Sunday, September 30, 2012

The night the first CHEERS aired

Thirty years ago today at 9:30 pm CHEERS premiered on the NBC television network. We look back and it was a major milestone, but at the time we were the world’s best-kept secret. Eleven years later the series would end with 40,000,000 people celebrating. But the night of its premiere it was just about fifty of us in a back room in a restaurant.

Join me for a look at what happened that night.  

The ratings the next morning were disappointing. They would stay bad for a year. But none of that mattered on September 30, 1982. The show was actually going to be ON THE AIR. The brilliant script by the Charles Brothers was written the year before. Casting took months. The pilot was shot in early spring. The small writing staff of the Charles Brothers and Levine & Isaacs began breaking stories and preparing scripts in late May. The show went into production the beginning of August.

By the time we premiered we had already shot six or seven episodes. To help familiarize the studio audience with the show, they were shown an abridged version of the pilot. Between editing and those audience screenings I must’ve seen the CHEERS pilot fifty times.

But this was different. It was finally going to be shown to the world. I remember being so excited in the summer when a promo would air and for a few fleeting seconds – there was the bar! On TV! It’s how I felt when they were shooting an episode of THE FBI in my hometown when I was a teenager and the back fin of my car was in a shot!

Glen & Les and Jimmy threw a first night party at Chasen’s. For several decades Chasen’s was THE Hollywood hotspot. You could go on any night and expect to see Ronald Reagan or someone even more well-known.

We all walked through the restaurant to a backroom where six or seven large tables were set up. There were four or five large TV’s strategically placed. Everyone dressed up. Jackets and ties and dresses. If you were going to bump into the President of the United States at the bar you wanted to look nice. CHEERS, in general, was a dressy show. We always wore jackets and ties on the stage on filming nights.

We all arrived around 6:00 for cocktails. I didn’t see Reagan but I did see Carol Lynley. I had to drink for both me and my wife because she was eight months pregnant with our son, Matt (who was the first CHEERS baby born during the run of the show and coincidentally turns thirty next month).

The mood was high. The reviews were in and were mostly positive. A few pans but basically praise. Hopefully they would bring us some viewers. Certainly the print ad NBC took out wouldn’t. A full-page of HA HA HA HA HA HA. That was their idea of conveying comedy tonight.

At 6:30 everybody checked their watch. We were on in the east coast. Even though we couldn’t see it ourselves, it was cool knowing others could. I think a couple of people called relatives back east just to make sure it was on. Can you believe? We couldn’t text. After 7:00 my wife phoned her parents in Brooklyn. Her dad said, “Tell her to stick with the bartender.”

There was no assigned seating but the actors always gravitate towards the actors and the writers to the writers. I recall the great David Lloyd sitting at our table. David wrote some of the finest CHEERS scripts and was our one-night-a-week punch up guy. Imagine Noel Coward after a couple of pops at your table. I’m sure we laughed more than the actors.

Dinner was served. Chicken pies. Not sure why but Chasen’s and chicken pies became the traditional first night party for seasons to come.

The TV’s were on but with the sound muted. Finally at 9:28 the audio appeared and the anticipation built. I had never been more excited to see something I had already seen fifty times. The room stilled. At 9:30 the show came on and the room went nuts. As each credit rolled another big cheer went up. Each actor entered to delirious applause.   Forget that the rest of America was going, "So who's this guy now?"

I suspect the experience of seeing your show on the air for the first time is ruined today by the meatball logos in the corner, the flashy banners and animated promos that completely obliterate any mood or scene -- not that the networks give a shit.

We all laughed at the jokes, more out of appreciation for the performances. By this time even my wife (who had gone to the filmings) could recite the script line by line.

When the show ended (to more enthusiastic applause) there was ten minutes of everyone congratulating everyone else and then the toasts began. No CHEERS event was ever complete without at least twenty toasts. Fortunately, they were all brief and very funny. And Les Charles always had the best ones. God, I wish I had written them down. I would be stealing them to this day.

At 11:00 we all headed home. Tonight we were part of the best show on television. Tomorrow we’d be part of the lowest rated show on the lowest rated network.

I am so proud and honored to be associated with CHEERS. I’ve been extremely lucky to have been a part of several great iconic shows, and I am often asked which was my favorite? My answer is CHEERS. Something about the concept, the people involved, where I was in my life – but David and I wrote 40 episodes of CHEERS over a nine year span and I never got tired of writing that show. The characters always felt fresh, the stories were always inventive and fun, and as long as we didn’t have to write another damn Norm entrance, it was an absolute pleasure.

And here’s the best part. Sometimes you look back at a chapter of your life and acknowledge it was a golden period but didn’t realize it at the time. With CHEERS I knew, from day one, that this was special and I was incredibly fortunate to be along for the ride.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!

Later in the week I’ll offer my reaction to the GQ article about CHEERS that recently came out. And check back tomorrow for something very different and hopefully very interesting.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why CHEERS wouldn't sell today

I was going to do this as a Friday question. But it seemed more like a Saturday answer. Arjewtino asked:

Of all the shows you worked on, which ones do you think would have had drastically different fates if they were aired today?

CHEERS would never sell today. I can just see the pitch meeting. The network executive would politely listen with a plastered pained smile. When the pitch was over and you couldn’t wait to bolt from her office, either by the door or window, you ask if she has any questions. And unfortunately, she does.

Um… yeah. First of all, it’s wonderful and we all love it. Really. Amazing. You guys are great. But, uh, a bar in Boston where people just hang out? What am I missing?… Huh? That’s it? That’s all of it? … No, it’s great. Really. But doesn’t it seem a little, I dunno, low concept? Have you seen THE NEIGHBORS?  Family moves into a neighborhood with all space creatures?  Now that’s a concept that can go for ten years. Yours? I dunno. It’s hard to picture an audience just listening to people talk for a half hour…. Sure, they’re interesting people – you guys are awesome writers -- but I think we’d be more comfortable if someone was from Jupiter.

I think there’s also some concern that there is no real star part. Ensemble pieces are great as long as they are centered around a star.

And is there any way you could skew your show a little younger? It’s kind of sad to think of a romance between people in their 30s. Isn’t that sort of… ick? We’re not looking to do MARIGOLD HOTEL: THE SERIES. I still think it works that Sam is a retired ballplayer and recovered alcoholic at 22. Am I wrong? My staff agrees.

Oh, hey, a lightbulb just went off. Oh yes. This totally works. I’m a little bumped by the tone. It seems a little edgy-lite. Now I love the Carol character… Carla, right. Sorry. Again, we can make her in her 20s. She could have had her kids young. In fact that’s better. But what about this? As a way to sort of tie in these bar people and give them something besides just talk-talk-talk, what about if she has four kids and each kid was from a different customer? …  One is black, one is Asian... what's a funny diversity?  Okay, well, just think about it.

I loved that theme song you played but we don’t do theme songs anymore. Or opening titles. But if we did, that’s the kind we’d want. So good goin’. You were right on the money there.

I know Standards & Practices will have some issues. We can have a bar but we can’t really have people drinking. You wouldn’t believe the watchdog groups that come out of the woodwork. Does it change things too much if Sam runs a juice bar? Oooh, oooh, another brainstorm: instead of a bar, what if Sam runs a Jamba Juice? Ohmygod, my staff is in stitches!

So anyway, those are our thoughts. What do ya think? Again, not that the idea you brought in isn’t a total home run, but if that’s what you want to do I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass.

