Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My favorite GONG SHOW act

With the passing of Chuck Barris, this bears repeating:  My favorite GONG SHOW act.  It was only seen on the east coast because they figured it out by the time it was scheduled for the west.  Note:  Panelist Jaye P. Morgan has the line of the day!

YouTube won't let me embed it so just click here.

Also, on my new podcast episode coming later tonight, I tell the story of how Chuck Barris threw me off the DATING GAME.   It's a warm touching story so gather the whole family.   And I didn't even have a Popsicle.

Here's to the comedy writers who lunch

The Algonquin Round Table was this legendary rendezvous for witty playwrights, columnists, authors, and actors. They would meet for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York on a regular basis from 1919 to 1929. Out of these fabled luncheons would come classic quotes like Dorothy Parker's -- “Let me get out of these wet clothes into a dry martini.” I’d list the names of the participants but you’ve probably never heard of most if not any of them. I only bring it up because these lunches have become so storied that you would think they were the Justice League of Comedy.

I’m sure witty zingers would be uttered from time to time. And pithy lines. Pith was very big back then. But I bet, for all the hoopla, the Algonquin Round Table was no funnier (and probably less funny) than any six TV comedy writers getting together at a deli. Or comedians for that matter.

If you love to laugh (and kill yourself with fatty meats), there is no greater way to spend a couple of hours. The following topics are always discussed:

Actors who are monsters that we’ve worked with. And trying to top each other with our actor’s horribleness.  It's not a fair fight when Roseanne writers join. 

Who died.

House repairs as a result of a natural disaster. Retaining walls only collapse on comedy writers.

Other comedy writers who are funnier than we are.

Agents.

Shows we hate.  (This can take up half the lunch.) 

Vacation horror stories. (which usually includes lost luggage and more natural disasters.)

Cars we’ve sold.

Cars we’ve bought. Comedy writers are cutting edge. They’re among the first to have electric cars, hybrids, and now hydrogen cars (which sound like four-wheel Hindenburgs).    If they make a car that runs on human waste, comedy writers will buy it if they can get a sticker allowing them to drive in the carpool lane. 

Lexapro.

Chuck Lorre.

Ex-wives, ex-husbands, child support, private school tuition, orthodontia. 

Jury duty (ways to get out of it).

Former writer/crazy man Pat McCormick stories. None I could repeat here.

Projects that we’re working on – real and imagined.

The upcoming WGA strike. There’s always an upcoming WGA strike.

Who else died.

Great jokes we’ve heard – all told really well. At least one pertaining to Bea Arthur.

Stupid network notes we’ve received.

And new this year…

How fucked we all are with Trump in the White House.

I bet for every laugh they got at the Algonquin we get four (although our pith level is shamefully low). Never has anger been so hilarious. It truly is an honor to sit at a table with great comic minds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been doubled over… although that’s probably the pastrami.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The not-so-quiet life of a TV writer

Why is it that any construction project, even if it’s just doing touch-up painting on windowsills, requires jackhammers? And usually for weeks at a time even though the project is a three-day job. Plus, all jackhammers must be in use at 7:00 AM. Only farmers get up earlier than jackhammer operators.

We currently have a construction project going at our house and as I write this the walls are rattling.

When David Isaacs and I are writing at one of our houses we (half) jokingly contend that construction crews wait for us to begin writing a script before they go to work. Obama must’ve wire-tapped our homes and when Barack or Michelle hears “fade in” they alert construction crews waiting around the corner that the mission is a “go.”

TV writers must learn to deal with such distractions. There’s no time to drive up to your cabin, throw some logs in the fireplace, make yourself some Swiss Miss, gaze out over the breathtaking panorama, and wait for the muse to gently caress you. The stage needs pages! NOW!

And often times the conditions are not optimal. David and I had a great bungalow for many years at Paramount. It’s where we had our writing room for several series. The only slight problem was our bungalow was across the street of the studio mill where they built the sets. So all day long we would hear drills and power saws and hammers and they had a radio tuned to the oldies station, KRTH which, at the time, played “Pretty Woman” six times every hour. We tried to send the PA over to tell them to all be quiet, we were working, but that didn’t go well.

Our office at MASH was in the Old Writers Building on the 20th lot. It looks like a Swiss Chalet. Quite often it was used in movies or TV shows. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw it on FEUD. It was not uncommon to hear gun battles outside our window for six hours. Or a body falling down the adjacent staircase after a flurry of bullets.

One time they were taping a Mike Douglas Show outside our window. Mike Douglas was a popular daytime talk show host – think “Ellen” with dark hair. All day long they recorded him singing. So we were writing while Mike Douglas serenaded us with love songs. I preferred the gun battles.

This was similar to earlier in our career when we wrote at my apartment in West Hollywood. A neighbor blared the soundtrack of CHORUS LINE all friggin’ day. “ONE singular sensation!”

The point is, you have to persevere through it. TV writers learn to do that.  And we take pride in our professionalism and stamina.   But Jesus, don’t these maniacs ever take a break?! And... oh no!  One of them just turned on KRTH.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

From the Coach to Woody -- a rough time on CHEERS

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

cd1515 asks:

With Paxton dying and his series Training Day now apparently over, I wonder if you can take us thru some of what went on with Coach dying on Cheers, obviously the series wasn't going to be cancelled but the adjustments that had to be made, how far in advance were they planning to make them knowing Coach was sick, what other people were in the mix to play Woody, what other ideas did people have to replace Coach, etc.

We were not caught totally off guard. Watch the pilot of CHEERS and then the first few episodes. You’ll see that Nick Colasanto lost some weight. We all had an inkling that something was wrong.  Later in that season he came down with pleurisy. He spent a couple of days in the hospital but insisted on coming back for the show. 

In year three he really started to lose weight. You can tell from watching the episodes. We really didn’t know the extent of his failing condition and Nick always downplayed it, but it was a matter of great concern.

By the last half of the season he was hospitalized and we kept his character in the show by saying that the Coach was traveling and sending letters. By reading the letters aloud it kept his voice alive.

Nick passed away shortly before the end of that season (February 12, 1985). He was only 61. I never spoke to the Charles Brothers about it so I have no idea whether they were expecting the worst and already starting to come up with a new character or just hoping Nick would recover during the offseason and be back when season four began in August.

Once he died, thoughts were turned to how to replace him?  You'd think there was a real luxury of time since production wouldn't begin for six months, but the writers wanted the actor in place so they could write scripts and tailor them to the actor. 

The Coach played a very important role. I’ve talked about this before – “dumb” characters are not only easy to write but they also provide a real function. It’s always difficult to get out exposition and by explaining something to the Coach we were in fact explaining it clearly to the audience.

NBC wanted a young character. All networks want young characters. And the Charles Brothers wisely didn’t want to bring in someone who was too similar to Nick.

So the character of Woody was created. It’s not enough to make a character “dumb.” You need a reason. The Coach was hit in the head with too many fastballs. In the case of Woody, the idea was that he was just a naive farmboy. And if you listen carefully to his dialogue you’ll see he’s not stupid, he just takes everything literally.

