Monday, February 28, 2011

My 2011 Oscar Review

What does it say when a man who is 94 years-old and recovering from a stroke is funnier than any Oscar host for the last fifteen years? Kirk Douglas and Melissa Leo’s f-bomb were the two highlights of the 83rd annual Academy Awards.

It was also the most suspenseful Oscarcast in fifteen years. At least at my house where the power kept going out. As for the awards themselves, there were zero surprises. The producers of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT didn’t really prepare a speech, did they?

Meanwhile, my thanks to Ruth Zommick for graciously letting me barge in and watch the show at her place. I did see most of it. The only part I missed was the award where an American won.

I thought Anne Hathaway was very winning as the co-host. She got a little too revved-up by the end (high fiving kids and almost launching them into the audience) but she was genuine, bubbly, and you didn’t have to watch the red carpet show this year because she wore everyone’s gown. As for James Franco, it turns out the only thing he can’t do is host the Oscar show. James was a little stiff. Much like the shoulders on Cate Blancett’s gown. When it comes back from the cleaners you take out the cardboard before putting on the dress, Catey.

I know they were going for a younger demographic, but a giant chorus of children from PS 22 in Staten Island? Is the target audience now 9? I did love their “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” finale. In fact, I wish they had sung the nominated songs. Florence from Florence of the Machine must’ve been slipped a roofie five minutes before going on stage. She made James Franco seem animated. And Gwyneth Paltrow? Jennifer Hudson introduced her as “Country music’s newest star”. On what planet? Doing a phony accent and giving colonics does not make you a great country singer. Let Anne Hathaway do it.

I must say, after Gwyneth Paltrow when I saw Scarlett Johansson I thought, “Please God, no. DON’T SING!” Have you heard her CD? It sounds like someone giving a cat a bath.

Before the show there’s always the red carpet show. No one covers it more stupefying than local channel KTLA 5. Your hosts: Footstool to the stars, Sam Rubin, and adding some glamour to the proceedings -- helicopter traffic reporter, Jessica Holmes. Assisting them was their “fashion expert”, Ellen K. whose impeccable credentials include sidekick to Ryan Seacrest on his radio show. Sam is always good for a couple of idiotic questions and remarks. To Russell Brand he said, “You were a big ladies man. Why does Colin Firth have every woman in love with him, even more frankly than you ever did”. Smooth. And then, at one point, a pained Sam asked fashion aficionado, Ellen K: “Is it bothersome that Nicole Kidman is so much taller than Keith Urban or does no one care about this anymore?” Give this man his own show on Fox News!

Speaking of Nicole Kidman, I wanted to ask her “Who did your face?” or even “Whose face are you wearing tonight?”

The fashion themes this year were color, chiffon, and covering up tattoos. Even Helen Mirren, Queen Elizabeth herself, hid her tramp stamp.

Loved the opening movie montage with Anne and James entering the nominated films… and BACK TO THE FUTURE (for some reason). The technology was amazing. If they can insert actors right into films why don’t they just remake every Ashton Kutcher movie with Paul Rudd?

Nice to see that Reese Witherspoon has survived HOW DO YOU KNOW and is still in show business.

Of course TOY STORY 3 won Best Animated Film. How can a Best Animated Film that is also nominated as Picture of the Year not win Best Animated Film?

Ricky Gervais must've been appalled.  The show went almost an hour before a Charlie Sheen joke. 

Helena Bonham Carter was far more conservative this year. Simple, elegant Bride of Frankenstein. Oh sure, there was the Union Jack garter belt, but who doesn’t wear one of those?

In the annual “Worst Dressed besides Helena” category I would have to say Sharon Stone. Grey beaver pelts over one shoulder is not a good look. James Franco in drag was more appealling. Although, what the hell was that pointless bit about? It’s like all of a sudden out of nowhere there’s a salute to Uncle Miltie.

Mila Kunis was an absolute vision in purple! But Jennifer Lawrence in her sleek red dress won my vote for best dressed. If she wore that in WINTER’S BONE I would have gone to see it. Same with Mila and BLACK SWAN. Aw, who’m I kidding? I still wouldn’t see BLACK SWAN.

Aaron Sorkin’s win should give hope to Reese Witherspoon. He came back from STUDIO 60. So can you! It was just one bad movie, Reese.

The guy who wrote all of the King’s speeches, David Seidler, had a lovely one himself for winning Best Original Screenplay. At 73, he’s the oldest writer to win this award. I expect his agency to take out a full-page congratulatory ad then drop him.

The INCEPTION screenplay was hurt somewhat by the fact that it was a confusing mess.

It’s odd to see a film win all the cinematography and special effects awards and not have the director be at least nominated. If just… part of the movie made sense, the first half hour, the opening credits, anything!

Imagine a double bill of INCEPTION and MATRIX 3? Heads would explode.

What was that pillow on the back of Sandra Bullock’s dress? Was she planning on having dinner at Yamata’s afterwards?

I don’t have a great feeling about Christian Bale’s marriage. Forgetting your wife’s name during your acceptance speech in front of a billion people generally is a warning sign.

It was a good year for mothers, though. Director Tom Hooper revealed that his mother found THE KING’S SPEECH project, longtime writer Dave Seidler’s mother always claimed he was “a late bloomer”, and the NYU kid who won for Best Short thanked his mom for providing the craft-services.

Michelle Williams was so pale that her white dress actually added color.

One of the great moments in Oscar history: the announcement that ABC has renewed its affiliation with the Motion Picture Academy. We cheered where I was. I'm sure you did, too.   

I was fine with Trent Reznor wearing a tuxedo, but come on, dude, cover it with chains.

Meanwhile, Randy Newman proves that perseverance does pay off. He claimed his second Oscar in twenty tries. And it just goes to show – you keep writing the same song year after year and eventually it’s going to win.

The Best Short Documentary Award should be re-titled: “Best Short Documentary about inspiring children or the ravages of war”. Do a film actually showing aliens landing on Earth, you got no shot unless it’s in Iraq or the playground of a day school in Harlem.

The Best Feature Length Documentary went to INSIDE JOB, a study of the recent economic collapse. I’m surprised they didn’t thank Bernie Madoff.

How come the winner of the Best Costume Design always looks like a schlump?

Watching Billy Crystal deliver that painfully desperate monologue was like looking at the nude photos of Nancy Sinatra in Playboy that she took when she was 54.

Donald Trump was in attendance – a grim reminder that one year you could be an Academy Award winner and the next you’re on CELEBRITY APPRENTICE manning a lemonade stand with Jose Canseco.

So President Obama thinks “As Time Goes By” is the greatest Oscar winning song. I was so hoping he'd say, “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”?

I loved seeing one of the Coen Brothers nodding off during Oprah’s speech. Good luck seeing any of their movies on the mighty OWN network.

Why can Jude Law make Robert Downey Jr. drug bust jokes but not Ricky Gervais?

Melissa Leo wore Elvis’ last suit.

Okay, I know there’s something wrong with me but I always look forward to the In Memoriam feature. Come on, you do too. When you watch with a group of people don’t you all go “Awwwwwww” after seeing one person or another? In the group I was with, everyone was also going “Jewish!” “Not Jewish!” “Jewish!” “Definitely Jewish!”

Don’t you also try to catch them omitting somebody? And try to figure out who the big last one is? This year it was appropriately Lena Horne. (Vegas took a bath. They had Blake Edwards 2:1).

I wonder though why they needed Halle Berry to come out and give a tribute to Lena Horne. They could have easily just gone from Celine Dion singing “Smile” to the film clip of Lena singing “Smile”. That said, Halle looked radiant. She may not be the most beautiful woman in the world but she certainly is the most beautiful crazy woman in the world.

If you’ve set your DVR, no matter how late into the broadcast you start, by the last half hour you’ve caught up to real time and have to suffer through the commercials.