So thanks again for coming in. It was really great to see you guys again.  I can't tell you how many nights I had Algebra homework due but I watched your shows.  We’ll be in touch. And again, if you have any idea, please bring it here first.

QUICK NOTE:  Just a handful of spots remain for THE SITCOM ROOM seminar, November 10 & 11 in LA.  Check it out.   Like Haley's Comet and Cher Farewell Tours it comes along only every so often. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

The stupidest thing I've said on the air

TGIFriday Question Day.

Long Paul starts us off:

What is the stupidest thing you’ve ever said on the air?

Wow. There’s such a long list it’s hard to narrow it down. I once interviewed the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig and asked him about MLB’s pet charity, Stand up FOR cancer. (Should be Stand up TO cancer).

When I was broadcasting for Baltimore I interviewed Angel phenom, Wally Joyner. He was the poster boy for clean living. I wanted to end the interview by wishing him much success and instead I said, “Thanks for the visit, Wally, and I wish you much sex.”

And of course, my botched home run call. Again – Baltimore. I had just entered the big leagues and figured I needed a signature home run call. So I came up with “Ladies and gentleman, Elvis has left the building!” This worked fine for about two weeks until I jumped the gun and my call was, “Ladies and gentleman, Elvis is… off the top of the wall!”

That’s the last time I’ve had a signature home run call. And by the way, you don’t need one.

Alan Duke has a question about my post where the top 5 all-time shows were named.

Other than you and David, is there anyone else associated with 2 or more of the top 5? Probably not. You are in a very special group. Congrats Ken.

Thanks. It’s something I’m very proud of. We’re in a select group but not exclusive. Glen & Les Charles wrote an episode of MASH so they qualify. Tom Reeder also wrote for both shows. Same with Larry Balmagia and David Pollock & Elias Davis. Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf wrote for both I LOVE LUCY and ALL IN THE FAMILY.

And of course several actors qualify as well. George Wendt and Shelley Long both did guest stints on MASH. And I’m sure there are character actors who did LUCY and FAMILY. Or CHEERS and SEINFELD. It would take me forever to cross-check but I wouldn’t be shocked if there was an old-time actor who did I LOVE LUCY, ALL IN THE FAMILY, and MASH. You guys, of course, are welcome to track that down and get back to me.

Steve B. asks:

When getting script notes from execs, are there any specific types of notes that you know are always just meaningless BS?

Yes. “Could you make him/her more likeable?” Networks invariably don’t want to even remotely offend anyone. But as Larry Gelbart once said about comedy writing, “If you haven’t offended someone then you haven’t done your job.”

Rhonda Crutcher wonders:

Hey, Ken! I have a question that occurred to me yesterday while watching the wonderful campaign ad for Michigan supreme court that featured most of the cast of the West Wing.

Who owns the rights to characters, like those on the West Wing, which are completely creations of one particular writer (in this case Aaron Sorkin)? I was wondering because Sorkin apparently didn't write that campaign ad, yet characters he created are in it. Would he have to have signed off on them being used? For that matter, Sorkin left the show after 4 seasons and other writers took over. Did he have to give the rights to use those characters over to the show? Does he ever have the rights to use them again?

Usually, the studio owns the copyright on characters. But it depends on the creator and what kind of deal he was able to negotiate.

As for the actors, the studio may own the “character” but not the likeness. Remember that case a number of years ago where several “Cheers” bars began appearing in airports? Paramount sanctioned them, but life-size figures of Norm & Cliff were featured sitting on bar stools. George Wendt and John Ratzenberger sued and won to get those ornaments removed. I’m not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV) so I don’t know what the line is between when a studio can show photos of the actor in character and when they’re required to get their permission and pay them. Maybe that’s what held up production of those AfterMASH action figures.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

THE MINDY PROJECT -- review

I like Mindy Kaling. I’m a big fan of her writing. She wrote some terrific OFFICE episodes, her pieces in the New Yorker are funny, and I even enjoyed the play she wrote about Matt Damon & Ben Affleck. As an actress, she got her laughs as a supporting character on THE OFFICE.

So I was very curious to see her pilot, THE MINDY PROJECT. The reviews seem polarized. Critics either like her and praised it or hate her and panned it.

I like her but was lukewarm. Here’s why – and I don’t come at this as a critic, I come at it as a television writer/producer. As someone who has created and run shows, I know this one truth to be carved in stone: casting is the most important decision you will ever make. Everything else can be fixed. The tone, direction, jokes, stories – all can be altered. But if you don’t have the right actors you’re dead.

And my problem with THE MINDY PROJECT is quite simply that Mindy Kaling can’t carry a show. She just doesn’t have the presence, the sparkle, whatever that star quality is to carry a network comedy. Not that she doesn’t sell jokes or isn’t likeable enough on screen, but that’s not enough. Especially in this case because there’s nothing else going on in the series. It’s all about her with a concept that’s we’ve now seen a gazillion times – single girl in her 30’s looking for romance and trying to maintain a professional career. Hey, I did that series almost twenty years ago (ALMOST PERFECT).

So all the comic weight is on the star. It’s not like a workplace comedy where an ensemble of funny people can take the pressure off. Tina Fey, who’s very funny in her own right, wisely did that with 30 ROCK.

Look, the truth is very few can carry a whole show. I sure couldn’t (despite my high hilarity book trailer). But Candice Bergen could. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus could. And Jim Parsons, Roseanne, Reba McEntire, Kelsey Grammer, Mary Tyler Moore, Ted Danson, Kat Dennings, Louis C.K., Charlie Sheen, Tim Allen, David Caruso, Bret Butler, and… you get the idea. Like ‘em or hate ‘em personally, you gotta admit they can hold an audience.

You might say, “Well, it’s not really fair to compare Mindy Kaling with Candace Bergen or Mary Tyler Moore” and I’d say, “Yes, it is! She’s starring in a network sitcom. This isn’t off Broadway. This isn’t YouTube. This is the big time (at least for the foreseeable future).

Trust me, it’s a lesson that I learned the hard way. Alan Alda can carry a show. Jamie Farr can not.

I wish it weren’t so with Mindy because I truly am a fan. And there were a number of funny moments in her pilot.  Seriously, I'm not trying to be mean.  But if this was just a script and I was the producer casting the show, I’d say Mindy would make a great supporting character, but she just doesn’t pop as a lead. Agents and managers would scream at me of course, but again – casting my star is the single most crucial decision I will have to make. And yes, it’s subjective (which makes the casting process even more harrowing), but going with my gut and years of experience and past mistakes I would say we haven’t found our star yet.

Obviously, that wasn’t the scenario here. Mindy Kaling was the big attraction to Fox. Just look at the title. And I’m sure they thought they could catch lightening in a bottle again as they did last year with Zooey Dechanel and NEW GIRL. But Zooey had that adorkable shit going for her and whatever star quality she lacked was masked by the emergence of Max Greenfield and the rest of the cast.

Could the same hold true for Mindy? Maybe. I hope. I'm rooting for it.  I sure like Chris Messina. I loved Anna Camp on THE GOOD WIFE. I don’t know how funny she is but am willing to see. I just wish there were an Alec Baldwin in there somewhere.

And maybe they could change the title.  Since it's paired with THE NEW GIRL, how about just combining the two shows and calling it DORK & MINDY?    I think it would have a real shot. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The truth about Premise Pilots

With pilots still premiering, I thought I’d take this Friday Question from Jill Pinnella Corso and devote an entire post to it.  The question:

Do you think premise pilots are a trend right now or are they always the default? It strikes me that it's easier to tell a story from the beginning, but if the pilot is too different from what the series will be, the audience could be confused or stop watching after the second episode. Do you have a preference for premise pilot vs. regular episode pilot?

