Sunday, March 31, 2013

A discovered treasure

Tomorrow is the Real Don Steele's birthday.   He would have been 77.   He was the world's most exciting disc jockey and proud to say -- a dear friend.  We were jocks together at two stations in the '70s -- K100 and TenQ, both in Los Angeles.  This was when I used the air name Beaver Cleaver.

Steele was famous for his Friday night sign-offs.  They were wild rants designed to get you amped up for the weekend, delivered in machine-gun fashion.   From time to time I would follow him on Friday night (which was like being the next act after the Beatles on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW) and noticed that he always had the sign-off typed out.   So one Friday I asked if I could keep it and would he autograph it for me?   Gracious person that he is, he said sure. 

And now, in honor of his birthday, I am sharing it for the first time.  Try reading this whole thing in one take without making a single mistake... in about thirty seconds.

I love you and miss you Don and always will.   You and Tina Delgado will always be alive!


Saturday, March 30, 2013

WTF???

What did the Jews ever do to Words With Friends?


Do I know how to read women or what?

A few years ago I went to see a rather unusual play called TAMARA. The theater is actually a mansion and the audience follows around the various cast members as they perform their scenes simultaneously in different rooms. The idea is to attend with a few people and each person follows someone else. Then at intermission you get together and catch everybody up. I know. It’s a lot of work. And the story is a complicated mess. But it’s an experience and they serve chocolate covered strawberries at intermission.

So I’m following the cute little chambermaid (me and about nineteen other guys). In one scene she goes up to her room to get ready for a date. We follow her and stand against the walls.

She turns to me and starts talking to herself, excited about this upcoming rendezvous. Bad writing but that’s not the point. She’s imagining being in his strong embrace and how she’ll melt in his arms. And all the while she’s looking directly into my eyes.

The vibe is clear. This chick likes me. The suggestive dialogue, her bedroom eyes locked onto mine. There’s no doubt. For whatever reason I turn her on. I had just had a pilot not picked up and was feeling somewhat inadequate so to have this smoking hot girl pick me out of a room full of men really boosted my bruised ego. The hell with CBS! I was a stud!

So I start making eyes back at her, letting her know the Fonz has received the message.

And then I realized…

I’m standing in front of a mirror. She wasn’t looking at me. She was looking through me. She was just playing the scene as if I weren’t even there. Talk about major shrinkage.

For the rest of the night I followed the Fascist Colonel.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Friday Questions

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Sarah has one regarding a recent post on how you don’t have to write jokes to get laughs.

In the second scene, Jen is prattling on and on and on. Two 120-plus word speeches without interruption. So I've got this question in my head now: How do you make this work as comedy? Do you expect to have pauses in there where the audience will laugh? Lots of cross-cuts that show Ben getting more and more nervous? I can see how it works on paper but not how it will work on camera. Thanks.

Yes. We expect pauses and behavior.  So much of this scene depends on reaction shots of Ben. He will get most of the laughs. This is something some actors don’t understand. They will get the script and count the number of lines they have vs. the other cast members. In addition to the fact that they will never work for me, they miss the point that comedy comes from playing attitudes not just firing off one-liners.

George asks:

If writers job is to provide the dialog and to leave the stage direction to the director, then how does a scene which is mostly mime (like this Niles Fire) come about? Do the writers describe the details of the action in the script, or do they put down "Niles tries to iron his pants and sets fire to the couch" and leave the rest to others?

In a case like this where there is a silent physical comedy bit the writer will be as specific as he possibly can. Once the scene is on its feet it will often be modified as the actor makes it his own, but the more detailed the writer can make the description the better. Now I should mention that that’s a general rule. I suppose if you have an actress like Lucille Ball she might just prefer the writers say, “Lucy stomps on grapes” and she’ll take it from there. But how many Lucy’s are there? Or were there?

Actors generally dislike when writers give them a lot of interior directions on what attitude to play in dialogue. (pensive) (angry) (suspicious) They like to find it themselves and believe that if the script is written well the intent of the lines will be clear enough that they don’t have to instructed. How annoying would it be for you if someone sat behind you while you drove and kept saying, “turn on your left turn indicator”, “check your rearview mirror now,” etc. In two blocks you’d be yelling, “I’m not an idiot! I know what I’m doing!” That’s how actors feel and their point is well taken.

From Chris:

Recently on Two and a Half Men Ashton Kutcher, after a wild party, says: "Uh. This looks like Charlie Sheen's house".

The studio audience went crazy.

Why do you think breaking the fourth wall and going a little surreal like that usually gets such a warm response from the audience?

Because it feels like an inside joke that the audience is in on. And who doesn’t love to feel included on an inside joke? It’s also a line the audience sure didn’t expect. The downside is you tamper with the reality and integrity of your show. But you have to decide whether that’s important enough or not.

Janice has a FQ:

I was recently watching on YouTube the auditions of several cast members for "Freaks & Geeks". During the auditions there is a person in the room laughing incessantly after each line is read - whether it was funny or not. Is this common practice during a reading? I would imagine the laugher must feel like an imbecile.

No, that’s not common. And I imagine it would be quite disconcerting for the actor. Hopefully that laugher was thinking he was encouraging the actors and not just in hysterics because he loved his lines so much. Or has the worst short-term memory ever.

I love when actors make me laugh in auditions. That means they’re nailing it and are genuinely in the running for getting the part.

What’s tough is when an actor comes in and is so off-the-charts bad that you want to laugh at how absurdly terrible he is. I never want to embarrass an auditioner so I have to bite my tongue. But ohmygod is it tough sometimes. There have been a number of instances when an actor will finish, we’ll stoically thank him, he’ll leave, and we’ll fall on the floor laughing.

And finally, one from Patrick:

As a showrunner how much stock do you put in the so-called "showkiller curse"? Some actors get stuck with the nickname but is there any truth in that being part of the equation when casting? Or is the "showkiller" title purely a fabrication of the media?

Part of the problem is that we're always looking for someone fresh and new and these so-called showkillers feel recycled and too familiar. How many times have you watched a show and said, “Oh, him again?”

But as a producer I have to look past that. There are some terrific actors who haven’t broken out simply because they haven’t been fortunate enough to get the right parts. George Clooney did tons of pilots and failed series before clicking with ER. How stupid would a producer have to be to just dismiss George Clooney because he was a “showkiller?” Same with Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston.

The truth is if an actor keeps getting pilots then he must have something. How else does he always get hired? You’ve seen my post on how hard it is to land a pilot. So you have to weigh a lot of factors.

For me? I’m just looking for the best person for the part. Period. Known. Unknown. As I conceived the part. Different but better.

Looking back, I can’t tell you how many times I was casting a pilot and WISHED that George Clooney came in and auditioned. I’d probably be a much richer man today.

What’s your Friday Question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks much.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

My thoughts on Fallon replacing Leno

So Jimmy Fallon is going to succeed Jay Leno and take over THE TONIGHT SHOW. At one time a change in TONIGHT SHOW hosts was a huge deal. Now it’s as major a story as the Houston Astros changing managers.

And yet, it’s the buzz of the TV media. My question is why? This isn’t 1962 or even 1992.

At one time THE TONIGHT SHOW ruled the airwaves. Host Johnny Carson was the undisputed king of late night. Other networks would try to challenge him with competitors like Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, and Pat Sajak and he would crush them all. NBC made more money on THE TONIGHT SHOW than their primetime lineup… and remember, this is when NBC had shows that people actually watched.

So when Johnny Carson announced he was retiring it sent shock waves throughout the industry. Think: Regis Philbin times a thousand. The battle between David Letterman and Jay Leno for that coveted spot became the stuff of high drama, a page-turner book, and truly cheesy movie-of-the-week.

But twenty years have passed. THE TONIGHT SHOW is no longer invincible. After over three decades of dominance those late night riches were finally up for grabs. Add to that the proliferation of cable channels and suddenly every network joined the gab wars. Magic Johnson. George Lopez. Rush Limbaugh. Stephanie Miller. FrankCaliendo. Arsenio Hall. Chevy Chase for godsakes. And don’t forget NIGHTLINE on ABC and THE DAILY SHOW/COLBERT REPORT on Comedy Central. Not to mention CHEERS reruns.

