Wednesday, August 31, 2016

the shelf life of sitcoms

Here’s a Friday Question that became a full post.

It's from Joe Stevens.

What is the shelf life of a hit sitcom or how many people watch pre-1978 sitcoms regularly? I chose that date as Taxi and WKRP came out that year.

It depends on many factors. How beloved was the show? How dated has the show become?  How universal are the situations and characters? Is the show still relevant on some level? Is the appeal strictly nostalgia?

Certainly as generations pass on, the shows from their era tend to fade into the mist. But not always. I LOVE LUCY is still around. So is THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. And if you look hard enough, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and THE HONEYMOONERS are still on TV somewhere. If I’m not mistaken, a local New York broadcast station still airs THE HONEYMOONERS on a regular basis.

Some series seem timeless like MASH and GOLDEN GIRLS and CHEERS and I suspect they’ll still be around when the Jetsons are alive.

Others like MURPHY BROWN with it’s political references and most of today’s sitcoms that rely so heavily on pop culture references will have very short shelf lives.

And then there are the series that for whatever inexplicable reason still has a following – shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH. You explain it.  I can't. 

I’m a little surprised that TAXI didn’t fare well in syndication. Maybe it’s just that audiences didn’t like the setting – a taxi garage was grimy and uninviting. But the writing and characters were top notch. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW also did not have a great afterlife. It could be that the sets today look chintzy. I dunno. A better written show from any era you will not find.

It used to be that independent TV stations needed programming to fill so they bought off-network syndicated programs. CHEERS might be on at 11 at night for several years, eventually replaced by SEINFELD, etc. Shows would have their day and eventually disappear. But now that there are so many more platforms and ways to see old series, shows like FRASIER and ALL IN THE FAMILY and even SAVED BY THE BELL will be available to watch somewhere. This is why I’m particularly pissed that our series, ALMOST PERFECT is not available. Or should I say, not available in America? ALMOST PERFECT is available on Netflix in Europe. But not here. Isn’t that crazy? If they’ve gone to the trouble to digitize and catalog all 34 episodes, why not make them available in the US?

But I digress…

WKRP IN CINCINNATI feels very dated. And on the DVD’s the music is replaced because of rights issues. So you’re watching a knock-off of the original program.

All of this can be said for movies too. Yes, most movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s have disappeared forever. But not all. And with movie channels like TCM, some of these oldies but goodies can still draw an audience. People will be watching Billy Wilder movies long after they’re watching Seth Rogen movies.

I personally consider myself very lucky. Lots of TV writers toil for years on shows that disappear into the ether. Having done many episodes of MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, and THE SIMPSONS – I’m eternally grateful that people today can still enjoy my efforts. That YOU can still watch my shows.

Now if I could just get Netlix to run ALMOST PERFECT…

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Annie!

First off I want to wish the happiest of Happy Birthdays to my fabulous, funny, phenomenal daughter, Annie.  You make me proud everyday.  And you make me laugh everyday.  Could a father ever ask for more?  I love you, kiddo. 

Okay, the rest of you can now scroll down to today's post.  Thanks. 

My favorite celebrity sighting experience

How’s this for one of those cool Hollywood stories? And I swear it’s true.

It’s the summer of either 1969 or 1970 (I’ve narrowed it down to those two). I’m a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. KMPC was the big full-service radio station in town. They had star disc jockeys like Gary Owens (from LAUGH IN), Wink Martindale, Jim Lange, Geoff Edwards (all your favorite game show hosts), Roger Carroll (announcer of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW and many others), and occasionally Bob Crane (HOGAN’S HEROES). The morning man, Dick Whittinghill, was an LA institution.

And when the station wasn’t playing Sinatra or Streisand, it was airing sports. KMPC was the home of the Rams (I’m so glad they’re back), the Angels, and UCLA football and basketball. Dick Enberg and Dave Niehaus were among their play-by-play men. We’re talking “high rent district.”

KMPC had their own planes and helicopters and even a news reporter in a trench coat who was a character right out of Raymond Chandler named Donn Reed who cruised around the city at night filing reports of hold ups and hostage situations. “Donn Reed – nightside.”

My job that summer (whichever summer it was) was to write up sports reports every half hour for the newscasts, change the ticker tape ribbon (my fingers are still purple), and keep track of the police scanners should a liquor store robbery break out. For this I was paid minimum wage. But I didn’t care. I LOVED it. On the side I was writing comedy bits for Gary Owens and interning for Dick Enberg at Rams’ games at the Coliseum. I also got as many Angel tickets as I wanted, but who the hell wanted to schlep out to fucking Anaheim in late afternoon traffic?


One morning I’m at my desk in the newsroom and Stanley Spero, the General Manager comes in. He asks if I’d do him a favor. There’s going to be a movie about a radio station that will soon go into production and one of the people from the film wanted to spend a couple of days just hanging around a radio station, soaking up the atmosphere. Would I mind spending the next two days with this person, showing him around, answering any of his questions, etc.? I said, “Sure.” (Like I’m going to tell the boss “No.”) So he said great and left. A few minutes later he returned with the person.

Paul Newman.

And this was the 1969 (or '70) Paul Newman. The Butch Cassidy Paul Newman. I imagine many of you women readers are now swooning. (Note: If there are readers who don’t know who Paul Newman is please do not tell me. I will be depressed for weeks.)

The movie was WUSA.

So for the next two days me and Paul Newman were BFF’s. I’m happy to report that he could not have been nicer and more down-to-earth. He was gracious with everyone. I thought to myself, “Oh why can’t iPhones with cameras be invented fifty years sooner?” Like an idiot, I didn’t get a photo with him or even his autograph. I was “too cool” for that. Moron.

When the movie came out I was the first one to see it. Looking back, I was the ONLY one to see it. But those two days together were amazing. I felt guilty taking KMPC’s $1.25 an hour. I went from Newsroom Kid to Sundance Kid.

Monday, August 29, 2016

R.I.P. Gene Wilder

So sorry to hear today of the passing of Gene Wilder.  He was 83.  What a truly talented, funny, and from what I've always heard -- lovely man.   I didn't know him personally.  Sitting in a movie theater once with him doesn't count.  But I know someone who did know him -- and worked with him.   Tom Straw, a terrific writer and dear friend.  So I reached out to Tom who graciously agreed to share some personal memories of Gene Wilder with my readers.   Tom, I can't thank you enough, especially now during your time of loss.  This is a wonderful profile that really gives you a feel of who Gene Wilder really was.  R.I.P. "Genedy." 

“Some Memories of the Great Gene Wilder”

Gene Wilder was much loved, and, for anyone reading this who wonders, your affection is well-placed.

My first memory of Gene was when I was a disc jockey in San Diego with a certain Ken Levine, going to see Blazing Saddles, laughing our asses off.

Flash forward to the year 1999. I’m living in Connecticut and a mutual friend from LA is visiting, staying at Gene and Karen’s house in Stamford, and asks if my family would like to come over for brunch the next day. It would be my first meeting with Gene, and it was memorable. My kids were quite young, and, at brunch, conversation went to which of his films would be appropriate for them to see. Someone said, “Young Frankenstein.” Gene and I made eye contact, and in unison said, “Fronckensteen, please.” A fan crush became a friendship.

