Thursday, January 31, 2013

Not everyone cares about the Super Bowl

It’s Super Bowl week, all everyone is talking about… here in the United States. We Americans seem to forget that there’s the rest of the world out there and not everyone on the planet shares our zest and passion for a football game or Honey Boo Boo.

Last year I watched the Super Bowl in Tauranga. That’s a cute little beach town in New Zealand. I was hoping somebody closer to Los Angeles would invite me to their Super Bowl party but this was best offer I could find.

Seriously, I was on a cruise at the time. (Read all about it here and here.)

It was quite a different experience. First of all, it was “Super Bowl Monday” due to the time change. Secondly, walking around town there was only one bar that was showing it. I asked the owner if he expected a big crowd and he said no.

Fortunately, the ship did made arrangements to show the game live in their theater. So that’s where I and most of the passengers congregated. We watched the international feed. They carried NBC’s coverage, complete with Al Michaels (thank goodness) but not the U.S. commercials. Instead, during commercial breaks we were shown the same three ESPN promos over and over and over. You forget how important those commercials are to the whole Super Bowl experience. And you don’t realize how MUCH time is devoted to those spots. When they’d go to a commercial break you could get up, get something to eat, take a harbor tour of the town, and still get back before the next play.

The thing that struck me most though was the absolute marvel of modern communication. I was watching something that was going on halfway around the world and I was watching it live. It was not long ago when viewers in Hawaii would see network primetime shows one week after they aired in the states. The networks would literally ship them the films of the shows. That’s right, shows were still on film. An editor would splice in the commercials. Our 50th state was one giant SPOILER ALERT.   And now, I had a better view of the game than people who were actually there sitting in the stands. Equally amazing is that when I click “publish” this article will instantaneously be available to readers in Tauranga and everywhere else on the planet (except China and all those countries that block me). And even more remarkable is that some people WILL read it.

Like most folks in America, I will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday. Hope burns eternal that someone will invite me to a party. But for those of you in the rest of the world who have the audacity to not give a shit just because it’s a big deal to us, have a great weekend. I trust you’ll find something to do.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is there laughter in the writers room?

Yes.

A lot of it.

There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh.  Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.

Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.

True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into TWO AND A HALF MEN and MIKE & MOLLY (they had a whole subplot this week about their dog who couldn’t take a shit), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.

You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.

The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned yesterday, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.

As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.

I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.

So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room. Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The laugh that almost cost me my career

It was our first staff job. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW as “term writers.” That’s the lowest rung on the ladder. Term writers didn’t even get a credit. I don’t think there are term writers today. Anyway, we didn’t care. We were thrilled. Not only were we on an actual show but it was an MTM show. This was the mid ‘70’s and MTM back then was Camelot. The best shows (MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, BOB NEWHART) and the best writers with the ultimate mensch, Grant Tinker serving as King Arthur. We felt special and honored just driving on the lot.

We were hired by showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. They are two of the funniest people I’ve ever met. The rest of the staff was Gary David Goldberg (who created FAMILY TIES) and Hugh Wilson (who created WKRP IN CINCINNATI and directed FIRST WIVES CLUB). We were very green and understood that our main function the first few weeks was to just hang back and learn.

THE TONY RANDALL SHOW was a multi-camera sitcom, shot before a live studio audience. So the process was the actors would rehearse all day, the writers would come down to the stage at about 4:00, watch a runthrough, scribble notes, and return to the office to rewrite.

I found the first few runthroughs somewhat daunting. I was dutifully marking up my script, trying to size up what worked and what didn’t on the fly – a skill I had never needed before.

After a couple of runthroughs Tom took me aside and gently suggested I should laugh during the actors’ performances. It helps the cast know what’s funny. I had been concentrating on the script so intently I never even thought about that. I thanked him and assured him I would laugh in the future.

Tony Randall played a judge in the show and the next week’s script was about a convict he had sentenced to prison who was now released. There was reason to believe he might want to take revenge on Tony. It was a funny script written by Earl Pomerantz.

Side bar: Among the many things I learned from Earl over the years was sprinkling funny things in the stage direction from time to time. I had never seen that before. In this script there was a scene in his home and to be safe he had beefed up security. This is what Earl wrote: “You wanna see locks? Look at that door.” Readers tend to skip over stage direction, but if you reward them with a joke or two they’re more likely to stay with it. The great Billy Wilder was once asked, “should directors also be writers?” to which he said, “No. They should be readers.” End of side bar.

We went down for the runthrough. For the first few scenes I laughed along with the other writers, getting into the swing of it. But then came that scene in his house. Zane Lasky, who played uber earnest law clerk Mario Lanza took it upon himself to be Tony’s bodyguard. There was a noise and overzealous Zane was supposed to pull out a gun. The gun he produced was a cannon. Larger than Dirty Harry’s.

Well, that just slayed me. I didn’t just laugh; I was in hysterics. You know how something strikes you so funny that you just can’t stop laughing? That was me over this one small sight gag. The actors stopped acting, everyone on the set was looking at me quizzically. I was terribly embarrassed and yet I still could not stop laughing. Tom and Jay were glaring at me. There were tears rolling down my face and my sides hurt. Eventually I calmed down and the scene resumed. Now I was afraid to laugh at anything for fear that it would set me off again. So picture this funny scene, all the writers are laughing and enjoying and I’m sitting there like a statue biting my lip. And you know how infectious laughter is. I was sweating trying to hold it in.

As we walked back to the office (in silence) I decided I better kick ass during the rewrite. After that display I was on very thin ice. So I became a joke machine that night, pitching lines left and right. A lot of them actually made it into the script and I redeemed myself (for another week). When people ask what motivates writers and where does the humor come from – the answer is often FEAR.

The night that episode was filmed the gun gag got a huge laugh from the audience. I wanted to turn to Tom Patchett and say, “See?” but decided I really liked this job.

The moral here to all young writers: When going to runthroughs laugh unless you find something really funny.

Monday, January 28, 2013

I still can't get over what happened last night

SPOILER ALERT: Contains plot details from last night’s DOWNTON ABBEY

This isn’t so much a post about DOWNTON ABBEY as it is about our attachment to fictional characters. And why drama and storytelling is so powerful.

I’m a fan of DOWNTON ABBEY. It’s rollicking good soap opera fun. Everyone is so mannered and foppish, and Maggie Smith is so droll and amusing. I never felt a strong connection to the show. It’s not like I can identify with the second footman or Lady Mary. Or dress like the Earl of Grantham. As I watch the show I do find myself wondering how they heat the place or why Elizabeth McGovern has only one expression?

There are a lot of storylines and some are more interesting than others. (Get Mr. Bates out of prison already and allow Edith even one moment of happiness please.)

But I was unprepared for what happened Sunday night. And even more unprepared for my reaction. They killed the youngest daughter, Sybil. And I cried. A fictional character on a mini series and I was sobbing. Sybil was the sweetest of the three grown daughters, but in a way that kind of made her the least interesting. They had to give her a revolutionary husband to spice things up. But in many ways she was the soul of the family, the pure heart and moral compass.

From a dramatic standpoint this plot twist makes sense. The repercussions will set off conflicts and complications that may drive the series for the rest of its run.

But I hate it!

Give me a less dramatic show but keep Sybil. I don’t care if storylines are hard to come by. Mr. Bates can rot in prison for all I care. What if suddenly there’s this mystery cure and Sybil… yeah yeah, I know.