So that was the casting assignment and you know the rest – Woody Harrelson got the part. Ironically, the character’s name was Woody before Mr. Harrelson auditioned.  Lots of actors went up for the role.  I honestly don't remember who.   I'm sure three or four that went on to be huge stars but Woody was the absolute perfect choice.  (And he became a pretty big star himself.)

In closing, I have to say that as much as I love Woody I always missed the Coach. There was something so sweet about his relationship with Sam and his affection for the others at the bar that to me was never duplicated – and that was a wonderful element of the show.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Sports Illustrated article is on the newsstands now

I was honored to write a piece for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the great Dave Niehaus, the beloved voice of the Seattle Mariners (and my partner).  

It appears in their tribute to Seattle baseball edition, which you can find here.  

My oh my, Dave was the best -- on and off the air. 

Marching home

March 19th has always been a significant date for me. On that date in 1971 I ended my active duty in the U.S. Army. Of course, that active duty was only six months. But three of them were Basic Training in the Ozarks in the winter so it was not the luxury resort the recruiting pamphlets would have you believe.

I had joined the Army Reserves. This was during the Vietnam War and my draft number was four, which meant that if I missed one homework assignment I would lose my student deferment and wind up in Southeast Asia. I was able to get into an Armed Forces Radio Reserve Unit so happily enlisted. I figured, we were really in trouble if they called up disc jockeys to fight. What weapon requires the ability to talk up to vocals?

The last three months of active duty were actually kind of fun. I was trained to be an Information Specialist – Broadcaster. Think: Sean Spicer but we were not penalized for telling the truth. I was stationed at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. It snowed every day, but otherwise it was pretty much like college except with KP.,

Once I returned to “civilian” life I then had 5 ½ years of monthly meetings and two-weeks of annual summer camp. And of course we were always on-call to be re-activated to active duty. So for almost six years I held my breath and put on my short-hair wig.

Looking back, on the night I saw my draft number was four I thought this was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. But in many ways, it proved to be the best. I met my writing partner in our reserve unit, and without experiencing army life I don’t think I could have ever really written MASH. That show was our golden ticket. So in a roundabout way I have the army to thank for my career. Me and snipers.

Still, every March 19th, it’s nice to know I no longer have to wear my fatigues – not that I can get into them anymore.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Writing comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary

Here's a Friday Question (even though it's Saturday), complete with a special guest expert!

Jim S. wants to know:

How did the guest celebrity callers to Frasier's show do their bits? Did they record them, do them live, some combination of both?

How did you choose them? Were they favors, a cool inside baseball thing to do?

When I don’t know the answer I try to go to the person who does. Jeff Greenberg was the award-winning casting director on FRASIER and handled that aspect of the show. Jeff graciously took time out from casting MODERN FAMILY to answer your question Jim S.

We mostly used good non-name actors to record the callers when we filmed the show in front of a live studio audience in a special sound booth we built onstage and replaced those voices later with our namier guest actors. We often recorded those by phone or at a sound facility at their convenience, but occasionally they'd come to the show and record them live. One I can remember who did it live was Jay Leno. I remember that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio recorded hers from a payphone in Lincoln Center in NY.

Initially we did call in a few favors to get it going. For the pilot, Linda Hamilton did it as a favor to me, and Griffin Dunne was a friend of Chris Lloyd, one of our producers. Other early favors were Patti LuPone and Judith Ivey.

David Lee, one of the creators of the show, and I would decide whom we would ask to be our celebrity callers. We paid them a favored nations $1000 for a few minutes work.

Thanks so much, Jeff. By the way, Timothy Leary was the caller on an episode my partner David and I penned. How many people can say they wrote comedy for Dr. Timothy Leary?


We also wrote for Art Garfunkel and (in case you ever play "6 Degrees of") Kevin Bacon.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Questions

It’s the St. Patrick’s Day edition of Friday Questions.

ScottyB starts us off.

I was watching an episode of 'Becker', written by you, in which Becker's office is vandalized. During the scene where Becker and the rather large police inspector are at the diner counter for lunch, I swear to god those must've been the hugest burgers I've ever seen served on TV. So here's the question: Where does the food come from?

Sometimes from Craft-services but often the studio commissary provides the grub. We used them a lot on MASH anytime we had a mess tent scene. And by the way, the mess tent food was actually delicious.

When I was directing LATELINE in New York we had a scene where the backstory was a character got roped into a horrible date. So she ordered a seven-pound lobster. The scene is the next day at the office and she’s eating the leftovers.

So the studio went out and got a seven-pound lobster. But they had to get two more just in case there were a lot of retakes. As luck would have it, we got the eating scene in take one.

After the show wrapped the prop guy gave me the other two seven-pound lobsters. So I invited the entire crew to my office where we all had a lovely midnight clambake. These guys work really hard and rarely get any recognition so it was nice to thank them (on someone else’s dime).

From blinky:

I loved the Good Wife but had a hard time with The Good Fight because I kept wondering when Alicia was going to show up. Do you think The Good Fight has some parallels with After M*A*S*H? Were people wondering when Hawkeye was going to make an appearance?

Well, AfterMASH had the advantage that it was on CBS, not a pay channel. I suspect Diane is a strong enough character and Christine Baranski is a strong enough actor that she’ll be able to carry the new series – at least at the start. One of the stars of THE GOOD WIFE was the writing and from what I saw from THE GOOD FIGHT pilot, that sharp writing is still in evidence.

If it were still on CBS I’d watch every episode. Do I love it enough to subscribe? Sorry. No. I’m waiting for CBS All-Access to add ALMOST PERFECT and BIG WAVE DAVE’S. They have them in their library and could easily do that.

As for Alicia returning, Julianne has said she wouldn’t. But honestly, I’m kinda over Alicia stories. Robert & Michelle King have a great knack of creating characters so let’s see how the new series grows. I wish them the best.

As for AfterMASH, hey I was asking when Hawkeye could show up?

ScottyB sneaks in with another question -- this one regarding St. Pat's Day.

The 'Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey' episode of 'Cheers' written by you and David is by far and away my all-time favorite episode of the entire 11-season run. Everything about it was perfect, IMO. Here's the question: Wherever did the 'Limey Scum' song come from? The whole setup to the morose Irish band singing that song *still* makes me laugh like hell every time no matter how many times I see it. That band was an absolute stroke of genius, you two. Thank you so much for that!!

Thanks for the kind words.  As I recall, one of the other writers on staff, Rob Long, suggested that when we were breaking the story.  So credit where credit is due.

Doug G. asks:

Are an actor's royalties (in terms of more or less $$$) affected by how he is credited on a TV show? The one I'm thinking of is Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe. Depending on the episode of "Frasier," Dan Butler's name either appears in the opening titles or at the end with the credit "Special Appearance by." I can't remember if he ever had the generic credit "Guest Star" or not.

There’s no set answer to this. Fees and credits are negotiated.

If an actor’s name had been in the end credits but got moved to the top of the show it usually means he’s become a series regular (or at least semi-regular) and a price hike is generally attached.

But for a guest appearance, just because an actor’s credit is not in the front doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll make less money than if it were. Some shows have a policy of only featuring series regulars at the front.