The next week, I got a call from Gene. He was writing the second of a TV movie series he was also starring in, and felt stalled. He asked if I would mind reading his pages and offer any thoughts. It’s one of those reality-check occasions where you stare at the phone and then say, “Well, um, sure…” I don’t need to say that his writing was terrific. As an actor he had a writer’s ear and a director’s eye. But I did offer a few suggestions (I would never have presumed to give him notes). He listened graciously and incorporated them, for the most part, but beyond that, my agent got a call a few days later. Gene Wilder had an idea for a movie, and would I write the screenplay with him? Fuck yeah.

Our routine was to write a few days a week at his house. The work went very well, and man, did we laugh. One of the true joys was reading finished pages back and forth. Once, I read a line of dialogue and he busted up. I said, “What do you know, my reading made Gene Wilder laugh.” He nodded and said sagely, “The trick is, Tomedy, can you do it seventy five times, the same way, for each take?” That’s when he started calling me Tomedy.

Our phone calls always began, “Hello, Tomedy?” And I’d reply, “Yes. Genedy?”

In downtime, I would pump him about directing and an actor’s private work. I was especially keen to know about his maniacal “Live! Liiiiive!” from Young Frankenstein. He grew very serious and said that when he did that scene, he wasn’t thinking of comedy, but tapping into the deep anguish he had once felt about someone he cared about who’d been at death’s door. And yet, we all laugh.

He told me that the best way to judge a good director was to watch the movie with the sound off, like on an airplane. The storytelling would carry. Or not.

Gene was a talented artist in other ways, too. He was a fine watercolorist. I do oils and acrylics, but when the screenplay work was done, he invited me to join him and his wife Karen for a few hours of watercolor painting together. A memory I’ll always treasure.

Gene got very ill during our time working together. He made me swear to tell nobody. Now that he’s gone, I suppose I am released and can tell two stories about that. I was also working then as Executive Producer of COSBY, which also starred Madeline Kahn. She came to me one day to break the news that she had cancer. She said, “I know Gene is a friend of yours. Will you promise-promise you will not tell him?” I agreed. And kept my word to both, feeling so strange to be in that sad triangulation.

Happily, Gene pulled through, but there’s one other thing that bears mentioning. During that illness years ago, Mel Brooks and Charles Grodin were not only visitors to Gene. They were constant visitors, staying with him for hours at a time over weeks and months to bolster him. Nobody better ever say anything bad to me about those two after what they did for Gene.

Of course, they did it for Gene Wilder, who was a mensch. From the day we met 17 years ago he was always a joy. Honest, brave, caring, smart, talented… and so damned funny. I remember once we took a break from that screenplay and were having lunch in his kitchen. From the basement, Karen called out there was a dead mouse. He paused and gave me that signature Gene look. I said, “It’s your house, buddy.” Resigned, he got up and went to the basement. One minute later—perfect, perfect timing—I hear him at the top of his lungs, “Live! Liiiiiive!"

I’m kinda saying the same thing now in my head. He always will.


This is one of those posts where I really want your input.

In 1982 there was a popular movie released called VICTOR/VICTORIA by comedy stalwart Blake Edwards. I went to see it in a full theater and the movie was getting tons of laughs. But none from me. And it really worried me. I’m supposed to be making my living by knowing what’s funny and what makes people laugh and yet here was this big crowd in hysterics and I didn’t know why. Was I completely out of touch? Was I former Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch who suddenly one day couldn’t throw the ball to first?

That’s the way I feel about UNREAL.

First, let me back up, my TV mentors were Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and James L. Brooks. I learned from them that writing becomes richer and deeper if you strive to celebrate the human spirit, not just load up your script with jokes.

Now times change and styles change and I’m willing to concede that this approach might be deemed out-of-fashion, passé, or naïve to today’s hardened audience.

And that brings me to UNREAL.

I had never seen the show. It’s on Lifetime. For a long time I didn’t know it even existed. But I started hearing good buzz. And the creator is Marti Noxon who I greatly admire. The reviews were sensational. The show even won a Peabody Award. So I grabbed my TV Academy screener discs and eagerly looked forward to discovering this hidden gem.

The premise of the show is this: It’s a fictional behind-the-scenes look at a reality competition show like THE BACHELOR – warts and all. I like shows that pull back the curtain. So premise-wise I was all in.  And I understand that it's not a "comedy." 

After two episodes I felt the same dread as when watching VICTOR/VICTORIA. To me this was one of the most cynical TV series I had ever seen. The fictional crew making the show (EVERLASTING) had utter disregard and contempt for any of the contestants. Their only goal was to make flashy television, no matter how deceitful or hurtful they had to be to achieve it. And the contestants were all portrayed as narcissistic golddigging airheads.

Now I’m sure that’s EXACTLY the way it is in real life. I believe Ms. Noxon worked on one of these shows. Authenticity is not an issue.

I know it’s a cliché to say you must have someone to root for. And agree it's not absolutely necessary.  I like HOUSE OF CARDS and Frank & Claire Underwood are reprehensible but it’s set in a arena where the entire world hangs in the balance, and ultimately I hope they’re led out of the White House in handcuffs.

But UNREAL is about a cheesy reality show -- an easy target.  Full disclosure: I don’t watch shows like THE BACHELOR. I’m sure if I did I would be more invested. But from where I sit this series is very mean-spirited. And I just find it uncomfortable.

So I ask you readers – what am I missing? Is it mean-spirited but that’s the fun of it? Is that considered “edgy?” Is there humanity that I’m just missing?  Is this just the current style?  Are moral characters now uninteresting?  Are we just now desensitized to human suffering?  

As a writer, I was always taught to love my characters – even the antagonists. It doesn’t feel to me that the writers of UNREAL love their characters. In some cases it seems they loathe them. But again, that might be the point. That might be the hook. I’m sincerely asking because I would love to perhaps view this show from a different perspective and give it another try. I hate being out of step, especially in my own industry. So is it a generation thing? A sensibility thing? Or something else I’m just missing entirely?

Or, as a last resort, you agree with me?  

Let me know what you think. I'm really curious.  Thanks in advance. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I hate Power Point

Imagine you had to give a presentation to a fairly large group. The topic is something you know something about. The quarterly report. The latest advances in merkins. Whatever.  And while you're delivering this presentation you also have to put on rock climbing gear. Bulky jacket,boots, lacing up the heavy boots, attaching one or two harnesses, stocking up on flares and picks. All this while you're analyzing T.S. Eliot poetry.

Well for the most part, that's what it's like when you do a presentation with PowerPoint. Ive been to a number of conferences lately where good speakers with interesting topics were derailed by PowerPoint presentations. They spent half their talks fumbling around with slides. At first the audience is patient and has a little empathy. But after five minutes you want to scream, "Hey, numnuts! They're friggin' bullet points. Who gives a shit?! Just talk!".

PowerPoint and similar programs kill more lectures than they help. Yes, if you need visuals, fine. Let's say you're explaining how Facebook works or just "what is pornography?"  Slides would help -- in some cases the bigger, the better.