These are all completely irrational reactions. But that’s what happens when you really have an emotional investment in characters. And as a writer, to me that’s the highest goal. I’m primarily a comedy writer so yes, I want to make the audience to laugh, but even more important, I want the audience to care. I want to touch them emotionally.

I think back to the death of Henry Blake on MASH. An entire nation was stunned and devastated. No beloved series regular had ever been killed before – especially on a sitcom. It caused quite an uproar, but producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart stood by their decision. People die in wars. People you know. People you love. Gene and Larry received thousands of angry letters and they personally answered each and every one.

What’s Julian Fellowes’ email address?

Killing a main character can be a big risk. You can alienate your audience. And you lose the value that character contributed to the show. The actress who played Sybil -- Jessica Brown-Findlay – brought a sensitivity and humanity to her role that was a refreshing change from the conniving and posturing of most everyone else.

I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here and how they cope with such a tragic turn of events and … oh hell! I’m still just wrecked. How could they kill Sybil? I loved Sybil. I didn’t know it until they killed her but I did! It’s not fair!

And I love that a television show made me feel this way.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to memorize scripts -- Part 2

Here’ the final  installment in how actors memorize scripts.  Part 1 was yesterday.  These come from actors you know. As you’ll see, no two methods are even remotely similar.

Actor 1:

The repetition from rehearsals is very helpful. But, of course, on "Cheers" we had lots of changes. That's why starting in the middle of the week was so constructive.

I could study during the weekend. I would mark the common consonants, like the "t"s or the "s"s or whatever. Sometimes the letters were near alphabetical, but even if they weren't the consonants gave me a landmark in my long paragraphs.

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Actor 2:

When memorizing lines, I make it a rule to lay off xanax or klonopin.

Most shows aren't that good, so it's difficult to stay awake anyway. Usually, I read the whole script first so I understand the story. Then, I sit in a chair in the corner of my bedroom and literally memorize page by page, reading each line and the cues, and then by putting my hand over my lines (i.e. covering up my lines) and trying to say them. It helps me to say them out loud.

I stay with each page until I can do the whole page and then move on. In a long play, I aim at only five pages a day. For plays, I also like to know my lines as soon as possible, even before we start, even though a lot of directors don't approve of that (because, they believe, you get locked in to line readings. I disagree- particularly in a really wordy play. I think if you know the lines really well you can say them in any way that occurs to you during rehearsal.

I also like to go over my lines in my head wandering around the street - if I can do them with all the distractions of the city - then I really know them, even though you look pretty stupid to all the people passing you by .

It has to be a little faster for film and tv - although I do the same things. It helps me to imagine the blocking, even if what I imagine doesn't always turn out to be correct.

Honestly, I'm not particularly good at memorizing. I know people who are dazzlingly fast - they can read down a page and they've pretty much got it. They almost never sit in a corner somewhere and work on it... just by rehearsing and osmosis they get it. Alec Baldwin's ability to memorize fast is astounding. Somehow, they see the page in their head.

A bunch of people hire assistants to constantly grill the lines - I don't usually do that but it's really common.

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Actor 3:


Hi Ken,

It is fairly easy for me to memorize lines at this point.

Normally, there is an objective to whatever I am saying in a scene (ie: I know what I want to say) so the lines are obvious to learn.

Sometimes it is harder when there is a long speech. That is harder to learn - I have to make sense of it for me then just say it over and over until I know it in my sleep.

I have little clues for memorizing too: if I have to remember a list of things in a speech I remember the first letter of each word.

The hardest lines to remember are those in another language.

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Actor 4 (a soap opera star):

A great deal of it depends on certain skills that you're either born with or you're not. If you are born with the capacity to memorize, so much the better for you. However other factors do come into play. One of those is your comfort and familiarity with the character you're portraying. If it's new and you're just kinda feeling your way along, might be slightly difficult at first. However, if it's a character with which/whom you are completely familiar and at ease then you know, almost before the writer puts it on the page, what you'll say and how you'll say it. Another factor is the leeway, if any, that an actor is given with his/her lines. On a soap, for instance, with sometimes PAGES of dialogue or (heaven help us) a monologue, you (more often than not) will be given a little room to ad-lib. Get all the correct information out, give your partner their correct cue and make it sound natural and real...and you can get away with a lot.

Stage trained actors usually fare much better on the screen than the other way around with regard to memorization. There's very little ad-libbing tolerated in the theatre and so that training is invaluable when making the leap to TV or film. However, the advantage of doing live theatre is the rehearsal process, which can take weeks of doing the same scene over and over...and THAT'S where much of the memorizing is done for the stage. For the screen, big or little, if you are just not a good memorizer, the only thing you can do is go over and over and over and over...and over it with a partner or in the mirror. Sentence by sentence if you have to.

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Actor 5:

Years ago I was taught a method called the "key word" method for memorizing commercial copy quickly when auditioning for commercials in NY where the copy is presented to you when you get to the audition. You only have a few minutes to look at it before you're whisked in to go on camera. The "key word" is the word that jumps out at you when you are reading a line and is different for everyone, but hopefully is the "heart" of a sentence. You circle it and memorize it. Then in theory you have a list of "key words" that bring up the complete sentence when needed.

Now, my actress wife has also influenced me and her method is one that I have used more and more the older I get. Seeing a picture in my mind of the sentence and matching an action to it at the same time.

An actor also has an action for each line. Actions being verbs. For example, in typical arguments between two romantic leads in a scene, often one character will get to a point where they "present", "list", "defend" (all active verbs) their P.O.V. with a "laundry list" of idea. In the actor's mind when you get to that place in the scene in my mind I know what is to be said is the "laundry list", and I match that to my action/verb "defend my P.O.V.", "present my reasoning", "list my reasoning", etc.

The process typically gets harder the older you get because for most of us our memory begins to go, but with these tools and techniques, hopefully we can stay adept at memorizing for more years than we should. They are good brain exercises too. All memorization ... jokes, poetry, speeches, etc. are good for our brains.

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Actor 6:

I'm what is called a "quick study" -- I can learn pages in a few minutes. Apparently, that has to do with what side of the brain you work on -- and that's not a choice!

I learn through images. I see a line and I see the picture of the line. For example, "I love you, you're the greatest man I've ever known, but if you don't clean up that office, I"m going to leave you!"

I see the man I love standing in a room full of paper which he is not putting in a trash can and then I see myself leaving.

The picture -- to the action -- to the line.

Sometimes, there is a word I get caught on and then I use a muscle memory technique. The brain is a muscle and if you lift 20-30 times all the other
muscles (the tongue etc.) remember. So, I repeat by rote over and over and over until the muscle remembers and then I don't have to think about that word -- it comes -- the muscle just
does it.

Finally, my acting technique, Meisner, learned in grad school -- lines are just an extension of the physical action. So when you are working out the part you are in motion moving from
set piece to prop to person etc. and it's like a dancer with choreography you just know what the action is your playing and you move in that direction and the lines come because you know where you are headed based on the intention and action of the scene.

Thanks again to all the actors who participated.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

How to memorize scripts

Based on a reader’s question I surveyed a number of very successful actors and actresses to learn how they memorize scripts. Their answers were all fascinating and wildly different. There were too many to squeeze into one post so tomorrow I’ll share the rest. I’m sure a few of you have methods of your own. My thanks to these actors for their generous participation. Memorization is just one of the many skills I don't have to be an actor.

Actor 1


Read the scene a few times. Try not to read it out loud a lot. Then get a pad and scribble your dialogue as quickly as possible without worrying about being able to read it back later...no punctuation. Write as fast as your brain goes. Keep doing that until the lines come fast.

