Friday, May 31, 2013

The dumbest Friday Questions I've received

Sometimes I get bizarre questions so I thought today I’d try to answer some of them.  Names have been withheld to protect the embarrassed. These were actual questions submitted.  NOTE:  I post these in the spirit of fun, not to be mean-spirited (which is why I'm not identifying anyone).  I love your questions and answer them every week.  But I do get some goofy ones and people are always asking me to share some of those.  My answers are tongue-in-cheek.   So please, just have fun with this.  

Question one:

I've noticed that when a character is writing something he (or she) is usually left handed. I don't know why I notice this or why it bothers me. My question is, is this my imagination?

No, you’re correct. Research has shown that audiences prefer left handed penmanship. So if the actor is right handed they just flip the film. Congratulations on being the first viewer to ever spot this phenomenon.

Question two:

Have there been porn parodies of any of the shows you've worked and, if so, have you seen them?

Yes, but I haven’t seen them. I prefer pornographic parodies of procedurals. My favorites are BONE and CS&M.

Question three:

I was at a casino recently and saw a "Cheers" slot machine. You getting anything from that?

I’m getting as much as I’m making on the porn CHEERS.

Question four:

As a baseball announcer maybe you can answer this – is there an inning where not a lot happens and you can go to the bathroom or concession stands without missing too much?

Any inning the Houston Astros bat.

Question five:

When is the best time to pitch a show? Time of year, time of day, day of the week?

Summer. 11:13 AM. Second Tuesday of the month.

Question six:

Do you like killing characters?

What writer doesn’t?

Question seven:

It seems alot of people that have recurring roles on series have been popping up as guest stars on other series (Peter/Neil from White Collar on Body of Proof/The New Normal as an example). I never really noticed that much before, is there any reason why it seems to be happening now?

Yes.  Actors like to eat.

Question eight:

Ken, I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the drop in sex scenes in mainstream Hollywood movies. I'm curious as to your thoughts on this trend.

Until I get royalties on the porn version of CHEERS, I’m against it.

Question nine:

An Anyday Question for you:
Have you ever written into a script someone breaking an object during a scene? A glass window, chair, or whatever?

Yes, but unlike killing actors, I get no real satisfaction out of it.

Question ten (this is a FRASIER question… I assume):

Did Eddie have actors that he preferred working with?

Kelsey Grammer because they both went to Julliard. Eddie, however, graduated.

What’s your question? Please leave it in the comments file. Woof.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: my review

No SPOILER ALERT necessary. A lot of space stuff happens and you go home. There are thrilling chases, battle scenes, destruction, beaming, dogfights, malfunctions, and grabbing railings at the last second but I won’t divulge in which occur.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is a fun ride with great special effects. I just wish they had had half the budget. Maybe then they would have spent more time focused on the interactions of the characters and less on explosions. Whoever insures these spacecrafts for the star fleet would go out of business in one year even if they insisted on a billion dollar deductible. But my point is the real fun in this movie was the personal bickering, bantering, and ethical discussions among the crewmembers. Spock & Uhara could be next century’s Sam & Diane.

Happily, you don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy this film. There are a lot of nods to Trekkie fans, but it’s not like starting to watch MAD MEN for the first time now.

I’m going to say something now that might cause me an avalanche of angry comments but with the exception of Leonard Nimoy, I think everyone in this new cast is better than the original actors who played the parts in the '60s (and later movies). And Zachary Quinto was terrific too but Leonard Nimoy IS Mr. Spock. Here’s the test: When you’re watching this movie, especially during the emotional moments, try to picture a young William Shatner in the part. The hamming would be at warp speed.  Chris Pine is a much better Kirk and Simon Pegg practically steals the movie as Scotty.

Action movies traditionally live and die by how good their villain is and director J.J. Abrams and writers Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and LOST veteran Damon Lindelof have selected a great one. Benedict Cumberbatch (Shelock Holmes in the British series, as opposed to the CBS version where he’s just a procedural tool or the recent movie version where he’s Rambo). He’s a worthy adversary and always fascinating on the screen. He’s evil but you’d love to go out and get a drink with him.

A nice addition to this edition is Alice Eve. She’s very hot and the filmmakers weren’t above featuring a completely gratuitous scene of her in her underwear. I thought I heard one Trekkie in the theater say, “I am getting such a hard-on” in Klingon.
I have to say that although this STAR TREK was enjoyable I didn’t find it as good as the last one. Reboots always have the advantage of starting from the beginning, establishing the relationships, putting everything in place. By the sequels everyone is just going out on new adventures. (An exception was the second Chris Nolan BATMAN, which I thought was better than the first. But that had Heath Ledger as the Joker.)

The plot of this TREK was a lot of “let’s do this” and then “let’s go here” and then “now that we’re here let’s do that.” I hope the crew is well-paid because there are always danger sirens going off, pieces of the ship exploding, and unlucky crew members being sucked out into space. For that kind of constant peril they might as well just work for Amtrak. At least they could go home on nights they weren't killed.

If you’re looking for good summer escapist fare STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is just your dish. But I wish the next sequel took place during a gas shortage and the starship Enterprise was stuck on the planet Zeron 9 for two months and we just got to watch everybody hang out. Think of how much cheaper that would be to produce and how much sooner the movie would take to go into profits. STAR TREK INTO BLACK.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My thoughts on the first ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT episode

Since a lot of you wondered.

I was never a super big ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT fan. Found it very funny in spots and trying too hard in others. I re-watched a few episodes of the original series to get myself re-acquainted and found them even better than I had remembered. I’ll be honest – I’m not a Will Arnett fan. Never been. Find him sketchy and not funny in anything he’s in. So that’s a problem. But everyone else can make me laugh in the right bit. Okay, not so much Portia but everyone else.

I thought the first new episode showed promise but was waaaaay too convoluted. So much narration and legal jargon – I couldn’t follow it, nor did I care. I was also confused by the time frame. Seems to me they posted SIX MONTHS EARLIER and in that period Michael built an entire housing development and it went bust? Try getting a contractor to build a shelf in less than a year.  I laughed at a bunch of things, LOVED the whole airport sequence, was glad to see the characters back, and like all of you – wish there could have been more with everybody (although I understand the unique logistical problems they had during production).

I understand that everything ultimately pays off, and I applaud them for how ambitious the storytelling apparently is, especially considering all the limitations they had to work around. But as a casual fan, episode one didn’t compel me to quickly watch all of the rest. Frankly, I get a little scared when I hear “if you can get through the first two hours it starts to pick up…”

I may catch up to them at some point, but the show is not targeted to me. It’s targeted to the hardcore fans and for them it seems to deliver. So I say to all ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT fanatics, have at it and enjoy every last throwaway line and delicious inside moment. As the slogan goes, “This one’s for YOU.”

Waiter-speak

Is there a language course waiters are required to take these days? Must they pass Waiter-speak before being hired? Who started this current trend where waiters are no longer allowed to converse like normal people? If it were one or two I’d say it was an affectation but they all talk like this now – as if there were a handbook. Maybe this is just an L.A. phenomenon, you tell me. And if you are one of these waiters, would you let me know your side of things? Perfect!

Whatever you ask for now is “perfect!” Salt, a cheeseburger with onions, a cheeseburger without onions. “I just stabbed my date to death and need another knife. “Perfect!”

There’s a formality that is now the standard.

A waitress will take my companion’s drink order then turn to me and say: “And for yourself?” I then must say: “Get myself a beer please.”

No longer can a waiter ask, “Ready to order?” Now it’s “Have we decided?” “Yes, I’ll have what you’re having.”

They use “we” a lot.

The variation is: “So what are we thinking?” “You need your teeth fixed before you go out on more auditions. I’ll have the halibut.”

