Monday, January 31, 2011

How do you get an agent?

By far the question I get asked the most is how do you get an agent?

I wish there was an easy answer. But the truth is you need persistence, sometimes a little ingenuity, and luck.

There is a directory of agents that the Writers Guild offers. Some smaller agencies will accept new submissions. Contact all of them.

Try to distinguish yourself. And by that I don’t mean grab a sign and stand on the interstate. This is a writing career, not voiceover work. Bizarre stunts like billboards and Mardi Gras float cars just scream that you’re a loser and need to be hospitalized. That is not what you want.

Get yourself noticed by entering and winning contests, be the pride of your college’s writing program, write a play or short film or YouTube video that attracts positive attention.

Networking and contacts are important. That’s one of the reasons it’s so much easier if you’re in Los Angeles. You can work out in the same gym as an agent. He's the guy on the Stairmaster texting.  A fellow parent at your kids’ school could be a tenpercenter (I always loved that expression). Get into any pick-up basketball game in West L.A. Chances are you’ll be slamming a WME agent into the boards before too long.

Do you know a working writer who is a big fan of your work? Ask him to recommend you to his agent. Do you have a professor who loves your work and is willing to make a few calls on your behalf?

Date Anne Hathaway.

Find out where agents went to college. Maybe you and a CAA guy both are Southwest Arkansas State A & M alums. Use that as an introduction.

Do you know anyone on the crew of a multi-camera show? See if they’ll get you on the floor during a filming night. There are always a few agents milling about. They’re the guys in nice suits hanging around the craft-services table. Texting.  Casually make their acquaintance.

Go to work in an agency mailroom.

Keep an eye out for Learning Annex, UCLA extension, and WGA classes and lectures.

Freeze your ass off at the Sundance film festival.

Date Aaron Sorkin.

Of course, connecting with an agent means nothing if you don’t have the goods. Most agencies want three writing samples – two current show specs and original material like a pilot, play, or screenplay. If you are lucky enough to have an agent consider your scripts, make sure they’re the very best work you’ve ever written. Sometimes you only get one chance.

Good luck. I know it’s hard but talented writers do find agents. You be one of them.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Naming characters on TV shows

One of the hardest tasks in any script is coming up with names. They have to sound right, fit the character’s personality and ethnicity. Every writer has a different method for coming up with them. Woody Allen uses names that are as short as possible so he has less to type. For David and I, we tend to use either baseball player names or personal friends.

On MASH we had the added problem of all the patients that rotated in and out of the 4077th. For the seventh season we just used the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers roster. When you watch those shows you’ll find private Garvey, Cey, Russell, Sutton, Rau, Rhoden, etc. By the end of the season we were down to coaches, announcers (Scully), and even the owner, O’Malley. The year before we had an episode with four Marine patients. They were the then-Angels infield (Chalk, Grich, Remy, Solita). We once wrote a movie about a Club Med being held hostage and maturely used the entire 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates roster.

We also use the names of personal friends. For the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of THE SIMPSONS the minor league announcer (voiced by me) was named Dan Hoard (pictured left), my broadcasting partner in Syracuse. The major league spieler was Dave Glass, my partner in Tidewater (former San Francisco Giant announcer and now mayor of Petaluma.) The Capital City owner who fires Homer was “Dave Rosenfield”, my GM at Tidewater.

In the “Point of View” episode of MASH, the central patient is named “Bobby Rich”. Bobby is a radio personality who hired me in San Diego and is now in Tucson (pictured right). General “Dean Goss” is another former radio chum. For many years he was a morning man at KFRC in San Francisco. The blind patient Hawkeye befriended in “Out of Sight/Out of Mind” was “Tom Straw”, a friend from high school who became a TV writer himself (NIGHT COURT, GRACE UNDER FIRE, THE COSBY SHOW, CRAIG FERGUSON SHOW).

Radar’s girlfriend in “Goodbye Radar” was “Patty Haven”, my former girlfriend. In an earlier episode he was sweet on nurse “Linda Nugent”, a girl I was sweet on in high school. Radar had better luck than I did.

Maybe the happiest married couple I know is Bill & Sherry Grand. So naturally when we needed a couple on CHEERS with a marriage so bad the husband tried to end it in murder we gave them the names “Bill & Sherry Grand”.

Many other writers use this device as well. Scully from X-Files was named for Vin Scully. When Mulder left the show he was replaced by Doggett. Jerry Doggett was Vin Scully’s broadcast partner on the Dodgers.

There was a writing team, Gloria Banta and Pat Nardo who wrote for MTM in the halcyon days. When the producers moved on to TAXI two characters were named Elaine Nardo and Tony Banta. I’m sure there are thousands of other examples. 24 has named various bad guys after network and studio executives.

One time this practice backfired on us. David and I were rewriting MANNEQUIN 2 (believe it or not, the first draft was not perfect). There was a security guard named Andy. We had to give him a last name and since we didn’t want to spend the entire afternoon coming up with one (okay…five minutes) we just used Ackerman. Andy Ackerman is a long time colleague and director (CHEERS, SEINFELD, BECKER, and every pilot that Jim Burrows doesn’t direct). Unfortunately, in later rewrites the character became even more of a complete idiot and the name Andy Ackerman stuck. Ooops. Thank God no one ever saw the movie! And we learned our lesson. Anytime we have a character now who’s going to be a goof we go right to the Clippers roster.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The background story on the "We Will Rock You" CHEERS teaser

Dan O'Shannon, now an executive producer of MODERN FAMILY, was a producer on CHEERS when the "We Will Rock You" teaser was shot.  He dropped me a note with some more details. 

When we shot it, we weren't intending to fade out during the song. Instead, the song just kind of peters out, and that's when Cliff comes bursting in singing "we will rock you", too late to join in. When we looked at it in editing, it didn't seem all that funny, so someone (Cheri or Bill Steinkellner, I think) decided to cut out early.

Thanks, Dan!

My radical new texting policy

My friend Kevin has a policy that I have recently adopted. I will not carry on a text conversation. Text messages are great for short alerts.

I’m running late. 

I’m at baggage claim. 

I’m pregnant. 

But they’re not designed to replace conversations. After a couple of quick back and forths, if you want to continue to converse with me I will CALL you. You’re obviously there. You just texted me two seconds ago.

Yes, the ability to send text messages that are received instantly is pretty amazing. Clearly, the purpose of human thumbs is to communicate. But even more amazing is that by simply pushing a few buttons you can actually TALK to the person. Imagine, carrying on a dialogue in real time. And hearing the other person’s voice. Not having to decipher what ob meant when the person hit the wrong key. Being able to express a thought longer that a tweet.

Since I adopted this policy, there have been a few times when someone has tried to engage me in a text conversation. So I would call them. And they were always startled. Completely in shock.    It’s like, “Ohmygod, did somebody die?” Has it been that long since people talked to each other that it is now awkward?

So if you want to tell me you’re on your way, the team bus leaves in ten minutes, or my hair is on fire, then by all means text me. But anything else, let’s talk by smartphone.

If this policy works I then might suggest something really insane – we actually get together and talk face to face. I know.  WTF? 2M2H.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My favorite CHEERS teaser

More of your Friday questions and my attempt at answers.