Most pilots are premise-based these days. (Matthew Perry joins the group in GO ON, the two gays set out acquiring a baby on NEW NORMAL, etc.) It’s way easier to tell the story in a premise pilot. Otherwise, you’re doing a lot of backstory exposition. (“Remember when we were unhappy and I saw a cute baby in the market and thought maybe we should get one too?”)

On the other hand, premise pilots can be deceiving. Will there ever be a bigger moment on THE NEIGHBORS than Jami Gertz learning her neighbors are from outer space? I’m talking instant classic! Or (to a lesser degree) Darrin discovering that Samantha’s a witch on BEWITCHED?

It’s also so much easier to introduce the characters in a premise pilot. Your lead gets a job. She (and the audience) meet all her co-workers one at a time.  As opposed to just being dropped in the middle of the office situation and having to figure out who everyone is on the fly. 

The problem is that premise pilots are not representative of what the show will be every week. And the testing is skewed.

For a number of years in the ‘70s and ‘80s networks didn’t want premise pilots.  But the problems that created (imagine jumping in the middle of BREAKING BAD and having to weave in the premise while just telling a typical episode) were worse so the nets went back to the premise model.

Premise pilots are also more in vogue today because networks currently favor high concept ideas. You need a big hook. So to not exploit that in the pilot is defeating the purpose.

Pilot premises are way easier to write. My partner, David and I had a pilot once for NBC about a guy and girl improv performer who decide to team up (a la Nichols & May for the nine people who get that reference).

Now the obvious way to tell that story is you see an improv class, you see the leads do a scene together and the chemistry really clicks, then you see them decide to become a team.

The idiot NBC exec said we couldn’t open at the improv class. Why? Because Fred Silverman (who ran NBC at the time) hates premise pilots. So we had to open in the girl’s apartment. Now imagine trying to explain to viewers (a) the concept of improvisational comedy, (b) the notion of a improv team, (c) just what it is about the two of them that is so magic, (d) who they are, (e) what their career status is, and (f) what their personal lives are like. All in an apartment.

It took us forever to write the first draft. The reaction was lukewarm at best. We met with Brandon Tartikoff to get our notes. This was the first time Brandon had been involved in the project. He started the meeting by saying, “Why did you guys start the show in her apartment and not the theater?” We explained that the moron before him told us we had to. Brandon said, ”that’s ridiculous.” That was his only note.

We went home, re-wrote the script in two hours, turned it in shortly thereafter, and quickly got a pick-up to make the pilot. I bumped into the buffoon executive in the NBC hallway who congratulated us and said, “Wow! I don’t know what you guys did, but you really turned this thing around.”

Happy to say this cretin has been long-gone from the television industry. He's probably selling fruit at freeway offramps although that job might be too mentally taxing for him. 

But like I said, one problem with premise pilots is that they sometimes don’t give you a sense what the series will be each week. I was helping out a writer friend on his premise pilot once. We were rewriting after a listless runthrough. There were probably six or seven of us struggling to make this show work. The hours went by. Sometime after midnight I asked: “What’s the second episode of this show?” to which he blurted out, “There IS no second episode! This piece of shit will never get on the air.”

He was right. But when you’re initially pitching your pilot to the network (as writers are doing right this very minute in various offices) you don’t give a shit about that. Just make the sale! And the best way is with a premise pilot.  Preferably to an executive like Brandon Tartikoff.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

What it's like to win an Emmy

Emmy fever is still upon us.  It will last another hour or so.  But I thought I'd take advantage of that to tell you what it's like to actually win an Emmy.  And it puts winning in perspective.

You're in the audience suffering through the show. Finally it's your category. You wake up. The envelope is ripped open, your name is read, you can’t believe it, and you race up to the stage. You stand at the podium.

What’s going through your mind at a monumental moment like this? For me, honestly, I thought of all the assholes I went through basic training with in the army who thought I was such a fuck up. I was hoping they were watching and having heart attacks from shock. I was also aware that everyone in the audience was glaring at me. I saw the red light of the camera, knew that yes, this was my one big moment on national television. But I also knew that if I didn’t get the hell off quick – I mean REAL quick -- millions of people I didn’t know were going to hate my guts.

So I rushed through my prepared speech, thanked my wife, son, and I think Drill Sgt. Miller then was led off.

Backstage, you take photos with your presenters. In our case, Arthur & Kathryn Murray. Who knew they were even still alive? Then we were led from one interview room to the next. National TV, national radio, local press, national press, foreign press, magazines, food product surveys, I dunno. Light bulbs flashing. Questions coming from all sides. Microphones shoved in my face. And after a few minutes we’re ushered into the next room because the next winners are breathing down our necks. We were in a daze. We just went where they told us. Finally we were told to go through “that door”. We did. It closed and locked behind us.

And we found ourselves outside. In the alley. Next to the garbage dump, surrounded by buzzing flies. In our tuxedos, holding our shiny new Emmys. What the fuck?! We banged on the door to get back in. Nothing. We walked along the side of the building, trying other doors. All closed. I thought of maybe using the Emmy to jimmy one of the locks. No dice. It took us fifteen minutes to finally get back into the hall.

Which more than matched the fifteen minutes of fame.

SITCOM ROOM registration is now open

Ever wonder what it's like to be a comedy writer on a sitcom?   Being surrounded by really funny people in a work environment where laughter is not just encouraged but required?    Is this something you've always wanted to do?  Or just something you'd like to experience one time?  Then I invite you to join THE SITCOM ROOM -- a weekend hands-on seminar where you don't just sit and listen to boring lectures for two days, you WRITE.   You're put in a writing room where you will fix a script and see Hollywood actors perform your material.   It's kind of like one of those baseball fantasy camps except you don't blow out your hamstring.

I'm holding one of these SITCOM ROOM seminars on November 10th & 11th in Los Angeles.  And registration is now open.

Some things you should know:

I only do these once a year at the most.  Sometimes I do them once every two years.

I only take twenty students.

And I opened registration on Sunday for those on my mailing list and within 48 hours I filled half of the slots.  There are now only 10 openings.  So if you're interested, please take advantage now.  When we're sold out, that's it.  I keep it small so that every student gets ample attention and opportunity.   


Here's where you go for more information.

And here's where you go to register.

The price is $1500.  

Hopefully, I'll see you in November.  Trust me, you'll learn more and laugh more in two days than a year's worth of most college writing programs. 

Still not convinced?   Here is a testimonial by Gina Gold, a former SITCOM ROOM student now on the writing staff of NURSE JACKIE.

Ken Levine has written the television shows that made me want to be a TV writer. M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, The Simpsons, and Everybody Loves Raymond are just some of the series he helped turn into mega-hits. When I was new to L.A., I worked as an assistant and was fortunate enough to meet Ken and his partner David Isaacs at my job. During this time, I remember watching one of their Frasier episodes and being so blown away that I steeled my nerves, picked up the phone, and called them to say how much I loved their work. I felt like a bumbling fan, but I was so excited that I could actually tell them how I felt about their writing. They were gracious and appreciative.