But now you can easily make graphs and graphics to just underscore the text of your talk. 68% of homeowners have spice racks.  "I don't believe you. Oh wait, I'm now looking at a slide of a spice rack and underneath it says 68% of homeowners have these. Okay, you sold me!".

The truth is speakers now use PowerPoint as a crutch. They think the can jazz up their presentations with visual aids. All too often though this results in technical snafus, fumbling around, the wrong slides, and takes the speaker right out of any rhythm. And most of the time the slides are boring, hard to read, and unnecessary.

Some people think if they don't arm themselves with PowerPoint that the audience will think they're unprepared. That's bullshit!

As a speaker, your job is to communicate. Talk to us. Share ideas, if it's a topic you're excited about let us see that.  You don't have to be the worlds greatest speaker. But your genuine enthusiasm will sell your message. Not a dizzying display of pie charts.

A helpful tip that will mean more than a slide proclaiming "4 warning signs of gum decay" is to start your talk with a story. People love stories and it puts them at ease. People think you have to begin with a joke -- the great woody Allen intro: " I'm reminded of the incestuous farmer's daughter...". No. You don't have to do that. If you got a great joke and you're good at delivering jokes then yeah, kill 'em. But a brief story, preferably personal, will achieve the same goal of disarming your crowd.

Speak with passion. Again, you don't have to be Billy Graham or Zig Zigler. But make us understand why the topic is interesting to you. In this case, a well placed word is worth a thousand pictures.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The easiest way to make money EVER

On the surface that's what you'd think.  Be a voice over artist.  Go into a recording studio.  Read one tag line, collect a big paycheck, and you're back in your car in five minutes.  If the commercial catches on and they use it after a thirteen week run you get paid again.   If they use it for years you're set for life.   Remember the "Parkay/butter" spots?  The guy who said "butter" has more money than Trump.

However, it's not as easy as it sounds.  Most of the time these VO artists are given "direction."  And you would think there are only so many ways to read a line.  But you would be wrong.

Here's a hilarious short film by Tim Mason that REALLY shows you what a commercial recording session is like. 

It was made by Hog Butcher, a group of improvisers, comedians and writers from various Chicago institutions like Second City, IO and the Annoyance Theater. Its leader is Ron Lazzeretti.

I bet there's not a professional voice over artist who has not had this experience -- ten times. Enjoy. Or should I say ENjoy? Or maybe enJOY? Or

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Questions

The great thing about Friday Questions is I don't have to think of a new subject title.   Here are this week's:

Wally starts us off:

A Friday Question based on what Wikipedia says:

Did NBC only allow Ratzenberger to attend Nick Colasanto's funeral in RI since it occurred during the season?

No. As shocking as it is to learn that Wikipedia is wrong, that is incorrect.

There was a funeral for Nick in North Hollywood that I along with the entire cast, and staff attended.

I still miss him. And as wonderful as Woody was, nothing could top Nick as the Coach.

Brian Phillips asks:

Not a lot has been written about the "Cheers" spinoff, "The Tortellis". I noticed you and David Isaacs contributed a script. What was it like working on "The Tortellis"?

Well, David and I were never on staff. The Charles Brothers asked us to write an episode, which we did.

For those six people out there who don’t remember THE TORTELLI’S, this was a 1987 spin-off of CHEERS centering on Carla’s ex-husband Nick (Dan Hedaya) and his new wife, Loretta (Jean Kasem) moving to Las Vegas.

The pilot script by Ken Estin was terrific.

But the spinoff fell into a familiar trap – making second bananas your stars. Nick & Loretta were funny characters but very broad, so they worked well when used sparingly, but on their own they could not carry a show.

I remember David and I meeting with the Charles Brothers to hammer out a story and it took two days. I asked Glen Charles, “What number episode is this?” He said, “Four,” and I said, “If we’re having this much trouble coming up with the fourth episode there are some serious problems with the premise of the series.” He agreed.

And indeed, the show lasted only 13. I don’t have a copy of our episode so I don’t really remember how bad or good it was.

Random memory of THE TORTELLI’S: it was shot at Paramount in front of a live studio audience. And visible from the living room set you could see a swimming pool in the backyard. An actual swimming pool (or at least a great facsimile) was constructed on the stage. For that alone the series should be considered a classic!

From Laura H.:

I have been watching reruns of Barney Miller, a show I loved as a kid. Happily it still stands up. It occurs to me now that virtually all of the action takes place in the squad room - only once or twice throughout the long run of the series did they step out of that setting. Cheers, of course, was the same way, although they left the bar a bit more often.

After reading your recent post about writing sharp dialogue being a lost art, I started wondering about working on shows like Barney Miller and Cheers. Do those static settings make it harder or easier to write for? Clearly you can't slack on character development and dialogue, since the story itself plays out in that one room. (Not that you should ever slack on character development and dialogue!)

BARNEY MILLER evolved into a one-set show. If you screen the very early episodes of the series, they go back to Barney’s house. His relationship with his wife (played by Barbara Barrie) was originally going to be a major element of the series. But they found their money was in that squad room. Barbara and his home life were phased out. 

The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar. The first time we deviated from that was the season premier of season two when we went to Diane’s apartment. (Remember all the stuffed animals?)

The problem with never leaving the bar was that anything that happened away from CHEERS had to be told to the audience, and it’s always better to see it.

BARNEY had less of an issue with that because their format was bring in three or four different oddballs and have them interact with the regulars. So all the action was right in front of you.

I personally like shows that basically center in one location, especially if the setting is inviting (like CHEERS). In those shows the emphasis is clearly on the characters, their interaction, and dialogue, and if done well you can really mount a smart show.  Also, the location itself almost becomes a character. 

And finally, long time friend of the blog, Johnny Walker wonders:

How do you feel about taking the time to write a character's bio before starting writing? I've heard some people swear by it, but others (including Sorkin) consider it a waste of time. I think I fall in the latter camp now. Provided I know what makes the character tick, I don't need to know what school they went (if the character is well defined enough, you should be able to infer it afterwards - in fact things like that should start to become obvious). What do you think, Ken?

For my UCLA students I recommend writing character profiles. It helps them answer the questions – what do these characters want, what’s interesting or unique about them, what’s funny about them, what are their attitudes, and what are their backgrounds? Answers to all of these questions are a must, whether you write out a bio or not. 

For myself, I do a modified profile. I’ll list key traits, objectives, and generally try to come up with an actor prototype (although I don’t expect to get him).

So bottom line – is it worth doing? Sure. What could it hurt?

What's your Friday Question?  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Happy to announce that my new play, GOING GOING GONE, will be performed for six weekends beginning October 1st at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. The Hudson is unique in that there’s a café and parking. That's right -- parking.  The seats are comfortable and the theatre isn’t massive so you can actually see the actors without a telescope.

The play is about four reporters in the press box of a big league stadium and how their lives change over the course of one baseball game. The theme is our need to be remembered set in a world that’s all about celebrating milestones and keeping track of everything.

Plus, I’ve spent many years in these press boxes listening to these guys and trust me, it was not hard to make this a comedy. There were many nights when the byplay in the press box was waaaaay more entertaining than the game on the field.

Andrew Barnicle, who directed my other play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre is directing this too. And I couldn’t be more thrilled. The best way to learn how to direct a play is to watch someone who is a master at it. Learning to write a play was harder. I couldn’t just sit and watch Neil Simon type.

