Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Get well George Wendt

George Wendt is having a medical procedure done in Chicago and is expected to make a full recovery.  If you would like to send George a "get well soon" note, you can leave it in the comments section and I will make sure he receives it.    Thanks much. 

The night the Hell's Angels went trick or treating

Here's a Halloween story from my sordid disc jockey past. 

1971 and I was doing weeekends at KERN in Bakersfield. I was five at the time. (All TV writers older than twenty who hope to work lie about their age.)  The station was this shack out in the middle of nowhere. And since Bakersfield itself is in the middle of nowhere, the station was really REALLY in the middle of nowhere.

It was my second week. I was holding down the coveted Saturday 6-midnight shift. At about 10:00 the doorbell rang. Who would be coming to call at this hour? Maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses work late in this town. I put a record on and like an idiot went to the front lobby and opened the door.

There was a full gang of Hell Angels – probably thirty of the scariest leather clad, chain wielding, tattoo sporting (before it was fashionable), chopper riding, engine revving, ass kicking (and in my mind, Jew hating) dudes you’ve ever seen. And their girlfriends who could beat the shit out of me.

So I was Jello in a windstorm. Picture Ralph Kramden as the “Chef of the Future”. “Hummina hummina hummina” The leader (at least I thought he was the leader. I didn’t ask for ID.), growled, “You the fucking guy on the radio?”

“Hummina hummina”.


“HUMMINA hummina hummina.”

I was thinking, “What offensive thing did I say that is going to get me killed?” And “This will be a good indication of how many people are actually listening to KERN. Let’s see how long it takes for someone to discover my body."

Mr. Leader of the Pack said, “Do you have Sweet Cream Ladies?” (A late 60s moderate hit by the Box Tops)

A request? That’s why they’re there? To make a song request?

Somewhat relieved I mumble “Sure.”

He signaled to the others and they roared off to terrorize someone else. I locked the door, checked my underwear, and went to the record library PRAYING that we had a copy in there.

There is a God! They had it.

I ran back to the studio and cued it up. It was my next record. I completely broke format but who gives a shit! I could be dead by the time the format said to play an oldie.

A half hour later the doorbell rang again. What to do? They knew I was in there. And they all smoked so they all have matches. Any one of them could set the building on fire. I could just see them dismantling the tower and welding it into more bikes.

I reluctantly opened the door. There they were again. The leader handed me a beer and said, “Thanks, man.” They drive off.

Usually I don’t drink beer while on the air but not that night. Anything to settle my jangled nerves.

The next week, same thing. At about 10:00 they were at the front door to request Sweet Cream Ladies. A half hour later they returned with a beer as thanks for playing it.

The following week I just played the song at 10:00 and at 10:30 receive my reward.

Thus began a ritual that lasted almost a year. And it really proved to be a Godsend on Halloween.

Houses get T.P.ed, and cars get egged and vandalized on Halloween in Bakersfield. It’s a proud tradition. And my car was alone in a lot next to the shack in a dark empty field. I figured I’d get off of work and there would be nothing left but a drive shaft and maybe one hub cap. Instead, the car was completely untouched. Guess word got around that I was BFF with the local Hells Angels.

As I drove away I noticed that every house on the adjacent residential block had been egged and trashed and every car attacked. Except mine. Mine was pristine.

Sorry to say me and the gang haven’t stayed in touch. Especially during network note meetings.

Happy Halloween everyone.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Any post in the storm

My heart goes out to everyone on the east coast getting battered by this vicious storm. I’ve never been in a hurricane per se, but I was in a cyclone earlier this year (which I’m told is just like a hurricane but in a different hemisphere). So imagine 100 mile-an-hour winds and 40 foot waves and being in a boat. The midnight buffet came to you.

Here in LA we don’t worry about hurricanes. All we have to contend with are those pesky major earthquakes, brush fires, mudslides, and tour buses. Since there is no drainage in Los Angeles to speak of, whenever we get five drops of rain the local stations shift into STORM WATCH mode. Programming is interrupted by updates on how many sandbags have now been filled to bolster Barbra Streisand’s fucking house.

I have experienced a few of our tremblers including the big one in ’94. I really feel for those people who fled LA for the east coast as a result.   Face it.  There's nowhere really safe.  Even in Oz a house could fall on you.

The thing about earthquakes as opposed to hurricanes is that there’s no way to prepare for them. Thank God so many people were able to evacuate ahead of Sandy. Or at least buy flashlights.

Has Fox News officially blamed the hurricane on Obama yet?

The president spoke yesterday reassuring citizens that the government will do everything it can to help people get through this and get them back on their feet when it's over, and some idiot reporter asked him how this affected the election.  I thought the president showed great restraint not saying, "Are you fucking kidding me?"  

As I watched those poor wretches in slickers reporting from flooded Atlantic City and lower Manhattan I thought, how are you guys going to get home?  Where are you going to spend the night? How come the pretty girl gets to anchor back in the nice warm studio?

I spent most of yesterday watching WCBS 2's coverage on line and they did a terrific job.

On the other hand, KCBS 2 in Los Angeles at 11 pm showed five minutes of highlights, then how cancelled flights were inconveniencing travelers at LAX (haven't we seen that story a billion times already?), and finally a five minute story on how some local seafood market was having trouble getting fresh clams from the east coast.  Billions of dollars in damage and this skeesix might have to buy his mussels elsewhere.  Oh, the humanity. 

And the media is only part of the coverage these days. Thanks to Facebook I’ve seen harrowing photos of the storm and its devastation sprinkled in with all the photos of peoples’ dogs and tennis shoes spam. 

But that’s the point of my post today – if you are going through this storm, document it. And not just with photos, write down your observations. A hurricane is certainly serious business, but if you have a sense of humor, now is when it can really come in handy. There’s always absurdity to be found.

Back to the 1994 quake.  There was a business affairs exec at Paramount who was battling insomnia. His doctor prescribed a pretty strong sleeping pill. As a result he slept through the entire earthquake. He woke up in the morning and saw all his dresser drawers were askew and clothes were strewn everywhere. So he called the police and reported a burglary.

Or a writer colleague who at the time had a development deal with Disney to create new shows. His house was near the epicenter and his grand piano slid right through a large plate glass window and crashed in a heap onto his front lawn. Ten minutes later a Disney exec called and wanted to hear his latest pilot ideas.

I’m sure there are stories – or will be stories like that in this case, and they will help get you through. People do heroic, selfless, extraordinary things during times of crisis. And they also do goofy things. Jot them down. Send them if you’d like. I’m not Facebook but I am capable of sharing and liking.

And whatever your emotions, whatever you are going through, however you are managing to cope with this disaster, I think you’ll feel a lot better having expressed them. It sure helped me through that cyclone. Well, that and twelve Dramamines and three bourbons.