Over the years, I have crossed paths with Ken many times, but when I heard he was teaching his SITCOM ROOM, I leaped over chairs at the chance to learn from someone I consider one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy writers. Ken’s class offered me a rare glimpse into his creative process, as well as invaluable guidance on how to tackle a scene. Most important, he made us create. On the spot. Under pressure. With a team of strangers. Just like the pros do it. He threw us into a room with an assignment then dropped in with notes and other challenges that meant writing, rewriting, and more rewriting. It was fun, frustrating, exhilarating, and infuriating -- just like a real TV job. In the end, we saw our work performed by a group of talented actors, and got to find out whether our material landed or not – the ultimate test.

Thanks, Gina. 

A new Emmy-related post follows later today.

Monday, September 24, 2012

My 2012 Emmy Review

Once again the TV industry took a night off to ignore its hemorrhaging ratings, 90% failure rate, and NBC to pat itself on the back for another great year and a job well done. It’s the annual Emmy Awards, a chance to honor the shows America should be watching instead of the ones they are.

This is also the week for the High Holidays. For you non-Jewish readers who wonder what it’s like to sit in temple for essentially 24-hours, it’s like sitting through this year’s Emmys except you can’t have a seat-filler. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who I normally love) was a major disappointment and I daresay that 1951 Emmy host, Chief Justice Earl Warren was funnier. (Yes, Earl Warren actually did host the Emmys. First choice Howdy Doody thought it was beneath him.) So this review might be a little extra snarky because I had high hopes. My bad.

The real guffaws came before the ceremony. You can always count on the KTLA Channel 5 “Live From the Red Carpet” show to be an utter train wreck, and this year was no exception. Hosted by Sam Rubin (who IS Howdy Doody) and Jessica Holmes (former host of SLIME TIME LIVE), I think they outdid themselves this year in obsequiousness and banality.

It was a hot day so Jessica’s question to every actress was “how much are you sweating?” Sam asked 12 year-old Kiernan Shipka why MAD MEN worked.

Sam called Nolan Gould Nathan Gould and John Slattery Mark Slattery.

My daughter, Annie noted that Sam’s “Word of the Day” calendar was not paying off. Always one for extreme hyperbole (look that one up too, Sam), he said BREAKING BAD “is the penultimate best show ever!” Penultimate means “second to last in a series or sequence.” So, as Annie’s writing partner Jon pointed out: what Sam really said was “on the list of great shows, BREAKING BAD is second to last.”

Sam also used “prognostication” or “prognosticator” three times. And said that Aaron Paul “is the most handsome man alive.”

Sam, you are the penultimate red carpet host.

Now for the show. I was thrilled that HOMELAND won. It’s hard to believe you could do a better job of depicting the CIA and the war on terrorism than COVERT AFFAIRS but somehow, miraculously, HOMELAND does it.

How’d you like to be at the MAD MEN after party? Not that you’d ever be invited.

I was also pleased that MODERN FAMILY took home the Best Comedy prize. Despite being up for four awards for GIRLS, Lena Dunham was shut out. I guess anal sex is funny enough for nomination not winning.

For movies & mini-series, as long as HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN lost I was happy.  To call it the penultimate TV movie of all-time would be giving it too much credit.

GAME CHANGE (produced by Tom Hanks) won in that category so Hollywood finally voted for Sarah Palin. If Democrats won’t go to Clint Eastwood movies now, good luck getting Republicans to pay to see the next Tom Hanks flick.

I knew we were in for a rough night when the show started with that lame bathroom sketch. The only funny moment was when the five reality hosts popped up. So what does it say when Heidi Klum gets the biggest laugh of the bit?

The opening monologue was weak. We were promised edgy and daring. We got Mitt Romney jokes. Come on, Jimmy.  You're better than Carson Daly. 

Color was a big theme this year. Not diversity (networks are still living off casting Bill Cosby in I SPY in 1965) but gowns in bright dayglo shades only seen on muscle cars. Yellow was the color of winners. Julie Bowen, Julianne Moore, Claire Danes. It was like the Georgia Tech homecoming queen and her court.
The most gorgeous women of the night: Kerry Washington, Sofia Vergara (imagine the Little Mermaid but unintelligible), Tina Fey (who was also the funniest presenter), Amy Poehler, Lucy Liu, Padma Lakshmi, Maria Menounos, and the knockout of knockouts was Morena Baccarin. The only thing holding up the bodice of that revealing gown was her nipples.

Amy Poehler always has the funniest acceptance speech, even when she doesn’t win.

Fortunately, the Emmycast won’t be on Fox next year. We’ll be spared Seth MacFarlane hosting. He’s become absolutely insufferable. Draw your cartoons. Stop trying to be Danny Kaye!

The Mini-Series category is a joke. If a drama series gets cancelled after six episodes it suddenly qualifies as a Mini-Series. Such was the case with MISSING. Or if you change your cast like AMERICAN HORROR STORY. If wholesale cast changes were enough, LAW & ORDER would have won for best Mini-Series twelve years in a row.

Kevin Costner won for playing a cowboy, which is what he should be playing. His days of portraying a baseball player are over unless they do a screen version of CHEERS and hire him as the Coach.

What were those fins on the back of Kathy Griffin’s dress? She looked like a stegosaurus five minutes before extinction.

On a night that claims to celebrate excellence in television, they showed a promo for the new show THE NEIGHBORS about a family moving into a housing community inhabited entirely by space creatures.

Christine Baranski, in a gold plated gown, looked like C-3PO caught cross-dressing.

What do you do when you feel you need to honor somebody you don’t really like or understand but you don’t want to appear out-of-touch? You give him writing Emmys. Congratulations to Louis C.K. When it came time to give out the “real” Emmy – y’know, for acting – that they awarded to Jon Cryer.

But let’s face it, if the academy had their way they’d just give half the Emmys each year to Jon Stewart and the other half to Julia Louis-Drefus.

What was with Ashley Judd’s hair? She looked like Johnny Bravo.

Meanwhile, Bill Maher has now lost 24 straight times. New rule: don’t bother!  Especially when you consider the voters are Democrats.  Really, Bill.  Save a stamp.  

A lot of the winners (like directors Steve Levitan and Tim VanPatton) were written off by the TV critics handicapping the races. Shows you what those “prognosticators” know.

Many will think Jimmy Kimmel’s Living In Memoriam bit was funny, but I thought it was disrespectful. The real In Memoriam was beautifully done and very emotional, especially for me when they showed Harry Morgan.

I was ecstatic that Claire Danes won. What an extraordinary talent. She’s Meryl Streep without the phony accents.

Also kudos to Julie Bowen. She sold herself short in her acceptance speech. She’s a gifted actress equally adept at verbal and physical comedy. Sofia Vergara might also be good at delivering lines but how would anybody know?

The MODERN FAMILY video was very funny. And I’m sure it scores points with voters. Next year Lena Dunham should consider dropping her drawers, bending over, and doing one for GIRLS.

The highlight of the night was Jon Stewart going up the aisle to accept his award and having Jimmy Fallon and the other nominees grab him and hold him back. Seeing Stewart crawling up the aisle was a riot.

The heralded “prank” (like Tracy Morgan) just laid there. Not particularly funny with zero payoff. Viewers were asked to call people who weren’t watching (in other words: you) and say, “Tracy Morgan just collapsed on the Emmys! Turn on ABC.” Besides being lame, how many non-viewers heard that news and went, “Good”?

Winner Jessica Lange was Norma Desmond in orange.

Tom Berenger and Tom Bergeron both won. I wonder how many academy members voted for them because they thought they were the same person and marveled at his versatility? Same with Damian Lewis and Louis C.K.