A few years ago there was that big shakeup when NBC saboteur, Jeff Zucker moved Jay Leno to primetime and promoted Conan O’Brien to TONIGHT SHOW host. Both ends of that genius move blew up spectacularly, and when NBC tried to go back to the way things were it became water cooler fodder for weeks.

And then when it was over, Jay went back to getting his usual numbers, and after much speculation, Conan wound up on TBS and after one week, no one watches.

So here we go again. It’s like who will win SURVIVOR 154? It’s no longer really important… or important at all.

Especially when you think all these late night changes are being made to chase younger viewers and they don’t have the same viewing habits as their parents. People accuse sitcoms of being tired, well how about talk shows? What’s more stale than a guy in a suit delivering a lousy monologue then interviewing Paul Rudd who has a new boxoffice bomb coming out on Friday? The days when THE TONIGHT SHOW was a nighttime ritual are gone. Many viewers the networks want are watching clips of the shows on YouTube. They’re DVRing the shows and skipping right to the Emma Watson interview.

So Jimmy Fallon will take over THE TONIGHT SHOW. And Jimmy Kimmell is on ABC. Sooner or later Dave will give way to Craig Ferguson (unless Julie Chen wants it). And the ratings battle will continue as usual although for smaller numbers.

I feel I should have soap opera organ music under the following questions:

When will NBC make the switch? Where will Jay Leno land? Will Fallon maintain Jay’s numbers? Will THE TONIGHT SHOW move back to New York? Will the audience be confused when there are two hosts named Jimmy? Is Conan even still on the air?

And the big question: Do you really care?

Unless there’s some delicious twist like Jay puts a hit out on Kimmell, Dave becomes an orthodox Jew, or  I wind up replacing Jay with Sasha Grey as my sidekick then my answer is nah.

What’s yours?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

THE AMERICANS: My review

It’s amazing how much shit you’ll overlook if you just like a show. Case in point is me and THE AMERICANS. The premise is a tad far fetched. Two Russian spies in 1980 who speak perfect English raise an unsuspecting family in suburban Washington D.C. while performing intricate dangerous espionage missions. Meanwhile, the FBI agent assigned to hunt Commie spooks happens to move in right across the street.

I’m sure there were Russian spies back then. My guess is they primarily worked sources for information. They weren’t Boris & Natasha. Every week this pair gets some MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE assignment then spends the next hour killing people, donning disguises, installing bugging devices in cabinet members homes, transmitting and receiving coded messages on Radio Shack whizbang equipment, and sleeping with sources. All the while they’re getting their kids off to school and having the usual squabbles married couples who have been assigned to each other by the KGB have.

And this is only the first season. By year three they should be hijacking the space shuttle and banging Nancy Reagan.

But I love the show.

It’s goofy fun. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets Moose and Squirrel must die.

The number one reason I watch is because of Matthew Rhys. As the husband, Phillip he lights up the screen. Always interesting, often surprising, and despite the dering-do, always real and nuanced. He can fool you into thinking this is not a cartoon despite wearing a ridiculous wig. Al Pacino wasn’t able to do that last Sunday on HBO.

Noah Emmerich as the FBI borscht hunter is also excellent. He’s one of those character actors you’ve seen in a million things and never gave him much thought. But here he shines, adding sensitivity and dimension to what could easily be a cliché role.

Keri Russell is gorgeous to look at, especially when she dons sleek leather cat burglar togs. Think Honey East. But if I’m being honest, I don’t love her character. She hasn’t smiled once since episode two and she’s got kind of a Soviet flag stuck up her ass. I’d love her to get the following coded instructions from Moscow: Lighten up and show more cleavage.

I see what they’re trying to do – a spin on a marital relationship – where he’s the emotional one and she’s the cold one, and that’s fine but she could be just a little bit warmer. Instead of always calling her husband Phillip, how about honey once in awhile? Or even darlink? There was an episode recently where Phillip was tempted by his old girlfriend Irina (the yummy Marina Squerciati) and had the chance to run away with her. Usually that storyline is just schmuckbait. No one is rooting for the hero to go off with the other women. Especially when the wife at home is Keri Russell. But I admit, I was thinking about it.

The marital fights are starting to get a little tedious. He wants to make it work then he’s mad. She wants to make it work then she’s mad. Go see Dr. Drew or figure it out. Their stance on extra-marital sex is interesting. It’s okay to sleep with other people in exchange for information but not colleagues. This feels more Clinton era than Reagan.

An added bonus is Margo Martindale as Granny. She’s their superior and her role as a villain was made pretty clear in her first episode when she took someone’s child and killed the parent. This is as opposed to her first episode on JUSTIFIED when she took someone’s child and killed the parent. But evil Margo is sublime Margo. Best line of the entire series was when Keri said she wanted to kill her and Margo replied frostily, “Well, better luck next time.” Yeah.  That's the Megs from Harlan County we know and love!

Richard Thomas plays the calculating FBI director, but who are we kidding? It’s John-Boy in a J. C. Penney's suit.

From the constant disclaimers you’d think each episode had more sex than LAST TANGO IN PARIS but in fact there’s only brief nudity and worse, it’s not Kerri Russell who gets naked. Still, they probably go to limit of what’s allowed on FX.

There are nagging little questions like how does Matthew’s wigs stay on even when he’s being tortured? Why doesn’t John-Boy say goodnight to everybody? Don’t the kids get suspicious when Mom packs herring in their lunch boxes? Is Marina Squerciati a stage name? Is the Russian Tea Room still as good now that it’s no longer under original management? And just who the hell are we supposed to root for – the Ruskie spies or our FBI?

Still, none of that matters. THE AMERICANS is a hoot. I look forward to Matt & Kerri’s further adventures together, although if I had my way – Matt would dump her for the former girlfriend Irina, Kerri would hook up with Yakov Smirnoff, and Margo Martindale would marry Alexander Haig.

"Na zda-ró-vye!"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The pilot you will never see

This is one of those posts where I will ask you to kindly indulge me. There’s no great point. No major lesson. This is just a chance for me to vent and get something off my chest. When you read why you will surely understand. Thank you for humoring me today.

Okay. Here we go…

I owned one of the first home VCR’s. Bought it in the mid ‘70s. It played 3/4 inch tapes in cartridges that were the size of today’s Mini Coopers. The machine weighed a thousand pounds. You needed two people to lift one. It cost $1500 in 1976. I bought it to tape shows David Isaacs and I wrote. The salesman was showing me all the nifty features. It had a pause button. I could freeze-frame. There was also a slow-motion feature that allowed me to advance the tape frame by frame. Now, I thought this was fine for me. I could freeze-frame my credit, but why on earth would anyone else want these features? The salesman said, “Schmuck, why do you think people buy these damn machines? To watch porno!” The slow-mo suddenly made perfect sense.

A few years later VHS became the standard. The tape was 1/2 inch, would record up to six hours of content, and the cartridge size went from Mini Cooper to Mini Mac. I bought one of those and my 3/4 inch machine became obsolete. I eventually gave it away. Let the Council of Jewish Women figure out what to do with the freakin’ thing.

But I kept the 3/4 inch tapes I had recorded. And of course I haven’t played any of them for years. God knows how much they've deteriorated over time? At best the color would be smeared and washed out. At worst I’d be looking at dust. Recently, during a spring-cleaning project I discovered a box of these clunky relics. Most were MASH episodes. I now had DVD copies that were far superior in quality to those musty cartridges and took up a fraction of the space so I got rid of them.

But there was one tape I kept – the first pilot David and I were ever associated with. We wrote it for NBC through Universal for the 1976/77 season and it didn’t go. Back then networks aired their unsold pilots in the summer. We used to call this programming FAILURE THEATER. On July 20, 1977 our pilot aired on NBC.

A little backstory: During our early freelance period we met a certain producer who took a liking to us. He had a development deal at Universal. He said if we ever had a pilot idea to bring it to him. We were newbies at the time and couldn’t get in to pitch networks ourselves, but if we were under the umbrella of this veteran writer/producer the networks would hear our spiel.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE had recently premiered and was a huge hit with the younger generation. Our idea was to do a cross between SNL and THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – a local late night comedy sketch show in San Francisco where the cast also wrote the material. The sensibility of the humor would be very edgy (like SNL).   We were 30 ROCK and STUDIO 60 only 30+ years earlier.