And like I said, the credit itself is often negotiated. Does the actor get an “and” before his name at the end of the guest actor credits (thus allowing him to stand out more)? Or “special appearance by?” Does he have to share his credit with one or more other guest stars? Sometimes a studio can trade an “and” credit or the placement or size of the credit for a little less money. Needless to say those are wacky negotiations.

Brian rounds it out.

What is it like when you film in an empty studio? Have you ever filmed before a half-empty studio audience?

I suspect you mean for a multi-camera show where is there is normally an audience.

Without the audience it’s just like shooting a single-camera show but with four cameras. The timing will be a little bit off because the actors won’t know when (and if) to hold for laughs. Normally a show will have a laugh spread that can last up to three or four minutes. (For the pilot of BIG WAVE DAVE’S we had a ridiculous laugh spread of ten minutes.) That extra time allowed us to trim things that didn’t work. Without an audience those clankers get through.

Generally, if you do have an audience you fill the place. There are companies that shows can hire that will provide studio audiences (even going so far as to pay them). So usually you have a full house (200 to 250 people) to start. But some shows take forever to film and exhausted audience members slip out. In those cases it’s quite common to have half-filled houses by the last few scenes. When I direct or showrun I always try to move things along to keep the audience involved and happy.

Filming before a half-filled audience is usually tedious.  I've experienced it (I've experienced pretty much everything) but like I said, I try desperately to avoid it. 

And then there’s FRIENDS. It would take so long to film an episode of FRIENDS that they had two audiences. One came in about 4:00, the other came in about 9:00. You could do that with a show as popular as FRIENDS. Good luck trying that with DR. KEN.

What’s your Friday Question? Drink safely tonight.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Getting started in show biz

My podcast this week centers on how my writing partner, David Isaacs and I got started. Not a lot of glitz – it’s just me talking directly to you, sharing our story. You can hear it by clicking here or the big gold arrow above.  Like I say at one point, breaking-in stories are like snowflakes – no two are alike. It’s not like you go to law school, get hired by a firm, and work your way up, and then the president of the United States fires you. Breaking into show business takes luck, talent, timing, connections, education, and desire. There’s no question it’s difficult, but every person you see who gets a TV or movie credit found a way in somehow.

The point is it can be done. And why not by you, right?

The factor that I touched on last is perhaps the most important. Desire.

In a really competitive marketplace you’ve got to really want it. Advice I’ve heard given to actors is that if there’s ANYTHING else they would enjoy doing as a fallback, do that. Only pursue a career in acting if there is nothing else in the world that would give you satisfaction. That’s probably good advice. I’m not an actor (which makes me unique in this town).

But the upside of that need for desire is that it is very exciting to want something badly. I look back at my “hungry years” trying to break in as a great period of my life. Comedy was inspiring. Watching every sitcom, learning the names of those who wrote them, devouring books, hanging out at the Comedy Store, going to improv shows, taking night classes, catching every Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movie countless times, listening to comedy albums, marveling at funny disc jockeys – these were not chores, these were not “homework” – these were pleasures.

I used to live for hanging out with other writer wannabes. We could spend hours at an all-night coffee shop dissecting that week’s HAPPY DAYS episode.

David and I both had day jobs but would get together three or four times a week at nights and weekends to write our spec scripts. It was great fun.

We didn’t see the endgame as making a ton of money or even seeing our names on television. To us nothing seemed more heavenly than to get up in the morning and get to go to a studio, sit in a room with really funny people all day and get paid for writing comedy. We weren’t thinking of creating our own shows, or getting a development deal, or winning awards – we just wanted to be a part of it. We wanted drive-ons to Paramount.

My latest play is about this subject. Called OUR TIME, it’s very loosely autobiographical about breaking in in the mid ‘70s. Present are all the frustrations, setbacks, angst, competition, and despair that go along with excitement, drive, and dreams. But it’s a comedy about comedy so pain and neuroses have to be part of the bargain. Along with (hopefully) a lot of laughs. But it’s a time in my life I cherish. And for all the angst, I’m always kind of envious of those young people just starting out today. Enjoy as much of it as you can tolerate.

I hope in the telling of my breaking-in story that I convey some of that excitement and maybe inspire one or two of you to keep pressing on (towards whatever your goal is, not just show business) despite the odds.

Again, why not you???

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Episode 11: Breaking In Is Hard to Do


In this week’s episode Ken tells the story of how he and David Isaacs met, became writing partners, and finally broke into the business – learning lessons, making rookie mistakes (that you can avoid), and discovering the little edges that will place you out in front in a very competitive field.


Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Today's special guest blogger

Here’s a Friday Question about BECKER that not only deserves its own post, but I was lucky enough to get the show’s creator/showrunner Dave Hackel to answer. Thanks so much, Dave.

The question comes from Brian.

I have always thought the show Becker was pretty good. But there had to be some resistance to having Ted Danson play Becker after Cheers. Was anybody else considered for that character?

Thanks for your question, Brian. The short answer is "No." There was no resistance to having Ted Danson play the part of Dr. John Becker. The part was never offered to any other actor. Once Ted expressed interest, we looked no further. However, there is a story of what led to that decision.

When I first wrote the pilot script for "Becker," no actor was attached. My thoughts about who to approach with the material were pretty "on the nose." I imagined actors who had played misanthropes before. Names like Dabney Coleman or Richard Dreyfus came to mind, but the script was never sent to them or anyone else.

Dave Hackel
It was known that CBS had a deal with Ted to do "something" and the executives at Paramount suggested I send the script to Keith Addis, Ted's manager, to gauge his interest on behalf of his client. Some time had passed and since I'd gotten no response, I assumed that to be a negative answer. Then one day my secretary told me that Ted Danson was on the phone for me. I was both excited and a little nervous. Like everyone in the country, Ted had been in my living room many times, but we'd never met. That call turned out to be one of the best I've ever received.

Ted explained that his manager had included my script in a group of others that had been submitted to Ted for consideration. Ted told me later that he really wasn't looking to do or even read another half-hour but that his wife, Mary Steenburgen, had picked my script off the pile, liked it and suggested that he take a look. He enjoyed it -- hence his call. He said, "I don't know if you think I'd be right for this and, frankly, I don't know if I'd be right for it either. I just wondered if you'd be willing to sit down and talk to me about it." I readily and enthusiastically agreed, and he and I set a date to have that conversation.

I'll be perfectly honest - while I had no doubt at all about Ted's ability to play any part he put his mind to, I did wonder if television audiences would accept him...a person they knew best as the affable Sam Malone...as a man as cynical and seemingly pessimistic as John Becker could be. That's what was on my mind when that meeting started.

Scheduled for an hour, that first conversation lasted three. We talked about the character and what my hopes were for the show. Then Ted shared his thoughts about who he thought John Becker was, who he could be and what types of stories we could tell. At the end of that meeting we agreed on a next step -- a reading of the script for our friends. We both welcomed outside opinions and made this deal: At the end of that reading, if either of us had second thoughts about the match -- actor and material -- we'd walk away with no hard feelings. Luckily, the reading went extremely well. Ted enjoyed himself and learned that he would be accepted playing such a different character. I learned that it was his likability -- that very quality that I'd worried would get in the way -- was exactly what the project needed. We saw we could take the character even further than we thought possible because people innately trusted Ted and that we could use that trust for the good of the show.

