Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday Questions

A recent post on show runners elicited a number of follow up questions.   So this week's Friday Questions shall attempt to address them.

Bill starts us off:

If the showrunner is so important--really the most important position on a show at a given time--why is "showrunner" not an "official" credit?

First off, it doesn’t have “Producer” in the title. In addition to the prestige and additional money, only producers can qualify for Best Show Emmys.  Screw titles.  We want the hardware! 

It used to be the Executive Producer was the 5 Star General of TV credits, but now there are so many who share that title. Staffs are larger, writers move up the food chain. And don’t forget the pod producers who attach themselves to your show and basically give notes and go home. They’re of course entitled to the same credit as the guy who works eighty hours a week.

So until a Producer credit above Executive Producer can be concocted (and all of these titles are concoctions) then show runner will just remain an under-the-radar title. Personally, I like “All Exalted He/She Who Must Be Obeyed Producer.”

As a reader pointed out, a good clue is who created the show. In most cases the show’s creator is also the show runner. But not always.  There are cases when a young writer creates a series but the network won’t order it unless a proven show runner is attached.  Or the creator is fired but still maintains a credit even though he's no longer on the show at all. 

And you have instances where the creator steps away from the day-to-day show running but still retains his title. Confused yet? Anyway, this leads into the next question.

It’s from Mike:

When people that used to run the show but have since left the series come back to pen the series' final episode or something, do they have more of a showrunner's-type say in the final product than just an average staff writer would? Like for the final Cheers and Seinfeld episodes, the Charles Bros. and Larry David, respectively, came back for the final episodes even though they were no longer calling the shots. Would they have had more of a showrunner's-type role in that situation, do you suppose?

Yes. Whenever the creator comes back he sits in the Captain Kirk chair. In the case of CHEERS, Glen & Les Charles returned for the final half of the final season. Beyond the last episode (which they wrote themselves) they wanted to make sure that the six or seven episodes leading up to it were completely on track. It was an honor that Glen & Les asked my partner David and I to write one of the last episodes. (It was the final Bar Wars episode, if you’re curious.)

And finally, from Dave:

Ken, I've seen you answer that "what does the showrunner do" question over and over. My question is, is there anything the showrunner DOESN'T do? And are there any duties that a showrunner really SHOULDN'T do, but sometimes they do anyway for whatever reason?

Show runners do not do any actual negotiating with agents. That’s business affairs’ department.

Certain jobs are protected by unions. Show runners can’t just operate cameras or move boom mikes (unless they’re in the appropriate unions).

I always wondered about this: Jimmy Burrows (pictured left) was a show runner of CHEERS and also the director. I don’t know if directors are allowed to operate cameras. In the days of 35 mm film cameras the cameras were on a wheeled mount. It would take three people to man the camera. During a scene Jimmy would decide he’d want a camera to move over a few feet so he’d kick the mount and proprell it to the desired spot. Does that constitute operating a camera?

Show runners will tend to meddle in departments they shouldn’t if (a) they like those departments (like post production) or (b) they just micro-manage everything.

As for me, I recognize that my technical abilities are on a par with a monkey’s so when it comes to post production and set design I leave that to the experts. I may make a suggestion now and then but if I’ve hired the best people, it’s best to just get out of their way.

I also don’t hire myself to be an actor. First off, I’m not that good. And secondly, I’m taking a job away from a real actor. So I avoid that too.

What’s your question?

Thursday, August 30, 2012


Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post either because the subject matter warranted it or I’m just incredibly verbose.

It’s from Carl:

Ken, what is your opinion of children on sitcoms? I've noticed that the shows you've worked on rarely feature them. Myself, I've noticed that many sitcoms will make an effort early on to give the kiddies screen time, then give up and only trot them out when the plot demands an appearance.

Yeah, not a lot of kids drafted and sent to a MASH unit or hanging out at CHEERS. I did have a running joke though. Remember when there was a show called MUPPET BABIES? I always thought it would be great to have CHEERS BABIES. See little Norm & Cliff ordering beers at the bar. Maybe I should re-pitch it.

But as a director, I’ve worked with kids quite often. They do present certain challenges, which must be taken into consideration.

The first one of course is stage parents. You may get an adorable talented kid but all too often Momzilla comes as part of the bargain. Cruella de Vil with notes.

There are also quite a few restrictions in place that hamper production, but that’s for a good reason. They’re all for the protection of the child. Not that Hollywood would ever take advantage of kids and work them twenty-hour days like mules and force them to take diet pills if they gained two ounces, but just to be on the safe side, kids can only work so many hours and classroom instruction is mandatory. Still, it’s a arduous day for these youngsters, many of whom would rather be playing videogames with their friends than doing planned-pick-ups.

So it means a director only has them for limited periods. We have to work around their schedules. If we’re shooting the show in front of a live audience we have to do it earlier to ensure they wrap at a decent hour.  (Hey, wait a minute.  That's a good thing.)

Generally, kids don’t get the rehearsal time they need. And in truth, they’re the ones who need it the most because they don’t have the experience adult actors have.  Although Kaitlyn Dever can hold her own with Oscar winners. 

So producers have to ask themselves – is it really worth it? More than one family comedy has opted to downplay the role of the children over time because of the obstacles.

That said, I always looked forward to directing the episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND where the kids were featured. Madylin Sweeten and her two younge twin brothers Sawyer & Sullivan were a complete joy, as was their mom.

With young kids (like the twins were at the time), it's unrealistic to ask them to memorize a lot of dialogue.  So that cuts down on their screen time. 

I know a number of actors who are in their 20’s and even 30’s who can still pass for teenagers. And believe me, these actors are in greater demand than Meryl Streep.

The other problem with using children is that they tend to grow up. As a director, it’s hard to tell them not to. I believe Disney Channel series usually only go three or four seasons because of this.

Of course, their aging can also be a plus. As they enter new stages of development it can open up new areas for stories. But as the fine folks of GLEE have learned, you can’t keep the same kids in high school for seven years (although they could probably get away with it on JUSTIFIED).