I was so hoping graffiti artist Banksy had won for EXIT TO GIFT SHOP. Can’t you just picture it? He comes down the aisle in his gorilla mask. Six officers arrest him on stage. He gives his speech. It’s long. The play-off music begins. He continues talking. He’s tasered. “Coming up next, Anne Hathaway introduces Jennifer Hudson who introduces Gwyneth Paltrow!”

How come no Barbara Walters Special this year? I was really looking forward to her interviewing superstars Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, and Stana Katic.

The Best Actor intros were just excruciating. No one takes themselves more seriously than thespians. In those insufferable introductions I must’ve heard the following words at least five times: depth, journey, courageous, range, love for the craft, love for the art, artist, empathy, extraordinary, inspiration, gift, power, eloquence. Just remember, actors are the only people who watch James Lipton on INSIDE THE ACTORS’ ASSHOLE and don’t laugh.

If ever there was a lock it was Colin Firth. See that Reese? This is a man who was in MAMMA MIA! You can come back!

Are they now going to remake the trailer for NO STRINGS ATTACHED starring “Academy Award Winner, Natalie Portman”?

I found it interesting that for all the hype about trying to make the broadcast younger and hipper, at the end of the day, Kirk Douglas stole the show. Hathaway and Franco and Eisenberg and Adams and Cruz and Paltrow and Gyllenhaal and Gyllenhaal may be movie stars but Kirk is still fuckin’ Spartacus.

(Thanks to Annie Levine & Jon Emerson for providing some of the best lines of this review.)

See you at the movies. Unless I get screeners.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Relive your favorite snarky Oscar moments of the past

Tonight's the big night. My annual review follows tomorrow. But to get you in the mood, here are some snippets from my Oscar reviews over the last few years. Yes, I know. Mee-ow.

First things first – the red carpet shows. Several channels covered it but for sheer obsequiousness and stupidity you can’t beat Channel 5 with the publicists’ best bitch, Sam Rubin and some anorexic named Jessica Holmes. In the middle of Sam’s interview with “A Single Man” director Tom Ford he blurted out, “Oooh, there’s Kathryn Bigelow. But I’ll spend a few minutes talking to you.” Nice.

No rain unfortunately. That alone spoiled the red carpet show for me. I was so looking forward to hearing, “So who did your poncho?” “Do you think rain on Oscar night is proof there is Global Warming?” “Fashion catastrophe! Kathy Bates and Penelope Cruz have the same galoshes!”

The night was summed up perfectly by one of the idiot Red Carpet show hosts when he said, “This is what the Oscars is all about. All ages, all ethnicities, coming together to look their best.”

I was thrilled Christoph Waltz won. The last time I rooted for a Nazi was my high school production of “Sound of Music”.

Sarah Jessica Parker’s gown looked like a torah cover. And she was presenting for “Best Costume Design”.

Dumbest acceptance speech line goes to Ryan Bingham who said, “I love you more than rainbows”. He won his Oscar for lyrics, by the way.

To present the award for “Best Directing” the academy turned to the esteemed director of that motion picture classic, YENTL – Barbra Streisand. I’m sorry but unless she sings I don’t want to see her.

I’m sorry Robert Downey Jr. lost for Best Supporting Actor for his work in TROPIC THUNDER. He’d have more Oscars as an African-American than Will Smith.

As usual in Hollywood it’s all about marketing. THE READER: come for the sex, stay for the Holocaust.

Why do they have to tell us every year what Costume Designers do? Who thinks that Keira Knightley wore her own street clothes in THE DUCHESS?

My daughter Annie has a good rule. No movie over three hours should be eligible for Best Editing.

Sid Ganis, the President of the Academy, gave an impassioned speech on storytelling and the need for Hollywood to strive for excellence. Mr. Ganis is the producer of DEUCE BIGELOW: MALE GIGOLO.

Al Gore and Cher have more Oscars than Johnny Depp.

How do I describe Cameron Diaz’s dress? It’s like if you tried to gift-wrap a vacuum cleaner.

Nancy Meyers, a notorious writer-killer and credit-grubber, did a lovely piece on how writers were depicted in films.

KING KONG was a technical triumph. But maybe they should have devoted five less minutes to the effects and focused on the story. Case in point (one of MANY): this film crew goes to a remote island, discovers DINASOURS and brings back a big ape instead. Huh????

I heard “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” and didn’t know whether it was a Best Song nominee or an academy tribute to Harvey Weinstein.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Charlie Sheen shopping tell-all book

According to TMZ (so it must be right), Charlie Sheen is shopping a behind-the-scenes look at TWO AND A HALF MEN and opening the bidding at ten mil.  What are we gonna learn, that Chuck Lorre didn't laugh enough at runthroughs or that Holland Taylor chews with her mouth open?   I know... I'm just jealous because his book will sell a helluva lot more than my upcoming travel book (exciting news on that soon...see how I seamlessly worked that in there?), but Charlie, to paraphrase your explanation for why you pay hookers...

I pay you to leave. 

My first Oscar review

As per the previous post, here's the text of my first Oscar review, meant originally to be seen by like fifty people.  It has grown in length, attempts at humor, and audience over the years. 

Whoopi Goldberg was the Medusa but without M's good fashion sense.

Roberto Bergnini is the cute funny new little pet that Hollywood has adopted. First time he pees on the carpet they will kick him and throw him out. "Next!"

I was not upset that SHAKESPEARE beat RYAN. Spielberg was. He was so pissed he wouldn't talk to reporters afterwards. What a brat! For most people on the planet winning the Best Director Award would be enough to satisfy you for one night. If the objective was to win awards, Spielberg should have just filmed the first spectacular thirty minutes and released it as a live-action short. I’d have enthusiastically voted for it. But the rest of the two hours was a made up star-laden Hollywood exercise. SHAKESPEARE was a better made up star-laden Hollywood exercise.

Wonder what the Vegas odds were on the Brazilian actress winning the award. A zillion or a zillion-five to one?? Today in a Brazilian paper she is saying she was robbed, that Paltrow got it because she was young and beautiful, that it was essentially a Hollywood conspiracy. Okay. See you next year, dear.

That dance number defied description. Same ridiculous dance for all five movies. Yeah, the best way to interpret ELIZABETH is through tap dance.

As it hoofed its way along like a dentist's drill I was shouting out the movie titles they were interpreting. "SOMETHING ABOUT MARY' " BRIDE OF CHUCKY" "BASKETball". Suddenly the steps made sense.

Who's more loathsome -- Debbie Allen or Whoopi Goldberg? Wait. We need five nominees. Okay...Joan Rivers? Melissa Rivers? James Cameron (a holdover from last year).

The year CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG won best song is the year they should have
abolished that category.

Celine Dion has been spending a little too much time in the tanning salon lately. For a moment I thought I was watching Ed Ames.

I once saw Gwenyth Paltrow at the Santa Barbara Biltmore. And that BITCH literally thanked everyone but me.

Nice of Robin Williams to steal a joke from Saturday's Calendar Section. And then do a joke about Sly Stallone's oral sex instructions to groupies in his trailer. Class-eeee.

Sophia Loren is a wonder of science. She's the yin to Whoopi's yang.

Uma Thurman looked like she got tangled up in her bedsheet.

And until I'm nominated for anything I remain your bitchy correspondent,


It all started with the Oscars

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE had just beaten SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for film of the year. Steven Spielberg, who had already won Oscars for SCHINDLER’S LIST in every category except Best Animated Short was really pissed. And this was mere moments after he won another Oscar for directing SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (which was very well deserved, by the way). I thought it was a little ungracious. So I decided to write a humorous review of the ceremony, poke a bit of fun at Hollywood royalty, and email it to the hundred or so people in my address list.