This producer liked it. We took it to NBC and we sold it in five minutes. We came back with an outline that they approved, and a first draft that they loved. Minor notes, a second draft, and based on that script NBC greenlit the pilot. Gee, this pilot stuff was easy! 

At that point we were cut out of the process completely. A producer was brought on board, Bo Kaprall, and he did a page one rewrite, keeping only our premise, basic story structure, and characters. Let’s just say we weren’t thrilled with the results. The casting was terrible. Not that the actors themselves were bad; they were just miscast. (One of the actors we later hired for MASH.)  We had a character who was supposed to be an old Jewish Catskills writer. They hired Pat McCormick. You get the idea.

We were invited to the taping (how nice of them). And I just remember being horribly disappointed with the final result. But that was then. Would time be kind to our first official television pilot?

I have a good friend, Stu Shostak who has the facilities to digitize old tapes. (If you have stuff you want digitized this is your man.) So last week I brought him probably the only remaining copy of THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY and as he made a digital copy I got to screen it again for the first time in 35 years.

OHMYFUCKINGGOD!!!

This was easily the single worst piece of shit I have ever seen. Watching this travesty was like having your wisdom teeth removed without Novocain. And our names were on it. And not just that. Kaprall tried to get shared writing credit and we fought him and won in arbitration. We went to great effort to get our names on this stinkburger. (Why? Because creator credit means royalties for every episode and we didn’t want to surrender any of that, especially to someone who had made the show worse).

The direction was atrocious. Everyone was playing so big and burlesque you wanted to crawl under a chair. Mugging, double and triple takes for every clam joke.  Imagine Jerry Lewis at his most insane wacky zany nutty maniacal  – he was Ben Stein compared to how these actors were asked to perform.   The also wore gorilla suits, loud jackets, cowboy outfits, and were pulled around by their neckties.  I guarantee they tested worse than the Manson Family.

And our names were on it. And back in those days there were only three networks so even if the show finished last in the ratings, more people saw it than last week’s AMERICAN IDOL.

I will give you two examples of actual jokes used in this pilot. Our idea was to have the level of humor edgy and hip like the original SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE remember? Instead, these were the types of gags that made it to air.

The owner of the station was a Gene Autry type. When he tells the writer/performers that he has a problem one says to him (and this is verbatim): “Did your horse make doo doo in the house again?”

Our names are on this!

Later at one of the character’s apartment everyone barges in around dinner time. One asks: “Is that a roast?” And another answers: “No, it’s a chicken in blackface.”

Kaprall WANTED his name on this?! Holy shit!

You will never see this pilot. No one will ever see this pilot. I will never see this pilot again. And I will never say another bad thing about WHITNEY ever again.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Phil Spector: My verdict

If David Mamet had made LINCOLN, the official cause of the president’s death would be boating accident. There’s creative license and there’s saying Japan won World War II. The most authentic thing in this HBO biopic of record producer/marksman Phil Spector is his clown wig.

Yes, there’s a disclaimer at the beginning that says it’s “not based on a true story” but that’s bullshit. Writer/director Mamet is using the names of real people and recreating a real trial. By not adhering to the facts he’s purposely misleading the audience.

And if the entire piece is fiction, as he claims, then none of the arguments or evidence presented in this film mean shit. So even if he’s right in his contention that Lana Clarkson accidentally put a loaded gun in her mouth and shot herself, there’s no reason to believe him.  And the arguments are all one-sided. 

Here’s what I think happened. Mamet was fascinated with Phil Spector. Why not? He’s a larger-than-life genius psychopath who dressed like Hollywood Montrose in MANNEQUIN and discovered Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. If you’re a writer, who’d you rather write – him or Al Gore?

A showy part attracts a showy actor and who better than Al Pacino who has left teeth marks on every piece of scenery he's ever encountered? It’s the perfect marriage of writer/director, actor, and subject who all think they have more talent than God.

There’s just one problem. There’s no twist to the story. Spector is known for waving loaded guns around and threatening women. He goes too far and shoots one. Oops. (Where's Harvey Keitel from PULP FICTION when you need him?)  The evidence is overwhelming. He’s convicted and is now serving 19 years in prison. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the bombshell evidence at the eleventh hour? Where’s the surprise confession when Cher breaks down on the stand? (“Alright! I did it! I killed her! I killed her! Don’t you see? She threatened to tell my age!”) Mamet wrote THE VERDICT. He knows all about this genre. A lawyer must be faced with insurmountable odds and somehow miraculously gets his client off. Phil Spector loses. It was in all the papers (back when there were papers). So he couldn’t write THAT.

David Mamet is famous for saying (and I don’t disagree) that an audience has only one question when they’re watching a dramatic piece: What happens next?

Well, if they KNOW what happens then you got no show.

So you have to find things the audience doesn’t know… even if that means making them up. And that’s what Mamet did. Everyone was happy. He could write his signature crackling dialogue, Pacino could treat the scenery as if it were a Hometown Buffet, and HBO would have something to promote. The only downside of course, is that the actual murder victim is being blamed for her own death, but hey, so Clarkson’s family and friends unsubscribe?

The production values of this TV movie were slick and shimmering. And it moved along at a zippy pace. Other than being irresponsible it was very well done.

And the best thing in the feature was Helen Mirren as Spector’s attorney. She apparently was a late minute add for Bette Midler. Mamet had to cut the scene where Phil’s attorney concluded her impassioned closing argument to the jury by singing “He’s a Rebel.” Fellow attorney Jeffrey Tambor was also good (as always) although I was hoping for a courtroom scene where instead of calling out “Objection!” he’d yell “Hey now!”

Also worth noting: I saw that Grim Reaper Q played Bodyguard #1. Checking his resume on IMDB (and you’re welcome to check yourself) he has also played Bouncer, Burly Man, Teammate #3, Paranoid Giant, and Head Goon. But now he can tell his pals, “Yeah, me and Pacino did a thing together.”

Overall, I'd say don't bother with this film.  It's not an autobiography.  It's an alibiography.  Your time is better spent listening to a Ronnettes album.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What are your favorite apps?

This is an idea I flat out stole from writer friend Jay Kogen, but what are the iphone/ipad apps you just can't live without?   There are now something like a million apps.  I know twelve.  And some of the ones I have I never use.  Why did I bother downloading a lightsaber?

So if you would share your favorites, me and the rest of my viewers would greatly appreciate it.  I imagine there should be an app for my blog but who the fuck knows how to make it?   Thank you.

50 of the most beautiful women ever

This is an amazing video.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

We'll always have Vegas

This is the first weekend of March Madness.   Several years ago me and a bunch of my insane friends went to Las Vegas for the four-day college basketball orgy.  To get you in the spirit, thought I'd share that travelogue again today.   This is just one of many humorous travel adventures you'll find in my book WHERE THE HELL AM I?  TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED, available here for less money than you'll tip a dealer.
March Madness has arrived again -- the NCAA basketball tournament. Thus the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for me and three of my middle aged sports nerd television executive buddies. Slater, the Banger, and Mr. Syracuse. Slater brought his girlfriend (who goes by either Karen or Valerie -- long story) thus increasing his chances of "getting lucky" by maybe 1%. Mr. Syracuse brought his wife thus decreasing his chances. My son, Matt flew in from Boston. He's now 21 so what better way to see Las Vegas for the first time than with his dad and three guys who look like the Pep Boys?

We stayed this year at the Paris Hotel. The theme is French hospitality (an oxymoron). I'm sure I would have been given a nicer room if I registered as Himmler. The casino features a low ceiling that is painted to look like the sky, a la the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. It's an odd shade of blue however, one that suggests nuclear winter. There are cobblestone streets and carpeting. A replica LePont Alendre III bridge overlooks the nickel slot machines, and there is an Eiffel Tower that is fifty stories high. Tours are offered. There is a sign at the entrance that reads "No food, beverages, smoking, weddings" (true story).