Some children I've worked with are a pleasure and others are world-weary fifty-year-olds trapped in the body of a ten-year-old.  My heart always goes out to children actors, even the successful ones.  It's tough enough dealing with peer pressure, puberty, and pimples.  I can't imagine also being rejected by the producers of THE SUITE LIFE ON DECK.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Me on Twin-Cities Live

From the Minnesota State Fair. Thanks to John and Elizabeth and KSTP for not making me eat deep fried bacon.

Ever have an MRI?

Getting an MRI is never fun. A few years ago I needed one. Hearing the stories of how claustrophobic it can be squeezed into that tube, I asked my doctor whether I needed some sort of tranquilizer. He said he’d be happy to prescribe one but it meant I couldn’t drive home on my own. I asked how long the procedure would take? He said, not long. He just wanted to see one thing. Maybe ten, fifteen minutes.

So I decided not to take the tranquilizer. I could hang in there for ten/fifteen minutes. Besides, I could then come straight from work, wouldn’t need to inconvenience anyone to give me a ride home, etc.

The appointed day...

I arrive at the MRI center and learn I have to be in the tube for forty-five minutes. Shit! That's a little longer than ten. And there are no tranquilizers in sight. I express my reluctance and the technician says, “I think I can help you. We have these headphones. Normally, we play soothing music to help relax the patients." I said, "Like what? TIMOTHY?" He didn't get it. Probably neither did you. (It's a record about a guy who gets trapped in a mine and is eaten by the other miners. But that's for another fun day.)

The technician boasted that on this particular MRI they had television.

“How are you gonna wedge a television in that tube? There’s no room as it is,” I asked, still worried that I wasn’t on major drugs.

“We line up a mirror to a television that’s behind you. You see the image and hear the audio over the earphones.”

"Fine. Whatever. Let’s do it."

So they slide me into the tube. It’s as terrifying as you imagine. I’m handed a bulb to squeeze if I’m about to freak out. I begin hearing the loud rhythmic metallic clanging as it begins to record an image.  That noise alone is terrifying.  And then the fact that your laying in the barrel of a cannon.  They turn on the TV. And that’s when things went from scary to truly frightening. The show they put on was THE NANNY. And not just any episode of THE NANNY. Oh no, this was the one-hour best-of highlights show from THE NANNY.

For forty-five minutes I was forced to lie still in this tube that was no more than an inch away from my face and be subjected to non-stop Fran Drescher at her most extreme.

I thought about squeezing the emergency bulb.  But really, would I be the biggest pussy they'd ever seen?   "Hey, Fred, you shoulda seen the idiot we had in here last night.  He had a meltdown because he didn't like the channel."  

I somehow tough it out.

But they finally wheel me out. I am sweating and hyperventilating. They ask if I'm okay, and I say, “Yeah, I guess so. How did the rest of the Focus Group do?”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Restrospectives in perspective

Hello from Minnesota.

Been trying to get to more of your questions. So here’s another one.

It’s from ScottyB:

What's your take/reason for "retrospective" sitcom episodes? On one hand, I can see where they're useful, especially if it's a program that took a few seasons to catch on without somehow being canceled and it's a handy way to get the slower folk up even more up to speed, but they always made me think they were just filler thrown together that week because nobody had any good ideas that week, there was an actor/script mutiny, someone in the cast died and shut down the set, the studio caught on fire, or that stars just wanted their own individual talent shows. Even those live 100th-episode retros of Cheers (hosted by John McLaughlin -- gawd, WTF was someone thinking????), Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond just always seemed really hollow and self-serving.

One time my partner and I pitched a pilot to a major network. The VP of Development (who later went on to even greater heights) listened patiently as we spelled out the premise, characters, and sample jokes. When we finished he paused, took a moment to consider, then asked, “What is the first episode of the seventh season?” My first thought (and current thought) was, “What kind of fucking idiotic question is that?”

So my answer was: “The clip show, showing highlights of all the classic episodes from the first six years.” Seriously, how do you respond to something so stupid?  (No, we didn't sell the pilot.)

Yes, the “retrospective” or (as we call it) the “clip show” is a staple of hit shows.

Everyone just naturally assumes it’s a breeze to make the clip show. Just slap a few scenes together and you’re done. It’s almost like a free week. But here’s what you don’t know: assembling clip shows are way harder and takes far longer than any regular episode. They’re a holy bitch.

Think about it – first you have to decide on the format. Will there be wrap-arounds by the cast in character? “Remember the time we…?” If so, you have to write and film them.  Will narration provide the transitions?  Or graphics? Will the star just reminisce? On CHEERS we decided on a panel format. Personally, I thought that was a good idea. It was at least a fresh take on clip shows.

Okay, so now you've decided on your overall format. How are your going to format the clips themselves? By character? By season? By setting? And are you going to show entire scenes or quick snippets? Will there be montages? Will they be over music? What music?

You determine all of that. And now comes the fun part: combing through fifty hours of shows. Someone has to do it. I was involved in the MASH retrospective. After a full day we would drive across town to the lab and screen episodes until midnight. This went on every night for about a month.

You whittle the voluminous footage down to what you think you need. Then it’s assembled and you realize -- shit!  It’s still six hours. You only have forty minutes (assuming the network gives you an hour). Now comes the agonizing process of pruning it down. Expect hours and hours of debate. This scene is really funny but takes four minutes. Do we really want to do that? If we cut this scene than character X gets maybe ten seconds of air time for the whole show. You get the idea.

So now you’ve got it down to time. Congratulations.  What order do the clips go in? You can count on at least five passes.

Get the idea? And remember, all of this work is in addition to writing and producing the show.

The good news is that writers, actors, and directors get residuals if their clips are used. I cleaned up on the MASH and CHEERS clip shows.  In fact, whenever a rewrite night wasn't going well I lobbied for another clip show. 

