Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Questions

Aloha from Wailea, Maui.  If you have any restaurant suggestions, please pass 'em along.  Mahlo, y'all.   Even in paradise I never stand down from my Friday Question watch. What’s yours?

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Kveller (what a name) starts us off:

The mention of the awful series finale for Mad About You brings me to a Friday question - series finales. How does a good show go bad with its series finale?

I'm sure it has something to do with the pressure to do something "special" to end the series, but, still, why do these people who have just spent seven years successfully separating good ideas from bad ones suddenly lose that ability when they hit that finale?

As opposed to movies, the overall “story” of a TV series moves very slowly.  Like a glacier but not as speedy.  There may be little changes along the way but by and large it’s the same people in the same situation week after week. Now suddenly you feel compelled to make a big story turn. The audience is expecting some sort of closure. You want to satisfy them while also doing it in a fresh way. That involves a risk. Sometimes the risk doesn't pay off.

Also, how much closure? Is it just getting two people married or is it like LOST where you have 50,000 loose ends? Are you going to wrap up the storyline for two characters or eight? It can get complicated. Plus, it’s the natural tendency to want to be extra grand and special. After all, you know you’ll be getting a huge audience.

And networks want you to do longer last shows so they can sell more advertising. This takes you out of the rhythm of your show. MASH for example works best as a half-four. The lines come at you so quick. And for one 30-minute chunk that’s fine.  But once it goes for an hour or more the pace gets tedious.  The last MASH was 2 1/2 hours.  Goodbye already! 

My three all-time favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were just a half-hour.

I mentioned this before but had we known we were going to do a last episode of our series, ALMOST PERFECT, we would have brought back the characters from our two previous series (MARY and BIG WAVE DAVE'S) and wrapped up all three at once. 

From Iron Fist:

Can somebody more experienced answer this question: Let's say you're in season 2. Do the network and cable executives personally approve the script of each episode or they trust the showrunner?

In most cases, yes. I remember talking to the showrunners of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER during (I believe) their third season and they were still having to get stories and scripts approved. And by then their show was already a big hit.

Eventually they leave you alone but first year shows – unless they’re run by Aaron Sorkin, Chuck Lorre, or David Kelley – have to deal with it.

Talk about the good old days – when the Fox network began they asked James L. Brooks to do a show. He said he would (the result was THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW) but that not only was the network never to give notes, they weren’t even allowed to come to the tapings of the show. Oh, I miss those days.

Jeff Hysen asks:

In his latest podcast, Alan Sepinwall said that Sam Malone "devolved" from smart to stupid as the show went from Shelly Long to Kristie Alley. Do you agree?

Absolutely. This was always my pet peeve. The general feeling was that they needed to make Sam dumber to get comedy out of the character. The original cool/street-smarts Sam was hard to write for – especially without Diane to play off of. I don’t agree. I liked that original version of Sam – maybe because it so mirrored me. Hey, stop laughing.

Greg wonders:

A lot of your work, particularly MASH and Cheers, have been parodied a lot in pop culture. Any of those parodies you found particularly amusing?

As a kid I idolized MAD magazine. And when they did a parody of MASH and used one of our episodes, it was like one of the greatest moments of my life.

And finally, a radio question from Bert:

It seems like an increasing number of FM radio stations are turning to a sports format, and some of these (for example KGMZ in the San Francisco area) broadcast major league baseball games.

My question concerns the FM sound quality of a major league broadcast. Having been raised on Vin Scully on KFI, KABC, etc, it sounds strange to hear the much more clear FM sound. Because the fidelity is so much better, it oddly sounds to me less like a professional broadcast.

What are your thoughts?

Here’s what you miss on FM – on AM the station generally compresses the signal to make it sound fuller. As a result, the crowd noise is raised and you have that bigger sound. FM is cleaner and with better fidelity but if you’ve listened to games on AM your whole life it just doesn’t sound right.

I still say the best way to listen to sports play-by-play is on a transistor radio under your pillow at night.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

My review of LINCOLN

Director Steven Spielberg was very disappointed in the outcome of his movie last year, WAR HORSE. Not because it bombed at the boxoffice but because it didn’t win any awards. When a Steven Spielberg movie comes out in the Fall it’s all about Oscars. And if millions of theatergoers happen to like it, well that’s just a plus. When he wants big boxoffice numbers he goes off and makes JURASSIC PARK 7 or RAIDERS OF THE LOST AARP. Now you may be saying, “Yeah, but he’s already won a bunch of Oscars. What about SCHINDLER’S LIST?” Very true but it's sort of a gimme.  Can he do it without the subject matter being Jews?

His latest effort, LINCOLN, clearly is another shot at the brass ring. While watching the movie you can almost see a running banner at the bottom of the screen saying: FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION… REMEMBER, I’M ALSO A SERIOUS ARTIST… I GOT JOBBED ON ‘SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’, YOU OWE ME…”

I wanted to love LINCOLN. I was certainly told to love LINCOLN. But I didn’t. I’m sorry, Steven. It was okay. Certain things I liked very much (more on that later). But on the whole, the message it conveyed (to me at least) was…

This movie is IMPORTANT. That’s a lot different from “this movie is totally engrossing and resonates so much that it happens to stay with you.”

LINCOLN is very manipulative. You start with the most sympathetic character in American history, center on a feel-good social story, add the usual John Williams soaring score, cast big name actors, compose each shot beautifully and artistically so that every frame looks like a painting, hire a Tony Award winning writer, show the obligatory carnage, and of course – have the cutest little boy you’ve ever seen play Lincoln’s son and establish a warm fuzzy father-son relationship that would bring a tear to a glass eye. Without spoiling the moment, there’s a key shot near the end where I wanted to yell, “Jesus, Steven, why not just splice in 5,000 frames from ET?”

The movie opens with black soldiers reciting back the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln. One of those Hollywood moments designed to make you sigh “Awwww,” or in my case: “I'm being played!”

I attended a screening of the movie and was handed a handsome program that featured credits of the filmmakers (i.e. all their awards and nominations – nowhere did it mention Spielberg directed THE TERMINAL, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, HOOK, or 1941), stunning photos, a history lesson, and pictures of the 35 actors in the movie. IM-POR-TANT.

There was a lot of acting in this film. And posturing. Daniel Day-Lewis was magnificent as Lincoln and will probably win Best Actor. (I mean, he was the best actor in a movie with every other good actor.) Tommy Lee Jones will definitely win Best Supporting Actor. Everyone else was fine except for Sally Field. GIDGET GOES NUTS. Does borderline crazy mean shrill, annoying, and over-the-top? Sally is a much better actress than that. It felt like she was pushing for Oscar number three.

The screenplay by playwright supreme, Tony Kushner was lyrical and verbose and there were some great lines along the way. But it was showy – in that way that you’re supposed to take notice and vote for it. IM-POR-TANT.

The film runs about two-and-a-half hours. IM-POR-TANT. They could easily cut a half hour.

Without a doubt LINCOLN will be nominated for a ton of Oscars. And it even might win the big ones. Let’s see how LES MISERABLES is along with a few other late contenders. And LINCOLN wouldn’t be the worst picture to win Best Picture. But just because a film is crowned Best Picture doesn’t necessarily make it a Great Picture. And if told his movie could be deemed one or the other, which do you think Steven Spielberg would pick?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Angus T. Jones -- holy shit!

So Angus T. Jones has found religion and publicly told America to not watch his show, TWO AND A HALF MEN, because it’s “filth.”

Just so I have this straight – he was fine doing the show all the previous years? The subject matter of the show was not a surprise to him? It’s not like he signed up for one thing but it became something else? He’s made a ton of money over this period? He’s currently earning $300,000 an episode? And during the run of the show the producers, studio, and network have taken good care of him? He received all the (free) education he was entitled to as a minor? No labor laws were broken? He was never forced to work 20-hour days or put himself in danger at any time? Chuck Lorre never made him wash his car?

