‘a’!

TED: Can I talk now?

MURRAY: I don’t know, Ted. Can you?

TED: Lou, he’s being insubordinating again.

LOU: What is it, Ted?

TED:  Standing at the mirror doing my two-hour brow exercises this morning I came to a major revolution. News is boring. Our government does this, our soldiers are fighting that – who cares? What we need, in my humble but influenza opinion is this –  bias. We should skew the news to what I believe in and ignore the rest.

MURRAY: But you’re an idiot, Ted.

TED: I like to think of myself as a registered voter. 

SUE ANN: Now that I think about it, Aetna has an extra ‘a’.

MURRAY:  That's a ridiculous idea, Ted.  Worse even than you hosting a special on finding Al Capone's vault.  

LOU: Not so fast, Murray.  Ted, you may just have something there.

TED: I do?  I mean, I do

MARY: What? Oh, Mr. Grant!

LOU: No, no. Hear me out. America places 36th in literacy, 165th in attention span, 78th in learning English and there are only 73 English speaking countries, but we're 3rd in world ignorance.

TED: (proudly) God bless the U.S..

MURRAY: You’re missing another ‘a’.

LOU: We’re getting killed in the ratings by WHEEL OF FORTUNE…

SUE ANN: Doesn’t Merv Griffin own that show?

TED: He’s queer, y’know.

LOU: Maybe a newscast by a moron for morons is just where this country is heading.


TED: And I'm the right man for the job!

MURRAY: But you can’t do that!

LOU: We gotta do something.

MURRAY: It’s wrong! It’s immoral!

SUE ANN: Immoral is fun!

MURRAY: What about integrity?

SUE ANN: I’m now covered for fire and floods.

TED: It’s my show. And I should be able to say what I want even if I don’t know what I’m saying!

LOU: Look, we’re fighting for our lives here. We’re only ten years away from cable television.


MARY: Stop this! Quiet! All of you! I can't stand this any longer!


MARY: Do any of you know how hard it is to be a single woman in 1972?

TED: It’s 1972?

MARY: Shut up, Ted! Do you know how hard it is to be single, alone, and yes, I’m beautiful and wear fabulous clothes, but despite the propaganda to the contrary, there is a glass ceiling for women and it’s lower than the moon roof on a Nova hatchback. According to the Horner study, we women internalize that high achievement will be rewarded in a fair society when in truth we are deceiving ourselves and sacrificing a part of our souls, not to mention our identities. The survey concluded that most women in the corporate world from the late ‘60s to early ‘70s would ultimately choose the traditional sex-role stereotype when faced with conflict between their feminine image and expressing their competence and interests. How sad is that?  How completely dispiriting?  And I can’t find a man! Even with my looks! Any yet, I refuse to give up my sunny disposition. I refuse to bow to the insidious cynicism that is creeping into our collective consciousness. And I refuse to blow insurance salesmen in order to have a social life! Or home protection! I may not be getting paid, and I may not be getting laid, but I am doing something important. I’m helping to inform the public. I’m helping to ensure that when it comes time to choose the leaders who will determine the very future for us and our children – well, your children. It doesn’t look like I’m having any anytime soon. But when we’re asked to make those crucial decisions, I want to make sure we're responsibly and accurately informed. Just because ceilings are glass doesn't mean windows have to be... although, yes, most of them are.  But you get the idea.  And you want to talk about ‘a’s that don’t belong – what do you need an ‘a’ in Murray for?


MURRAY: Wow.  If I wasn’t gay I’d do her in a second.


Monday, June 25, 2012

What ever became of Kelly Kelly Kelly Kelly?

Here's another reader question where I can go to the source itself. 

From Bradley:

Do you know what became of Jackie Swanson after Cheers? She was terrific as Kelly and I assume the writing staff agreed given all the excellent material she was given.

She was and is terrific.  Jackie was nice enough to provide this update.  As you'll see it's been quite a rollercoaster ride.  I must say, in light of everything, I'm struck by what a wonderful attitude she has.  There's a reason why Jackie always lit up the room.   Thanks for sharing your story, Jackie. 

Great hearing from you. I'm a longtime fan of your blog. Thanks to the person inquiring about me and what I'm up to.

This time last year, I was on the set of CONTAGION as Gwyneth Paltrow's body double. My wardrobe was exquisite! I worked with Steven Soderbergh. Great day with him in dual roles as both Director and DP. Steven the Director was also our cameraman. Also, he drives a gorgeous mint green vintage Volkswagen in real life.

In November, I had a great experience working in an ensemble comedy pilot written and directed by Deborah Ridpath. Sadly, three days later, my sister, Becky passed away. (Becky inspired me to become an actress. She was wonderful in a community theatre production of Our Town.) Liver failure due to complications after a long battle with alcoholism. Becky was not only my sister but one of my dearest closest friends. I spend lots of time with her son, my nephew Jack. Becky visited the Cheers set many times and was present when Woody married Kelly. Prince was also present for the wedding episode written by David Lloyd. Becky and I always made multiple trips to the candy drawer on the Cheers set.

Lots of commercial work. National campaigns for Stacey's Pita Chips, Orville Redenbacher, tech spots plus numerous car commercials and some PSA's for Various other spots. I love working in commercials. Some fantastic directors and very creative people involved. One day on a mountain in Aspen Colorado and another day on a frozen snow covered lake in Minnesota. Usually some great travel involved in commercial work. And I LOVE to travel.

On April 12th, I was driving on the 10 freeway mid-day. Traffic flowing at 65 mph and suddenly out of nowhere, Boom! I was hit by a "distracted" driver. She swerved across lanes of traffic and hit the right rear passenger side of my car. Basically a pit maneuver breaking my rear axle.