Tomorrow: How one series retrospective had a traumatic effect on me.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sportscaster tells Vin Scully to get his shit together

This is Rebecca Hall from KTLA, Channel 5:

My meeting with John Lennon

It wasn’t a long meeting. But it was memorable.

Winter 1973. I’m an engineer at KABC and KLOS radio in Los Angeles. Essentially I worked as a board op for KLOS. That meant I played the records and commercials. Union rules prohibited the disc jockeys from doing anything other than turning on and off their microphoness. Oh, and they could talk. They got that concession.

It was a cool job. KLOS played what today we call “classic rock.” Album cuts and Layla. I loved the music and the jocks were all terrific dudes. I’m still friends with Jim Ladd, Marc Driscoll, and Dion Jackson from that talented staff.

Occasionally I would have to go across the hall and handle KABC talk shows. That was fun too. Talk radio in those days welcomed different points of view, not just one. Imagine such a concept – a balance of ideas. I know. It was crazy.

I’m working one Saturday night on KLOS. I’m on my break. It’s about 9:45. The 10:00 KABC talk show host was Elliott Mintz. There was a long hallway at KABC/KLOS that led to the side entrance. I step out of our studio and happen to glance down the hallway. Holy shit! There’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono buzzing to be let in. They were Elliott’s scheduled guests. ( Elliott is still Yoko’s publicist, by the way.)

I duck my head into the KABC control room and say I’ll get them. Then I barrel down the hall and usher them in. I introduce myself and shake hands with them both. Yoko’s handshake is firmer than John’s.

He’s wearing a blue jean shirt and khakis. She’s wearing a huge black fur that must weigh sixty pounds.

I’ve got about twenty seconds alone with John & Yoko as I lead them down this long hall. What do you say to them?

At the time there was a very popular album by the National Lampoon that featured a very funny send-up of John called “Magical Misery Tour.” In that song he’s forever yelling, “I’m a fuckin’ genius!”

I don’t know what possessed me but I say to John, “So… what’s it like being a fuckin’ genius?” Without breaking stride he gives me a big grin and says, “Pretty nice, actually!”

That was it. We arrive at the studio and Elliott takes it from there. I couldn’t even hang back to watch the interview. I was due back at KLOS at 10:00.

But it brings up an interesting question. If you get to meet someone you idolize and you have time to ask him just one thing, what would it be? I’m sure had I known in advance that I would be meeting John I would have prepared something a little less – how should I say it? – obnoxious, but I just had the sense he would take the question in the spirit it was asked and in fact he did.

I didn’t have time to ask Yoko a question. Which is probably good. I don’t think she would have seen the whimsy in “What dead animal is that?”

So there’s my twenty second brush with greatness… and his wife.

Here's "Magical Misery Tour".

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hey, guess who stopped by!

Hi, this is Babe Ruth. First I’d like to tip my cap to Ken for letting me be his guest blogger. Since he’s in Chicago calling Mariner games this weekend (you can hear him on MLB.COM, 710 ESPN Seattle, and the Mariners Radio Network), he wondered if the old Bambino had any new curses and as a matter of fact I do. So woe be to the following:

THE NEW YORK YANKEES – for vacating the house that I built for a gaudy new stadium. The Red Sox ain’t moving from Fenway  (and by the way, who needs a curse from me when the Red Sox have Bobby Valentine?). The Cubs ain’t abandoning Wrigley. The Mets are one thing – Shea was a dump. But the original Yankee Stadium was a cathedral and you don’t raze it just so you can construct luxury pews. Who approved that?  George Costanza?

HOLLYWOOD – for all those bad movies about me. William Bendix -- the guy from THE LIFE OF RILEY? And then John Goodman? Jesus Christ! Who’s next? Hillary Duff?

THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS – What kind of pussy name is “Blue Jays”? How the hell is a Blue Jay supposed to strike fear in the hearts of opponents? “Blue Jays” wear pigtails and sell cookies, “Giants” stomp on people and get arrested with Mickey Rourke.

Same with…

THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM – When you think of an “angel” you don’t think some bad ass dude who’s gonna grind your guts into garters. Fuck no. You think of Nicole Kidman prancing with wood nymphs and shit. Who cares if you’re from Los Angeles, Anaheim, or California ? If your team name is “angels” your city of record is Fantasyland.

And along those lines…

THE HOUSTON ASTROS – Name me a team that cowers going in to “Minute Maid Park”. It might as well be “Summer’s Eve Stadium”. Get a better name! There are no fucking tool companies that are looking for corporate sponsorship?   And next year you’ll be in the real league so cut that shit out. 

ESPN – They get rid of the great Jon Miller but they still let Chris Berman call baseball play-by-play?   That’s like replacing me in the Yankee line up with Ann Coulter.   I smite you!

PLAYERS WHO USE STEROIDS – Talent, conditioning, proper diet, and beer isn’t enough???    Melky Cabrera may just be the dumbest son of a bitch on the planet.

CBS – for canceling ALMOST PERFECT. That Nancy Travis was a cutie. If I were 30 years younger and alive…boy!

And finally…

LADY GAGA – What the fuck is that?!

Again, thanks to Ken for letting me blog with you today. If I have anything else to add I’ll send you all a Tweet. So long everybody!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sale on my new book!!!

For a few days only my audiobook of THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s)is on sale for only $5.95 if you buy it here from   That's like 75% off.   I'm even crazier than Crazy Eddie.  Again, here's where you go.   I may never be had for so little again.

By the way, join me tonight on 77 WABC radio with Mark Simone talking about the book and reminiscing about the '60s.

I'll also be on 710 ESPN Seattle and the Mariners Radio Network calling tonight's M's-White Sox game.   Now one of these two radio appearances were taped.  Guess which one.  

Funny Fotos Day

Who doesn't love a little visual humor?
They do charge if you want a rollaway bed for them, however.
This is for real,
If Pole Dancing becomes an Olympic Sport I see her getting the Gold.
From my friend, Russ Woody -- an actual sign in a bathroom in Russia.
Hey, it's hard to find crap that's really fresh.
Ana from 50 SHADES OF GREY -- her car.