I don't know why these hotels opt for these elaborate themes. The truth is: NO ONE CARES. People schlepp around in t-shirts and shorts and flip flops. If I ever put up a hotel in Las Vegas I would use as my theme the HOME DEPOT.

There was an Anti-Aging conference in town. Am I the only one who finds it odd to hold an Anti-Aging conference in the one place where people stay up all hours drinking, gorging, smoking, and enduring the enormous stress of losing their money? I guess it's held there out of respect for Joan Rivers. My feeling is if the President of the Anti-Aging organization isn't 117 then it's a sham.

Matt and I went to Le Cafe for breakfast. They said "inside or outside?" What??? Outside of course meant under the sky painted ceiling. We chanced that it wouldn't rain and took the outside.

The in-house cable had a channel that spelled out emergency exit procedures. Leave it the French to provide a surrender strategy.

Remember when Frank Sinatra used to play Vegas? This weekend it was Carrot Top and (at the Riviera) "America's Tribute to Neil Diamond". Not even the real Neil Diamond, an impersonator. In two weeks the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (true) will be appearing. I'd love to see Shecky Green open for them.

Of course you could always pay a gazillion dollars to see Celine Dion screech out five songs a night. Or is that just a Barbra Streisand impersonator??

The Paris had "Arabian Nights Spectacular", something else to make the Jews feel comfortable.

Next morning before the games, Matt and I hit the beach. Mandalay Bay has it's own beach. Unfortunately, the ocean was turned off. No waves. But we took a long walk along the grid that serves as the shore and gazed out at the horizon to see the Lance Burton Magician billboard on Las Vegas Avenue.

Somewhere in the great beyond Bugsy Siegal is saying “If this is what I ultimately created I deserved to be shot.”

From the Mandalay Bay we hotel hopped. Had to stop in at the Excalibur -- a casino in Sleeping Beauty's castle. This is home to the black socks, shorts, and wife beater shirt crowd. You know you're in trouble when they have a special parking lot just for motorhomes. Handing a pair of dice to one of these idiots is like handing a gun to a monkey.

Then it was on to the Bellagio, where Matt and I checked out the Monet exhibit at their fine arts gallery. (How can you go to Vegas and not stop in a museum??) I imagine when most of the tourists saw the ad for the exhibit they said, "Hey, they spelled money wrong!"

One thing you can say about Vegas, it has the most amazingly beautiful women in the world. And so where did we spend 90% of our time? At the Sportsbook, the one place that none of them would ever be caught dead in. There were 48 games in four days. At times four were going on simultaneously. I'm betting on teams I've never heard of. The place was packed with rowdy men and good old boys chugging long neck beers. We ordered White Russians, Tequila Sunrises, and Rusty Nails. No one fucked with us!

One hazard: you see the same commercial seventeen thousand times. Especially the one for "Cialis", designed to keep a man ready for 36 hours. Too bad I'm not single. One of those magic pills would be perfect for me. 35 1/2 hours to find a woman then a half hour to perform.

The Banger bet on exhibition baseball. Even Pete Rose never did that.

In keeping with the theme, French accordion music came out of the urinals. Finally, the correct venue for that music.

Elegant dining = no Keno boards.

Slater's girlfriend Valerie/Karen is vegan, which means there are only six things she can eat and she's allergic to four of them. She and Slater are the two nicest people on the planet but I have dubbed them "America's Waiter Killer Couple". Slater switches every table and sends back every order while Valerie/Karen has the kitchen prepare items not on the menu every meal. I’m afraid to eat with them. The cook or waiter might spit in my food.

Valerie/Karen's back was bothering her so she toted around a pillow to make sitting more comfortable. But a hot girl walking through the casino with a pillow -- she looked like a hooker who advertised.

You're not allowed to use your cellphone in the Sportsbook. And I so wanted to make reservations for the “Curt Kobain on Ice” show at the Aladdin.

Featured at the Paris Hotel: drinks in plastic Eiffel Tower glasses. $12.50 (true). There was a line. I wonder how many of those people thought they were buying the "actual" Eiffel Tower?

What is Pai Gow poker???

At the end of the weekend all of us either made a little money or broke even, Stanford and Kentucky got eliminated, and the waiters at the Paris hotel got together and paid for Slater's cab to the airport. It was great great fun. And I picked up a new name:

Kenny "the OTHER gambler" Levine

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Questions

Next week I’ll have Good Friday Questions but these are pretty decent too.

Joseph Scarbrough has a follow-up to my post on anthologies:

If networks aren't willing to do anthology series because it cost too much to have new sets and new actors come in all the time... then, how is that any different from having new sets and actors on a regular weekly series? Like say if the main characters find themselves in a new diner, or at a hotel, or at a distant relative's house, and then all the guest actors? Isn't that kind of the same?

People generally tune into shows because they are familiar with and enjoy the characters. They like the continuity. Anthologies introduce new main characters each week.  So it's essentially a pilot a week.  And although there are swing sets (sets used only once) there are also primary sets that are used every week. These offset the cost of the new ones.

Plus, studios all have warehouses of sets. So a café you see on CSI can be dressed up differently and used on BONES.   They don't have to build them all from scratch.

In the ‘60s you had some hybrids like THE FUGITIVE and ROUTE 66. These had main stars who traveled to different towns each week and encountered Mickey Rooney or Yvonne Craig. But you watched because you cared about those series stars. (Only I watched because of Yvonne Craig.)

Mitchell Hundred asks:

As a writer/showrunner, how can you tell when a show has run its course?

When someone in the room suggests the talent show episode and you don’t automatically fire him.

Seriously though, for me, it's when the characters cease to surprise me. When there’s nothing any of them could say or do that I couldn’t predict in my sleep, then it’s time to go.

Well, actually, that’s when you negotiate a huge raise from the network and end the series a year later.

Freebie and The Bean (which was a fun movie from the ‘70s) wonders:

Do you think "marathon" showings of reruns help promote a show's popularity and ultimately its longevity?

Absolutely. A great example is WINGS. It was doing okay on NBC but when the USA network picked it up and aired it nineteen hours a day the ratings on NBC went way up. Same is true with LAW & ORDER and now NCIS.

Of course you have to have enough episodes to make this equation work. Hence, I don’t think we'll be able to resurrect BIG WAVE DAVE’S by showing the six episodes over and over again eleven times a day. Not that it isn’t worth a try.

And finally, from Chris:

Some shows (Seinfeld, Married...with Children, Night Court) ended every episode with the audience clapping whether there was a punchline there or not? How do you feel about doing that? It kind of makes it feel more like a live play.

I hate it because it’s very self-congratulatory. If something happens in the body of a show that results in a spontaneous round of applause then fine. But I hate applause at the end of a show and I hate applause when characters first enter. On my shows I always have the warm-up guy introduce the cast to the studio audience before the show. And I also have him introduce any notable guest stars unless their entrance is a big intended surprise. I furthermore dislike when characters comment on each other’s lines. “That’s hilarious!” “What a brilliant solution!”, etc. Ugh!  It's a pet peeve but I hate when shows toot their own horn.

What's your Friday Question?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Stage direction -- cut it

Recently I participated in a screenplay reading. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, readings are a terrific way to really access your screenplay (or play or pilot or whatever). There’s nothing like actually hearing it. You’ll get a great sense of what works and what still needs work.

But the one problem with screenplay readings in particular is that so much of a movie is visual, which means a lot of stage direction. That’s fine for reading silently but it becomes very cumbersome when the directions are read aloud. You really kill the flow when you take two minutes to describe something that will happen on the screen for two seconds. I read the stage directions for this particular screenplay and the writer (a seasoned veteran) knew to cut the direction down to the bare minimum. (I can also now say that I worked with James Gandolfini, who had the lead role in the reading. He was very good, by the way.)

But the focus of my post today is on stage directions.

A number of years ago there was an organization in New York that held weekly screenplay readings. Writers submitted their drafts and if yours was selected they provided a venue, an audio tape of your reading, publicity, and help with the casting. I entered a screenplay and it was selected.

One of the services they provided was a guy who would go through your screenplay and thin out stage directions. Now I was a little offended at that. I prided myself on being very spare with my stage directions. I didn’t want some skeesix trimming my direction. They said that his cuts were only suggestions and I could use any or all or none of them.