It was a perfect storm -- a perfectly lucky storm. Everything and everyone came together at the right moment in time.

So, again, Brian -- the network, studio and I never talked about another actor playing the part. Once Ted expressed interest, everyone was thrilled and no further search was conducted.

It’s me again. As someone who was in that initial reading I can confirm, Ted blew us all away. I was impressed with two things: (1) how sensational he was in the part, and (2) his desire to not play a character similar to Sam Malone. How many actors make a nice living repeating their successful characters in project after project? What makes Ted so extraordinary is his willingness to stretch as an actor and assume so many different roles. And crush each one. (Do you get the idea I kinda like the guy?)

Once again, my thanks to Dave Hackel for a great answer (and a great show, worth rediscovering in reruns).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Lost in translation

I was watching this music video of Barbara Lewis singing "Hello Stranger."  The bottom of the screen had English and below the Spanish translation.   But you never know how accurate the translation is.   In this line however, I think they captured the essence. 

Saying things that now no longer make sense

In my podcast this week (which you need to hear and subscribe to already) I inadvertently mentioned turning off a “tape recorder.” A few of you good-naturedly razzed me for being so “last century.” The truth is I record the podcast digitally but the term “tape” recorder is ingrained in my brain. And in describing TV shows I recorded on my DVR I will still sometimes say I “taped” them.

So it got me thinking about words and expressions we use in everyday speech that have since outlived their meaning but we still use anyway. Here are a few examples.

“The tube” – a popular synonym for a television. Once upon a time there were tubes in a TV set. No longer. I guess you could call it “the chip” but I don’t see that catching on.

People order additional phone “lines”. In this cellphone world there are no “lines” -- everything is wireless.

“Don’t touch that dial”. You’ll hear announcers still say that. At one time you did have a big dial on your radio or TV, which you twisted to change stations. When was the last time you saw one of those that wasn’t in the Smithsonian right next to Abe Lincoln’s log cabin?

And for that matter, no one “dials” a phone anymore. We’ve been pushing buttons for forty years. And we no longer “hang up on people” although we still say we do.

People still say “roll up your window” in a car even though crank handles are now relics. 

Good photo opportunities are still referred to as “Kodak Moments”. Kodak made film for a thousand years. Today we have “Digital Nanoseconds”.

We used to correspond with certain friends in distant locales by getting out the old Bic and writing letters. Today we email, text, or IM but still refer to them as “Pen Pals”.

Recording artists are still coming out with new “records”. That’s what they were in the old days – vinyl platters. You could even argue that CD’s are just an updated technological version. But now music is released on line (again, is there really a “line”?).

And folks use the expression "But on the flip side," which refers to when vinyl records had two sides.  45 rpm's had a song on each side.  There was usually the hit and if you "flipped" the record over, a second song.  

I hear TV weathermen (actually – hot babes) say “tomorrow will be a carbon copy of today.” When was the last time you used carbon paper to make a copy? How many of you have even heard of carbon paper?

Many years ago scripts were duplicated by a mimeograph machine. When a writing staff prepared a production draft of a script to be distributed to the actors, network, crew, etc. they would say, “time to put the script into mimeo.” That expression remained long after mimeograph machines were recycled into soda cans.

So what are other examples? It’s kind of interesting isn’t it, to stop and think once in a while about just what the hell we’re saying?

Monday, March 13, 2017

The key to sitcom syndication success

Here is my theory based on no evidence whatsoever (not that evidence counts for anything these days). It was formed purely on observation, deduction, and taking a wild stab in the dark.  So, in other words, it's absolutely valid. 

Why are some sitcoms big hits in syndication while others aren’t? And just because a sitcom is a big hit on a network does not necessarily mean that will translate to syndication. Likewise, certain sitcoms that got meh ratings originally do gangbusters in future runs. 

A recent example of that is LAST MAN STANDING. On ABC the show has done respectably on Friday nights. Nothing to write home about but good enough on a forgotten night of television that it keeps getting renewed. But this year in syndication that show is a SMASH. It’s getting sensational numbers. Way better than expected. Way way better than some bigger primetime hits like MODERN FAMILY.

MODERN FAMILY has not fared well in syndication (despite its ratings, accolades, Emmys). USA was hoping to build a comedy line-up around it, but MODERN FAMILY under-performed to where USA scrapped all plans for original comedy whatsoever. I know this for a fact. I had a pilot in contention that was suddenly dead along with all the other pilots they had in development at the time.

So why is LAST MAN STANDING so much more successful than MODERN FAMILY? And why is BIG BANG THEORY still a powerhouse? And EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND? Why was WINGS a middling performer for NBC but a juggernaut for USA? Why does GOLDEN GIRLS continue to outperform most comedies that came after? And why does FRIENDS continue to be a ratings monster around the world?

Disclaimer: Like with every theory you can find exceptions. I realize that. MASH would be an exception for example. I say that because if I didn’t the comment section would be flooded with people listing exceptions. I’m making a general point here.

A common denominator among these successful shows is that they’re multi-camera, but that’s not the answer. I think a primary reason they do so well is that you don’t have to watch them.

You just have to listen.

Multi-camera shows are way easier to follow if you’re multi-tasking. How many people put the TV on and then just go about their business? You’re making dinner, you’re folding laundry, checking your email, getting ready for bed. The TV is keeping you company and multi-camera shows are great companions. They make you laugh, they’re not dependent on you seeing what’s going one, and the dialogue is enough. You know what Leonard & Sheldon’s apartment looks like, you can picture Central Perk. On MODERN FAMILY you need to pay more attention. The stories bounce around, there are visual gags, subtle gags that require seeing characters’ reactions. Sure there are those elements in multi-camera shows but they’re not as integral.

And dialogue jokes play better for casual viewing. Dialogue jokes drive multi-cams because they’re playing to live audiences. James Burrows always maintained that CHEERS was a radio play. You could enjoy it just as much by listening to it.

There’s a comfort level in general to sitcoms. Multi-cams add to that comfort by making them easy to follow. And I’ve found that if you have a show with lots of jokes, fans will watch reruns, even if they’ve already seen the episodes. Maybe they missed a few jokes the first time, or something they thought was funny before tickles them again.

Yes, multi-cams, especially family multi-cams are not sexy and cutting edge. They’re usually ignored by award shows and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. But believe me, networks and studios have taken note, and they’d gladly trade a boatload of Emmys for one LAST MAN STANDING.

They’re listening.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jessica Harper is a great sport

This is a re-post of an article from six years ago.  But it also has a GREAT payoff.   And it's a pretty funny story.  So it's worth sharing again.  Enjoy.

In early 1975 I was writing spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs, trying desperately to break into the business. At the time we were going nowhere fast. The spec RHODA we had submitted was rejected. Then the producer left and we re-submitted it. And the new producer rejected it. (That new producer is now my next-door neighbor. I just keep re-submitting it.)

Anyway, on the way to lunch I need to stop at the bank. I probably bounced a check. I go to the back of a long line and notice that the person directly in front of me is Jessica Harper. Ms. Harper is a fine actress and at the time was very hot. She had appeared in LOVE AND DEATH for Woody Allen and had starred in the cult feature PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE among other credits.