An authentic newspaper ad.  Back when the whole family drank beer... even the kids.
Okay.  I just couldn't resist.
And finally, here's a photo I took myself.  On Ventura Blvd. in Studio City they have plaques on the sidewalk like they do in Hollywood.  But in Studio City they salute those great movies and TV shows that were filled there.  Including this one:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Me on WGN ... see how bad my hair was

Why write a movie?

Greetings from Chicago where I’m on the road with the Mariners. Calling tonight’s game on 710 ESPN in Seattle, the M's Radio Network, and MLB.COM. But before that, how about some Friday Questions Chicago Style (even though I have no idea what that means)?

To start off, here’s Paul in Chicago:

Writers Ed Solomon & Chris Matheson, who have written some big feature films, are writing the 3rd Bill & Ted movie...apparently on spec. My question for you: is it the economy that creates a situation where established writers will write a full movie screenplay on spec?

Would YOU, Mr. Established Writer, write a movie script on spec?

I have written several movies on spec. Sold two. I never consider myself too established or important that I can’t write something on spec.

Writing screenplays on speculation has its advantages. You have the freedom to write what you want. You’re not forced to take studio or producer notes. That’s a BIG advantage. And you can make a lot more money if you sell your spec, especially if several studios are interested and a bidding war results. That’s when there are articles about you in the LA TIMES Calendar section and young writers justifiably despise you.

Writing on spec is becoming more and more prevalent because studios are developing fewer scripts in house. It’s much harder to sell a pitch these days. And the only writers who are invited to pitch are on the A list or Lena Dunham.

Pitching itself has become an ordeal. It used to be you could come in with a premise, maybe a rough idea of where it goes, a few jokes and you were in. My partner and I sold a movie pitch about a TV comedy writer who becomes a minor league baseball announcer (know anyone like that?). This was the pitch: BULL DURHAM meets GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. Sold! Just like that. Today you have to have the whole film outlined, and if it’s a comedy you need to present three or four set comedy pieces. You also are advised to have the one-sheet poster worked out and even a tagline for the movie. Again, that’s if you’re one of the lucky few who is even permitted to pitch.

Now the downside to writing screenplays on spec: If you don’t sell it (and most don’t), you’ve put in a lot of work and probably invested six months or more and for your trouble and passion you get back exactly squat.

And nowadays your agent goes out with the script and if it doesn’t sell in like three days it’s DEAD. That’s not how it used to be. There were more producers and it’s the old story – you just have to sell it to one. So even if 40 producers passed, if one said yes you were off to the races. But now info travels almost instantly around town. So if a producer at Warners passes, five minutes later a hundred other producers get that information. A few of those come in and producers figure “if they didn’t respond to it then I’m sure neither will I.” They either don’t bother reading or read with an expectation that it’s not very good.  And agents are reluctant to send out material that has been exposed.

In a sense, one influential producer who doesn’t respond to your script can kill it for the whole town. One guy.

So clearly, you write as your own risk. But like I said, most screenwriters no longer have a choice these days.

Kevin has a two-part question:

What would it take to get you to write for or show run a sitcom again?

An idea I was burning to do, or a Brinks truck pulling up to my house. I’ve eaten too much take out Chinese food.

Follow up question: Have you ever thought of writing on a Hour long drama say "Justified"?

Would love to if it’s the right show. JUSTIFIED is one of my favorite shows but ironically I don’t think I could write for it. I don’t really know those redneck hillbilly assholes. I love that the show takes me into a world I’d never enter, but as a writer I would have no command of that world. Same with ONCE UPON A TIME. I dig the show but I would need to spend some time in Fairy Tale Land – y’know, just walking around the Queen’s castle, hanging with Little Red Riding Hood and some of the dwarfs, maybe mixing up some magic potions – really get a lay of the land. I’m sure all the ONCE UPON A TIME writers all did that, but I just don’t have the time.

If someone were willing to help me with the legalese I would love to write a GOOD WIFE or SUITS. And MY SO CALLED LIFE isn’t still on the air, is it? I could sooo write that show.

From Mike:

Would Fawlty Towers have stood any chance whatsoever of being made by US TV? Either back in 1974 or today?

It was adapted in the U.S. Several times. One with John Larroquette and the other with (wait for it…) Bea Arthur. Both attempts bombed horribly.

I think the key to FAWLTY TOWERS was John Cleese. Without John, you have well-crafted scripts but no real show. Also, that British sensitivity, the constant civility even in the most trying times. Americans don’t react that way. We should. We’d be funnier.

And finally, we go to Washington D.C. and Robert’s question:

Was there any particular reason that all the barflies in cheers, i.e. had their real name as their characters first name?

It was easier, plain and simple. We only gave them a line or two and never had to worry who played who. Unless the actor’s real name was Sam or Norm or Cliff, in which case he was assigned a different name.

Thanks for the great questions.  What's yours? Leave it in the comments section.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Don't make Usher introduce his own songs

I have one of the most useless talents of all-time. I’m really good at talking over the instrumental intros of records and finishing my sentence just before the singing starts. :08 second intro, :21 second intro – makes no difference. I can nail it. And without looking at a stopwatch or a countdown clock, thank you very much. If there are punctuated shouts in the intro (the Stones and the Boss do this a lot), I talk up to those too. I was the Blue Man Group of radio.

And at one time that was a highly respected skill… among radio people. I don’t think listeners really gave a shit. If I was funny and identified the artist they were happy. But fellow disc jockeys appreciated the timing. I’m sure Benihana chefs bow to the one who can flip discarded shrimp tails into his pocket.

Radio did teach me brevity. When you’ve got a funny concept but only a :16 second intro, there’s no wiggle room. You’ve got to construct the joke to fit :16 seconds exactly. And you learn to really polish your delivery. If you have too many words you wind up rushing and the comedy goes away. If you have too few words you finish your punch line early and then there’s four seconds you’re just standing out there with your whistle in your hand. You develop pace, tailoring your rap to the groove of the song. All of this is great training for a comedy writer.