In that case, I said “fine.” I thought, “Good luck to this guy finding trims. There’s not an excess word.”

A week later a script arrived and I was floored. With a black sharpie he hacked and slashed and must’ve cut at least half of my stage direction. I was now pissed. Who the fuck does this clown think he is?

Then I started going through his suggested cuts. Yeah, that’s a good trim… right, I don’t really need that… uh huh, that is somewhat redundant… etc. When I got to the end of the script I realized I had kept 90% of his changes.

It was a humbling but very important lesson. Now when I write screenplays I try to be super economical when writing stage directions. And then I go back and take what I call my Edward Scissorhands pass and cut out a lot more.

For that New York screenplay reading I got the great Dan Ingram (longtime DJ on WABC and voice of a trillion national commercials) to read the stage directions. And for me it was the best part of the reading. There were times I wasn’t even paying that much attention to the dialog. I kept thinking, “Oh wow! Dan Ingram is reading my words!” Great words like “he enters” and “Interior: Hotel Room – Day” but still!

You may be saying, “Yeah, making all those cuts are fine when someone has to read everything aloud, but what about when someone is just reading the script? Wouldn’t more detail and description help convey your visuals? No, and here’s why: People hate to read stage direction. Especially a lot of it. So the less you have the better your chances that the reader will read it at all. You want to be descriptive? Write a novel.

Just think of the Academy Awards and what it’s like when they stop to read the Price-Waterhouse vote tabulation disclaimer. Now imagine them doing that after every presenter. That’s a screenplay reading with too much stage direction.

Again, I appreciate that for the reading I participated in the narration was cut way back. Seriously, who would you rather hear for an hour? Me or James Gandolfini?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Random rants

This is what happens when I bang out a blog post at 1 AM.  I take no responsibility if nothing makes sense. 

Is there a show where Titus Welliver isn’t the bad guy?  He's a good actor but seriously, it's getting ridiculous.  There’s not one other heinous guy in Hollywood? Where’s Dabney Coleman? The sniveling Nazi from RAIDERS? Wile E. Coyote? Ann Coulter?

In a recent episode of GIRLS, Hannah’s lowlife boyfriend takes another girl home, coerces her into having painful anal sex then masturbates on her. And this is the Golden Globe COMEDY of the year.

I saw Mel Brooks in a Japanese restaurant yesterday. No punchline. Just that I saw Mel Brooks. How fucking cool is that?!

HuffingtonPost headline: Air Traffic Controller Furloughed Just 1 Week After Winning Safety Award.

HBO has cancelled ENLIGHTENED. Maybe if Laura Dern was naked in every episode and none of the characters liked each other they’d still be on the air.

Annie’s writing partner Jon wondered if David Isaacs and I were going to create After SMASH.

Another HuffPost Headline: Bruno Mars: 'Sex Is A Great Party Starter'. Yeah, if you're Bruno Mars.  If you're a skinny Jewish kid you rent a disco ball and hope for the best. 

There will be not one but two reality shows where stars jump off the high dive board. SPLASH on ABC (and when that fails – AfterSPLASH) and the better-titled CELEBRITIES IN DANGER on Fox. Among the major superstars participating: Nicole Eggert, Ndamukong Suh, Kim and Kyle Richards, and this I gotta see – Louie Anderson diving off the high board.

Sunday night is the premiere of the Phil Spector biopic starring Al Pacino on HBO.  Written and directed by David Mamet (Shoshanna's dad) it supposedly disregards all the actual facts of Phil's murder trial and you've got Pacino in a fright wig.   With any luck, this could be his most over-the-top out-of-control absurd performance yet.  I can't wait!

Considering how THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE bombed at the boxoffice, perhaps Steve Carell should beg the producers of THE OFFICE to let him back on for the final episode.

For many sports fans this is the best weekend of the year – March Madness begins tomorrow with an orgy of college basketball tournament games, and baseball fans can turn from the World Baseball Classic to the more meaningful exhibition spring training split-squad B-games.

MODERN FAMILY executive producer Dan O'Shannon reads from his book, WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?  A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO THE COMEDIC EVENT tonight at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove in West L.A.  I'll see ya there. 7 pm.

The spin-off of ONCE UPON A TIME is taking shape. It will be set in the parallel worlds of Fantasyland and Scientology.

And finally...

How big a deal was the World Baseball Classic (held every four years)? The day before the championship game tickets were $8. More people care about the finale of CUP CAKE WARS.

In an earlier game between those hated rivals Canada & Mexico there was a huge brawl.  SFGate baseball writer, Henry Schulman wrote, "Yeah, there'll be some big suspensions in 2017." 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Diagnosing problem scripts

Here’s a Friday Question worth an entire post:

It’s from Charles H. Bryan:

Are there times when you look at a script (yours or someone else's) and think "There's something missing, but I don't know what?" Or can you always pretty specifically nail down the problem?

I only wish in my dreams that I could detect all script problems and what the fixes are. But the truth is, there are plenty of times something’s not working and I’m completely stumped as to why.

This is another reason it’s good to have partners or a writing staff. And I’ll be honest, there have been many times during a rewrite when as a group we arrive at what we think is the problem, spend six hours rewriting, and then send the script to the stage not having a clue whether we really solved the problem or just did an alternate version. Generally, we’re right about 75% of the time. But once or twice a season we find ourselves right back at square one the next night.

Why do we find ourselves in these pickles? Because we strive to be original, tell stories in a fresh inventive way. If you just follow the same story structure week after week you rarely have these problems. Personally, I think the trade off is worth it. (Of course I say that now. Sitting in a rewrite at 5 A.M. I may not be such an artiste.)

On one show I worked on early in my career we would have a scene that didn’t work in a runthrough or a story that was problematic and one of our producers would say “Don’t worry. I got the fix.” So we would just move on to the next scene. Then we'd get back to room and say, “What’s the fix?” and he’d say, “Oh, I was just saying that so we could move along. I didn’t to stand on the stage debating this all day with the actors there.” We wanted to kill him… and then ourselves for letting him fool us again.

But if you find yourself in this situation, you can take great comfort in knowing you are not alone. Practically all writers face this, even the great ones.

In his autobiography, the great Neil Simon talks about mounting his classic play, THE ODD COUPLE. They had their original table reading before the first rehearsal and the first act played like gangbusters. Huge laughs all the way through. Same with the second. During the break before the third act, Walter Matthau (one of the stars) pledged to invest a lot of money in the play. it was a can't miss!  Then came the third act. Big laughs until the last scene and then it just died. Playwright Neil Simon and director Mike Nichols (no slouch himself) were stymied. Neil rewrote and they took the show out of town for tryouts.

Night after night the same thing would occur. Monster laughs until the last fifteen minutes. Neil and Mike would then sit in the hotel lobby staring at each other. They would decide on a course of action, Neil would sit up all night rewriting, and the next evening the new version would be presented to the audience. And the cycle would be repeated. Night after night after night.

Finally, a Boston critic casually mentioned he really liked the Pigeon sisters – two characters that appeared in a second act scene. He wished they had come back. A lightbulb went on. Yes! Bring the Pigeon sisters back.

Neil wrote them into the last scene and suddenly THE ODD COUPLE played through the roof. The rest is (Broadway, motion picture, and television) history.

When geniuses like Neil Simon and Mike Nichols can't put their fingers on a problem, what hope is there for the rest of us?  

So when you get stuck just know, there is no Dr. House for writing. At times we’re all Frank Burns.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Passing the comedy torch

The torch has been passed from Levine & Isaacs to Levine & Emerson. My daughter Annie and her partner Jon saw their first script produced last Friday night – a GOOD LUCK CHARLIE episode for the Disney Channel. It was a hard-earned assignment after six spec scripts and God knows how many nights sitting at PaleyFest events listening to showrunners talk about how great they are. If you’ll indulge a proud dad, here’s my account of that memorable night:

GOOD LUCK CHARLIE is filmed in downtown Los Angeles in the same studio that produces other kid favorites like MAD MEN, BONES, and SOUTHLAND. It’s multi-camera, shot before a live studio audience of adoring fans.