My car FLIPPED over and slid upside down a great distance. Came to rest upside down blocking lanes 3 and 4. The freeway was shut down. My car a total loss. I crawled out of the window onto the freeway. First time in ambulance. Fortunate no serious injuries and no broken bones. Concussion. Glass in right hand and ankle/foot lacerations. Bruised forehead. I was wearing my seat belt. And I honestly believe my health and fitness provided some protection. I am an avid runner. Very active and healthy. I am grateful to be alive. Too many "distracted" drivers, Ken. I'm sure you've noticed. Everywhere, driving seems to be secondary - people texting eating talking on the phone and people with pets in their laps. Kissing their dogs whilst driving. Yikes.

Looking forward to traveling this summer. Paris. And hiking Half-Dome in Yosemite. One of my favorite hikes! More work. Reading writing and cooking.

I'll be 49 on June 25th. Looking forward to it. Here's to Life. Cheers! Hope you and your family are well. Last time we saw one another was the memorial service for David Lloyd. One of my favorite television writers. For Cheers.  And for Mary Tyler Moore. Chuckles The Clown. Chuckles bites the dust.

Okay, I better send this off now. It's almost midnight and I have an audition tomorrow.  Read any good books lately? Any suggestions?  (Yeah.  Mine!)

My best. Talk with you soon.
Thank you.

Thank you.   I know I speak for all my readers when I send sincere condolences and best wishes for all good things in the future. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My commencement speech to the Class of '12

It's the same one that I gave last year's graduates but wisdom is worth re-posting.

June is the graduation time of year. I guess a hundred years ago those commencement speakers were inspiring and offered thoughts and insights that were new and fresh. But now, Jesus! Be your own person. Never give up. You have a responsibility to society. Success comes from within. Show courage. You can make a difference. Set aside time to smell the roses. Let faith be your guide. Blablablablabla.

I’ve never been asked to be a commencement speaker and that’s probably a good thing because here’s some of the advice I might give:

Live at home with your parents as long as you can. Otherwise you’ll have to find a job. Rents are high. And then there’s laundry, food, and the family big screen.

Know that the music you think is so cool now will be laughed at by future generations.

Same with clothes.

Don’t follow your current favorite group around the country for the next thirty years. That becomes sad year one.

If you are going to honor your dear departed kitty Fluffy with a tattoo make sure all your subsequent pets are also named Fluffy.

Eat bad foods. You’re at an age when you can get away with it. And eat them at midnight. There’s plenty of time in the future for watching your carbs, eating your vegetables, avoiding red meat, and laying off the Yodels and Ring Dings. Soon enough you won’t be able to eat a bite after 8:00 without spending the night in the porcelain canyon . Do you want fries with that? Damn right you do!

Don’t buy SUV’s.

Practice safe and frequent sex. Have many romances and then fall in love when you’re 30.

Go back and study the history of your chosen field. Things actually happened before 1995.

Don’t blame your parents for everything. Your peers screwed you up just as much.

Sleep. It’s better for you than Red Bull.

You can no longer take an "incomplete".

Prepare yourselves. There will come a day – in your lifetime – that they will stop making original episodes of THE SIMPSONS. I know you don't believe me but it's true.

There’s a special bond having shared the school experience together. Stay in touch with your classmates. Even the ones you’ve slept with.

Don’t invest money in video stores.

Read novels that aren’t graphic.

Join communities that aren't virtual.

Save your journal or private diary. In twenty years you’re going to get such laughs.

Dream big but always have contingency plans. And then have contingency plans for your contingency plans.

Keep your student ID card. Use it to get into movies cheaper.

Guys, don’t wear hats. You’ll have plenty of time for that later once you’ve lost your hair.

Never take comedy traffic school.

Buy your alcoholic beverages by the glass or bottle, not the keg.

And finally -- Don’t sweat it if you don’t know what you’re going to do with your life. There’s a good chance the job you'll eventually want hasn’t been invented yet.

Congratulations to the class of '12. Now get out there and don’t fuck up my Social Security.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Teenage Fair

Here's another excerpt from my new book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).   You can get yours in Kindle or paperback.   It's a fun read and a great way to support this blog so I'm not forced to sell fruit at freeway offramps. 

The Hollywood Palladium was an art deco theater built in the’40s in Hollywood to stage big band concerts. In the ’60s it was the spring break home of the Teenage Fair. The Palladium inside and outside was filled with exhibits and booths. Guitars on display, decals, flyers, motorcycles, dance contests, electronic equipment, cosmetics, surfing demonstrations, radio remotes, record racks, and live concerts. Meanwhile, on the side of the building there was a large billboard showcasing Nana Lil’s favorite -- Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Music Makers, complete with bubbles that were supposed to ascend from a champagne flute but instead appeared to come from his nose.

I wanted to bring a date but the two-hour bus ride each way was a problem for those princesses.

I’m guessing the fair was a lot more happening at 10:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. But at noon on a Tuesday it was pretty dead. In ten minutes I was already bored. So I meandered past the drug paraphernalia exhibit and adjacent Army recruiting booth (yes, I recognized the irony even back then) to see which superstar was performing in the main room. It was a couple and they were god-awful. No wonder they were booked for the lunch hour. She was this scrawny Goth chick and he was this middle-aged goomba with a huge schnoz, a Beatle haircut, and a fur vest. Luigi Flintstone & Morticia. She at least could sing. He sounded like an ambulance siren. There were maybe eight of us watching this pathetic display, convinced that these were the two biggest losers on the planet. On the other hand, I can say I discovered Sonny & Cher.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Questions

As I head down to San Diego for a weekend of broadcasting Mariners games on 710 ESPN Seattle, MLB.COM, and the Mariners Radio Network, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

God Shammgod is up first.

Do you prefer a compact set or a bigger one? Remember when "I Love Lucy" moved the action from the cramped apartment set to the huge farm set? It didn't seem to work as well.