The only time they don’t say “we” is when they’re reading the specials and then it seems like they own the restaurant and are the chef as well because they’ll say, “Tonight I’m featuring…” Sometimes they do this in a fake accent. You can just picture their headshots and resumes. Special skills: foreign accents, baton twirling, yodeling.

They’re forbidden to ask how you want something cooked. Instead: “What temperature would you like?” “Gee, I’m not sure. 423 degrees or 425?” “Perfect!”

When serving they are now required to say, “Please excuse my reach.” In some places, like Tilted Kilts, that's the only reason you do order food.

And this is a relatively new thing that has caught on quickly: “Are we enjoying the first few bites?” Who started that? And woe be the maverick waiter who asks: “Is everything okay?” Now it’s “Is everything outstanding?” Imagine asking that question with a straight face at the Olive Garden?

When they want to be specific waiters now inquire: “Is the veal to your liking?” It’s as if Boyd Crowder wrote the handbook.

After the meal there are two options. “Did we save some room for dessert?” or “Can we tempt you with something sweet?” Either way you want to trip them so they'll fall into a pie.

The bottom line: real people don’t talk like that! But it's great if you're a screenwriter.  As a writer I’m forever fascinated by dialogue. And in crafting a script, giving a character a certain turn of phrase can greatly help the actor define him. Good writers are great listeners. “Thanks and you have a lovely rest of the day.” 

UPDATE:  As per your request, writing my review of the first ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.  Will post it soon.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candleabra -- my review

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, now playing on HBO, is LA CAGE AUX FOLLES meets BOOGIE NIGHTS. It’s at times hilarious, creepy, fascinating, and horrifying. But let’s be real. You’re not tuning in because you have so many unanswered questions about Liberace. Many of you don’t even know who Liberace is (or was more accurately). You’re curious as to whether Michael Douglas can pull off playing a flamboyant queen and Matt Damon can convincingly play his boy toy.

I’m happy to say the answer is a resounding yes.

But if you are tuning in to see a freak show you will be disappointed.  There have been numerous TV biopics about Liberace and they all came off like giant cheesefests. Campy, ridiculous, and boring after ten minutes. I think the difference here is that Michael and Matt commit totally to their roles. Never is there a wink. Never are they channeling Ru Paul.

Credit to director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese – they somehow produced a movie that feels grounded and real despite the most outrageous costumes, over-the-top characters, and settings that Caligula would find too ostentatious. It’s a stereotype mine field that they seem to hop scotch through without blowing themselves up.

Another delight awaits you too. Rob Lowe as the gay plastic surgeon almost steals the film. When this guy stars in something I’m never interested, but when he plays a small supporting role like in THANK YOU FOR SMOKING or this, he’s an absolute riot. I guess what I’m saying is I love Rob Lowe when he plays anything other than Rob Lowe. But I digress…

For those not really familiar with Liberace (a good test: if you think his name is pronounced Liber-ace you do not know who he is), here’s a thumbnail: Liberace (pronounced:  Libber-ah-chee) was a flamboyant piano player who rose to fame in the ‘50s with a TV show. He always had a candelabra on his piano and wore flashy glam suits. He was Elton John for ‘50s housewives. He actually was an excellent musician, but first and foremost he was a showman. He sported fur jackets with thirty-foot trains. Try finding those at T.J. Max.

The movie makes reference to Liberace successfully suing a London tabloid for claiming he was gay. Either Liberace had the greatest attorney in legal history or the London jury was worse than the O.J. jury because no one on the planet Earth, including barnyard animals, believed he was straight. I was six and I knew he was gay… and I didn’t know what gay meant.

I have two personal Liberace memories. The first dates way back to when he owned a mansion in the San Fernando Valley. I was probably seven or eight. I was visiting a friend who lived near his place and we hiked up there to see if it was really true that he had a swimming pool in the shape of a piano. It was true. I was blown away. That was the coolest thing EVER. He wasn’t there that day. At the time I was disappointed, but in retrospect I was probably lucky. I might’ve seen things no third grader should ever see.

In the mid ‘70s he owned a mansion above the Sunset Strip. When he moved out to Las Vegas he decided to turn it into the Liberace Museum. Old ladies would gather at a spot on Sunset to be shuttled up there. At the time I worked across the street at the KiiS Broadcasting Workshop. One day the group KISS was at the station doing a promotion. Afterwards they decided to go to the museum. So standing in line with blue-haired old ladies was Gene Simmons and KISS in full costume. I wonder if Gene got in for free. Y’know, professional courtesy.

I’d be surprised if both Michael Douglas and Matt Damon don’t get Emmy nominations. Soderbergh will get one for sure because the Academy is in awe of any successful feature director. Hopefully LaGravenese will be recognized as well. To find the real person inside the aggrandized image he had to dig and dig and dig. And dig. Meanwhile, Rob Lowe is well on his way to becoming a gifted comic actor and Christopher Walken.

BEHIND THE CANDLEABRA is not for children, homophobes, or anyone who thinks Eric Stonestreet is too outlandish. But if you have an open mind or you never got to the Liberace Museum I recommend it. Gordon Gekko and Jason Bourne were never like this.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nice article about me...

... in the Kirkus Review of books.  Print edition even.  Thanks to Matt Domino for making me come off sounding somewhat literary.   You can find it here.  

Look, I'm just happy they used a decent picture and gave a link to where you can buy my book

Thanks again.   It seems weird to say Happy Memorial Day so have an enjoyable Memorial Day while remembering the purpose of the holiday. 

Memorial Day -- and then staff work begins

Happy Memorial Day. This is the time of the year when writing staffs go back to work. If you’re an aspiring TV scribe, I hope someday that’ll be you. Here’s what you can sort of expect…at least on the comedy side.

The first week will just be sharing vacation stories, home remodeling nightmares, and trashing reality shows. You’ll go out for long lunches, bitch about how much other writers make, compare Prius prices, convince non-Mac using colleagues to finally wise up and get a Mac, and discuss the upcoming summer movie slate. My blog might come up. Half will like it, half will think it’s a piece of shit.

You’ll mosey back to the office, maybe talk in very general terms about the season ahead, some scattershot thoughts on characters and stories, then go home at 4.

Week two you’ll come in and the show runner will panic. He’ll realize you’re now hopelessly behind. From there you get to work, really delving into the characters, spitballing story areas, eventually breaking stories. You still go home at 4 but at least you’re getting something done.

Over the next few weeks the stories will be outlined, assigned, written, turned in, and rewritten by the staff. You start having lunch brought in, going home at 6…and then 7… and then 9. By the time you go into production in August you might have four scripts ready to go with a few others in the pipeline. And hopefully you’ll have seen every summer movie you wanted to see, made your vacation plans for next year, bought that Mac, remodeled that kitchen, fulfilled every dinner obligation, read all those books in your Kindle, caught up on my archives, and took pictures of sunsets so you’ll remember what they look like…because now the real fun begins.

The actors come in rested and the first day of production you’re ready to kill them. And so it begins.

Your first real break comes when you can say "Happy Thanksgiving".

Note:  for new writers these are all exciting steps, even the long nights.  Enjoy every minute of it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

#ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is back

Okay, so I was one of those people who stayed up until midnight last night to see the premier of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT on Netflix. How often does a season debut of a situation comedy qualify as an “event”? Quick! Name the new Ann Heche show that premiered last week! But the articles and interest on social networks for #ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (everything has a hash tag these days) have been so huge I’ve even seen other writers acknowledged besides Mitch Hurwitz.

So I eagerly watched it. There were things I laughed at and loved and other things that I thought weighed the episode down. And then I read a review from a big AD aficionado and all the things I loved he had problems with and all the things I had trouble with he adored.