Oh, did I mention I had a HUGE crush on her?  

So I begin talking to her. She’s very nice. I’m asking about working with Woody Allen, her career, anything to keep the conversation rolling. All the while we slowly inch forward in line. When she is finally at the front I decide to do something I never ever do. If you know me you know this is true.

I ask her out. Right there in the bank.

She very graciously declines. A teller is free, she dashes off, and that was that.

I get back in the car and relate the story to David. He of course, gives me shit for fifteen minutes. “You did WHAT?!” Finally, I say, “Someday we’re going to be big producers casting a pilot and Jessica Harper is going to walk into our office and read for us. And then she’ll be sorry.” We laugh, go back to my apartment, and continue working on a spec that will soon be rejected all over town.  Jessica goes off and stars in another Woody Allen movie and one with Steve Martin. 

Flash forward to 1993. David and I have a pilot for CBS, BIG WAVE DAVE’S and we’re casting. Who walks into our office?

Yep.

Jessica has no idea why we both seem to be beaming the minute she enters the room. Her audition goes well. She’s a terrific actress. She wasn’t totally right for the part but she still gave a great reading.

I’m on the fence about telling her the story. On the one hand, she might be a great sport and find it amusing. On the other, if we don’t hire her maybe she’ll think it’s because of the bank and we’re the most unprofessional spiteful assholes in Hollywood. So we say nothing. I’m sure if Jessica reads this or someone points her to this post it will be the first she’s heard of it. And I guarantee you she has no recollection of the bank encounter. Ten minutes of her life with some schmuck in a line.

But it’s still one of those delicious career moments. And for the record, I still have a crush on Jessica Harper and would be thrilled to work with her. She’s now a blogger and an author as well as an actress and the least I can do is plug her books, which you can find here.

Okay, that's part one of the story.  Here's part two:  SHE RESPONDED.  
 That is one fabulous story!
I would be lying if I said I remember the bank part (I DO remember the script) but I'm sure you were a perfect gentleman or I would have cut that conversation short!...and you were very gracious about the audition...these qualities make you a rare and compelling person in Hollywood!
Thanks for your kind words, and for sharing my link with the world. Hmmmm....wonder where we'd be today if I HAD gone out with you...? Food for thought...!
All the best Ken!
Jessica


Thanks, Jessica.  You are a sweetheart. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Overwriting and why you shouldn't say more than you need to especially if there's no reason for it

When reading a spec, one of the most common traps I see young writers falling into is overwriting.  When I receive a spec the first thing I always do is check its length. If I get a hernia lifting it, that’s not good. A comedy screenplay should be no more than 120 pages and that’s stretching it. Sitcoms vary depending on the rhythm and format of the show. But if you write a spec MODERN FAMILY and it’s 55 pages I can tell you sight unseen it will be unseen. 

The only thing worse than a TV script or screenplay that’s overwritten is a stage play. Plays have no length requirement so the playwright has free rein to torture us long into next month. When a two character piece about what to pack for a vacation is longer than NICHOLAS NICKLEBY that should be a clue.

And then there’s the dialogue.

This may sound obvious but worth stating anyway: Always remember that actors have to perform your script.

Soooo many times I’ll see full page speeches with sentences so long and complicated that no human being on earth could ever deliver them. And certainly not in one breath. Read your script out loud. If you need CPR by the end of a speech, rethink. Dialogue has to sound natural, conversational. And rarely do we speak in big whoppin’ speeches.

When writing a TV spec, writers often go overboard on character quirks. They’ll hear Frasier utter something a little flowery and think that every word out of his mouth has to be Noel Coward. In fairness, shows themselves get caught up in that trap. On MASH the tendency to give every line a spin evolved into absurdity. In a later season (after I had left the series) Potter once said to Klinger, “It was curiosity that KO’d the feline.” WTF?? Who would ever say that? And why?

There is a tendency to want to impress by working in all kinds of complex themes and philosophies – show how you’re the next Paddy Chayefsky. In truth, it’s your inexperience not intellect that’s being put on display. If long intricate theories and complicated Byzantine ideas are your cup of tea, write a book.

More often than not these long speeches have characters express in detail their emotions and attitudes. Not only is it taxing to listen to this balloon juice it also gives the actor nothing to play. Might as well go on to the next scene. Sometimes a look or a gesture can say volumes more a two page speech that James Joyce would find too convoluted.

Whenever my partner, David and I go back to polish a draft we thin out the big speeches. If the speech is 14 lines we make it 11, if it’s 11 lines we make it 9. There are ALWAYS trims.

Same is true in stage direction. A reader sees a big block of stage direction I GUARANTEE he will not read it. You could describe a sex act in detail and he’ll flip the page.

As a rule it’s better to underwrite than overwrite. We have an expression. We like “open pages”. Much more white than type. This may sound obvious too but: You don’t get paid by the word.

Go back through your script. I bet you could lose two pages.  Writer/blogger extraordinaire Earl Pomerantz always maintained that you could lose page 8 from any script.  He's right!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Questions

Are you ready for the return of (a) Daylight Savings and (b) Friday Questions?

Matt starts us off:

Have you ever written for a sketch comedy show? Is this type of writing different?

Yes. My partner, David Isaacs and I wrote sketches for THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW on Fox. It was great fun. The trick was finding a good ending. The problem with most sketches is that have funny premises but the writers don’t know how to get out of them.

A couple of the sketches we wrote for Tracey were musicals. In one case, Paula Abdul choreographed a dance number from one of them.

What helped in our case was that Tracey and her supporting players were all terrific and versatile.   Any character we envisioned they could do.  Tracey had several established characters so that made those sketches easier because we could picture her doing it and could imagine her voice.

I imagine the writers of SNL are having a ball these days.  

From Michael:

You've mentioned being fired from several radio jobs. Did they ever let you back on-the-air after firing you? If so, did you ever do/say something memorable?

I was fired from TenQ in Los Angeles. I had been on the air doing Saturday nights for a year, but then a new program director came in and well, you know that drill. He lasted six months. His replacement (who came from out of town) was a big fan and called to see whether I’d consider doing a show on the weekends. He didn’t realize I had already been there. I was happy to return. When I signed on for my first show back I opened with “So as I was saying…”

I then did a talk show on KABC in 1981 and was fired for Maureen Reagan (who was president Reagan’s daughter). Hard to argue with that. Then in 2008 I returned to host Dodger Talk. Fortunately, Obama’s kids were little.

Paul wonders:

I was lucky enough to attend a Cheers filming and have always had a question about the set design -- the episode I attended had several scenes in Sam's office and each time the action shifted in there, they stopped filming, unfolded the set (yes, very cool to watch), shot the scene in the office, then stopped and folded it back up. The question: why not have Sam's office designed back in the pool room, which would have eliminated the need for that time-consuming folding and unfolding? Was there a thought that the office would be rarely used and the pool room would see more action? Or did they need to leave room in the studio for those occasional swing sets? Or is there no reason?

Putting the office where it was was the most efficient use of space on the stage. And anytime you switched from one set to the other there was going to be a time gap since the cameras had to move and re-set. The process of swinging the walls and bar took only a couple of minutes. We had an Indy 500-type pit crew.