But forget it because it’s all dead. Stations don’t have disc jockeys anymore. And if they do they’re generally not live or they’re Ryan fucking Seacrest (as part of his mission to take the job of as many workers in as many fields as he can).

Their “shows” are a series of pre-recorded voice tracks. There’s no call for talking up to vocals anymore. It’s like being a newspaper typesetter or Kathleen Turner’s body double.

Could personality disc jockeys work with today’s listeners? Sure. Who wouldn’t want a little entertainment on top of their tunes? But it’s a moot point because three companies own every radio station and they’re all looking to operate on the same budget as a lemonade stand. (Someday soon internet radio will be readily accessible in your car and a lemonade stand will be worth more than Clear Channel and Cumulus. I anxiously await that day.)

But terrestrial radio, as we know it today, has changed the music scene. The absence of disc jockeys also means there’s no one to tell you who sang what. You hear a new song you like, you don’t know who sings it. That’s problematic for the artists too. Listeners can’t buy your song if they don’t know whose name to type in. You can’t expect people to whip out their Shazam app every time you get an airplay.

So artist now have been forced to announce themselves in their songs. Usher springs to mind. He’ll sing “Usher, Usher, Usher” at the top of a song. And have you noticed that Lady Gaga manages to get “Gaga” into every song? Million-dollar talent are reduced to wearing Applebee’s name tags. “Hi, I’m Usher.” I say stop that nonsense and leave the introductions to the professionals!

I miss being able to talk up records. I worked hard to perfect that skill. And it’s a shame to just let that very special gift go to waste. So anybody in the West Los Angeles area, if you have a Springsteen cover band, please let me jam with you – and by jam I mean talk over the intro of Hungry Heart. I’ll get your name in, the bowling alley we’re playing in, and even a plug for Fall League sign-ups – all in :19 seconds. Trust me – it will MAKE the song!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Warning: I'm going to be on television

As part of my book promotion for THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) I'll be on the WGN Mid-Day News on Friday (noon-one) in Chicago and then "Twin-Cities Live" on KSTP Channel 5 in Minneapolis-St.Paul next Tuesday from 3-4.  That one's going to be really fun because it will be live from the Minnesota State Fair.  Hopefully I can wrestle a pig or someone can make a statue of me in butter.

After Labor Day I'll be GOOD DAY L.A. on Channel 11 in Los Angeles.

The point is this:  buy my book already so you don't have to keep seeing me. 

Judging Howard Stern

I don’t know Howard Stern. I only met him once. We were both at a Bar Mitzvah. He wasn’t at my table. Paula Abdul was. (This was before AMERICAN IDOL and by the time the salads were served I was thinking, “Poor girl. She’ll never work again.”)

Howard and I were both disc jockeys who made career stops in Detroit. He was at WWWW (playing Layla every half hour) and I was at WDRQ (playing Seasons in the Sun every ten minutes). 

I thought I was edgy on the air. Double entendres over record intros. “Here’s Olivia Newton-hyphen-John. Boy I’d love to bust her hyphen.” -- that sort of high art. But Howard was far edgier. He’d hassle Scotland Yard, destroy a foreign car, pull outrageous stunts. I give him credit. He was willing to stick his neck out.

Since then of course, he has gone on to become the self-proclaimed King of All Media. Unlike Paula’s success, I was not surprised for a minute.

Back in the ‘90s I used to listen to Howard every morning when he was on the real radio. Once he jumped to satellite I lost touch. But two things reminded me of Howard recently.

I’ve been doing radio interviews for my book and have been on a few Morning Zoo programs. As these teams of three or four chuckleheads try to be funny and provocative all I could think was, “What a bunch of idiots! These morons couldn’t carry Howard Stern’s Altoids tin.”

The other reminder was catching him as a judge on AMERICA’S GOT A LOT OF GALL CALLING THIS TALENT. (That’s the first time I ever saw that show, incidentally. Holy shit! Midgets who belt out notes off key, a group that does light shows with colored flashlight. It’s Cirque du Insane.)

But all you have to do is watch Howard on that panel for five minutes to see why he has become such a mega success. Face it, you have three opportunists at that judges table. There’s Sharon Osbourne, a woman with utterly no talent other than the ability to promote herself. What got her to where she is? She’s married to a vegetable and managed to exploit the exposure into a career as a national celebrity. She’s even on the Columbia Broadcasting System every morning offering her opinions on the news. We’re so far beyond Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK that we can no longer even see it in the rearview mirror.

Next to her is Howie Mandel – a has-been comedian who lucked into hosting an inane game show that became a hit for exactly five minutes and from that he’s a television personality again. Seriously, the revival of his career is his ability to say, “Pick a briefcase.”

And then there’s Howard. After years of relative obscurity on satellite radio (for which he was paid the equivalent of the National Debt) he’s decided to once again claim some national exposure and for good measure, he got someone to pony up $10 million for the privilege.

The reason Howard stands out on the panel, the reason he has had such a meteoric rise in radio continually leaving his imitators and competitors in the dust, the reason he’s been able to star in a major Hollywood motion picture even with his nose, and the reason he is probably approaching billionaire status by now is this…

He is smarter than everyone else.

Listen to him on AMERICA’S GOT TALENT (?). A far cry from my Bar Mitzvah table mate. This is the high level of constructive criticism we’re used to: “You can kick it, dawg!” “I don’t know, sweetheart. It just didn’t work for me.” Howard is articulate, insightful, and gives specific feedback to each contestant. And when he gets into tiffs with Mandel it’s like a battle of wits with an unarmed man. Stern destroys him every single time.

Is the feud calculated? Probably. Again, it’s Howard’s savvy. All of his feuds are calculated. The FCC. Leno. Imus. Ellen. Rosie. Dr. Laura. Sherri Shepherd. Andy Dick. When you see that list it’s hard not to take his side. (Would somebody ask if he has time to add Whitney?)