If the show is centered on primarily two characters (like I LOVE LUCY) then I much prefer a smaller set. It’s more intimate. You like to have both actors in the same shot if possible. And as a director, I don’t have to worry about long boring crosses while actors move from one end of the set to the other.

There are times when a large elaborate set will overwhelm a scene. The actors disappear into it.

One mistake production directors make is building giant two-story sets for multi-camera shows shot before a studio audience. They’re so big a camera would have to be in the next zip code to show the whole thing. And you never see the second story unless a character goes up or down the stairs. It’s a complete waste of time and money.

For workplace shows or large ensembles a larger set makes sense. You don’t want all the characters forever on top of each other. My favorite was the CHEERS bar, designed by Oscar-winner, Richard Sylbert. It was roomy yet intimate, interesting yet not busy.

And then there is the lunch counter in Wing's and the diner on Becker. It was like the actors were practically sitting on each other's laps....

I had no problem with the WINGS airport terminal unless everyone was perched at Helen's lunch counter, but I did have issues with the BECKER diner (strictly from a shooting aspect.  Visually it was a cool set.)

But in the diner you had this large set with all the action pushed up against one wall. Actors sat at the counter and that was that. Very static and most of the set was unused and unseen.

When I directed BECKER I did whatever I could to move people around, sit them in booths, have Reggie (and later, Chris) serve tables so there would be movement, we’d get to see the set, characters would have to turn away from the counter so we shot them from different angles.

It meant being creative and finding plausible reasons to move the cast around, but the alternative was just planting everybody at the counter and I just hated that.

On the other hand, Becker's office was fantastic.  Plenty of interesting hallways and angles and the counter in the reception area was in the middle.

From Ted:

All of us loyal readers are in awe that you were able segue into a second successful career. But how much did age-ism in the industry we love contribute to your decision to switch careers?

None at all. At the time I went to the upper deck of Dodger Anaheim Stadium to learn how to do baseball play-by-play, I was in my mid-30’s. So I was still in that eleven minute window when I was my prime as far as Hollywood was concerned. Which is another reason so many people in the industry thought I was completely nuts to go off and broadcast minor league baseball for peanuts when I had such a viable career in L.A.  The truth is I managed both careers. 

But my philosophy is you’re never too old to re-invent yourself. Especially when it involves following your passion.

George asks:

How often do sitcom writers in the writers room talk about theme when breaking stories?

On good shows the theme is ever-present. And when you come up with story notions you see if they fit into the overall theme of the show. This is assuming your show even has a theme. The good ones do. Many don’t.

I’ve found that if you don’t a theme, a real direction, then you have no idea what you’re writing. And this leads to confusion, blind alleys, inconsistent shows, and long nights of spinning your wheels.

On the other hand, if you do know what your series is about, you can select the story notions that work in that framework and discard the ones that don’t. Ultimately, that saves you soooo much time and effort.

What are some themes?

30 ROCK – A woman trying to make it in a man’s world.

THE OFFICE – Average people fighting monotony and trying to make more of their lives.

ALL IN THE FAMILY – A man is terrified that the world he always knew is changing and he has no handle on the new world.

Think about how each episode directly or indirectly leads to its theme.  

And finally, from Steve:

Do you know if there were any discussion about having Sam's ex-wife appear at some point on Cheers? I always expected that she'd pop up at some point; seemed like a built-in way to create some drama somewhere down the line. I assume it's rare (for a long-running show) to have something like that mentioned in the exposition that then never got used at all.

As a reader pointed out, she appeared in one episode – the second. She was played by Donna McKechnie (who was the original Cassie in the Broadway smash, A CHORUS LINE, winning a Tony for her performance). The episode was called “Sam’s Women” written by Earl Pomerantz. Donna was hired to play one of Sam’s dates. It was only during a rewrite did we make her Sam’s ex-wife, and the reason was we simply needed a joke.

But I believe the feeling later on was that an ex-wife would only get in the way, so that little history was swept under the rug. We just proceeded as if she never existed. Don’t you wish you could do that with your ex-spouse?

What’s your Friday Question? Please buy my book. Wait. no.  What I meant to say was please leave your question in the comments section. Sorry. And thanks.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

All you ever wanted to know about Extras (people not the show)

Here’s an EXTRA Friday Question:

It’s from RichD.

So the recent mention of WINGS here inspired me to revisit the series on Netflix. While making my way through the first seasons I again noticed the older red-haired woman who worked at Roy's counter, which got me to wonder about the background performers who are the extra-equivalent of series regulars on various shows.

I would assume that these are pretty sweet gigs. When they are first cast is it with the intention that they will be recurring?

Are they hired episode-by-episode or offered a season long contract? While I'm assuming that they aren't there for table reads, how much different is their schedule from the speaking cast?

Usually the extras (or “background” as they are also called) who are essentially regulars are also stand-ins for the main cast. They’re the same height and size of the stars. During the days when directors are blocking the show with the camera crew these extras stand-in during the long somewhat arduous process of assigning individual shots. Here’s a fun fact: Do you know who Bill Cosby’s stand-in was on THE COSBY SHOW? None other than Samuel L. Jackson. This was before he became an Avenger.

Certain extras do become de facto regulars. On MASH we used the same nurses. I don’t know if I ever knew all their last names but they were Sherry, Gwen, Kellye. And over time a few extras were given lines. Kellye for one, and Jeff Maxwell as Igor. And of course, the extra’s extra – Roy Goldman (pictured: right).

Roy used to show up in every 20th Century Fox show. He’s on juries, he’s at picnics, he’s the back of Hitler’s head in Mel Brooks’ TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Roy was the Where’s Waldo of 20th. Or at least Zelig.

Don’t know your definition of “sweet gig”. Extras don’t get paid that handsomely and frankly, it’s pretty boring. They spend an inordinate amount of time just waiting or standing, or waiting and standing.