The security to get into GOOD LUCK CHARLIE was way more extensive than the security to get into the Pentagon. They went through every kid’s backpack and mother’s purse. I wonder how many diaphragms they pull out each week. (Note: this would make a great episode for THE AMERICANS. Mom spy & dad spy take their tykes to LA and go to a GOOD LUCK CHARLIE taping. Not knowing there will be security, Keri Russell has to explain why she’s got a revolver, switchblade, six passports, and a container of borscht. I want shared story credit when they use that.)

The truth is the only building in this entire neighborhood that doesn’t need a security check is the GOOD LUCK CHARLIE studio.

In typical Disney fashion, the crowd management was second-to-none. Everyone was led in and seated orderly, quickly, and by the most courteous studio pages I had ever seen. I directed a show at a studio once and the pages were like the security detail from the Altamont concert. But I’ve got to hand it to Disney. They go out of their way to make the experience as pleasant and fun as possible.

A number of shows hand out candy to keep their audiences from turning into an angry mob. Here they distributed candy, granola bars, string cheese, and juice bottles. String cheese? I remember back in the '70s when they were filming THE ODD COUPLE the warm-up guy used to toss out bite-sized Snickers bars and Tony Randall’s manager (who had to be 90 then and worth $90 million dollars) used to crawl underneath the stands and retrieve the candy that had fallen through the bleachers.

Many in the crowd were young fans so there were also games and raffles. If there was one blemish on the evening it’s that I was only two numbers away from winning the princess dress-up game. Damn! That looked so cool!  I also almost won a signed photo of the child who plays the baby (wait a minute – can she even write?) but it was that princess game I had in my crosshairs. Of course, I’m not very lucky when it comes to raffles. The only thing I’ve ever won is a XXX DVD the night I went to porn star karaoke. So I was hoping they’d give those away because there I felt I had a chance. But alas, it was just toys, iTunes gift cards, and autographed photos and posters.

This was probably the first time in twenty years that I watched a taping from the bleachers. And I realized how blasé I had become. I’ve been to hundreds to tapings/filmings and usually my sole focus is how to make the episode better? Either as a writer, director, or producer I’m concentrating so intently on details that I no longer stop for a moment and think, “Hey, this is really awesome!” But Friday night I was once again hit with that wow factor. All these sets and monitors and crew people and equipment and actors – all coming together to film a show my daughter and her partner wrote. That was mind blowing. And it should always be, no matter how many of these you’ve done. For aspiring writers, hopefully the dream of that will keep you going, keep you pushing until it comes true. And for you crusty TV veterans, let it be a reminder to pause once in awhile and realize just how fortunate you really are. (A good time to do this is as the network guys are crossing the stage en route to you with five pages of notes for a two-page scene.)

The taping went very well. It was exciting to see their script come alive and hear the laughter.  (although the bigger the laughs the more choked up I got -- I assume this is not the normal reaction to a Disney Channel sitcom).  The cast knew their lines and the show moved along at a good clip. Again, professionalism.  Sitting in the stands I was reminded of all those World Series games you see on TV where they keep cutting back to the pitcher’s parents. Mom is tricked out in team merchandise waving a big cross and Dad is always caught sneaking a quick chug from his flask. My wife and I just sat there discreetly stealing place cards off of chairs because they featured the writing credit.

After the show there were curtain calls and Jon & Annie were introduced as the writers. I was more thrilled hearing that than any introduction I’ve ever received.

Next came something I’ve never seen in all the thousands of years I’ve been in television. The audience was invited to come down from the bleachers onto the set where the entire cast was available to sign autographs and take pictures. Fans could walk through the set, take as many pictures as they wanted, and God bless ‘em, the entire cast stayed around for about 45 minutes greeting and accommodating fans. And this was after a twelve-hour work day. I asked if this was a Disney decree and they said, no. Only GOOD LUCK CHARLIE did it. Very classy. And lovely of the cast to go along. How’d you like to be the poor schmuck who had to tell Roseanne after a long shoot that she has to remain on the set for forty-five more minutes to sign autographs? Good luck, Charlie.

Hopefully this will be the first of many produced scripts for Levine & Emerson. Readers of this blog know how funny they are. People always ask if I was worried when my daughter said she wanted to become a comedy writer, and my answer is yes until I read her stuff.  And then when she partnered with Jon I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd be eating string cheese in downtown LA.

My favorite comment is from my writer friend, Gina Gold who said, "Congrats on your first grandsccript."

My thanks to Dan Staley, Phil Baker, Drew Vaupen, and everyone at Disney for taking a chance on two young scribes. Their first experience was far better than mine. The first script for me and David was an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. At the taping the warm-up man, who was the showrunner and a bit hard of hearing, was introducing everyone but us. Finally someone in the audience asked, “Who wrote tonight’s show?” and he hemmed and hawed so my charming date yelled out from the front row: “Hey, they’re sitting right here, fucker!” We were banned from the Lear company. It's amazing we had any career at all past that night.

Of course if we want our career to continue we have to hope that Levine & Emerson hire us.

Photos by me and Michael Emerson (no, not the one on PERSONS OF INTEREST). 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

St. Paddy's Day at CHEERS

Here’s my annual St. Patrick’s Day post.  This is a scene from a CHEERS David Isaacs and I wrote. One of the many Bar Wars episodes. In this one, it’s St. Paddy’s Day. Woody had been guarding the bar all night in anticipation that Gary might try to pull something.

INT. BAR – MORNING

SAM TURNS ON THE LIGHT. HE ENTERS WITH CARLA AND NORM. WE SEE THE BAR IS ENCASED IN CINDER BLOCKS. SPRAY PAINTED ON THEM ARE “HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY.”

SAM
Oh my God. Gary.

CARLA
He topped it.

NORM
Walled off from the keg. I want him dead. His family… dead. His friends… dead. His pets…DEAD.

SAM
That rat! I’ll kill him!

NORM
I thought you were going to have Woody stand guard so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen.

WOODY (V.O.)
I’m sorry, Sam. I fell asleep.

CARLA
They bricked Woody up inside the bar.

NORM
First he marries a rich girl and now this. I tell you, that guy was born lucky.

NORM EXITS TO THE POOL ROOM.

CARLA
Boy, Sam. This thing is sealed up tight.

SAM
How you doing in there, Woody? You okay?

WOODY (V.O.)
I’m feeling a little light headed.

CARLA
Thank God, he’s okay.

NORM ENTERS FROM THE POOL ROOM OPENING A CAN OF BEER.

SAM
Hey, Norm, where’d you get that beer?

NORM
I’ve got a couple cans squirreled around the bar for emergencies. I always thought it would be a nuclear thing, but this qualifies.

AN IRISH BAND ENTERS. THEY’RE ALL WEARING CABLE-KNIT SWEATERS. ONE OF THEM IS NAMED SEAN.

SEAN
Where do you want us to set up, Mr. Malone?

SAM
How about right there? (POINTS UPSTAGE; THEN, TO THE GANG) See, guys? We can still win this thing. The band’s here, we’ve got the green beer… all we need to do is take down this wall and hustle like there’s no tomorrow. Okay? Now I want to see a winning attitude here. A little positivity.

THE BAND BEGINS TO SING AND PLAY A SLOW IRISH BALLAD:

SEAN
(singing) “They broke into our Dublin home, the dirty English dogs. They took away my sister and they beat my dad with logs.”

THEY BREAK INTO A QUICK UP BEAT IRISH JIG FOR A BEAT, THEN RESUME THE LYRICS:

SEAN
(singing) “Along the ring of Kerry you can hear the bleat of gulls, I’ll sip the blood of the English from their bleached and hollowed skulls.” (TO THE BAR) Everybody!!

WOODY (V.O.)
Boy, if they look as good as they sound, Gary’s doesn’t stand a chance.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. BAR – LATER

ENOUGH OF THE CINDER BLOCKS HAVE BEEN CHIPPED AWAY TO RENDER THE BAR FUNCTIONAL. WOODY IS BEHIND THE BAR. THE BAND IS STILL PLAYING.

SEAN
(finishing a dirge) “…And everywhere I looked was death, death, death.”

A SMATTERING OF APPLAUSE.