I’m also blessed with an awesome cast. Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson. (My last play featured two actors, this one has four. I don’t know what possessed me to write a spectacle this time.)  There are also "special appearances" by Harry S. Murphy and Howard Hoffman.

Rehearsals begin Tuesday and I’ll keep you up to date on the progress like I did when A OR B? went into production in 2014.

We open Saturday night, October 1st. There will be two previews beforehand – Thursday September 29 and Friday September 30. We’ll do the previews right there at the Hudson. We’re not going to New Haven for two days. There will also be a matinee on Sunday October 2nd.

Following that first weekend, performances will be every Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00. It closes November 6th.

Yes, I’ll be there every night so if you ever wanted to meet me or see me pace, this would be the perfect opportunity.

For tickets call 323-960-5521 or go here to purchase them online.  Seats are limited. 

Thanks much. See you at the thee-ah-tuh.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Transitioning from comedy to drama and vice versa

Had lunch recently with fellow writer/blogger, Earl Pomerantz. Topics included the usual: shows that aren’t funny, baseball, health insurance, our kids, Hawaii, and of course other writers.

One name that came up was a writer we both admire, Chris Downey. We both worked with him on LATELINE, the (Senator) Al Franken sitcom of the late ‘90s. Chris is currently executive producing SUITS after co-creating LEVERAGE. We noted how well he transitioned from comedy to drama.

And that got us to thinking of others who made the switch from half-hours to hours. I am a huge fan of Shawn Ryan. THE SHIELD is one of my all-time favorite shows. But when I met him a few years ago he said his real goal when he got into the business was to write for CHEERS. His comedy scripts weren’t cutting it and he gravitated towards drama (where he is an exceptional writer). Likewise, David Shore wanted to be a yuckmeister but found much more success creating HOUSE. And sitcom hopeful Leonard Dick is an integral part of THE GOOD WIFE.

Stephen Nathan wrote on Diane English sitcoms and now is running BONES.

Matthew Weiner toiled on BECKER and THE NAKED TRUTH before sliding over to THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN. Comedy veterans Janet Leahy, Tom Palmer, Michael Saltzman, and even my writing partner David Isaacs all had stints on MAD MEN.

Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (poor guy) before writing AMERICAN BEAUTY and then SIX FEET UNDER.

Was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES considered a drama? Well if so, add a bunch of former FRASIER writers to the list – Anne Flett Giordano, Joe Keenan, Bob Daily, Lori Kirkland to name a few.

And former CHEERS scribe, Phoef Sutton worked on TERRIERS and BOSTON LEGAL.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples but they needed our table.

Here’s the interesting thing we noticed though: Whereas lots of comedy writers have transitioned to drama, very few go the other way. Writers of drama rarely reinvent themselves as comedy writers. Even Aaron Sorkin struggled with STUDIO 60. Not saying that it hasn’t happened or can’t happen (Jane Espenson goes back and forth with ease), but it’s more difficult. Oh yeah, and Shakespeare could do it pretty well.

This phenomenon makes sense to me. A good comedy is just drama with a comedic spin. Comedy writers still have to know dramatic structure, suspense, and at times, tapping into genuine emotion. But the ability to write and construct comedy requires a different skill set than drama.

Some drama writers might disagree. And often when they do attempt a comedy they treat it like they’re slumming. David Mamet writes brilliant dramas but sorry, his comedies aren’t very funny – certainly not as funny as he thinks they are.

This discussion made Earl and me feel better about ourselves, which was really the point. Especially after the discussion of health insurance. Comedy writers rule! Fortunately for you drama writers, most scripted shows are dramas. And many have dashes of humor.  Maybe one reason why drama writers aren’t getting into comedy is that they don’t have to.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My review of THE NIGHT OF

I can’t wait for Sunday night’s conclusion to THE NIGHT OF (now showing on HBO). This eight-part series has been absolutely gripping. It feels and looks like a Sidney Lumet movie. (Have you noticed that television limited series are way better and more complex than movies? Few and far between are films like THE VERDICT.)

In THE NIGHT OF you start with A-list writers in Richard Price and Steve Zaillian. And Zaillian has become an A-list director as well. But here’s the thing: they actually deliver. How many times have you seen a marquee pitching match-up like Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner and the final score is 10-9?

But Price and Zaillian both pitch perfect games.

This was taken from a British series and adapted for US audiences. James Gandolfini was supposed to play the lead character (the rumpled lawyer) but tragically passed away. (He still gets an executive producer credit.) DeNiro was in for five minutes but he bailed (probably to take DIRTY GRANDPA or some other truly terrible role). John Turturro stepped in and gives the performance of his career.

And yet he doesn’t steal the show. There are two ahead of him. Riz Ahmed as the Pakistani kid who is charged with murder goes down this rabbit hole of hell and to see him adapt to his circumstances is the stuff of Emmys.

And he still wasn’t my favorite.

Bill Camp was. I’ve mentioned him before. Camp is a character actor who has a bunch of credits although he’s one of those guys you never remember. Well, that will change with this role. His portrayal of the chief detective is so real, so riveting, so better than anything you see on CSI that for me, he was the stand-out of stand-outs.  And isn't it fun to see someone NEW (or at least new to you)? 

The supporting actors were equally terrific. Notably Jeannie Berlin, Peyman Moaadi, Glenne Headly, Amara Karan, and of course, Chip Zien.

This is probably not a series you can binge. The intensity level is pretty high – especially when they go to Riker’s Island. This is OZ with better lighting. I think I’d last eleven seconds – and that’s if I had protection. What’s bizarre is that I watched an episode of this and then an episode of SUITS where their lead character Mike is in prison, and compared to Riker’s it is like a W Hotel.

Sunday is the finale. We’ll hopefully learn who committed the murder and whether Turturro will keep his cat? Now THIS to me is a cliffhanger (the cat part I mean).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Gee, that "sounds" great! But...

At first blush, this sounds like a fantastic thing for writers. A newly formed production company, Adaptive, is going through discarded studio screenplays and giving some of them new life.

All screenplay writers bitch about the dreaded “Development Hell.” You do draft after draft and eventually the studio says “Nah, we’ll just reboot SPIDERMAN again” and your project is dead. Sometimes you can get it in turnaround, and sometimes another studio will be interested, but most of the time the script just sits in a warehouse that must look like the final scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

Once it goes there, rarely is it ever heard from again. I don’t know a single feature writer who doesn’t have at least two screenplays in that graveyard. Maybe three.

Only one time did David Isaacs and I enjoy a second life with a screenplay. We had written a movie for Columbia (now Sony) called PLAY-BY-PLAY, based loosely on my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. By the time we turned in the draft there had been a regime change at the studio and as is usually the case, the new execs toss out everything developed by the old execs. I don’t know if anyone there ever read it.

Years later, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE became a big hit and its director, Tom Shadyac became the flavor-of-the-month. He was given stacks of scripts to consider for his next project. Somehow, through all the rubble, he unearthed and loved PLAY-BY-PLAY. It was once again in play. We spent that summer with him rewriting it, and the day we turned in what I still believe is a killer draft he got offered to step in last minute and direct THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. He took that, moved on, and our project was once again “strike three.” Welcome to the world of Hollywood – and this was 20 years ago when the business was way better.