The response was so positive that I did it again the following year. By then my list had grown to at least 104. I added the Emmys (talk about an easy target) and also goofy travelogues (I was getting tired of writing the same travel report ten times to ten friends).

Once I compiled enough of these travelogues I investigated getting them all published as a book. The idea was met with zero interest. But one kindly editor said, “These are very funny and if Dave Barry had written them I’d publish them tomorrow. But no one knows who the fuck you are.”

So how do I become more well-known? First thought was a publicist until I saw what they charged. Yikes! I wanted a little higher visibility; I didn’t want to be Justin Bieber so paying big money to get my name in the Long Beach Telegram a few times a year didn’t make sense. Nor did killing anybody or lying about my age and going on AMERICAN IDOL.

Then my friend Howard suggested writing a blog. (This is beginning to sound like one of those old cigarette commercials. Then my priest said, “Hey, have you tried Viceroys?”)

A blog wouldn’t cost anything save for time. Who knows? It could lead to a big book deal, major speaking engagements, or taking over for Carson Daly (if not me than ANYBODY). Well, none of those things happened but the blog has been great fun to do. And it has gained some popularity – thanks in part to my annual Oscar review.

By the way, I have compiled those travelogues and the book should be coming out within a few weeks. Get ready to fire up your Kindle.  

Anyway, tomorrow night I shall once again review the Academy Awards.  I have a lot of new readers this year (bless you all) so tomorrow I will post a few samples from past Oscar reviews.  And Monday morning the new one will be up. 

Just think, if Steven Spielberg had only clapped when SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE won none of this would have happened.

UPDATE:  A commenter asked if I could post that original Oscar review.  Sure.  I'll dig it up from four computers ago and post it early this afternoon.  So check back.  (See, I really do read the comments.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

My take on Charlie Sheen

This is the Friday question I've gotten from about fifty people over the last three hours.  What is my take on the whole Charlie Sheen/CBS debacle.  The latest development is that CBS and Warner Brothers have discontinued production on TWO AND A HALF MEN for the remainder of this season.  And who knows if it'll ever return?  My thoughts...

There’s a great movie from 1957 called FACE IN THE CROWD. It was directed by Elia Kazan and beautifully written by Budd Schulberg. In this film Andy Griffith plays a charismatic good ol’ boy who becomes an overnight sensation. As his fame and power grows he becomes more and more of a hateful monster. And finally, as the end credits are rolling on his live television show, thinking the microphone is off, he starts telling the audience what he really thinks of them – that they’re stupid sheep. This causes a huge uproar. He’s exposed for the asshole he is and his career is ruined. As a TV writer, I think it’s the feel-good ending of all-time.

I’ve always lamented that today you could never remake that movie (even with Russell Brand) because stars shit on their audience all the time now, and practice abhorrent behavior, cheat on spouses, commit crimes, make scandalous sex tapes, physically abuse people, whatever – and it never damages their career. In some cases it even improves it.

Luckiest of all was Charlie Sheen. It seemed no matter what this psychopath did, fans returned to TWO AND A HALF MEN. I’m sure O.J. thinks that his big mistake in slaughtering two people in cold blood was not starring in TWO AND A HALF MEN.

Well Charlie Sheen has now had his FACE IN THE CROWD moment. Finally! It is soooo long overdue.

He strikes his wife and gets away with it, shoots an ex-fiancĂ©, trashes hotel rooms, abuses hookers, goes on drunken tirades, violates parole, is allowed to rehab at home (what a joke that is), and pisses on anyone who attempts to help him conquer his demons, so naturally he thinks he can get away with anything. Including an ugly anti-Semitic tirade against Chuck Lorre, the man who suffered with and tolerated this ungrateful maniac for 177 episodes. I guess Charlie must’ve felt, “Hey, Mel Gibson got away with it without any repercussions, so can I?” Well, whattaya know? He was wrong. Seems drugs and alcohol do not help you think clearly after all. And before you Tea Party zealots defend this hate monger by saying he was just practicing his First Amendment right, know that he also called Thomas Jefferson a pussy.

I applaud CBS and Warner Brothers Television for pulling the plug. I feel bad for the rest of the cast and the crew, all collateral damage – just like the furniture in hotel rooms Sheen has destroyed, and I’m sure he has as much regard for them as he does for the lamps he broke.

Throughout all of Sheen’s escapades Chuck Lorre has been nothing but supportive. He has always taken the high road, only expressing concern for Sheen’s well-being. He’s been a mensch, or as I’m sure Charlie would call him – a “dirty” mensch.

TWO AND A HALF MEN is a huge franchise, a cash cow for all concerned, and a rating juggernaut for CBS. Sheen has seriously jeopardized that franchise. Excuse me, but isn’t that grounds for a little lawsuit? How many millions do you think Sheen’s recent tirade will cost CBS and Warner Brothers? If I’m an attorney I’m going after him. Charlie would be wise to get himself one of them Jew scheister lawyers.

It has always been my contention that money and power just makes you more of what you already are. Charlie Sheen is a monster, a horrible human being.  And now he's just another FACE IN THE CROWD, which is good because I can't stand looking at him.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

AMERICAN IDOL: Oh no! Is this the end of Jennifer???

How hard is it to be a writer for AMERICAN IDOL? Just lift the narration from THE SORROW AND THE PITY, begin every sentence with “Coming up…” and change “death camp” to “singing competition”. But the rest is all there – the ultimate challenges, the heartbreak, the tears, the uncertainty. C’mon, IDOL writers, they’re just singing friggin’ Beatles medleys!

This brings me back to my biggest IDOL complaint. Stop trying to artificially manufacture suspense and drama when the real money of the show is watching the PERFORMANCES. This year in particular. Every season they boast that “this is the most talented group of kids we've ever had”, but this season they might actually be right.

Despite the horrifying fact that some of the kids had never even heard of the Beatles, the snippets we saw of them performing Beatles songs were terrific. Why not hear more? Why not see all the groups (the kids were split up into duos and trios)? My feeling is if you’re going to do a show on Fox that has music, unless you cut away to Jane Lynch I want to hear SINGING. Two hours of Beatles songs would have been fabulously entertaining.

Instead, here’s what we got:

The mother in PRECIOUS as a vocal coach screaming at two scared waifs.

A committee of Phil Spector-lookalike-slimeball music producers shitting all over other groups.

One of the loon contestants marrying her doomed boyfriend and being so excited because it’s the same chapel that Brittney Spears’ got married in. (She looks like MacKenzie Phillips in AMERICAN GRAFFITI, doesn't she?)

Endless shots of people crying. The kids. The parents. J-Lo. (Although in Jennifer’s case I didn’t mind it. It was refreshing to see a judge who really cared that much. Paula used to cry but that’s because her cartoon cat wouldn’t answer her texts.)

Soooo many recaps that even the guy from MEMENTO was going, “I remember! Move on!”

Ryan interviewing various nobodies asking innocuous questions. I thought I was watching Piers Morgan.

Deliberation. Nothing’s more riveting on television than deliberation.

An interminable hour of watching kids walk the length of an airplane hanger to learn their final fate.

And drawn-out misleads that now fool no one anymore. Well, maybe Sarah Palin.

Let’s see the singing because everything else is completely bogus. We know who’s going to get into the Top 24. They’re the kids we see all the time. And these competitive rounds mean nothing because if the producers like them, like the teenage stork whose voice is so deep he can’t burp, then they can screw up the words or sing off key and it makes no difference. They get sent on anyway. Meanwhile, someone who nails it but doesn’t have the right look or personality gets kicked to the curb.

It’s a casting call. They sent through a kid who’s a complete weasel. Another who’s a pretty blond who does every vocal gymnastic but sing while drinking a glass of water. Meanwhile, as one boy walked the runway of death Seacrest said, “The road ends now for Alex Ryan from New Jersey.” Who???