SEAN
And now for a sad song. (STRUMS A CHORD, SINGS) “Twas a baby’s crib…”

SAM
(interrupting) That’s it! You’re finished. Here’s your money. Get out.

SEAN
Go to hell.

THE BAND EXITS.

SAM
Well, it’s over. I guess we should add up the receipts and see how we did.

CARLA
What’s the total, Woody?

WOODY
(figuring on a calculator) One million five hundred thousand dollars.

FRASIER
Decimal point, Woody.

WOODY
Hold everything. A hundred and fifty even.

Drink carefully and don't drive.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

My snarky history with AMERICAN IDOL

I reviewed AMERICAN IDOL this week and mentioned it would be my last of the season.  The show has gotten stale and routine.  But for several years I had great fun writing snarky re-caps.  So for those new readers who never saw them or blog regulars who want to remember the good time, here's essentially a highlight reel of some of my AMERICAN IDOL reviews. (For current IDOL recaps if you're so inclined, I suggest Dave Holmes at Vulture.com.)


Adam Lambert is the illegitimate love child of Freddy Mercury and Liza Minelli. He sang “Ring of Fire” but in the more traditional pre-Hitler Berlin cabaret style.

Allison Irahets is a 40-year-old divorced mother of Mickey Rourke’s twins living in the body of a 16-year-old. When all her friends are watching High School Musical she must be watching Hud.

Danny Noriega is the contestant most likely to become one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes. He sang “Superstar” for 70s week but who are we kidding? He should have sung “My Girl Bill”.

Is there one part of Diana Ross’ face and body that she has not had redone… at least twice? She is now officially the world’s weirdest Chia Pet. And when she was hugging Sanjaya I could swear she whispered, “I love you, Michael.” The ick meter was pegging the red.

Who knew? Amanda Overmyer is a “book worm”. What does she read? English literature? Russian novels? No. Rock star biographies. That still makes her the intellectual of this bunch. With the wild streaks in her hair and zebra slacks I thought she was joining the cast of CATS.

Could they pad the show any more? Christ! It was so long Paula’s drugs were wearing off.

Then came Jason Castro. Imagine Lisa Edelstein with dreadlocks.

In the getting-to-know-you segment with Jason Castro we learned that he’s an idiot and takes pride in it. Bullwinkle could have done a better job answering simple questions. Maybe after the show he and Paula can collect string.

Paris Bennett will play Gary Coleman in the touring company of AVENUE Q.

Megan Joy sported a Connie Stevens hairdo and bludgeoned “For Once In My Life”. I imagine she made the same sounds when they were burning the tattoos into her arm.

Michael Sarver sang “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” all the while pickin’ and a-grinnin’. I guess when a boy from Jasper, Texas pleads to a girl to not dump him he smiles because if she doesn’t comply he can just tie her ankles and throw her in a sack.

Phil Stacey could easily win AMERICAN SERIAL KILLER.

As always, they saved the best for last. David Archuleta sang a fabulous interpretation of “Imagine’. The judges were knocked out by the originality. And they should be. When Eva Cassidy first sang it that way years ago on one of her albums it was quite extraordinary. Much better than Archuleta’s original cover.

Now that the kids not attractive enough for FOX have been weeded out we can get down to business. This was Country Night and the guest mentor was Randy Travis (or, for you non Country fans: Thomas Hayden Church).

I would LOVE to see Bob Dylan as the guest star one week. He would coach the kids and they would all say, “What?” “Huh?” “Could you repeat that?” “What did he say?”

And since Paula can only parrot what the guest says, it would be fun to hear her say to a finalist, “Like Bob said I think, you were either great or terrible.”

When the judges were telling Haley they thought her song was safe what they were really saying was, “Go back to the halter top!!!”

Of all the bizarre looking contestants that have tried out for AMERICAN IDOL this season none have even come close to guest judge Carole Bayer Sager. Yikes! She looked like a trampoline with eyes.

Last week the guest dead weight was Jewel. She could not have looked more uncomfortable if she were sitting with the Menendez Brothers and O.J. Simpson. Favorite moment: when she mumbled to a contestant that he had no personality.

Now that Sanjaya has been voted off, AMERICAN IDOL turned to another charity, the fight against poverty. It was AMERICAN IDOL GIVES BACK week. Similar to the Jerry Lewis telethon except it only lasted one hour not nineteen, and Paula had all the jewelry not Wayne Newton. It was a worthy cause and a lovely gesture but an “historic event in television?” I don't think so. That would be the night Randy had an original thought. We’re still waiting for that historic night.

And while we’re on the subject of overstatement – Ryan asking viewers to vote saying “it’s the most important call you could ever make.” Let’s see? 911 emergency or voting for Jordin so Newscorp will donate ten cents?

Please please please Fox, don’t look at the huge ratings Wednesday and decide the Africa footage could be a great spin off.

It was a tough night for the judges because how do you tell someone singing a “life anthem” that he sucked?

Unlike the Chabad telethon, at least they didn’t have a running crawl -- Morris Fishbine, Brentwood, $18 in memory of Sophie Fishbine… Nosh n’ Lox Deli, Encino, $18, in honor of pastrami month where all sandwiches come with soup…

STOP CRYING!!!!

This is AMERICAN IDOL not DARK VICTORY. This is not a Meredith Baxter Birney Lifetime MOW where she comes down with whatever disease killed the last patient on HOUSE. This is not LOVE STORY. This is not OLD YELLER!!

This is a bunch of cute looking kids who all sound like Aretha Franklin or Michael Bolton vying for a chance to be on television every week. It’s not, “Ohmygod, I can walk. I CAN WALK!”

The worst was this boy who lives in his car and looks like Kellie Pickler. Jesus! I’m sooo glad he was finally eliminated. He cries so much he probably needs windshield wipers on the inside of that car.

First up was Kristy Lee Cook. She sold her horse to fly from Portland to Philadelphia to audition for the show. There were also auditions in San Diego, which is closer. She could have just sold her cat.

Alaina Whittaker followed. She’s 16, blond, and has that Lauren Hutton space between her two front teeth that make her seem wise beyond her years.

Listening to Chris Richardson sing through his nose I thought this guy could do his number while drinking a glass of water. He may have to do that next week if he even survives this one.

New Coke cups this week. Cut to little girl crying.

I’m still having nightmares over Carole Bayer Sager. Imagine a slingshot that’s been stretched for four blocks.

Ann Marie Boskovich was the 247th contestant to sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”. She came in 200th.

Tatiana Nicole Del Toro – Completely nuts. Easily the most annoying contestant ever. The only time I want to see Tatiana on Fox is when Jack Bauer is torturing her. And even if she tells him what he wants to know he still doesn’t stop.

Matt Breitzke – Welder. Some contestants play their own instruments. He builds his own sets.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A GREAT commercial

Just click on the little Vimeo.com link in the screen. It will take you to the commercial.


Le papier ne sera jamais mort / Paper is not dead ! from INfluencia on Vimeo.

Friday Questions

Beware the Ides of March but heed these Friday Questions.

Jim S starts us off:

You talked about laughter in the writer's room. My question is what was the dumbest argument you ever witnessed. When I say argument, I mean over something dumb like why so and so never wears socks, or the designated hitter rule.

In the FRASIER room there was an argument once over what Eddie (the dog) was thinking over some stunt that was proposed. One writer in particular had to know this information. If this was the army that writer would have been fragged. 

Charles H. Bryan queries:

Why do so many sitcoms feature a character (usually supporting) who is basically an idiot? In many cases a lovable idiot, but an idiot just the same.

Besides the fact that you can always get easy laughs, stupid characters provide a great way to impart exposition to the audience. When Sam explains what’s going on to the Coach he’s also explaining it to the viewers.

So the trick is to find that line that is dumb but you understand why the character would arrive at it. Sometimes it’s a fine line. In the case of the Coach on CHEERS we had a contest in a writers room to see who could pitch the dumbest Coach joke. One day we were faced with the following set-up: Sam is in his office. The Coach comes in to say he’s got a call. Jerry Belson is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He pitched this:

COACH: Sam, there’s a little black man in the bar who wants to speak to you.

SAM: No Coach, that’s the phone.

WINNER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Liggie asks:

What, and how intensive, is the casting process for a functional, minor character who has one line and almost nothing else to do in the script?  