They ran a banner that said, “4 minutes to Ricky Gervais” as if that was a big incentive for viewers to stay tuned. Do they not know that to most Americans, that’s like saying, “4 minutes to Swine Flu”, or “4 minutes to Chris Brown”? People hate Ricky Gervais.

Congratulations to the “most handsome man alive” for winning his second statuette in two years. Aaron Paul was in a pilot of ours once and we had to fight Fox to get him approved. They felt he was very “ordinary.” I believe their choice was Joe Millionaire.

All in all, I thought the show was flat. Nothing memorable. Nothing surprising. I’m sure if the show’s producers are reading this they’re saying, “Oh yeah, Levine? Well, you’re such a genius. What would you do?” Well, for starters, I would have Tracy Morgan collapse on stage for real.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Here's my book trailer

Attention authors: You need book trailers these days. It used to be you needed book stores but there are very few of those around anymore. So with the help of my good friend, Howard Hoffman I made one for my new book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s). I've seen other book trailers and wow! They're slick with great production values and probably cost thousands to produce. Mine cost maybe thirty dollars. But as you will see, every dollar is right up there on the screen. 

Lemme know what you think.

I guess the exercise here is to use these social medias to get the word out. The theory being that once someone sees my trailer they will immediately go to my website and buy copies of my book. So if you like the low budget-independent trailer, would you please share it with all your Facebook, Twitter, and whatever-other-network-you're-on friends? Would you click "like"? I don't know why other than to make me feel good, but apparently that's a big deal. And of course, you could buy the book yourself.  Thanks much and enjoy!



A couple of quick things:

I will be reviewing the Emnmys tomorrow. I watch so you don't have to.

And an announcement on the Sitcom Room is coming this week.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The CHEERS intelligence graph

Compliments of Neatogama.com.

As someone who wrote these characters for nine years, this would be my order:

Lilith
Frasier
Diane
(now comes a big drop)
Sam
Rebecca
Carla
Norm
Cliff

Coach
Woody
 
Sam was dumbed down over the years but at least during the first few seasons he was very smart and savvy.  So if you average his IQ over the seasons he still comes out way ahead, certainly better than Cliff.

I can't believe they put Cliff anywhere near the top.

Why Coach over Woody?   They were both pretty addled.  But you figure that before he was hit in the head by too many fastballs, the Coach was probably smarter.  Although, now that I think about it, how intelligent do you have to be to just get out of the way?  


Friday, September 21, 2012

My most asked questions

But always worth answering. Happy Friday Question Day.

kermit is the latest to ask them:

If I'm a writer who's written for broadcast and print but has no background in show business, and I've written an original script(not a spec)that I think is pretty good...where do I go from here? Is there someone who can look it over and tell me if it's good, or not, or where it might need a nip and tuck? Would an agent ever read anything cold-mailed to him/her, or would the agent send it back unopened?

I would enroll in a writing class at a local university. Most have nighttime extension programs. Between the instructor and your classmates, you will get feedback. Here’s what I wouldn’t do: There are “writers” out there who advertise their consulting services. You pay them a thousand dollars; they read and critique your script. There may be exceptions, but those are a rip-off. You’re paying big money with no idea if the reader is any good. At least a college course is reasonable, the instructor is somewhat credible, and you’ll be introduced to other hopefuls like yourself and can create a network and support system.

You can enter your script in screenplay contests.  If well-received, that will give a leg up when trying to land representation.  

Never send an agent anything that isn’t your very best work. You get one shot at making an impression. You’re not looking at an agent to critique your script; you’re looking at him to represent you. You need to impress him.  Best of luck.

unkystan asks:

When there is a spin-off of a continuing series, is the spin-off cast contractually obligated to do it? I read somewhere that Norman Fell and Audra Lindley were very upset when "The Ropers" was quickly cancelled and they couldn't go back to "Three's Company". Same with Polly Holliday ("Flo"). What if they refuse to do it?

When characters are spun-off into their own series they strike new deals, usually for a lot more money. Sometimes there might be a clause allowing them to either guest on their original series or return to it if the spin-off tanks.

But often times once you leave the nest you’re out. The original series moves on and your character might no longer fit in. That’s the risk you take.

My favorite spin-off story is from SANFORD & SON. It became THE SANFORD ARMS. Neither Redd Fox or Demond Wilson were in it. As someone said, “NBC just renewed the set.”

Brian has a MASH question:

Ken- The show jumps around in time quite a bit. There were episodes where Eisenhower was president and then a few years later Truman is president. There are other examples too. When you and David were working on the show, was there any direction as far as a timeline?

The big cheat on that show was that it lasted 3 1/2 times longer the Korean War. During our years we tread that lightly. After we had left they did an episode that took place over an entire year. It was a clever idea and good episode, but to me it just pointed out the enormous conceit we were asking the public to buy. Not to mention how it screwed with the show’s timeline. Since the episode focused on 1951 that meant that the whole Trapper, Henry Blake, Radar, Frank Burns era (8 or 9 seasons of the show) all took place during a roughly one year period.

But let's face it, by that point in the series run MASH was bulletproof. They could have done a show where the Starship Enterprise landed on the chopper pad and they’d get away with it.  And if the show had gone another two years I bet that idea might have started looking pretty good.  

And finally, from Mike:

I just saw a commercial for a film that gave away one of the funnier bits in the film. Did you ever have a promo for one of your shows that gave away too much and ruined the joke or the show for the viewer?

That was a constant battle with network promo people. My big concern wasn’t spoiling jokes. It was giving away key plot twists.

Now then, movie trailers. I never care if they use the best jokes. For whatever reason, when audiences eventually watch the movie and those jokes arrive they still laugh, sometimes harder. I don’t really know why. I guess that’s my Friday Question.

You can leave yours in the comments sections. Muchas thanks.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Who makes the best pizza?

If there was ever a question that has no answer that’s the one. Other than agreeing that it’s not Dominos there is absolutely no consensus. Even if we have a pizza we consider our favorite we’re always open to suggestions for one that’s better.

I’m particularly particular. My all-time favorite pizza no longer exists. There was a restaurant in Westwood called La Barbera’s. Hard to describe but their pizza was super molto bene – a thick and unique blend of cheese, dynamite sauce, and a crust that was thin but almost spongy. I’ve never tasted anything like it. La Barbera’s went to that big pie in the sky years ago and I’ve been trying to find a comparable pizza since. I figured, one or two of the chefs had to still have the recipe. I once heard that a parlor near the airport served La Barbera’s pizza. I drove down there like a madman. Nope. Wasn’t the same. And now I was stuck down at the airport. Various forums also recommended Little Toni’s in the Valley. I’ve had Peking Duck that was closer.

My second favorite pizza also is no longer. When I was stationed at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis during my advanced training, there were two very industrious college dudes off base who started a pizza delivery service. One guy made the pizzas and the other delivered them to the various barracks. Now it could be that my taste buds were dulled by army chow, but those pizzas were surprisingly awesome.

Today more than ever there is such a huge variety. In LA it seems a new gimmicky pizza place opens every ten minutes. One we have in Westwood (near me) is called 800 DEGREES. You order your pizza the way you order a Subway sandwich. You move down the line while guys load up your pie with the toppings and features you desire. Then it’s placed in an 800 degree oven and flash baked. The result is a decent pizza. But there are lines around the block. I don’t get it.  Meanwhile, Mafia Pizza down the block is always empty.  Hard to believe with that inviting name. 

