Saturday, May 28, 2022

Weekend Post

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

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

There’s a formality that is now the standard.

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

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

They use “we” a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 27, 2022

Friday Questions

Better late than never, here are this week’s FQ’s.

TBaughman starts us off:

Do all of your reviews offer constructive criticism? Aren’t reviews to inform—and sometimes entertain—the public, not assist the author or performer, though that might occur incidentally?

I’m sure each reviewer has his or her own agenda.  When I review things for this blog it’s mostly for the reader, but occasionally I will offer what I think might be helpful notes, not so much for the writers of the project being reviewed but to better explain my problems with it.  If the writer should read it and not hate me that would be a bonus.  

But it’s not like I’m reviewing Broadway for the New York Times.  I hardly  expect the creative team of the project under review to be reading me.    

From Jahn Ghalt:

You clearly relish the "high wire act" of writing (and directing?) a one-act, two-player cafe-play all in about eight-hours.

The Question - do you write any kind of an outline in this situation.

No, but before I start writing I do figure out where the play is going and what the ending is.  

In most of my ten-minute plays I build to a character having to make a tough decision. That decision often comes at the end but other times it’s early to set into motion a problem that must now be dealt with.    

To me, that’s what separates a play from a sketch.  In most sketches (see practically every one ever done on SNL) you have a funny premise, fill it with jokes, then look for any way to just get out of it.  

Speaking of funny, the other thing I do before writing my ten-minute play is make sure I can service both of my characters equally.  They each have to have laugh lines.  I can’t just make one person the straight man and the other get all the laughs.    A trap a lot of playwrights fall into is having one character just ask questions during the whole piece.  Actors understandably hate that.  

So once I know I have a direction and characters I can have fun with I throw caution to the wind and just start writing.  

Terry asks:

This has nothing to do with today's post, but your post from yesterday made me think of a possible Friday question (and forgive me if you've answered this one before): 

You're forgiven.  I forgot I answered it too.

On Cheers, was there ever any consideration given to having Rhea's then husband Danny DeVito guest star? I know the two appeared on Taxi together. This seems like a missed opportunity to me.

I actually answered this back in 2011 which a couple of commenters brought that to my attention.  So for the 90% of you who don’t read the comments (okay maybe only 87%) here was my answer (with thanks to those two commenters).  

There was some talk about it the first season but nothing really serious. At one point we thought of including Danny in the Superbowl scene as a lark but ultimately it was decided the objective of the scene was to promote CHEERS and it would just confuse people with TAXI. Were they watching Louie & Zena?

But if you listen carefully, you can hear Danny laughing offstage. He was there when we filmed it.

The first season of CHEERS proved to be the final season of TAXI, and Danny went off to have a hugely successful feature career. I once said to him, “Now that you’re a big star, I hope you won’t forget us little people.

And finally, from JessyS:

Did you and David break the 4th wall in any of your series?

No.  But I have used that device in one of my plays.  

I’m not against doing it on a TV series but the premise needs to be enhanced by the device otherwise it’s just a gimmick.  

I actually thought they did it very well in the early episodes of HOUSE OF CARDS.  Also on FLEABAG.

But the all-time best use of the device was done in the early 1950’s if you can believe it.  On the BURNS & ALLEN SHOW, George Burns would go upstairs to his office and watch the show as it was supposedly being broadcast (see: above photo).  He could then comment to the audience or set plot points in motion based on his inside knowledge.  It was very surreal.  None of the other characters knew they were on television (and of course, where were the cameras?).  But it was novel and somehow it worked.   

The various series David Isaacs I created however, tended to be more realistic and did not lend themselves to breaking the fourth wall or done in the documentary style.  

What’s your Friday Question? 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

EP276: The Current and Future State of Television

Ken’s guest is Preston Beckman, a major force in network programming for 35 years and currently a media consultant.  He discusses all things TV including broadcast networks, cable, streamers, sports, comedy, license fees, research, and where things might be heading. Television is constantly changing.  Stay on top of it with Preston Beckman. Part 1 of 2. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

Writing Tip #284

My discussion on BETTER CALL SAUL last week and how so much of this season seems to just be a set-up has led me to this thought:

Set-ups are HARD.  