And this way we could shoot right down the hallway from the bar to the poolroom, which was a very cool shot and added great depth to the set. Putting Sam’s office over there would eliminate that shot and necessitate that the pool room be smaller.

And finally, from Mark:

You mentioned the difficulty of filming outside for MASH once Fall and Winter set in. Why not have fifteen or twenty scripts ready and then do all the outside filming for all of them before moving to the set and doing all the inside stuff.

Each script required weeks of work to prepare. From idea to breaking the story, to the outline, and all the many drafts. Meanwhile, once we went into production we were filming episodes in four days. Our lead time got swallowed up in short order.

To have 20 scripts ready to go before production began would have required at least a full year of pre-production. We didn’t have that time. We only had a few months.

I like to think we were extremely organized and we had maybe eight scripts ready to go when production began. But the rest of the time we were scrambling to stay ahead of the production schedule. And by the last few shows it was reeeeeeeally tight.

Also, I think it would drive the actors insane to be shooting multiple shows at once. They’d have no idea what they were playing. It would be a confusing mess – not to mention an absolute nightmare for continuity trying to match clothes, where extras were, etc.

Single-camera comedies generally make 22 episodes between the end of July and the end of March. We made 25 episodes a season between July 4th and Christmas. I’d say we cranked them out at a pretty good rate. And first and foremost, we tried to make sure the writing was the absolute best it could possibly be. That takes time even if we didn’t have it.

What's your Friday Question?  

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The making of FRIENDS

Okay, my new podcast episode is up.  Last night there was some snafu with the server and they posted the wrong podcast.  Either that I morphed into two women.  But it's up now and simple click above on the big gold arrow and you can listen.

Or you can click here to listen to all the podcasts and subscribe. 

It's one of my better shows, thanks to Jeff Greenstein.  He was one of the writer/producers of FRIENDS from the pilot through its first year, and he's got some great stories on alternate casting, network interference, alternate titles, testing, and the usual crap that goes on when making a pilot, even one as terrific as theirs.   I bet there's lots of stuff you didn't know.

So check it out and please subscribe.   There's other fun stuff in there too, like how my writing partner and I couldn't get a pilot on ABC if we were Michael Eisner.

And now back to today's regularly scheduled blog post. 

Casting decisions -- good and bad

Here are some Friday questions by reader Jim S. following a recent piece on casting.  I thought it would make a good stand-alone post.

How did you learn how to do it? What was the best bit of casting you did? The worst?

There’s no way to “learn” how to cast. It’s just a matter of judgment. You do have to develop a sense of putting an actor’s reading in perspective however. Sometimes great actors give lousy auditions and other times mediocre actors shine in auditions. You try to see through that. It's not easy. 

I don’t buy the notion that you should excuse an actor for being nervous. If he’s nervous now imagine how he’ll be in front of a camera or camera and studio audience.

But when an actor gives a tepid reading you have to determine if that’s the best he can do, or if it’s worth giving him an adjustment and letting him do it again? I’m always open to that. I just don’t want to miss someone because I was too hasty in dismissing them. You get a feel for that over time.

It's tough for actors because they they're shooting at a moving target.  They get their sides (their scene to read) and try to determine from those few pages just who this character is and how he should be played.  Sometimes they'll read and you like a certain quality the actor brings but he was off-the-mark.  You then give them an adjustment and sometimes they'll hit the bullseye.  I always think it's a good idea for actors to ask the producers before their reading if there's anything they should know, or any particular way they see this character.

But even then you have to be open.  You may see a character one way and an actor comes in who is not at all what you pictured but gives a really fascinating reading.  You have to be willing to consider the possibility that this new way to go is better than what you envisioned. 

As a producer, I try to make actors as comfortable as I can when they come in to read. I want them to do well. It’s in everybody’s best interest. I don’t understand producers who just sit behind desks scowling. But I don’t think I “learned” that. That’s just common sense to me.

Best casting? I guess Tom Hanks and John Candy in VOLUNTEERS. Nancy Travis was pretty inspired for ALMOST PERFECT. And both John Astin and Katey Sagal for THE MARY SHOW.

I’m not going to say who the worst was because I don’t want to embarrass anybody. But there have been times when I’ve had to fire actors, and in a few cases it was because I was way off-base in hiring them for that part in the first place. Like I keep saying, casting is an inexact science.

Were you ever forced to take someone that turned out to be great? Terrible?

On AfterMASH the network insisted we take Wendy Girard and she was fabulous.

Again, I don’t want to name names but a network forced us to take a certain actor to star in a pilot and he was terrible. He pretty much killed the entire project.

So it happens either way.

Did you ever consult with your wife? Your rabbi, your bowling buddies?

Not really. Unless an actor is on tape, my rabbi, wife, etc. doesn’t have the chance to see them. I may run a name or two by them to get their reaction, but generally I have to rely on my partner or the other people in the room who saw the reading.  My bowling buddies don't know shit. 

Trust me, there are many times I just don’t know and I really appreciate the feedback from others whom I trust. Having a good casting director also helps a lot. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some of the best. A shout out thanks to Sheila Guthrie, Jeff Greenberg, Sally Stiner, Barbie Bloch, Steve Kolzak, Molly Lopata, Sandi Logan, and Michael Donovan.

What's your Friday Question regardless of what day it is?

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

GOOD shows

I love that there are so many scripted shows on television these days. More work for writers. But there are downsides. One is that all of these shows require titles and eventually they start overlapping. It’s not enough that no one can keep straight which platform these shows are on and what their timeslots are (if they indeed even have timeslots), now we can’t even identify them.

One case in point is the number of shows that begin with GOOD.

THE GOOD PLACE
GOOD BEHAVIOR

And now that THE GOOD WIFE is over, its spinoff has arrived.

THE GOOD FIGHT

An ABC pilot being produced is called…

THE GOOD DOCTOR

And God forbid you check the listings and the following recent movies and series are scheduled…

GOOD PEOPLE
GOOD INTENTIONS
GOOD GUYS
GOOD GIRLS REVOLT
GOOD LUCK CHARLIE
GOOD LUCK CHUCK
GOOD TIMES
THE GOOD WITCH

What can I say except good grief (Charlie Brown)?

I worry that any future spin offs will begin with BETTER and three years from now I’m writing this same post.

On an unrelated note:  late tonight my new podcast episode arrives.  Among the topics:  the making of FRIENDS.   Lots of tidbits you probably didn't know. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN -- My review

Make no mistake – I love a good Hollywood catfight as much as anybody. The bitchier the better. And if it’s a little camp, hey, that’s okay too. You can talk about your “Thrilla in Manilla” but take two over-the-hill Hollywood legends whose heyday was back when stars meant something more than contestants on a dance reality show, put ‘em in furs, give ‘em sharp claws, get ‘em both plastered, and you have the makings for a battle royale.

So I went into FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN with high expectations. (It premiered Sunday night on FX.)   Plus, it was produced by Ryan Murphy who knows a thing or two about sensationalizing showbiz cheese. The stars are Susan Sarandon at Bette Davis (complete with the requisite Bette Davis eyes) and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford with the thick signature eyebrows that could only mean Joan Crawford or Jack Elam. Both women were terrific although Joan Crawford without wire hangers is like Traci Lords with clothes.