He knows how to generate controversy. He knows how to get attention. And he knows how to win. Oh, and one other tiny thing: Howard Stern is very funny. It’s not just shock value. It’s not just recreating the hilarity of your junior high locker room. He is way funnier than these Morning Zoo buffoons. If he had gone into sitcom writing instead of radio he’d be Larry David today. If he wrote for Broadway he’d be Trey Parker & Matt Stone. If he went into sketch comedy he’d be a very ugly Tina Fey.

Not every bit works (despite Robin’s uncontrollable toady laughter at every single thing he says), and I think he’s on too many hours every day. I’m sure he knows that but when Sirius/XM is paying him Fort Knox it’s a trade-off I’m sure he’s willing to make.

People dismiss Howard as just a shock jock. And I’m sure I’m going to get a bunch of comments saying he’s lame, he’s brutal, he’s not funny, he’s just crass. But look what happened when he left terrestrial radio. CBS had an entire year to replace him… and could choose from anyone in the country. Any morning man, any “zoo keeper”, any stand-up comic, any TV star, any hotshot blogger. And after a year-long exhaustive search they selected David Lee Roth and Adam Carolla. How’d that work out for them?

He may not still be the King of All Media (I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC has less of an audience these days than satellite radio), and you may think he’s an ass, but he’s a SMART ass. And I say that with genuine respect.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our most dramatic MASH

Here’s a question I’ve been asked numerous times:

MaryAn Batchellor wonders:

How did you come to write the Billfold Syndrome?

The Billfold Sydromee is an episode of MASH my partner David Isaacs and I wrote in 1978. It’s part of the 7th season if you want to find or rent a copy and watch it. And it’s probably airing right now on three cable channels.

Here’s the premise: A young medic arrives at the 4077th with amnesia. Psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman is summoned, who (along with Hawkeye and B.J.’s help) hypnotize the young soldier to bring him back to the exact time and place he lost his memory. They recreate the battle complete with sounds and role playing. It’s maybe the most dramatic scene we’ve even written. I won’t spoil the ending should you not have seen it yet.

There’s also a subplot where Charles learns he’s been passed over for chief of thoracic surgery at Massachusetts General because he’s in Korea. In frustration he vows never to talk to anyone in the camp again, which of course is laying down the gauntlet for Hawk & Beej who then go to outlandish lengths to get him to talk.

A terrific actor – Kevin Geer played the young medic. Alan Alda directed masterfully, wringing every laugh and tear out of the script.

The title “Billfold Syndrome” is a psychiatric expression: Someone looks at his I.D. or billfold and can’t place himself.

This story came right out research. Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, and then later me and David, interviewed doctors, nurses, corpsmen, soldiers – anyone who served in Korea. Most of the stories done on MASH were inspired from these interviews.

Because we knew it would be heavy subject matter we wanted to do a B-story that was comedic. We kept of file of notions and the Charles story seemed to fit the bill(fold).

David and I got together with a prominent Beverly Hills psychiatrist I knew and he walked us through the hypnosis process step-by-step. We used some of the doctor’s lines verbatim.

Hypnosis is such a tricky area. It can come off very sketchy. We all took great pains to treat it seriously and portray the scene accurately. Again, my thanks to Alan for directing that scene with such sensitivity.

It’s one of my favorite MASH episodes. As a comedy writer I’m often asked, “So can you write drama?” and I always point them to this. No, it’s not CSI:MIAMI but it’s all I got.

Monday, August 20, 2012

THANKS!! everyone who attended my Seattle book party for THE ME GENERATION...BY ME. Even Santa was there. I'm trying to get him to buy 5,000,000 copies and hand them out to the all the kiddies on Xmas morning.  I can't think of a more perfect gift for children than a humorous memoir of the 1960s.

Tonight's the night!

Hello from Seattle. Tonight’s the night of my big book signing at the Mariners’ Team Store at Safeco Field from 5:00-7:00, before the M’s take on Cleveland.  Note:  You don't need a ticket to get into the store.   Happy to sign books, body parts, whatever you got. It’s also a great chance to meet and thank you all for reading this blog. So hopefully a lot of you will swing by because, well…

It could be Torrance all over again.

I’ve touched on this before but during my radio daze I would often have to do live remotes. These were broadcasts from stores designed to bring in customers. In almost one hundred years of radio broadcasting, station personnel have still not realized that watching some schmendrick sit in a store window playing records is not a big draw. Even the lure of free bumper stickers and discount coupons for lube jobs are not enough to get warm bodies into your store. These remotes usually make the stations look bad and force the disc jockeys to violate their restraining orders requiring them to be at least ten yards from any minor.

I’ve done these remotes in hardware stores, tuxedo rental shops, record stores, a Denny’s, and an exclusive country club. That was fun, telling the thirty-five people in Los Angeles who were even eligible to come on by.

When the Dodgers were on XTRA 1150 I co-hosted a pre-game show with Ben Maller (now with Fox Sports Radio). One time we had to do the show from a tire store in Torrance. But since it was a day game from the east and we were on west coast time, the show started at 8:00. The store wasn’t even open until 10:00. We sat there alone in the parking lot, looking like a couple of complete idiots. You can see why I wouldn’t want to repeat that lovely episode.

(Later that same year we did our broadcast from a car dealership in Anaheim, again set up in the parking lot. The dealer also happened to have his gardener there that day. All the listeners heard for a half an hour was a deafeningly loud leaf blower.)

When I had a book come out in 1993 (IT’S GONE… NO, WAIT A MINUTE) I didn’t have any book signings. My publisher (Villard) said no one knows who the hell I am so it makes no sense. My team, ladies and gentlemen!  If you have one of those I'll be happy to sign it too.

Then when I came out with my travel book last year (WHERE THE HELL AM I? TRIPS I HAVE SURVIVED) it turns out there were no more bookstores.  Damn!  Why didn't I write it thirty years earlier? 