I’m not getting anything here that would sway me to take his side. No. What I see is an incredibly ungrateful confused young man who has just committed career suicide and left himself open for major lawsuits.

I guarantee that in a year, or two, or five he will look back at this in horror and say, “What the fuck did I do?” Yes, he will use the word fuck, for even if he remains a devoutly religious man he will realize that he made the biggest most costly mistake of his life. By then it will be way too late. The next time you will see him is on an E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY or THE CELEBRITY FIT CLUB.

And my feeling? As someone who has been a producer and showrunner, I would feel bad that this once-good kid has had his head so turned around that he would do something idiotic like this, but I would write him out of the show immediately and send him on his holy way. His character is now in the army anyway. Time to ship out, soldier!

Now you could argue that he’s being fired for expressing his religious beliefs. I would argue that we are graciously giving someone his freedom who didn’t want to be there. Personally, I don’t care what religion he believes in, but I am asking him to believe in my show. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request.

For a wildly successful series, TWO AND A HALF MEN has been snake-bit. One and a half men have become PR nightmares. I think the tealeaves are saying it’s time to end this show already.

This is a classic case of biting the hand that feeds you, but at the end of the day I find the whole affair just sad. Charlie Sheen is one thing. He’s supposedly an adult. But Angus T. Jones is just 19. He’s still a kid. Who hasn’t done really dumb things when they were 19? Not this dumb but still!

If I may quote what I think is the Bible:

It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth ill-humoredly, and spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce.
--St. Francis De Sales

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

#LizAndDick: My review

Oh my fucking God!

I only hope that when they do the Lindsay Lohan TV biopic – and they will – that it’s as jaw droppingly atrocious as LIZ AND DICK. They will need to find the worst actress in America to play Lindsay, if only to do the same justice to her as she did to Ms. Taylor. Although I don’t know if a worse actress can be found. Lindsay might have to play herself – assuming she’s still with us and not locked up somewhere.

LIZ AND DICK (by the way, never, not once are they referred to as Liz and Dick in the movie – it’s always Elizabeth and Richard) is the cheese-rich schlock film of the year. Imagine Ed Wood directing a screenplay by a 7th grader and starring, well… Lindsay Lohan.

The only question was: yeah, it’s fun watching a trainwreck for awhile. But could I stick it out until the very end? So I wrote this review in real time knowing that at any point I might just have to shut it off and plunge an ice pick in my head.   These were my impressions as the movie unraveled. 

Oh… SPOILER ALERT. I spoil everything. So if you don’t want to know what happens, I’ll see you tomorrow. But I believe in this case you’re going to want to know what happened. Either you’re not going to see this tripe anyway or once you read this you'll be compelled to see it because you think I’m making all this up.   Further WARNING – this is the type of movie that brings out the snark in me in a big big way. Ready? Here goes:

This guy is Richard Burton? He’s like Jim from THE OFFICE with a phony accent. (Grant Bowler is his name. He should fire his agent.)

When was Richard Burton blonde?  Or am I just being too picky about minor details?  

We start with Richard’s last day alive. Adventures in bad make up. He's gray.  This is like when Jr. High kids play the Ezio Pinza part in SOUTH PACIFIC.

On the set of CLEOPATRA. Lindsay’s make up is laughable. What’s with that eyeliner? The movie should be called PEE WEE AND DICK.

First Richard Burton drunk scene. First of many I suspect. Foster Brooks was more subtle.

Zero chemistry between Liz and Dick. More romantic sparks would fly with Barbara Bush and Jon Lovitz.

I don’t understand. Suddenly there’s this convention where they’re both being interviewed. Where did that come from?  And at what point in their relationship was it supposed to be?

And seriously, why is he blonde? Oh wait.  I bet they just got Richard Burton mixed up with Peter O'Toole.  Common mistake. 

Someone says to Liz: “You’ve just ended your fourth marriage!” to which Liz defiantly replies, “Who’s counting?”  What a withering zinger!

It’s 0:17. I pretty much got the gist. Nah, I’ll stick it out a little longer.

Glad I did. Richard now says: “I don’t need a pool. I’ve got a whole ocean in you.” Smooooth.

This is the suicide segment. First Sybil Burton tries it unsuccessfully, and that guilts Richard into breaking up with Liz. Two seconds after hearing this news she runs to her room, downs a bottle of sleeping pills, and chug-a-lugs a half bottle of Vodka. Maybe it’s me, but if you find yourself laughing at a suicide scene then it doesn’t have the emotional wallop the filmmakers intended. That’s at 0:29. Okay, I’ll give it one more segment.

Richard: “My heart is broken and you have the smashed pieced!” Not since THE LADY EVE has there been such crackling dialogue.

Ooooh. At the 0:31 mark Lindsay cries. She’s truly awful at it. And you’d think she’d have all that practice in court.

Elizabeth has a different fur in every scene.

They’re making THE V.I.P.’s now. This oughtta be good.

0:54 – Liz is trying to seduce Dick. Vamp music plays. She’s in a sexy teddy. Instead of Richard Burton I kept picturing Lindsay’s parole officer.

Richard: “What if your little songbird Eddie decides to drag things out for months?” Since when did he become Sam Spade?  We hit the hour mark.

At 1:07 they get married, pressured by the Pope. Yes, that Pope.

Are they ever going back to Richard’s last day? What’s the point of that?

No mention of the suicide either. I guess that was just a one-time kookoo thing and now she’s the picture of mental health.

Richard: “Happy?” Elizabeth: “More than.” Tony Kushner, eat your heart out!

I was just about to turn it off at the 1:09 mark when Richard takes a bow for his HAMLET and brings Elizabeth on stage with him. She takes a bow for a play she wasn’t in.

This is now the SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER of TV biopics.

Big crisis: Richard loses an Academy Award to Lee Marvin. He doesn’t handle it well the way most husbands do and it puts a big strain on their marriage. Maybe a drink or thirty would help.

At 1:11 comes my favorite line in the movie. Richard and Elizabeth are staging a mock fight for writer Ernest Lehman to show they’re right for the film version of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Elizabeth has the topper with: “Mellifluous. Was he some Roman homosexual that you buttered?”

The recreation of Richard and Elizabeth in VIRGINIA WOOLF looked like a bad SNL sketch. But that’s not the good part. Richard and Elizabeth are in a theater watching it. On the screen Liz says, “You make me puke!” They then cut to the audience where a viewer turns to Liz and says, “You were fantastic!” Okay, now they’re trying for laughs, right? I mean, seriously? Complimenting Elizabeth Taylor on the reading of her vomit line?

The interview is back. Where was it the last half hour? And why is it even there at all? Ask him why he's blonde.

At this point they fight, make up, fight, make up again. In the Lindsay biopic they can re-film the same scenes just substituting Lindsay’s mother for Richard Burton.

Now they have money problems. But wait, after their accountant tells them they’re broke they buy a giant yacht, a private plane, and a diamond the size of a water tumbler. This last purchase comes after Elizabeth says: “I need a ring. A big ring.” We’re at 1:26. I am sooo close to switching to Sportscenter.

I should have. At the 1:40 mark there’s an elaborate 40th birthday party for Liz (I thought they had money woes?) with waiters dressed like Cleopatra’s slaves or those buttered Roman homosexuals and Liz overhears a guest saying, “She still thinks she’s a movie star.”

This sends our fragile heroine into a tizzy and she runs to her room. How come no suicide attempt?  Instead she begins the single worst crying scene in the history of cinema. Lindsay must’ve been channeling a caterwauling baby and Lucy. I’m guessing if she cried like that before a judge that’s why she was sentenced to jail time. Painful to watch and torture to hear.

Liz correctly says, “I’m a joke!” and consoling Richard says, “No, no. You’re my love.” I'm about to down a bottle of pills. 