But that was still one of the GOOD stories because at least we got paid.

Getting back to Adaptive. They bought up a number of screenplays that languished in development purgatory. Then they novelize some and make movies from some. (Their first movie hasn’t been released yet. Let’s see how well they fare. Lots of start-up production companies come and go. There seems to be an article in the LA or NY TIMES once a year about this. Here’s the recent one for Adaptive. )

So all of that is the good news.


The scripts get torn apart and re-imagined by the Adaptive executive team. And the original writers are usually kicked to the curb. Plus their compensation is minimal. Something like $1000. And Adaptive then owns the intellectual property. If it goes on to be the next HUNGER GAMES, everyone gets rich but the writer.

If Adaptive decides to novelize the script they “audition” five or six writers, who are asked to write sample chapters, ON SPEC. And I’m sure Adaptive asks those writers in the bake-off to come up with treatments, their take, suggestions, etc. FOR FREE.

Something about the original script had to spark the Adaptive execs. It seems to me that original writer is entitled to more involvement or more compensation. The whole approach by Adaptive is ingenious in that it can develop terrific material while still paying very little. Not that they’re remotely interested in anything I’ve done, but my discarded screenplays are worth at least the WGA minimum. I also deserve the option to write the novel or redevelop the project with them. And you know what? If the resulting book and/or movie is a hit, it was still a bargain for them.

When something sounds too good to be true it usually is.

The one place you won't find Hollywood endings?  In Hollywood.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.

This is a re-post from five years ago.   There is some good stuff in the archives.  Check it out if you're bored with life. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

I hate Robert Hall

When I was a kid this was one of the worst times of the year. “Back to School” ads started appearing on the radio. The biggest offender: Robert Hall Clothiers. You have to be of a certain age to really remember (over… uh 30) but Robert Hall ran these truly tacky 40’s style jingles well into the ‘60s and maybe even the ‘70s.

You’d be at the pool enjoying the day, blissfully believing that summer would never end. The radio would be blasting the latest rock tune and all of a sudden, there it was – that first miserable Robert Hall commercial.

That’s it. Summer was as good as over. It was only a matter of time before you were gearing up with new school supplies (we never shopped at Robert Hall) and trudging off to another endless year of doom.

The Robert Hall jingle might as well have been the Volga Boatman.

Listen to these commercials and see if they still bring back that feeling of dread even though you are long past about to enter the seventh grade. I bet they do. They did for me. And I don’t care if it means I get a lunch box. I hate "Back to School!"  And Robert Hall. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Questions

These are the Dog Days of Friday Questions.

Chris gets us started:

Any thoughts on Ted Danson in Fargo? Is it just me or does his laid back "cautious" type of vibe is amazing for a drama, maybe even better than it works for comedy?

Readers of this blog know I’m Ted Danson’s geekiest fanboy. I’ve raised a family thanks to how well he’s made my jokes work. I’ve also had the privilege of directing Ted on many occasions.

So I can tell you first hand that his craft, dedication, versatility, and professionalism are second to none.

And of all the various roles I’ve seen him play, his turn in FARGO was his absolute best. In fact, let me take that a step further. I think his work in FARGO was one of the best character performances ever in a television series.

So I guess you could say I thought it was okay.

And for a real change of pace, watch him in the movie BODY HEAT as the tap dancing assistant deputy prosecutor.  The man can do anything. 

From Liggie:

What is the purpose of upfronts, other than providing a red carpet opportunity for the actors?

I wrote a play called UPFRONTS & PERSONAL about the TV industry and had a character ask a studio president that very same question. This was his answer:

Simple. The networks announce their new Fall schedules then the advertisers buy commercial time “up front.” Spending billions on nothing more than blind faith. It’s like if you put an off-track betting window in a mental institution.

John Jackson Miller asks:

Ken, do you see in series writing a reluctance to establish facts about characters' histories that might close off future stories? Obviously the lines about Frasier being an only child whose parents were dead on CHEERS had to be dealt with later on (and were, deftly!) -- but I think there was also something about Martin Crane not having a brother, which later on got undone. Do people look that far ahead, or is it more about what serves the story at hand?

(This was something I ran into writing for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where my first editor's advice was "When you define, you confine." Today's one-off casual reference can become tomorrow's continuity conflict.)

There are two schools of thought on this. Personally, I think it’s an advantage to me as a writer to know as much about a character as I can. And if you’re writing in a team it helps both partners view the character the same way.

But I can also see the other side. From what I understand (and this is second-hand) Aaron Sorkin believes the “when you define, you confine” theory. He wants the freedom to add information along the way and discover new things about the character himself.

And then there are the characters who are purposely mysterious. Like Kalinda on THE GOOD WIFE. Those characters can be delicious fun as the audience tries to fill in the puzzle pieces.

The more you define, the more you risk continuity problems down the line, and that’s a price you have to pay. It used to be a lot easier to get away those before the internet allowed viewers to go back and fact-check every detail of every episode. Now we have to tap dance sometimes. Or we could be like Donald Trump and still ignore inconsistencies while attacking the person who pointed out the problem.

And finally, from Michael who has a question about BRAINDEAD.

It sounds like you are sticking with this show for the time being because it was created by Robert & Michelle King. Friday question: Who are some of the other show creators or actors you would always give benefit of doubt to and sample their new show or give them time to improve?

Writers: The Charles Brothers, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley, James L. Brooks, Peter Casey & David Lee, Vince Gilligan, Graham Yost, Tina Fey, Matthew Weiner, Phil Rosenthal, Larry David, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Mike Shur.

Actors: Ted Danson, Gene Hackman, Viola Davis, Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale, David Hyde Pierce, Forest Whittaker, Alan Alda, Chris Pratt, Bryan Cranston, Claire Danes, Courtney B. Vance, Kurtwood Smith, Edie Falco, Nancy Travis, Tony Shalhoub, Adam Arkin, John Slattery, Allison Janney, Patricia Heaton, Tim Oliphant, Hugh Laurie, Josh Charles, Tatiana Maslany, and Olivia Munn (just because).

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

WARNING! Watching too much TV can make men infertile!

Think about that, guys the next time you binge on MR. ROBOT (I’d say the Olympics but not many people of either sex are doing that).

Here’s the scoop: A study has found that watching more than five hours of TV a day can greatly reduce a man’s sperm count. By a third even! Yikes. One Jerry Lewis Telethon could make you sterile for life.

The study was conducted by Copenhagen University and the findings were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. You can pick one up at the checkout stand of most supermarkets.

They also learned that too much TV lowers testosterone levels. (Either five hours of general programming or one hour of DOWNTON ABBEY.)

Binge at your own risk, fellas. No more GILMORE GIRLS marathons at the frat house.

Too much television on a daily basis also dramatically raises the risk of dying from a blood clot on the lungs. But it’s the “less lead in your pencil” that’s the real calamity here.

But there is good news. This study did not find sperm levels reduced by spending time at the computer.

So this poses some murky questions.

If you watch TV on your computer for five hours, is that still okay?

Is it number of continuous hours or content that causes a man to lose sperm if he binges on PARENTHOOD?

