Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday Questions

Well, we’ve come to the end of the Neil Simon Film Festival on TCM. Tonight’s my final night.  Will you miss me?   

But we begin with my all-time favorite Neil Simon film, HEARTBREAK KID. The fun and my schtick begins at 8 PM EST/5 PM PST.

Okay, now some Friday Questions.

Charles H. Bryan starts us off:

So how did you become aware of the TCM gig (or it of you)?

They approached me. I had done a tribute piece on Neil Simon and the folks at TCM were fans of the blog.  (who knew???)

What this illustrates is – you never know. I always maintain that you make your own momentum. Doing this blog everyday I don’t know what opportunities (if any) it will bring. But it’s an active activity, a chance to practice and hone my craft, and I suspect I’ll have a better chance of good things happening if I’m productive as opposed to just sitting home waiting for the phone to ring (which, you know never does). Make the phone ring.

From rockgolf:

What’s the best spec pilot you read that networks turned down.

THE CELL by Mark Legan and Mark Wilding, about a terrorist cell stationed in Chicago. It was hilarious, and of course, totally unsaleable. But it did get the writers quite a lot of attention.   You can read it here. (Thanks to reader Calvin)

Carol asks:

If someone came to you and offered you the Network Suit Job would you take it, or would you be afraid it would suck all the joy out of the business for you?

Would you WANT to be the guy who accepts/rejects shows?

I would not want a corporate job. That’s so not me. Wearing a suit, having to be in the office every morning, “reporting” to people, maneuvering office politics, following marching orders from on-high, and rejecting a lot of my friends would drive me up a wall.

And then there’s the frustration of getting scripts back that are disappointing. If I was a showrunner I could just rewrite them to my satisfaction. But I couldn’t do that in this case. All I could do is give notes and hope the writer rises to the occasion. And when ultimately the script goes up the food chain and is still disappointing, I’ll get blamed for it as much as the writer. Who needs that shit?

To be the guy who selects the shows that get on the air (and face it, those are the only decisions that really matter) I would have to be the network president. No one is going to give me that job off the street. So I would be reduced to standing back while others made the major decisions.

No thank you. I’d much rather be the guy creating and making shows then the one shaping them to fit someone else's agenda.

Now this may seem like I’m knocking network executives. I’m not. I’m pointing out that they have incredibly frustrating jobs, and their success hinges on other people and their ability to deliver the goods. They get beat up by their superiors, beat up by writers and agents and studio executives. They constantly walk a political tightrope. And they have to listen to a million inane unfunny obvious pitches. My heart goes out to them.

And finally: Julia Littleton wonders:

Do you ever find it useful as a writer to watch something really terrible to get a sense of perspective and revisit some of the don'ts of comedy writing?

No. It’s just painful. I don’t need to be reminded that there’s a lot of crap out there. I’d much rather spend my time seeking shows and artists I can admire.

I’m sure for a lot of writers there is a certain comfort in watching shit and knowing they’re better. But I would rather watch great material and push myself to be better.

What’s your Friday Question? And again, thanks for watching me on TCM this month.


John in Ohio said...

You say it was totally unsaleable. What about reworking as a feature or a short run series?
What made it poison? Political correctness, economics of making it as a series?
There are dramas centered on or featuring cells.

Calvin said...

The Cell is a great read. Too politically incorrect, especially for 2006/07 when it was written, I believe.

Here's a link:

Anonymous said...

Wait, the whitesox play at the cell. Well, they show up there, it's another thing to say they play there, more just show up.

Oat Willie said...

"I would not want a corporate job. That’s so not me".
So says every guy under 30 before they get jobs and host TCM shows. And are asked to wear a suit.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I agree that I'd rather watch/learn from good stuff, but I have also learned a lot from watching things that don't work as an object lesson in why. As a filmmaker friend commented, in badly-made work you can see the seams, and in well-made work you can't. Sometimes it's helpful to understand those seams. Not once you get past a certain stage of workmanship skill, though.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

"But I would rather watch great material and push myself to be better."

Good idea for any endeavor, I bet.