I wonder – did they have book signings in other eras? Did Herman Melville appear at the Milwaukee Cream Citys’ Team Store in 1865 and read MOBY DICK?

I have a few friends who ghost-wrote books for celebrities and athletes. If they have a signing I always try to go. One was particularly great. It was for a noted athlete. As is usually the case, the author will read a portion of his book. This athlete stumbled and bumbled and couldn’t pronounce half the words he uh… wrote. I can only imagine the audiobook. Mine is almost eight hours long.  His must be thirty. 

And then there’s the story about basketball legend, Charles Barkley. When someone criticized something in his book he claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography.

I will do my best to get through my passages tonight. And worse comes to worst I’ll just lapse into Mariners play-by-play.

See you all at 5. Well, maybe not all of you. Many of you. Some of you. Hopefully more than Torrance.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Now you can talk like a real sitcom writer!

You gotta know the lingo. Sitcom writing rooms have their own terms and expressions and if you ever plan on being in one (either by choice or force) you might want to know a few of them.  I'll sprinkle in more in the weeks ahead but this should get you started.   The only other thing I would add is swear more than in GIRLS. 

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Hey May – Supposedly from Carl Reiner and the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It’s an act break so great that a husband yells to his wife in the kichen: “Hey, May, you gotta get in here!”

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.   She eventually quit.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Jan Smithers went to my high school

Hello from Seattle, where I'm calling Mariners games this weekend.  And a reminder -- on Monday I'm having a book signing at the Mariners' Team Store at Safeco Field from 5:00-7:000 PM (before the game with the Indians).  Hope you'll stop by if you're anywhere in the Pacific Northwest.  

In the meantime, here's another snippet from the book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).  It's available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback versions.  Just go to the website, which is chock-full of photos, videos, and other neat stuff.   But for now, let's go back to 1966...
Our high school made national news!

The March 21st edition of Newsweek magazine did their big cover story on “The Teenagers – a Newsweek survey of what they’re really like” and a good portion of it focused on Taft High. The cover featured a pretty coed sitting on the back of a motorcycle glancing over her shoulder at the camera. That girl was Taft senior, Jan Smithers. Jan, of course, would go to play Bailey on WKRP IN CINCINNATI.

The survey determined that there was in fact this so-called “Generation Gap” (who knew???). And it’s widened because the older generation is resistant to listening to and understanding us. Whatever. Taft was mentioned! And our very own Jan was selected as the cover girl!

For five minutes she was the absolute star of the school, eclipsing even the football star, and the girl who played a burn victim on BEN CASEY.

The cover itself was very telling. Yes, we were rebellious, yes we rode motorcycles but they were cute little motorcycles with drivers who wore jean jackets and California golden girls on the back who wore sweaters and white slacks. Hardly Brando in THE WILD ONE.

Friday, August 17, 2012

My all-time favorite sitcom episode

To be answered sometime in this post.  Greetings from Seattle where I’m broadcasting this weekend’s series against the Minnesota Twins on 710 ESPN, the Mariners Radio Network, MLB.COM, and Sirius/XM satellite. But before I fill out my line up card, here are some Friday Questions.

Liggie starts with a baseball broadcaster query:

How long did it take you to get used to calling games while having the producer barking into your earpiece? I have to wear a headset for my job, and I always have trouble concentrating when I'm talking to a customer face-to-face while an unrelated conversation is going on in the radio system.

It was an adjustment when I first started doing television play-by-play I admit. But most of the time the director will only chime in when it’s necessary and he'll be brief. “Replay.” “Promo.”, etc. That said, I had a director when I was in San Diego who drove me nuts. I’d be telling some story on the air and he’d be commenting in my ear. Or trying to top me if I was saying something funny. I finally had to take him aside and tell him I would kill him and his family and his pets if he ever did it again.

When I was with Seattle in the early ‘90s Ken Griffey Sr. was my partner on some telecasts. Ken is a great guy, but at the time was new to broadcasting. The director has the ability to talk to both announcers or either announcer through our headsets. Sometimes the director will talk to the analyst and tell him what graphic or replay is coming up. This would be the case with Kenny, but from time to time he would answer, forgetting that he was on the air. So I’d be talking about something and Ken would randomly blurt out, “When do you wanna do that?” or “No.” And at first I thought, “What the fuck is he doing?” and then I realized.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for Bob Costas, hosting the Olympics, keeping all those names and events straight, and in his case the director must be talking to him non-stop. It’s truly an art.

Kingsley asks:

What's the most important piece of advice you'd give to the director of a brand-new sitcom?

Help the actors find their characters. Show patience, allow for a lot of experimentation, and create a safe, open environment.

Always hanging in the air during a pilot is fear. There’s a lot riding on it. Today especially, actors know they could be fired as early as the network runthrough. So in addition to trying to embody a new character they’re always working with a guillotine over their heads. You need to understand this. They will do their best work if they trust you. Be in control of the set. Set the tone. Let them see you really are on their side and whatever their process is (and each actor has a different one), you’re willing to work within it.

Then go home and down a pitcher of margaritas.  

estiv wants to know:

The other night I was watching a Dick Van Dyke Show episode with Allan Melvin in a supporting role, and got to thinking about how many times I had seen him over the years. On shows like MASH and Cheers, what was the feeling about using well-known character actors for individual episodes? Seems like it would be a tradeoff between hiring a known quantity, reliable and professional, versus the fact that such a familiar face could take the audience out of the story, and just make them think, "Oh, him again." How has it worked in your experience? Thanks.

I tend to fall in the “Oh, him again” category. At least at the beginning of casting. I’ll ask the casting director if there isn’t someone we haven’t seen as often? But on many of these occasions we’ll read some fresh faces and realize they’re not nearly as good as the veteran character actor. There’s a reason he gets cast in so many shows.

I remember we had a part on MASH one week. A certain character actor was suggested. We said, “Jesus, he’s been in everything.” Let’s keep looking. After multiple casting sessions we just cried uncle, hire the established guy.