Then have someone read the scene with you a few times, or do it yourself covering the dialogue with something until you get to it.

If they're good lines it'll go quickly. If they're crap lines, do the same thing but curse a lot while you're doing it.

******

Actor 2

I have a lousy memory. And it isn't - for me at least, though I expect this may be generally true - something that gets easier with time, since, with time, one's memory declines.

I HATE memorizing.

Then, there are 2 categories of memorizing: 1) Theater - must be word perfect. Them's the rules, since the script is "rented" from the owner, not purchased. 2) tv/film: depending on who the producers are, who the director is, how much clout the writer has (lots if he's a producer - as you know), one may be able to get away with a bit of paraphrasing...or "improving". More in drama than comedy, I think.

Here's how I memorize, and it's totally obsessive/compulsive.

I number all my lines. If there is more than one scene, and the scenes do not immediately follow each other, than I treat each scene separately. After numbering, I go through the scene, making sure I can do each line by memory. Then I make sure I can do each pair of lines by memory. 1&2. 3&4. 5&6, etc. Then I do 2&3, 4&5, 6&7, through to the end. Then by 3's. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, etc. Then 2-4, 5-7, 8-10, etc. Then 3-5.... Then by 4's, 5's, 6's, until I'm doing the entire scene's lines from memory. If there are lengthy speeches, I also treat them as separate entities with this method. This is a method of my own devising, and probably a rotten way to go about it. Some people simply look at dialogue and remember it. Some people should not ever step in front of my car.

And that's how I do it. If working creatively is heaven, then my process is hell.

Oh, and one also has to memorize cues...or just wait until there's a lengthy silence and then begin speaking. Cues, sometimes, are actually more difficult, unless they actually "cue" the next speech.

Friendly cue: What time is it?
Unfriendly cue: I'm feeling kind of...mushy.

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Actor 3

Hmmmm.... Good question. It just comes from a combo of looking it over and the repetition of saying the lines. I think I'm a visual learner because if I can visualize the type and where it was on the page, the words come. It's probably second nature at this point. It's also really great for me to have at least one night of looking at it just before bed. Then, somehow, the next day ...as if by magic....it's there. ( I go into a terrible panic when handed pages on the set!)

Overall, I would say that the more often someone practices the skill the better they become at it. I'd advise a new actor to work on various monologues regularly .....just to become easy with the skill (I'd recommend Shakespeare.)

I do have to say that good writing is easier to memorize. Bad writing can be a real struggle. CSI is a nightmare!

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Actor 4


The truth is that the only time I actively memorize is when the lines are awkward or poorly written. Then it is sometimes necessary to go over the words again and again until you find a way to make them 'fall trippingly off the tongue'.

When doing a play, where everything must be learned at once, I usually find that by the time I have studied my way through the script several times I have already picked most of them up. The thing that seals it is the blocking process; suddenly you just know that when you cross down stage left and pick up that glass you say "X".

The same is true when you are shooting movies and long form TV. You just do it scene by scene, and working with the other actors makes it all come alive and be much easier.

Now sitcoms - that can be a real challenge since those darn writers just keep fussing and adjusting up until the moment they are thrown off of the sound stage by the janitor after the final taping. I made the mistake of telling the Charles Brothers that I was a very quick study. It got to be a sort of game with them to give me brand new lengthy orations just as the stage manager was counting down. Certainly kept me on my toes!
 
Tomorrow the rest. Hope you find this topic as fascinating as I do.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What does Sarah Palin have in common with Ben & Kate?

They were all cancelled.  But that leaves Sarah open for pilot season. 

Will somebody wake up Jane Fonda?

Here are some Friday Questions for your weekend pleasure:

Chris leads off:

Do you get more royalties if you used to be the showrunner of a series or do you get them just for episodes you've written and characters you've created?

You just get them for episodes you’ve written. Showrunners frequently rewrite every draft and most don’t take the script to arbitration to try to get their name attached. They believe that rewriting is just part of the job and why they’re getting a big salary to begin with.

However, some showrunners do like to stick their names on every script. And there are writers in town who won’t work with them because of it.

In all the years my partner and I have been showrunners or head writers we only took one script to arbitration to get our names included. And we won the arbitration. The writer, a freelancer, came back with an outline that was wildly different from the story we sent him out with. As in "What the fuck did you do that for?"  We respectfully told him to go back to the original story we had given him and write a first draft from that. Weeks and weeks went by. No draft. Finally, we called his agent and said if it’s not on our desk on Monday morning we were pulling the assignment. The script arrived that Monday and again, he had strayed way off the mark. I have no idea why he felt the need to do that. We told the agent we were very disappointed in both his attitude and the work. Two days later the writer delivered yet a second draft. And again, it was nowhere near the story we approved. At that point we just threw out all of his drafts, David and I wrote the entire script… from the outline we had given him, and decided to take it to arbitration because it pissed us off that he’d be getting full royalties from a script he had nothing at all to do with.

Meanwhile, we rewrote hundreds of others scripts and always gave the original writer full credit. Some of my best jokes are credited to other writers. 

John T asks:

I would like to get a copy of a script for a spec I am writing. Who exactly should I contact to accomplish this?

If you’re in LA, there are bookstores in Hollywood that often sell TV scripts. You can also go to the Writers Guild Library or the libraries at UCLA and USC. You won’t be able to take them home but you can see and read them.

Don’t live in LA? You may find scripts online for the show you want to spec. Or you may contact the show and ask for a script. Sometimes they’ll accommodate you. Check eBay. You might get lucky.

But however you do it; it’s worth the time and effort to do it right and submit your spec in their template.

Jim S has a question regarding my post about celebrities going to Lakers games to be seen.

Are there celebrities who just attend events because they like the sport. It is my understanding that the Canadian colony in Hollywood show up to Kings games. Tom Selleck seems to genuinely enjoy baseball.

Sure. And I have no problem with them. Billy Crystal has been going to every Clippers game for years. He’s a true fan. It’s the celebs who only show up at playoff games or opening day or to be seen by other celebs that pisses me off.

Remember when Jane Fonda was married to Ted Turner who owned the Atlanta Braves? Jane would only show up during playoff games and several times the camera caught her in stands sleeping. Well, that’s a seat some real Braves fan couldn’t get. Same with Fox sitcom stars they trot out to be seen at World Series games to promote their shows. Give the real team rooters a chance!

And among those rooters are Jack Nicolson who is at every Lakers game. And I used to see Larry King, Rob Reiner, Tom Hanks, Jane Seymour and other celebrities all the time at Dodger games – even when they played the Pirates in July and it was 100 degrees. More power to those stars.

Interestingly, when Sandy Koufax goes to a Dodger game (which is rare because he lives in Florida) he never sits in the press box or a luxury suite. He always prefers to just sit in the stands with the fans. And when he wants a hot dog and a beer he stands in the concession lines just like everybody else. As if I didn’t love him before.

From sedatedtabloidreader:

I am living in the UK. Is it worth me submitting a spec script, or will I be rejected due to geography?

It’s worth submitting a spec script if you assure the producer that you’re willing to fly to Los Angeles at a moment’s notice if he wants to see you.

And finally, from Todd:

Just this morning I watched an episode of Frasier you directed called, "Roz and the Shnoz." It's heavy on farce, (people with giant noses), but it's fantastic. Any memories of directing that episode?

I did a post on this very topic. You can find it here.