On the other hand, they’re IN the business. They go to work at Hollywood studios. They’re on the stage, they get fed, and in many cases they form friendships with the cast and crew. So on the list of jobs that suck – hanging out with George Clooney all day would not be one of them.

I’m sure some extra assignments are worse than others. I wouldn’t want to be a knight on GAME OF THRONES, standing around in heavy armor all day. And a friend of mine got a gig on a movie and was told to report to Six Flags Magic Mountain at 5:00 AM. Fun, she thought. For three days she rode a roller-coaster for twelve hours a day. Can you imagine? Over and over and over again. She almost died.

On single-camera shows extras are just hired for the days they’re needed. Could be one, could be five days a week.

On multiple-camera shows they’re hired for two days – camera blocking and shooting day.

Now everyone has cellphones, but I remember on CHEERS we’d take a break before the afternoon runthrough and all the extras would form a long line at the phone booth outside the stage to call their answering machines to see if they had a gig lined up for the next day.

Pay scale: Extras make much less than speaking actors. And by speaking I mean even one line. This is why for the most part extras just react but don’t speak. I believe they can speak as a group (like cheering for someone), but no individual lines without being bumped up to actor status for that episode.

A famous example is Al Rosen, the old guy at the bar on CHEERS. (Sorry for the fuzzy foto.)  He had been an extra for a couple of years and then one episode we gave him a line. I forget the set-up but his answer was “Sinatra.” From then on whenever we gave him a line he was listed in the cast as “Man Who Said Sinatra.”

Not sure the conditions of their hiring – I assume most are on a day-by-day basis, although stand-ins and recurring extras might be hired on a more long term arrangement. And I assume there’s no exclusivity. If an extra gets a higher-paying speaking part elsewhere, I’m sure they’re free to take it.

Whenever I directed a show and we had extras in various scenes I always instructed the Second Assistant Director (whose job it was to organize the background) to try to stage the scenes in such a way that all of the extras get at least a little on-camera time. I always feel bad for the extras who stand around for three days and then are never seen.

On the other hand, extras can sometimes kill you. One idiot will be looking into the camera or not reacting and it distracts from the scene. So if you ever get to be an extra someday DON’T DO THAT. You’ll find your career is a very very short one.  Someone else will be hanging out with George Clooney instead of you, and if that isn't a deterrent I don't know what one is.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Adam Carolla is a moron!

Adam Carolla’s comments in the NEW YORK POST this week are so unbelievably stupid they almost don’t dignify a response. Here’s a portion of the interview. 

POST: The lesson you learned from a sexual harassment seminar was “Don’t hire chicks.” Do you hate working with women?

CAROLLA: No. But they make you hire a certain number of chicks, and they’re always the least funny on the writing staff. The reason why you know more funny dudes than funny chicks is that dudes are funnier than chicks. If my daughter has a mediocre sense of humor, I’m just gonna tell her, “Be a staff writer for a sitcom. Because they’ll have to hire you, they can’t really fire you, and you don’t have to produce that much. It’ll be awesome.”

POST: The “are women funny” debate has grown very contentious. You’re not worried about reactions to this?

CAROLLA: I don’t care. When you’re picking a basketball team, you’ll take the brother over the guy with the yarmulke. Why? Because you’re playing the odds. When it comes to comedy, of course there’s Sarah Silverman, Tina Fey, Kathy Griffin — super-funny chicks. But if you’re playing the odds? No.

If Joy Behar or Sherri Shepherd was a dude, they’d be off TV. They’re not funny enough for dudes. What if Roseanne Barr was a dude? Think we’d know who she was? Honestly.

I’m embarrassed to be in a same species as this fucking idiot. His ignorance is just staggering.

I mean his argument is so misguided and wrong that there’s really no need to even refute it. Of course women are funny. And not just the three he mentioned. If I were putting together a writing staff I would hire any one of these women in a second:

Robin Schiff
Jenny Johnson
Nell Scovell
Jane Espenson
Alexa Junge
Merrill Markoe
Shana Goldberg-Meehan
Jenny Bicks
Heide Perlman
Liz Astrof
Treva Silverman
Dana Klein
Janis Hirsch
Kate Angelo
Anne Flett-Giordano
Suzanne Martin
Jenn Crittenden
Cheri Steinkellner
Kathy Ann Stumpe
Annie Levine
Mindy Kaling
Linda Teverbaugh
Eileen Heisler
DeAnn Heline
Ilana Wernick
Samantha Bee
Ellie Kemper
Laurie Kilmartin
Kathleen Madigan
Christine Nangle
Kelly Oxford
Gina Gold
Lizz Winstead
Elizabeth Meriwether
Dottie Zicklin
Nahnatchka Khan
Tracy Newman
Jennifer Celotta
Wendy Goldman
Lori Kirkland
Terri Minsky
Joyce Gitlin
Cathy Yuspa
Rachel Sweet
Susan Beavers
Janet Leahy
Regina Stewart
Danielle Sanchez-Witzel
Nancy Steen
Caroline Williams
Betsy Thomas
Eileen Conn
Marley Sims
Jennifer Fisher
Ellen Byron
Diane English
Lissa Kapstrom
Cindy Chupak
Sheila Lawrence
Maya Forbes
Miriam Trogdon
Laurie Gelman

And those are just writers, and I’m sure I’ve accidentally omitted several names and there are many other terrific women writers who I just have not worked with or am familiar with but should be. (There are also comediennes, playwrights, authors, actresses, you name it.)

On the other hand, let me tell you who I wouldn’t hire:

Adam Carolla

Despite his very impressive comedy credentials – host of a podcast, host of a failed morning radio show, host of several failed TV talk shows on cable networks, and contestant on CELEBRITY APPRENTICE – he’s just not that funny. 