And they're trying to add even more phony suspense by suggesting that Jennifer is too distraught over delivering bad news and might not be able to go on. Talk about schmuck bait!  For what she's making, she ain't leaving if they ask her to deliver bad news while roller skating. 

Part two is tonight and I guarantee the Baby Huey teenager who cries at supermarket openings and the black kid from Compton who’s got an amazing voice (which is good because I can’t see him lasting an hour in Compton) will sail through.

I’m looking forward to next week and the weeks to come. I have high hopes that we’re going to be treated to some wonderful performances (unless they have "National Anthem" week). And I must say, the new judges are starting to grow on me. Steven Tyler is amusing in that “kid who got left back in the 7th grade for five years” sort of way. And Jennifer has empathy and unlike Paula, resides on the planet earth.

However, I think the producers are missing a bet with Jennifer. Watching this last episode where the judges give the contestants their final verdicts, it suddenly became very clear to me. If Fox wants to really utilize Jennifer Lopez and get a huge spike in male viewers – lose the desk. Simon Cowell may have been acerbic, witty, and compelling, but J-Lo’s got those gams.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Handicapping the Best Picture Oscar nominees

Again this year I will be reviewing the Oscars for this blog. It’ll be up first thing Monday morning, long after people even remember that SALT was nominated for anything. To get you in the mood, here’s my thoughts on the Best Picture category.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Turning a bunch of nerds typing on computers into an engrossing and entertaining film is no easy feat. Through clever direction, excellent performances, and snappy dialogue you forget that not a lot is happening.

Oscar likes movies that are grown-up and sophisticated.

Oprah liked it.

It’s set in Harvard and Ali McGraw doesn’t die.

Aaron Sorkin guested on this blog.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – Many Academy voters are 95 and have never heard of Facebook.

The screeners weren’t in a pretty enough box.

Not a lot happens.

No Ali McGraw.

Aaron Sorkin guested on this blog.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Oscar loves movies where the lead has some handicap or affliction. It’s the RAIN MAN effect.

It’s British. Short of HELP! Oscar will nominate any movie that was made at the Pinewood Studios.

It feels “important”, but that could just be the wigs.

Helena Bonham Carter not wearing raccoon make up.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – Judi Dench is not in it.

Voters found it annoying that the main character was stuttering.

British epics must involve at least one war complete with battle scene and amputation.  (Just talking about war doesn't count.)

Most voters knew King George VI personally and he wasn’t that great a guy.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Oscar loves characters having nervous breakdowns almost as much as they like characters who are retarded.

Ballet movies never miss.

Natalie Portman is Oscar’s current darling. She can make NO STRINGS ATTACHED and still be respected.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – Lots of male voters would rather have a prostate exam than watch this angst-fest.

The 95 year-old voters will confuse it with NO STRINGS ATTACHED.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Danny Boyle has constructed a riveting brilliant movie.

It’s the only way they could get James Franco to host.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – The guys cuts his own arm off. No chance.

Even buying off the Foreign Press didn’t get it a Golden Globe.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Boxing movies always score.

Christian Bale gives the performance of the year.

Feel-good ending.

Stallone isn’t in it.

Becoming the dark horse favorite.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – If RAGING BULL didn’t win, then this thing won’t.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Startling special effects.

It’s a movie the general public has actually seen.

Clearly the best choice when watching these nominees stoned. 

WHY IT WON’T WIN – The story is a confusing mess.

Oscar has a real case of the red ass against Chris Nolan.

Made too much money.

Heath Ledger’s not in it.


WHY IT WILL WIN – It won’t. Who are we kidding?

WHY IT WON’T WIN – See "Why It Will Win".

It’s only nominated to fill out the category.


WHY IT WILL WIN – Beautifully told story with heart and imagination.

Oscar has a big man crush on Tom Hanks. Even just his voice is enough to make Big O have a little O.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – It’s a cartoon.

Other than those voters who took their great-great-grandchildren to see it, no Academy members have screened this picture.


WHY IT WILL WIN – The Coen Brothers can do no wrong, even when they do.

It’s better than the original.

Westerns are always a big favorite. From STAGECOACH to UNFORGIVEN. If you have a character in a cowboy hat riding a horse in Malibu Canyon you’ve got a nomination.

Not a lot of Jews in it like A SERIOUS MAN.

WHY IT WON’T WIN – They’ve already won a couple of times.

No one could understand a word Jeff Bridges said.

Some people are still pissed that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN won.

Not enough Jews. 

The original was better.


WHY IT WILL WIN – It’s a gripping drama with scope and noir.

A tale of survival where the heroine keeps her arm.

Oscar loves poverty.

Ree Dolly is fabulous.

Who doesn’t want to spend two hours in the Ozarks?

WHY IT WON’T WIN – Natalie Portman doesn’t star in it.

Randy Newman didn’t do the soundtrack.

It’s another film to just fill out the category. But thank God for it. Otherwise SALT might have been nominated.

What do you guys think? Who’s going to win?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More pilot writing advice

My post on pilots last week generated a lot of comments and questions. One reader astutely noted that a lot pilots, like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW have their main character get a job in the first episode. This is called a “Premise Pilot”.

There are several advantages to Premise Pilots. You have a built-in story and you need a minimum of exposition. HOT IN CLEVELAND. In the pilot we see the main characters land, discover with them that they’re considered hot commodities, understand just why they decide to stay, and get the added bonus of meeting the Betty White character when they move into a new place. Imagine how much harder it would be to just begin the series with everybody already in place then having to somehow verbalize all that backstory. “Remember when that flight we were on experienced turbulence and we had to land in Cleveland and…” Ugh!!!

Here’s the problem with Premise Pilots: the networks have gotten wise to them. A Premise Pilot will generally test better than a typical episode. Why? Take BETWITCHED for example. In the pilot Darren meets Samantha and learns she’s a witch. You get his initial reaction. He has to come to grips with what that means. We meet her mother who hates him. Darren has to decide whether to commit to Sam or just move on. Name me a bigger decision he’ll ever have to make during the course of the series. Name me a bigger surprise he’ll ever have than learning that the woman he loves can turn people into hamsters.

There’s a reason why in practically every romantic comedy we see how the two lovers meet. It’s just good storytelling.

For a few years the networks insisted on no Premise Pilots. But the creators ran into that pesky exposition problem. Eventually they went back to Premise Pilots when they realized the finished product was just that much better.

My partner, David and I encountered an even bigger writing problem. We were doing a pilot for NBC set in the world of improv comedy. Our initial idea was to have the two leads (a man and woman) meet on stage doing an improv together. They realize there’s incredible chemistry between them. So they decide to work together and we’re off and running. The moron network suit said we couldn’t open the show in the club. He said that Fred Silverman (then the president of NBC) hates shows that begin in the workplace. We had to do the first scene in her apartment.

So now we start at this apartment of a woman we don’t know. A man we don’t know enters. They have to explain the concept of what improvisational comedy is. He has to say that they had magic chemistry together, even though we haven’t seen it for ourselves. And he has to convince her to team up with him, a la Nichols & May. Holy shit! It took us forever.

We finally turned in the script and heard NBC was luke warm about it. We drove to Burbank to get notes for a second draft. This time it was Brandon Tartikoff who conducted the meeting. He was Silverman’s number two guy back then. He started by saying, “Let me ask you guys a question. Why did you start in the apartment? Wouldn’t it be better to start the show in the club and just see how everything plays out instead of just hearing about it?” We both almost kissed him.   We explained why we did it that way and he just shook his head. “Do it the right way,” he said. Other than that he really didn’t have many notes.

We thanked him profusely, went home, rewrote the first two scenes in about an hour, and turned it in a couple of days later. NBC greenlit the show. We went back to Burbank to meet with the casting department and encountered the moron. He said to us, “Boy, I don’t know what you guys did, but you really turned this thing around”. That’s the last conversation I ever had with that cretin.