Phillip B asks:

I noticed that the opening on CHEERS was often entirely unrelated to the rest of the episode. Was it just a chance for a good joke, was it made detachable knowing it was going to get cut in syndication, or was this a chance to give a chance for an actor to more fully develop their role?

Doing a self-contained bit as a teaser was an artistic decision the Charles Brothers made at the outset of the series. Personally, I thought it was a pain in the ass. It’s so much easier to do jokes that tie into the story.

We were always scrambling for teasers. Usually the lowest ranked staff writers would be sent off to come up with them. This was the CHEERS equivalent to being assigned to KP.

The only advantage to this practice was that sometimes we would film a show and it would end up too long.  We could lift a goofy bar discussion and use it some later week as the teaser.  

What is your favorite teaser? This is mine. Director Jim Burrows deserved an Emmy just for this.

From Michael:

If MASH had never existed and AfterMASH was pitched as an original series, do you think it would have gotten on the air?

A period comedy set in a Veteran’s Hospital with no real star, and a patient population made up exclusively of elderly men? Not a chance in hell. Chuck Lorre couldn’t sell that series.

People always wonder why I wrote for AfterMASH. Because it was a chance to work with Larry Gelbart. I established a life-long friendship, and got to learn at the feet of the absolute master. Tell me you wouldn’t jump at that chance, too.

Michael in Singapore has a question in several parts:

Why are the Golden Globes held in such high esteem in Hollywood when everyone knows what a crock they are? Who IS the "foreign press" (movie critics from Belgium and Lithuania?), and why are their accolades so much more important in Hollywood than awards given by the LOCAL or AMERICAN press? The Golden Globes, by all accounts, should be insignificant. How did it become the second-most important award next to the Oscars? Why does anybody care?

First of all, they’re not held in high esteem. But the Foreign Press did something very smart. They didn’t just stage an awards ceremony, they put together a giant bash. It’s a really fun night. Lots of good food, LOTS of booze, and by the time the ceremony starts, everyone is pretty looped.

So to paraphrase the famous line in FIELD OF DREAMS, “If you throw it, they will come”.

And because a lot of feature and television stars attend, they’re able to televise it nationally. And that exposure is what gives the Golden Globes whatever stature it may have. Remember during the Writers Strike when actors refused to cross the picket lines at the Golden Globes? The show was canceled. No one cared who won.

The common industry belief is that the Foreign Press can be bought, so the awards have a certain lack of credibility.

Feature studios hope winning Golden Globes builds momentum for the Oscars. This is award season. The Golden Globes, WGA, DGA, PGA, various critics associations, SAG. But don’t kid yourself. The only one that really counts to Hollywood is the Academy Awards.

The Foreign Press is an organization that does have members who are freelance and part-time, and many do have other jobs. People joke that they’re waiters but in some cases they really are.

What’s your question? And favorite CHEERS teaser?

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Reader Travis Puterbaugh wrote: "Ken, how about a column on "Episodes," the new Showtime series. Have you seen it yet?"

I feel bad reviewing a show that’s on SHOWTIME since not all of my readers can watch it. But I see that you can go on line to Hulu and places like that and screen episodes, so what the hell?

I have seen EPISODES, and I enjoy it. I do have some issues but first the good stuff. Kathleen Rose Perkins, as the network VP of Comedy is so pitch-perfect dead-on that it makes me cringe and roar with laughter every time she opens her mouth. Creators David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik know of whom they write.  Ms. Perkins portrayal is nothing short of inspired character assassination.

Her assistant, played by Daisy Haggard, also kills me. She’s a network executive in comedy development with zero sense of humor and less-than-zero personality. You may watch it and think, “Well, then how does a person like that get that job?” And the answer is, “I’ve been wondering the same thing for twenty years!” (In fairness, not all network comedy execs are blank like that, but in any given meeting there always seems to be one.)

The other revelation is Matt LeBlanc. He’s smart! Who knew? He plays a (hopefully) distorted version of himself -- the self-centered asshole star. But what I really like is (a) the real-life Matt is a good sport for allowing himself to be portrayed like that, and (b) he knows to play the character equal parts monster and equal parts charming. That’s what elevates him from a villain to what America really loves to see -- a true psychopath.

The premise is loosely based on Steven Moffat and his wife Sue Vertue, who created COUPLING for the BBC. (COUPLING is my favorite sitcom from the last ten years.) It was a big hit in England and NBC talked them into overseeing a U.S. version. NBC, and by that I mean Jeff Zucker, then proceeded to change and ruin every single aspect of the show. Similarly, in EPISODES, a British couple with a hit series are seduced into making an American version, and they too are thwarted at every turn.

My only problem is this (and I had the same problem with the movie TV SET): At some point, the showrunners (in this case, the British couple) are going to say no. When the network won’t approve the British star of their series (HISTORY BOY’S extraordinary Richard Griffiths) and instead force Matt LeBlanc upon them, it’s very very funny, but the truth is the showrunners would say, “Fuck no! We’re going back to London. Kiss our ass!” And when Matt LeBlanc wants to change the character from a boarding school teacher to a hockey coach, I laughed, but again, the showrunners would say, “We’re so outta here.  Cheeri-fucking-oh!”. It just makes me uncomfortable to see showrunners portrayed with absolutely no spine. Because here’s the dirty little secret: You might as well fight and do the show your way because even if you do all of their suggestions, and even if you surrender to them at every turn, if the show doesn’t work YOU still get blamed.

So that’s my issue, and I know it’s a personal one. I understand that you need to exaggerate, you’re doing satire, and you have to take some creative license. But that’s why I’m so in love with Kathleen Rose Perkins. As outrageous and horrifying as her character is – it’s not an exaggeration. She’s real!

EPISODES is worth watching. It's a fun send-up of television.   You'll laugh till you hang yourself. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Warning: This is another one of my rants

Last week I went to a restaurant I’ve been going to for years. Some great entrees and it’s a block from Cedars-Sinai hospital so if I have any kind of attack during dinner I’m covered.

There are three or four dishes I always like and their soups are m-m-m good (which is the official standard for soup). I hadn’t been there in a few months but when I picked up the menu I was shocked. They had completely changed it. Now there were a million appetizers and only four main courses. And none of my favorites made the cut. What the fuck? I asked the waiter what soups they had and he said, “Not sure we still have soup. Let me check.” (They did, much to his surprise)

I guess this is a new trend. Skew towards tapas items, “small bites”, or whatever cute name they have for charging you $9.95 for a crab cake the size of your eye.

So today’s topic: Things that change for the worse, or, as I like to call it -- “the New Coke Phenomenon”.

For those unfamiliar, Coca Cola decided for some inexplicable reason to change its formula in 1985 and sales plummeted. People were so upset in the south that there was almost a second burning of Atlanta. Coke eventually went back to its original “classic” formula.

Side note:  It should be noted that the original formula was not the first version of Coca-Cola.  My grandmother used to say that Coke was the greatest drink ever when she was a kid.  Somehow they ruined it.  Uh, yeah... in that initial formula there was cocaine in it.  

Meanwhile, the Necco candy company has now ruined Chocolate Necco Wafers. They’ve made them different flavors of chocolate and they’re awful. Who are they even kidding with “flavors”? It’s chalk. Chocolate Necco Wafers never tasted like chocolate. Sweetbreads don’t taste like sweet breads. And Rocky Mountain Oysters sure don’t taste like oysters. So what? Chocolate Necco Wafers tasted good. Now they don’t. Were Chocolate Necco Wafer sales down so alarmingly that the stockholders demanded a change or heads would’ve roll?

When you think of industries that have changed for the worse, you have to put airlines at the top of the everyone's list. At least when restaurants change their menu it’s with the hope of attracting new and more customers. But the airlines don’t give a shit. If they could get away with just strapping you to the wings and filling the cabin with more cargo they would.

XM radio used to be much better. The minute Sirius merged with them the cost cutting began. Less live talent, less musical variety, and more syndicated fare. There used to be a baseball-only talk channel. Now they just simulcast MLB-TV in the late afternoons and evenings. So this is a highlight they might now feature: “Whoa, will you look at that? Can you believe it?” And I’m paying good money for this?

Speaking of baseball, what was wrong with stadium organs? Going to a big league game used to be a night of Americana. Today it’s like stepping into TRON. Kudos to those few clubs that still have stadium organs. Is the ballpark experience really better with Snoop Dog?

And closer to home, Blogger “improved” their format and now it’s impossible for me to upload pictures if I’m in Firefox. And every time Facebook changes something I worry that all my private settings are being viewed and mocked by Mark Zuckerberg, Sean Parker, and the rest of the drunk nerds at Mark’s rented party house in Palo Alto.

Has anyone used “Advanced” Cascade on their dishes? “Advanced” means crusty film on your dishes. Nabisco Ginger Snaps are now awful. With all the things in the world that really do need changing, why start with Ginger Snaps? And Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup used to be m-m-m-m good. Now the “new improved” version is eh-eh-eh ech!!!

These are just a few examples, the Chocolate Necco Wafers being the most disturbing. I bet you guys can name others.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Crazy pilots I have worked on

Over the years I’ve helped out on a lot of pilots – coming in a night or two to help rewrite. These are usually long nights because everybody is still trying to determine just what they have. Did things not work because of the material? Or was it the actor’s fault? And if so, does he just need a couple more days to find it, or should he be replaced? And if you replace him, replace him with who? Then of course, there are the network and studio notes. And everyone is crazy nervous because it’s a pilot and so much rides on it. Sometimes my role in these rewrites was just to talk the creator off the ledge.

But these are a few of my more memorable moments from various pilot rewrites.

On one we were working late into the night, having trouble getting the story to make sense. At one point I turned to the creator and said, “What’s the second episode of this series?” “There is no second episode of this series!” he bellowed. “They’re never going to pick up this piece of shit!” We didn’t stay too much later after that. He was right (although the finished product actually turned out pretty well).

Usually, you do get a lot of network notes, especially if the runthrough wasn’t good. My partner and I worked on one pilot by a first-time pilot writer and director for a production company that had never done a comedy. What a shock that the runthrough was an utter trainwreck. I thought, we’re going to be here till midnight just getting all of the notes. The network veep approached, shook his head, said, “Whatever you can do” and just walked away. We couldn’t do enough. It was never picked-up.

I’ve been in network and studio note sessions where literally thirty people are bombarding you with suggestions and most contradict each other. I’ve been on conference calls where ten or fifteen executives are lobbing in notes. You don’t even know who’s talking. They don't even know who's talking. 

I came back from one runthrough and the creator informed us that two of the actors were switching roles. Huh??? So we had to do the rewrite picturing how it might have sounded if the two actors were playing each other’s parts. There was another pilot being rewritten in another office in the building. I suggested we switch writing staffs.

My partner, David helped out on a pilot about and for African-Americans. The creator and the staff that night were all white. So they had someone in the room whose job it was to turn the joke pitches into Ebonics. Shockingly, this show never got ordered.

Jim Brooks' production company had a pilot. Instead of bringing on three or four writers for the rewrite, he invited fifty writers to come to the table reading and offer suggestions. He and the show’s creator would then tackle the rewrites. So it was like a comedy writing all-star convention. But of course, Jim got back fifty opinions, all different. My guess is he threw them all out.

But the goofiest was on this pilot where the director had a different way of working. Instead of the writers going down to the stage to see a runthrough, he would just come up to the office and tell us what needed to be done. We argued to the producer that this was nuts. We needed to see for ourselves. If nothing else, we were unfamiliar with the cast. We needed to get a sense of just who they were. At this point, we hadn’t even seen the set. We couldn’t even picture what the show looked like. The creator of the show had been let go (NEVER a good sign) and the producer was fairly new at this. He was torn but ultimately yielded to the director.

So the next evening we sit around the office doing nothing and finally the director comes up, says it went great, and gives us a few places where he thought we needed a joke, or could make a trim. He then went home and we set about rewriting the script by radar. When we finished we all agreed this was ridiculous. We’re sending a script to the stage that we have no faith in whatsoever.

We all had been signed up for one more rewrite night. The next day was the network runthrough. Networks like to actually see the runthroughs. Getting told it works great by the director doesn’t really work for them. So we were graciously allowed to attend too. And what we saw was an unmitigated fucking disaster. Nothing worked. All the stuff that the director said was gold was shit. Some jokes we added made no sense or sounded completely inappropriate once we heard the actor. And this was in front of the network. The producer was mortified. The network was uh, not pleased. We went back to the room, not even taking notes from the director, and did a major rewrite. Then at least one writer sat on the stage every minute for the rest of the week to make sure this hack didn’t fuck it up any further. The next day’s runthrough was leagues better (duh!). But the damage had already been done. Once a network gets real worried and loses faith in a project, it’s as good as dead. And it all could have been avoided.

Happily, these were isolated cases. Most of the pilots I worked on were well-written and run. Many made it to series. Networks are currently greenlighting pilots for the upcoming season. Best of luck to all the creators. Know what your second episode is and stay away from the window.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lots of spec pilots are selling. What does it mean?

Networks are buying a lot more spec pilots these days. A LOT more.  It used to be rare for a spec pilot to sell. My writing partner David and I sold a few down through the years, and we found it tough sledding. If the execs who didn’t make the decision were not involved in the development, they have no stake in the project and generally try to bury it. They’ll deny that of course, but behind closed doors they champion the projects they picked and nurtured, not the ones their bosses bought without even consulting them. And by the way, I don’t blame them.

Why are networks buying more and more specs this season? They’ll say it's 'cause they’re always looking for the best possible shows, no matter where they come from. But the truth?

It’s because the higher-ups look at their development slate and realize it’s shit. Specs don’t sell in August. They sell in January.

And who’s to blame for this? The development execs will claim it’s the writers. (Glenn Beck will claim it's Obama.)  Those gosh darn hacks didn’t turn in good scripts. And that excuse might have held up ten years ago. But not today. Because now networks are incredibly hands-on. It’s like being eaten to death by moths. You are not allowed to write an outline before the network approves the story area. And you are not allowed to go to first draft until the network signs off on the outline. And they rarely sign off until you’ve made all of the changes that they suggest. After the first draft you’re given more notes. By the time the script is submitted to the decision makers, it has the executives’ thumb prints, DNA, and hair all over it. All that’s left from the writer is blood splatters. So if a script is ultimately ill-conceived or poorly executed, in many cases you have to point to Obama, or at least the executives.

January is when pilots must be greenlit so they’ll be completed by mid April. And for so many specs to sell clearly indicates that the networks are panicked. It's crunch time.  (A moment here to congratulate those writers who sold these specs. Isn't it fun to beat the system?)

So let’s examine that traditional development system: If networks are paying for projects and paying for people to develop them, only to throw out said projects then isn't there perhaps, just maybe, something wrong with that business model? The networks then have to go out and spend more money to buy spec material.

In other words, the preferred scripts are the ones that did not have to be approved at every step. They’re the scripts where the writers were free to follow their vision. 

Networks can’t base their development slate strictly on spec material alone. It’s way too risky. They can’t just sit back and hope great scripts will just walk through the front door. They have to develop their own product. They have to have some control of the direction and type of shows they want to program in the future. I understand that. They want to be in business with certain writers and certain production companies and I understand that, too.

But if the resulting scripts are so disappointing that the networks have to scramble at the eleventh hour, then it seems to me the networks might want to get better development executives. And perhaps interfere less in the creative process.

Networks have always defended their business model. And a few years ago when Derr Zucker tried to do away with it to save money, the net result was that NBC had no new hits at all and nothing to take their place. It’s not the system. It’s the employees in the system. Hire better, smarter, more trusting development executives.

Think of it as “Spec People”.

Hey, seriously, what do you have to lose?

Tomorrow: to continue this theme, I'll share some crazy pilots I've worked on.  It's not just the execs.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The five mysteries of CHEERS

What did Vera Peterson look like?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so for Norm I think her looks changed depending on the number of beers. I know that’s kind of a coy answer so I’ll just say if you’ve seen Maris Crane, she’s her twin but not as thin. People wonder if Norm really did love Vera. The answer is yes. You tell me a wife who’d let her husband spend his life in a bar. In one of the Bar Wars episodes I remember my partner and I had a joke where you went to Gary’s Olde Towne Tavern and off stage you hear “Afternoon everybody!” and everyone yells out “Vera!” but it got cut.

What exactly was Rebecca’s job?

Once Sam got the bar back he kept her on as a manager. Her chief job responsibility: sleep with Sam at some point. On numerous occasions when we were having a tough time coming up with a Rebecca line someone would say, “Wouldn’t Sam need another bartender more than a manager? Let him fire her and we won’t have to come up with this joke.” In truth, she did the accounting and ordered the liquor freeing Sam up to cut thousands of lemons an hour.

Why did Cliff wear white socks with everything?

It was a fashion statement. Not a good one but a statement nonetheless. Honestly, his fellow bar mates were just thrilled he changed them everyday.

When did Frasier have any time to see patients?

Usually in the morning before the bar opened. It’s the college courses he also taught that required a lot of juggling. But he wouldn’t be the first tenured professor who couldn’t stand up.

When did CHEERS close?

The standard 2 a.m. That gave Cliff a good two hours sleep before reporting to the post office. And Carla usually put her kids to bed at 2:30 a.m. so that schedule worked out perfectly.

I hope this solves the mysteries and I have fooled you into thinking I actually do know the answers to these questions.

There were some other CHEERS mysteries that I discussed a few years ago in this post.

Hopefully though, we made the show entertaining and funny enough that these inconsistencies didn’t bother you until the advent of the internet.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Another comedy test: Do you find this funny?

Haven't done one of these in a while, but I always find your responses fascinating. This is a scene from the 1972 Woody Allen movie, PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM. This killed me when I saw it in the theater. Woody is expecting a blind date and is just a tad nervous. What follows is some inspired slapstick. At least I thought so. What do you think?

By the way, the blind date, "Sharon", is played by Jennifer Salt. She's been in many movies and TV series and even once appeared on a show with me. It was an episode of THE MARSHALL CHRONICLES in the late '80s. My partner, David and I wrote the episode and performed small parts in it. I found her very easy to work with as an actor. Aw, who am I kidding? I had three lines (but one I had to deliver while walking).

Jennifer later went on to become a wonderful writer. Among her credits: 19 episodes of NIP/TUCK and the recent Julia Roberts movie, EAT, PRAY, LOVE.

I know it's always tough when scenes are taken out of context but hopefully you'll get the idea.  Does this stand the test of time or not?   Thanks for playing. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday questions

It’s Friday question day. Thanks to everyone who participated in the teleseminar last night. It was fun and you guys had some great questions. If you have any blog questions just leave them in the comments section. Don’t ask why I’m charging for the mp3 of the seminar. It’s because I want to exploit you all and get filthy RICH!!!

Sarah starts us off:

I am almost through re-watching Wings, a show I loved growing up and was surprised at how much I still enjoyed it today. The whole cast is great, but one who really stands out to me is Crystal Bernard as Helen. She holds up against the heavy hitters (Tony Shalhoub, Thomas Haden Church, Steven Weber), and I was really surprised at just how funny that little woman is.

So my question is, who are some actors who have surprised you? (either people you've worked with or not?) People who you watched and thought "Man I had no idea that person would be so funny/talented/able to leap tall buildings/etc?

Nancy Travis for one. I always liked her work, thought she was very solid when I saw her in movies. She was suggested for the lead in ALMOST PERFECT but she was at a career stage where we couldn’t have her read. If we wanted her we had to make a firm offer.

We met her, she seemed absolutely delightful, so we took a flier and offered her the role. A few weeks later we had assembled a few candidates for her love interest so we asked if she’d come in and read with the guys so we could see if there was any chemistry. She was happy to since she herself was not auditioning.

And we were blown away. She was fantastic. Funny, real, adorable. She was so good that the actors she played against (some fairly big names) couldn’t hold a candle to her. We knew we had lightening in a bottle.

Lisa Edelstein is another. We hired her on ALMOST PERFECT for a small part primarily because she had the right look. She hit her lines right out of the park. We brought her back, kept giving her more to do, and eventually she became a semi-regular. By the way, as good as she is on HOUSE, I still think she’s being wasted not being in a comedy. She is an exceptional comedienne.

In similar fashion, on CHEERS, Lilith was just supposed to be a one-time character in a teaser. But Bebe Neuwirth scored so big that we had to bring her back.

And two examples of non-actors who proved to be terrifically funny. Both on CHEERS. Alex Trebek and former Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. We wrote an additional scene for Alex and an additional show for Kevin.

Next is Erika:

Have you ever written an episode for a show and then really disagreed with how a director executed it? As a writer, how do you handle these differences on set? Since you've been on both sides as a writer and a director, I'm curious what you do in those situations.

If you’re the showrunner you have him change it to your satisfaction. There have been times when I’ve had to re-block whole scenes. In TV the showrunner is king.  It's a beautiful thing.

If you’re just a writer on staff, the best you can do is express your concerns to the showrunner and hope he passes along your notes.

If you’re a freelance writer you can speak up to the showrunner if he seems receptive. Otherwise, you just have to live with it (or die with it).

Sometimes when I’m directing, if there’s something I don’t really understand I will seek out the writer and ask him what he had in mind. On filming nights, after each scene I will always ask the showrunner if he's happy and ready to move on.  And I'll ask the writer if he too was happy. 

I’m not going to say any names but there have been times when I thought the director killed our script. Billy Wilder, who was both a writer and director was once asked whether a director should be able to write. And he said, “No. He should be able to READ.”

Bob Summers must’ve been hungry when he came up with this question:

What is the food service like on the shows? I know they have craft tables, but what do they put out on them? What were some of the must haves and must avoids on the menu?

Depends on the show and the budget. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND’s craft services table was like a Ritz-Carlton buffet. Other shows have peanut butter, Wonder Bread, and a few bagels.

The good ones keep restocking. Breakfast bagel/donut/fruit/cereal fare in the morning, hot lunch entrees then snacks, vegetables, and mostly crap. But it’s the crap that always goes first.

Sometimes the actors will request something specific and as long as it's not ridiculous (endangered species or Spam) the craft-services guy will try to accommodate.  Casts live in mortal fear that their star decides to change his diet and "go healthy".  Suddenly, all the good stuff is gone, replaced by rice cakes and celery.  

I worked on a show where the craft-services guy was just out of rehab. He was terrible and the craft-services table generally consisted of a box of Grape Nuts and four bagels. We suspected he was using some of the budget for drugs, but he was just out of rehab and we thought if we fire him, he might go into a real tailspin. We didn’t want to be responsible for that so we suffered through it.

The guy at JUST SHOOT ME was incredible. Custom omelets every morning. Four-star lunches. How everyone on that cast didn’t wind up 300 pounds by the end of the run I’ll never know.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The debut of American Idol: Season 10

Losing Simon Cowell from American Idol was like losing Alan Alda from MASH.

AfterIDOL premiered last night on Fox. Randy Jackson is the only holdover from the original series. Reminds me of the final episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show where everyone was fired but Ted. So now you have Randy and the two new judges – Jennifer Lopez and Carly Simon.

Jennifer looked great. The years have not been kind to Carly.

AfterIDOL began the way its predecessor, American Idol, did – with open auditions. 10,000 delusional lost souls willing to travel thousands of miles and camp out for two nights just to be one of the select few humiliated on national television. At least before you had Simon to provide a voice of reason and sanity. Now you have a vacuous former movie star/former recording star and a walking cautionary tale to not do drugs/alcohol/glue/mushrooms/tobacco/cannabis/electric bananas/sleep deprivation for five weeks in a row.

Between the three there wasn’t one insightful comment. A worldwide search for new judges and these are who they chose??? I fear AfterIDOL will struggle in the ratings this year.

As opposed to the original American Idol, AfterIDOL apparently is a singing competition of 16-year-olds. I bet they all had Algebra 2 homework due. It was basically just the usual freak show but with braces. Insane girls, buffoons trying to dance, caterwaulers, pathetic grovelers, and foreigners who can hardly speak English were all served up for our ghoulish entertainment. They even had one poor guy who looked borderline Elephant Man, and he too was played for laughs.

But there were also tears; at least a desperate attempt to elicit them. AfterIDOL featured the obligatory cancer survivor story, homeless family story, and war refugee story. And lots and lots of crying. It didn’t matter whether people failed, succeeded, went to the vending machine for a Kit Kat – everyone wailed. The only home viewers I can see being moved by any of this schmaltz are the ones that cry over Olive Garden commercials.

There were some good singers. A few. We didn’t see many. Instead AfterIDOL introduced us to a guy who burped. There was one girl who is a singing waitress at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square. This is a very cool ‘50s-themed diner where all the waiters and waitresses take turns singing “Suddenly Seymour” while your order sits at the counter getting cold. She had talent as did the 16-year-old who videotapes everything she does and probably thinks she’s a cast member on Good Luck, Charlie on the Disney Channel.

American Idol used to be a rousing show. It was refreshing seeing young people try to realize their dreams. It was novel hearing a judge so completely candid. And it was….it was new. I’m not sure how often I’m going to review AfterIDOL. It’s no fun to sit through something that’s bad and repetitive. I hope it gets better. I know it’s not fair to write off a show based on one episode. I’ll check back in occasionally. But sequels are tough. Carly Simon deserves better.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm returning to the Seattle Mariners broadcast booth...

... as part of a rotation of former M's announcers trying to fill the unfill-able void left when Dave Niehaus passed away last November.  But I'm thrilled to be returning to Seattle.   I've always loved the city, team, organization, and (now) the ballpark.   I'll  primarily be working on the radio, doing the play-by-play with Rick Rizz.   Expect a lot of Dave Niehaus anecdotes and remembrances. 

I don't know yet how this will impact my doing Dodger Talk.  Hopefully, everything will all work out.  I imagine this summer I'll hold the record for the most TSA pat downs.

Thanks for all your support.   Thanks to the M's for having me back. 

Go Mariners and Dodgers! 

The Best of American Idol

AMERICAN IDOL is back.  I'm dealing with a little medical issue the next couple of days so might not get around to reviewing the first week for a few days.  Don't worry.  I'm fine.

Update:  Seriously.  I am.  Didn't mean to alarm anybody.  Thanks to all for your well wishes.  But I'm good to go.   And judging by what I've seen, I am in waaaay better health than Steven Tyler.

But because of this, today's post might be a little bit of a cheat.  I've been reviewing AMERICAN IDOL for years, although last year I lost interest.  But to get you in the mood for another season of bad Elton John covers, and for the many new readers who have hopped aboard, here are some of my "Best of" AMERICAN IDOL reviews.

AMERICAN IDOL goes country.

AMERICAN IDOL plays the big charity card.

Mariah Carey night.

The Night I was on AMERICAN IDOL. 

Hot chicks on Nyquil 

Disco night.

God knows what the show is going to be like this season.  New judges, some format modifications, and if those don't work -- look for Bristol Palin to wind up in the top 3.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One of those real "Hollywood" stories

The great thing about Hollywood is that everybody has these them. If you’ve been in the business eleven minutes you have a story. Here’s one of my early ones.

My writing partner, David and I had just completed our first sold script – THE JEFFERSONS. We had new agents who were trying to get us meetings on other shows. In those days you were a freelance writer until, with luck, you graduated to a staff position. But you could make a living being a staff writer. Okay, well… not a great one. Assignments were combined with drawing unemployment. Our agents wisely recommended we register at the Hollywood branch because they were used to entertainment people. They understood the business. They weren’t going to say to someone, “Well, did you TRY to get a parade hosting job this week?” The cool thing about the Hollywood unemployment office was that every two weeks when you went in for your check, you stood in line with some of Hollywood’s great character actors and comics.  It was like a second banana convention.

But all the while our agents were submitting our material and hoping producers would invite us in to pitch story ideas for their series. We were sort of fortunate. Fortunate in the sense that we got a bunch of meetings and pitched a lot of shows; not fortunate in that we didn’t get a lot of these assignments.

These meetings were usually the same. We’d go to the studio, meet the producer or story editor in his office, and if it was a show already on the air, we’d have six or eight story ideas ready to pitch. If it was a new show that hadn’t yet debuted, they’d tell us about it and usually park us in a room to watch the pilot and one or two episodes. We’d then come back with story ideas.

So we get a call one morning in August from our agents that there’s this new show set to premiere in the fall and they want to meet with us. We were thrilled. At that point in our career we were thrilled with anything – even a show we had never heard of. The producer wants to meet with us. Right away that’s a good sign. Usually, lower level staff members like story editors handled the grunt work of listening to freelance pitches. Rarely did the producer himself want to meet with us.

We did not know this producer but recognized the name. In those days we studied every show and could tell you the writing staff of every series. We knew which freelancers got what assignments. We were the Bill James of sitcoms.

Our agents said he wants us to meet him at 8:30 AM. Okay. A little weird but probably that means a breakfast meeting. So where do we meet him? The studio? A restaurant? No. His house. Ohhh-kay.

He lived up in Bel Air on Blue Jay Way. Finding it was a bitch. There were no GPS systems then and we were fumbling around with the Thomas Guide. Finally, we found it, way up in the hills.

We ring the bell and a butler answers. He’s in a white dinner jacket, wearing gloves. What the fuck? He escorts us into the living room. Do we want a drink? At 8:30 in the morning? No. He gives us that “suit yourself” nod and moves on.

We sit for ten uncomfortable minutes wondering “now what?”, and the doorbell rings again. The butler ushers in another writer. This guy is probably 70. We had never heard of him, and again, we knew who wrote the fifth episode of MR. PEEPERS. He too was offered a drink. He requested a scotch.

Five more uncomfortable minutes chatting with this old guy, and then the doorbell rings again. This time it was a writer, who again to my knowledge had no credits, but him we recognized. He hosted a humiliating show on the public access channel. We would watch this idiot and just howl. I don’t even remember what his topic was but among the colorful public access crazies he ranked right up there with “Karen’s Restaurant Review”. He ordered a martini.

Eventually the producer made his grand entrance. Mid-50s, trim, wearing a blue velor shirt and black dicky. Imagine a cross between Steven Bocho and Mr. Spock. He shared a few introductory words. He had read and considered many writers but we were the three that really impressed him. Great. Us, a guy who’s a hundred, and a clown.

He invited us to watch the pilot and come back with story ideas.  He said nothing else about the series.  Nothing about what they were looking for, what their timetable was, nothing. Then he turned on the TV, hit play, left the room, and was never seen again.

The pilot was awful. Truly terrible. Public access guy is spilling the martini on himself he’s laughing so hard. I so regretted not ordering a drink. 

The pilot ends. And now… nothing? No producer, no butler.  So we just found our way to the front door and left.

Our agent called later in the day and said the producer really liked us. Based on what? We never spoke to him.

Anyway, we came up with a bunch of ideas (which was like pulling teeth) and before we could go in to pitch them, the network canceled the show. Even before a single episode aired. Now that they had seen episode two and three they realized, “We can’t air this. EVER.”

We never heard from that producer or any of those other writers again. The butler probably went on to have a robust career.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My take on the Golden Globes

Some fleeting thoughts on last night’s Golden Globes. Not a full recap. I save those for real award shows. But here are just some random observations.

All you need to know about the Golden Globes is that Angelina Jolie got nominated for THE TOURIST. She gave maybe the worst, stiffest performance since Wilson the volleyball in CASTAWAY.

Judging by his most gracious speech, I think the only person who thinks less of the Golden Globes than me is Robert De Niro. I can’t imagine the Foreign Press being touched that their honoree called them waiters and proposed they be deported.

But where else are you going to see Steven Spielberg and Ryan Seacrest viewed as peers in the same audience?

Ricky Gervais is always funny although I bet middle-America just hates him. It’s so clear he’s playing to the room not the television audience. But so what? Introducing Bruce Willis as Ashton Kutcher’s dad was the line of the year.

When Colin Firth gave his acceptance speech for THE KING’S SPEECH, didn’t you wish he stuttered?

Is it me, or has Helena Bonham Carter become creepy weird since marrying Tim Burton? On film she’s gorgeous, at public appearances she looks like Bif Naked.

I was thrilled for Katey Sagal. Considering her table was practically in the parking lot, she was clearly an upset winner. If you haven’t seen Katey in SONS OF ANARCHY, treat yourself. She’s the biker chick you don’t have to be in prison to love.

I don’t care how good an actor he is, NEVER give Al Pacino another award. You’d think after 127 wins the guy would know how to give a speech. Instead, it’s that crazy homeless guy outside the 7-11 who rambles incoherently.

Claire Danes was stunning. She wore a lovely simple sleek gown. As opposed to Olivia Wilde who looked like she was wearing a velvet haystack.

How can the Golden Globes expect anyone to take them seriously when Judy Dench and Piper Perabo are both nominated in the same acting category? Oh, and January Jones.

Remember Pia Zadora once won a Golden Globe. And when Sir Laurence Olivier won, the trophy broke in his hands as he was giving his acceptance speech.

The one thrilling moment: the standing ovation for Michael Douglas. Actors go on and on about their courageous “journeys”; this guy has been on a journey.

Every time they cut to a reaction shot during a TV award you saw six movie people in the background who could not be more bored.

January Jones remains the most beautiful woman on the planet who has no idea how to dress herself.

What a touching and elegant presentation speech by Robert Downey Jr. for the Best Supporting Actress category. Talking about how he needs to fuck them all. Class-yyyy.

Did Lea Michele’s cat die? I can’t believe she was really crying every five seconds over the friggin’ Golden Globes. I mean, welling up when Justin Bieber was introduced?

By the way, Justin Bieber was the only presenter who was shorter than the statue.

I guess Dennis Quaid had gotten over Meg Ryan dumping him. That was some Jessica Rabbitt hanging on his arm.

MAD MEN lost even though it was better this season than two in which they won.

Laura Linney is an amazing talent, but remember when the Best Actress in a Comedy had to be funny? You’d think Tina Fey would have a pretty good shot considering her competition was a cancer victim, a schizophrenic, a pop singer, and a disgruntled nurse. Tina, next year go for Best Actress in a Drama. You’ll probably win.

Was BOARDWALK EMPIRE really that good or is the Foreign Press just Martin Scorsese’s bitch?

Notice that Jim Parsons forgot to thank Chuck Lorre?

I’m sure if Aaron Sorkin had more time he would have thanked me. That would have been some moment – me, sitting stunned in front of my TV, Lea Michele crying uncontrollably.

Shows on host network NBC won exactly no Golden Globes.

Happy that SOCIAL NETWORK won. But if I were a waiter fearing deportation I would have voted for THE GOOD WIFE and MODERN FAMILY in the TV categories.

Bring on the Oscars. Or the TV Land awards. Anything.

On another note: There are still a few remaining spots open for my free teleseminar on Thursday night. Here's where you go for information or sign-up.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This is why you need to follow me on Twitter

Thank God for Twitter! Without that invaluable service I could never share with friends the really important moment-to-moment details of my life. In case you’re not following me I’ve reassembled the Tweets you most recently missed.

Having a colonoscopy tomorrow.

Going out for magazines.

Is it just me or does Susan Boyle look like John Madden?

Okay. Starting to take the stuff.

Ugggghhh! It tastes terrible. Mood: Irritable.

Thinking of a Staycation this year. Any suggestions where I could stay?

It’s been a half hour. When is this stuff supposed to work?

45 minutes. Still nothing.

53 minutes and counting.

An hour. What’s the deal???

Just filled out my WGA awards ballot.

HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kill me NOW!!!!!!!!!!!

Okay. I can breathe. Whew.


It’s working.

8rXX3 thinks Susan Boyle looks like… wait a minute….


How long is this supposed to last?

Oh Christ! I forgot. Today’s the day we scheduled an OPEN HOUSE here.  Awk!

Dennis Franz. That’s who 8rXX3 thinks Susan Boyle looks like.

No, you can’t see the bathroom! It’s currently occupied!  Awk!

I would trade my Emmy right now for a Tums.

Wow, there are a lot of ads in VANITY FAIR.

Bowel mood: very irritable.

Hey my legs have gone to sleep. Has that ever happened to you? Awk!

There are eight people walking through my house. I almost knocked one down during the last urge. Awk!

Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I’m in hell.


Thank you guys. Hearing your colonoscopy stories have really helped. LOL.

It’s been three hours.

And two rolls.

No offers on the house yet. :(

How stupid am I part two? Choosing to do this on the day of the TOP CHEF marathon?

Okay. I think the worst is over.


Seriously. Someone. Kill me.  OMG!  Awk!

Oh great. My real estate agent just dumped me. For some reason she feels my house doesn’t “show well”.  OMG!  Awk! :(

I’m whipped. Better get some sleep. But here’s the good news: I convinced the doctor to just give me a local. So I’m bringing my laptop and you can expect tweets during the procedure. Please check back every five minutes.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

See the faces behind the voices

A reader pointed this out. Here's a video made featuring Mark Elliott and four of the other top voice over guys. Sadly, Don LaFontaine is no longer with us. Happily, John Leader reads this blog.

What have they done to Sela Ward?

Decided to check out CSI: NEW YORK last night. Hadn’t seen it since a friend was killed on it a few years ago. I won’t watch CSI: MIAMI because David Caruso is such an utter joke. And the original CSI is just not as good without William Peterson. But if it’s on and I’m already seen this week’s HOARDERS, I will check it out. It’s amazing the budgets those police forces must have. They each contain every piece of whiz-bang equipment ever invented. Those labs must cost two billion dollars. They’ll have a giant Hubble telescope type contraption that measures tire wear based on skid marks. How often would you use that? Who approved that acquisition?

So I sat down to watch CSI: NEW YORK. I don’t know the characters but so what? They’re all interchangeable. You got the male star who once had a feature career, the female star, and a gaggle of J. Crew models who serve as the field investigators along with cute television-acceptable nerds who work in the lab. Gary Sinise is solid. He’s like Greg Kinnear but always better.

What I didn’t know was that Sela Ward is now on the show. I have to say that when she first came on the screen I let out an audible gasp. My God, who did her face work? I was horrified. Squinty eyes, skin pulled way back – whatever softness and expression she once had is gone. With her bone structure and plastic surgery she now looks like Jack Lord. I found this so sad I could no longer enjoy the program. No matter what she said she had this odd smirk on her face. She’s consoling a grieving mother and involuntarily smiling.

Sela Ward is a beautiful woman. Yes, she’s now in her mid-50s but so what? Without any help, she’d be beautiful in her 70s. So she’ll never be offered the part of Gidget? Big deal. The real beauty of Sela Ward was how real she was. She always played smart, she always played sexy, but you knew there was a real person in there. Now she’s a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills.

Maybe television won’t let actresses age gracefully. And with HD you can’t get away with soft focus anymore. Perhaps if Sela Ward didn’t dye her hair jet black and have her cheek bones lifted to above her eyes she couldn’t have gotten that role on CSI: NEW YORK. It can be an ugly heartless business. So it saddens me that talented people like Sela Ward have to sign a Faustian-like contract with the devil… known to some as Beelzebub, known to them as Botox.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Free teleseminar on TV writing

A special bonus for Friday Question Day!! Next Thursday, January 20th at 6 PM Pacific/9 PM Eastern, I will be conducting a FREE teleseminar, answering your writing questions. It will last between 60 and 90 minutes. And you can get an mp3 of it to play on your boombox. You just go here for more information and to sign-up. Again, it’s free. No obligation. No salesman will call.
If I can't think of an appropriate photo I always just use one of Natalie Wood.
Okay, on to today’s Q’s:

We start with John, who has a follow-up to last week’s discussion of warm up men:

In the role of the "keep 'em warm" guy, was there ever a time when you did that for one of the scripts you an David had written where earlier, but the audience reaction to certain jokes hadn't been what you expected. Did that make you feel like you had to try harder to get the audience in a more receptive mood for the rest of the show, or were you thinking, "These miserable SOBs have no sense of humor, and probably ought to be shipped over to sit in the 'Happy Days' studio audience, where maybe they'll think Ted McGinley is a laugh riot." Or did someone else have to do the rewarming part, because you were in one of those set conferences with the producers on why you didn't get the reaction everyone was expecting?

Well, I wasn’t doing the warm-up this one night on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for a episode that David Isaacs and I wrote that played great all week long. But on show night it died. We were stymied. Turns out, half the audience was bussed in and couldn’t speak a word of English.

We didn’t know that at the time, and neither did Jay Tarses, the producer who was also doing the warm-up. He flat out turned on them. He’d say stuff like, “Hey, your Hearse is outside waiting” and “Raise your hand if you’re awake.” The half that did speak English was pissed. 

Rarely will the showrunner do the warm-up. He has too many other things to monitor and worry about. So any show that I ran, I left that chore to someone else. I was always available for those emergencies huddles to fix a scene or a joke.

The thing you have to remember about audiences: the ultimate quality of a show does not depend on the audience. I’ve seen shows go right through roof on the stage and you look at them in editing and say "what the hell were they all laughing at?  This is awful!"  Likewise, a show that played to a flat audience may come way up on the screen.

Here’s another follow-up to last week’s post by Troy:

So how much does a warm-up guy make per taping?

Top guys in multi-camera can make as much as $4,000 a night. Disney and Nickelodeon pay around $1,500 or less.

I don’t know about talk shows, but I would guess the warm-up guys for Leno, Letterman, and Conan get top pay.

carol asks:

I tried writing a script once, just for fun, and one of the hardest things for me was to introduce the characters and history in the 'pilot' without resorting to the whole 'as you know, Bob' thing.

What kind of 'show don't tell' exposition tricks do you have up your sleeve?

First off, don’t lay out all the exposition at one time. Dole it out slowly. And in comedies, try to weave the exposition into jokes. That’s for backstory.

As for conveying just who a character is, let his behavior, attitude, and decisions do that for you. How he reacts in specific moments when you know he has options informs us as to who he is.

Exposition is the hardest part of a pilot. That’s why I suggest your pilot stories be as simple as possible. The audience has a lot to process. Usually, their first priority is to get a handle on the characters. Then they have to piece together the relationships and decide whether or not they like these fictional fun devils. If the audience is still trying to figure out just who is who then they’re not going to laugh at the jokes.

For that reason, don’t cast two actors that look very similar. And although it’s a popular trend, don’t give girl characters boys’ names. Until we know these people well, when two characters are talking about Alex, and Sam, and Mel, we’re going to think those are three guys.

There’s also a lazy way of getting out exposition and that’s by using a narrator. Or, if you really don’t give a shit, just do the pop-up video thing and use those little cartoon bubbles. Blip!  He has a crush on Sally.  Blip!  She's the stupid sister. 

And finally, from Lou H.:

If the sitcoms you've written had been on networks that didn't run commercial breaks, would this have affected the way you broke the stories into acts?

Probably not to a great degree. You still start with a problem, build to a crisis, and head to a conclusion. Without commercial interruptions though, we’d have more flexibility on when that crisis point would come. On network shows it needs to come right around the middle. On non-commercial shows it could come anywhere. And if the story is better told with two smaller crisis points (a three act format), you’d have that luxury too. Networks generally give you very strict formats to follow. And they can be stifling, but then I see a show like THE GOOD WIFE and it follows all of the network conventions, and has solid act breaks that fall right where they need to be, and still they’re turning out the best written show on television.

What’s your question? Who knows? It might be one I answer next Thursday night in my teleseminar.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to break into voice overs without holding up a sign

With all this hoopla about homeless Obama impersonator, Ted Williams going from a street corner to a voice over career, let me tell you the story of how another VO artist broke into the biz.

Mark Elliott. You may not know the name but you sure as hell have heard the golden voice. He’s done thousands of trailers, God knows how many promos for CBS, and for many years was the exclusive voice of Disney. (He probably had to say “experience the magic” 7,000,000 times.)

In the mid ‘70s Mark was a disc jockey – a very successful one mind you – on top rated LA station, KHJ. But how many times can play “The Night Chicago Died” without wanting to kill yourself? Mark thought voice over work was the way out.

He started taking classes, knocking on doors. Nothing. No one was interested. And remember, this guy has pipes! If not the voice of God than the guy who fills in for Him on the weekends. At the time his girlfriend was a beautician and one of her customers was a dude who owned a company that made movie trailers. She told him about Mark and he said Mark could call him. It’s amazing how gracious people can be when someone is holding a sharp pair of scissors to their head.

Mark did phone the guy and predictably was told there was nothing for him. He already had announcers he used on a regular basis. But Mark asked if he could check back from time to time and the guy said sure.

Mark called him every single week. Finally, after a full year, the guy said he might have something for him but no promises. He had a director who had no clue what he wanted. He already went through three voice over guys who just threw up their hands and ran. If Mark wanted, he could work with this nut, but there was no guarantee his trailer would be used and if not, he wouldn’t get paid. This would all be work on spec. Hours and hours of it.  Mark said he’ll take it.

Now remember, Mark was a top disc jockey. I’m sure many other jocks in his position would be insulted. How dare they be asked to work for free? They’d be saying, “Do you know who I am, even though I don’t use my real name?” But Mark was willing to do the work.

For the next two weeks, when he got off the air, he drove to the studio and worked ten hours a day voicing a gazillion variations of this trailer. Finally, the director was happy and Mark’s trailer ran.

The movie was STAR WARS. The crazy director was George Lucas.

Almost immediately, Mark’s voice over career took off. A few weeks later he did the trailer for THE GOODBYE GIRL. More offers came pouring in. And the rest, as they say, is all profit.

I know everyone loves the Ted Williams story. I do, too. It’s that one-in-a-million fairy tale and allows us all to still believe that miracles can happen, even to us. But I prefer the story of the schmoe who worked his ass off and made it because of his passion and sacrifice. Even if it means no one will ever do a movie-of-the-week about him.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A day on the Warner Brothers lot

My partner, David and I went to Warner Brothers yesterday to help punch-up a friend’s pilot. Judging by the nine-story-high billboards, I guess they tape Conan there. We were directed to a large parking structure across the street. That’s when you know your career is in the dumper – when they don’t give you a drive-on. When you’re assigned the lot reserved for audience members of ELLEN. Forget that we weren’t in a lot with all those fancy Porsches and BMW’s. We were the only car in the whole structure that had California plates.

I felt bad for the ELLEN audience. There they were in this confusing Byzantine parking structure, SUV’s coming at them from every direction. They had no idea where they were going. Was it really worth it to see Ellen interview 12-year-old basketball prodigy Jordan McCabe?

We crossed the street along with three people in clown outfits. At least they all came in one car. We next had to go through a TSA-like security check. There was a time that Warner Brothers practically seduced us to come to work for them. Now we’re considered potential terrorists.

We had to show our ID, and the guard (a very nice woman, by the way), compared my driver’s license photo to my actual face. I thought to myself, what happens when the clowns go through?

Once on the lot, we soaked up the Hollywood vibes. Every soundstage has a plaque listing what productions were filmed on that stage. So on one you might see CASABLANCA, THE JAZZ SINGER, $#’! MY DAD SAYS.

The first time David and I were ever on the Warners lot, we were like an hour early for a meeting. We were just starting out in the business. I think we had sold one script. And we were still given a drive-on. But I digress. We killed the hour by just walking around the lot. Standing by one stage door, in full costume, was John Wayne smoking a cigarette. He was making his last movie, THE SHOOTIST. He spotted us and said, “How’s it going, boys?” We were completely tongue-tied. “Uh…gr-gr-great, Duke”. We moved on and thought to ourselves, “Wow, we have ARRIVED!”

Today I think I saw that Asian guy from THE MENTALIST who talks like Jack Webb. But I can’t be sure. He could have also just been another maintenance guy on his way to hanging the seventh giant Conan poster.

We found our building, a charming older structure with a tile roof, and headed upstairs to the conference room to work. I always wonder -- what classic shows down through the years have been rewritten in this very room? Was 77 SUNSET STRIP created here? Or MURPHY BROWN? Or THE OBLONGS?

I have to say, there are few things as much fun as sitting around a room with incredibly funny people. So many laughs. I just feel bad that none of them got into the script.

Styrofoam lunch from the fabulous Warner Brothers commissary is a must. I was feeling nostalgic so I picked the entrĂ©e that traveled the worst – their world famous “homemade” chicken pot pie.

I knew it would come back cold, but I had no idea the presentation would be so, uh… unique. The goopy contents of the chicken pie were in the main compartment and a biscuit sat in one of the others. This was a homemade chicken pot pie? Where was the pot and the pie part? Good luck to the guys from THE BIG BANG THEORY who get to order here every day.

After five hours of everyone sharing their latest brain aneurism and Holland Taylor stories, we finished the polish. I hope the people coming in tomorrow are better.

On the way out I passed the stage where I directed EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. “God, I miss this!” I said wistfully. David reassured me that I’d direct another show. “No,” I said, “My parking space.”