Again, my very best to all of you undergoing this ordeal. May you, your friends, loved ones, and homes come through this safe and sound. May the clean-up and recovery go better than expected.  And if you happen to option your story for a million-five, hey, that’s okay too.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Thanks to everyone...

photo by Sharon Weisz
for coming out to my book signing Monday night at the Grove for THE ME GENERATION.. BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).  Lots of friends, readers of the blog, and a few people waiting for Caroline Kennedy's appearance in two weeks who just wanted to get a good seat.  Signed a lot of books and one guy actually had me sign the back of his Kindle.   Hope you all had as much fun as I did and more importantly, enjoy the book.    

My book signing is tonight!!!

Tonight’s the night of my book signing at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove in West Los Angeles. It’ll be from 7-9, I’ll be reading a section of my book, THE ME GENERATION… BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE ‘60s), answering questions, and signing my name a lot. If you’re in LA, please come by. Say you heard about it in my blog and receive as a free bonus my thanks.

But if you can’t make it (let's say you live in Bhutan), you can still feel a part of it by ordering my book. Here’s where you go. Kindle, paperback, and audiobook versions are available. They make great trick-or-treat items for the kiddies Wednesday night.

As an extra incentive, here’s a brief excerpt. Hopefully, you’ll read it and say, “Jesus, if these are the kinds of things that happen to this nimrod, where do I get my copy?”

The following story is absolutely true. Even though this incident took place way back in 1969 I can still remember it in vivid detail.  What a great memory I must have. 

KMPC’s Gary Owens arranged for me to watch them make Laugh In at the NBC studios in Burbank. They were filming blackout sketches that day – quick sight gags. So there was no audience. Just the cast and crew and me in a big drafty soundstage filled with flimsy sets and props. Very workmanlike and informal. No one even noticed I was there.

On the agenda that day was a series of blackouts featuring 23 year-old Goldie Hawn as a cute little French maid negotiating a mop and bucket. A self-contained kitchen set with two walls was wheeled onto the sound stage.

For one of the gags, Goldie was to plunge her mop in the bucket and water would shoot up into her face. The only problem (besides the gag not being remotely funny) was that the set was on a solid base. There was no way to attach the hose to the bottom of the bucket. So someone had the bright idea that they could just get a thin clear color hose and run it up Goldie’s leg and if shot at just the right angle it would appear the geyser of water was sprouting from the bucket.

Ten minutes later, a hose was produced and handed to Goldie. I’m standing right in front of her. She’s on this two-foot high base. She runs this tube up her leg and lifts her little mini skirt to slip it through her panties. But when the drippy hose meets her panties they instantly become invisible.

So there I am – callow, 19-year-old, a mere inches away, standing eye-to-eye with Goldie Hawn’s perfectly visible vagina.

Later in the year we would land a man on the moon, perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement. I was more in awe of this. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My idea for a really cool slasher movie

Yes, I posted this a couple of years ago but no one optioned my brilliant idea so I'm trying again.

I must admit I never got into those slasher movies. Seems to me they’re all the same story. The popular kids who were too good to ever go out with you in high school all frolic off to a cabin for some holiday and some disfigured skeesix in a goalie’s mask terrorizes and one-by-one graphically slices them up. Yes, it’s grizzly and horrible but isn’t that sorta what they deserve? Would it kill them to agree to dance with us just once??

Then there’s a sequel where the ones that survived go BACK to the cabin. You’d think maybe they’d hit the MTV beach house the next winter break instead?

And there’s always the backstory explaining how the psychopath became a killer…such as he was a bed wetter or flunked out of Benihana's Chef school.

I have what I believe is a great idea for a slasher movie. I’m sharing it because I’ve had it registered (in other words, you can’t steal it!!!). But it seems to me the key to this genre is creating a truly terrifying slasher. My idea is to hire Gordon from SESAME STREET as the psychopath. Can you imagine how disturbing THAT would be to anyone who grew up with that show?

“You didn’t eat your vegetables!” “AAAAAAAA!!!” Slice! Hack!

“Can you spell ‘help’?” “H-E-L-AAAAAAAAAAA!!” Stab! Slit!

“One of these limbs is not like the others!” Chop!

“Today I’m brought to you by the letters D.O.A.!!”

I can hear the screams now. Freddie and Jason and Chucky, eat (or cut) your hearts out. Plus, I’ve got the sequel all storyboarded. Only this time it’s Maria.

Happy Halloween, kids.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

R.I.P. Alan Kirschenbaum

So sorry to hear of the death of comedy writer Alan Kirschenbaum.  He was only 51.  Alan co-created YES, DEAR and was involved in any number of series.  I worked with him briefly on STARK RAVING MAD.  And we punched up a lot of pilots together.  Well... he did.  I sat back and laughed.   Alan was a wonderful guy.   He had a great wit and a gentle soul.   And was sooo much fun to be in a room with. 

The cause of death is still unclear.  My heart goes out to his family and friends.  One of the main reasons I wanted to be a TV comedy writer was so I could surround myself with people like Alan Kirshenbaum.  He will be greatly missed. 

My favorite comedy screenplays

Someone asked me to list my top ten favorite comedy screenplays. Fine, as long as I don’t have to do it in order and don’t have to limit myself to ten. These are my favorites, which means these are the movies I wish I had written.

ALL ABOUT EVE – Joseph Mankiewicz. Sharpest dialogue I’ve ever heard. The film is 60 years old and still crackles. Saw it again recently. What a pleasure to watch, especially now during the dumbing down of America.

SOME LIKE IT HOT – Billy Wilder & IAL Diamond. Disproves its classic last lane. Somebody IS perfect.

HEARTBREAK KID – Neil Simon (although the hand of director Elaine May is clearly evident). Jewish men generally love this movie, Jewish women hate it. A young Charles Grodin gives the comic performance of his career. And Eddie Albert (yes, Eddie Albert) will make you laugh out loud. Ignore the remake.

THE LADY EVE – Preston Sturgess, story by Monckton Hoffe & Preston Sturgess. Screwball comedy at its funniest and most sophisticated. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda – not who you naturally think of as a comedy team but they pull it off with ease.

HIS GIRL FRIDAY – Screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on the play by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur. Cary Grant & Rosalind Russell trade quips at a pace that makes THE NEWSROOM seem slow. And every word out of their mouths is a gem.

ARTHUR -- Steve Gordon's masterpiece. For more info on Steve and scenes that were cut from his original draft, check out my archives.

TOOTSIE – Larry Gelbart (although fifteen other writers also had a hand in it). If there seems to be a pattern in the comedies I like its men posing as women or “Eve” in the title.

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN – Woody Allen. This movie was a revelation, especially when you consider that at the time (late 60’s) most “comedies” were lame Doris Day type films.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN – Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder. “Putting on the Ritz” scene alone puts this in my top ten.

ANNIE HALL -- Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman. For my money the perfect romantic comedy. (How could the same guy write HOLLYWOOD ENDING?)