But getting back to you, if you’re writing a spec pilot, is it okay to do a Premise Pilot or are you better off doing an episode where everything is already in place? If your pilot works as a stand-alone episode then great. No worries. But if you’re best served with a Premise Pilot, I say do it. Again, you’re probably not going to sell this. It’s a writing sample. So make it as easy on yourself and the reader as possible. The idea is to impress people, not get accurate test results. Your biggest problem should be that you do sell the pilot and the network wants you to write a non-premise version instead. In the meantime, do the show where your main character gets the job so you can get the job. Best of luck!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Great series of classes at the WGA

If you're an aspiring writer, or even a working writer, there is a great class presented by the WGA called Anatomy of a Script.  Hosted by Robin Schiff (Romy & Michele's High School Reunion) and Winnie Holtzman (My So Called Life, Wicked), one top writer a night is interviewed.  A specific work of theirs is discussed from inception through finished product. It's mostly about process -- how they work, how they deal with anxiety, being blocked, outlining, rewriting, notes, etc.   For those of you in Kansas City or Norway, get your ass out here!

This is a fabulous program.  I wouldn't recommend it if it wasn't.  And here's how objective I am -- they've never asked me to speak.

But it begins its fifth year Tuesday night with Debra Granik, who co-wrote and directed the incredible WINTER'S BONE (nominated for a gaggle of Oscars).

It's at the WGA on Fairfax.  Tickets are available.  It starts at 7:30 with a free screening of the movie first.  All proceeds from the series go to the Writers' Guild Foundation.

Other speakers in the series include: Glenn Gordon Caron (Medium), Wednesday, March 2; Steve Levitan (Modern Family), Wednesday, March 9; Mike Werb & Michael Colleary (Face/Off), Wednesday, March 16; Marta Kauffman & David Crane (Friends), Wednesday, March 23; and John August (Big Fish), Wednesday, March 30. 

You can get tickets for individual classes or the whole series along with additional information by clicking here

Tell 'em Ken sent ya.  You won't get anything but I'll feel important.    Thanks.

A former U.S. President is today's guest blogger

Hello. In honor of President’s Day, one of Ken’s favorite holidays, he asked me to be a guest blogger. Of course I said yes. Not like I was busy. I haven’t done anything for 125 years.

For those who don’t know me, I’m Chester A. Arthur. I was the 21st President of the United States. No, seriously. I was. Go to Wikipedia, look it up yourself.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember. You’re not alone. I’m pretty much the forgotten President. This day is always bittersweet for me. On the one hand it’s nice to be honored; on the other I’m the only President who always has to show proof.

Most Presidents have libraries, even that slimeball Nixon for crissakes. I have a book kiosk. I can’t even give you the location. It moves around. Last I heard it was in the Carousel Center Mall in Syracuse right by the D & D Kitchen and Bath. Swing by the next time you need dish towels.

Okay, I’ll admit, I kind of backed into the job. President Garfield was assassinated. There was a three-day gap in the transfer of power because news traveled slower in those days and no one seemed to remember who the Vice-President was. I was getting my muttonchops trimmed when the Secretary-of-State came and got me. You can imagine my surprise. I think I had been to the White House maybe twice. I raced over there and hit another snag. In my haste I had left my ID at home and the guards wouldn’t let me in. Garfield’s wife had to come to the gate to get me. She was one pissed grieving widow, I’ll tell ya that.

Then, to make matters worse I learned that Garfield had been shot on July 2nd and didn’t die until September 19th. What the hell?! You’d think somebody would have given me the heads-up on this.

There’s usually a honeymoon period when a President first takes office. Not for me. Publisher Alexander K. McClure wrote, "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted.” Gee thanks. You steal a few papers off peoples’ lawns and they crucify you. In fairness, he later said: “and no one ever retired... more generally respected." So I’m kind of the reverse of Nixon. Still, have you seen trailers for FROST-ARTHUR? What the hell do I have to do?

Half of my cabinet quit right away. Fine. Go find another cabinet. Like Garfield was such a prince. I will say it took longer to assemble my own cabinet than I had expected. There were a number of people I called to offer positions who said, “Refresh my memory. You are who again…?”

I did make great strides in Civil Service reform. And I kept us out of Viet Nam. That’s who I am. Or was.

I tried to run for re-election but the party decided to go with someone more well known.

Still, for a few short years I was the Commander-In-Chief. I still have some of the stationery. My portrait hangs alongside all the biggies. And so, on this sacred President’s Day I ask you to take a minute, write down my name, and remember that not everyone can get monuments, busts carved into mountains, or ten million Twitter followers, but we too led this great nation of ours and unlike some people, didn’t fuck it up.

Thank you, President Arthur. He used to have a Facebook page but nobody would befriend him. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wow, I was way off

I predicted the final score of the NBA All-Star Game to be 149-147.  It was 148-143.  I guess there was some defense after all.  The hometown player usually wins the MVP.  This year's MVP was Kobe Bryant.  Let the after parties begin.  But stay out of the Playboy Mansion guys.

The NBA All-Star Game -- what a joke

Tonight’s the NBA All-Star Game, held this year in Los Angeles. There are something like 85 teams in the NBA, which is why it’s been seven whole years since the last NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. In Major League baseball, where they truly do rotate the honor around, Los Angeles last hosted an All-Star Game in 1980.

But the NBA doesn’t give a shit about rewarding its local fans in places like Milwaukee. All they care about is boosting ratings, improving their image, and being seen with stars. The last time Milwaukee hosted the All-Star Game was 1977. Jimmy Carter was still president. LA has had it three times since. Hell, Las Vegas hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 2007 and they don’t even have a team. Meanwhile, Sacramento has had a team for 25 years and they’ve never hosted an All-Star Game. Good luck Toronto, Memphis, and Oklahoma City. You better hope that Mike Tyson moves there.

The big attraction of Los Angeles of course is its tie-in with Hollywood. God forbid the NBA tries to attract an audience with just its product. The NBA All-Star Game is your chance to watch the greatest basketball players in the world play 48 minutes of no defense. Final score will be 149-147. And I guarantee there won’t be an over-time. Too many parties for the players to get to.

Here’s my favorite quote: Jim Kahler, a former Cleveland Cavaliers executive who now oversees the Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University said, "It's a testament when the motion picture industry is interested in your sport." Oh yeah. What an honor, to be endorsed by the greatest attention whores the world has ever known. I’ll bet if you asked half these stars who just have to be there, to name ten All-Stars besides Kobe Bryant, half wouldn’t be able to do it. “Let’s see there’s LeBron James, Michael Jordan… give me a minute… oh, and that tall guy, Chien-Ming Wang…”

The only real suspense will be which stars get the courtside seats. Ironically, the two celebrities who really are fans and go to every game – Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington – won’t be there. But Justin Beiber will be. And in the front row. Why? Because he connects with the younger demographic that the NBA is hoping to snare. If Dyan Cannon wants to go I imagine she’ll be up in the upper deck with a seat partially obstructed by the American flag. Oh, and Chinese actress Huang Yi will also be courtside. The NBA wants to grow its brand in China.

And then there’s the music industry. Snoop Dog and Diddy and Bruno Mars will be aboard along with selected others. Hey, it’s not like they can be seen on MTV anymore.

Charlie Sheen is still checking to see if he can rehab in the Staples Center so we don’t know yet whether he’ll be coming.

Doing the seating arrangement for these stars has to be a nightmare. God forbid you have to sit in the third row. And what about all their posses and bodyguards? Where do they sit? Probably the team benches.

The NBA All-Star Game is not a sporting event. It’s another exclusive party that you’re not invited to. It’s entertainment for royalty, a pleasant diversion for the elite. And if you can believe this, some of the stars’ agents actually want the All-Stars to stop by and chat with their clients during halftime. Manu Ginobili needs to pay his respects to capo famiglia, Dustin Hoffman.