Okay, from this point I just skimmed the rest. I couldn’t stand it. They finally go back to his last day. Hooray. Always good storytelling to set something up and return it to promptly two hours later. But now that we’ve seen his life, what insights does he have as a result? What new perspective does he have? Has he reached any conclusion about his life and his actions? When we last left him he was saying to somebody, “I’m tired.” Now we pick him up walking into the next room, lying down on the bed for a nap, and that’s it. He dies. Wow. What a sequence! I skipped through Liz fainting (another great acting moment worthy of a sack of flour) and went right to her visiting his grave. As they showed her at the tombstone they flashed the watermark:  #LizAndDick. Perfect time to troll for Twitter action.

Then they went back to the interview. Huh? Isn’t he dead? Oh wait. Maybe they recorded this interview in heaven after they both died?

End the fucking movie already! Please! I’ll watch an episode of AMERICA’S SUPERNANNY. Just make it stop!

Mercifully, they do. With one final great touch. They end by proving unequivocally that Liz really did love Richard. Here’s what they flashed on the screen:


Well, I guess that nails it.

According to one biography, Richard Burton slept with 2500 women in his lifetime.  Just think of the sequel possibilities!  

Monday, November 26, 2012

If I ran NBC

Here’s a question from reader Jim that set my mind a'wanderin':

What would you do to turn around NBC's fortunes?

Let's say you've been tapped to be the network's head programmer. What would you change? What would you keep? What would you do that the other networks aren't doing that would set your network apart?

First off, be it duly noted that NBC just won the November sweeps for the first time in like a decade.  So they are going in the right direction.  Granted, it's because of THE VOICE, SNF, REVOLUTION, and GO ON, but still -- credit where credit is due. 

Now...being the head programmer wouldn't be enough.  I'd have to be whatever the title is that I could really make the decisions.  So assuming that utterly unrealistic fantasy...

I would cancel WHITNEY.  America has voted.

I would stick with PARKS AND RECREATION.

I would aim for quality over zeitgeist.

I would not be afraid of developing sophisticated product.  It's always worked before. 

I would give the viewers credit for intelligence.  Especially the young ones.

I would not do knock-off versions of current sitcoms. No NEW GIRL clones. No MODERN FAMILY wannabes. Not saying NBC is doing that now but that's my philosophy.

I would sit down with Lorne Michaels and see what we can do to make SNL less uneven. Maybe one fewer new episode a month? Some new writers? I don’t know. But along the way they do some inspired stuff. More of that and less of the tired lame material.

For development, I would seek out those experienced writers I admire and let them do the pet project they’ve always wanted to do. Some will come back horrendous, most will come back interesting to some degree, and a few may come back extraordinary. All you need is one.

I would not just hire actors and friends of actors to write pilots. Thinking an actor can just sit down and write a decent pilot is like me thinking I could star in BIG BANG THEORY. This attitude that we can just hire writers at some point to fix these amateurish pilots won’t fly with me.

All young writers must have a sample of original material these days. Most write pilots. I would collect all the spec pilots and buy the two best.

I would hire the best of the bunch of find places for them.  You can't stockpile enough great talent.  

When pairing baby writers with established showrunners I would select the veteran who is best suited for the material. I wouldn’t hire showrunners because they happen to have a deal at the studio.

Once a series gets on the air I would trust my creative partners. You run story areas by me and that’s it. The outline does not have to be approved. The draft does not have to be approved. Guest actors do not have to be approved. Neither does wardrobe or set dressing. That’s just nonsense.

Notes during production will be kept to a minimum. And no one will give notes until they’ve proven to me they’re qualified.

Single-camera comedies better be funny. Wry and mildly amusing are no longer good enough.

I bet if I ran MASH reruns on Friday night they would do better than rerunning any sitcom currently on NBC.

I would avoid the temptation to air additional episodes of THE VOICE.  I wouldn't want to burn it out.  Can you say SO YOU WANT TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? kids?

I love Brian Williams, think he’s the best anchor of all the major networks. But I would cancel his primetime show. No one is watching. I don’t care how cheap it is to produce.

I would drop all banners and promos from within the content of shows. They’re distracting, annoying, and completely ineffective.

I would shy away from serialized dramas. Viewers have a tough time jumping aboard in the middle, and current patterns suggest fans of these shows like to binge-watch. They’ll wait until the end of the season and watch the whole year on DVD or Netflix. That does me no good.

I would not get into insane bidding wars over projects. I would not overpay just to be in business with a certain actor or producer. This isn’t baseball. I can win without Albert Pujols. I’ll use my money more wisely.

I would have direct communication with my writer/creators. This idea of a non-writing pod producer acting as a go-between is counter-productive. And if writer/creators have questions I would encourage them to call me directly. I may not get back to them in ten minutes but I will return their calls.  I don't want mid-level executives answering questions based on what they think I'll say.

In some cases, opening titles would be back. 

I would use research as a tool, not a deciding factor.

I would not let Ryan Seacrest near the news or sports departments. 

I would put shows on the air I don’t like but think the general audience will.

I would keep every executive currently there and give them a chance to work with my game plan.  I bet there are some terrifically talented people at NBC and I'd be an idiot to just discard them out of hand.  Not to mention what it would do to morale... and I'm a BIG believer in morale.  

These are some of my ideas for how I would select, develop, and manage shows... in a perfect world.  But that’s only part of the job. Unless you promote your line-up properly and schedule it properly you’re still not going to win. My primary objective would be to WIN. This is not cable. Prestige shows that get no numbers are fine for subscription services. They just want you to be impressed with their slate so you’ll renew every month. Whether you actually watch HOMELAND or GAME OF THRONES is way less important.

That's not the case in the network world. You need ratings. I have a number of promotion and programming ideas that are rather avant garde but I know would WIN. Those however, I’m not just giving out. Those someone will have to pay me for.
I’ll be right here by the phone.


Waiting for your call.

Ready to save your network.

Ready to take you to number one.  

Doesn't have to be NBC.

Could be any network.

Waiting for your call. 

Could be a cable network.  


It doesn’t seem to be ringing.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Black Friday shopper lives to tell about it

Thanks to everyone for your nice comments on yesterday's post.  They're always greatly appreciated.  And now...

In the spirit of those brave war correspondents who put themselves in harm way to report while bombs explode only a few yards away, my courageous daughter Annie risked life and limb and entered that demilitarized zone called Black Friday.   Here is her heroic report, with additional material from her writing partner, Jon Emerson. 

Can you believe it's that time of year already? A time for families to come together, give thanks, and huddle up for warmth outside the City Target.

For the second year in a row, my mother and I decided to brave Black Friday. Two Jews looking for a good bargain. Anything to reinforce a stereotype! My dad said he would come with us just as soon as he finished changing every single aspect of his personality. Then he asked us to get him sweaters.

It seemed like people were lining up sooner than ever this year, some as early as Monday. Hey, eleventh guy in line? The store is only giving away ten TVs. Maybe pick up a calculator while you're inside.

This year we decided to go to the Westside Pavilion, a mall located in West Los Angeles. We were worried about finding parking, but luckily there was an open meter in Bakersfield. Armed with Coffee Bean lattes and an intense bloodlust for cheap slippers, we were ready to shop.

When we got to the mall, there was an enormous line at Guest Services. I guess people are so hungry for a good deal, they'll wait in line three hours for free information.

A rather ingenious homeless man arrived and started hitting everybody up for spare change. It's hard to pretend you don't have any money when you're sorting through your Visa cards on the pavement. I was going to cave and give him ten bucks, but I knew he'd just go spend it on blender attachments.

Everybody was incredibly cordial and friendly. At one point we all grabbed hands and sang Kumbaya. Then the doors opened and suddenly it was The Lord of the Flies.

The most savage group of the night were the all hipster tweens outside H&M. Picture the zombies from The Walking Dead, but with less brainwaves. I guess detached irony goes out the window when woolen caps are two for a dollar.

The Westside Pavilion Barnes and Noble went out of business, but the one by my house was packed with people looking for things to download on their Kindles. (Quick, Dad! Mention your book!)