He turned in a fantastic performance. A few years later he got a break starring in a small movie that became a surprise hit and his career took off like a rocket.

The movie? BABE. The actor? James Cromwell… although at the time we knew him he was always “Jamie.”

My heart goes out to character actors. They’re always either over-exposed or under-exposed.

Finally, from GC from France:

What is your favorite sitcom episode, if you have to choose just one?(any show)

The “$99,000 Answer” episode of THE HONEYMOONERS. I was a kid when I first saw it and did not see the final punch line coming. When that joke hit I must’ve laughed for ten minutes straight. I have a lot of favorite episodes from a lot of series for various reasons, but if I had to choose just one that’s the winner. (I hope they show THE HONEYMOONERS in France.)

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks!!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

iPartment is iRip Off

It has been brought to my attention that there is a sitcom in China called iPARTMENT that is just a shameless rip off of American sitcoms. The premise is essentially FRIENDS and they wantonly steal jokes from U.S. shows. At times they’ve allegedly lifted entire scenes from HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

The iPARTMENT producers of course deny any wrongdoing and claim their series is an homage to American sitcoms. And they’re just using stock sitcom character types. But they’ve already had to apologize to one screenwriter for stealing jokes he posted online.

Critics have said the show is 40 minutes – 30 minutes of directly stealing a US sitcom story and 10 minutes of jokes stolen from other sources.

The producers can deny all they want but how hard will it be to compare a translated episode of their show to the U.S. version they stole? I guess the question is, can you sue China? I doubt if individual writers have the clout but the studios sure do. So will they?  Or are they willing to look the other way so as not to ruffle feathers? It may be more important to establish good relationships with Chinese networks and producers for future ventures.

But again, if the allegations are true, it’s reprehensible – not just to our writers but to China’s writers. iPARTMENT is essentially saying Chinese writers aren’t good enough so they have to steal from America. That’s an unwarranted slap in the face.

And the practice is also utterly stupid.

In the heyday of Top 40 radio, disc jockeys in one market would blatantly steal the acts of disc jockeys in another. If a jock in Buffalo was imitating a jock in San Francisco, how many Buffalo listeners would ever know? That’s why you had Emperor Bob and Emperor Gene and Emperor Don, and Robert W. Morgan and Roger W. Morgan, and the Real Don Steele and the Real Pete McNeal and the True Don Blu.

But today we live in a global world with instantaneous communication. I can sit in Los Angeles and watch iPARTMENT online. Someone in China can recognize the plagiary and with one click alert the entire world. So who are they foolin’?

To implore the producers of iPARTMENT to stop stealing is I’m sure pointless. They’re not creative people, they’re thieves. I can only hope that public pressure and legal consequences force them to stop or better yet, to shut down production.

U.S. writers deserve compensation and Chinese viewers deserve original television.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Felix Hernandez Perfect Game!

To answer all of your questions -- no, I wasn't there to call it.  I go up to Seattle tomorrow and begin work on Friday night.  I've now missed two perfect games and one no-hitter this year.  How's that for timing? 

That said, I'm so thrilled for the King and the Mariners organization.  And Dave Sims on TV and Rick Rizzs on the radio both did a spectacular job of calling the final inning.   I'm equally happy for them.

I'll call the next Hernandez perfecto for sure.

A porn star's salute to America

Here’s a question that sparked an entire post. And it's keeping with this week's somewhat adult oriented theme.  It’s from Paul.

Will you ever write about your experiences at the strip club? As a reluctant patron, have you had any interesting conversations with the employees?

Gee, you make it sound like I’m the Norm Peterson of Gentleman’s Clubs. Okay, yes, I did attend pornstar karaoke one time. You can read about it here.

But I haven’t been to a strip club since shortly after 9-11. That was a rather memorable evening though.

It was a friend’s bachelor party. There were six or seven of us – all comedy writers. One of them must’ve spent ten years of COSBY residuals on lap dances. We never saw him.

The rest of us staked out our positions, sitting stage side. Each dancer would perform her two songs and we’d each hand her a dollar bill. Being comedy writers we would be constantly tossing asides to each other. “Hey, guys, did you see the way she took my dollar? She thinks I’m special.” “Wasn’t she the judge on MATLOCK?” etc. These girls weren’t just hot, they were joke set-ups.

I guess the big attraction at these clubs was a noted porn star appearing. This club was proud to announce that someone I had never heard of was about to perform. The excitement and anticipation was palpable.  All eyes turned to the stage as this porn star came out and did her routine. God, what a klutz. She may have been a virtuoso in three-on-one scenes but Bristol Palin was more graceful.

You can imagine the pithy remarks that flew back and forth within our merry group. Trust me, we were more entertaining than she was… and she was naked.

Then the DJ announced that she had a big finale. A tribute to 9-11 and this proud country.  Oh boy. This had the potential of greatness.

She went backstage for a moment and returned wearing a cowboy hat, toting an inflated kiddie pool.

Along with a couple of key props.

She stood in the center of the pool, nodded to the DJ., and “Proud to be an American” by Lee Greenwood began to blast. With one hand she waved an American flag high over her head. And with the other she poured a bottle of milk down her chest. How the milk running down her naked body was supposed to symbolize patriotism I do not know, but the whole spectacle was surreal. We all completely lost it, laughing hysterically. At one point I looked around the room, expecting everybody to be laughing. No. Everyone else was staring up at the stage, visibly moved, tears in their eyes. This set us off even more.

Finally, she turned to us, stopped waving her flag, and snarled, “What’s so fucking funny?! This is the first time I’ve been scolded by a porn star. None of us were able to compose ourselves to answer.

She finished to thunderous applause. We left shortly thereafter. We didn’t want to be the first guys in the history of strip clubs to be thrown out for excessive laughter. So that was my interesting conversation with one of the employees.  Oh, wait.  There were two conversations.  When I offered my dollar bill she told me to shove it up my ass.