MOONSTRUCK – John Patrick Shanley. Okay, so there are two perfect romantic comedies.

CHASING AMY – Kevin Smith. Funny, real, pitch perfect.  What happened to Kevin after this? 

AMERICAN GRAFFITI – George Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck. A consistently funny movie that doesn’t even try to be a comedy. And what a soundtrack!

DR. STRANGELOVE – Stanley Kubrick and Peter George and Terry Southern. The perfect black comedy. And there are no other perfect black comedies.

THE PRODUCERS – Mel Brooks. The movie not the movie of the musical based on the movie. That was dreadful.

LA CAGE AUX FOLLES – Jean Poiret, Francis Veber, Edouard Molinaro, Marcello Damon. Even the subtitles were funny.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL -- Richard Curtis. Even Andie McDowell couldn't kill this English confection. But boy did she try.

SHOWGIRLS – Joe Eszterhas. So unspeakably terrible on every level that you can’t help but laugh throughout. (Okay, so that’s one I’m glad I didn’t write). It's a tribute to Elizabeth Berkley's talent that after starring in this movie she still has a career.

Everyone is invited to list your favorites. Including VOLUNTEERS is not mandatory.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Questions

Friday Question Day and a happy birthday to my writing partner, Professor David Isaacs:

To start it off, we have Janice:

When watching Wings I'll sometimes notice Tony Shalhoub trying not to laugh - which makes me laugh even more. As a director, would you generally reshoot the scene or leave the genuine "fun" intact? I know these make for some of the most beloved scenes in The Carol Burnett Show, but that was live and the option to reshoot wasn't available.

As opposed to sketch shows, you don’t want to break the 4th wall and destroy the reality of the scene. So if an actor laughs as opposed to the “character” laughing, then yes, I’d reshoot it.

But there was a FRASIER episode I directed involving two characters with big noses and everyone trying not to laugh. I told the cameramen that if they’re on an actor who is about to break up, stay with him, even if it means not getting to your next mark. I’ll pick it up later. But I wanted some real genuine moments captured. And it paid dividends. There are priceless shots of David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, and John Mahoney.

For the record, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW was not shown live. They taped it twice for two different audiences. The first taping they stuck to the script, the second they had more leeway. Producers then selected the funniest performances. But by using the looser “off book” takes the show did have a very “live” feeling to it.

Steve asks:

What happened to Friday and Saturday night TV? Some of TV's biggest shows ever used to be on those nights (Dallas, All in The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett etc) but they are a wasteland today. Are the networks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by not programming stronger lineups on those nights (with little competition from rival networks)?

Young people go out on Friday and Saturday nights and young people are all the networks care about.

And if  18-34's do stay home on a Friday and Saturday night, chances are they’ll watch a rented movie.

Also, in those halcyon days of ALL IN THE FAMILY/CAROL BURNETT SHOW hardly anybody had a video recording device. So you purposely stayed home to see those shows. Now you set your DVR and go.

Networks still throw some new shows on on Friday, but not many. And they usually go there to die. So think about it. At one time the networks programmed three or more hours a night for seven nights. Now they program three hours a night for essentially five-and-a-half nights. Fewer time slots. You think they’d have better programs, wouldn’t you? Only the cream of the crop would get on the schedule. And yet ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA made it onto NBC

From Terry:

I recently saw the Cheers episode where the Carla attacks the obnoxious Yankees fan (note: the episode is “the Tortelli Tort”) and it got me to thinking about the role the Red Sox played in the tone of the series. At the time of Cheers, the Red Sox hadn't won a World Series in many, many years. They had the reputation of being losers, yet Boston fans (myself included) loved them anyway, not unlike the gang at Cheers.

So my question is this: if the show had gone on the air after the 2004 Sox win, do you think it would have changed the tone at all? The gang did spend a good amount of time in those early seasons commiserating about the Sox, even if it wasn't related to the main plot of the show.

Absolutely.  We'd give them a completely different outlook.  They’d take more pride in being Red Sox fans once they won a World Series, but they wouldn’t identify with them as much because they were no longer losers.

That said, Carla would bang a Yankee fan’s head into the bar regardless of the standings.

Cheryl Marks wonders:

Who makes the call as to which scenes are deleted when movies are edited to fit a particular time slot? The original editor and director?

How about TV shows? As a kid, I remember at least one I Love Lucy episode that now airs without a short scene that appeared between two commercial breaks.

I'm assuming the writer doesn't have a say.

Answering your last question first. The writer does have say if he’s also the showrunner. For television series the showrunner has final cut. The director is given the courtesy to suggest changes but ultimately it’s the showrunner who makes the call.

Now, who edits movies for TV? I assume you mean theatrical features. I don’t think there’s any single answer here. Probably someone at the network edits the films for time. But I have heard of cases where the original director has gotten involved. And I suppose when a film director negotiates for final cut of the film’s release he could also negotiate for final cut of the network version.

When theatrical movies go into syndication I think great care is taken to ensure the worst possible editor cuts the film. They’re always so hacked and disjointed.

Still, when I saw VOLUNTEERS on local channel 5 it was the first time I thought they didn’t edit out enough.

UPDATE: A very high ranked network programming chief just emailed me this AMAZING answer to this editing question. Many many thanks. You never know who reads this crazy blog.

I read your Friday question... I've bought a lot of movies for TV. The studio always produces the cut for the network, and sometimes they have to get the director's approval. They create a lot of versions of a movie... The USA cut will differ from the TNT cut... From the syndication cut... And the international cut. I don't know if every director has a right to review every cut, but I do know some directors do and it can be an issue getting their blessing prior to delivery, because the director (think Spielberg, Scorsese, and the like) want to see every change to their movie, no matter how minor. Sometimes it is just the TNT format is :45 seconds shorter than the FX format, for example, which isn't a big deal in a 2.5 hour movie. By the way, most movies today are longer, so most of them fit in a 2.5 hour movie window on basic cable.

And finally, from Sebastian Peitsch :

Why don't couples in comedy shows stay together?

Because living happily ever after is comedy death. Comedy comes out of conflict. Sam and Diane holding hands is not nearly as interesting or funny as Sam and Diane holding these...
Thanks to reader Jeffro, here's that scene:

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

Thursday, October 25, 2012


As you prepare for your moviegoing experience this weekend, you might consider this flick. 

Not many people can make an original movie while copying other people’s styles. But Martin McDonagh manages to in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. This picture is very Quentin Tarantinoesque with maybe a dash of Steve Martin. PULP FICTION meets L.A. STORY. Yet the viewpoints, weird plot turns, and characters all seem very much McDonagh’s own. 

For those not familiar with Martin McDonagh, he’s an Irish playwright who has written some highly acclaimed and darkly bizarre plays including THE PILLOWMAN. He also won an Oscar in 2006 for his short film SIX SHOOTER and was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for IN BRUGES in 2006. So now a few of you are saying, “Oh, that guy” while most of you are saying “Okay, now I know.” With more movies like SEVEN PSYCOPATHS and maybe eight more nomination, everyone is going to know who he is soon enough.