So instead of giving my review, I really want to hear what you thought. This is such an unusual situation because the expectations are soooo high. Especially among uber fans who have waited seven long years for this. I imagine most of the people who watched last night were these fans (especially in the east coast where it premiered at 3 AM – I wouldn’t watch the premier of my own show if that’s when it aired) so I ask – were you thrilled, disappointed, a little of both, or just relieved that Liza Minnelli didn’t get any scarier?

And for the more casual fan, curious viewer who just got sucked into the hype, or person who tried to download TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL but clicked the wrong box – what did you think? Did you say, “What is Kristen Wiig doing on the show in an avocado mask?” or were you laughing too hard to care? Would you keep watching? Did you keep watching?

How many episodes did you watch last night? Do you plan to binge and watch them all at one time or space them out? Do you plan to watch them in order? Were your expectations met? Does Portia look different to you? Are you in a foreign country and have no fucking clue what I’m talking about?  And finally -- what do you think of what other people think?

Thanks for chiming in. I look forward to your thoughts. And the new Ann Heche show is called SAVE IT or SAVE ME or SAVE… SOMETHING.  I dunno.  No hash tag necessary. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

My brief stint on KRTH 101

By short I mean two shifts. I was the emergency fill-in guy for one weekend in the spring of 2007. These were my first disc jockey shows in like fifteen years, and I haven't done one since. So I must have really impressed them. But I've had a lot of requests for this from radio freaks so on this holiday weekend I thought I'd post it.  I'm a little hesitant though.  You commenters have been particularly surly lately.  But what the hell?  I can take it.

Some things to keep in mind:

I ran my own control board (for the first time since 1983).  Imagine coming in off the street and piloting the Starship Enterprise.

All the elements were on computer and I had never worked with a computer before.  One wrong click and I'm playing a newscast from four months ago.

The music was all pre-programmed. We had to follow the song order precisely. I accidentally deleted five songs. I don't know if "Wedding Bell Blues" has ever played on that station again.

I also screwed up and played the same commercial three times in one spot break. I just kept hitting the wrong key.  And it was for some hard sell local car dealer too.  I probably lost 90% of my audience.

The bathroom was outside in the hall but you needed a key to get back in. No one ever gave me a key so I was on the air from 7-midnight and couldn't use the bathroom. By 10:00 I was not just hopping to the music.

Still, it was great fun being on a major heritage Los Angeles radio station, even for one weekend.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Questions

Ah, the unofficial start of summer and higher gas and airline prices! Let’s get your holiday weekend started with some Friday Questions.

Mark is up first.

I read that they did write a script for Cleese to return to Cheers, but he turned it down. So the character was rewritten and recast with John McMartin for the episode "The Visiting Lecher" (McMartin's character is an old colleague of Frasier's, similar to Cleeses's).

No. Peter Graves was supposed to play that part but flaked out at the last moment – winning no friends among the CHEERS producers.

Joe asks:

Ken, there was a rumor going around for a while that the cast of “Friends” would reunite for a brand new season of the show, ten years after it had gone off the air. I could see this working maybe with monster hits like “Sienfeld” or “Friends”. Do you think something like that could ever really work, years after a highly successful show ended?

First off, it'll never happen with FRIENDS or FRASIER.  Not a chance.   Larry David pulled it off in a sense with the SEINFELD reunion as part of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM but even then they were playing themselves, not the characters.

But Jennifer Aniston is now a movie star, Courtney Cox has her own series, as does Matt LeBlanc. David Schwimmer is off doing theater, and Lisa Kudrow is always busy with some fun project or another. Matthew Perry’s latest series was just cancelled so he’s available, but I hope he winds up on THE GOOD WIFE instead.

There are several problems with resurrecting a series. It’s almost impossible to catch lightening in a bottle twice. The zeitgeist has moved on.

Another issue: will the series premise still hold up? Do you want to see those FRIENDS characters or SEINFELD characters still single, bouncing around aimlessly when they’re 50? Do you want to see Sam Malone chasing hot babes when he’s 60? It's no longer funny but sad.  And if you change the premise and everyone has grown up, moved on, had kids, etc. then it’s not the same show. And the new version is probably not as good.

One final thing: let’s be honest, like with your old high school sweetheart – sometimes it’s better to just hold onto the memory than see them today, if you know what I mean.

HOWEVER… if you bring a series back only a few years after it’s gone off the air it might have a chance. We’ll see this weekend with ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT premiering on Netflix, and next spring when 24 returns. But Kiefer Sutherland can still climb a fence. I don’t think you’d want to see Jack Bauer chasing bad guys when he’s eligible for AARP.

William Gallagher wants to know:

What do you think about stage directions in a script? From what I've read, you and David Isaacs often write quite sparsely but then you'll have a terrific line that the audience will never see.

I'm thinking most particularly of Frasier: Room Service where, having revealed Niles and Lilith in bed, your script says: "And if that's not an act break, we don't know what is."

David and I will do that from time to time just to reward people for actually reading our stage direction. Most people skip over it. So it’s a little incentive.

But yes, keep stage direction brief.  And thanks for noticing!

And finally, from John:

Ken, if I remember right, you said your favorite season of Cheers was Season 1 with the establishment and development of the characters. But since the show tends to be divided by fans into the pre- and post-Shelly Long years, do you have a favorite year among Seasons 6-11 for the Kirstie Alley episodes?

No. I have favorite episodes that are sprinkled throughout those years, and I think that some of our best episodes were written during that period, but no one season stands out for me.

And to answer your next question  -- there are those episodes from that era I consider our best –

“To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before”
“The Big Kiss-Off”
“Rat Girl”
“Death Takes a Holiday on Ice”
"Loathe and Marriage"
"Finally Pt 1 & 2"
And the Bar Wars series.

What’s your question? Please submit in the comments section and drive carefully.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How I'd fix MAD MEN

MAD MEN is a wonderful show. It has richly deserved all the many honors it has received. Part of its appeal is that the viewer has to work a little to fully appreciate what's going on. He has to decipher subtle clues and make connections between events and moments – some that are separated by three or more seasons. The viewer is usually rewarded for such diligence with a deeper understanding of the characters and themes. And you get to feel superior to all the nimrods who think HAWAII FIVE-O is complex.

But this season it's become harder for even us diehard fans to follow. This was one of my Tweets from yesterday:

"I still haven't figured out last Sunday's #MadMen." -- Sherlock Holmes

According to what I've heard and read, Sherlock and I are not alone. In last Sunday's chapter: Everyone was on meth, Don was pitching gibberish, there were flashbacks where the kid they got to play young Don Draper (who at the time was young Dick Whitman) looked nothing like either Don or Dick, there were symbolic wooden spoons and moles, a burglar posing as the mom from GOOD TIMES, Betty no longer was a brunette and no longer wore a fat suit, hippies roamed the ad agency, Joan was nowhere to be seen, and the cast now equals the population of Lichtenstein. It was like somebody watching DR. WHO for the first time plus it was dubbed in Mandarin.

MAD MEN rolls out these more confusing episodes at their own peril. Loyal fans may throw their hands up and say it's just not worth it. Or they may get disgusted or even insulted that the show doesn't seem to care that they don't get it.

And it's not like they can make a mid-season adjustment. All of the episodes for this year have been filmed. If fans are fleeing there's nothing they can do.

Ah, but there is.

And so, as a passionate MAD MEN viewer, I offer these few suggestions to help bring the flock back into the fold.

At the end of each episode, instead of those nonsensical preview snippets (“This can't continue!” cut to: “I'm going to lunch” cut to: “I hate dogs!” cut to: “You...” cut to: “Lettuce?”) distribute a reading list of books that must be read by the next episode. The recent DR. FEELGOOD biography would have been on last week's list. Maybe five or six a week. It's a small price to pay.

For the “Previously on MAD MEN” segment – expand that each week to an hour. So lengthen the show to two hours.

Use Pop Up videos during the episode. Quick little blurbs like “Don gave Sylvia a red dress but equates red to being a whore and he detests whores because his mother was one and died during Don's birth and he was raised by whores so by giving Sylvia a red dress he is in essence calling her a whore.