Let me know who wins. I’ll be watching U.C. Santa Barbara women’s basketball as they take on Seattle University. I’d rather see parents courtside who really care instead of Chris Tucker and Rob Reiner.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The record offer you can not pass up

In the '70s, one of the big mail order products was compilation albums. A company named K-Tell advertised constantly on late night TV, hawking their oldies albums. Mr. Great Big Radio put together a brilliant parody. Get out your credit card and be ready to call.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What's the craziest storyline ever pitched to CHEERS?

First off, happy birthday to my lovely child bride, Debby. This has been a month long celebration but today is the actual day. Many many more, kiddo!

Time to answer some questions and debunk some myths.

Ed starts us off with a doozy.

What was the craziest storyline the Cheers writers actually considered as a story arc? Cliff/Carla romance/love child? Norm working his way to the top of Lillian?

One of the co-creators was lobbying the first year to have Norm and Cliff buy a circus. I kid you not. For the next ten years, whenever someone pitched something too far-fetched we would always say, “I know the perfect B-Story – Norm and Cliff buy a circus!”

John G has another CHEERS question.

I read the following in the book, "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists":

"For example [of doing research when writing], the writers for Cheers supposedly hung out in bars and wrote down conversations they'd overhear. This is partly why, I suspect, the dialogue in that show always sounded so spot-on."

How much truth is there to this, Ken?

Well, I did write-off my bar tab for eleven years as a business deduction, but the truth is no, we didn’t all eavesdrop in taverns. Our dialogue was very character specific, although God knows there’s a Cliff in every bar.

But from time to time one of the writers might’ve heard a snippet of dialogue from someone in a bar and that became the springboard for a conversation. I wasn’t in every story meetings. I missed the early morning ones because I was too hung over. Hey, don't give me that look. I got drunk for my art!


Why is it that when the take successful movies and convert them to TV, for the most part, they tend to fail? M*A*S*H* is one of the few off hand that I can think of that made the transition. But others like "Kiss Me Guido", "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" etc. fall flat and are sentenced to oblivion. It seems they flop whether they have the original cast from the movie [or most of them] or completely new people for the TV show. Inquiring minds want to know!

Several reasons spring to mind.

First of all, the BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING TV version was just horrible on every level. But from what I hear (so I can’t guarantee this since thankfully I wasn’t there), star Nia Vardalos apparently made all the creative decisions, and every one was more wrong than the last. But I digress…

Generally, the casts aren’t as good in TV versions of movies. There are exceptions certainly (Alan Alda, Sarah Michelle Gellar to name just two), but take for example CASABLANCA. In the TV version David Soul played the Humphrey Bogart part. ‘Nuff said?

In movies, you have a beginning, middle, and end. You can wrap things up. A successful television series is open-ended. Some movies lend themselves to that transition better than others. THE ODD COUPLE is a premise that could go on and on. But how many days off can FERRIS BUELLER have? And how many final games of the season can the BAD NEWS BEARS win?

Quite often different writers are assigned to the TV adaptation. So different sensibilities and level of talent.

Movie comedies also have different rhythms than sitcoms. Some make the jump easier than others. In the case of MASH, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds created an entirely different fast-paced style from the movie’s more naturalistic pace. That was a big gamble. If they audience didn’t buy it, the show would have been dead. But they did, and it didn’t hurt that Gelbart’s dialogue was nothing short of brilliant.

And finally, sometimes a movie just captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and by the time it gets to the small screen that zeitgeist is over. Here too, MASH was fortunate. The Viet Nam war was raging on when the TV series premiered. Had the war ended in 1970 (like it should have), MASH would not have felt as relevant.

But take heart television fans. Just as many movies based on successful TV shows have flopped as TV series based on movies. I give you BEWITCHED, BILKO, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE FLINTSTONES, GET SMART, and LOST IN SPACE, to name but a few. (I’m sure you’ll fill in more. And some of you will call me an idiot for listing your all-time favorite movie in the above list.)

And finally, Amanda wonders:

When you have a comedy scene that's getting a big laugh, do the cameramen ever laugh hard enough to ruin the shot? If that happens too many times, do the cameramen keep their jobs?

It rarely if ever happens. First off, the cameras are mounted, so they won’t jiggle if the operator is having a laughing fit. Secondly, by the time the show is filmed in front of an audience, the cameraman has heard the joke seven times. The camera crew comes in the day before filming and spends the whole day blocking out the show. They hear the dialogue over and over. Then, on show day, there are three hours of fine-tuning, and a dress rehearsal.

The crews will laugh during camera blocking day when they watch the scenes for the first time. In fact, they’re a good barometer. But once it’s show night, they’re so concerned with hitting their marks, listening for line cues, and framing their shots.

And one final point – the crews that work network shows, whether dramas or comedies or live reality shows, are top notch professionals; the very best in the business. As a director, it’s an honor to work with such fine craftsmen. They deserve more credit and recognition than they receive.

What’s your question?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What not to do when writing a pilot

Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and RUNNING WILDE wrote a somewhat facetious article for on how to get a sitcom cancelled. He brings out some good points like have a confusing title, hint at incest (always a crowd pleaser), offend minority groups, and not use guest star Liza Minnelli to her full advantage. These are all true, but there’s an added factor he mentions which I think is really key. Don’t overreach story-wise.

I bring this up because agents these days are requiring new writers to submit original material in addition to spec scripts for existing shows. For the most part, that means pilots. This is a complete reversal of policy from ten, fifteen years ago. And it just makes a hard process even harder. It’s like getting into college and suddenly learning that starting this year you must also take Advanced Physics and six semesters of Russian.

Pilots are a bitch to write. They are loaded with traps; traps many experienced writers still fall into (read: me). And a big one is that you do too much, trying to dazzle the reader. This is the warning that Mitch heeds. Do not try to do eight stories in one half-hour pilot. Even if you do it well, and the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT staff did it as well as any show ever has, it’s difficult for an audience to process. Add to that another sign-of-the-times issue: program lengths are shrinking. Back when I was writing MASH (the Pleistocene Era) we had close to 24 minutes of content. Now it’s under 20. We did two or three stories an episode and even then we thought we were putting ten pounds of show in a five-pound bag. I marvel at how MODERN FAMILY does it under today’s conditions. Their writers room will someday be located at the UCLA Medical Center.

When you write a spec pilot, make the story as straightforward as you can. I don’t mean so linear that we see every step coming a mile away, or so simple that nothing happens. Your story can be clever and original with delightful surprises but make it easy to track.

Remember, in a pilot you’ve got to establish the premise, establish the characters, establish the tone, show where the series is going, and make it funny. And getting laughs is extra hard because the audience is not familiar with the characters. Throw in a confusing story or six stories and the audience is completely lost.

But here’s the good news: You’re not expected to do too much story in a pilot. Your story should just be a dramatic device to introduce all of the above elements. So let it breathe a little. Let your characters just inter-act for a moment or two. Give the audience a few minutes to get to know them.

You might be saying, “Well, I have nine characters. I need three stories so they all have something to do.” To that I say, then lose three characters.

One of my favorite pilots is the one from TAXI. Here’s the premise: the pay phone in the garage is broken and all the cabbies can make free long distance calls (this was before Sprint). As each character uses the phone we learn who they are and what they want. One character, Alex (Judd Hirsch) wants to talk to his daughter in Florida and we discover they’ve been estranged for fifteen years. The cabbies all have opinions on that, informing us even more as to who they are. Ultimately they all drive down from New York for a reunion. There’s suspense. How’s it going to go after fifteen years? SPOILER ALERT: It goes okay.

Simple. Economical. Clever. And taking a tip from Mitch Hurwitz, there’s no incest.