Contrary to popular belief, Black Friday isn't even the busiest shopping day of the year. That distinction goes to the Saturday before Christmas, a day commemorating when the Three Wise Men realized it was too late to buy their gifts online and had to go grab something from the nearest CVS.

Guys, if you're looking to get a date, stop buy a jewelry store on Black Friday. Buy one ring get a desperate woman free.

Least successful Black Friday sale? Hot Dog on a Stick. I guess after a dinner of turkey, rolls, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, green bean casserole, Jell-O mold, salad, yams, pumpkin pie and wine, there just isn't room for a corn dog.

My mom and I had the greatest success at Macy's. We made quite the team. Me body-checking elderly women out of the way while my mom price-checked to make sure this crap wasn't cheaper on Amazon.

The ads for Macy's always boast that this is the place all the celebrities hang out. No, I did not see Martha Stewart folding towels or Justin Bieber trying out electronics. I did, however, see Donald Trump shoulders-deep in the bargain bin, looking for his dignity. He went home empty-handed.

We called it a night ourselves around two in the morning. We were exhausted, we were bleary-eyed, and we were twenty minutes late for the door busters sale across town.

All in all the trip was a resounding success. Nobody was trampled to death and I got pajama pants for under five bucks.

See you all the Saturday before Christmas!

Thanks, Annie & Jon.  But you never said -- did you get me any sweaters?

Tomorrow:  If I ran NBC. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

My 7th anniversary

Monday marks the 7th anniversary of this blog. Who can even remember 2005? It was an experiment – stretching exercises for a writer. I thought it would be nice break from writing scripts. No format. No notes. Writing actual prose. The whole notion seemed so liberating.

Only two hitches. What the hell do I write about? And how the hell do I get anybody to read it?

A blogger friend suggested that I post something new every day. That's how you build an audience. When people log onto you and see the same post they read a week ago they stop coming back. That made sense. At least to start.

But it made the first hitch an even bigger hurdle. Not only do I have nothing to write about; I have to write about it every day?  Yikes!  I’ll be honest, I thought this experiment would last six months. I’d get tired of it, I’d have exhausted every topic I know, or after half a year I’d have twelve readers.

And now, seven years, 3,076 posts, and 10,800,000 page views later here I somehow still am.

This was my first post:

For everyone who has said to me "you should start a blog" here it is. Now what?

So until I figure that out, I thought I'd post the kind of stuff I have been writing -- namely humorous travelogues and award show reviews that up until now have only gone to those unfortunate souls in my address book. As I learn how this works and come up with original thoughts I shall add to it. Or take requests. Or go on to podcasting.

Interests will include pop culture, show business, baseball, radio, the 60's, the theatre, baby boomers, bragging about my kids, hawking my various projects, and general bitching.

I’ll be honest again – to this day the toughest part is coming up with topics. Once I get a topic I’m usually off to the races. But there are plenty of days I’m just praying for Roseanne to do something stupid or a new idiotic reality show to premiere. I live for Anime conventions, pornstar karaoke, Michael Bay movies, Katherine Heigl interviews, Gwyneth Paltrow cleansing diets, and the Golden Globes.

All in all, it’s been well worth the effort. I’ve been very lucky in this industry and have had some remarkable mentors. I’m glad for the opportunity to pay it forward. I’ve met many wonderful new people through this blog… including YOU. And yes, I’ve sold a bunch of books through this site  (if you are grateful for this site and want to support it, that's how you do it.  Order yours now.), and have sold out six Sitcom Room seminars.

Anyway, thanks for seven great years.  Onwards and sideways.  I won’t say I couldn’t have done without you because that’s not true. But I will say I wouldn’t have done it without you.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Chevy Chase has left COMMUNITY

Wow! Knock me over with a feather!

Chase is leaving the show immediately. They still have a few more episodes to shoot to complete their series order of thirteen. Since they’re filming them out of order and already completed the last episode it remains to be seen whether they will take him out of that one, explain his absence from shows he’s not it, or (my vote) ignore it. He just isn’t there some weeks. Three viewers will miss him.

I don’t know any of the particulars on why the abrupt exit but remember last year Chevy blamed all of his issues on creator/showrunner Dan Harmon? Well, now Harmon’s gone. So I guess the new regime was no better.

Or… maybe, just maybe...Chevy was the problem all along.

It’s one thing if you have drama and turmoil but the star is amazing. That’s Jackie Gleason. Chevy Chase wasn’t even that good on COMMUNITY.

For all concerned this was addition by subtraction. I guess for the staff and cast of COMMUNITY it’s not such a Black Friday after all.

(Black) Friday Questions

Here are some Black Friday Questions to read on your smart phone as you stand in line at Kohl’s.

Johnny Walker has one about writing spec scripts:

I was watching an episode of MODERN FAMILY the other day, the Emmy winning "Caught in the Act". It's a very enjoyable and farcical episode, but I was struck by how simplistic the plot was. In particular, the initial misunderstanding was not particularly original (Gloria accidentally sends a rude email to Clare), but the execution was excellent. This got me wondering about Spec scripts that wannabe writers might put together. Could someone get away with such an obvious plot choice, provided their execution is superb, or is a script you've spent months crafting expected to be brilliant across the board?

Yes. In a spec script execution is the key. Can you write the characters? Are you funny? Do your jokes advance the story? An ingenious story no one has ever done is a plus but the search for that can be a trap. Better than a complicated story is a simple one that allows you to give the characters some depth.

And by all means, I strongly recommend against doing any “special” episodes. Don’t break the format. Don’t do that “What if the Dunphys went back in time to Antiquity?” Don’t write ANCIENT FAMILY.

From chalmers:

My Friday question to Ken is whether you've ever been in a situation where a network or someone else pushed you to revise a show you worked on to highlight a successful one-time or occasional character?

No. But as a showrunner I’m always on the lookout for a breakout character. If I happen to have the next Fonz or Urkel or Akex Keaton I won’t need the network to tell me to utilize him more. I’ll happily do it myself. Those gifts come very rarely.

The hard part though is getting the actors who thought were the stars to go along graciously, but the argument can be made that they will now be on a much bigger hit show and a high tide raises all boats. That generally works unless you’re Cybill Shepherd.

JT Anthony asks:

Would you mind taking a stab at comparing Hollywood spin on a movie and the spin political parties put on its candidates, especially this year? And especially when the reality is much different--weaker--than the perception they are trying to shape for the audience.

It seems to me that movies and political campaigns are similar in that their shared goal is: “how do we attract a specific audience without chasing away a general one?” The difference is that movie campaigns just stand on their own. A trailer portrays a movie as being a certain way, you either respond to it or you don’t. But you assume that’s what that movie is (although sometimes you are seriously misled). The trailer is not followed by two commentators explaining the studio’s strategy.

On the political front however, you’re always hearing how Romney is trying to appear more folksy to get the folksy folks vote. It sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Isn’t it saying in essence, “he’s not really like this but is only pretending to be to get supporters?” It’s as if Warner Brothers announced publicly, “We know this movie isn’t a comedy but we’re putting the two jokes of the film in the trailer to make people believe it is.”

For political candidates these days it’s like you’re playing poker and there’s someone standing behind you calling out to everyone else at the table, “Hey, he has two-pair, looking for a queen or a three!”

Austin Edwards wonders:

What do you think about the news that Disney is going to start a sequel series to "Boy Meets World"?

What is your opinion on TGIF from ABC in the 90s and the possibility of a return in the near future?

I didn’t watch BOY MEETS WORLD much when it was on but my kids loved it. There were some terrific actors in that show including Tony Quinn, William Daniels, Alex Desert, Willie Garson, and two of the Monkees (Peter Tork & Mickey Dolenz).

TGIF is back. It’s called the Disney Channel. And there are some good jokes on some of those sitcoms.