Flash one of these on the screen every ten to fifteen seconds to enrich the viewer's experience.

At the halfway point, instead of a commercial break, have James Brown and the rest of the CBS NFL TODAY crew analyze what we've seen so far. Let Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Bill Cowher, Shannon Sharpe, Jason La Canfora, and Lesley Visser kick around the plot points and get you ready for the second half. For example: they could compare the shots they've all gotten before big games. Also, throw in some highlights.
Instead of airing the show in spanish on the SAP channel, provide a running commentary, a la a director's track on DVD's.

Furthermore, form chat groups with each others so you can text back and forth during the episode and keep those slower members (I.Q.'s of only 130, the poor wretches) up to speed.

Encourage the faithful to hit pause, go back three or four times if there was something they didn't understand.  Watch the show in slo-mo if necessary.

That's it.  And you'll notice that nowhere did I suggest they alter their content or storytelling.  

Will these steps eliminate all confusion and bring back your loyal legion of fans? I don't know. But it's a start.

Any books I should be reading for Sunday night?   It's Thursday already. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Location, location, location

My cable company offers a couple of nostalgia channels featuring old time series. I like to call it the “Doesn’t Hold Up Network” because a lot of these shows that I remember loving back in the day are now just awful. Who knew the years wouldn’t be kind to GIDGET?

The reason I find myself stopping at one of these channels (besides hoping to see Claudine Longet guest star as a murderer) is that as a kid growing up in LA, I recognize most of the locations that they used. So it’s kind of like stepping into a time machine, except the past is in black-and-white and I can fast forward through the assisted living commercials.

But a lot of local landmarks that have long since been turned into Jiffy Lubes and Casa de Cockroach apartments reappear in all their glory behind Honey West and Amos Burke.

ROUTE 66 is a great one for Way Back Machining. One week they were in the old Marineland and the next they stopped off at Jungle Land, home of many ferocious tranquilized animals. It’s a good thing the scenery is so nostalgic because the show itself was terrible. The dialogue tried to be Paddy Chayefsky and actor George Maharis tried to be, well… an actor. Long florid speeches filled with imagery and dripping with classical references describe a dog that chewed up a garden. What’s disconcerting is that at the time this show originally aired in the ‘60s I thought it was incredibly deep. Of course that's not why I watched it.  I was just hoping to see Claudine Longet with a gun.

What struck me most about these old hour shows is how cheesy the production values were. Today a cable show like SUITS and THE AMERICANS looks as sumptuous and well lit as a feature. If they get 3,000,000 viewers a week they're lucky.   Back then, on network television drawing an audience of 30,000,000 those old shows looked like they were made for $22. Except for Jack Webb-produced shows like DRAGNET and ADAM-12. $22 was the budget for the entire season.

Sidebar: Harry Morgan told me this -- Ever notice on DRAGNET that Webb & Morgan wore the same suit every day? That’s because they went out one day and shot footage of them getting in and out of cars and going in and out of buildings, and to match those all year long they had to be in those suits. I told Harry, “Well, at least you don’t have the problem of having to wear the same thing every day here on MASH. Oh…wait a minute…”

I think the difference is that audiences today have much higher expectations. They can spot a cheapo production. With HD cameras they can make home movies that look way better than KOJAK. (By the way, I see a lot of San Fernando Valley locations in KOJAK – a show set in New York.)

That’s something else I'm always on the lookout for – LA locations masquerading as other parts of the world. I once saw the Burbank airport substituted for Miami. Can’t think of many mountain ranges behind the actual Miami airport. The Fugitive traveled all around the country but one out of three small towns all seemed to have the same Main Street. How dumb was Inspector Girard that he never figured that out? 

So even though a lot of these programs don’t stand the test of time I still have a great fondness for them. What a treat that the Los Angeles of my youth has been so captured on film. I feel bad that kids growing up in Los Angeles today won’t have that same luxury. With production costs what they are, it’s now the kids in Vancouver who will be able to look back and see their city as it is today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The great Mel Brooks

Great PBS special last night on Mel Brooks – truly one of the funniest people in the galaxy. I recently got the box set DVD's of his work and it's been a true joy revisiting the laughs.

Happy to say I've met him several times. The first was when I was working at the KIIS Broadcasting Workshop. He was at the radio station promoting his new movie, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Even then he was an idol of mine. Between THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES, and the 2000 YEAR OLD MAN he was already a comedy God. I tentatively approached him the hallway, introduced myself and when I said my last name (pronounced La-Vine) he got me in a headlock and said, “From now on it's pronounced La-VEEN!”

A few years later when my partner David Isaacs and I were on MASH, one of our staff members was Ronny Graham (a funnyman worthy of his own post). Ronny was good friends with Mel. They had worked together in sketch reviews and wrote together on numerous projects (including SPACE BALLS). MASH was filmed at 20th and Mel was based there as well.

Sometimes at the end of the day Mel would wander into the writers room and hang with Ronny... and us. And always he was entertaining. So quick! So funny! Imagine getting a private show from Mel Brooks!

In most interviews Mel will tell a story about once being at a studio and meeting Cary Grant. He was completely in awe of him. Eventually he mustered the courage to introduce himself and they wound up going to lunch. Cary had such a good time he invited Mel to lunch the next day too. This continued day after day until finally Cary called his office and Mel said to his secretary, “Tell him I'm not here.”  I bring up this story for a reason.

So one night after work we're in the MASH writing room watching a dramatic Dodgers-Phillies NLCS playoff game when Mel pops in. He sits down and is hilarious as usual, except this time we really want to watch the game. It was the Cary Grant story. Three years before I was so in awe I almost couldn't approach him and now I was thinking, “Jesus! When is he gonna leave?”

But that was one isolated incident. Otherwise, I cherished the times I was privileged to be in his presence.

I still see him from time to time in our neighborhood sushi joint. God bless him, he's still holding court and delighting audiences, be they two or two million.

Most nights he has dinner with his dear friend, Carl Reiner. What I wouldn't give to be at one of those. And the Dodgers suck this year so there'd never be a reason to want to watch the game instead.

Thanks for the laughs and inspiration, Mel. Keep going for another 80+ years.

Monday, May 20, 2013

If I retooled AMERICAN IDOL

AMERICAN IDOL has announced it will undergo a major facelift in order refresh a clearly dying franchise. Not only do I not know who was crowned last week’s AMERICAN IDOL, I didn’t even know the finals were on. And I used to review the show every week the first five or six years. The judges are being replaced (even Randy, which is like closing the barn door ten years after the animals had escaped) and changes in the format are being considered. Allow me to project what I would do and what the show would look like as a result. I imagine some folks from Fox will read this and say “why don’t we hire Ken to fix all our shows?” I’m available for the right price.

OPENING TITLES. Same except for a slight name change. In big letters we see THE VOICE and then in smaller letters of american idol.

CUT TO THE IDOL DOME, THE SCREAMING FANS AND THEN TO THE STAGE WHERE JAY LENO ENTERS. 

JAY: Thank you, thank you. Anybody see the Dodger game last night? Who are these guys? I thought I was watching the Witness Protection Program. (hilarious laughter) And did you see where President Obama got a haircut? Yeah, he got a haircut.  Did you see those photos? Not a good job, Mr. President. He must’ve gone to Fantastic Uncle Sam’s. (Even more hilarious laughter) But anyway, we got a great show for you tonight. The theme is songs your parents sang in the car when you were between five and seven. As always, let’s meet our judges. First, the lovely Ann Curry!

(Applause)

ANN: Thank you.

JAY: Everytime I say your name I wanna eat Indian food. (big laugh)

ANN: Why?

JAY: Never mind. My mistake. And also we have music icon, Bob Dylan!