The truth is, when an agent or producer is reading your spec pilot, they’re trying to learn about YOU. Your voice, sensibility, and level of humor. Don’t cloud that by trying to show you can construct SLEUTH in nineteen minutes.

Best of luck. May you too be in a position someday to have your series cancelled.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rapidly see CEDAR RAPIDS

Went out to see a movie this past weekend. Since it was a comedy, all of the previews were also comedies. The first was about two slackers on a road trip (only the 1000th time that premise has been used) who befriend an alien from outer space. Lots of car crashes, mayhem, tepid one-liners, and the alien speaking jive. Ha ha.  Then a movie about dufus husbands who are allowed a week off to have affairs. It’s directed by the Farrelly Brothers and the trailer is just a string of sex jokes, zany friends, tepid one-liners, and car crashes. And finally, Topher Grace trying to impress some hot girl complete with zany friends, sex jokes, loud party scenes, tepid one-liners, and yes, of course, car crashes.

I was one more trailer away from killing myself. But then, a wondrous thing occurred. A miracle. A divine act of God. How else could you describe it? There, on the screen, for all to see, was a comedy that was actually funny, with humor that grew out of the characters, and a real story, with people you cared about. Imagine a romantic comedy where not one airbag is deployed!

CEDAR RAPIDS is a wonderful little movie. And when it follows typical Hollywood comedy trailers, it gets elevated to the greatest motion picture of all-time.

I can’t recommend it enough. You won’t be rolling in the aisles; it’s not that kind of film. There’s subtlety instead of stunts, grown ups instead of borderline retards, and dialogue even wittier than, “Dude! What the fuck?!” But you will laugh, and you won’t hate yourself for what you're laughing at.

CEDAR RAPIDS stars Ed Helms as a real-life Ned Flanders who travels from a small town in Wisconsin to the angry metropolis of Cedar Rapids to attend an insurance convention. Over the course of the next few days his life is turned upside down, and every value he has will be tested. To me, that sounds more like a valid movie premise than two idiots join up with the Purple People Eater.

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot. Don’t want to give anything away.

I will however, say that everyone in this movie is perfectly cast. From Ed Helms (I’m a huge fan), Ann Heche (great range – can play funny and straight), Sigorney Weaver (best MILF role since Mrs. Robinson), Kurtwood Smith (the Gene Hackman of character actors), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (you could never tell from his work on THE WIRE that he had comic chops), and best of all, John C. Reilly. He is absolutely HILARIOUS in this movie. A breakout role if he hadn’t already broken out.

CEDAR RAPIDS. See it before they remake it with Russell Brand.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Licensing music for sitcoms -- get out your checkbook

Sometimes a reader’s question requires a whole post to answer. This one is from Charlotte.

M*A*S*H provided my first acquaintance with songs like "You're the Top" and "Stormy Weather". I've always heard how expensive it is to license music or even just a song's lyrics for use in a TV show. Were you & the other M*A*S*H writers ever constrained by the cost of music/lyrics? Did you ever put music uses in your 1st draft scripts that you were told to cut for cost? Was it a similar situation in the 80s on CHEERS? Did you & the other writers have to fight to get the music uses you wanted in your scripts approved?

It is expensive to license the use of a song, and sometimes impossible. However, in the ‘70s, there was a different contract for filmed shows and taped shows. It cost way more to license a song for a filmed show like MASH or CHEERS than a taped show like WKRP IN CINCINNATI. Unfortunately, that does not extend to DVD sales. That’s why WKRP had to eliminate songs from their video release.

In many cases you also need permission from the song’s rights owner. That’s why you rarely hear a Bruce Springsteen or Rolling Stones song on a sitcom. On MASH one time we wanted to use a Richard Rogers song. He was notorious for turning down requests. But we got Alan Alda to call him personally. Turns out Rogers was a big fan of the show and happily agreed to let us use his song.  So if you're a showrunner and you need a song that's hard to approve, call Alan Alda. 

Quick side note: Over the course of years so many MASH cast members sang songs in various episodes that one season they put together an album compilation of them and gave that to us as their Christmas present. The year before, we had all received cool engraved MASH watches. Our new story editor came on the next year and was really excited. He couldn’t wait to see what the cast was giving us. When he saw it was a cheesy vinyl album featuring the song stylings of Jamie Farr and Harry Morgan he was PISSED.

Each studio has a catalog of songs they own. And generally, when we need a song we’ll use one of those. I remember Paramount’s included “Moonlight in Vermont”. Kelsey Grammer must’ve sung that damn song five times on different CHEERS and FRASIER episodes.

There have been times that we’ve had to change a song title because the studio couldn’t get the rights or didn’t want to pay that much for the rights. The level of our protest depended upon just how important that particular song was to the story.

On CHEERS we had established that Rebecca’s favorite song was “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. When we needed her rich boyfriend to impress her (in the two-part episode “Finally”) we thought it would be great if he hired the Righteous Brothers to come into the bar and serenade her with that song. Bobby Hatfield was unavailable but we did get Bill Medley. In this case we really pressed Paramount for the rights to "Loving Feeling". Having Bill Medley enter the bar and sing “Moonlight in Vermont” just didn’t seem right.

And finally, if a song you write gets used as a theme song for a show you get royalties every time it airs. Paul Anka wrote this innocuous little tune for Annette Funicello in the early ‘60s. The record sold maybe eight copies, but Paul Anka will tell you it’s the greatest song he’s ever written. Why? See if you can recognize it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day... I guess

This has never been one of my favorite holidays.  It's a day of forced sentiment and horribly over-priced fixed menus.  Also, it's my birthday.  I have generally not had good luck on my birthday.

Here's what happened one year when I was invited to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit party.  You'd think that would be a great night, wouldn't you?  I met Beyonce.  I posed with Brooklyn Decker.  And then this.

Still, that was nothing compared to this birthday celebration.

This year my family is taking me to dinner at Roy's, one of my favorite restaurants.  So stock up on bottled water and the essentials.  A meteor is crashing to earth tonight. 

For today's post, I'm going to take a cue from Hollywood.  For years now, whenever a movie wants to convey a romantic moment, instead of having writers craft a wonderful scene with heart, and emotion, and memorable dialogue they just play the most on-the-nose song their legal department can clear.

So since I don't feel like writing anything particularly romantic, fearing it will veer into extreme schmaltz or bitter hostility, I am instead offering this music video.  The group is the very cool, Best Coast, the title is "When I'm With You", and it's my love song to you. Happy Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My life from A-Z

One of those dumb personal quizzes circulating the net. I'm admitting things here even my shrink doesn't know. Of course, he doesn't care.

• A-Available/Single? Not according to my wife
• B-Best Friend? My partner. I'd be a lot poorer emotionally and financially without him.
• C-Cake or Pie? I'll have to go with Elvis and say cake.
• D-Drink Of Choice? Makers & ginger ale but only after 7 a.m.
• E-Essential Item You Use Everyday? My Pocket Fisherman.
• F-Favorite Color? Green. They asked me this for the Dewar's ad, too.
• G-Gummy Bears Or Worms? Whichever one is not banned from commercial flights.
• H-Hometown? Los Angeles
• I-Indulgence? Irene Jacob movies even though I can't understand them.• J-January Or February? February. Pitchers and catchers report.
• K-Kids & Their Names? Matt, Annie, and maybe some in Bakersfield.
• L-Life Is Incomplete Without? Laughter.
• M-Marriage Date? July 8. Same date that crime boss Soapy Smith was shot to death in 1898.
• N-Number Of Siblings? 1
• O-Oranges Or Apples? Apple, if we're talking pies or computers. Orange if we're talking Bowls.
• P-Phobias/Fears? Mimes.
• Q-Favorite Quote? Enough is as good as a feast to an idiot.
• R-Reason to Smile? Linda Eder singing
• S-Season? Bob Gaudio
• T-Tag Three or Four People? I don't know four people.
• U-Unknown Fact About Me? I turned down a job at LAUGH-IN
• V-Vegetable you don't like? Pat Robertson
• W-Worst Habit? Sweating the small stuff
• X-X-rays You've Had? Teeth, chest, and what kind of stupid question is that?
• Y-Your Favorite Food? Lobster...but must not still be alive.
• Z-Zodiac Sign? Aquarius man.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

More Bad Remakes

Just to follow up today’s post on ARTHUR. For every good TRUE GRIT remake, there seems to be ten bad ones. A reader pointed out MY MAN GODFREY reboot. Off the top of my head, here are a few more. Feel free to add to the list.