When I wrote my farce, THE FARCE DAY OF CHRISTMAS everyone assumed the hard part was the end where it was a joke a second.  Laugh had to pile on laugh in machine gun fashion.   

But the truth is that was the easy part.  I was just paying off everything I had set before.  Many of the laughs were just reactions.  Or call backs.  

The real hard work was the first act.  That’s when I had to establish everything.  Once elements were in motion I was off to the races.  The tricky part is to do that while still being entertaining.  Those laughs were harder to come by.  I had to devise comic situations that presented the necessary information in a fun way.  It’s unreasonable to ask the person doing the pre-show announcements to say, “Trust us, it gets better in the second act.”  

And you have to be careful.  You can’t disguise the set-up info so deep into scenes that it doesn’t register or is not crystal clear.  Remember, the audience might have to remember this or that fact for a half hour before it pays it.  Just hiding it cleverly in a line of dialogue is not going to make the impression you need.

Achieving all that is tough.  But a good first step is knowing you have to achieve all that.   And it’s easy to overlook because good writers can make it appear effortless.  It’s not. The clumps of hair I tore out are still growing back. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Reviews in Context

It’s always hard to determine how much importance to place on reviews.  The truth is you’re not as good as your glowing reviews and you’re not as awful as your pans.  

Sometimes reviews can be helpful, especially for plays out of town.  Neil Simon was having a bitch of a time with the third act of ODD COUPLE, writing new scenes every night during tryouts.  But it was a reviewer in Boston who had the solution.  How many millions of dollars changed hands because of that review?  

It stings of course to get a bad notice.  And it’s the old story -- You get rave reviews and one bad one and you obsess over the bad one. That’s human nature.  

There have been reviews of my plays where I wondered just what play were they watching because it bears no resemblance to what I wrote or what was performed on stage.  Or they’ll focus on one thing like the throw pillows on a couch and that ruined the whole play for them.  

You have to accept the fact that no matter what you do there will be someone who doesn’t dig your act.  For years, Al Michaels used to keep in his pocket a review where the great Vin Scully got slammed.  Al kept it as a reminder to not try to please everybody.  It’s physically impossible.  Just do your thing.  

But what I look for in a review of my work is the context.  Is this person offering constructive advice or just on a mission to slam me?  And if so, why?  

I was reminded of this the other day when I came across my podcast reviews from Apple listeners.  I received 422 reviews — most, I’m happy to say, were five stars.

One guy, however, gave me only one star and pretty much hated everything about me.  I’m a terrible interviewer, I’m rude, I should be put out to pasture, etc.  But then comes this:

He makes snarky comments about celebrated actors and passes along his out of touch political views , as if everyone listening has the same views .Who wants to hear a situation comedy writer pontificate about politics?

Okay, so now we get to the nitty gritty.  He doesn’t like my “politics.”   So of course he’s going to hate everything I do.  Ironically, the way he phrased his complaint makes me thinks he listened at least several time.  If you hate me, why would you listen more than once? 

Obviously, his objective was not to offer constructive advice but to try to scare away future listeners.  Whatever.  

To me the best podcasts are the ones where the host or hosts are passionate about things. They have opinions, they take stands.  Otherwise, they're boring.  So when I consider the context, this bad review is really a good review.   So thanks.  And find a podcast with politics you like. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

The SNL send-off

I guess after almost 50 years I was a little surprised when SNL made such a big thing about the departures of Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant, and Kyle Mooney.   Not that they aren’t beloved and have been a mainstay for several years, but look at all the other major talent who left Saturday Night Live.  Eddie Murphy didn’t get to do a heartfelt goodbye.  Nor did John Belushi, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Dana Carvey, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Darrell Hammond, Bill Murray, Phil Hartman, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Adam Sandler — you get the idea.  (Please don’t write in saying “You missed ________”  I’m making a point.)