Adam Carolla also sees himself as a contractor who can build houses. I bet if I did a little research I could name fifty women who could build houses better.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Random rants

Otherwise known as "Short attention-span blogging"…

There’s something terribly wrong when the animated episode of COMMUNITY is eligible for an Emmy but not episodes of existing animated series.  I say THE SIMPSONS should kill Bart and submit it for Best Drama. 

Arsenio Hall is back. He’ll have a late-night talk show next fall. Can Joan Rivers, Magic Johnson, Tempest Bledsoe, Craig Kilbourne, Tony Danza, and Caroline Rhea be far behind?

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is one of the few success stories this summer boxoffice season. Someone compared it to DIE HARD. Really? Will studio pitches by writers now be Snow White on a train, Snow White on a cruise ship?

The Critics Choice Awards were given out last night. What? You hadn’t heard? HOMELAND won Best Drama. What’s significant is that MAD MEN lost. COMMUNITY won as Best Comedy but only finished second as best Cartoon Series.  Julianne Moore was named the Best Actress in a Movie/Mini-series for GAME CHANGE. So Sarah Palin finally won something.

The three things in life you can always count on -- death, taxes, and Adam Sandler's new movie bombing. How many more until Hollywood finally gets wise and realizes he’s the next Mike Myers?

From my daughter, Annie on air travel: Why would anyone pay for headphones to see THE ARTIST?

A writer friend of mine wondered -- Rodney king had swimming pool?

Glad SUITS is back. But I don’t know why everyone makes a big deal about the young attorney. He’s Doogie Lawyer. The real star is the other guy -- Gabriel Macht. He’s this year’s Julian McMahon.

Can’t wait for the new Aaron Sorkin show.  It debuts Sunday night on HBO. 

I'm especially looking forward to Jane Fonda playing her former husband, Ted Turner.   Not only did she get a nice settlement in the divorce, now she can write off the entire marriage as research.  

It’s the graduation time of the year, complete with commencement speeches. So far, the most inspiring this June comes from Universal President and COO, Ron Meyer, who told the graduating seniors of UCLA “You don’t have to be an asshole to succeed.”

Warning to Mariners fans: I’ll be calling the games this weekend in San Diego.

Creepiest idea ever: The Landmark Theaters in West L.A. (and I assume elsewhere) have a theater with no chairs. Just couches. That’s fine for couples. But there are also longer couches, which you are asked to share with complete strangers. Yeah, I want to see MAGIC MIKE sitting next to two guys I don’t know. Or the TWILIGHT SAGA with two teenagers going at it.

A number of you have asked what I thought of the new book for former NBC President, Warren Littlefield? I’ve very much looking forward to it, but haven’t read it yet.  From what I hear, he claims Don Ohlmeyer did not live by Ron Meyer's rule. 

Who do Red Soxs fans hate more -- Alex Rodriguez or Bobby Valentine?

Roger Clemens was acquitted yesterday of all perjury charges. I don’t think there’s one baseball fan who still doesn’t believe he took steroids.

There’s a new Jiffy Lube opening in Reseda. Scheduled to appear: the Stanley Cup.

Thanks to everyone who has bought my new book. Please feel free to write an overly complimentary review on the Amazon page. Or buy it if you haven’t already.

I noticed this at two airports last weekend: A sign as you entered TSA security checks said if you were born on this day in 1937 or before you no longer had to remove your belt and shoes. I guess it’s official. The retirement age for terrorists is now 75.

And finally, congratulations to June Foray who just won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performance in an Animated Program. How old is June? Let’s just say she hasn’t had to take her belt and shoes off for almost twenty years. You may not know the name but you sure know the pipes. June is the voice of Rocky the flying Squirrel, Natasha, a bunch of Smurfs, and only a million others. Iconic Looney Tunes director, Chuck Jones once said, "June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc was the male June Foray." Congratulations, June. Many more.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Welcome to the Hotel Zico California

Spent the weekend in Northern California. Attended the graduation ceremonies at Stanford. My daughter-in-law, Kim received her doctorate in Electrical Engineering. I offered to punch-up her thesis but she said no, it was funny enough. We’re all very proud of her. My dad asked if she could prescribe marijuana.

Needless to say, finding a room anywhere between Gilroy and Daly City on graduation weekend was a chore. The decent places jacked up their rates and were reserved for a year.  And since it's Stanford, they charged even more. 

So we had to be creative. Looking on line we discovered the Hotel Zico in nearby Mountain View. It was described as a “Mediterranean style boutique hotel.” We like Mediterranean style boutique hotels.   So we booked it for the weekend.

The description went on to say it was “nestled in a soothing suburban setting.” That was our first clue that perhaps we were somewhat misled.

The Hotel Zico is right off the 85 Freeway. And by right off I mean, it was practically in the carpool lane. The hotel entrance was poorly marked and tucked behind an on-ramp. So if you turn one minute too soon you wind up on the freeway headed to Los Altos.

The Zico is flanked by this roaring freeway on one side and a giant electrical tower on the other. As for the building itself, perhaps a “Mediterranean style warehouse” might have been more precise.

The clerk at the desk was Wilford Brimley with a long pony-tail twisted to look like a rope extending down to his back. I glanced around warily just to make sure there were no stuffed birds on the desk.  I said we didn’t want rooms facing the freeway (Annie was with us).  So we were assigned to the electrical tower side. To block that eye-sore, large trees are practically pressed against the side of the building. So there was no light in the room whatsoever.  Dracula could have woken up at noon and had the whole day. And to ensure that your room was as dark as a Kentucky coal mine during a lunar eclipse, the bathroom was painted dark blue.

The room had a sickly chemical smell as if they were purposely hiding something. I kept imagining Janet Leigh’s body parts hidden in the walls. The bathtub was filthy and there was one towel for two people. Ants scurried across the desk. Annie’s room key had to be re-programmed seven times.