No SPOILER ALERT because I won’t tell you anything that happens, but let me fill you in on some of the characters to give you an idea of what you’re in for.

It’s set in Hollywood so naturally it features a struggling screenwriter and hit men. Colin Farrell is the scribe so you know right away his genre is not Nancy Meyer films. His best friend is an out-of-work actor (no Hollywood-based movie would be without one of those either)/loose cannon played by Sam Rockwell. They’re great together. Bert & Ernie with violence.

You always wonder what starving actors do to pay the rent. Sam kidnaps dogs and returns them to their owners for the reward. Hey, waiter gigs are scarce these days. His partner in crime is Chris Walken. You can’t have a movie called SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and not have Christopher Walken. Hell, you can’t have a movie called ONE PSYCHOPATH and not have Christopher Walken. He turns in another mesmerizing weird performance.

And then there’s my buddy, Woody Harrelson as the scary mob boss. There’s always something so likable about Woody. As I watched him on the screen I thought, “Y’know, I bet we could’ve gotten away with having him kill people on CHEERS.”

Throw Tom Waits and few other crazies into the stew and you’ve got a rollicking good film. There are very few women in the movie but that issue is addressed.

In true Tarantino style there are flashes of graphic violence. And several storylines dovetail and connect. I think at one point or another every character in the film is pointing a gun at every other character in the film. The movie is a tad long (perhaps McDonah would have been better served making SIX PSYCHOPATHS) but it moves along at a decent clip and is very very FUNNY.

And here’s why every fledgling comedy writer should see it: For all the laughs in the film – BIG laughs – there are no jokes. Not a one. The laughs all come out of character and attitude. The laughs are all super specific to who those people are. No line is interchangeable. Also, every line is delivered straight. Nobody knows they’re saying something amusing. No one is trying to say something amusing. It’s just who they are and what they think in the reality of the world they exist in. Compare that to forced comic set pieces with endless unmotivated pratfalls and tired punchlines.

And comedy lesson number two: Laughs come from reactions. And Colin Farrell gets a whole bunch without saying a word. There are so many more tools at the comedy writer’s disposal than just the word vagina and someone vomiting into a tuba.

Warning: there are moments of gore and the dialogue can get raw. The C-bomb is dropped maybe five minutes in. But SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is worth a look. It’s a fun ride. The only thing I would say though is that not everybody in LA carries a gun. Everyone does have a screenplay but a few are unarmed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Zany adventures in directing

My favorite part of directing multi-camera shows (shot before a live studio audience, or at least semi-conscious) is the early rehearsal process. You work under controlled conditions – a closed sound stage, all your sets are right there, you’re just getting the script on its feet and you really get to play with the actors. They’re still holding scripts, it’s a very loose creative atmosphere. And since the stage is closed, the actors feel free to experiment, knowing that no one other than select crew members will be watching. They don’t have to wear make up, they don’t have to hit marks, they don’t have to actually do the fire stunt until show night.

And then there was LATELINE.

LATELINE was an NBC sitcom in the late ‘90s that starred now-Senator Al Franken. It was set in a late night news show, a la NIGHTLINE. The show was filmed in New York. I directed a bunch of episodes. One in particular had the craziest first rehearsal day ever.

Some background: Multi-camera shows are usually produced on a five-day schedule. Three days to rehearse, one to assign camera positions, and one to shoot. They’re either on a Monday through Friday schedule, or Wednesday to Tuesday. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, which I have discussed elsewhere in this blog but don’t want to bother looking up right now. For LATELINE, we began rehearsing on Wednesday and shot the show the following Tuesday night. This meant that we’d finish a show one night and be right back at it with a new script the next day.

In LA, when a show wraps on Tuesday night, crews come in in the middle of the night, strike the swing sets and set up the new swing sets for the next episode. We arrive on stage Wednesday morning and voila!  It’s all done. Elves do it while we sleep for all I know.

In NY the crew comes in to strike the old sets and slide in the new on Wednesday afternoon. I said to the line producer, “Is this a union thing? You can’t have crews in the middle of the night? And the producer said pointedly, “Oh you can get crews. You just don’t want ‘em.” I took his word for it.

So I would have a table reading on Wednesday (where the cast would all just read the script aloud around a table), then I sent them home for the day. We began rehearsing on Thursday.

However, this one week, we had the chance to get Allison Janney to be a guest star. This was before WEST WING, by the way. But she was so funny in the audition that we knew we had a prize. The only hitch was she had a previous commitment for that Thursday that she couldn’t break. Our choices were to cast someone else or work around her schedule. It was a no-brainer.

So I planned on just rehearsing on Wednesday and ignoring the construction crew.  Yeah... right.

One other thing I should note: we filmed at the Kaufman-Astoria studios in Queens – a large building that took up a city block. But it was just surrounded by local businesses. Greek restaurants, Laundromats, furniture stores, etc.

And it was late November.

So we begin rehearsing at about 1:00. A half-hour later the crew arrives. They begin dismantling the sets. Saws and drills and hammers and banging. You couldn’t hear yourself think.

Then it was time to replace the sets. Now they open the huge stage door. All stages have them. But in Hollywood the stages open out to the lot. Here it opened to the street. So pedestrians would stroll by, be curious, and just wander onto the stage. We suddenly had an audience of twenty strangers.

And once the big door was open, there was nothing to shield us from the Nor’easter that blew through.  The temperature plunged to 30 degrees to go along with the stiff wind. We all had to rehearse in parkas. (Crew guys still wore T-shirts. I don’t understand that.)

And in addition to the hammers and buzzsaws, we now had honking horns, sirens, boom boxes, guys yelling, "Ay, I'm walkin' heah!", and the other enchanting sounds of the city.

Needless to say, we did not get a lot done. That night I went out and got a few stiff drinks. I think Al looked up the qualifications for how you become a U.S. Senator.

Final thought: Of all the LATELINE episodes I directed, that one came out the best. Which is the only reason why I am not a member of Congress today.

Update: Thanks to reader Brian Phillips for the heads-up, here's a very brief clip from the show.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I'm tired of Ricky Gervais

This may be an unpopular blog post. I’m sure I’ll be accused of being old and cranky and to those I say, “I am not. And get off my lawn!” But Ricky Gervais’ act has gotten old.

Last week it was announced that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will host next year’s Golden Globes Awards. My first thought was: “That’s a great idea. They’re very funny together.” My second was: “Who cares, it’s the Golden Globes?” and my third was: “Oh good, I’ll be spared another smug insufferable performance by Ricky Gervais.”

The sad thing is I used to love Ricky Gervais. I still feel the British version of THE OFFICE was genius. And he managed to someone create the most interesting original comic character in decades. His first few appearances on talk shows were great fun. He brought a devilishly pixyish personality to the dance that was very refreshing.