Perhaps because of social media, but SNL now gets attention it never did before.  The show biz industry trade website, Deadline Hollywood, does an article on practically every sketch along with a headline which is the same size as Harvey Weinstein caught hoarding Milk Duds in his jail cell.   Hollywood Reporter and Variety never used to report the opening SNL skit as if it were actual news.  

When a beloved radio personality or sportscaster has his last broadcast it’s a big deal.  For 67 years Dodger fans have had Vin Scully.  His retirement has left a huge void that is not even close to being filled.  Many times when longtime radio personalities or local newscasters move on it’s to other cities.  So it’s the last you see or hear of them for awhile (or ever).  But former SNL cast members just go on to do movies, host late night talk shows, star in series, and all of the above.  Plus, they come back and guest on SNL.  So this is like the Cher Farewell Tour where they’re already selling tickets for the next Cher Farewell Tour.  

This isn’t a rant.  I will miss them all and wish them all the best.  I have no doubt that they’ll do just fine.  And personally, I think it’s good for the show to cycle in new people and new characters.  If I’m being honest, I absolutely adored Kate McKinnon a few years ago and now am tired of the act.  But I just find it odd that these departures have gotten such attention.   When I finally quit this blog I imagine Deadline Hollywood won’t mention it because a cavity search on Weinstein uncovered a box of Jujubees. 

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Weekend Post

I thought it would be fun to show you what an outline of CHEERS looked like.  This is just a couple of pages but you'll get the idea.  It's from the Rat Girl episode my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote.  Every show has its own format.  I found this to be the best.  It's on half the sheet of paper so there's room on the other half to scribbling notes.  

As you'll see there's suggested dialogue and jokes.  Not every joke in the outline has to be used.  In fact, many are not.  But like I said, you'll get a sense of just what goes into an outline for a half-hour sitcom.  Scripts are fluid but you need a starting point.   Enjoy.



Friday, May 20, 2022

Friday Questions

Let’s jump into some Friday Questions, shall we?

Jim Susky starts us off:

What are the worst National Anthem performance in your experience?

My worst-songs-of-all-time podcast wasn’t enough for you?  Well, the answer is easy.  My dear old friend, Roseanne, at a 1990 San Diego Padres game.  See for yourself.  Click on the above video.

maxdebryn asks:

On MASH, we would often see a picture of Potter's wife Mildred on his desk - was that just a prop, or a picture of his (Harry Morgan's) actual wife ?

That was his real wife, Eileen.  And when Harry was on DRAGNET, his character, Bill Gannon’s wife was named Eileen.

Further trivia note: the drawing of the horse that was seen in Potter’s office was drawn by his grandson.   The things you learn by reading this blog!

From Michael:

A common thread I have read on articles on which shows are being renewed or cancelled is that licensing costs seem to be as much or more of a deciding factor than ratings. Even some of the highest rated FOX shows' renewals are being delayed pending negotiations between network and studios. In this era of shrinking audiences, has this taken on increased importance or was this just not discussed as openly in renewal/cancellation articles in the past?

Absolutely.  Especially for the FOX network because they no longer own a studio (sold it to Disney).  So they can’t make money on the shows they air in other ways.  My podcast guest next week is Preston Beckman who was the chief scheduler for NBC and FOX for 35 years.  We discuss this very issue.  It’s a great interview on the state and future of the television business.  I invite you to check it out. 

And finally, from Brian:

How many times have you taken the Jeopardy online test? How did you felt you did? I imagine you have to score 100% on that to even have a chance at advancing to the next level.

Are you kidding?  I’ve NEVER taken the JEOPARDY test.  I’m certain I’d fail it badly.  I’d hit an opera category, or the Bible, or Mythology, or Rivers of Africa, or Films of Nancy Meyers and be completely lost.

Who needs to be reminded of how dense they are?  

I think you have to get 80% right or something like that.  Most people flunk it.  

Even if you pass you then have to go through an interview process and lots of those candidates are weeded out.  So just to actually get on the show is a huge achievement.  

When contestants don’t do well it’s usually due to nerves.  Through their rigorous screening policy you gotta have the smarts to even play the game.    No chance Sean Connery makes the cut.

What’s your Friday Question?