As always, thanks for your questions. Leave yours in the comments section.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wanted: Comedy writers for Siri

Apparently this is real. According to an article in MacRumors, Apple is looking for people to write comedic answers for Siri. Siri is the personal assistant feature that talks back to you in newer iPhones. At first she was friendly and humble, but Apple is now looking to give her a little edge.

You know what this means, don’t you? It means that now even Dane Cook’s phone will be funnier than he is.

It also means a job for someone or a group of people.

What they need is witty responses to user questions. I’m sure the first funny response they’ll have to settle on is an answer to what I’m sure is her most asked question:

“Siri, will you fuck me?

If you ask that now she says, “There is no need for profanity.” Still funnier than Dane Cook but pithier lines are out there.

If you ask her: “Should I get a Droid?” she currently says, “I can’t answer that.” A good comedy writer could beat that joke.

Ask her, “Do you like oral sex?” she will say: “I don’t know what oral sex is. Would you like a web search for it?” So Siri’s going to need a little tutoring too.

I wonder if the writers they hire will get notes? Will one have a joke red lined with the note: “Siri wouldn’t say that?” Or “Disembodied voices have been doing that joke for years?”

Might this open up a whole new marketplace for comedy writers? Punching up GPS systems. Jokes for automated phone operators.

If anyone applies for this job, please let me know what the process is.  It's probably worth taking the gig just for the Apple employee discount alone.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The dumbest article I've read in awhile

It appeared in the Huffington Post. The title was

Women's Names Ruined By Songs: 23 Names Changed By Music

The thrust of the piece was that due to songs that mentioned girls with these names, any girl with one of these names will be scorned and ridiculed. And furthermore, the article suggests that having the wrong name will scar you for life and make it much harder to achieve success and happiness.

So what are the names that will send poor women to their doom?

Amy, Stephanie, Caroline, Candy, Amanda, Kim, Roxanne, Sharona, Diana, Virginia, Jolene, Macarena, Delilah, Debra, Eleanore, Lola, Mandy, Molly, Konstantine, Stacy, Cecilia, Jamie, Iesha, Jenny, Shameka, Kesha, Tara, Shonda, Sabrina, Crystal, Deronda, Felicia, Tanesha, Sha'von, Yolanda, Monique, Christina, and Teresa.

If you’re counting, that’s 38 names not 23. But hey, they only missed by 15.

Yes, I can understand how it might be a liability if you’re a girl named Hitler, or Pussy, or Chlamydia. But Amy? Kim? Jenny? There must be 5,000,000 Jennys alone.

And when you think of Caroline, don’t you think of “Sweet Caroline”, the Neil Diamond song? Sure, Yankee fans hate it, but for most of us Caroline has a positive connotation. If you’re Amanda you’re really screwed because you can’t even use the nickname Mandy. And if you have a daughter you want to name Teresa after a dear departed loved one, you’re going to opt for something else because of a Petey Pablo song?

When writing scripts we’re always looking for names. We try to match the name with the character. If it’s a Jewish girl we’re not going to name her Mary Margaret. If it’s an Italian mother from the old country we’re not going to name her Suzette. And we need to match the name with the time period. Not many Chloes during the Roman Empire. Not many cheerleaders named Persephone in high school today.  Fortunately, there are hundreds of beautiful girl names -- many on that list. 

If parents are not naming children after relatives or themselves, a good portion name kids after celebrities they admire or characters in movies and TV. Wendy is a name made up by J.M. Barrie in his 1904 play PETER PAN. In the early ‘70s the single most popular name was Jennifer, based in part on the character Ali McGraw played in the smash movie (at the time) LOVE STORY (it's unwatchable today). The most popular girl’s name in 2012? Sophia. I’m sure many were influenced by SofĂ­a Vergara from MODERN FAMILY even though she spells it differently. Sofia – spelled the way she does is number 19. Number 25 is Brooklyn. Now that has to be for model Brooklyn Decker. Who named their kid Brooklyn ten years ago? Horrifying is to think of number 49. It’s Khloe and that can be for only person I know. Imagine going through life named after a Kardashian?

Personally, I think the article is ridiculous. Amy Adams has done okay. Kim Cattrall's career didn’t suffer. I don’t think Caroline Kennedy’s life would be any better were she named Sofia. Lord knows Amanda Peet has muddled through somehow. So has Jamie Gertz. And Crystal Bernard.

So if you’re one of the 38 girls who has the 23 names that will ruin your life, I wouldn’t sweat it. And hey, you could always change your name. To those unfortunate babies named Khloe – you might want to consider something else when you get older, a name that won’t cause you ridicule and shame. How about Lewinsky?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Phantom of the Oprah

A recent Friday Question reminded me of one of the craziest rewrite nights I ever experienced. It was on WINGS. I was the Thursday night punch up guy. They had a two-parter called “The Gift.” Both episodes were written by the great David Angell. He was back east in New England writing the scripts. He sent us part one and continued to work on part two while part one was in production.

The plot was very complicated. Most of gang was rehearsing a community theater production – “Phantom of the Oprah” (that title always makes me laugh). And Joe mortgaged his house to buy Helen a cello for some reason. I think she was trying to get a job in an orchestra. You’ll understand why I’m not clear on the details.

David pretty much worked out the story himself. When he sent in part one we really didn’t know what was going to occur in part two. But we all trusted David so didn’t worry about it.

Unfortunately, when we got part one on its feet there were a lot of unforeseen problems. We walked back to the office resigned to a pretty long night. It happens. No matter how well you prepare there will always be one or two scripts a season that are just problematic. You roll up your sleeves, wrestle them to the ground and move on.

But there were extenuating circumstances here. There were story problems but we didn’t know what we could change because we didn’t know what was going to happen in part two. Are we lifting a beat that sets up something pivotal in the second part? Does a story fix screw up a similar scene later?

Of course, the first thing we tried to do was reach David Angell. But he wasn’t home. He was out for the evening. How did we exist before smart phones?

Meanwhile, we had to write something. The actors would be on the stage in twelve hours. Thus began the goofiest rewrite I’ve ever been in. Talk about flying blind.  This was the Rubix Cube of comedy.  I remember we pumped tons of jokes into it, hoping they might mask the iffy plot points.  I think eventually we just made changes we felt were necessary and David would have to adjust the remaining script accordingly.

That’s what he did. Part two worked better but along the way during that rewrite night there were a number of places we would have done something if we could have gone back and set it up in part one. But of course, by then part one was in the can.

It’s been years since I’ve seen those episodes but I seem to recall that somehow they all came together. But truly kids, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.


Monday, January 21, 2013

My daughter the pole dancer

My daughter, Annie recently took a pole dancing class. Here's her account of it (with help from her writing partner, Jon). As a father I couldn't be more proud.

Everyone likes to think their coworkers respect them…

Mine bought me a Groupon to a pole dancing class for my birthday. (Based on the average age of my coworkers, I chose to take this as a sign of admiration for my functional hips.)

I didn't plan to actually use the thing until my dad demanded I do a blog post about it. Most parents tend to discourage their children entering the world of erotic dancing. Mine bought me kneepads and offered to drive.

I'm lucky to have found the place at all. There was no sign out front, no mention on any directory, absolutely no distinguishing marks of any kind. Areola 51.

I finally discovered the way in and was rewarded for my perseverance with a dimly lit studio whose windows were blacked out by feather boas. It was like stumbling into RuPaul's doomsday bunker.

The class was called Pole Diva (Level 1) and the teacher was a pocket-sized Latina woman who kept criticizing everybody's "sexy pushups."