And then something happened. He just started wearing out his welcome. I remember seeing his stand-up special on HBO and being disappointed. And his TV appearances started feeling smug and oddly hostile.

I gave his HBO series EXTRAS a try and will admit there were a few bits that I thought were inspired. The “racist test” for one. But a lot of it left me just sitting there. I felt he was doing the whole series to entertain eight of his show business friends. 

Then his “bad boy” Golden Globes hosting gigs – this is what I wrote about this year’s affair:

After staging a full-on media blitz to proclaim how daring and offensive he planned to be, Ricky Gervais was a giant bust. MODERN FAMILY’s Steve Levitan was funnier in his three-minute acceptance speech than Gervais was the entire night.

At some point over the last few years I realized I wasn’t laughing anymore at Ricky Gervais. I was shouting “Fuck you” to the TV every time he opened his mouth. This is a sure sign of falling out of love.

I tried to figure out what the turn was, what soured me on this humorist I once greatly admired? I wanted to know, and I also wanted something constructive to include in this post so it wasn’t just five paragraphs of me bashing someone.  After much mulling, here’s what I’ve come up with as an explanation:

We love when edgy comics speak for us, say the things we wish we could say, make fun of the sacred cows we too feel deserved it. So it’s very much a you and me against all of them mentality.

But sometimes comics drift into me against all of you. That’s what I think happened to Ricky Gervais. The smirk, the swagger, the massive ego – I don’t find him as pixyish when his contempt is aimed at me.

But what do you think?  Am I right about Ricky Gervais? Or am I just Ed Asner in UP?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Forget Obama & Romney -- vote for me

Hey, Mariner fans.  I could use your vote.  I promise to call play-by-play and lower taxes.  Just go here.  Thanks. 

One of those Hollywood Agent stories

If you’ve been in the business more than eleven minutes you have at least three of them. I will not name names but I swear this story is absolutely true.

My writing partner, David Isaacs (okay, I did name a name) and I were doing a pilot. We were in the casting phase. This meant dealing with a lot of actors’ agents. Most are lovely people. They understand that we both want the same thing – seeing their client succeed in our show. But a few agents are just horrid sharks. They only want to strong arm everyone, make unreasonable demands, and get as much money as they can regardless of how unrealistic their demands are and how much ill will their bullying causes.

We dealt with one such agent on this pilot. We’ll call her Elizabitch. In fairness to Elizabitch, the entire agency she worked for was pond scum. Ethics were just little ladybugs you stepped on for fun. So she was merely following the agency’s mandate.

The way pilot casting works is this: all actors must be approved by the network. Usually they want to see two or three choices for each part. Before these candidates can be brought to the network their deals have to be closed. That way an actor can’t suddenly ask for a king’s ransom once they know the network wants them.

So we had a meeting set with the network to approve the cast for our pilot. We usually ask the actors to come to our office a half-hour or so beforehand so we can work with them. Again, we want them to succeed.

One of the young actresses arrived and we told her we couldn’t bring her to the network because her deal hadn't closed.  Elizabitch was holding out for way too much money.   The actress dissolved into tears. This was a part she really wanted (and by the way, she was our first choice). But our hands were tied. We told her it was her decision, but if she wanted the role she had to call Elizabitch and close it.

Five minutes later I got a call from Elizabitch. She was livid – “mother-fucking” me up and down both sides of Broadway. How dare I interfere with her negotiations? My actions were illegal! This was a travesty! I dutifully MF’d her right back (which is unusual for me), told her I did nothing inappropriate and she was welcome to sue me. A few more obscenities flew my way (and I think within the barrage I heard talentless nobody) and she slammed down the phone.

A few minutes later the deal was closed. We brought the actress to the network and she got the part.

However, one other part was still open. The next morning I get a call. It’s Elizabitch. I thought, “Jesus, in her rage yesterday, were there some swear words she neglected to call me?” Reluctantly, I picked up the receiver.

“Hi, Ken. How are you?” She couldn’t be cheerier. “I hear you’re still not fully cast.” Elizabitch then went on to recommend another actress-client. I just held the phone in utter amazement. It’s as if the hateful and toxic exchange from only 18 hours ago never happened. To this day I marvel at how she was able to do that. The truly remarkable thing is that this happens frequently enough in Hollywood that it’s almost not considered completely insane. Business is business and that sort of rubbish. I was supposed to just wipe the slate clean.

I agreed to read her client (it’s not fair to punish the actress) and hung up. But then I started thinking: what if this practice took place in the real world? After Lorena Bobbitt sliced off her husband John’s wang could she call him the next day and ask if he could pick up some Tastykakes on the way home? Why I chose that particular example?  I dunno.  Maybe in my wish-fulfillment fantasy I equated John Bobbitt with Elizabitch. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Some announcements...

Pretend this is me
...reminders, recommendations, and fun links.
A reminder that I'll be signing my book, THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) on Monday night the 29th at the Barnes & Noble in the Grove from 7-9 pm.   I'll also be reading a section, and answering all your sex questions so if you're in the LA area, please stop by.  It's a good excuse for a local meet-and-greet. 

And I'd be remiss if I didn't plug my book. (Hey, I haven't done it in over a week.)   You can find out more about it, see the trailer, tons of photos and videos by going here.  

And so you don't think I'm totally shameless, I'd like to recommend three books that aren't mine.  Two are about the early fun days of radio and the other is about the fun days of show business as told by a 120 year old woman.

Anyone who grew up in Southern California in the '50s and '60s knows about Color Radio KFWB and Boss Radio KHJ.   The program directors of those two wildly successful and groundbreaking stations have each written a book.

Chuck Blore was the man behind KFWB and later went on to form the most creative advertising agency in the business.  He probably has more Clio Awards than MAD MEN has viewers.

Chuck has the most positive creative energy of anyone I think I've ever met, and reading his book you'll not only enjoy the adventures but be inspired to go out and do something creative yourself.    In paperback only (for now).  You can order it here.

And the long awaited E-book of KHJ, INSIDE BOSS RADIO by Ron Jacobs is finally available.  This is the guy and format that defined a decade.   Complete with tons of pictures, memorabilia, great anecdotes, larger-than-life characters, and even inter-office memos.  It's not just good.  It's BOSS.  You can order it here.

These two men are quite a contrast.  Both are creative geniuses and have had a huge impact on me.  But Chuck Blore is like Tony Robbins while Ron Jacobs is Vince Lombardi.   I recommend them and I'm sure Oprah would too if she knew about them.

And late add because I just found out about it but TALLYHO, TALLULAH! featuring the latest adventurous of our very own Tallulah Morehead is now available for your reading and drinking pleasure.  For sheer laughs, this is the book to get.  Here. 