In LA we have numerous chains. CALIFORNIA PIZZA COMPANY is your standard reliable option, but they now clearly emphasize other entrees besides pizza because pineapple toppings are no longer the rage. B.J.’s is another. But are you really going to find superb pizza in the same restaurant that serves Thai salmon and baby back ribs?  NUMERO UNO is the deep dish equivalent. But for me they're numero venti. 

Another hot chain is Pitfire. And then there’s Wildflour – for the organic pizza aficionado.  Hey, you get hungry hugging trees all day. 

We also have Tombstone Pizza, but my daughter, Annie's rule applies here.  She eats no food where the consequences are in the title. 

We also have schticky pizzas in Los Angeles, like Lucifer’s, described as
thin-crust gourmet pizzas and a rockin' gothic sensibility.”  Yeah,  I can just picture them all sitting around the Castle of Otranto on a dark stormy night waiting for the pizza to be delivered.

Maybe the most controversial pizza in Southern California is Barone’s. Very thin-crust and rectangle. Some people love it, others think it’s like eating cardboard – and not even good cardboard.

Pizza-by-the-slice also is somewhat lost on me. I know New Yorkers swear by Ray’s (or Original Ray’s, or Ray’s Original, or Rey’s, or Rey’s Original), but to me it’s just re-heated.  That's breakfast pizza.

Deep dish Chicago style is great but super-filling. And takes forever to make.

Every town has its own standouts. You just gotta know who they are. When I broadcast minor league baseball in Syracuse I discovered Arturo’s Decent Italian Food. Their pizza was way better than decent. You’re welcome to chime in with your favorite from wherever you are. I do vaguely recall that the pizza in Firenze was pretty good. Not an authentically Italian perhaps as Matteo’s in Maui but still worth sampling.

And finally, if you’re like me, just reading this – I bet you're hungry for a pizza like right NOW.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

5 Best TV shows in history

Last night 20/20 did a segment on the five best television series of all-time (as compiled by ABC News and People Magazine).  Was hoping BIG WAVE DAVE'S would squeak in but alas it must've just missed the cut.   Still, I'm very proud (and astounded) to have been part of two of the five.  Even having an association with one would be remarkable enough, but two?  Wow!   Now I feel guilty that I never watch 20/20.

Anyway, here are the top five:

I LOVE LUCY
SEINFELD
MASH
ALL IN THE FAMILY
CHEERS

The nominees were determined by an all-star panel of television writers, producers, actors, directors, and you.   Americans registered more than one million online votes earlier this summer (although 47% of them are victims who just feel they're entitled to good television so who gives a shit?).

Interesting that all five are comedies, no?

My sincere thanks to ABC, People Magazine, and those independent voters who were willing to take responsibility for their own remotes.  

BY THE WAY...

(now that I have your attention)  I will be holding another SITCOM ROOM seminar the weekend of November 10 & 11 in Los Angeles.  I do these once every year or every two years only.  I'll announce when registration is open shortly.  For more info check out the SITCOM ROOM website.  You can also sign up there to be notified by email about registration before I make it public.

Fall Movies Preview Part 3

The conclusion of this season's boxoffice fare. Part one was MondayPart two was yesterday.

SKYFALL – 23rd James Bond movie. Daniel Craig stars. Berenice Marlohe is the Bond girl, although to sell tickets in Florida, those residents are being told it’s Judi Dench.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS – Another animated feature where Hollywood actors who make a gazillion dollars take away more jobs from voice-over actors who are starving. Alec Baldwin and Hugh Jackman take the food off of families’ tables in this one.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS – The Terrell Owens story.

RED DAWN – High school students in Colorado battle Commies. Yeah, like they need an excuse to carry weapons.

FLIGHT – Bob Zemeckis returns to live action with this drama starring Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a media darling until he becomes an alcoholic. Zemeckis was working with a really tight budget and admits that before BevMo the movie could not have been made.

THE DETAILS – Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks battle raccoons that are eating their lawn. Tobey left the Spiderman franchise for this?

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE – Sean Penn as a washed up rock star. Spicoli gone bad.

LES MISERABLES – Broadway musical with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Uses a lot of Victor Hugo’s original songs.

THE HOBBIT – Peter Jackson is at it again. First the Rings, now this. Huge budget and sweeping scope. They did not scrimp on dwarves. 13 of them are seen in this fantasy extravaganza.

JACK REACHER – And speaking of dwarves, Tom Cruise plays Lee Child’s best-selling character who in the book is a husky 6’5”.

THE IMPOSSIBLE – Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor survive a tsunami in Thailand. Survival movies are quite the rage. Here’s another one:

THE GUILT TRIP – Seth Rogen takes a road trip with his mom. What makes this a survival movie? Mom is played by Barbra Streisand.

ZERO DARK THIRTY – Director Kathryn Bigelow’s first movie since THE HURT LOCKER. Lighter fare this time. The hunt for Osama bin Laden. SPOILER ALERT: We kill the motherfucker.

DJANGO UNCHAINED – Quentin Tarantino’s new movie. A cowboy yarn about slavery. INGLORIOUS SOUTHERNERS.

THIS IS 40 – “When you going to write a movie for me? When you going to write a movie for me? When? When? When? When?” I assume this was the nightly conversation between Leslie Mann and her husband Judd Apatow. The result (probably for his own sanity) is a sequel to KNOCKED UP this time focusing on Leslie (natch) and Paul Rudd. 

ON THE ROAD – Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic finally hits the big screen. It took 55 years but they finally found the perfect actress – Kristen Stewart.

PARENTAL GUIDANCE – Billy Crystal, who hasn’t been in a movie since Bob Hope was still funny, babysits his grandkids. He’s hoping it’s an Oscar-hosting-worthy performance.

HYDE PARK ON HUDSON – Bill Murray as FDR. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself. And now I’d like to do a little medley from STAR WARS.”

See you at the Cineplex!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fall Movies Preview Part 2

Part 1 was yesterday. How many of these will you be seeing?

TAKEN 2 – Last time it was Liam Neeson’s daughter who was abducted. This time it’s his ex-wife. How high a ransom can you get for an ex-wife?

NOT FADE AWAY – First project by writer/director David Chase since THE SOPRANOS so I can’t wait. All I ask: please have a goddamn ENDING!!

THE PAPERBOY – Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron thereby assuring her an Oscar nomination if not win.  Tom Cruise is probably saying, "If she did that when we were married we'd still be together." 

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS – The U.S. Dream Team.

HERE COMES THE BOOM – Kevin James mixed martial-arts movie. Haven’t we seen enough of these?

PITCH PERFECT – Set in the no-holds-barred dangerous world of a cappella singing competitions. Tagline: They blend or they end!

ALEX CROSS – Tyler Perry as an action hero. Madea goes badass!

FRANKENWEENIE – Just too easy. I’ll leave this one to you.

THE BIG WEDDING – Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton play exes who have to make nice at their son’s wedding. Also stars Katherine Heigl so obviously not a comedy.

CHASING MAVERICKS – Gerard Butler in a surfing movie. As long as he has his shirt off expect an A+++ Cinemascore rating from women.

THE SESSIONS – Helen Hunt as a therapeutic sex surrogate (reprising the job she had in MAD ABOUT YOU) who is hired to help a paraplegic lose his virginity. Won the Audience Award at Sundance. But it’s subject matter right in the festival’s wheelhouse.