If you watch five hours of TV every day isn’t sperm count the least of your problems?

What if you’re sitting on the couch watching porn on your TV?

If you binge-watch FAST & FURIOUS movies, do you lose more sperm or brain cells?

Wouldn’t a laptop on your crotch for five hours be just as bad as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on your big screen?

If these findings are true, how is any male between the ages of 18-29 fathering a child?

I present this as a public service – doing my part to help repopulate the planet and keep men from watching the last six Adam Sandler comedies and last five DIE HARD movies.   You're welcome.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

JASON BOURNE -- My review

I’ve seen all the Bourne films and I don’t remember them being as stupid as JASON BOURNE. Am I right?

Especially the first two. They seemed to have actual “stories.” Yes, there was plenty of action, but we really cared about this guy and his search for identity. There were elements of the plot that even appeared, well… “plausible.”

Then there was a Bourne movie without Bourne. That’s like going to a concert and hearing, “Singing tonight for Barbra Streisand will be Brittney Spears, but don’t worry, she’ll do ‘People.’”

And now, after an absence of nine years, Matt Damon returns, which is cause for rejoicing except… this movie makes no sense.

Don’t worry, no SPOILER ALERT. There is no plot. It’s a two-hour trailer.

Jason Bourne is usually so smart. You can’t outthink him. He has amazing instincts. He just KNOWS who not to trust. And yet, this time he got suckered. Not by the CIA, not by lovely Alicia Vikander, but by writer/director Paul Greengrass. Where was Matt Damon’s good buddy Ben Affleck to warn him of this turkey? Oh wait. He was off making BATMAN V SUPERMAN.

There seems to be a new trend in chase scenes and action sequences – editing so fast that you’re completely disoriented. Trading adrenaline for logic. There used to be storyboards. Each shot was carefully planned. Now it seems they throw shots in completely at random. And with a shaky camera to further throw you off. This was a typical sequence in JASON BOURNE:

A car speeding, a tire, an explosion, feet running, a bridge, a building on fire, a crash, two eyes, a crowd chanting, Alicia Vikander, six cars colliding, helicopter shot of the city, windows shattering, a tanker exploding, whip pan of headlights, car sailing in the air, a bank of twenty monitors, car going down the wrong side of the highway, surveillance camera shot, close up of Tommy Lee Jones but from MEN IN BLACK.

Yes, these sequences are more frenetic, but if you can’t follow the chase you lose the suspense. Now suspense used to be important in thrillers. But then again, so did dialogue, and storytelling.

And then there is the creative license we all must buy. Like how come there seem to be surveillance cameras everywhere that can even track Bourne in a crowd or through a window, and yet, after he escapes from a big action sequence he can walk anywhere he wants in London and Berlin without so much as his collar turned up and no one seems to care or be looking for him? He’s “off the grid.” Everyone in the CIA wears an earpiece and can hear everyone else crystal clear even in riot scenes and engine screaming chase scenes. Alicia Vikander can sit in a situation room, watch her laptop, and tell operatives that the “target is fifteen seconds away.” Wow. She should win her second Oscar for that. And a chase scene at night on the Vegas Strip would have to go one-mile-an-hour because anyone who has ever been there knows it’s bumper-to-bumper from the Venetian to Reno.

Asking the audience to accept creative license is one thing; asking them to get a lobotomy before entering the theater is another.

That said, this movie is action-packed, Matt Damon is always good, Tommy Lee Jones plays yet another untrustworthy slimy villain (why Ameritrade would make him their company spokesman I will never know), and you see some great international beauty shots that were left on the cutting room floor from James Bond movies.

And in fairness, maybe I’m a little biased because I still feel my movie, VOLUNTEERS should have been considered the first of the Bourne movies. So what if our lead was Lawrence Bourne?

What did you guys all think?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Being in the bubble

This is a lovely sweet spot for producing new network shows for the fall. You’re still under the radar.

It’s all good. There are billboards for your show (well, in Los Angeles and New York). And on the stage there’s real optimism and enthusiasm.

You’re in a bubble. Now it’s just about the work.

Once the show debuts things change radically. And that can be either very good or very bad.

TV reviewers have very little impact on a show’s chances for success. It’s not like Ben Brantley of the New York Times who can personally kill a Broadway production (unless it's SPIDERMAN: THE MUSICAL). But your cast reads the reviews. And so does the network. Glowing reviews can save a show. Networks have so few shows to really be proud of. They certainly will stick with a well-received show longer than one universally panned.

And good reviews result in happy sets. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. Even mixed reviews will set off panic on the stage. Suddenly, the cast will question everything. Showrunners will be on the defensive. Cast members’ agents and managers will call and want to take meetings because they are “very concerned.” Scripts actors loved two weeks ago they now hate.

And what complicates this more is that the critics are usually right. The actors have good reason to be insecure in some cases.

Then there are the ratings. Everyone in the business KNOWS that you can’t tell whether a show will be a hit or flop based on the first one or two airings, but they forget that every September. There are always one or two shows that blaze out of the gate and steadily decline. Last year it was SUPER GIRL. I remember one season WHOOPI was heralded as “the year’s number one new comedy.” I don’t think it lasted the year. By contrast, some shows are slow to get off the blocks. CHEERS had terrible ratings its first (and best) season.
But with high ratings comes a little less network interference. The showrunner might know what he’s doing after all. On the other hand, if a show opens soft then EVERYTHING is second-guessed by the network and studio. The showrunner is besieged with notes. Prop furniture is changed. 

And in many cases, the cause of the good or bad ratings have nothing to do with the quality of the show. Which network, what time slot and amount of promotion are key. Known stars might open shows but not sustain them. Other more worthy shows don’t get sampled initially because they feature a cast of unknowns.

Some networks like NBC and Fox just have a bitch of a time launching comedies. Same show that bombs on NBC could have been a hit on CBS.

But the showrunner will get just as many notes.

The downside to making your show before it debuts however is that you might be going off in the wrong direction and you won’t know that until it’s too late. This is especially true with single-camera shows. It’s hard to make mid-course corrections when you’ve got eight episodes in the can. This is another reason why multi-camera shows have value. You get a preview of how the audience will receive your show. It’s not always accurate because these audiences are coming in cold and might not appreciate certain elements because they haven’t seen the previous episodes that led up to them. But you can sense if a minor character is breaking out. The audience will tell you that they like the Fonz or Alex Keaton. The showrunner must then scramble and shift emphasis, possibly even throwing out scripts. But by the time the series airs he knows he’s on the right track.

So for now enjoy being in the womb where it’s nice and warm and safe. Next month the water breaks.

Monday, August 15, 2016


This is like splitting open a piñata – you never know what will spill out. But take a swing and here we go.

Studio executives and showrunners promise there will be less violence on TV this fall. Oh, they mean ON the screen. Thomas Gibson was fired from CRIMINAL MINDS for kicking a writer. They just got my Emmy vote.

Someone said we could bring the National Deficit way down by making the first Presidential Debate pay-per-view.

Who thought it was a good idea to remake BEN-HUR? So they could do the chariot race with CGI? What Millennial is saying “Where’s our Jesus tentpole blockbuster this summer?”