What’s your question? Let me know and I’ll put it on layaway until after the holidays if you’d prefer. And if you're going to Kohl's, I could use a sweater.  Thanks.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy sitcom Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. I look forward to the holiday, never writing about it. Every sitcom I’ve ever worked on, we’ve had the obligatory Thanksgiving episode. How many variations can you have on the big family dinner going awry? I think I’ve written the “turkey gets burned”, “relatives clash”, “nutty friends invited”, “can’t find a restaurant”, “kids break something”, “Guess who’s Coming to Dinner variation, “Meet the Parents variation”,“football gambler loses big”, “tofu turkey substitute”, “someone accidentally gets dragged seven blocks by the Mr. Potato Head balloon”, “mom’s a terrible cook”, “relative accidentally not invited”, “someone is allergic to something in the stuffing and has a funny seizure”, “power outage”, “thawing frozen turkey last minute”, “food fight”, and “the pilgrim re-enactment” episode fifteen times.

Hopefully, none of these things will happen to you this turkey day. And if they do, at least you’ll have your MODERN FAMILY spec script halfway written.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for reading this blog.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Some last minute Thanksgiving thoughts

I bet Ann Curry is thrilled she doesn’t have to get up and host the Macy’s Parade.

To all the people who have been in line at Best Buy since Tuesday waiting for Black Friday. Even if you save $500 you are still an idiot.

Thanksgiving marathons used to be a big treat but now there are marathons on TV channels every day. Is there really that much demand to see SISTER SISTER repeats?

THE MINDY PROJECT should be really thankful. They’ve got a full season’s order despite their ratings dropping like a stone.

Why are the Cowboys America’s team?

Okay, I’ll admit it – I love “Merry Christmas Darling” by the Carpenters.

If turkey is so great how come we never order it any other day of the year?

If you’re in New York, the real fun of the parade is watching them blow up the balloons tonight. They do it near the Natural History Museum.

I miss Underdog.

Everyone says turkey makes you drowsy because of the L-tryptophans. It’s a myth. L-tryptophans only work on an empty stomach and even then only slightly. You’ll feel much drowsier watching THE MASTER. The real reason people feel sluggish after a big turkey dinner is because they ate too much and their digestive system is going nuts trying to process it all.

I notice my neighborhood Chinese restaurant is closed for Thanksgiving. Unlike Christmas, Jews don’t go out.

It’s going to be sunny for the Macy’s Parade. But cold. Those Broadway dancers will be freezing their lip syncing asses off.

Have you noticed that airfares this holiday season are way up from last year? Is it because oil prices are up (although they’re now coming down) or just because “they can?”

Stupidest Thanksgiving song ever: “Turkey Lurky” from PROMISES PROMISES.

I love Thanksgiving because it’s the start of the holiday season that now lasts until Superbowl Sunday.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

What I'm thankful for...

Besides my family, here are some of the things I’m thankful for this year.

Claire Danes
Vin Scully
The Good Wife
Felix Hernandez
Hostess Cup Cakes (the ones that are left)
Jon Stewart
My daughter is not dating a vampire
Jennifer Lawrence
Raylen Givens
People who bought my book
Don Draper
Harold & Belle's
Stove Top stuffing
Louis C.K.
Ken Tremendous
The Avengers
Barbara Cook
New Yorker cartoons
Opening Day
Sinatra -- the Capitol years
the CHEERS reunion
The iPhone
Great Big Radio
Rachel Maddow
A one-cent residual for MASH
Martin McDonagh
Hula dancers
Hawaiian sunsets
Safeco Field
Dan Hoard
Jon Miller
electric blankets
Bob’s Big Boy
KABC's John Phillips
The L.A. Kings (too bad they'll never play again)
That yellow line in football
New Zealand
Rick Rizzs
Dave Sims
the Arts & Leisure section
The Gigi salad
Spam filters
Improv class
DVD screeners
Regent Voyager
Kevin & Bean
Mix CD’s
Pdf files
Marty Brennaman
Bonnie's Survival Cookies
Joanie Sommers
Steven Moffat
Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Colbert
Steve Martin
Target Field
Morena Baccarin
Sirius/XM now that Mel Karmizan is out
Joe Torre
Antonio Carlos Jobim
the Crab Cooker
The Beatles
The few remaining bookstores
The Onion
The Counter

The Writers Guild Foundation
Peter Luger's steak sauce
Manhattan Transfer
Dinah Washington
Denzel Washington
Patton Oswalt
The Bilko box set
Gates Brothers' BBQ
Aaron Sorkin
Coffee Bean Ice Blendeds
Tallulah Morehead

Brian Wilson
Paul Rudnick
Christina Applegate
Milk Duds
Earl Pomerantz

Cassell’s hamburgers (if they ever re-open)
The bcc. feature
Red carpet shows
Eric Nadel
Confederacy of Dunces
Amoeba Records
Martini shots
Mel’s Drive-In
Fellow bloggers
Our troops

Care to add your own?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Hollywood tradition -- my Thanksgiving travel tips

The Thanksgiving holiday is the peak travel weekend of the year (in America. The rest of the world could give a rat’s ass about Thanksgiving.) So as a public service, here again -- and with a few additions -- are some travel tips:

Leave for the airport NOW.

Bring no luggage. Wearing the same clothes for a week is a small price to pay. Plus, the airlines now charge you for check-in luggage AND blankets. Pretty soon pressurized air will also be extra.

Southwest has no reserved seating. Get in one of the latter groups boarding. You don’t want to be one of the first to sit then watch as fifty people glance at the empty seat next to you, then to you, and decide to sit somewhere else. Even in the last row.

If you have children under the age of five tell your relatives one has an earache and make everyone come to YOU.

Those people in the Stand-By line – those are the same people who think they can get rich selling Amway products, and the Tooth Fairy really exists. Don’t fly Stand-By unless you like sleeping in airport terminals for five days.

If you rent from Hertz plan on a two hour wait just to get your car. Unless you’re one of their “preferred” customers in which case allow only one hour.

When rental car companies recommend you use premium gasoline put in regular. It’s cheaper, it’ll run just fine, and it’s not your car.

Before you pull off the road to a Chuck E. Cheese for lunch, remember their namesake is a rat.

Air travelers: avoid O’Hare. Better to land in Dallas, even if your destination is Chicago.

If you’re dropping someone off at the airport don’t even think you’ll be able to stop. Have your travelers practice the tuck and roll from a moving car. The first couple of times they’ll bounce but by the fourth or fifth try they should have it down.

Watch the DVD of HOSTEL on your laptop. The bigger the screen, the better.

There’s more legroom in Exit rows. When the flight attendants ask if you are willing to help out in case of emergency just say yes. Like it’s going to make a big difference anyway if you crash.

There are NO bargains in the Sky Mall magazine.

When you’re stuck in St. Louis and all flights are grounded (and trust me, you WILL be), grab lunch at JBucks.

If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t have reserved seating never sit next to anyone who is already eating or reading Ann Coulter.

Before you fly to New York and have to negotiate JFK just remember – the parade is on TV. And it’s the same friggin' balloons as last year. The only difference is that the stars of NBC’s big new hit from last year, ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA?, won’t be there (thank God).

Never pay to see an in-flight movie starring Debra Messing.

Put a big strip of duct tape on your luggage so you’ll recognize it easily. And it makes a nice fashion statement.

If you’re flying with small children see if there’s such a thing as “Flintstones Valium”.

In-flight alcoholic beverages are expensive. Better to drink heavily at the airport before boarding.

And finally, watch PLANES, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES again and think of it as a “best” case scenario.

Happy trails to you all.

Great innovator or menace to society?

There has been much debate about whether the Manhattan Project – that created the first nuclear bomb – was ultimately a positive thing because it effectively ended a World War and perhaps staved off future ones, or was a ghastly thing because of all the fatalities it caused and the threat to world annihilation. We'll leave that to Chelsea Handler and her guests to decide. 