(Applause)

BOB: Thanegyldgigpgooo.

JAY: And finally, Marlee Matlin!

(Big applause. She signs “hello”)

JAY: Alright, America, let’s meet your Top Ten!

TEN PEOPLE FILE IN, RANGING IN AGE FROM 80 TO 6. HALF THE WOMEN HAVE BABIES IN TOW, AND THE GUYS LOOK LIKE THE VILLAGE PEOPLE.  BIG APPLAUSE. 

JAY: Say hello to Renaltina, Soophran, Thor, Ignatz, Pleimonemony-Beth, Madonna, Billy Joe Bob Tom, Cosmopolitan, and the twins Saramardja and Keith! (Applause) Okay, let’s get this show on the road. I haven’t been this excited since Conan got audited. (Big laugh) First up is Thor singing “the Theme from Rocky.”

MUSIC STARTS AND THOR LAUNCHES INTO HIS SONG.

THOR (singing): Gotta fly now, gotta fly now, gotta fly now, gotta fly.

HE FINISHES TO A THUNDERING REACTION. CUT TO THE AUDIENCE WHERE KEIFER SUTHERLAND IS APPLAUDING. UNDER KEIFER SUPER: 24 RETURNS IN MAY.

JAY: Great job. You know there’s a statue of Sylvester Stallone in Philadelphia – otherwise known as the “Little Bell.” (big laugh). So judges, what did you think? Bob?

BOB: Igheighexhejr ihtpsehtlmwe theiswoe weuantmetnetitltaw.

JAY: Right. Marlee?

MARLEE: Bob…said…what…I…was…going…to…say.

JAY: Good enough. Ann?

ANN: I was over in Afghanistan recently and found that anthems like that designed to motivate aggressive behavior in actual fact created a sense of false confidence that was ultimately counter-productive. They’re misleading, deceptive, and in reality put our soldiers in harm’s way. So I didn’t love it.

MARLEE: What…did…she…say?

BOB IS INCENSED THAT ANN PANNED THE SONG. HE LETS HER HAVE IT.

BOB:   Aneyltieyt meitshent diet dkit pwielcmsth eige msotxmmtak!

ANN STARTS TO CRY.

JAY: Oh here we go. Bob, apologize or America will hate you.

BOB: Ighehme thepwyye xhptyiishpt!

ANN: (still sobbing) I want a production deal!

JAY: We’ll talk about this during the break.

ANN: Bob has always had it in for me.

JAY: I’m sure that’s not true.

ANN: “Positively Fourth Street” – that was about me!

JAY: You were ten when that came out.

ANN: Oh? You too? I should have known.

JAY:  Me?

ANN:  You never fought for me at NBC!

JAY:  You never fought for me!

BOB: Yithpw thephg eith oqealxmmt uet ehwpieilp.

MARLEE: Bob…makes…a…good…point.

ANN:  Jimmy Fallon is funnier.

JAY:  At least people liked me at NBC when they fired me!

BOB: Uhg heulgthwweeen!

MARLEE FLASHES ANGY HAND SIGNS.

ANN (swatting her away):  Get your freakin' hands out of my face.

THE THREE JUDGES AND JAY BEGIN YELLING AT EACH AND EVENTUALLY PUNCHING EACH OTHER.

JAY: I haven’t lost control like this since the last CHEERS show. Hey,  If you want to vote for Thor folks, the number is 1-888-VOICE-01. Be right back. Max Greenfield’s gonna stop by later. Stick around.

CUT TO COMMERCIAL.

There you go. That's just a taste. But be honest, if you saw that wouldn’t you watch AMERICAN IDOL again? Fox, I’m expecting a call.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My toughest interview

In the minor leagues I had to do a pre-game interview every day.  Most of the players were happy to talk to me, but not all.  This is me interviewing Syracuse Chief, Lou Thornton in 1988.   By the way -- still easier than interviewing Barry Bonds. 


My commencement speech to the Class of '13

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

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

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

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

Same with clothes.

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

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

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

Don’t buy SUV’s.

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

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

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

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

You can no longer take an "incomplete".

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

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

Don’t invest money in video stores.

Read novels that aren’t graphic.

Join communities that aren't virtual.

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

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

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

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

Never take comedy traffic school.

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

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

Congratulations to the class of '13. Now get out there and don’t fuck up my Social Security.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My final word (I hope) on Zach Braff and Kickstarter

I thought I was going to drop this subject but there have been more developments and I’ve been barraged by requests to comment. And since I can’t produce a slick video and get fifty major websites to embed it like some people can, I’ll have to take one more day on the blog to respond. Tomorrow I’m back to the usual nonsense I promise.

After getting the money he begged for on Kickstarter for his follow-up movie to GARDEN STATE, Zach Braff now has “gap” funding from Worldview productions. The Kickstarter campaign drew enough attention that he was able to achieve what he set out to do originally and that is get a movie financed that guaranteed him autonomy. I hope he refunds some of the Kickstarter money and I suspect he will. This was never a scheme to swindle anyone. And I have always said I admire that Braff wants to be true to his vision. But in essence those who donated money to his Kickstarter campaign were providing Braff bait. You were kind of pawns.

And again, young filmmakers in Kalamazoo don’t have the access to leverage their Kickstarter largesse and fame into making a financing deal with a production entity.

This gets back to the argument I originally made that in my opinion crowd funding sites should be championing the little guy, not $22 million dollar celebrities. For that opinion I have taken a lot of criticism. Who am I to say who should be allowed on Kickstarter? Who made me Grand Poobah of the internet? Hey people, do what you want. Support whoever you please. Buy Zach Braff a new Tesla if you like. But I think it’s wrong.

Kickstarter, in a response to my article and others like it, maintained support for Braff and other notables. Well, of course they did! Celebrities draw attention to their website and bring in more traffic.   If there’s a big winner in this whole brouhaha it’s not Zach Braff, it’s Kickstarter. Does the increased traffic result in more funding for the small productions? Maybe. I hope so. But it sounds suspiciously like the “Trickle Down Theory” to me. It’s up to you to decide whether that worked.

But it seems I am not alone in my stance. Kevin Smith, who I have never met, has been trying to get the financing to make CLERKS 3. On Reddit recently he wrote this:

"We nearly Kickstarted the budget back in November, but now I'm feeling like that's not fair to real indie filmmakers who need the help. Unlike back when I made CLERKS in '91, I've GOT access to money now - so I should use that money and not suck any loot out of the crowd-funding marketplace that might otherwise go to some first-timer who can really use it.

"So if I can get away with it, I'm gonna try to pay for CLERKS III myself. As much as I love the crowd-funding model (and almost did it myself in early 2009 with RedStateGreen.com), that's an advancement in indie film that belongs to the next generation of artists. I started on my own dime, and if I'm allowed, I should finish on my own dime."

Sound familiar?

Other points:

In his glossy promotional video Zach Braff maintains that studios would interfere with his casting choices. He recently signed Anna Kendrick (a hot actress with an Academy Award nomination) and Josh Gad (the toast of Broadway in BOOK OF MORMON and a highly sought-after TV and film actor). Uh… what studio would veto those choices? It’s not like he wanted to hire me to play one of the roles. If he was going to hire all unknowns or even non-actors I could see where a studio might have serious reservations. This is a business. But Braff just hired two hot extremely talented young bankable actors. So I don’t buy that argument unless he intends to have Josh Gad play his mother.

One final thought: Just because a celebrity goes on Kickstarter does not automatically mean they’ll fund their project. Poor Melissa Joan Hart. Despite her vow that she’ll follow you for a year on Twitter (maybe the greatest incentive EVER), she has failed to secure financing for her movie. She hoped for $2 million and got $51,605 from only 315 supporters. But the good news is that’s 315 fewer people she has to follow.