How many people are missing NBC’s regular shows? Anybody? Hello?

THE NIGHT OF on HBO is riveting television. Jon Turturro is terrific but Bill Camp (I know. Who?) steals the series as Detective Box. Jeannie Berlin is in it too, and last week as an inside joke that maybe five people in America got (me being one of them) they played “Close To You.” That song was prominently featured in 1972’s HEARTBREAK KID starring Jeannie Berlin.

Let Donald Trump go one day without Secret Service protection and see how many Second Amendment “jokes” he makes.

I hear STRANGER THINGS on NETFLIX is really fun. As you know, I like to stay up on things, once I’ve heard that everyone else knows about it.

There’s going to be an action-thriller this fall called THE ACCOUNTANT. No foolin’.

Three teams in the AL East could make it to the playoffs.

Watching HARD KNOCKS on HBO, following the Los Angeles Rams training camp. Their star future quarterback, Jared Goff didn’t know the sun rose in the east and set in the west. Nice job University of California.

How dare CBS – the network of Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Dick Van Dyke, Phil Silvers, and Mary Tyler Moore – call Kevin James the “King” of Comedy!  Kevin fucking James???

Stephen Colbert will anchor election night coverage for SHOWTIME. But when Trump loses (please, if there is a God), I’ll be watching FOX NEWS to see Megyn Kelly make the announcement.

I'm hearing great buzz about HELL OR HIGH WATER starring Jeff Bridges.  No one wears a cape so it's considered an art film.  

Which did you cheer louder for – Roger Ailes or Alex Rodriguez getting fired?

I want to be a lifeguard in the Olympics.

How do you take the Olympics seriously when Ryan Seacrest hosts the late night show? 

My new play, GOING GOING GONE – a comedy about baseball and life – opens Oct. 1st at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood.  "Tickets?" you say?   Why, yes.  You can pre-order here.  

HuffingtonPost Headline: ‘Robot Lawyer’ Gives Free Legal Aid to Homeless People.”

Barack Obama is not the founder of ISIS. Marc Richards is. THE SECRETS OF ISIS starring Joanna Cameron ran on Saturday mornings for two seasons on CBS in the mid ‘70s. I bet she had better ratings at 10 AM than SUPERGIRL did primetime.

There are too many NFL exhibition games. For attending fans, you’re paying big money to see the regulars for fifteen minutes and then 88 guys all wearing number 88.

They have these TV quizzes on Facebook – I fail them even though there are questions about specific episodes I wrote.

What’s worse – Trump’s Immigration plan or Swedish Fish Oreos?

How can MTV hold a video awards show when they no longer show videos?

UPDATE:  So I'm not the only one who didn't find Larry Wilmore funny -- Comedy Central just cancelled THE NIGHTLY SHOW.  

And finally, I posted this picture on Facebook but wanted to share it here too. Meet my granddaughter, Rebecca. God help me when she discovers Toys R’ Us.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

I was a victim of Komedy Karma

It's a comedy staple and I've resorted to it many times. People trapped in an elevator. I've written scenes using that premise, directed scenes using that premise, and in improv class I've performed that scene almost as many times as "two people meet on a blind date".

Hey, it works. You can get two people together who otherwise wouldn't be and place them in a highly stressful situation that they can't escape and could lead to a complete emotional and physical breakdown. What could be more fun than that?

You got panic jokes, claustrophobia jokes, indigestion jokes (always a crowd pleaser!), trying to be stoic, pleading with God, and don't forget those million-dollar sight gags. Attempting to open elevator doors or climb through the ceiling. Throw in a pregnant woman going into labor and no air conditioning and you've got comedy GOLD my friend!!!

Bonus yucks: what embarrassing compromising situation do you find the trapped people in when they're finally rescued? In the middle of sex? Fetal position in the corner? Fist fight over the last Tic Tac? The options are limitless!

It's all a recipe for sheer hilarity...


It happens to you.

A few years ago my wife and I were trapped in an elevator for a half hour. This was in a parking structure at the Santa Monica Promenade at about 9:00 pm. Us and this lovely family from Croatia.

I knew we were in trouble when we entered on the ground level and started going down. Then the car jerked to a stop and froze.

At first there's that moment when you don't believe it. Are we really stuck in an elevator? Doesn't that sort of thing only happen in cheesy Ken Levine sitcoms? Then everyone tries to be cool, especially since one of the passengers was a kid. (I wonder -- is there a Kubler-Ross equivalent to elevators??)

We rang the alarm bell and that accomplished nothing. Does it ever or is it there to just make you feel better? Look! I'm pressing a button! I'm DOING something!

There was also an emergency phone button. We hit that and after a few rings someone answered. I don't know who. Maybe they have a deal with On-Star or this is the same guy who takes your order when you call and buy Time-Life's 12,000 Golden Oldies collection for only $995 (and if you order before midnight they'll add 4,362 more oldies absolutely free!!). He took down the information and said he'd call us right back. When five minutes went by and he didn't, I called again. He was very reassuring. "So this is in the Embassy Suites, right? "NO! THE PARKING STRUCTURE!". (Step 3: Anger at idiots.) He promised to call us back.

Mr. Croatia was getting antsy.  He managed to open the interior doors, but they got stuck and then wouldn't close. I'm thinking -- that can't be good. He tried to open the steel outer doors and managed to part them two inches -- enough that we could see the small crowd of curiosity seekers that had gathered. I wanted to yell out, "This is not Chile!".

The parking attendant arrived and said the fire department was on the way. Ten minutes later they arrived, some lever was pulled and the doors opened. Now you'd expect cheering from the crowd, right? None. I actually think they were disappointed. We stepped out and that was that. A big thank you to the fire department and the attendant who also didn't charge us for parking. What a great way to save $2.00!  I'm still waiting to hear from On-Star-guy. I hope those people trapped in the Embassy Suites aren't still there.

The added irony is that our car was only one flight up.  But who can resist an elevator that's just closing?

So I guess it's Komedy Karma. Payback for all the elevator scenes I've milked laughs out of. But did I learn my lesson? Hey, I wrote this post,didn't I?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A writer's pet peeve (the writer being me)

WARNING: This is one of my cranky rants about nothing but I'm compelled to complain about anyway.  (Andy Rooney lives.)

It drives me nuts when I’m at a concert and in the middle of a song the performer breaks the mood to introduce somebody or do a joke. The songwriters worked hard to craft a song that had a certain story or evoked a certain emotion, and the singer destroys it by blurting out “my new CD is in the lobby!” or "on piano -- the King Kong of the Keyboards -- Mr. Lester Spork!"

A prime offender of this was Sinatra during the ring-a-ding Rat Pack era. No one was ever better at interpreting songs than Frank Sinatra.  Yet put him on stage with a drink in his hand and he suddenly became the Kingfish. He’d respectfully credit the songwriter then in the middle of “Eb Tide” break into an Amos & Andy voice and slander Sammy Davis.

Sure you should introduce your band and backup singers and fog machine operator but not in the middle of “Unchained Melody.”  Lyrics are not just words you sing between racial slurs. 

What if actors followed this practice during plays.


George: You can sit around with the gin running out of your mouth; you can humiliate me; you can tear me to pieces all night, that's perfectly okay, that's all right.