But that debate pales in comparison to the innovation Ms. Doris Reilly created in 1955. Doris Reilly worked in the Campbell Soup Company’s test kitchen. She wanted to concoct a dish out of the two ingredients most Americans had in their house in the 1950’s. And from that came…

The green bean casserole.

This Thursday 20,000,000 households will serve this vegetable stew, made primarily from green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Other ingredients include milk, canned fried onion rings, a little soy sauce, and black pepper.

Yes, growing up this was a staple of my family Thanksgivings. And I never knew why. I wonder how many people routinely serve green bean casseroles as part of their menu not really liking it but thinking it is somehow a requirement of the holiday?

Or am I just a little weird and most folks love it? Thanksgiving would not be complete without that runny casserole occupying a corner of your plate.

Perhaps the cook in your family revised the recipe… like leaving out the green beans and the mushroom soup. I could see where that might improve the holiday savory. Any suggestions are welcomed. 

But in 2002, Ms Reilly presented her original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. So it’s right up there with the steam engine and pop tops.

She certainly is in the Campbell’s Hall of Fame. About 40% of its annual sales of cream of mushroom soup are used to make these green bean casseroles. Ms Doris Reilly – the Steve Jobs of side dishes.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Claudine's back in jail again

As a perfect follow-up to my post today about Claudine Longet killing her boyfriend, here's a song by the Rolling Stones about the incident.  Thanks to reader LouOCNY for the heads-up.

The perfect holiday gift for this year

I know it sounds like just another plug for my book but hear me out. This one’s legit! With the holidays just hours away, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s) would make the perfect gift for friends and family members who fondly remember that magic era when the surf was up, gas prices were down, music was psychedelic, and we kids didn't have a care in the world except Viet Nam and total nuclear annihilation.  Seriously, it’s a fun read. And it comes in three flavors: Kindle version. Paperback version (order now so it’s there on time). And audibook.

To help get you into the mood for the season here are two brief warm and touching excerpts:

Thanksgiving finally arrived and with it the cheese-rich Santa Claus Lane Parade down Hollywood Blvd. Unlike Macy’s with giant balloons and impressive marching bands, we had Hollywood B-actors, second bananas, local fringe celebrities riding in cars with their names hand-painted on the sides, and a few 100-year-old guys from an American Legion Post blowing their livers out through trombones. The big finale was the arrival of Santa Claus; usually on a float that looked like a Cub Scout project gone horribly wrong.

I never actually attended the parade. My parents were not about to wade through a million people so I could see talk show guest Oscar Levant either waving to the crowd or having another seizure. If we couldn’t walk to it (like the 4th of July parade) my folks weren’t interested. But I didn’t care. It was a TV event anyway.

Bill Welsh on Channel 11 would interview all the “stars” as they passed. How do you ask Gypsy Boots what his upcoming project was with a straight face? Gypsy Boots was a local health nut who was part Grizzly Adams/part Bozo the Clown. His upcoming project??? Appear in next year’s parade. Back in the ’50s, Natalie Wood or Bing Crosby would be the grand marshal. Now it was Iron Eyes Cody.


I couldn’t fathom why anyone would watch the Andy Williams variety show on NBC if they didn’t own a color TV. It was so wholesome your teeth ached. Whatever “edge” the show had was provided by the Osmond Family. But it was in color and production numbers always featured grinning All-American kids in brightly colored sweaters holding brightly colored balloons. Not having a color TV and not being gay I never watched The Andy Williams Show… except…

When it was time for the annual Christmas special.

Andy would always have his beautiful family on the show. Mrs. Williams & Andy and the adorable towheads would sing Carols, exchange presents, and their message of love and holiday good cheer would melt even the coldest heart. That’s not why I watched it, of course. I wanted to screw Andy’s wife.

Claudine Longet (Mrs. W.) was a willowy brunette with exquisite doe eyes and luscious lips. Laura Petrie but French. She was also a successful recording artist but believe me, if she looked like Charles De Gaulle she couldn’t give away one record. But I found her incredibly sexy, even when she was singing Silent Night in front of a crucifix. She and Andy divorced in the ’70s and two years later she shot her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich to death. I stopped wanting to screw her then.

I’ll be on parole for Christmas.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Annie met Sandy

Readers of this blog know that I file travelogues whenever I return home from trips.  I even compiled the funniest of them in a book, WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED, which you could (and should) order here.   But these travelogues have now become a Levine family tradition.  I haven't been anywhere in awhile, but my lovely daughter Annie spent last weekend in New York.  And she files this report:

In a stunning victory for nonrefundable plane tickets, my mother and I recently took a weekend trip to New York. In fairness to us, we were attending the wedding of a family member and visiting my grandmother. Still, it does seem risky to visit a city that just changed its motto from “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” to “If you can make it here, please bring canned goods.”

Landing at JFK, you never would have known the city had changed. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and there wasn’t one damn cab in sight. Luckily, a FEMA boat passed by and I was able to barter passage.

A quick note to Times Square: When Queens looks like the set of NBC’s Revolution, it’s probably not fair to keep pumping so much electricity into your McDonald’s that you can see the arches from space.

My mother and I got tickets to see “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the reusical of George and Ira Gershwin songs starring Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick. Kelli O’Hara (the Susan Lucci of the Tony Awards) is fantastic. Matthew Broderick really can do it all. His delivery is spot on. His singing is great fun. His dancing… Did I mention his delivery?

Dinner the next night was Dallas BBQ in Times Square. The kind of “restaurant” where tourists are packed in and treated like cattle. It didn’t help that they literally had us waiting for our table in a pen. Not exactly the imagery you want before sitting down to dine on spare ribs. I kept picturing Charlton Heston showing up to read us the specials. “It’s people! The soup of the day is people!”

We had dinner with my aunt and eleven year-old cousin, Michelle. A popular menu item at Dallas BBQ? “The Bulldog,” a carafe of pina colada with an overturned Corona bottle inside. I stuck with Diet Coke, but Michelle said hers was delicious.

A friend of mine was doing sound design for an off-Broadway production of Grand Hotel, a show that follows a variety of guests at an upscale hotel in pre-World War 2 Berlin. The show was… Well, let’s just say it was the first time in my life I was dying for Hitler to arrive and put an end to things. One of the stars of the show was a dead ringer for Taylor Hicks. I think the actual Taylor Hicks was his understudy.

A highlight of the trip, as always, was visiting my grandmother in Brooklyn. I figured while we were there, we might as well do a little sight seeing, so mom pointed out Neil Sedaka’s sister’s house. I referred to it as “The House that Oh Carol Built.” And then realized -- I was hundred years old.

We arrived at the wedding on Sunday with our luggage in hand. It was fine during the ceremony, but the duffel bag did prove problematic on the dance floor.

It was a wonderful ceremony and I wish the happy couple all the luck in the world. We were going to tie cans to the back of the car, but we didn’t want them to get mugged for cream corn on the way to their honeymoon.

I was worried about being able to fly out of the city, but luckily everything went off without a hitch. I even got to see Aziz Ansari on my flight! I was dying to tell him how great he is, but he still seemed shaken by the TSA cavity search. I had to settle for watching an episode of Parks and Recreation on the in-flight entertainment. But, hey, at least I can claim he talked to me on the plane.

All in all, the trip was a great success. It was wonderful to see some old friends, catch up with family, and pretend to use the first class passenger bathroom five or six times just to catch a glimpse of Aziz.

I can’t wait to go back. See you next apocalypse, New York!

Thanks, Annie!  Stop being funnier than your father.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

In network cancellation news...

A number of shows have been cancelled over the last few days. None of them are a surprise. CBS axed PARTNERS (the blatant rip off of the 1995 series, PARTNERS). This series comes from the same writer/producers who created WILL & GRACE. So which was a fluke? W&G or PARTNERS?

Other series produced by this team: $#*! MY DAD SAYS, FOUR KINGS, TWINS, THE STONES, GOOD MORNING MIAMI, and BOSTON COMMONS.