...I used the same philosophy in learning to play golf. I always sought out players who were better than I (...and who could tolerate a dork beginner...) It sped things along and taught me to laugh at myself.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Love your closing sentence of seeing something great & pushing yourself to do better. As a visual artist I can relate. I live by the Michelangelo credo of: "It's in your best interests to do your best work."


Kway Hee said...

Seasons 1-5 of MASH are coming to Netflix in February - hurray! Do you know if these will be the episodes as originally run, or the syndicated versions (or something else)?

Houston Mitchell said...

Hi Ken! Miss your presence around the Dodgers: How do you like the Dodgers' chances next season in the wake of all the off-season changes?

Mark said...

Kway Hee: Based on how Netflix has handled other shows, I would expect MASH to be uncut.

Jerry Krull said...

Pushing yourself by viewing the best reminded me of Louis CK describing how it took him years to get 45 minutes of good stand up. He was amazed that George Carlin could get an hour of completely new material every year. So Louis went on stage one night and opened with his closing bit - the best of his material - and then had to try to top his own best comedy. Soon he found he could write much better material from his life at a faster pace by always trying to beat his best.

Eli Pasic said...

There's a joke at the beginning of the Frasier episode "Selling Out" where Frasier tells a caller about how there's a tunneling electron microscope at Cornell University that's capable of seeing images of the atom and how if he were using that microscope right now, he still wouldn't be able to locate his interest in the caller's problem.

I was watching an interview with Dick Cavette where Dick told a variation of that joke as told by George S. Kaufman.

I was curious to know whether the writers happened to borrow that joke from George or whether they just happened to unknowingly write the same joke as he.

Powerhouse Salter said...

Who writes or controls the wording of the episode blurbs used in TV listings?

Anonymous said...

Actually, THE CELL was written in 2004, a mere three years after 9/11. At least when Mel Brooks was trying to sell THE PRODUCERS - (still called SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER back then) - it had a 20 year cushion.

Mike B. said...

Powerhouse Salter:

I used to work at one of the listing companies. We would take what the network/producer/channel would give us, and craft it so it could be truncated at any point and still make sense.

For example, tonight's description for Hawaii 5-0:

A patient infected with a contagious and lethal strain of bird flu is kidnapped and the culprits intend to weaponize the virus.

This could simply be "A patient infected" for newspaper listings or you might have the whole thing for an on screen guide. Each show also has a default description if the episode is unknown:

An elite police task force in Hawaii headed by a decorated naval officer probes high-level crimes. The series is a reboot of the classic Jack Lord crime drama of the 1970s.

You could just used "An elite police task force in Hawaii", use just the first sentence, or use the whole thing.

However, this company is sending this work to the Philippines starting in July, so look for snarkier descriptions until July at which they will likely become stupid.

Les said...

I read The Cell in its entirety and thought it was funny. And would still work today if they just update the references (just not as many fat guys on TV today pulling in hot blondes as wives as there was in 2004).

One question: In the pilot there are 2 times that I saw the characters curse. Was this written for a cable channel specifically or was it just written with the hope it would land somewhere and if it landed at a network, the bad words would be changed?

P.S. I actually find it funnier when they edit movies on tv and instead of the character saying "shit" they say "poop" or "darn."

VP81955 said...

Anonymous said...
Wait, the whitesox play at the cell. Well, they show up there, it's another thing to say they play there, more just show up.

Hey, they'll always have 2005 and the ending of an 88-year "curses," which is more than they can say on the North Side.

Bob in the UK said...

The problem with THE CELL that I could see wasn't that it was controversial but that it just wasn't funny. It was badly researched and very badly written.

Compare it to a film that does a similar idea much better a few years later (FOUR LIONS) and you soon realise just how tame and box-ticking THE CELL was. I really don't get the hype, unless it's just because it deals with awkward subject matter not particularly well. Are TV folks really that fearful?

DBenson said...

A variation on the question about watching trash:

Do you ever stick with something that's looking bad -- I'm thinking a movie or a single episode of a series -- because the premise was promising and you're thinking, either seriously or idly, of how it could have been made to work?

I'm always thinking how a hashed-up whodunit could have been made viable, or a cheesy fantasy/scifi film could have been made less arbitrary ("Why, it turns out we didn't even need a silver bullet! Just a big rock! . . .")