Okay, that’s hopefully it for me.  Zach, I await your next video.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A FRASIER creator helps me with Friday Questions

We have a guest expert answering the first of your Friday Questions – Peter Casey, one of the creators of FRASIER. The other questions unfortunately, you just get me.

Andy Ihnatko wants to know:

How did "Frasier" put together those brilliant silent scenes that played out under the end music? Were they fully written or did everyone just work out a funny piece of business during rehearsals?

I think I'd even watch a compilation of all eleven seasons' worth. Each one is a pretty little gem.

FROM PETER:  Those end credit scenes were not written out. Usually the writers would put their heads together and come up with an idea after the audience was released and the crew was shooting pickups. One of my favorites came when Mathilde Decagny, the dog trainer, told us Moose could jump really high. We ended up putting a muffin on the kitchen island then Mathilde commanded Moose to jump over and over again. All the audience saw was his head popping up again and again from behind the island looking at the muffin. That wore the little sucker out.

Thanks so much, Peter!

From David L:

Ken, I was watching an interview with writer Michael Patrick King and he said a writer should never tell a series actor what stories might be coming up. The actors get attached to the idea and then are unhappy if that storyline falls by the wayside. Was that your experience on MASH as well?

That’s fine if you can get away with it, but in the real world most stars want to know what’s ahead and not telling them will only cause you grief. Also, you’ll notice a lot of stars have producing credits. They’re part of the loop whether you like it or not.

I personally disagree with Mr. King. I don’t go over every story with the cast, but I want my star to know what’s ahead and I want him on board. What good do you do yourself when you go down a road your star hates and you have five episodes that follow that path? It’s a lot easier to re-think things when they’re at the conceptual and not script level.

Much better to have him sign off on your creative direction. Also, I like to include my stars in the process. They feel more invested in the series and they feel I’m taking their input seriously. So I voluntarily give them a heads-up.

Alan Alda, in particular, was a great creative partner. He was always a cheerleader, full of great ideas himself, and even if he didn’t like something he was always willing to hear and seriously consider your side. The world needs more Alan Aldas.

michael asks:

Which would you prefer? Premiere your new series in the fall or the midseason so you have more time to develop the series? Or does getting the extra time mean more network changes?

I’d prefer the fall. There is the valid argument that it’s easier to launch shows mid-season because there are less of them and you have a better chance of standing out, but there’s nothing like being part of the big fall hoopla. From the upfronts announcements to a summer of interviews and promos, it’s exciting.

Plus, if you premiere mid-season the network will only 13 episodes. If you debut in the fall and do well you stand to get 22.

If your show premieres in late April then you’re pretty much dead. Don’t kid yourself. You get 6 and out.

However, if your show is an event, like Fox bringing back 24, then anytime is a good time with the proper promotion. The tentative plan for 24 is next May, going into the summer.

But I should specify that I’m talking about the major broadcast networks. Cable is on a different time table. If you’re on USA it might be more advantageous to premier in the summer or March.

As for network meddling, they make their scheduling decisions based primarily on their need, so they might want you to re-tool but they want you on in the fall so you scramble like crazy.

And a lot of time mid-season shows go right into production so they’ll be ready in late October when the first casualties fall. So you don’t even have the benefit of time.

But if you do have that time luxury and you do need to re-tool at least you won’t be under that same insane casting pressure when a hundred projects are all casting at the same time. You can see more people. And you don’t have to hire someone immediately because you’re afraid another show will snap him up after lunch.

Rory W. has a question about my recent pilot rundown.

I was really struck by this line in your post today:

"scheduling requirements (e.g. we need another multi-camera sitcom to go with our Tim Allen existing multi-camera sitcom)"

Do schedulers really think that way? I don't know that I've ever noticed the format of a show or shows that I like or necessarily cared. Only because of this post did I realize that "New Girl" and "The Mindy Project" are single-camera and "The Big Bang Theory" is multi-camera. (Those are the only comedies I watch/DVR.)

I can't imagine that audiences really care about that.

But, maybe I'm wrong.

The networks feel it’s very important that shows in an hour time period be compatible with each other. Is there a different audience for a multi-cam show and a single-cam show? Maybe. Perhaps subconsciously.  I’m sure networks have volumes of research to suggest there is.

But the question is what is compatible? Format or content? MODERN FAMILY and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is compatible to me, even though their formats and sensibilities are different. But they’re both smart, funny family shows.

Other people don’t like multi-cam rhythms and would prefer two quirky single-camera shows even if one was a family show and the other was a workplace comedy.

It’s tricky, but like I said, networks have reams of research to support this theory.

What’s your Friday Question? Please let it in the comments section. Molto bene.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Another "How I got fired" story

Here’s another tale from my radio disc jockey days. It was a great field to be in if you didn’t mind zero security and bosses who were mad as hatters.

In 1974 I was on KYA, San Francisco, doing the 10 pm – 2 am shift and happy as a clam. The program director liked me, the general manager liked me. I was the flavor-of-the-month. In radio that meant start sending out tapes.

The station was sold. This has happened to me numerous times. And the chain of events is always the same. A general staff meeting is called. The new owners assure everyone that their jobs are safe and there will be no changes. One of the attractions of purchasing this station was the format and people. They were honored to be working with all of us.

Almost immediately the program director is fired. Then various staff members get picked off as if there were a sniper on a hill. The format is altered, new rules and memos are generated hourly until three months later you don’t even recognize the station.

So we have the obligatory meeting at KYA. I’m in the Army Reserves and then have to go off for two weeks summer camp at Ford Ord. While I’m gone the program director is fired. Big shock.  I know my days are numbered too.

When radio stations want to fire disc jockeys and have no real cause they catch you on a minor infraction that normally wouldn't even warrant a mention and use that as your poison pill. I think my egregious error was that I forgot to read a live tag to a commercial (like “Open every night till 9”).  I returned home from the army and found my pink slip in my box. Because of my gross negligence and utter lack of professionalism I was terminated immediately.

Disappointed but not surprised, I returned to my studio apartment and made a few calls to see what else was available. As luck would have it, a friend who was program director of a station in San Diego had an opening and hired me on the spot. I would report in a week. Being out of work for one hour was far preferable to six months, which is what I suffered through in 1973.  (When you're cold, you're cold.  I couldn't get a job doing all-nights in Fresno.)

Then I got a call from KYA’s business affairs person. Because I was fired for cause they didn’t have to pay me severance. This of course, is bullshit, but lots of stations did it.

So I went back to KYA and stuck my head into the general manager’s office. Howard Kester was an older gentleman.  He had always been very nice to me. Cheery greetings, pats on the back, etc. The one thing I remember about him is that he blinked a thousand times a minute. I’ve never seen anything like it.

He invited me into his office, was very fatherly, and said he was sad to see me go. Hopefully I learned from my wanton irresponsibility and would go on to have a nice career. If it was up to him, he’d pay me the severance, but this was corporate policy. His hands were tied.

I told him I was going to take action. He blinked fifty times then shrugged. “Go ahead. Call the union if you like.”

“I’m not calling the union,” I said. “I’m calling the Adjutant General’s Office.”

“What?” he blinked.

“Yes. You fired me while I was on active military duty. That’s illegal. I’m filing a law suit.  You'll be hearing from the United States government.”

His eyes were now fluttering like a movie projector and I could tell he was a little thrown by this. He told me to hold on and quickly called his business affairs guy and relayed my threat. I could hear over the phone the guy yelling, “PAY HIM! PAY HIM RIGHT NOW!” Howard instructed him to cut a check.

Then he went absolutely ballistic on me. His face turned beet red and he started screaming random obscenities. I calmly sat there and said I wasn’t leaving until I had the check for the full amount in my hand. He said I had to sign a release relieving KYA of any further responsibility. I refused. Howard’s head almost came off.