I’d say that Susan was better than Jessica but that might start another feud.

The mini-series (or anthology or limited series or variety special or whatever they call it to maximize Emmy chances) depicts the true story of when Bette and Joan were in such sad career straits that they decided to bury the hatchet (in each other’s back) and finally do a movie together, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The fact that these two divas hated each other from the days of silent pictures made their collaboration that much more of a powder keg. And the film itself was a schlock black-and-white horror film, geared less for Imax and more for the local Drive-In. (Ironically, the movie became a big hit. It played very well to backseats.)

So you’d figure that FEUD would be loaded with fireworks. Well, as of the pilot, they were still unlit. Maybe things pick up, but I found the first episode to be long and quite frankly, dull. There was nothing in the maiden voyage that was particularly startling or delicious. They resented each other, they respected each other, they were trying to be on their best behavior because they both needed this movie to work. We got that from the :30 second promo. 

Where’s the hair pulling? Where’s the drink spiking? Where’s the paid assassins? Joan buys ties for members of the crew so they’ll light her more favorably. Bette wears ghoulish make-up that upstages Joan. Big yawn.

So far the feud is not mean enough, not fun enough, not camp enough, not compelling enough. It’s also not lavish enough. Very few extras. There was a scene during a Golden Globes award ceremony and it looked like there were four tables. Since when did they hold the Golden Globes at Leonard's of Great Neck?  I think the most money spent on the production so far was on Hedda Hopper’s hats (which looked like a condor died on her head). Judy Davis was terrific as Hedda, by the by. And maybe my favorite character was Joan’s Nazi German personal assistant, who she called “mamacita.”

I’ll give it another try, but if I don’t call out “MEOW!” at least twice I’m gone. What did you guys think?

Monday, March 06, 2017

The trial of the Oscar snafu

Okay, so two employees of Price-Waterhouse goofed up and handed a celebrity the wrong envelope at the Oscars. Since then they’ve been outed and dragged through the press and social media. There have even been death threats. I’m not going to mention their two names. They’ve been singled out enough. But I thought to myself, what if some idiot tried to actually carry it out. For purposes of this blog and the hope that some sanity in the world still exits, he failed, but is now on trial for Attempted Murder.   Imagine being the attorney defending that moron.
ATTORNEY: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Attempted Murder is a serious charge, even in the south. For one to take another person’s life, there are precious few reasons why any God fearing individual can justify it. Not just because of our laws of the land but the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill.” I don’t know if it’s the first commandment but it’s sure in the top five. Way above “don’t covet thy nanny or neighbor’s wife,” I know that.

So for me to stand before you today and ask you to empathize and even forgive such unspeakable behavior, I darn well better have a good reason. And I do. A reason that I believe any reasonable human being would understand and accept.

The Price-Waterhouse employee did something so heinous, no unconscionable, so potentially destructive to society as we know it and imagine it in the future that any rational intelligent human being would have to question whether said employee deserved to live.

For this wasn’t just running over six people in a crosswalk or forgetting to screw in a bolt which resulted in a manned rocket exploding. Oh no, this was way worse.

The alleged victim recklessly and carelessly and without any thought to the irreparable damage he would do to the world as we know it – handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope at the 2017 Oscars. The result was apocalyptic, if I may downplay it. Before literally millions and figuratively billions of people around the globe the wrong movie was named for Best Picture of the Year.

I remind the jury of the immediate aftermath. National treasure Warren Beatty was made to appear foolish. America’s Sweetheart Faye Dunaway was duped into announcing the wrong name. Host Jimmy Kimmel was unable to get big laughs on his saver jokes. Wives were thanked who had no business being thanked. People with headsets were actually on camera. Viewers who filled out their Oscar pools in ink now had messy forms. The Academy of Arts & Science, an organization so protective of its image that it once hired Seth MacFarlane to host the Oscars, was embarrassed. There were snarky tweets and derisive comments from bloggers. The booth announcer gave the wrong statistics.  Need I go on?  I'll stop so you can sleep at night. 

This was such an egregious error that people were talking about it the next day. And remember, it was on after midnight in the east when most people were asleep already.

I think it’s safe to say that the snafu set the entire world off-kilter. This was the Best Picture award, not just Best Make-Up. Viewers develop strong attachments to these films, they live and die based on what awards they receive.  Their entire self-worth is wrapped up in their box office receipts.  What happened was a personal affront to billions if not millions of moviegoers. One can already see a permeating national depression. Sales of anti-depressants are way up, more people are starting therapy – what else could possibly cause this other than confusion over an Academy Award announcement?

So ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to reconsider, even those of you who are in the MOONLIGHT camp and resent that your producers didn’t have more time to thank their wives, I ask you to put everything in perspective, see the big picture, and find my client not guilty. Or if he is guilty, give the judge the wrong envelope. Thank you.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The dumbest new series on the web

It's called CHIC MAMA CARPOOL and it is ten minutes of absolute prattle, self-promotion, and preciousness.  Get beauty tips from MILF's.   It's one thing for James Corden to get Adele to sing in his car; it's another to get Jordana Brewster to tell you which gel she puts under her eyes.  I think it's time to go back to the test pattern when there's nothing worthwhile to watch.   Here is CHIC MAMA CARPOOL.  Count the number of times they say "like."


Radio Daze

Here’s another tale from my colorful yet brief radio career.

Among the many things missing in radio today are pranks. Back when there were live local broadcasters and actual competition between stations (one company didn’t own them all), a by-product was one-ups-manship. I was involved in one stunt during my first job.

I was a sports intern at KMPC in Los Angeles. They were the big full-service station in town. Their disc jockeys were national celebrities like Gary Owens, Wink Martindale, and Jim Lange. They carried the Rams, Angels, and UCLA Bruins. And they had helicopters and mobile units. I think their local news department was larger than CNN’s is now.  The studios were essentially in the White House.

It was the summer of 1970. I worked Monday through Friday from 6 AM – 3 PM. (Yes, the hours were long but they were paying me minimum wage.) I wrote sports reports, made coffee, and emptied ashtrays.

Meanwhile, their competitor was KGIL in the San Fernando Valley. Their signal was nothing compared to KMPC’s. If they had a helicopter it was made by Hasbro. Their "skywatch" was probably a guy on a mountain top with binoculars.  But their morning man was brilliant. Sweet Dick Whittington was (and is) one of the funniest, most inventive radio personalities I have ever heard. I was a huge fan. We had met on a couple of occasions. Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Sweet Dick
I’m at my desk. It’s about 7:45 in the morning and my phone rings. It’s some goofball who says he’s the singing newsman from some station in Denver and wonders if there are any openings at KMPC. I tell him I didn’t think so. He asks if he could audition for me. This sounds strange to me but I say okay. Who doesn't like to be serenaded about a bus plunge?  He begins singing some news story. I figure it out. It’s Whittington using a phony voice. I assume he's on the air live. I let him finish, tell him he’s great. Then I say, “Y’know, I’m frustrated that I’m not on the air. I have a pretty good singing voice. Could I audition for you?” He’s a little thrown but says okay. I then sing the KMPC jingle. There’s a pause and he says, “You’re a rotten kid!” and hangs up.