For the uninitiated, "sexy pushups" are when you caress your body before Shamu sliding along the hardwood and pulling yourself back up. Making sure to rub your hips again for good measure. Based on how my classmates looked doing them, I think "sexy pushup" is meant to be one of those ironic terms like "FOX comedy."

Not that everyone was bad at it. The woman in front of me was clearly the star pupil, and by the end of class even I was throwing her a few singles.

The humiliation of the "sexy pushup" (thoughtfully enhanced by the floor to ceiling mirrors we performed in front of) finally came to an end. It was time to strap on our kneepads (thanks again, Dad!) and pick our pole.

They offered us bottles of alcohol to disinfect the poles before use. I requested penicillin.

We learned a few different spins over the course of the hour. They all had fun names like "the sunburst" and "the firefly." Each one a new way to wind up with my ass on the floor and legs spread wide. The actual spinning was fun, though, until my teacher scolded me for yelling, "Wheeee!"

A large part of pole dancing seems to be walking around the pole, doing a sort of Igor foot drag. I pictured Martha Graham spinning in her grave every time this was referred to as choreography.

I did find one maneuver especially difficult, but was assured it would be much easier once I performed it in high heels. Pole dancing has to be the only physical activity in the world where that's true. "The Lakers are down fifty in the fourth quarter! Get Kobe his stilettos!"

By the end of class, I was so black and blue my dancer name would have been Hematoma. (In actuality, I would choose something a little more exotic if I ever entered the profession. Right now the top candidate is Treif Magnifique.)

The staff knew most of us were only in it for the one class. Still, they kept pressuring us to come back. On our way out, they made sure we knew that they were available for parties. I'm still not clear if they were talking about the studio or the instructors.

I'm sure if I kept at it, I could graduate to Pole Vixen (Level 2). I would love to see that ceremony. No gowns or mortarboards; just the tassels.

That said, I think it's safe to say pole dancing is not going to be added to my list of hobbies. I'd much rather bake the cake than jump out of it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Meanwhile, at Sundance...

With the Sundance Film Festival going on in Park City, Utah, I thought you'd like a glimpse of what Park City is like. I never attended the festival. I'm not important or independent enough. This was from October, 2005 but the mountains and Jeff Katzenberg are still there.

Here’s a travelogue you thought you’d never see – me in Utah. Along with my partner David, and Peter Casey (one of the creators of FRASIER) I am writing a feature. Peter has a condo in Park City and graciously suggested it would be a great place to sequester ourselves and really get some work done. So for four days I was in the land of the Osmonds and Gary Gilmore.

A stewardess was once fired for saying over the PA to passengers “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Please turn your clocks back one hundred years”. Landed in Salt Lake, did just that, then headed up the mountains to Park City, one of America’s premiere posh ski towns. I have never been to any ski towns because I do not ski. I know for many people skiing is an absolute passion but it’s cold, requires a lot of bulky equipment, is costly, and let’s face it: no one ever broke a leg sitting in a movie theatre.

That said, the panoramas were positively breathtaking. I can just see a Park City man coming home from a hard day, stepping out onto his balcony, gazing at the magnificent vista and saying to his wives “Hey, Trixie, Jane, Gloria, you gotta get out here and see this!”

There’s no snow yet so there are no tourists. Peter’s condo is part of a gorgeous lodge. You walk down the deserted hallways, past the cavernous vacant dining room, through the expansive empty lobby and realize…


You’re living THE SHINING.

All that’s missing is the maze. But the quiet was most welcomed and allowed us to get a lot of work done on the script. Thought you’d enjoy a preview. Here’s one of many scenes we wrote.

All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

I think we have a good chance of selling this one.

Took a tour of nearby Deer Valley. Peter pointed out the chair lift pole that an expert skier crashed into splitting open his skull. He also showed us the spot on the road where trucks spin off if there’s a little ice on the ground. Later I learned that skiers on certain runs must carry beacons so if they’re buried in an avalanche they can be found.

Charles Gibson of GOOD MORNING AMERICA owns a huge house on one of the hills. Circular and all in glass and chrome, it looks the Cat in the Hat’s hat. Jeffrey Katzenberg also owns an impressive chalet. So I guess when he’s not in Hawaii taking my lounge chair he’s up here.

Elayne Boosler says this about Utah: “My favorite store here is maternity gowns for Mother of the Bride”.

Girls in Park City all look like pioneer women.

REDRUM. I don’t know why I just wrote that.

Deer Valley hosted the slalom portion of the 2002 Winter Olympics… although the event was held up for three hours because Jeffrey Katzenberg reserved that ski run.

David and I walked down Main Street in Park City (picture Knotts Berry Farm for rich people) and got a number of stares. I’m sure we were the first two Jews of the season. Kinda like the first robin of spring. Soon more Jews would follow and it would be ski season.

REDRUM.

Favorite Main Store establishment: Bad Ass Coffee.

During the winter, reservations at most restaurants and emergency rooms are recommended.

Park City is the home of the Sundance Film Festival every January. So for two weeks any rustic or quaint charm is completely obliterated as Hollywood agents, deal makers, opportunists, sharks, managers, hucksters, lawyers, carnies, boot lickers, snake oil salesmen, and Katzenberg invade the area as if it were their personal Baghdad. But if you’re a skier that’s the time to come because no one is on the slopes. Which begs the question: why not hold the film festival in summer when it’s warm and there’s no skiing anyway?

REDRUM. REDFORD.

During Sundance every theatre screens cutting edge independent films. The other 50 weeks they show DODGEBALL.

Not a lot of Sonny Bono records played on the local radio station here.

There are almost as many SUV’s here as in the parking lot of the Encino Gelson’s.

Events I unfortunately will be missing: “Howl-a-Ween Dog Parade” down Main Street featuring a whole pack of costumed canines. And the “Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair”. I’m upset about missing that one because who writes better poetry than Gabby Hayes and Chill Wills? Plus they’re going to have a colt starting clinic.

I can’t afford a place here but my agent has one. Hmmmmm?

Thanks again to Peter for being the perfect host.

It stays dark every morning till eight make Jack a dull boy.
The ski lifts carry nobody make Jack a dull boy.
Most restaurants are closed and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.
All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.

A book of my travelogues -- WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED -- is still available. You can order it here. Perfect reading while you're waiting for the chair lift.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Speed Dating for Writers

A question I’m always asked is “how do you find a writing partner?”. I met mine in the army but I sure don’t recommend that method. The WGA has come up with a nifty idea. Speed Dating. Just like the social version with the same success rate of getting laid. Every so often the Guild sponsors evenings for writers looking for that perfect scribe mate. I’ve never been to one of course, but I imagine you hear some pretty wacky responses. As a public service, so you don’t make these gaffes, here are few of the responses I would NOT want to hear. (I'm sure you can think of some more yourself.)

Dennis Miller is funny now. He never used to be but he is now.

We can work at my place. I live in Bakersfield.


Hey, hey, don’t touch my Naomi Watts photos! They’re not bothering you.

I can work anywhere any time. In fact, if you’ve got a couch I could crash on, that would be sweet.

If I could go back and work on any classic sitcom from the past, it would have to be MAMA’S FAMILY.

You would be…let’s see…my eighth partner.

I’m really good at editing. You pitch me ten ideas and I can tell you which is the good one.

It's nothing personal. I don't look anyone in the eye.

Do graphic comics count as books I’ve read?