He got right in my face and said, “I know your kind. You’re the type of person who likes to come back and hang around the vending machine!” Huh? That didn’t even make sense.

He continued screaming at me and sending Morse Code through his eyes until his secretary gingerly walked in with the check for him to sign. He scrawled his signature but just before he gave it to me he said, “If you take this I swear you will never work in this industry again. EVER!” I swiped the check out of his hand and casually said, “I’ve already got another job!”

Now he started screaming “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!” I stopped at the door and couldn't resist.  I turned back and said, “Would you mind if I got an Almond Joy from the vending machine?” He almost leaped across his desk.

I left and just a few months later he too was fired by the new owners.

I’m still friends with a lot of the people I worked with at KYA. Come to think of it, they all got fired too.  But that’s the thing about radio back then – even the bad parts were often fun. I’m glad I was a part of it. And even more glad I got out.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A CHEERS story I had never heard before

Last Saturday night at UC Santa Barbara there was a discussion of CHEERS by series creators Glen & Les Charles and James Burrows moderated by CHEERS writer/producer Cheri Steinkellner. It was a fun, lively, informative evening filled with clips, tips, and anecdotes.

Later in the program George Wendt joined them on stage and told a story that even I had never heard.

It was Kirstie Alley’s first week. Kirstie is a little uh… out there. On her first day for example, for the table reading, she showed up in a blonde pageboy wig wearing a sweater and apron (a la Shelley Long).

During the week the rest of the cast decided it would be a nice gesture to get Kirstie a welcome gift. Everyone contributed but no one had the time to actually get it. George and John Ratzenberger drew the assignment of picking something out.

George said they drove down Melrose at a complete loss as to what to get. Trashy lingerie? That might be a tad too personal. (But certainly a good impulse.) Conventional gifts just seemed too… conventional.

They finally wound up in Big Five (as does everybody) and there they found the perfect gift. A little wrapping paper and it was ready to go.

And so after Kirstie’s first episode, the cast of CHEERS lovingly gave their new cast member a shotgun. That’s right. What better gift to give someone you’ve only known for four days than a shotgun? (Along with a nice note that said, “You’re going to have to shoot your way off this show.”) The fact that Kirstie found this hysterical it was clear that she was going to fit in perfectly. For the next six years she was as incorrigible as anyone on that show. And you couldn’t really cross her because, well… who knew how accurate she was that thing?

I dearly miss that cast. That infectious spirit of fun came through on the air. And it was always a joy to walk onto the set… although, if I had known one of the stars was heavily armed I might have thought differently.

P.S.

Georgie and John were never asked to go shopping again. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What it's like to go Viral

I woke up one week ago today and discovered I had 129,000 hits in one hour. What the fuck? I had gone viral.

This was a new experience for me. Over the last 7 1/2 years I had had big spikes in traffic, usually when I had guest bloggers like Aaron Sorkin or my daughter, Annie, but never had I received one million page views – not even for my Traci Lords rant.

Now that the craziness has died down and I’m once again forgotten, I can reflect back and share the experience.

It's insane to think that some nimrod can sit at a computer and bang out a point-of-view essay and over a million people read it.   This is Cliff Clavin's ultimate dream -- even more than getting a joke on the TONIGHT SHOW. 

The best part was being exposed to so many new readers. The worst part was how many of them never came back. Hey, what did I do? That’s perfectly normal in the blogosphere and I have picked up some new followers (and for that I’m very grateful. Not grateful enough to give you VERONICA MARS T-shirts but still.). But it’s a huge ego boost to see all that traffic and incredibly humbling when your numbers drop worse than week two of 1600 PENN.

The viral post in question was my rant against Zach Braff using Kickstarter to fund his movie. If I had my druthers and could choose which of my articles I would have preferred got a million hits it would probably be my tribute to Larry Gelbart, something strictly funny, or a plug for my book so I could make some damn money. But hey, I’ll take it. From time to time articles I write get linked from other sites, but that’s never in my thinking when I write them. And I’m usually surprised by the ones they pick. Getting an MRI generated big interest. Casting Tom Hanks – meh.

I figured the Zach Braff piece would result in some controversy. I’m no stranger to that. Roseanne Barr savaged me in her blog (which I consider a badge of honor), Diana DeGarmo’s mother had to be restrained, Traci Lordds tweeted that I was an a-hole, any time I say something even remotely political like Sarah Palin is an idiot I get grief, and worst of all is the hate I receive whenever I say anything nice about Patty Heaton.

But all that was nothing compared to this. I checked on Thursday and when I Googled “Zach Braff Ken Levine” there were seventeen complete pages of articles and discussions. Yikes! The ones that got me were those with headlines like KEN LEVINE IS WRONG, as if anyone in the world knew who the hell I am.

That brings up another issue – lots of articles and commenters confused me with the other Ken Levine, the far-more-successful creator of Bioshock. On the day the piece ran he tweeted: “Dear Internet, I am not the guy who hates Zachary Braff, that is tv writer and sportscaster Ken Levine. Met him once, nice guy but not me.”

But in addition to all the comments on my blog, a lot of bloggers and websites did their own articles reacting to my happy little essay. A thousand sites I had never heard of with names like Buzzo and Trendstop and Waaznew? I am thrilled and relieved to say that in the articles and the comments, even those who disagreed with me did so in a very respectful way. (I once wrote an offhanded joke about a certain shock jock morning team and received a thousand death threats, all misspelled.) In the best sense of the word, what we had here was a debate. Some arguments against my position were forceful but not personal. No one said I should “be in a plain crash and DIE!” (And there’s no such thing as an “Oozy.”)

On the other hand, there is a new trend on the net that if you disagree with someone you are labeled a hater. Your points are summarily dismissed and you're just a hater.  Or a troll.   Mr. Braff himself paints his naysayers with this one brush so I guess I'm a hater, despite saying nice things about him and promising to praise his next movie if I like it. 

From what I hear there was a lot of discussion about this topic around town so it took everyone’s mind off Justin Bieber’s Anne Frank comment for two days. And some newspapers ran it. Imagine if I had done something really noteworthy!

Ultimately, I have no idea the percentage of people who agreed or disagreed with me, but I stand by my position. And I wish everyone success who has a project on Kickstarter. Even Melissa Joan Hart. (Please follow me on Twitter, Melissa. PLEASE?)

As of this writing, I have not heard personally from Zach Braff, Rob Thomas, nor Melissa but I don’t expect to. I’m sure I’ll bump into each of them at parties or at the very least on the next WGA picket line and it will be real awkward.

The interesting phenomenon, that I alluded to earlier, is that as fast these things go viral, they disappear almost as fast. But every day or two some other site will pick it up and there’s a renewal of comments calling me ill-informed and naive so I still have that to cling to. Only fourteen of my fifteen minutes are up.

So I’ll happily go back down under the zeitgeist radar where my readers can get a laugh and won’t be confused when I discuss comedy writing. Why would a major video gamer discuss seltzer bottles? It’s nice and comfortable and manageable enough that we can all get to know each other. And if I want another spike in traffic I’ll just ask Annie to guest-blog for a day.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What's the latest on all those TV pilots?

Things are starting to fall into place for the networks' fall schedules. Many of the pilots that they were so high on two weeks ago are dead. Sure things like BEVERLY HILLS COP didn’t make it on the CBS schedule. Other front runners are wondering what happened.

The networks went back to New York last week to cobble together their schedules. As a prominent agent once said, “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi.”

It’s why you can’t get too excited when the network is thrilled that you had a good table reading, or you hear it’s some executive’s pet project. And even if your pilot turns out great and tests well, there’s still no guarantee it will get on the air. Or if it does, not be relocated to next April. If a network is enamored by a star they’ll often pick up a show even though they know it still isn’t perfect. That’s the case with SUPER FUN NIGHT. But ABC so wants to be in business with star Rebel Wilson that they’re willing to pick it up and retool. The odd man out might be you.