I was right.  This bit went out on the air live, my singing KMPC’s jingle included.

So I go the rest of the morning feeling pretty good about myself. Word gets around the station and a few salesmen and other employees stop in the newsroom to congratulate me.

At around noon, Stan Spero, the General Manager comes in. He asks if I was the one who pulled that stunt on KGIL? Yes, I say proudly. He tells me there’s someone who wants to speak to me. Now Stan Warwick, the General Manager of KGIL enters the room. What the fuck is he doing there? Warwick is clearly pissed. He begins grilling me. “Did I think it was funny to embarrass his station?” “Is this how I conduct myself as a professional?” Needless to say, I’m sweating buckets. I look to my GM for support. He’s just glaring at me. Fun is fun but apparently I had crossed a line.

Just at the point I was ready to hang myself with a teletype ribbon they both break up laughing. I had been punked. Orchestrated of course, by Dick Whittington. The two general managers were friends and had planned on getting together for lunch that day anyway. Both appreciated a good radio prank and appreciated even more getting back at the prankster.

Dick Whittington is one of my favorite people in the world. But I hope he’s sleeping with one eye open. Because it’s my turn.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Oh say can you STOP?!

Spring training has begun.   Play ball!

I spent years calling baseball games. That meant that every night I was treated to a different version of the National Anthem. I think I speak for the hundreds of millions of Americans who attend sporting events each year when I say to the performers…

The National Anthem is not a five-minute blues number.

It is not a Mariah Carey overwrought teen power ballad complete with runs and riffs and “yeahs” inserted in the middle. Whitney did it. You will never top it. Don’t try.

The National Anthem is not a song that needs a “hook”. Or your own “personal signature”.

It is not a sultry torch song. Do not use it to impress the chicks. The Star Spangled Banner is not catnip for horny women.

It is not opera. If you need to wear a Viking helmet to get in the mood, rethink.

Nor is it the Grand Ole Opry. Does Yankee Stadium look like a barn dance to you?

Yo! The National Anthem is also not a hip-hop jam. Do not sample “Happy Together” in the middle of it. Do not shout out “Clap your hands, y’all!” when you’re near the end.

It is not meant to be whistled, beat boxed, played on spoons, washboards, ukuleles, kazoos, or sung in Klingon.

The Rat Pack is dead. So should be all versions of the Star Spangled Banner that swing. Francis Scott Key did not envision finger popping and nowhere is the word “kookoo” in the lyrics.

And speaking of the lyrics – LEARN THEM. It’s “perilous fight” not “perilous night”, not “perilous flight”, not “perilous twilights bursting in air”.

The song has an actual melody. Just come close to it…even occasionally. That’s all I ask.

And finally, stop Stop STOP STOP trying to hold the last few notes forever. You’re not stirring. You’re a car alarm that won’t turn off.

The National Anthem is arguably one of the hardest songs to perform. But done well it’s also one of the most powerful. Just sing the friggin’ song.

And let us get on to “play ball!”.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Viola Davis' acceptance speech

Lots of debate in my comments section on Viola Davis' acceptance speech.  Here it is along with a link to my podcast where you can hear exactly what I said (plus the rest of my snarky review.) 

And here's a link to the podcast.   Or you can just click on the podcast above.

So what do you think? Yay or nay on the speech?

Friday Questions

Thus begins the March of Friday Questions.

Edward begins.

Is your IMDb profile and/or production credits accurate? Do you care? Do you check? Have you made corrections?

It’s way incomplete. Lots of credits are left off and for some reason they have me as one of the writers of a Richard Pryor movie. But that’s better than it was.

At one time they had me as the location manager for JURASSIC PARK and (believe it or not) the dialogue coach for FLIPPER.

I haven’t corrected anything. I think my daughter Annie did go in and clean up some stuff.

If she goes back in again I want her to make sure to include the episode of BRAM & ALICE I co-wrote.

Richard Pride has a question regarding the CHEERS set.

Wasn't Frasier filmed on the same set? Can you describe that set in relation to the Cheers set? Where was Frasier's apartment, radio station booth etc?

Yes, FRASIER was filmed on Stage 25 at Paramount. Here’s the way it was laid out:

If you were sitting in the audience – on the far left was the radio station (modeled originally after KABC, Los Angeles). The apartment was in the center. Designed by Roy Christopher, I think that was one of the greatest sets in TV history. And to the far right swing sets were erected. Those are sets that change from week to week. One week there could be a wine club, the next a restaurant, etc. It was harder for the audience to see, but monitors were situated above their heads for easier viewing.

Now what about Café Nervosa? Interestingly, there were two Café Nervosa sets. If there wasn’t a large swing set (say a ballroom or ski lodge) a larger Café Nervosa set was placed between the apartment and the non-permanent set. It’s the one you see most weeks. But if there was a swing set that required more space a smaller version of the Café was utilized. It’s as if Frasier took a table near the back so you don’t see a lot of depth and extras. That’s why when they used the larger set they usually placed Frasier at a downstage table so you could see all the activity behind him.

From Gary Bainbridge:

Ken, a Vulture article about the writers' room on Girls talks about the quiet and intimidating writers' room on Frasier. How did the Frasier room compare with others with which you've been involved?

Well let me first say that magic came out of the FRASIER writing room so you can’t knock success. Most of the rooms I’ve been in were a little raucous. And rated X. Actually, loud boisterous rooms are more intimidating than the quiet thoughtful FRASIER rooms. Try getting in your joke when six Mel Brooks are firing in lines all at once.

The Vulture article depicts the GIRLS room as more of a therapy session, where the writers reveal their deepest darkest secrets and fears in order to create stories that were emotionally raw and honest. I was in one room like that, for the show SIBS, produced by Jim Brooks. I found it enlightening, stimulating, and often really creepy. You talk about “too much information.” I learned things about my co-writers that were way too private and intimate. And I even revealed to them that I still talk up to vocals to records when I’m alone in the car. Now I can't face them.

Rick Wiedmayer wonders:

When actors, directors, writers etc get paid residuals for their work, do their agents also get a percentage of this payment?

No. Not a dime.

And finally, from Dave Bittner:

I wonder if you ever crossed paths during your radio career with Johnny Holliday, former DJ and current sports broadcaster for the University of Maryland?

Yes. Numerous times. We have a lot in common. Johnny Holliday was a Top 40 DJ who transitioned into sports play-by-play. Ironically, both of us were jocks at one time on KYA in San Francisco (although years apart).

Another similarity, we both ended up in the Washington/Baltimore area. I called games for the Orioles at one time and he’s still in the area. We would connect at O’s games.

We actually had a long phone conversation recently catching up.

He’s a great announcer and justifiably beloved in that area.

Another DJ who made the switch to play-by-play was Joe Angel, now back with the Orioles. How’s this for weird? When I was a Top 40 disc jockey I replaced Joe on KMEN, San Bernardino. Then, when I was a baseball announcer, I replaced Joe on Orioles broadcasts. Joe needs to become the DAILY SHOW host so I can replace him on that too.

What’s your Friday Question?