BUTTER – Jennifer Garner in butter carving contest at the Iowa State Fair. Sounds a little frankenweenie to me.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS – What? Again? And not in 3D?

ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART 2 – Because the reviews of ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART 1 weren’t horrendous enough.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE – Marriage tested by a prison sentence. Man must decide between his loyal wife at home or Butch in cellblock D.

NOBODY WALKS – Lena Dunham movie so critics will fawn all over it even if it’s worse than ATLAS SHRUGGED: PART 2.

LIFE WITH PI – An Indian boy and a tiger are stuck in a lifeboat. Based on either a novel or Crusader Rabbit.


ANNA KARENINA – Keira Knightley is the latest to play this beloved Russian comic book superhero. The question is: who wants to see Keira Knightley in a costume drama? Who wants to see Keira Knightley in any costume?

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK –  The Jacksonville Jaguars game plan.

LINCOLN – This Steven Spielberg movies takes the radical position that our 16th president was not a vampire slayer.

The finale tomorrow.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fall Movies Preview Part 1

A blog tradition -- the Fall Movies Preview -- mini-summaries of the films that will be released this season. Disclaimer: Not that this has any particular relevance to my comments but I haven't seen any of these pictures. And probably won't see most of them.

BREAKING DAWN – The eighth chapter of the TWILIGHT trilogy. Very tough shoot for Kristen Stewart because the director is gay and she couldn’t sleep with him.

LOOPER – Joseph Gordon-Levitt must go into the future to kill Bruce Willis who is really him. Trying to save the world from DIE HARD 17.

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE – Baseball movie with Clint Eastwood that no Democrat will now pay to see.

THE WORDS – Bradley Cooper takes credit for a discovered manuscript only to have the real author, Jeremy Irons suddenly surface. He discarded it originally because he thought, “Who’s going to buy a piece of shit like FIFTY SHADES OF GREY anyway?”

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER – You never have to dance the Macarena.

ARGO – This looks great. True story of staging a movie shoot to free American hostages in Iran. And even though there was no real movie made, Harvey Weinstein got it nominated for four Oscars.

WON’T BACK DOWN – Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis take over an inner school in order to make a difference and get some Oscar nominations.

END OF WATCH – Brother Jake Gyllenhaal in a LAPD drama. Why they still make these after THE SHIELD I do not know

DREDD 3D – A reboot of the Judge Dredd comic book. If it didn’t work before with a hot Diane Lane, adding a third D isn’t going to save it.

HELLO, I MUST BE GOING – Sundance darling about a depressed 35 year-old woman who moves back in with her parents and has a steamy affair with a 19-year-old. Sounds like every ABC sitcom pilot they’ve ordered the last two years.

THE MASTER – Writer-Director Paul Thomas Anderson so there’s a chance it could be even more pretentious than THERE WILL BE BLOOD (if that’s even possible). But it could also be a masterpiece like BOOGIE NIGHTS so who knows? Only thing for certain is that he thinks it’s genius.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA – Animated Adam Sandler movie as he drives another stake through the heart of comedy.

ARBITRAGE – Richard Gere plays the 37th version of Bernie Madoff. What is different about his portrayal? I don’t know. It’s Richard Gere so he probably shows his whistle.

BACHELORETTE – Kristen Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan have a night of debauchery before a wedding. HANGOVER meets BRIDESMAIDS.

THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY – Bruce Willis as a secret agent. 0065. Licensed to drive at night.

FINDING NEMO 3D – Why make cartoon characters more lifelike? Just hire real fish actors.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 – This time the couple is terrorized by the ghost of Sam Kinison.

LIBERAL ARTS – Elizabeth Olsen gets caught with an older man. For every pathetic middle-aged guy who lusted after her older twin older sisters, this is a fantasy come true.

BROOKLYN BROTHERS BEAT THE BEST – Stars Ryan O’Nan and and he plays the kazoo.  What more do you need to know?

CLOUD ATLAS – Directed by the Wachowski brothers (or is it brother and sister?), it’s a sweeping tale starring Tom Hanks who looks like Ming the Magnificent in this picture. He wanted to dress like this for VOLUNTEERS but we said no.

Tomorrow: Part 2.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Happy Birthday to my hero

Today is my dad's 85th birthday. He remains my hero. You of course recognize him as the host of the restaurant Nancy Travis entered in ALMOST PERFECT.  He still gets mobbed wherever he goes.  Needless to say, the book I wrote about growing up in the '60s (which you can and SHOULD order here) features him prominently.  Here is an excerpt and a glimpse into why I think he's so special.  

1969

As more and more young men were being drafted and shipped off to Vietnam there was a growing sentiment that on top of everything else, the draft was discriminatory. Low-education, low-income, underprivileged members of society were getting called to duty in far greater numbers than middle-class kids who could hide out in college, afford good draft lawyers, or pay for hookers to entrap senators. So in the interest of “fairness,” the Selective Service System instituted a lottery in 1969. No more 2S college deferments. A random drawing was held and you were assigned a number based on your birthday. If you were one of the first 195 birthdays called, you were drafted. The rest were off the hook.

The first draft was held on December 1st. It was very high tech. Numbers were written on scraps of paper, inserted into capsules, and placed in a shoebox. The shoebox was shaken to mix up the numbers and then someone just reached in and pulled out the capsules. I’m not making this up.

The night of the lottery, I was home in Woodland Hills watching nervously with my family. I figured I had about a 45% chance of beating the rap; those were pretty good odds.

They started calling numbers. You think the results show on Dancing With the Stars is suspenseful? In many cases your life literally depended on how you fared this night.

September 14th was selected first. Those poor bastards. Then April 24th, December 30th, and February 14th.

February 14th? Shit!! THAT’S ME!! Out of 366 numbers, mine was chosen 4th. (My brother Corey, who was too young to be eligible, placed 366th). I was hit by a stun gun. Suddenly Vietnam was no longer just a peripheral issue to be discussed at Gomi’s and protested at coed-populated rallies. It was real. My time to face it.

Dad took me out to the Jolly Roger for a drink (well, several) and did his best to assure me that there were options and we would work something out. At the time I was so self-absorbed in my own plight that it never occurred to me the pain he must’ve been in. The prospects of a son going off to war. But he didn’t have the luxury to feel sorry for himself. He had to put on a good face to console me. When it comes to parents, that lottery I absolutely won.

Happy Birthday, Dad.  I love you. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guess the first cancellation of the Fall

Okay, kids, it's that time of year again.  Time to select the first new series of the Fall to get cancelled.  Leave your entry in the comments section.  I have not seen most of the new shows so your guess is as good as mine. 

But from what I hear, these are a few strong possibilities:

THE NEIGHBORS --  Jami Gertz and family move into a neighborhood inhabited completely by aliens from outer space.  This is why I don't have a show on this year.  I would never in a billion years walk into a network and pitch that.

THE FAMILY TOOLS -- hijinks when a doofus son tries to run the family's fix-it business.  He literally shoots himself in the foot in the pilot.  Hi-larious!

There seem to be a lot of ABC comedies that might qualify. 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- Supposedly the Beast is a handsome guy with a cosmetic scar.  Keep little kids away from the TV.

PARTNERS -- Recycled, retro, multi-cam comedy.  You could say it would be good if it were 1995 but there was a show in 1995 called PARTNERS and it was supposedly way better.  This show steals everything from that show except the bumper music. 

GUYS WITH KIDS --  Five Morons & a Baby. 