FOX gave a series commitment to DADS, a multi-camera Seth MacFarlane vehicle – a commitment – and that one still needs plenty of work.

Now this isn’t to say that these two are unique cases – each year plenty of new shows get revamped,  recast, etc. between the time they’re picked up and aired – and it’s not to say that the revamping doesn’t sometimes result in successful series. HAWAII FIVE-O was tinkered with endlessly and did alright. Come to think of it they’re still tinkering (as well they should).   Parker Posey and Alex Kapp Horner were just replaced on their picked-up pilots.  (Talk about we have good news and bad news...)

The bottom line on why shows get picked up – need, scheduling requirements (e.g. we need another multi-camera sitcom to go with our Tim Allen existing multi-camera sitcom), commitments to producers and studios, and first and foremost – does the network own the show? If there’s one slot open on NBC and you have a show at Warner Brothers that’s going up against a show owned by NBC/Universal, who do you think has the edge?

And before you get outraged, just know this is business and this is the way it has always been done. Producers know it, writers know it, actors know it.  Sometime you get jobbed but sometime you are the happy beneficiary. You just gotta play the game. And it is a game.

Who were the winners this year? Bill Lawrence certainly. He got a bunch of new shows on the air. Chuck Lorre picked up his fourth series (but that pilot deserved to get picked up on merit alone). Star producers like Joss Whedon (of course), Mike Schur, Greg Garcia, David E. Kelley, and Jerry Bruckheimer had productive pilot seasons. Star stars did well as well. They usually do. Robin Williams, Anna Faris, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Allison Janney, Will Arnett (again???), Tony Shaloub, Dylan McDermott, and Marg Helgenberger all landed series on CBS. And as mentioned, ABC thinks Rebel Wilson is a big star. NBC thought Maya Rudolph was two years ago. NBC comedy star power includes vehicles by Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes.

It's a big year for comedies.  20 new sitcoms have been ordered.   Of course, last year 16 were ordered and only two survived (NEIGHBORS and THE MINDY PROJECT -- would those have been the two you guessed last September?).

Which brings us to the casualties – those current shows that were axed last week. Since I’m generally focused on comedies – NBC cancelled everything other than PARKS AND RECREATION (yay) and somewhat surprisingly, COMMUNITY (there’s a rumor that they might ask series creator, Dan Harmon back, but that’s ONLY a rumor -- repeat:  ONLY a rumor). But WHITNEY (thank God), GO ON, THE NEW NORMAL, 1600 PENN – gone. (What a difference a year makes. Last year the two stars of THE BOOK OF MORMON – Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad – both got series on NBC. This year, they’re both out.) SMASH was also put out of its (and our) misery.

But the message is clear. NBC was a disaster last year. It’s hard to build an audience with so many new shows but what choice did they have? Last year they had star vehicles (like Matthew Perry in GO ON), the Olympics to promote their schedule, THE VOICE, and SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. And still they finished the year in shambles. I read their pilots and the one that was my favorite is still in contention. It’s called ASSISTANCE by playwright, Leslye Headland, and it stars the wonderful Krysten Ritter. By the time you read this it could be on the schedule or dead or both.

CBS cancelled RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (the show that everyone thought had been cancelled three years ago), but as of this writing picked up three new comedies. So it sounds like they will add another hour of sitcoms. Of all the networks CBS is always the most secretive.

ABC dumped MALIBU COUNTRY, HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS, FAMILY TOOLS, and HAPPY ENDINGS but picked up several new series. Steady performers, THE MIDDLE and SUBURGATORY will be back.

HAPPY ENDINGS is shopping elsewhere and may wind up on USA. It fared the best when following MODERN FAMILY and MF begins its syndication run on USA in the fall so the thinking is HE might be a good complement. Stay tuned. This is a whole new opportunity for cancelled series and failed pilots that never existed until a few years ago. Shows like COUGAR TOWN and SOUTHLAND (although it was just cancelled) have gotten a second life on cable channels. Studios are currently scrambling to see if they can do just that.

This is the time when things change and update almost by the minute. Networks are putting their final schedules together, deciding which of the shows they’ve picked up will be for the fall, mid-season, and how many will be ordered.

Let the games continue!

UPDATE!

I had to share this. A sideline reporter for the L.A.Kings interviewing Matthew Perry yesterday. Check out what he says about GO ON. You won't believe it I promise you. Thanks to my son, Matt for finding this.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vacation tips: Where to find writers

I read articles all the time about where tourists visiting Los Angeles can see stars. There are also maps to the stars homes (although Jack Benny and Lucille Ball have moved to more permanent residences. ). But what about all those millions of visitors who come to Tinsel Town just to catch a glimpse at writers? There’s yet to be an article about that….

Until now.

So for those of you scribe groupies hoping to see an actual TV or screenwriter this summer vacation, here are some places to go:

NATE N’ AL’S – This perennial Beverly Hills delicatessen is officially Broadway Danny Rose west. Here is where old comedy writers go to die of heart failure. Usually in tables of five or more, piled high with pastrami sandwiches (“I’m hungry now that I’ve quit smoking!”) the old sitcom guard holds court, trading stories of the good old days when Elizabeth Montgomery was a doll to work with but that Cosby kid was a handful. (“Two comedy albums and suddenly he knows funny!”) Morning meetings between writers and agents, managers, or producers start about 9. The ones that are over by 10 are working writers, the ones that go on til 11 are not.

THE AMC THEATRES, CENTURY CITY – weekday matinees only. Usually in pairs. Listen for the keywords: “Who greenlit this shit?”

THE FARMERS’ MARKET FOOD COURT – weekday mornings, early. They have coffee, read the trades, bitch about their fantasy baseball teams, and get the hell out before all the tour busses arrive.  The smart ones are by Bob's Donuts.  Worth the trip just for one of those sinkers. 

Every STARBUCKS and COFFEE BEAN on Ventura Blvd between Vineland and White Oak. The scribes are easy to spot, sitting in front of computers, nursing one $3.00 ice blended for eight hours.

ART’S DELICATESSEN – Studio City. The San Fernando Valley equivalent of Nate N’ Al’s. Close to CBS Radford with oversized artery clogging triple deck sandwiches that include pastrami AND chopped liver. The one-time popular haunt of all the MTM writers so it’s kind of a shrine.

CEDARS SINAI HOSPITAL – West Hollywood. Home for all reunions of GRACE UNDER FIRE, CYBILL, and ROSEANNE writers.

THE SMOKE HOUSE – Burbank. Across the street from Warner Brothers studio. The bar area. Leave it to writers to think a good place to pick up chicks is at an old style red booth restaurant that’s been around since John Barrymore used to pass out there. Historic note: Captain & Tennille were discovered playing the Smoke House lounge – thus adding even more to the hip factor.  Toni is now 71 (but looks great). 

RESIDUALS – A bar in the valley that used to let writers pay for drinks with residual checks that were under a dollar. They eventually had to discontinue that practice because they were getting too many. I myself have received a check from THE SIMPSONS for one cent. And I’m sure it cost $5.00 to process and mail the check.   Just last week I got a check from THE JEFFERSONS for sixty cents -- probably my royalty from 100,000 DVD's sold. 

THE BRENTWOOD COUNTRY MART – Westside smaller version of the Farmers’ Market Food Court. Writers and news anchors hang out here. You’ll have no trouble telling which is which.

THE OAKWOOD GARDEN APARTMENTS -- Burbank. See recently divorced writers.

Any coffee shop above Hollywood on Franklin – Lots of guys trying to write the next PULP FICTION. Or MINDY PROJECT.

Happy hunting. One rule though: no handing out spec scripts! Let me repeat that:

NO HANDING OUT SCRIPTS!

Either working writers will be pissed or non-working writers will give you theirs.


And again, HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY.