Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The night I lifted a Buick

HOW DO YOU KNOW is very disappointing, especially considering it was written and directed by James L. Brooks. And I worry that younger readers only know of his work from his last two pictures – this and SPANGLISH. I will certainly concede that creatively he appears to be in a deep slump, but remember, this is a guy who has three Oscars, and probably more Emmys than I have credits. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, THE SIMPSONS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, BROADCAST NEWS – all his. He’d have to write thirty bombs just to break even.

I’ve been extremely blessed in my career to have had some great mentors. One was Jim Brooks. He really taught me that comedy comes out of character and truth. He taught me to dig deeper, get to the heart of a moment or character. Always strive to be fresh, unexpected, meaningful.

When I think of Jim’s influence I think of this one story.

I did punch-up one night a week on a show for Jim in the 80s called SIBS. Rewrite nights included Jim, Sam Simon, and Heide Perlman. Why they even needed me I do not know. But it was amazing watching Jim work. He was so fast and had so many ideas. Just a force of nature. On several occasions I saw him just pitch out entire scenes. I just sat there in awe. This can’t be done.

Around the same time I was also doing punch-up one night a week on WINGS. One night we were struggling over a scene, and suddenly I got a flash of inspiration. I stood up (which I NEVER do, and recommend you never do) and just pitched out the whole scene, jokes and everything. We went back and refined it, but I’d say 85% of the scene is exactly as I pitched it out whole cloth.

You hear stories about people who get a rush of adrenaline and can lift Buicks? That was me that night. I sat back down and thought to myself, “I was channeling Jim Brooks”. That’s the only time in my career I was ever able to do that. I've never come close before or since.

And he did it routinely. So when you think of Jim Brooks, please think HOW DID HE DO THAT not HOW DO YOU KNOW.

Here’s that scene I pitched for WINGS. Thanks to Suzanne Welke for knowing which episode it was in. Her encyclopedic knowledge of WINGS is even more impressive than the ability to pitch out a scene.


Mark B. Spiegel said...

Yeah, that's a shame about Brooks's recent work. However, "Broadcast News" is about as perfect a film as one will ever see, so all else is forgiven!

tracy wren said...

That was a hilarious scene.
I love James Brooks. He should make another movie right away. Third time lucky.

Tracy Wren

daniel in cherry hll said...

I thought you were about to admit to an auto theft.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Even though Brooks's last films weren't his best work (not counting The Simpsons Movie, which really is a group effort from Groening, Al Jean and company), sometimes I get the impression How do you Know and Spanglish wouldn't be hits, even if they were terrific films.

I often think As Good as it Gets wouldn't be nearly as successful today as it was in 1997. I don't think the audience has the patience anymore to sit through a film with that kind of slow pace and style, despite the brilliant character moments.

I could be wrong, but I think in Brooks's case, it's really a matter of recapturing the audience's attention without resorting to any form of obvious pandering (which every studio romcom is guilty of).

Phillip B said...

And let's not forget Starting Over -- way back in 1979.

I still quote lines from that film, proving to others that I am very, very old.

It is also at the top of a very short list of films where the lead character is named Phil....

Michael said...

Friday question: For the shows you did punch-ups for one night at a week, did you usually receive a some kind of consultant credit or did you go uncredited? Was the credit your choice or were there union rules that needed to be followed?

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Friday question(s):

MGM's doing a deal to bring classic TV shows to "digital frequencies on broadcast stations." (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/mgm-weigel-broadcasting-launch-tv-68192)

One of them is M*A*S*H. Does this mean you get an extra four cents in the mail? And how often do you receive royalty checks?

Mike Barer said...

Funny scene, Ken! Thank you for the lunchtime enternment.

Somersby said...

It's especially nice to see Tony Shalhoub in this clip. Such an outstanding actor. Watching him work is like sitting in on a master class on doing exactly what Ken mentioned: creating comedy out of character and truth.

cshel said...

Well I, apparently for one, loved "HOW DO YOU KNOW". I even liked "SPANGLISH". That's right - I said it!

Rory L. Aronsky said...

That's right - I said it!

Oh shit, son, it's on! ;)

(I don't know why I keep doing that.)

WV: initic - The smaller tick version of that company in "Office Space."

Mr. Hollywood said...

I've met Brooks twice ... once at a WGA function years ago at Lake Arrowhead where he spent most all of his time hitting on women there. The next was at a junket for I'LL DO ANYTHING ... which happened to have been scheduled the day of the big quake in CA in '94. It was at the old Westwood Marquis Hotel ... which had been damaged by the quake which happened that morning at 6am ... not to mention the people killed in the quake as well as the turmoil the city was in ... my memory was Brooks in the lobby angered by the fact that the studio was canceling the junket and he wanted to know why!
It was far from a "funny" scene ...

chuckcd said...

Reminds me of what a great cast you had on Wings. And somw incredible writing too!

Lou H. said...

Friday question:

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?

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to Crystal Bernard?

Anonymous said...

I also liked HOW DO YOU KNOW. The bit with the Play-Doh was sublime, and I was utterly impressed with how Witherspoon always looked like she was really listening to the other person speak (facial reactions and body language). As another commenter noted, maybe audiences just are impatient with comedies that take their time (the even better MORNING GLORY was also an apparent victim of this). Bad on general principles, worse if it keeps these kind of grown-up films from being made.

Bob Oscar Johnson said...

No real good place to put this so it'll be noticed, but here's a rare 1974 KYA San Francisco survey with Beaver Cleaver (Ken Levine) pictured (misspelled as "Beaver Cleever") - maybe Ken can reveal the story about that..KYA didn't want to get sued so they changed the last name? http://classictop40radio.blogspot.com/

MattA said...

I get the impression it might not be allowed here, but I loved Spanglish, particularly the scene where the daughter translates between her mother and Adam Sandler. And I'm no Sandler fan.

Jay said...


Did you even see the film?

How Do You Know was very, very good.

Not as good as, As Good As It Gets, nor Broadcast News, but very, very good.

I am dumbfounded that this film has not been given the praise it deserves.

Outstanding scenes written, acted, and shot.

Please help me understand your disappointment.

Lizbeth said...

I just find it mind-boggling that somebody so talented like Brooks could write a script that is just so terrible. I didn't find it to have even one "real" or authentic scene, sentiment or moment.

Yes, the lighting, costumes, and cinematography were amazing -- all
pointing to how phony it all felt. Everything was over-staged for effect, not one ounce of it felt organic. And it wasn't funny -- at all.

I think Reese looked confused the entire time...Paul Rudd is too dull to carry the film as a romantic lead, and Jack Nicholson phoned it in from a Lakers' Game. Owen Wilson was the only bright thing in the entire film.

I understand that someone like Brooks deserves respect for his past accomplishments -- but I still think he (and other writers like him) should be expected to put out exceptional material...especially if they are being paid huge salaries to do so.

I mean a studio pumped $120 Million into that stinker (and I bet that doesn't include marketing costs)...and it's not even a high concept script. What part of a pitch about a romantic baseball movie -- without ANY baseball in it -- sounded like a winner to a room full of people?

So, Hollywood is afraid to take chances on new unproved writers, but has no problem throwing money down the toilet on mediocre scripts from their best and brightest? Why isn't Brooks' writing held up to the same standards as the rookie screenwriter? He should be judged by his present output, not his past glories.

To use a lame sports metaphor, if these writers are in major slumps, they need to benched, not thrown huge sums of money.