CHICAGO FIRE -- Drama about firefighters from Dick Wolf.   It's got to be hard to hate a show about firefighters yet the critics did.  So it must be considered a serious candidate.

EMILY OWENS, M.D. -- Lots of negative buzz for this CW show.  I dunno why.   No aliens in the trailer.

And I'm sure there are others equally bad or worse.  Not to mention there's always the chance that one of these turns out to be good.  I'm not holding my breath but ya never know. 

I'm going to take the safe pick and go with THE NEIGHBORS.  I have seen that pilot and it's right there with CAVEMEN and LIFE WITH LUCY. 

What's your pick? 

Friday, September 14, 2012

My worst directing experience

You know what day it is.

First Friday Question is from DyHrdMET:

Have you ever had (or heard of) an audience boo at a scene, an actor, or more likely, a joke? Does the creative team simply re-write, or do they re-think whatever it was that went wrong?

Never heard of an actor being booed. Most writers on the stage are able to restrain themselves.  But seriously folks, generally you avoid getting actors the audience might hate. Manny Ramirez will have a better chance of re-signing with the Red Sox than being hired to guest on HOT IN CLEVELAND.

Audiences won’t boo a joke per se but they will groan if a joke is terrible, and to me that’s worse. It’s usually a good idea to avoid puns or rape jokes. My position is if a joke doesn’t get a laugh, that happens; if it gets a groan that’s inexcusable because you should have known better. And yes, you would re-write and replace the offending line.

Except on ASK HARRIET. This was a short-lived sitcom on Fox in the ‘90s. I directed a couple of episodes. What a nightmare.  My tenure was brief because I was constantly at odds with one of the executive producers. He constantly would insert horrible tasteless jokes and despite my pleading and the cast’s, he wouldn’t take them out. So we got any number of groans. And he just ignored them.

Fortunately, Fox didn’t. The series was quickly axed. And the shame is there were some terrific writers and actors on that show. Julie Benz, Ed Asner, and Willie Garson to name three. And they all deserved better. As did America.

Thomas Tucker asks:

Thanks for your story about Johnny Carson. For follow-up, did you ever work with Merv?

Nope. Never did. But from what I always heard, Merv Griffin was a gentleman and pleasure to work for. I have been to his hotel. Does that count?

Here’s one from Mr. First Nighter:

Why do so many characters address others so formally? In real life, people are less formal, especially years into a relationship. One example that comes to find was Daphne always calling Frasier "Dr. Crane".

Well, Mr. First Nighter, in some cases people do address others formally as a sign of respect. In the case of Daphne, I feel calling Frasier Dr. Crane is appropriate.

There was a great episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary just couldn’t call Mr. Grant “Lou.”  Hasn't that happened to all of us at one time or another?

Recently I received a call from my old high school basketball coach. (He had read and enjoyed my book – have you ordered your copy yet????) I hadn’t spoken to him in years and yet I still called him Mr. Furlong. “John” just seemed wrong.

The best example of this involves my kids. They were in a school summer camp program. Annie was a camper (she was 14) and Matt (18) was a counselor. Campers were instructed to address the counselors formally. So she had to address her brother as “Mr. Levine.” That went over well.

Tim wonders:

What happens if an actor needs a sick day? If the actor has a minor role in the episode, do you simply just quickly rewrite his or her parts for the other characters? If possible, do you shoot around his or her scenes? Do you hire a goon somewhere to drag them out of bed and get them on stage?

You don’t need a goon. Most actors I know are troopers. If they’re sick, they’ll suck it up and be there on show night.

If they’re sick during the week of rehearsal usually you can get by without them for a day or two. I’m forever amazed at how quickly they can come in, learn 40 pages of dialogue and blocking and be ready to go in a day.

Obviously, if a main cast member is too sick to perform on show night you have to postpone. This is expensive but what are ya gonna do? There are no understudies. Tonight, playing the part of Sheldon on BIG BANG THEORY will be Oswald from the prop department. Not going to happen.

But people get sick and usually through the course of a season you have to occasionally juggle schedules, hiatus weeks, etc. to accommodate them.

Things are trickier if it’s a guest-star role or a day-player. It depends on the severity of their illness and the size and importance of the role of course, but there is the danger they’ll just be replaced. My advice to those actors: Don’t get sick.

And finally, from Win1908:

What are some of your favorite (and least favorite) ballparks you've visited around the country and is there one or two you haven't seen yet that you'd love to get to?

Favorites: Dodger Stadium, Safeco Field, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Target Field, Petco Park, AT&T Park, Citizen’s Bank Park, Yankee Stadium, Angel Stadium, Miller Park, Camden Yards, Coors Field, Comerica Park.

Least favorites: Tropicana Field and the Oakland Coliseum.

Parks I’ve never seen but would like to: PNC Park in Pittsburgh and the goofy new stadium in Miami.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I miss NBC WEEK

The networks are rolling out their new fall shows.

I think.

The premieres are scattered; some not even airing in their regular time slots. Or they premiere and are re-run later that same week. Or re-run on a sister cable network.

Some shows premiered in August. Others will debut after the World Series (which is now what, Christmas?).

And many shows now have two premieres. This is primarily a cable convention. A series is on for six weeks in the summer and then returns in January.

A few network series don’t even premiere on television. They get sneak previewed online. I once got a DVD of some new show in my ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

And the notion of the Fall Season itself is becoming antiquated. Shows are premiering all year long. What’s a TV nerd to do?

This is understandable, of course. With the current dizzying number of channels and series, anything conventional or unconventional a network can do to scare up an audience is good programming.

But what’s lost in all of this is the “event” status that the Fall Season used to have. Back in the Pleistocene Era when there were just three networks (there’s a real good book about life in the ‘60s written by… oh wait – that’s my book). Shows premiered only twice a year – the Fall and Mid-Season (January). New programming in the summer was either “Failure Theater” (airing the pilots they didn’t pick up) and variety shows hosted by guys hoping to snare a regular slot (some like Johnny Cash made it, others like John Gary didn’t).

There was great anticipation for the Fall Season. Promos ran all summer. And by promos I mean fifteen seconds, not the movie trailers we see today.

By September we were whipped into an utter frenzy. Only two weeks left before the world premiere of CAMP RUNAMUCK! How will I last that long?  After a summer of interminable reruns, suddenly there was NEW STUFF again! Oh, the joy!
Of the three networks, no one did premieres better than NBC. First off, you have to really use your imagination to picture NBC as a major influential network but it once was. And they billed their rollout as NBC WEEK. All of their shows – new or returning – premiered over one seven-day period in mid-September. You knew the date as well as your birthday.

They also offered a written program – like a yearbook – that you could send away for. Uber geek that I was (am) I used to send away for that sucker every year. There were big color pictures of all their new shows. Wow! PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES! I would pour through those pages with awe and wonder. 90 BRISTOL COURT – three sitcoms set in the same complex. What a concept!! (Forget that two were canceled by January.)
In a way, I think the anticipation made the shows seem better than they actually were. I call this the “Dark Knight Rises Syndrome.” But there were usually enough cool new shows that NBC WEEK was never a disappointment. It’s not like the Oscars.

Today I don’t even bother to watch premieres. Most are so dreadful anyway. Jami Gertz moves into a neighborhood of space aliens. No thanks. If a show is good and gets decent buzz I will catch up with ON DEMAND or find it online. But I miss the days when the Fall Season was important to me. On the other hand, spending an afternoon studying a glossy multi-page brochure for NBC WEEK is the true definition of “Get a Life.”