Martha: You can stand it!

George: I cannot stand it!

Martha: You can stand it, you married me for it! Ladies and gentlemen, Buster Ignatz, our Art Director!


Hamlet: In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
How about these costumes? Ladies and gentlemen, Ruth Schmegegy and the gals from the shop!
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.

The television equivalent is Pop-Up videos. As an “experiment” they employed them one time during an episode of ABC’s SABRINA THE TEEN WITCH.

Sabrina: Aunt Hilda, I’ve done all I can do, period.

BLIP: Melissa Joan Hart’s first period came six days after her 13th birthday.

And it extends even beyond TV. This is a true story.  I was at a bachelor party for a member of CHEERS.

Two women strippers were engaging in some very fine girl-on-girl action when one turned to us and said, “So you guys write CHEERS? How does that work? Does one person write the whole script or do you each take characters…?”  Needless to say, all the flags were lowered to half-mast.

Anyway, you get the idea. Just sing the song. Or suckle her breasts. Again, it’s a matter of respect for the writers.  Thank you.


This is a repost from five years ago.  I'm still ranting.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Friday Questions

In the heat of the summer, cool down with some refreshing Friday Questions.

Andrew gets us started.

The first few seasons of The Office were golden television. But the quality declined drastically in the later seasons, mainly because Steve Carell left. The show then became a shadow of its former self.

My question: Do people working on a show realize when the quality is plummeting, or are they unable to see how everything is going off the rails? Why not pull the plug when it's clear the magic is gone?

Well, first of all, it’s a matter of opinion that THE OFFICE faded in quality, although lots of people share your view.

There are several reasons a series sinks into a creative decline. The showrunner leaves or stretches himself too thin. Writers go off to do their own show and the new writers who replace them aren’t as good. (Example: Me replacing Larry Gelbart)

Key cast members leave and their replacements aren’t up to snuff.

After awhile your cast starts getting bored playing the same characters and you can see that in their performance.

And you start to run out of good stories. So you either concoct lesser stories or start recycling past ones. A sameness creeps in.

Or, you try to really shake things up but the audience rejects the new direction.

And finally, it’s not the quality – it’s YOU. After a number of years you just lose your appetite for certain shows. You’re dissatisfied while others are quite satisfied. It’s like how people feel about McDonalds.

To answer your second question -- sometimes the writers know the show has jumped the shark.  They're struggling with stories, finding it harder and harder to keep the series fresh.  They can see the handwriting on the wall.

And then there are those staffs that think they're comedic geniuses producing brilliant art for the ages (those ages being 12-34).   Single-camera shows allow for more of that self-delusion since the writers aren't held accountable.  The showrunner and staff can watch the rough cut and howl in uncontrollable laughter while America stares at the screen stone-faced. 

ADmin asks:

I assume (uh oh) that a requirement of being a television/movie writer is a thick skin. (Yes, no?) And I often hear stories about rewrites and other writers replacing the original scribe. So, how do most writers/you handle these situations? How do the people making the rewrite decisions view the issue?

You definitely have to have thick skin. Larry Gelbart (I seem to mention him a lot) once addressed the entire membership of the WGA by saying, “Everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room.”

He was right. 

It’s just a reality of the business. In TV the showrunner and often the staff will rewrite everything. In features, hiring other writers to rewrite original writers is common.

Do the studios care or have any sensitivity to the writers involved? No, of course not. New writers are paid. That’s that.

David Isaacs and I have rewritten numerous screenplays first penned by other writers. And several of our original screenplays have been rewritten by others. Cameron Crowe rewrote a music-themed screenplay of ours and made it better. I’d like to think David and I improved MANNEQUIN.

What’s tough is when you read someone else’s rewrite and feel your draft was way better. It doesn’t lessen the sting, but it happens to all of us.

You just have to shake it off and move on to the next project. And maybe in the future YOU’LL get a chance to ruin someone’s work.

From Gary:

Ken, did you ever think of a joke for a character that was so good, so funny, that you wrote an entire scene just to make sure that one joke got in? Or did a single joke ever inspire an entire episode?

We did once. It worked out great but was very risky. It’s the episode of CHEERS called “Breaking In Is Hard to Do.” We built the whole show around one payoff gag – that Frasier’s baby’s first word would be Norm. We lucked out. It got a thunderous laugh. But it could have gone the other way. And then we’d have an entire show leading up to a gigantic thud.

I’m glad we did it. I have no desire to do it again.

And finally, from Sherry Niles:

I notice the fireplace in Frasier's apartment is often blazing, and in some episodes there are lots of real candles burning. Were there any regulations about having real fire on an indoor set?

Whenever there is a planned fire on a set a Fire Marshall or Fire crew is present. And there are great precautions taken to ensure the fire will be safe. I mentioned this last Friday – Hollywood studios live in mortal fear of fires. If sets or sound stages are destroyed production comes to a screeching and exorbitant halt.

What's your Friday Question?  I answer as many as I can.  Thanks. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Talking, singing porpoises

With August comes the beginning of this year’s TV pilot season. Networks or enterprises that pass for networks open their doors to writers pitching the next big thing. And every year we scratch our heads when we see some of the notions they sparked to. Every year we say “this is the worst year ever.”

But it’s not. No year is. Because you can pretty much take any pilot season and find your share of bizarre notions.

Author Lee Goldberg has written a wonderful book called UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS: 1955-1989. (Yes, you’ll see some of my failures in there too. Thanks for being so damn thorough, Lee.) It’s the perfect bathroom companion.

So for an experiment I decided to just open the book to a random year and see what pilots were commissioned. I chose 1979-1980.

Here are some of the pilots I found. These are actual pilots. I’m not making these up.

ETHEL IS AN ELEPHANT – A guy shares a New York apartment with a baby elephant.

GEORGIA PEACHES – A country-western singer, a mechanic, and a stock car racer team up as secret agents.

LONDON, LONDON, AND LONDON – A brother and sister share a detective agency with the ghost of their dead P.I. father.

AMERICA 2100 – Two nightclub comics are accidentally put into suspended animation and wake up in the year 2100. (I wonder if any of the writers ever saw SLEEPER.)

YOUNG GUY CHRISTIAN – A hero who fights evil with the help of a brilliant scientist, his daughter (Shelley Long no less), and the professor’s bionic creation – a person with a radio in his head and a laser in his finger.

THE CIRCUS IS COMING, THE CIRCUS IS COMING – A divorced clown in a rundown traveling circus and his teenage daughter.

THE DOOLEY BROTHERS – Just as Colonel Sanders franchised chicken, an entrepreneur in the old west franchised “the Dooley Brothers” lawmen.

STARSTRUCK – The misadventures (they ALL have misadventures) of a family operating an orbiting space station restaurant that still makes apple pie.

MCGURK – Actors dressed in dog suits portray dogs. This was from Norman Lear’s company.

SGT. T.K. Yu – A Korean LAPD detective who works part-time as a stand-up comic.

GETTING THERE – An anthology about the misadventures of people who rent cars from a bickering married couple.

and finally...

NOSEY AND THE KID – A talking, singing porpoise befriends a young girl and her family.

And those were just the comedies. Suddenly GALAVANT doesn’t seem so far fetched, does it?