Finally, for you readers in the UK, next Saturday night at 10:00 on BBC TWO there will be a documentary called FAMILY GUYS?  WHAT SITCOMS SAY ABOUT AMERICA.  I participated although I have no idea how much of my interview they will use.   They spoke to me for over an hour so I'm guessing eight seconds tops.  I haven't seen the documentary but the questions were good so I assume the program will be as well. Let me know how it was.  Here's where you go for details. 

What's a "Bono?"

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Brandon Tartikoff

I was honored to attend the reception at USC for Brandon Tartikoff last Thursday night. His wife, Lilly donated all of his papers and memorabilia to the university. It was a very cool night. George Lucas was even there. Then I arrived home to find this Friday Question from Bill, so I thought what better time to address it?

(This is) about Brandon Tartikoff, who so many producers/writers/even actors from the 80s seem to recall as a true champion of high-quality television. Did you ever have any dealings with Brandon Tartikoff, and what in your view made him such a "good" network executive, as opposed to the kind that are constantly the butt of jokes today? Did he really have a sixth sense for excellent television, or was he just lucky? And has the industry changed too much for similar execs like him ever to appear again?

I did have personal dealings with Brandon. He even shot hoops in my driveway with me and my son. But to answer your bigger question – what made him so extraordinary was that he hired the best creative people and gave them the freedom to do their thing. And if he believed in you he protected you. He had enough confidence in his own judgment that if a new show was not getting the numbers he stuck with it, reaonsing that the audience would eventually find it. This was true with CHEERS, HILL STREET BLUES, FAMILY TIES, LAW & ORDER and others.

He was so respectful of talent (in front or behind the camera) that even when he passed on your project or cancelled your show, he did it in such a humane way you couldn’t wait to bring your next thing to him.

He never pepper-sprayed you with notes. He never made decisions based solely on research. He never tried to clone other hit shows from competing networks.

He was also accessible. If you had a problem you could call him. In all ways, he made you feel like you were a partner.

Is it possible to have another executive like that in today’s television world? Absolutely. All it takes is someone at the top adopting Brandon’s philosophy. Networks are not obligated to micro-manage every show. And as is ALWAYS the case, the best shows come from the networks that interfere the least. Then it was NBC. Now it’s HBO, SHOWTIME, and AMC.

But it takes someone with courage and a genuine passion for television (not just a passion for financial success).

Was Brandon infallible? No. There were plenty of MAINIMALS along the way. But that’s the price you pay for taking chances.

Certainly luck plays into any programmer’s success, but if the best writers, producers, and directors want to come to you first, the odds of getting the best shows are greatly increased.

I dealt with Brandon on several occasions. My writing partner, David Isaacs and I had a pilot at NBC in 1979. I talked about this in a previous post, but by telling us not to do the notes that other NBC execs had given us, he turned the entire project around.

We had terrible clashes with NBC over casting on that pilot. For the lead we wanted Andrea Martin (then on SCTV) and the NBC casting queen would not approve her. She was lobbying for Toni Tennille. The part was modeled after Gilda Radner.

The series never got on and three years later I’m walking to the stage for the very first CHEERS table reading. Brandon takes me aside and says, “You were right. We should’ve gone with Andrea Martin.”

We then dealt with Brandon all through the run of CHEERS. I remember once him telling all of us not to change things in our show because the ratings were low. Just stay the course. We wanted to kiss him.

I played softball with him a few Sundays. You could strike him out and not fear your show would be cancelled on Monday. And like I said, he was in my neighborhood one day, saw that my son and I were shooting baskets, walked up the driveway, and asked if he could join us.

When people say they’ll always remember someone it’s usually lip service. But a day doesn’t go by when I don’t walk out of my house, see that backboard above the garage, and think of Brandon Tartikoff… and how lucky I was to have known him and worked for him.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The biggest laugh we ever got

Some Friday Questions for your weekend pleasure:

Splenda has a low calorie question:

In sports, veteran players who might be a risk are sometimes given an "incentive-laden" contract. Their actual salaries are near the minimum, but there are a bunch of bonuses added to the contract, so if the player performs well, they get paid more. Is this ever done in television? Can NBC go to the Parks and Recreation actors/producers/show runner and say, "We will keep the show, but only if no one accepts a raise. But the contracts will say that if you win your time slot next season, each of you will receive a bonus equal to 15% of your salary."

They can try. As long as the terms are within the conditions of the SAG contract (and are legal), networks and agents and attorneys can be creative as they please. Actors might trade salary hikes for ownership stakes, or get bonuses based on ratings. I believe there are some actors who have it in their deals that no other cast member can be paid more than them. So if other co-stars get raises, he gets one too.

More creative accounting: Actors take producer credits now, getting an additional salary for that even though, in most cases, they don’t do anything. But to be fair, most showrunners are also happy they don’t do anything.

Often times these negotiations are complicated. And that’s before they wrestle with the issue of credit – where their title card goes, how big, how does it compare with other cast members? Does the actor get an “and” before his name? Money is sometimes the easy part.

Mike asks:

If someone living in 1912 could look ahead 100 years, would they be impressed or depressed by what they saw? Technology has moved on, but has society?

Mike, I’m very impressed that you think I could answer that question. Not sure which article in my blog led you to believe I had the depth capable of tackling such a question – maybe it was my piece on porn star karaoke – but alas I’m not sure I’m sufficiently qualified. But I will mull it over. In the meantime, is there anything you want to know about say... MANNEQUIN 2?

ScottyB has a question about filming sitcoms in front of live audiences:

Since minutes mean money, how do y'all deal with occasions when a bit ends up being so good that the audience laughter just goes on *forever* (which is pretty much a writer's crowning glory)? That's gotta eat up a whole mess of time on the clock since you basically have to shoehorn in every available stage second.

That’s a writer’s favorite problem. Actors are always told to wait for the laugh, even if it’s inordinately long. The laugh can be pulled up in editing. It’s as easy as cutting to a reaction shot.

Back in the “old days” when these shows were often on film (as opposed to today’s HD tape… which looks sorta, kinda like film), film was indeed wasted holding for laughs. So if the laugh was big and long enough, directors would stop cameras. This happened very rarely. For a writer it’s the equivalent of a walk-off grand slam home run.

My writing partner, David and I had one the first year of CHEERS. It was in the “Boys in the Bar” episode. Sam is in the poolroom with Diane. He just learned that his former roommate on the Red Sox is gay. Sam says, “I should’ve known. We were on the road in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.” For whatever reason, that killed the audience. Must’ve been a five-minute sustained laugh. I took a little home run trot around the stage with that one.

Lots of interest in CHEERS lately (with the 30th reunion and all). Here’s another CHEERS question – this one from Bradley.

On average, how long did it take to film an episode of Cheers?

We’d start at 7. The audience was usually let out around 9:30. Then there would be pick-ups – retakes after the good folks had left. To do all the pick-ups during the initial filming would kill any momentum. So depending on the number of pick ups, you could be there an extra ten minutes or several hours.