LAST RESORT was dropped by ABC. This was the show about the nuclear submarine that docks on the LOST island. I must say I loved the pilot. My one question when it was over was how are they going to keep this going week after week? By week three when the sub was sneaking through a government blockade to get drugs for the island drug lord who had kidnapped three crew members I stopped asking.

Interestingly, ABC has not officially cancelled LAST RESORT. There’s a slim chance they could bring it back next season. Yeah, right. It’s not good enough to get a back nine but it is good enough to return for a second season? Mayday, captain!!!

My suggestion: take the pilot, slap a real ending on it and sell it as a movie.

666 PARK AVENUE was also yanked off the schedule by ABC, and like LAST RESORT is a candidate to return next season. So start that letter writing campaign now, 666 fanboys!

Not cancelled but premiering with a resounding thud this week was WHITNEY. Why NBC loves this show I do not know. Ms. Cummings must have compromising photos of the peacock in bed with 4-star generals. 

And of course, a few weeks ago NBC cancelled NEXT CALLER before it had even aired. Stephen Falk, the creator of that show wrote a cool article about what it’s like to be in that situation. You can read it here.

It used to be that networks would order 13 episodes of a new Fall series from the studio producing the show. If it got okay numbers they ordered a back nine. Networks eventually tried to hedge their bets, ordered only six episodes. The studios balked. Six episodes were not enough to establish an audience and if there were overages in production costs the studios would never recoup them. Networks backed off. They needed the studios to continue feeding them product.

But now that the networks own the studios they can do any damn thing they want. And we’re seeing that. They’re adding two episodes to an order. They’re shaving one or two episodes off an order. They’re ordering four script but not episodes. So anything is possible these days including putting a nuclear submarine in dry dock for a year.

Maybe the strangest example of this new practice was last season when ABC cancelled PAN AM but ordered one additional episode. Huh???  Hey, don't ask me.  I’m still trying to figure out WHITNEY.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who pays for stunt casting?

Last Friday Questions before Thanksgiving.

Derek (in Calgary) starts us off:

My question relates to stunt-casting and the fee paid to the stunt-casted actors.

Suppose you are running Modern Family and for whatever reason you decide to offer a small one-episode cameo role to (say) a well-known baseball player. How is it determined how much the baseball player is paid? Is it the same rate as any other guest actor would get for comparable screen-time? Is this the "scale" rate we sometimes hear about?

Do things change for higher-profile stunt casting? Suppose you now learn than Mick Jagger will do a small role on your show, for two or three episodes. And suppose you are keen to have him. Is it a written or unwritten rule that he would have to be paid scale? Or, if he and his agent demand a high fee, could he potentially be paid whatever amount the network and his agent can agree upon?

Stunt cast guest stars usually receive what’s called “top of the show” (the highest salary a studio is willing to go). Often these guest stars are friends of one of the cast members or someone on the production staff so they do the appearance for “top of the show” as a favor although it’s way less than they usually get.   Or if the show if super hot and they want the prestige or exposure. 

Many stars, however, want more than “top of the show.” In those cases the producer usually goes to the network and says, “How much do you want this clown? And if he’s that important, will you pick up the difference?” If the star is big enough and promotable enough the network will sometimes give in.

Lisa Muldrin has a question about multi-camera shows:

How can you, as a director, can keep track of four cameras at once? and how many takes you usually make on average?

I have what’s known as a quad-split – four monitors – and I can see what every camera is shooting. Generally, I do two passes of each scene and often modify the camera assignments in the second pass. In other words, if in the first pass I have Camera A give me a two-shot, in the second pass I might have him open up and give me a three-shot.

When two characters are talking to each other you often see the back of one of their heads in the shot. This ties the two actors together. It’s called an “over” (for over-the shoulder). So in one pass I’ll ask for the “over” and in the other I’ll ask for the “single” which is just a close up of the actor speaking. When cut together this gives me a little variety.

So for every scene there are four cameras so eight possible angles. And still there may be shots you don’t get – generally reaction shots. In those cases we do “pick-ups”.

Think Rubix Cube.

Now those are just passes for cameras. Producers sometimes want additional takes if they’re not satisfied with the performances. Or if they want to substitute jokes for lines that didn’t get a laugh.

So to answer your question on the number of takes:  generally two, but as high as seven or eight.

YEKIMI asks:

How often do personal matters of an actor derail a show, maybe something the general public doesn't know about. I'm thinking more along the lines if a popular actor came to you and said "I'm gay and I'm thinking of announcing it publicly". Would you say "For the love of all the TV gods in history, don't do it, you'll destroy the show!"

No. Never. I personally feel very strongly that people should come out and be who they are. Were that to happen on one of my shows I would just deal with it. Today there seems to be less of a stigma attached (thank goodness) to someone declaring he’s gay, but regardless – it’s not my place to tell an actor (or anyone for that matter) how to conduct his personal life.

Andrew Kamphey wonders:

In retrospect the names of characters are very unique. For any of your shows, have you had any interesting battles over names?

When we were doing the pilot for MARY (Mary Tyler Moore’s third failed comeback attempt (3 of 5), the co-star was James Farentino. He played an editor of a tabloid newspaper in Chicago. His name was printed on his frosted office door. For whatever reason, we couldn’t clear a last name. Everyday we’d come up with something new. Everyday they would paint a new door, and everyday the name would get kicked back. This went on for about a week until we finally landed on DeMarco. But there must’ve been five wasted doors. It was like Groundhog Day for those poor painters. And I'm sure they were thinking, "These idiot producers can't make up their fucking minds!"

I’ve spoken on this topic before but I’ve used the names of former girlfriends from time to time in scripts. Yes, it is a nerdy thing to do.

What’s your question? Leave it the comments section. Thanks and gobble gobble.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

My most surprising role model

I was at lunch recently with a writer friend and we got onto the topic of role models. We each had writers, parents, other individuals we admired, and then another name occurred to me – one he found surprising. And I imagine you will too.

Those of you who have even heard of this person.

Okay. Ready? One of my role models was Shari Lewis.

So who’s Shari Lewis? Younger readers will have no idea I’m sure.

Shari Lewis was a kids’ show host in the ‘50s-‘70s. She was also a ventriloquist. Remember the puppets Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse? Those were Shari Lewis’. They weren’t particularly hilarious but they were endearing.

And some other things about Shari Lewis: she won twelve Emmys, was a magician, juggler, singer, dancer, and was considered one of the finest ventriloquists in the world. Oh, and she co-wrote an episode of STAR TREK.

So why is she a role model?

In 1974 I was a disc jockey in San Diego. (See my annual post about being fired just before Christmas.) A friend was visiting and we went to Belmont Park, which is an old-time amusement park, complete with rickety roller coaster, a boardwalk, etc. It’s still open. Neither Sea World nor Legoland could kill it. 

Well this was an afternoon in the middle of the week during August. Crowded it wasn’t. How it’s still open today I don’t know.

Oh wait.  Wrong lamb chop
We walked by an auditorium and saw that Shari Lewis was performing. Next show in ten minutes. What the hell? A little nostalgia. And it’s not like there were a thousand other great things to see or do at Belmont Park. So we went in. The auditorium seated probably 200. There was one person sitting there. We figured, well when it gets closer to showtime people are going to stream in. So we took a seat right up front. I had heard she was a great ventriloquist so I wanted to be close enough to see her lips. (How many people go to a show because they want to see the star’s lips?).

You see where this is going, don't you?

When it was time for the show to begin there were literally three people in the audience. Now remember, Shari Lewis at the time was a big name. She had done network shows for over a decade. She gave not one but two command performances for the Queen. And here she was, on a hot August afternoon in an amusement park performing for three idiots. Oh, and it was free admission.  How much could she have been paid?  I picture some supervisor handing her a big bag of quarters from the Whack-a-mole game. 

I would not have blamed her if she had come out and said, “Sorry guys. I never do shows for audiences smaller than the number of puppets I have.”