THE JAZZ SINGER (Not Neil Diamond’s best work)
KING KONG (all nine versions)
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (Yes, I know it has Denzel Washington)
TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 (Yes, I know it has Denzel Washington)
CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (Yes, I know it’s Steve Martin)
THE PINK PANTHER (Yes, I know it’s Steve Martin)
THE OUT OF TOWNERS (Yes, I know it’s Steve Martin)
THE BLOB (How do you improve on perfection?)

The one movie I will NEVER see

Fans of this blog know how much I love the movie ARTHUR.   Written and directed by the brilliant Steve Gordon, it's a romantic comedy that's actually both.   If you haven't seen it, let that be your Valentine's Day movie.

Hollywood, in its relentless quest to avoid originality for sequels and franchises and remakes is releasing a new version of ARTHUR starring Russell Brand.   Why??   Judging by this trailer, they have sucked out any of the charm and sophistication of the original and replaced it with crass, juvenile, over-the-top slapstick, and incredibly lame jokes.   Not to mention, Russell Brand.

Here's the trailer, and remember, all the very best jokes are in the preview.   Hollywood will tell you they're just updating a classic.  I say they're spitting on the flag.

Rent the original instead of seeing this:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Network interference

TGIQAAD – Thank God it’s Questions and Answers Day.

From Jim S:

I am curious about how decisions are made and you've written extensively on how some, not all, networks suits can make the process of creating a new show every week difficult with their "helpful" suggestions.

I wonder about the other side of the coin. What happens when a showrunner gets a vision of a successful show that just appears bad to everyone else. Heroes after the first season comes to my mind as a show that was hurt by its own producers. Can the suits actually save someone from making a huge mistake?

That’s what networks point to – examples like HEROES. They’ll argue that if they aren’t around to steer the show in the right direction it will go off the rails like HEROES. And in fairness, sometimes they’re right. But more often than not the showrunner has a better grasp on the show he’s writing than executives who have never written a show. And most network notes are of the “safe” variety. Make the characters more likeable. Spell things out over and over again.

Rarely will you hear a network say to a producer, “Take a bigger chance. Really go for it.” They’re usually nervous whenever a showrunner wants to do something very bold. But again, to be fair, just because an idea is bold doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. And networks have a big financial investment in these shows now.  I imagine there are instances when they save shows from taking really bad turns. I just hate to admit it.

Kyah wonders:

What do you do on days when you're stuck for jokes, or having an off day?

It depends. If you’re on a show and you have to complete the rewrite that night you just suck it up. Take a few breaks. Start riffing on other subjects. Once everyone is laughing, even if it’s over something horribly inappropriate, you start feeling funny again, and the jokes for the actual show start to come.

If you’re just writing a script and you’re not up against a deadline crunch, then just walk away for a few hours.

Relax. Sometimes a way to jump start your brain is to watch some funny videos or a movie you find particularly hilarious. VOLUNTEERS springs to mind for some reason.  Read humorous essays (or blogs, hint hint), go to a comedy club, listen to the comedy channels on XM. Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch Kathleen Madigan.

For me, a great help has always been improv class. Teachers like Andy Goldberg can help you free up your mind, learn to be spontaneous, and all the while you’re having fun.

Finally, this is one of the reasons why it’s good to write in teams. One partner can carry the load on a day the other is just feeling dry. When I write with David Isaacs, often I find that there are days when he’s particularly hot or I’m particularly hot. I really love it when he’s hot.

Every writer is different and every writer develops tricks that seem to help him. But recognize that there are days your mind is molasses. That's normal, it happens to everyone, so just roll with it the best way you can.

Phillip B has a question about ethnicity.

Is it strictly forbidden or just strongly discouraged? At least Lilith got to be Jewish

While many people were complaining that there were no black characters on Happy Days, for example, I was among those wondering how you could portray Milwaukee - then or now - without Polish people. Lenny and Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley were perhaps the most Polish of any characters since the cast of Sgt Bilko -- but it was all subtext.

Can't recall any jokes about Irish Catholics on Cheers, but rich people were usually portrayed as excessively Protestant...

You mean they aren’t?

Certain groups go in and out of favor. In the ‘70s Jews were fashionable. You could have a character like Rhoda. Now I suspect you’d have a hard time getting that character to star in a network sitcom. Of course, in this case, it might be Fran Drescher who killed it for all Jews.

I used to love how Jason Alexander’s character in SEINFELD was so clearly Jewish but they gave him an Italian name. Same with Doris Roberts on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. I don’t care that her name was Barone. That was the most Jewish mother on TV since Nancy Walker played Rhoda’s mom.

I know it’s not an ethnicity, but for a long time you rarely saw gay characters. Now they’re in vogue. The Irish Catholics’ day will come.

And finally, Anonymous has a question. Please leave your name.

Do you feel that syndication and the associated editing to put in ad space is killing reruns? I'm specifically wondering about Becker. I used to think it was very good, one of the few shows I made appointments to watch. Now I watch it and find it not funny, with characters issuing one-liners that make no sense why they would say that. I'm wondering if maybe there's been some stuff edited out.

That’s the Faustian contract you make when you go into syndication. The studios and hopefully the creators make a lot of money. But the shows are hacked up to fit in more commercials. Actually, I don’t think BECKER has been that severely compromised. Certainly not as bad as some.

On MASH it’s a different story. Because we had two to three storylines going in every episode and there were a multitude of small scenes, sometimes the edited-for-syndication versions make absolutely no sense. Set-up scenes are gone and you have no idea why characters are acting the way they are. I believe the Hallmark Channel restored them to their original lengths. If so, thank you. The best way… no, the ONLY way, to see MASH is to watch the DVD’s.

What’s your question?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

CBS vs. the Smothers Brothers

Here's another excerpt from the book I'm writing about growing up in the '60s. Hopefully, I'll be finished sometime mid-year. The drugs are starting to take effect and I'm beginning to remember 1969 again. But this is an entry from 1967.  It gives a little TV history.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR premiered on CBS. Tommy and Dick Smothers rose from the folk music ranks but with a spin. They did comedy. Gentle and wholesome and they still played banjos but comedy nonetheless. CBS figured they’d be the perfect hosts for a variety show geared towards middle-America. Boy, were they wrong.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR evolved into the hippest show on television. And later, the most controversial. With young edgy writers like Steve Martin on board, the humor was biting and satiric. Very anti-establishment. Musical guests included Joan Baez, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and for the first time since he was blacklisted in the 50s – Pete Seeger. Seeger caused a huge stir when he sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”, an anti-war song. CBS censored it his first appearance but allowed it his second.

That was just one of many battles between the Smothers Brothers (primarily Tommy, who was the creative force of the show) and network censors. Despite its high ratings, especially among my generation, CBS cancelled the show two years later. If they were on today getting those numbers in the key 18-34 demographic, they could show a snuff film live and still stay on the air.

I loved its subversive humor. So much so that I wrote the Smothers Brothers a letter offering my services as a writer. (I was in high school then and had never written a thing.) I got back an autographed picture. I guess that meant no.

Still, I adored that show and fifteen years later I won my first Writers Guild Award and the presenter was… Tommy Smothers. How cool is that? Now I have two autographed pictures.