The first year, Jim Burrows did a lot of fabulous shots to establish the bar. I remember one that started in the pool room and crossed all the way across the bar to the front door, with all kinds of activity going on. It’s maybe my favorite shot of the series (besides my credit). That first year we usually wrapped around midnight. They were long nights.  But the results were sure worth it.

Over the next few years the show and actors found their groove. Pick-ups usually lasted to about 10:30.

During the last two seasons, when no one in the cast knew their lines, the audience was there for at least three hours because someone goofed up a line every ten seconds.  Personally, that was hard to watch. 

Here’s another CHEERS one. It’s from Robert Pierce:

Was there a reason why Al, Paul and a bunch of the other barflies had the same first names as their characters? Was it just easier or was it a writing technique?

Give me a second. I’m still trying to figure out what people in 1912 would be thinking. Yes, it was just easier and avoided any possible confusion to just use the barfly actors’ real names. As along as their names weren’t Sam, Norm, Cliff, Frasier, Woody, and Coach.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

First new sitcom to get blown out this year is...

ANIMAL PRACTICE.  Who had ANIMAL PRACTICE in the pool?  It apparently received a whopping 1.0 share among viewers under 50 last night and that's low even for NBC.  In mid-November it will be replaced by that juggernaut WHITNEY.  

I imagine the monkey has a production company and will now have more time to develop and oversee projects. 

My review of ARGO

Boy, Persians really took it in the shorts this weekend in the US boxoffice. The top two films were TAKEN 2 and ARGO – the adversaries in both coming from the good ol’ Middle East. TAKEN 2 is your basic cry vengeance movie, an updated version of the old Charles Bronson DEATH WISH flicks with better stunts and more exotic locales. Who knew that America’s next action hero would be 60 year-old Liam Neeson?

I haven’t seen TAKEN 2 but I admit I want to. For all the right and wrong reasons I enjoyed TAKEN. Knowing Hollywood, there will be a TAKEN 6 where his pool boy is kidnapped.

The other boxoffice behemoth was ARGO, the new movie directed by Ben Affleck and written by Chris Terrio from an article by Joshuah Bearman. (I thought I would be novel in my review and actually mention the writers.) That movie I did go to see.

And I loved it.

It’s easy sport to make fun of Ben Affleck. When you’ve done PEARL HARBOR, GIGLI, and JERSEY GIRL you’re certainly leading with your chin. But he also did CHASING AMY and lately has proven himself to be quite an accomplished director. (Is the saying “Those that can’t act, direct” or “Those that can’t act, act in Michael Bay films”?) In any event, the saying doesn’t apply to Ben for CHASING AMY alone. And in this film he turns in a nice performance. What I like is that he underplays here. It would have been very easy to chew up the scenery, but Affleck opted for restraint. Good call, Mr. Director.

ARGO somehow manages to be both a taut political thriller and a satire of Hollywood. And if you think blending those two tones was hard, Affleck also had to contend with the idiotic clothes we all wore back in the ‘70s. Those fashions could spoil any reality. If you’ve seen BOOGIE NIGHTS then you know – people in the porn industry and American hostages in Iran all dressed alike.

There may even be Oscar talk for this film, although the fact that it’s entertaining, doesn’t play exclusively in art houses, and doesn’t star Kate Winslet might work against it.

And for all its suspense, there are more genuine laughs in ARGO than the last four Adam Sandler comedies combined – maybe the last six. Alan Arkin and John Goodman pretty much steal the movie. Again, kudos to the director for allowing them that spotlight.

You probably know the story. (Don’t worry – no SPOILER ALERT necessary). Based on a true event, in order to get six American hostages out of volatile Iran in 1979 the CIA concocted a phony movie with the plan to smuggle them out as crew members. To accomplish this harebrain scheme, an actual Hollywood producer was enlisted, there were ads and articles in Variety (the trade paper of choice among terrorists), storyboards were drawn, offices set up, casting sessions, the whole works. This was the kind of project my agent always tried to get me hooked up with.

Some critics have taken issue with the creative license Affleck took in the third act. He apparently fabricated some hurdles and tension. But so what? The last act was gripping. To use the old movie tagline: “You’ll pay for the whole seat but only use the edge.”

For a good yarn, go see ARGO. And judging by the first weekend’s receipts, in a couple of years go see ARGO 2 where Ben rounds up the film company gang again to get Liam Neeson’s niece out of Turkey.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Being hit on by a swinger couple

Got your attention, didn't I?   That title will make sense.  Keep reading.

I don’t go to comedy clubs anymore. I’ve had my fill of bad stand-ups doing their tired scatter shot routines. “Hey, don’t you just hate having to use condoms?” “What the fuck is up with CUP CAKE WARS this year?” “Ever try to get a taxicab in LA?” Ugh! Ten minutes of forced jokes and then when they run out of material, “You guys have been great. Thanks. Goodnight!” No payoff, no showmanship, nothing.

Yes, there are some good ones, but I’ll just wait until they become Louis C.K. or Patton Oswalt and watch ‘em on HBO.

A far better alternative is going to an intimate club to watch storytelling.

Last Saturday night I was a guest judge at a storytelling competition. TOP TALES. It’s held once a month in the show business capital of the world – Culver City, next door to an empanada place.

Six talented young people competed for a grand prize of… nothing. So you can understand why they trusted me with the awesome responsibility of passing judgment.

I guess storytelling has been a trend for a few years now. I’m a little behind the curve. My Saturday nights have been consumed with baseball and watching all that great primetime television the networks now offer.

Photos by Andy Goldberg
But I was very impressed. Not just with the performances (and all were terrific) but with the form. As opposed to a barrage of jokes, it was a pleasure to follow a story – in most cases true stories – that actually built to something. And they were very funny, but in a relaxed natural way. Laughs don’t always have to be “gags.” These came from keen observations, relatable behavior, wry asides, and all were organic to the stories. Stand up comics should take note.

Yes, I know – today’s style is snark, one-liners, ironies on top of ironies. TMZ with punch lines. But you’re putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on yourself when your act is only as good as your last joke.

Telling stories can benefit you in so many ways. Let’s face it, from the time Man first crawled out of the primordial ooze he liked hearing stories. “Let Sid tell you himself, but he lost his wallet in the ooze and had to go back in after it.” I think it’s implanted in our DNA. So you serve yourself and the audience well if you construct your act around narratives. And you get this bonus: you don’t need a joke every second if the audience is interested in your tale.

Like I said, most of the stories Saturday night were true. Two young women told losing their virginity stories but both were very different and their attitudes and deliveries were also different. One spent time with a swinger married couple who were both hitting on her (hence the title of this post.  I know you're disappointed that it wasn't about me, but how do you think I feel?). Comedy is in the specifics and the details of their stories (along with their reactions) made for two hilarious monologues.