In the old days (5 years ago) the showrunner could just hire whomever he liked for small parts. The casting director would comb through headshots and auditions and usually bring two or three choices for the role. One would be picked and that was that. 

Or... the showrunner would use this opportunity to give a break to a struggling actor friend.  If there was a maitre ‘d my dad always got the part – and was magnificent I might add.

Now, however, for every part, no matter how small, the producers have to put five candidates on tape and the network selects the winner.   Don't blame my dad.  This happened long after he retired.

Helena wonders:

Because you're so knowledgeable about the craft of sitcom writing, do you think you enjoy watching sitcoms less than a "regular" viewer? (Like being able to anticipate a specific joke, because that's the build-up you would've used for that joke. Or something like that.)

Nothing pleases me more than to laugh and be entertained by a sitcom. I love sitcoms. That’s why I became a writer. So I try very hard not to be jaded because I don’t want to surrender that experience.

But if a show is formulaic, if the plots and jokes are tired or lame then I start automatically critiquing. Ironically, less about the specifics of the writing and more about the directing and editing. I’ll notice poorly composed shots, question whether they should be in a master or a single, wonder if they had other coverage, wonder why they didn't go to a reaction shot, see editing trims the show could use, etc.

But by the same token, I might appreciate more than the average viewer when a show is well mounted.

Here’s one from Ron:

Cheers used to have the best Cold Opens and I was wondering what the philosophy was behind them. Obviously they never had anything to do with the show.

This was a stylistic choice the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows made to just take a moment and put you into the world of the bar. We called these "teasers."

Sometimes, depending on length, we would swap out teasers from one show to another. You can easily tell which episodes we did that. If their wardrobe doesn’t match from the teaser to Act One you know we made a switcheroo. These switches were either due to time or the teaser filmed for an episode tanked and a new one was substituted.

And finally, from Michael:

When casting pilots, do show runners consider an actor's reputation in terms of being able to be a quick study and/or causing problems on the set? Is this information widely shared among show runners?

Yes. If an actor has a bad reputation you have to consider the “is he worth it?” factor. Some actors are difficult but magic on the screen. And usually the showrunner gets pressure from the network to hire a particular actor they’re in love with (that moment).

But I’ll be honest, when me and my partner are casting a pilot and we go through lists prepared by the casting director or network, we’ll cross out names of actors we know to be headaches. Life’s too short. We tell the casting director, "don't even bring them in.  Not interested."

And actors, you should know, there is a grapevine among writers that is the envy of the CIA and all international intelligence gathering agencies. You act like a monster on a pilot and the word is out faster than one can text.

And likewise, if you’re a dream, that intell makes the circuit too.

What’s your Friday Question? And again, stay away from those Ides today.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's time for AMERICAN IDOL to say goodbye

As longtime readers of this blog know, for years a regular weekly feature was reviewing AMERICAN IDOL. I could usually count on at least one memorable performance, two dead-on comments by Simon Cowell, and twelve idiotic statements by Paula Abdul. At the time the show was fresh and people were actually talking about it the next day. There are so few shared TV experiences anymore. IDOL and GIRLS and that’s pretty much it. And both are similar in that they feature a lot of masturbation.

I eventually stopped critiquing IDOL because it became so formulaic and predictable that I stopped giving a shit. Apparently, so has America. Although the ratings are still good they’re a shadow of what they once were and actually winning and becoming an AMERICAN IDOL now only guarantees you’ll be asked to sing the National Anthem at spring training games. I think the only way people would pay to see Taylor Hicks is if their ticket would also include admission to the rides and other attractions at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

And then the big blow – Simon Cowell left. Yes, he’s still around, doing the same act on another show, but that’s like Lucille Ball leaving I LOVE LUCY to do HERE’S LUCY. Replacement judges have come and gone and the franchise has trudged on.

So I decided last night to check back in and see how the show is faring. It’s the first time I’ve seen it this year. The open auditions are tedious and Hollywood week is an exercise in making Millennials cry so I waited until the live show and the contestants had been whittled down to ten. New judges, new format, new excitement is what the producers and Fox promised. How’d they do?

Same old same old.

AMERICAN IDOL is now completely by-the-numbers. There’s only one new bright spot, which I’ll get to later. The Top Ten were just faint carbons of previous contestants. They can all sing, or, to be more accurate, BELT. But no one stands out. No one is original. No one is a star. So who cares? It’s like voting for State Treasurer.

The musical theme was songs once sung by former American Idols.  In other words:  songs we've already gotten clearance on.   

The judges have been swept out save for Randy Jackson. That’s like the final episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW when everyone at WJM got fired except Ted Baxter. This year’s panel includes Keith Urban, who’s engaging and handsome and likes everything (even his wife’s last seven terrible movies), Mariah Carey who fulfils the Paul Abdul role of being a complete vapid idiot (one of her critiques last night: “Hashtag: Pow!”), and then that one bright spot I was talking about – rapper Nicki Minaj.

She dresses like a drag queen who works the noon-to-six shift at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Cherokee, shows up late for a live show, talks in a nasal monotone New York accent (picture Selma Diamond on morphine singing hip hop) but says wildly entertaining absurd things. None of the judges give any guidance or musical insight that is remotely useful and constructive, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from all of these dunderheads other than Simon. The trope of the night was “comfort zone.” Every contestant was either in or out of his or her comfort zone. But Nicki at least tries to say something unexpected. So what if half of what she says is insane?

And Ryan is… Ryan.  Just biding his time until he can oust Matt Lauer. 

The show was two hours, which included the usual amount of padding. The first contestant didn’t begin singing until seven minutes into the program. Those seven minutes were filled with introductions, screaming applause, and pleas to download the new IDOL app. Do the math: ten singers, each singing for two minutes. That’s twenty minutes of performance in one-hundred-and-twenty minutes of airtime.

The contestants were all central casting versions of past hopefuls.

There is Curtis, the fat African-American gay guy. Janelle, the blond dumb Kellie Pickler. You’ll notice that half these kids have weird names. That’s become an IDOL staple. If you can sing and your name is Mary, you’re toast. Change it to Maribelliah.

Devin is the sensitive gay kid who looks like Tin Tin. Angie is the All-American cheerleader with big hair and voice. Gotta have one of those. And at some point she’ll lose out to an African-American contestant to prove that the show isn’t biased. (Nine black ex-contestants are suing the show claiming racism.) This was Nicki’s critique of Angie’s singing: “I love the way you walk in heels.”  Bravo!

Paul is the gay Clay Aikens kid who claims he’s not influenced by Broadway but if he were singing "Anarchy in the UK" it would sound like a show tune.

Candice is this year’s Jennifer Hudson. A heavy-set African-American with powerful pipes. Am I the only one who is reminded of “The Crying Game” when I watch her on stage?

Lazaro (unusual name? Check) is the obligatory challenged contestant. He stutters. There’s usually one who has some physical or emotional disability to draw the sympathy vote.

Also there’s Kree (unusual name? Check) the white belter. Instead of critiquing her, Nicki explained how she makes buttermilk waffles in the morning, when to put butter on, when to microwave them, etc. and then said that’s what Kree’s performance reminded her of – making waffles. Okay, it makes zero sense, but can you honestly say you saw that one coming?

Burnell (unusual name? Check) was the hip R&B dude. And finally, Amber, the gorgeous black contestant who can belt loudest of all. Mariah commented on the theatrics of her performance. She liked “the wind in the dress flowing. I know someone else who does that. I can’t think of her name.” How about Marilyn Monroe? Ever hear of her? Even the studio audience laughed at how stupid that remark was. Nicki said, "I would pay to see you wear pink lipstick."  Ellen wasn't this funny once.

A couple of times the judges gave singers standing ovations – all except Mariah who admitted that her dress was too tight. She was stuffed into it like a sausage casing, and let’s just say Randy Jackson could have gotten into that dress with less effort.  

Time was I’d review AMERICAN IDOL every week. This concludes my AMERICAN IDOL review for the season. It's tired, it's over, it's time for Ryan to anchor the NBC Nightly News.  If Nicki says something really goofy, please let me know.

Levine. Out.