Look, if you didn’t go to an Ivy school I don’t even know why we’re talking.

Everyone who’s read my script thought it wasn’t funny. That’s why I need a partner.

I do my best work between 2 and 4 A.M.

First things first -- who gets top billing?

Let’s work at my place. That way I can watch my twins. They just started walking!

You don’t remember? You slept with me at the Sundance retreat and never called me back, you shit!

I have a spec JOEY I could show you.

This rubber band? Whenever I start feeling this building smoldering rage my shrink says play with this rubber band. Does it bother you?

There’s a British version of THE OFFICE?

You have beautiful hair. Can I touch it?

Do you have a cigarette?

How long have I fucking been writing? Fuck knows. But I guess it was, fuck, I dunno, some fucking time around the end of last fucking year or some shit.

The only thing is… I don’t drive.

I took Robert McKee’s class twice. So I kind of see myself as an expert on story.

Would you take my hands and join me in a prayer?

Okay, well…if you’re here and I’m here it’s pretty clear our partnership isn’t working.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Me & the Mariners

For all who have been asking -- I will not be going back to the Seattle Mariners this season.  I will miss my time up there but have a lot of other things on my plate.  Meanwhile, they've hired a terrific young announcer, Aaron Goldsmith.   M's fans will like him.  Thanks to the organization for letting me "call 'em as I think I saw 'em" the last two years, and a huge shout out to all the fans who were so supportive.   And now that I'm not there the Mariners will definitely win a World Series.  So it's all good. 

The Friday Questions Where Lilith Comes Back

Warming you up with some Friday Questions:

Phil Nichols from the UK begins with a FRASIER query:

Today they showed your first season episode with Lilith ("The Show Where Lilith Comes Back"). I gather this was from mid-season - and yet the episode established all of the regular characters so well that it could almost be mistaken for a pilot. My question: was that episode was intended as some kind of mid-season re-start for the show?

No. If I can remember correctly, that episode was held back until the beginning of February to take advantage of Sweeps. Lilith was considered “stunt casting.” Similarly, a couple of seasons later we wrote the FRASIER where Sam came back and that too was slotted for February Sweeps.  I'd stop short of saying they were two "very special episodes" but it was nice to be the guys they called to write high profile episodes.

From Stephen:

When a show gets a pick-up straight away (like Michael J. Fox's new show), is the pilot still shot at the same time of year as all other pilots or are they able to wait until July/August and shoot when any returning series would shoot its first episode?

It depends on many factors. Does the network insist on seeing the pilot early in case they want to make some changes? How soon do they need the show? It’s much cheaper to not do a pilot then shut down for several months before resuming production.

Other variables: Is the star of the series committed to something else and won’t be available until mid summer? In that case there would be no time for a separate pilot.

When is the best pilot director available? It might be worth it to shoot the pilot early if you can get a Jim Burrows to direct it.

By the way, these are all problems as a showrunner that I would love to have (since it means I'm on the air). 

From Michael:

I recently watched the hilarious one hour Cheers Woody and Kelly wedding episode and was wondering for special extra-long episodes, is the filming broken up across 2 weeks or is done on normal 1-week schedule?

Generally, on CHEERS, hour episodes were filmed in one night. This was only possible because director Jimmy Burrows was so fast and so good. The director sets the pace and Jimmy was able to keep things moving while still getting the best performances from the actors. It never felt rushed.

With the exception of the long final scene, the entire final episode of CHEERS was filmed in one night. I remember that distinctly because I did the warm up.

David and I wrote two two-parters. “Never Love a Goalie” (where we introduced Eddie LeBec) that was filmed all in one night. And the other was “Finally” (Rebecca finally sleeps with Robin Colcord). That was not all filmed in one night. For reasons I forget, part one was filmed and then the show went on a one-week hiatus. During that week we wrote part two.

And finally, from Fred:

I'm curious about your reader/commenter ratio. A friend of mine has a blog that gets about one comment for every four blog entries. Are comments like cockroaches? For every one you see are there 1000 behind the walls?

The percentage of comments to readers is very small. I can’t place an exact number on it because the traffic changes daily as do the number of comments.

You can’t judge the popularity of a blog or even a specific post based on the number of comments. Some posts will naturally lead to a lot of comments, like when I ask you guys a question or say something nice about Patty Heaton. But I don’t expect a lot of comments when I share travelogues.

Meanwhile, I love getting comments. They are often more entertaining and enlightening than the posts themselves. My only rule: leave a name. Don’t be anonymous.

The same ratio of ratings vs. participants holds true in talk radio. You can’t judge your success by the number of calls you receive. Take, for example, Phil Hendrie. For years he’s been doing a talk show where every guest has an outrageous position that enrages the audience. His phones light up with irate listeners ready to challenge these insane guests. But it’s all a put-on. There are no guests. It’s just Hendrie putting on another voice. Now you’d think that after awhile the audience would catch on. But nope. There are enough new listeners (or dumb listeners) that he’s been able to continue this charade for probably fifteen years. His total audience is large, which suggests that most of his listeners do get the joke. They know not to call but just enjoy the idiots.

What's your question?   Or comment? 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My short-lived career as a newsman

Here’s another chapter from my misguided radio career:

As a Top 40 disc jockey in the early ‘70s, I often had to fill multiple roles. In addition to humming the hits,  I was also the engineer on duty. I would have to take the transmitter readings every few hours. To qualify for that job I needed an FCC First Class Radio License. This required five weeks in a school in Glendale cramming five years of electronics courses into one month. The truth is if a transmitter ever did shut off we were fucked because I knew shit. But you couldn’t get a job as a DJ in these medium market stations unless you had your “first ticket” as the license was called.

My other job responsibility was being the newsman. Rock stations in San Bernardino and Bakersfield didn’t have “newsrooms.” News was a turn-off. The news would come on and half the audience hit the car button for another station. The only reason there were newscasts in the first place was because the FCC insisted on it.

Most of the time I had the evening or late night shifts. I was more your “teen jock”. Translation: higher voice and mildly inappropriate jokes. So another of my responsibilities was reading a five minute newscast every few hours.

The news came over teletype machines. Two minutes before scheduled newscasts I would quickly scan the copy as  the teletype machine coughed it out, I would grab a few stories, and go back in to the control room and read it cold over the air. This is called “rip and read.” I can only imagine the number of Vietnamese names I butchered. The newscasts had a format that everyone followed and that included signing off with your name. Since I didn’t want to use my disc jockey name I reported the news as Barely Read (a name I stole from fellow jock Tom Maule).

When I finally made it to KYA, San Francisco in 1974 I was assigned the 10 pm-2 am shift. And much to my surprise, I was expected to do a ten minute newscast at 1:20 every morning. Now this station did have a news department but the last man left at midnight.

At the time I was using the air-name Beaver Cleaver. I figured, I couldn’t call myself that when I read the news. That’s hardly dignified. And this was a major market heritage radio station.  So at 1:00 each morning I looked to see who Tom Snyder’s guest was on THE TOMORROW SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER on NBC and that’s who delivered KYA People Power News at 1:20. So it could be Charles Manson, it could be George Will, it could be Soupy Sales. It could be Betsy Palmer.

One night while delivering the news on KYA I got the hiccups. I decided to just keep going as if nothing was wrong. My engineer (yes, we had engineers there) was doubled-over in laughter. Let’s be real -- I made a travesty of the news department.

Fortunately, no one was listening.