Another advantage of storytelling – the audience gets to know you. Good comics will tell you you need a persona. Louis Black, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor (to name just a few) – they each have very identifiable comic personas. So how do you create that? And how do you convey that? A great way is through telling a story. Especially if the story is true (or true enough with some embellishments). I felt I got to know all six of these storytellers. In just five minutes.

Comics will also say it takes five to ten years to perfect your delivery. Storytelling can shortcut that process. Why? Because you’re not vomiting back jokes, you’re communicating. You’re talking to people and being (a version of) yourself. Maybe you’ve only done stand-up for eighteen months but you’ve been telling stories all your life. Tap into that. I’ve just saved you two years of open mic nights.

Anyway, you get the idea.  Storytelling can be wonderful tool.  I rely on it when doing play-by-play.  I don't discuss how I lost my virginity but stories about the players help make them seem more human and not just life-sized bobbleheads. 

I thought I’d end this with a pithy quote about storytelling but none of the ones I found online seemed to apply. So I figured, what the hell? Make up my own. I can be deep and philosophical like Socrates, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the like. So I leave you with this:

Story is the mom who gives comedy a ride because he can’t drive.

Thank you.  If that doesn't make my point I don't know what will. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How to win tonight's presidential debate

CNN’s live coverage of the last presidential debate featured a graph at the bottom of the screen showing the continuous reaction of focus group respondents. The candidates would speak and two lines (one for men and the other women) would inch up or down depending on whether these dial twirling lab rats liked or didn’t like what was being said (assuming they understood what was being said, not an automatic assumption).

Obama and Romney were being subjected to the same scrutiny given to the pilot of THE NEIGHBORS.

As the creator and producer of a number of TV pilots I am all-too familiar with this highly accurate method of determining something’s worth. I have been on the other side of the one-way glass while forty nimrods who looked like the cast of THE WALKING DEAD twisted their little spinners while judging my creative baby. On the monitor above my head was the show with the running graphs. That joke suffered a 3% dip and women appreciated that line 7.3% more than men. Art reduced to a spreadsheet.

Producers learn to manipulate the system of course and construct their pilots specifically to win focus groups’ favor. Writing a sharper joke is not nearly as important as getting that waitress to wear a Wonder Bra.

So for tonight's debate I offer the candidates a couple of suggestions for improving your test scores.  Our Commander-in-Chief, in particular, would do well to pay attention.

Cartwheels are huge. Focus groups love ‘em! You could be proposing a 50% tax hike and if it’s in the midst of a nifty acrobatic move your graph will shoot through the roof.

Crossing your eyes is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. Saying the word “hooters” will elevate any statement on Iran’s disturbing threat to world peace.

Take a moment in laying out your solution to the unemployment crisis to introduce the audience to your new puppy.

Get choked up. Doesn’t matter of over what. But personal triumph over adversity tends to score higher than Urkel not being honored by the Kennedy Center. And if you don’t have a personal triumph just lift something from PROFILES IN COURAGE. It’s been fifty years. No one remembers that book. Look for at least one “Awwwwwwwww” moment.

Shoes matter. The road to the White House goes through Leffot in Manhattan.

Try singing one of your answers. Bad news always goes down easier when delivered by a karaoke Sinatra.

Your opponent says something you take great issue with? Just do a spit-take. You think anyone is going to listen to a “rebuttal”?

Finally and most important, in your closing remarks, make sure you say that this great nation was built by good strong Americans like you; concerned hard-working people who love this country and rate things.

Thank me at the Inaugural.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Another rant on the current state of TV

One of the most memorable characters from CHEERS was Al Rosen, or – as he was referred to on the cast list – “the man who said Sinatra.”   Here's why:

One word. That’s it. It got a big laugh and he was used again. Al was just one of the extras. He had a funny rumpled look, he had a funny air horn type voice so Glen & Les Charles chose him to deliver the line.

Here’s why network television isn’t as good today (well… one of the reasons).

Same situation. Same script. Same line. But today, the CHEERS producers would have to put Al Rosen on tape and four other actors on tape, send the tape to the network, and the network would decide who got the part. Some junior executive in the NBC casting or current department – probably someone a year removed from Cal State Northdridge – would make that decision over the Charles Brothers and James Burrows. Glen & Les and Jimmy have a roomful of Emmys, are proven writers, director, and showrunners, CHEERS is their singular vision, and yet, if they were making the show today they would have no say on which guest actors were on their show… even actors with one line.

This is outrageous. This is unconscionable. And today, this is the norm. It’s not one network; it’s ALL of them.

For years now networks have dictated who you can hire for your series regulars. And as the showrunner you often find yourself stuck with someone who can’t deliver and you have to spend your time and effort writing around them. I don’t know any of the particulars, know no one involved in the production, but I’m guessing that’s the story with Jamie-Lynn Sigler on GUYS WITH KIDS. Everyone else is so good and it’s like she’s in a different show. But I can just imagine the network casting session. “She’s very pretty, people know her from THE SOPRANOS, the other girl you brought us is funnier but she’s kind of mousey, and what was she on – some CW show or some ABC Family thing? Let’s go with Jamie. No, her audition wasn’t great. But you can work with her. She can grow into the part. We approve Jamie.”

And now that extends to guest star roles and even one-line parts.

That’s the kind of absurd micromanaging that goes into today’s primetime productions. And shows are getting a 2 share.

We did a pilot for Fox a few years ago and the network had to approve everyone’s wardrobe and even the set dressing. Despite all my years in the business I couldn’t be trusted to select the candlesticks on the dining room table.

So here’s a radical plan. Radical?  Hell, it's INSANE!!  What if one network decided to TRUST the creative people they commission to produce shows? What if the showrunners were allowed to hire who they want to play waiters? What if showrunners were able to hire the writers and directors they thought were the best – not who the studio had under contract or who satisfied whatever agenda the network had that season? What if it was agreed working writers knew how to break stories better than recent graduates of the University of Rochester screenwriting program? Or that Emmy winning creators were qualified to select lamps?

What’s the worst that could happen? The show might plummet to a 1.6? (I love the positive spin networks give shows now. UP ALL NIGHT went up 28% last night. That’s a .3. Back in the day a .3 was so insignificant it was considered “margin for error.” Today decisions are based on it.

But the upside. You might get better shows. Shows with a stronger, clearer voice – y’know, like they have on CABLE – that parallel universe with series that people talk about and love and win awards?

You might also get better writers coming to you first with better ideas.

Again, you’re getting 2 shares! 3 shares! Test patterns get a 1 share. What do you have to lose? Other than control – control that you’re really not entitled to anyway.

So if CHEERS was being done today, what do you think the chances are Al Rosen would have been selected to be the man who said Sinatra? “Too old. Too ugly. Talks funny. Let’s go with this kid who looks kinda like Aaron Paul.”

You KNOW that’s what would happen.

And that's one of the reasons shows used to get 30 shares and are now getting 3's.