Redd Fox essentially did just that once.  He was a long-time nightclub comic who became the star of SANFORD & SON.  As the story goes, he was playing in some Vegas showroom.  It's the midnight show.  There are four people in the house.  The band plays the SANFORD & SON theme, he walks out on stage, surveys the audience, says something to the effect of "Four fucking people?  I ain't plain' for four fucking people."  He then walks off.  The band again plays the SANFORD & SON theme, lights up in the auditorium.  End of show, goodnight.  

But that’s not what Shari Lewis did.

She came out and started her show.

At first, I have to admit, I was really uncomfortable. I felt so self-conscious. She was essentially doing her act just for me. And it’s not like I could leave.

But as her show continued my discomfort slowly gave way to admiration. Even though there were just three audience members, she was performing her heart out. It would have been so easy to just go at half-speed, drop a bunch of bits. But Shari went through her material with energy and class. (She probably did drop some of the jokes geared for kids but that's all the more reason to thank her.)  There could have been 10,000 in the venue. I was in awe.

And the show itself was great. She was a phenomenal ventriloquist. I remember a bit she did with an auctioneer, puppets talking a mile a minute, she chiming in -- it was amazing. Another time she had her puppets sing and even yodel. How do you yodel without moving your lips?

When the show was over – and it was about 45 minutes. We stood up and gave her a standing ovation. And since it was just the three of us, my friend and I approached the stage, shook her hand, and told her how knocked out we were by her performance. I also joked that she should consider changing agents. She laughed.

But if ever there was the definition of a trouper; that was it. Over the years I’ve been on the radio in the middle of the night knowing no one was listening (a 15 inning Syracuse Chiefs game from Denver on a station that covered less territory than your Wifi router), been in an improv group that would occasionally play to audiences of seven, and wrote everyday for a blog that when I started out was being read by maybe ten people a week. But I always thought back to Shari Lewis. I learned from her that day what it means to be a consummate pro and I have emulated her ever since.  Sadly, she left us way too soon.  She was only 65 when she passed.   But I'm proud to say she's one of my role models. 

Do you have a surprising role model?  If so, who and why?  And can she yodel?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Audience research is bullshit

A perennial topic on this blog is research. In my interview last week with former NBC President, Warren Littlefield he discussed it and the flaws in the system as he saw them. I received an interesting Friday Question though, right after the election, supporting the notion of research and seeking my response.  (I'm also trying to answer a few more of these questions and catch up a little.)   Here’s his Q and my A.

It’s from Hecky:

Given the success of sabremetrics and deft statistical analysis in both sports and now politics (Nate Silver corrected predicted everything but the senate race in North Dakota), how can you be so opposed to research testing in principle when it comes to entertainment? Certainly it's true that a lot of research is done poorly (e.g. bad methodology, unwarranted conclusions/inferences, sloppy handling of the data, etc.). The companies doing it for profit don't make their methods publicly available, so who knows if what they're doing is any good. But I don't think that justifies a wholesale rejection of the entire enterprise. Maybe we just haven't seen a Nate Silver of Nielsen yet.

All this stuff about "going with your gut" and just finding "great" material and having "vision" -- unquantifiable rules of thumb -- strikes me as complete hooey. It's the exact same sort of dogma that got so deliciously panned in "Moneyball" and in all the election post-mortems about FOX News predictions over the last two days. When done right, statistical research methods work, and it doesn't really matter what's being analyzed. It could be baseball, TV, the stock market, or politics. TV is about making money by generating ratings. And I don't see why we shouldn't expect proper research to aid in achieving that goal. It's just a matter of figuring out the right parameters by which to measure the performance of one's algorithm.

Thank you for your question, Hecky.  Let me first say this: in 1974 I worked in the NBC research department.  My educational background emphasized math.  I appreciate the value of statistics and have seen the process of audience testing first hand from both sides -- as the network and as a producer.   Okay -- that's my disclaimer.  Here's my answer: 

How do you measure art, Hecky? How do you assign a numeric value to creative endeavors? Yes, you can predict who will win an election. It’s simple. People tell you they’ll vote for candidate A or candidate B and you put a check in the appropriate column. If you’ve asked the right people, if you’ve asked a large enough sample of people, and they’re truthful then you can make a prediction with relative assurance (always taking into account a margin for error).

When you’re analyzing baseball players there are intangibles but their ultimate value can be determined by performance. How many hits in how many at bats? Strikes vs. balls? How many stolen bases and how many caught stealings? They're all numbers -- numbers that don't lie.  MONEYBALL found statistics that were overlooked. They discovered undervalued players. And in MONEYBALL, these statistics were used merely as one form of input. Scouting and intangibles were still taken into account, just not to the same extent.  And the advantage the Oakland A's had was that no one else knew these statistics, which gave them a competitive edge.  Today every team knows those same formulas.  So you better have someone with an eye for talent to go along with the computer readouts.

But turning to entertainment --

When a joke doesn’t get a laugh, is it because the writer isn’t good, the actor didn’t deliver the line well, the audience doesn’t like that actor, the audience doesn’t like the situation, the audience doesn’t understand the joke, the audience is tired because it’s late at night, the air conditioning isn’t working, they’ve heard a similar joke, they didn’t hear the joke correctly, they’re biased against jokes of that topic, they were distracted by something else going on on the set, a camera blocked their view, they were pre-occupied by problems at home, or any combination of the above? Plus, the audience you’re testing has little dials and is asked to twist them to the right or left depending on how much they liked said joke – what’s the standard? Two people may find the joke equally funny but one person gives it a +4 and the other gives it a +7.  Is one guy overly generous or is the other overly tough? 

So when a test audience is watching your show and that joke comes on the screen and a line on a graph determines how funny it supposedly is – how accurate do you think that is? And how helpful is that number in determining why the joke didn’t rate higher?

Okay, let’s say you ask each audience member why he didn’t laugh at the joke. Here’s the answer you’re going to get most of the time: it wasn’t funny. Yeah, we know it wasn’t funny. Why? You think they can tell you? I’ve watched focus groups where people didn’t like characters because of their shoes.

On the other hand, you poll a bunch of people on who they plan to vote for they can tell you. And if you ask why they can generally give you an answer. They like his tax plan. They think the other guy isn’t a friend of Israel’s. They always vote along party lines. Their reasons aren’t subconscious. When you laugh at a joke, when you hear a new band, when you see a certain painting how often can you accurately define and articulate what you like about it and to what extent? And then digitize it.

That’s what program research attempts to do. It takes your show and breaks it down into which characters the audience thought they liked, which jokes they thought they liked, and based on that – how popular the show might be.

There is one statistic I would love to see. It’s also the one statistic these audience research firms won’t show you. HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BEEN WRONG?

Since the failure rate on television shows is over 90% and these were the shows that all tested well, my guess is that number they’re keeping from us is also well into the 90 percentile. So Hecky, I disagree with your theory that testing works. It doesn’t always.

Now do the math. If something doesn’t work 90+% of the time why keep doing it?

Nat Silver’s numbers worked. His information was accurate. Karl Rove’s was not. And neither was the research that said SEINFELD was a bomb and THE PLAYBOY CLUB was going to be a breakout hit.

So the answer here is not to put too much stock in audience research. It’s too flawed. As Mr. Littlefield said, any show with new ideas, hard-to-categorize premises or execution test poorly. But show Mother Teresa assisting orphans and it will test through the roof.What would you rather watch -- that or BREAKING BAD?   Guess which of those two shows the research company would recommend. 

And yet the networks make programming decisions based almost SOLEY on this flawed information. And that’s my big beef. So when a network president “goes with his guy” and discards research for what he believes is a good show, I say that’s just as valid or more valid an indicator of whether a show will succeed. And a whole lot cheaper.

I could see political strategists going to Romney and saying you need to appeal more to women and minorities. I can’t see advisors telling Picasso he needs more blue, or telling Shakespeare that 64.6% of playgoers don’t like Hamlet because he’s indecisive.