ScottyB said...

Here's a Friday Question for Ken: We're all very familiar and conversant about the "jump the shark" moments. But are there any moments you can think of where a sitcom totally *killed* the shark beforehand?

I bring this up because I've been watching the 'Newhart' reruns (the one where Bob ran an inn, not a psych office), at the point where Larry, Darryl & Darryl showed up and cafe-owner Kirk was being exiled and Julia Duffy had already replaced Jennifer Holmes.

There was a turning point there, and it was totally palpable.

ScottyB said...

Second part to my Friday Question above for Ken:

Or was this more of a matter of the writers (or even the suits) finding their legs after a season or three, looking at the ratings (or really, the show itself) after a season or three and going, "Holy shit, we're dying here. We gotta do *something* huge. We totally need a new direction somehow"?

Hell, even after that turning point on 'Newhart', even the laughs from the audience seemed a lot more more livelier, and the writing seemed a whole lot fresher.

ScottyB said...

Re the question to Ken about becoming a suit. The episode of 'Taxi' with Martin Short where Rev. Jim got put in charge of figuring out which days to slot the network's TV shows was always one of my favorites.

Hm. Maybe the networks *should* try putting some schlub off the street to be in charge of such things for, like, a week and see what happens. Might surprise the living shit out of everyone.

scott said...

My question is where did TCM find that crappy pan and scan print of The Heartbreak Kid? Somebody's 30-year old VHS tape they found in a drawer?

Hamid said...

Les, you haven't freakin lived till you've freakin seen the freakin TV version of Die Hard 2. You have to admire the freakin effort put in to make the dubbing freakin seamless, especially when Bruce Willis's voice changes mid sentence to that of a freakin gangster from Compton.

Derek said...

The Cell: first time I've actually laughed out loud reading a script in ages.

pumpkinhead said...

ScottyB, re Newhart, I just spend two weeks telling me wife the same thing every night... just wait, just wait... they start figuring it out in the second season.

And, while I'm sure they recognized Bob Newhart's reactive style of comedy and thought Kirk would be a good foil, I still always wondered what ever made them think an unlikable character like that would work as a regular character... until I just typed that and realized... Mr. Carlin.

But now I wonder further, why did these two similarly obnoxious and annoying characters draw such different reactions - Mr. Carlin, kinda lovable, I guess, and Kirk, just plain annoying. If anything, I feel like Kirk was maybe the more sympathetic character of the two when you get past the exterior and into the psyche.

Andy Ihnatko said...

I don't seek out bad movies or TV shows. But when I see something I don't like, I often watch it several times to figure out why I didn't like it.

Sometimes I learn something valuable why some stories work and why some don't. And sometimes I identify a limitation or prejudice in my personal taste.

ScottyB said...

@pumpkinhead: I think it was more a matter of Kirk being just plain boring, like school cafeteria white bread. There wasn't much to him. Mr. Carlin, on the other hand, was drop-dead funny.

mickey said...

I think switching from tape to film boosted the appeal of Newhart, but I don't remember exacfly when that happened

mickey said...

I think switching from tape to film boosted the appeal of Newhart, but I don't remember exacfly when that happened

pumpkinhead said...

mickey, the switch from tape to film happened with the premiere of the second season. I think the difference in the tone and pacing that would create is one of the things I think they "figured out," per my comment above.

Chris said...

Friday Question:

I watched CHEERS through the DVDs for the first time in 2013 and I couldn't help but notice the lack of special features after season 3. Also, starting with season 8, some episodes weren't completely restored and by the final season - particularly the finale - there are full scenes and consecutive minutes that are dark and not restored at all. Do you know anything about this? I ask because your Super Bowl post today about the CHEERS Super Bowl Special made me think about this, since it wasn't even included in the season 1 set. It seems to me SEINFELD set the bar high for DVD special features and I feel CHEERS was robbed of this same treatment (and full restoration), since it is one of the greatest shows of all time.

Danny said...

Special features cost money and CBS/Paramount rarely indulges in them for their TV-on-DVD releases. Well, except for the STAR TREKS and any series starring Lucille Ball. They get tons of special features. Every other TV show, CBS/Paramount tends to go pretty bare bones with.