My favorite disc jockey-as-newsman story is this: A jock in San Bernardino was reading the news cold. He reported that the president of Bolivia had just died. Then he saw the name, which was a long tongue-twister. No way would he come close to pronouncing it correctly. So instead he said, “the president’s name is being withheld pending notification of his family.”

You gotta love the fun days of radio.

This is Barely Read reporting.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY: my review

How do you make a gripping thriller when everyone in the world knows the outcome? Since they didn’t flash SPOILER ALERT on your TV just before President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, there’s zero (dark thirty) chance anyone will stunned by the “surprise” ending.

And yet, director Kathryn Bigelow – working from a taut screenplay by Mark Boal – pulls it off spectacularly.  It's absurd that she wasn't nominated for Best Director.  

What’s also remarkable about the directing is that there are stretches of this 2 1/2 hour film where nothing much happens and still you’re riveted to the screen. Compare that to BATTLESHIP where you’re bored out of your mind during action scenes.

The final sequence, when the Navy Seals break into the compound and complete their manhunt is thrilling and gut wrenching. The way it’s shot you really feel like you’re there with them. At one point I tried to adjust my night goggles. And the fact that it’s a true story – we really did kill bin Laden; it wasn’t just another Quentin Tarantino what-if fantasy, made it all the more poignant. Again, how could Ms. Bigelow not get a Best Director nomination? 

Jessica Chastain gave an Oscar-worthy performance as the CIA analyst who doggedly stayed on the trail. Notice I said “analyst” and not “agent?” She wasn’t like Claire Danes or Piper Perabo gunning down bad guys. She worked at a desk and compiled data, and every so often she got to stretch her legs by interrogating a broken detainee. You really begin to appreciate the painstaking legwork that goes into tracking down these terrorists. Getting back to Jessica -- her acting was so real and nuanced that you felt her pain, frustration, joy, and ultimately relief. If she only sang a song from LES MIS she’s have the Oscar sewn up.

There has been a lot of controversy over ZERO DARK THIRTY, primarily over the interrogation scenes.  Maybe that's why Kathryn got snubbed.  Hollywood doesn't believe in torture unless they can dish it out.

The glimpses of torture in  ZDT are pretty disturbing, but it’s not like you’re watching HOSTEL. The government of course denies that these methods of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other indignities ever happened. Right. These terrorists divulged all this information when playing Cranium. “Okay, you landed on a yellow. Current Events. Answer this question: Osama bin Laden’s chief courier was…? Yeah, that’s how we broke the prisoners.

But the scenes will spark debate over the necessity and morality of using torture. I leave it to others to engage in that debate... probably in the comments section. 

All of the other performances were top notch. Kyle Chandler is always good. James Gandolfini was convincing even in a rug. A big surprise was Chris Pratt (goofy Andy on PARKS AND REC) looking all buff and kick ass. He’s in the “can do no wrong” category for me.

ZERO DARK THIRTY deals with bureaucracy, persistence, and dedication. It’s kind of like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN except Deep Throat has to be chained and thrown into a box before he talks. It’s been playing in Los Angeles and New York and opened nationwide on Friday. Well worth seeing.  Like I said --  I think it was the movie of the year (although I reserve the right to change my mind once I’ve seen THE THREE STOOGES).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The most humble man in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg

In Daniel Day-Lewis’ acceptance speech at the Golden Globes he fawned all over Steven Spielberg and praised him for his “humility.” Steven nodded graciously as if to say, “Yes, that’s me alright.” And I thought – humility? On what planet are we on here? This man has one of the largest egos in the ego capital of the world. He is enormously talented. There’s no denying that. And he has made some wonderful films. This isn’t Michael Bay we’re talking about. I have tremendous respect for Steven Spielberg as a filmmaker.

But “humility?” Gimme a break! This is the man who orchestrated getting a former president of the United States to introduce his film clip at a made-up award ceremony. It wasn’t enough to have some pompous thespian like Jeremy Irons regale the world with what a genius he is, he had to have the former leader of the free world. And make no mistake -- it was Steven who arranged it. Seeing Bill Clinton at the Golden Globes was like seeing Paul McCartney singing at the new Jiffy Lube grand opening in Pacoima.

A humble man might’ve thought that was overkill.

Who is he going to get to introduce his film at the Academy Awards? I bet he has his staff looking into the Second Coming. I can just see it -- Seth MacFarlane sings a show tune about masturbation and then in his “Stewie” voice introduces Jesus Christ.

Here in LA we have been bombarded by the LINCOLN Oscar campaign. Screenings, screeners, posters, ads -- I’m surprised he doesn’t have interns going door to door handing out stove pipe hats.

The message is clear. Steven Spielberg wants to win awards! He wants to be celebrated, exalted, revered. If Christ does introduce him, Steven would hope the public sees Him as a peer.

Forget that Steven’s already won Academy Awards. A modest man says: “Give someone else a chance.” A glory hog says: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most successful film director commercially and artistically – in all domestic and foreign markets – of them all, and especially Scorsese?”

So I took great delight when Ben Affleck and ARGO beat him and LINCOLN at the Golden Globes, even though those awards are meaningless.

But what it says to me is I’m not the only one not fooled by Steven Spielberg’s “humility.” I doubt if ARGO will top LINCOLN at the Oscars. Its director is not even nominated (which is a joke). And Spielberg has more sway. But the race suddenly became more interesting. And ZERO DARK THIRTY could be a dark horse. If you see Steven Spielberg appearing on CHELSEA LATELY you know he’s worried.

What Daniel Day-Lewis should have done was thank Abe Lincoln for his humility. Somehow I can’t picture Abe giving a shit about losing a Golden Globe.

Monday, January 14, 2013

My review of the Golden Globes

Wow. Did Steven Spielberg not tip well? Why else would the Hollywood Foreign Press (i.e. waiters at the Palm) deny him useless trophies for a movie that’s not just important, it has the Amblin logo. Imagine a contest where God Almighty loses to Ben Affleck. Blasphemy!

But that’s the Golden Globes, where anything can happen and usually does because there are only like sixteen people eligible to vote. If Rick Santorum can win the Louisiana primary, Don Cheadle can beat Louis C.K. for Best Actor in a TV Comedy.

Of course, how much credibility can an organization have when its spinster president calls out to Bradley Cooper from the stage, “Call me maybe!” Or when Best TV Comedy is presented by Jay Leno?

And yet, I am once again reviewing the Golden Globes even though taking them seriously is like taking TV wrestling seriously. Helping me this year is my lovely biting daughter, Annie and her warped writing partner, Jon. Let the snarks fly!

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were the best women hosts of the Golden Globes since Eydie Gorme. Their opening monologue had some great jokes, the best being Amy saying to ZERO DARK THIRTY director, Kathryn Bigelow “When it comes to torture I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.”

The no-bra look was in. Lots of real golden globes on display this year. Amy Poehler pulled it off. So did Katherine McPhee and Eva Longoria, but Jessica Chastain did not. She looked like gift-wrapping that had become loose.

This was a big night for Adele. As Jon noted, it was her first Golden Globe and the first song she ever wrote that wasn’t about a breakup.

Taylor Swift looked pissed that Adele won. But when you think that CMA awards and ACM awards are meaningful I guess you think Golden Globes are too.

That set looked like the lobby of the old Dunes Hotel in Vegas. All that was missing was Sammy Davis Jr. being told he had to leave.

Two of the Best Drama nominees – ARGO and DJANGO UNCHAINED – were funnier than any of the Best Comedy nominees.

Annie noted that the clips from LES MISERABLES just showed people running. But that makes sense. Other than Anne Hathaway they can’t show anybody singing.

The teleprompter malfunctioned while Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd were presenting. And they covered beautifully. Both just stood there frozen. You realize if it weren’t for writers, the whole three-hour show would be that? Most actors can only ad lib “me” or “journey.”

Case in point: In Kevin Costner’s acceptance speech he wanted to say how this ceremony helped “illuminate” movies that the public hasn’t seen and instead he said “eliminate.”

Wearing clothes is sometimes better than being nude. And I’m not just talking about Lena Dunham. For example: Kerry Washington looked so much sexier in that slinky gown than she did naked in a pit in DJANGO UNCHAINED.

On the other hand, J-Lo looked smashing in her dress made entirely of doilies stitched together by some Brownie troop.

Nicole Kidman must really be furious. Lena Dunham wins two awards for taking her clothes off while she pisses on a guy and doesn’t win even one.

Annie thought she bought her dress at Hot Topic.

Line of the night was Tina Fey after Lena’s somewhat patronizing acceptance speech. “I’m glad that we got you through middle school.”

And in the future, please put Lena at a table closer to the stage. Watching her clomp up the aisle was like seeing Bugsy Malone shot in the back trying to make it out to the street.

Even though it means nothing, I was glad ARGO won. Jon figured the pro-slavery DJANGO voters cancelled the anti-slavery LINCOLN voters.

Or Spielberg used a Group-on for his $55 lobster at the Palm and only tipped on the reduced amount.

MAD MEN wasn’t even nominated for Best TV Drama. That’s what they get for killing off the English guy.

Not only did NBC, the televising network, not win a single award, none of the four broadcast networks did.

There’s only one screenplay award. They don’t distinguish between original and adaptations. But as Jon said, “What do you want? They have Sofia Vergara and Maggie Smith in the same category.”

If the HFPA really wanted to make noise they would have let Mel Gibson be a presenter. I mean, there he was – in a room filled with alcohol and Jews.

I liked Anne Hathaway’s short hair. She looked like a young lucid Liza Minnelli.

There was no question she was going to win. As Annie said, “She had the ugly thing, the prostitute thing, the dirty thing, the chopped off hair thing, the lost weight thing, the can-sing thing, the crying thing, and the dying thing.” All Nicole Kidman had was the “urinating thing.”

Something I have in common with ARGO producer and speech-giver, Grant Heslov: We both acted together in an episode of THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES in 1990. And yet, he didn’t thank me.

No one missed Ricky Gervais.

They have a Best Foreign Film category. Considering who the voters are, shouldn’t any movie made in America be considered a foreign film?

Jennifer Lawrence (who looked gorgeous in her coral gown) had the two best acceptance speech lines: “I beat Meryl!” And to Harvey Weinstein: “Harvey, thank you for killing whoever you had to kill to get me up here today.” I look forward to her Oscar speech.

If their titles were THE BEST EXOTIC MIAMI HOTEL and SALMON FISHING IN SEATTLE would either of those pictures get any nominations?

I can’t imagine there were many Republicans watching after forty-five minutes. First Julianne Moore wins for playing Sarah Palin and then Bill Clinton shows up.

Great line by Amy Poehler: “What a special guest. That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!”

Annie was hoping Clinton would co-present with Clint Eastwood.

And instead of introducing LINCOLN, Annie wanted him to present the award for Best Animated Film.

She also thought a good pairing would be Sofia Vergara and Salma Hayek. Dueling ‘Eye yie yies!”

Both Sofia and Salma looked spectacular, as did Megan Fox, Halle Berry, Lea Michele (now darker than Halle Berry), Jessica (is she still in the business?) Alba, Julia Roberts, and pretty much everyone other than Lucy Lui. What was with that print gown? Annie said, “Isn’t that bubby’s tablecloth?”

What was with that handlebar mustache Bill Murray was sporting? Now that’s played Franklin Roosevelt is he looking to do Teddy?

Typical Will Ferrell bit. Hilarious for the first thirty seconds, tedious for the next eleven minutes.

Aziz Ansari was bombed and DID bomb. Don’t drink and present.

Jodie Foster was also smashed. Her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille award (given to any actor whose heard of Cecil B. DeMille) was eloquently incoherent.  But honest and touching.

Scariest moment of the night was watching Sylvester Stallone’s face melt.

Personally, I thought this was their most entertaining Golden Globes ceremony in years. Good luck to Seth MacFarlane trying to top Amy & Tina. Overheard at the valet stand as Steven Spielberg climbed into the limo with Tony Kushner: “Goddamnit, Tony! I told you. Lincoln should free the hostages, not the slaves!”

See ya at the Oscars!

photos via L.A. Times

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Getting ready for the Golden Globes

Tonight is the whatever-annual Golden Globe Awards on NBC. I will be reviewing them along with my daughter, Annie and her writing partner, Jon.  The review will appear tomorrow morning.  To get you in the mood, here are a few highlights from past Golden Globe reviews. In compiling these I realized there were a lot of years I didn’t bother. The reasons being: I don’t give a shit, they were canceled, I was on the radio the night they aired, I forgot, I wasn’t nominated, Debra Messing was, I don’t get NBC on my cable provider, and CSPAN-2 aired a senate sub-committee fact-finding hearing on sorghum subsidies in the plain states.

But when I did bite the bullet, these were some of my observations:

Sir Laurence Olivier at one time won a Golden Globe which literally broke in his hand during his acceptance speech.

The big incentive for stars to attend the Golden Globes is that they do provide dinner. And they can thank the busboys for voting for them.

There's no need to thank them from the stage. What they really want is tips.

Paula Patton looked like the world’s yummiest yellow Peep.

The ceremony itself was held in the glittering Beverly Hilton Hotel Ballroom, site of the Temple Emmanuel Purim Ball.

Where else can you see Clint Eastwood and the Queer Eye guys considered peers?

More on the ceremony in a moment, but first a look back at NBC’s Red Carpet Arrival Show. First, it started without sound. Then it was hosted by the least talented person on the planet – Carson Daly. When interviewing Leo DiCaprio he had to look down at his card before asking the following question: “So how are you doin’?” Why is this lox on TV?

When Francis Conroy is not the most obscure actor to win an award you know you're in trouble.

Justin Bieber was the only presenter who was shorter than the statue.

Do seat fillers get to eat the meals of the people their substituting for?

Dustin Hoffman is starting to look like Bob Uecker.

Shows on host network NBC won exactly no Golden Globes.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY did so well I say it's time for a sequel.

The big highlight for me was HOMELAND’S Morena Baccarin. I’ve never seen a gown that was both backless and frontless. She has now starred in the TV series and dress named V.

Debra Messing came as Tin Tin.

Tilda Swinton came as David Bowie.

With big stars like Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman in the audience, why were they cutting to Piper Perabo for reaction shots?

Nice tribute to Morgan Freeman. He’s made 50 movies. In half of them Ashley Judd gets kidnapped.

70 year-old Jane Fonda looked spectacular. I love the new hip, Janie!

The ceremony took place one mile from my house. Albert Brooks should have known he wouldn’t win when his table was on our front lawn.

See you tomorrow with this year’s report. If the three of us don’t fall asleep.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

My PLAYBILL -- aren't you impressed?

When the musical I co-wrote was produced I was asked to submit my bio for the program. The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theatre critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theatre crowd. What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse whom he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, PROOF, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played two nights in San Francisco and two nights in Detroit. It was called the 20012 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.