From the hotel website: “Just 35 miles south of San Francisco puts the best of the bay area’s restaurants, shops, and attractions temptingly close.” A) 35 miles is only close if you’re traveling by helicopter, and B) the attractions that are “temptingly close” are – a Burger King, a Jack in the Box, a tire shop, and a tobacco store.

They boast wonderful amenities. No pool, no Jacuzzi, but a private bocci ball court, and a “mini store” in the lobby, which was two vending machines.

Got back to the room Friday night at 11:00 only to discover that there was major construction going on on the freeway. Jackhammers and drills practically in the room. The walls were shaking. At any moment I expected Janet Leigh’s leg to pop out.

I called the front desk. Wildord assured me they were told whenever there would be construction and they hadn’t received any warning about tonight. So, what, I’m making it up? It’s not really happening? I asked to be moved. He said they were sold out. By the way, I should mention, over a three day period I did not see one other guest, ever.

So these were our sleeping options: Keep the window closed, hear only muffled deafening construction but swelter. Keep the window open and try to sleep with the jackhammers in your ear. Window closed and turn the air conditioning on. The A/C was a wall unit from 1964 that made more noise than the work crew. Or take advantage of one of Hotel Zico’s many fine amenities: ear plugs.

On Saturday night it was the same story. Although this time it sounded like they were dropping giant concrete chunks from a bridge to the ground. Loud teeth-rattling crashes joined the jacks. My wife and I are in bed. She’s trying to read. I’m trying to find the Giants-Mariners game on TV. They don’t carry that channel. HGTV but no Comcast Sports.  Another world-class amenity. At 11:00 our room phone rings, startling us. It’s Wilford. Apparently the guest in the room underneath called and complained we were jumping. What the fuck?!  She thought the noise from the freeway was coming from our room???

That’s when I put on my shoes, marched downstairs, and went all Sam Kinison on this clerk.

Checked out the next morning. Again, never saw another guest. There was a new clerk at the desk. She made the mistake of asking how our stay was. I ran down the list. She was completely unmoved. No reaction at all. I mentioned I write travel books. Nothing.  Let's see when I alert them to this blog post. 

So that’s my charming stay at the Hotel Zico.  My rating: From 1-10 with 10 being best, I give it a 1. I’d give them a zero but I suppose it’s worth a point that my body parts aren’t now in the walls.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Next Life by Woody Allen

On this Father’s Day (the most sacred holiday of the year) I’d like to wish a happy one to my dad, who also happens to be my hero, mentor, and best friend.

Here are some pithy Father’s Day quotes:

“To be a successful father… there’s one absolute rule: when you have a kid, don’t look at it for the first two years.” -- Ernest Hemingway

“A man knows when he is growing old because he begins to look like his father.” -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If the new American father feels bewildered and even defeated, let him take comfort from the fact that whatever he does in any fathering situation has a fifty percent chance of being right.” -- Bill Cosby

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.” -- William Shakespeare (especially if the mother is Anna Nicole)

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." – Mark Twain

“By the time a man realizes that maybe his father was right, he usually has a son who thinks he's wrong.” -- Charles Wadsworth

And finally, a salute to Screaming Jay Hawkins. Screaming Jay was a r&b/blues singer. His big hit was “I Put a Spell on You” in which he came out of a coffin. The man was a crowd pleaser. And also a lady pleaser it seems. Upon his death when it was time to divvy up the estate it was discovered he had 57 children. Screaming Jay will not be saluted on Planned Parenthood day.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. Note to wives and daughters: Dad wants copies of my new book, available in Kindle version and in paperback

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Best of Batman

I imagine people are already getting in line for the opening of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the new Batman movie that opens July 12th. As a way to climb on that batwagon and plug my book -- THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) I thought I would include the passage
about "our" Batman and feature some examples. The Kindle version is available now as is the paperback. There are no ads on this blog you'll notice. The way you can support this site is to buy my book. Hey, you'll get a lot more enjoyment out of it than a PBS tote bag. Here's where you go for the Kindle. And this link'll get you the paperback.   Thanks so much!

...January 12, 1966

That’s the night Batman premiered.

It instantly became my new favorite show. Me and everyone else under 20. “Camp” and “kitsch” were the zeitgeist of the day and the Caped Crusader was its superhero. Fight scenes were punctuated with on-screen comic book words POW! BAM! ZONK! The Caped Crusader was played by an actor who had the agility of a hunchback. But Adam West’s goofy sincerity struck just the right chord and this tongue-in-cheek comedy was an instant smash (Sorry. I meant SMASH!).

You look back at those old Batman episodes and think, “What schlock!” And in fairness, by season two we thought that too. By the time Otto Preminger played a villain, we had moved on.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Is it worth it to go to film school?

Here are this week’s Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Gareth Wilson asks:

Actual working screenwriters seem very skeptical about the relevance of film school to screenwriting employment. I gather that a diploma from even the best film school is meaningless when trying to get work. So is it possible to design a course that actually teaches you to write salable scripts, and what would it look like?

It really all depends on who your teacher is. My partner, David Isaacs, teaches screenwriting at USC and is terrific. USC has a very prestigious program but if David were teaching at the DeVry Institute I would say go there instead.

To me the real value in going to a noted film school is that they provide better networking opportunities when you get out. The UCLA, USC, NYU, Yale, Harvard, Northwestern mafias do exist.

As for a class teaching you how to write salable scripts – at the end of the day you have to have the talent to write scripts anyone would buy. Courses can provide the guidelines but ultimately you’ve got to have the chops.

If I may be immodest for a moment, I think the best single course for learning how to write sitcoms is my Sitcom Room seminar that I offer every fall. It’s the only course that really simulates what a working environment is like and gives you a chance to write for actors then see your work performed. To my knowledge it’s the only class like it. There’s only so much theory you can digest. You learn by being given a solid foundation and then asked to do it.

Ger Apeldoorn queries:

Joe Keenan once said, that although the farces were hammered out in the room just like any story, he preferred to take them home to work out the plot points. Are there any other things that are hard to do in a room?

Uh, yeah. EVERYTHING. Breaking stories is particularly tough. The good news about doing them in a room is you get different ideas. But the bad news is often times these ideas coming from every direction only creates more confusion.

For the same reason, it’s often hard in a room to write a detailed argument. Too many voices. Can you imagine room-writing an episode of WEST WING? Heads would explode.

From ao:

Who decides on which pilot to pick up? What happens to the ones that were not picked up? Just shove into the dark space of pilot black hole? And will TV networks ever air pilots that were never picked up for us (the audience)? At least show it online. I would love to see it.

Network top brass make the final decisions. You’d think they would simply pick up the best shows, but it’s much more complicated than that. Other factors include testing, commitments, whether they own the show or not, license fees, desire to be in business with a certain piece of talent, target demographics, need, time slot, compatibility with other shows, trends, etc. There’s a lot of horse trading that goes on behind-the-scenes.

It used to be if a pilot didn’t get picked up the network would gladly sell it to another network. They are then off the hook financially. But when NBC picked up THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN after ABC passed and it became a big hit, ABC was very embarrassed. So for a long time if a network passed on a pilot they would rather just eat the cost then chance that someone else could turn it into a big hit.

But that was in a different economy. Today networks are again happy to have studios shop failed pilots around. Recouping their investment is worth more than possible embarrassment.

There was one case where David Frankel took his failed pilot, sold it as a short film and won an Oscar for it. And from time to time in LA, a small theater will stage failed pilots as if they were one act plays.

You’re welcome to come by the house and I’ll show you my failed pilots.

Liggie wants to know:

Friday question, professional advice edition. How do you prepare your voice for the long baseball broadcasts? I've started a job in the travel industry where I have to talk for four hours straight (ticket counter, line organizer, direction giver), and my throat's shot when I go home.

First, learn how to use your voice. Learn how to breathe and how to speak from your diaphragm and not your throat. The best vocal teacher in Los Angeles is Darlene Koldenhoven (I know. Great name, isn’t it?).

Protect your voice. Avoid loud rooms and clubs where you have to shout to be heard. Don’t have dairy products before a broadcast. It causes phlegm. So stay away from ice cream.

Air conditioning is also an enemy of the voice. 

If possible, do some vocal exercises before your shift. Always have plenty of water. Stay hydrated. Keep your vocal chords lubricated. Hot tea and honey is also good. Alcohol is not.

Suck hard candy. That’s what Vin Scully does.

And finally, relax. Tense voices are strained voices. Here again, breathing is key. Pace yourself, do the necessary preparations, breathe right, and you should be okay. Unless you’re calling hockey. How does Doc Emrick do it???

Thursday, June 14, 2012

MAD MEN season 5 review

Okay, I gave you a few days to catch up on the MAD MEN finale. If you still haven’t seen it, then SPOILER ALERT. But if you have, or don’t care then read on.

I’m very curious as to your opinion of this season. A number of critics I admire and who analyze the shit out of the show every week took issue with the fact that this year they (and by they I mean Matt Weiner of course) spelled things out more than ever before. In the final episode Pete tells the new love of his life (who has no idea who he is after her recent shock treatment – there’s always some little complication between young lovers) everything that’s wrong with his life. And Don reveals to Peggy his fear that important people in his life always leave him. There are four or five other examples along the way. 

The critics contend that these admissions are quite bald and very uncharacteristic of MAD MEN. The show (and by the show I mean Matt Weiner of course) always prided itself on its subtlety. The writing staff (and by writing staff I mean Matt Weiner, of course) seemed to give the audience more credit in the past – that they could figure out these attitudes and emotions themselves. They didn’t them to be spelled out.

And that’s true. MAD MEN at its best uses behavior, originality, and surprising story turns to convey the most complex emotions and ideas. No explanations are needed. How the characters react to situations informs us of who they are and what they want. No one does that better than Matt Weiner (and by Matt Weiner I mean Matt Weiner of course).

But that subtlety comes with a price. The audience has to WANT TO put in the time and effort to gleam the themes and decipher the intended messages. When they do it’s great! You have real watercooler television. People taking the time to debate your show. It doesn’t get any better than that (except for awards and money and fame). But if the audience isn’t as invested or loses interest and doesn't want to play then there’s the danger of losing them completely.

For that reason I didn’t really mind the more overt explanations. I worry that the show may have a bigger problem. I wonder if fans are starting to get tired of these characters’ dilemmas. To me the common theme was that nobody was happy even though everybody should have been happy. Whatever they had wasn’t enough. After awhile you start feeling you’re watching THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF MADISON AVENUE.   As a writer, this has always been my test:  If the audience might say, "I wish I had that problem" then construct a different problem. 

If I could respectfully make one suggestion for next season it would be to make the characters’ plight more relatable and sympathetic.   I think back to the first season.   I even loved Betty.

That said, I thought there were some brilliant episodes and moments in this year’s shows. The Richard Speck installment was riveting. I love Ginsburg. Can’t get enough Sally. Roger on LSD should be his permanent state. Joan can do no wrong even when she does. You can’t punch Pete enough. And Peggy going all “Lou Pinella” on Don after the botched presentation was maybe the best scene of the year.

But the competition is getting tougher, it’s harder and harder to top yourself, and Matt Weiner has his work cut out for him (and by Matt Weiner I mean Don Draper, of course).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I will be on a podcast

Today at 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT I'll be Stu Shostak guest on his weekly podcast.  We'll be talking MASH, television, and my new book THE ME GENERATION... BY ME.  (Kindle version here.  Paperback here.) 

Anywho, here's the link to Stu's site.  Should be fun.   Hey, the man's had Betty White on his show.  And from I hear, she's going to be really pissed if you don't buy my book. 

Advice for young writers

A question I’m always asked is:

If I’m writing a spec script for an existing sitcom, should it be in a two-act or three-act format.

Some backstory. For years sitcoms followed the two-act formula. There was a big commercial break in the middle. Then some networks decided it would easier to retain the audience if they sprinkled the commercials throughout. Thus there were two breaks during the body of the show, not one. And thus the three-act format was born (or hatched).

This is important information because it means that the template was changed not so that stories could be better told but because of commerce.

My feeling always was that if I did my job and constructed an act break strong enough, it would hold the viewer through the commercials. The great Carl Reiner had an expression when he ran THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. He wanted his act breaks to be “Hey, Maes!” The husband is watching the show in the living room and the act break is so compelling he yells out to his wife who’s in another room, “Hey, Mae! You gotta get out here and see this!”

The two-act structure is clearly better for storytelling in such a brief period of time. Plays can be three-acts, but they can also be three hours. Sitcoms get about twenty minutes. The two-act format: In the first act you build to a peak problem. Then in the second you resolve it. Nice. Neat. Hopefully the animated promo for WHITNEY at the bottom of the screen is not too distracting and you can follow the storyline. In the three-act structure you work towards a problem in the first act, work towards a complication in the second, and then have only a few minutes to resolve it in the third. Sometimes the animated promos are as long as the acts.

So what do you do if you’re writing a spec for an existing sitcom and they employ the three-act model? First, I would always follow the format the show uses. Showing them how they could do their series better does not generally win points.

But I would hedge. I would make one of the act breaks very strong, preferably the first one. The second is a complication and I’d make it a funny one if possible. So you’re ending that act on a good laugh. This structure does have one advantage: It forces you to get right to your story and build to an act break quickly. Young writers often get lost meandering around at the beginning of their scripts, trying to find the voices of the characters and just get comfortable writing that show. This structure reduces that.

Here’s how I plot out sitcom episodes: I come up with premise, then decide the act break (or breaks), arrive at a conclusion, and then fill in from there. I don’t plot A to B to C to D. I plot A to D to F then fill in B, C, etc. And along the way I’m always looking for the funniest, cleverest, most surprising ways to tell that story.

One other point: You have to follow this three-act structure because that’s what your show uses. But agents are also going to ask you for original material. At that point it’s totally up to you. It’s your pilot. You set the format. See how the story works best for you. Or, if you write a one-act play, it can be one-act.

As always, best of luck. Someone has to break through. Why not you?

Note:  Longtime readers of this blog know that whenever I can't find an appropriate photo I post one of Natalie Wood.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What was HBO thinking???

HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN is so bad that if Hemingway were still alive this would have killed him. It’s hard to believe HBO could miss so badly but this is the HEAVEN’S GATE of cable.

What it’s supposed to be: a sweeping historic romance between two colorful larger-than-life characters.

What it really is: a seeping hysterical booty call between two cartoon characters.

Clive Owens plays Kevin Kline playing Cole Porter playing Ernest Hemingway. And he is Oscar worthy compared to Nicole Kidman’s performance, which wouldn’t get her cast as a walk-on in a high school play. Her take on a hard-bitten, hard drinking, bad-ass journalist Martha Gellhorn was absolutely laughable. Carol Kane would be more believable.

Every macho bullshit cliché is included in this bomb. Papa reels in giant marlins, has a rifle collection, mounted big game, drinks out of the bottle, eats raw onions, sings rebellious anthems, plays Russian roulette, wears flak jackets, and goes off to wars. Except when he’s at the wars he just sorta hangs out. Picture Geraldo Rivera in Iraq.

Nicole doesn’t pack a gun but never goes off to the front without her trusty red lipstick.  War is Hell-ena Rubenstein. 

The turgid, sexually-charged dialogue between her and “Papa” sounds like an old script from DRAGNET. I’m telling you, there are more laughs in the first ten minutes of this movie than the entire season of WHITNEY.

Typical line of cheesy dialogue: “FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS is selling like ice cream in hell.”

One stylistic device they employ is blending into black-and-white. But they fade in and out of it completely at will. Forty-five times. And sometimes for good measure, they tint the color sepia. Remember how your grandma used to keep adjusting her first color TV? That’s what this was like.

Every frame of this movie is bogus. One of my favorite moments: Nicole has arrived in Spain. She’s in her hotel room, sleeping. The door bursts open and Papa storms in with three documentary filmmakers. They set the camera up at the window. We see out the window. Cut to actual newsreel footage: no less than half a million people are in the streets as troops march forth. None of this would wake her up? Later she storms beaches. Thank God the lipstick is waterproof. 

But they saved the very worst for the last. At this point the film stopped being unintentionally funny and became just jaw-droppingly atrocious. Should you make it to the end (and I doubt you will), there’s maybe the worst scene in the history of cinema. Nicole is observing the horrors of the concentration camps. Her concerned face is super-imposed over these gruesome shots and then dissolves into a skull. I just sat there flabbergasted. They didn’t really do that? They couldn’t really do that? Well… they did.

Worth noting is the supporting cast: Some terrific actors just wasted. Robert Duvall, David Strathairn (adventures in bad make up), Tony Shalhoub (no Emmy this time, Tony), Parker Posey, and Bob from BECKER.  That’s right. Bob is in it!  

What bothers me most about this astounding misfire is that it's a movie about writers. How many of them are there? They’re a hard-sell at best. We’re generally less exciting and cinematic as say Navy Seals. So when one is made and sucks it just makes it harder for the rest of us to get our movies. This is especially true in my case now that I have a new book out. A big budget film set in the swinging ‘60s about a teenage dork who draws comic books and can’t get to the beach because he can’t drive yet suddenly is no longer a slam dunk to be made. Thank you, HBO. First you give us LUCK and than this. I need a drink.