Saturday, January 28, 2012

My mentors

Great expression in Hollywood: Mentors get eaten by their young.

While there is certainly no shortage of that “All About Eve” type behavior, I must say that for myself, I would never be where I am today were it not for some exceptional mentors. It’s like I learned pitching from a staff of Sandy Koufaxes. (And by the way, happy New Year, Sandy) One reason I started this blog was to be able to give something back. I’m a big believer in “Pay it Forward”. So if any tips I share you find valuable you can thank these people.

Larry Gelbart, Jim Brooks, Allan Burns, the Charles Brothers, Gene Reynolds, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Treva Silverman, and one name you’ve never heard – Bruce Anson. Don’t race to imdb to look him up. He’s not there. Even Googling him will yield no results. (There are others with that name but they’re not him.)

But Bruce Anson taught me more about the craft of writing than all my high school and college teachers combined.

I was a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. Bruce was one of their newscasters. He was in his 60s, smoked and drank too much (which I think was a prerequisite for getting hired in that department back then). He had been a booth announcer in the early days of TV and prior to that, network radio. And now he was pulling part-time Sunday night shifts, writing and delivering news twice an hour in between public service programs the station was obligated to run. When he finished at midnight the station went off the air for maintenance. So not exactly prime time.

He’d show up in shorts, loud Hawaiian shirts, and flip flops. Other newsmen reported for work in suits and ties.

My job was to write the sports portion of the newscast. Essentially a rundown of the day’s scores. Northwestern beat Ohio State 23-10, Notre Dame edged Army 21-20, etc. The most creative thing I did was once write: LSU puffed Rice 34-14.

During baseball season all the scores would be final by 6:00. There was no Sunday night baseball. Not even in Texas. The shift was until midnight but most sports interns would write up three sportscasts that could be rotated and went home six hours early. I went to Bruce and asked if I could help write his newscasts. He said, sure, but it’s not as easy as I think.

He was right.

I’d take a story from the United Press International wire, rewrite it, and hand it to Bruce. I assumed he’d say, “Great job. Thank you.”


He said, “This sentence could be cut in half”, “There’s a better way of saying this”, “Use more descriptive words”, “This point should go ahead of that point”, “this phrase is a little confusing.” He’d then take a pen and start rewriting -- slashing words, replacing phrases, making it shorter, punchier, clearer, BETTER.

And so began a weekly pattern that lasted until football season. I would doggedly write story after story determined to just once please that son-of-a-bitch. Finally it happened. A house fire story. I don’t remember the details but I do remember I used the word “blaze”. It aired right before the vasectomy PSA. I was so proud.

Be ruthless. Always look to make it better. Have a little Bruce Anson sitting on your shoulder when you write. Ask him to put out the cigarette though.

I owe Bruce Anson a lot. I thank him for his time, his toughness, his talent. And if he were here today I'm sure he'd say "Isn't all the alliteration a little precious?"


Mike Botula said...

Ken, I remember listening to Bruce Anson on KMPC, long before I went to work there. Great voice, and his writing drew you along through every story in his newscast. A five minute newscast was never five minutes of news. It was more like 2 1/2 minutes of news. 45 seconds of sports from the Sportswire guy. 30 seconds of weather and, of course, a sixty second commercial in the middle. A lot of work - so the jock could go to the bathroom. WEbster 8-3000 FOREVER

Michael said...

Ken, I worked at a newspaper for an editor named Bruce, and it brought back great memories because Bruce could have taken the Bible, rewritten it, and improved it. But I recall your wonderful book (the first one, on baseball announcing), and you mentioned too how important The Vin (he is too great to be merely Vinnie or Vin Scully) was to teaching you how to tell a story.

On K. said...

OKay, I'll bite. Whatever became of Bruce Anson?

Roger Owen Green said...

Hey, Ken - maybe YOU can write a Wikipedia post about him!

Breadbaker said...

Mentors like that are priceless. I had one who had me rewriting a document for weeks on end, all coming back with red marks all over the place, suggestions, comments like "AWK" or "Unclear" and I was so frustrated I wanted to quit. But what I remember most is the simple word on the last draft, "Good." I didn't need a vehicle to go home that night; I flew. I've tried to provide that kind of tough love to my own mentees.

Johnny Walker said...

Another great post, thanks Ken. I'll certainly try and put a little Bruce Anson on my shoulder (I'll just have to make sure he doesn't morph into hyper-self-critical-version-of-me :)

Another Friday question just leapt to mind: I remember you saying that, these days, sitcoms are all room written, and that credits on shows are actually figured out at the beginning of a season... Making them unbelievably pointless, and the very opposite of what they are supposed to stand for.

My question is: Around when did this change in writing accreditation occur? I'm currently re-watching Frasier from scratch (and seeing whole new things in it, now that I'm older -- what a great show!), and I find myself wondering if those credited are largely responsible for what I'm seeing.

Thanks, again.

Tania said...

Thank you for your blog Ken. I'm learning sooooo much. I'm trying to write a pilot script at the moment and your storyline outline advice has been invaluable.  My plan is to film my pilot myself for the NYTV festival. However, I'm making the transition from theatre comedy/cabaret to TV. Its a VERY different medium and my knowledge is VERY limited. Ill be getting proper camera operators etc. but i need to know who to get re sound. I plan to film it using the one camera technique. Is the action/dialogue filmed, edited together and then overdubbed later? If so, is it always overdubbed? Or is the sound recorded separately and spliced together later with the action? If its overdubbed, are people able to recreate their performances? If it's not overdubbed, do you have any sound advice (enjoy the pun) you could give me? I don't mind my pilot ep having low production values in some areas but I want to ensure that the dialogue is crisp and clear so that the writing and characters can be judged on their own merit. I'd appreciate some info from you or your lovely subscribers. 

katman said...

I met you years ago at the TV hall of fame send off for MASH...and have been a huge fan of your work with my adopted team here in the northwest, the Mariners.

Please tell me you will be joining the broadcast team again this year when you are available?

In the meantime, have a great time down under.

Kennewick Man

Charles H. Bryan said...

Without football, I spent this past Sunday goofing around with the dog and listening to some episodes of the Nerdist Writers Panel Podcast.

Steve Levitan was on one of them and he discussed how lucky he was to be able to be part of a writing system that actually had a history, saying essentially that "the guys on Wings learned it from the guys on Cheers, who learned it from the guys on Mary Tyler Moore". (Not an exact quote.) He also spoke about putting together a staff. Great stuff. I wonder if there's a family tree of situation comedy writers.

This post about Bruce Anson reminds me of something Stephen King once wrote -- that he learned to write a small town newspaper where the editor was always trying to get him to condense.