Thursday, February 28, 2013

The 30th anniversary of the last MASH episode

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the finale of MASH. For many years it was the single highest rated television program in history. Not sure what finally eclipsed it – either a Super Bowl or the CELEBRITY FIT CLUB episode where Chaz Bono lost seven pounds. In any event, it was an event.

Having been a writer on the show for four of its eleven years, here are some random thoughts and reflections from inside the Swamp:

How important was MASH to me personally? When producer Gene Reynolds gave my partner, David Isaacs and I our first assignment it completely changed our lives. The response to that script (“Out of Sight/Out of Mind” – season five) launched our career. Whatever success we enjoyed for the next thirty years would not have happened had Gene Reynolds not taken a chance on two young nimrods who lied and said they had also written drama besides comedy.

Meeting and working with Larry Gelbart was like taking composing lessons from Mozart. And I learned more about storytelling from Gene Reynolds than all the other writers I worked for combined.

An agent once advised that MASH writers should remove that credit from their resumes because it flagged them as too old. I would clean the grease trap at McDonalds before I took MASH off my resume. I’m enormously proud to be associated with that show, even if it means I don’t get a 2 BROKE GIRLS assignment.

A few years ago there was a MASH reunion and a group photo was taken. Standing among those brilliant actors and writers I thought to myself – this is what it must be like to be on a Super Bowl winning team. So the next day I went to Disneyland.

More fun than the last episode airing was the final wrap party. It was held on a Saturday night at Morton’s in Beverly Hills. Very swank. Very posh. We all wore our dressed greens. The great Bobby Short was hired to play. Several of us were standing around the piano listening to him sing and I turned and noticed that the person standing right next to me was Gerald Ford. (He was on the 20th Board of Directors at the time). For several minutes I just chatted up a former president of the United States. You don’t get that at the KEEPING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS wrap party. (Of course no one at that party would even know who Gerald Ford is.)

I am so fortunate to be associated with not just one national phenomenon (MASH) but two (CHEERS) and counting. Wait until THE SIMPSONS finally ends. Of course, by that time whoever succeeds Obama will be the former president at that wrap party.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t love the finale. I thought it was too long (although I could see why the network wanted it long – ka-ching!) and I did not like some of the storylines. (Some I loved though, like the Charles subplot with the instruments.) But in particular, I had (and still have) a big problem with the story about the Korean mother who smothers her baby to silence it so villagers won’t be detected. This came from an actual event we uncovered in the research. It was around during my years. Although I find the story utterly heartbreaking, I felt it crossed a line and was too heavy for MASH. Just my opinion.

The one moment of the finale I absolutely adored was at the end when Hawkeye glanced out the helicopter and saw GOODBYE written in stones. Thanks to executive producer Burt Metcalfe for that inspired idea.

The way the script was written was each writer or writing team took turns working with Alan Alda on half hour segments. David and I were producing CHEERS that year and did not participate. We were up against them all for the WGA Award and won. I’d like to think it was due to our brilliance, but it’s tough to win a comedy award when you kill babies.

Although this was the last episode to air, it was not the last episode filmed.

With all due respect to us, the first four seasons – the Larry Gelbart/Gene Reynolds years – were the best of the series. Certainly the funniest.

The night the show aired the cast and selected staff members screened it at the studio on a movie screen. I preferred to watch it at home on a normal television. This made it more of a shared experience for me. And I didn’t have to dress up again.

And finally, there will never be another MASH. Happy 30th anniversary. I only wish Larry were still here to enjoy it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Worst new tech invention EVER

In the techno-gadget mad crazy race to keep inventing the next big iThing, Google has come up with the worst idea yet, maybe ever – glasses with an interface right in your line of vision. In the top right corner of your right lens will be a box where you can face chat, get GPS instructions, weather and street information, internet access, and texting.  It's like having the Fox football score all the time!

How many accidents and deaths on the highway will this goofy thing cause? We really need to see who we’re phoning, read restaurant reviews, and do our taxes while driving a two-ton vehicle at 70 m.p.h.?

The commands are voice-activated. And of course we all know how accurate those are. Ask Siri. “Call for new tires please.” “Looking up California retirement places.”

A big feature is that you’ll be able to take instant videos. Other than secret sex tapes (“How come you're putting your glasses at the end of the bed?”) I don’t quite see the major attraction. In the promo video they have people video taping their skydiving and going down roller coasters. How often am I going to go skydiving? 

If you’re not skiing down Everest or surfing a 50 foot wave, what are you going to record? Do you really need video of yourself walking through the mall? “Ohmygod! Here I am looking in the window at Build-a-Bear!” Quick! All your Facebook friends need to see this!

As for the design, they’re space age wraparounds. You can look like LeVar Burton in STAR TREK.

I love new gadgets as much as anybody. I love those tech trade shows where they introduce computers with screens that can flip and become tablets and wristwatch phones that allow you to call the dead. I’m not one of those cranks who say: “What’s wrong with communicating with people through Morse code?” but this product borders on irresponsible.

And how long until they’re showing promos for WHITNEY right onto your glasses?

Plus, what does this do to personal conversations? You’re talking to someone and they stop making eye contact because there's a pitching change at Wrigley Field.  

I know that we all say, “How did I live before smart phones?” But will we really be saying in five years – “How did I live before I had a computer on my face?”

They say they’re still a year or two away from putting these on the market. One voice command they damn well better perfect is: “Glass, employ the airbag!”

So to repeat because I know I'll get a bunch of comments that say I'm just set in my ways and get off my lawn -- my big issue is SAFETY.  


There's also the invasion of privacy issue.  Some people don't like strangers just videotaping them at will.  Reader Louise brought this to my attention:  A guy thrown out of McDonalds for coming in with essentially a pair of these.  Check it out. 

Here's the promo film.  Whattaya think?

Programming note:  I’ll be guesting on the Stu Shostak Show from 4-6 PT today discussing aspects of my checkered career.  You can also call in.  Imagine Friday Questions but live!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seth MacFarlane won't host next year's Oscars

Seth MacFarlane today tweeted that he has no intention of hosting next year's Oscar ceremony.  This could be because the assignment is so enormous, the criticism was so enormous, or it could be a case of "You can't fire me!  I quit!"  

In any event, it's on to next year.  Scroll down for some host suggestions. 

Final thoughts on the 2013 Oscars

Thanks to everyone for your comments on my Oscar review. A few thoughts, clarifications, rebuttals, concessions, and miscellaneous crap.

First off, it’s great to hear from you even if you disagree with me (as long as you leave a name. There were a few anonymous comments that were just so stupid I assume the authors didn’t know their names.) Some were angry that I didn’t share their point-of-view. To them I say, it’s a friggin’ award show review. An admittedly bitchy, snarky award show recap. As the great Larry Gelbart once said:

If what you're writing isn't likely to offend or annoy anyone at all, go back and start again.

So it comes with the territory. Seth MacFarlane would make that argument as well, but more on that later. If I dislike fifteen things that’s fifteen chances to think I’m an idiot. Of course, I find people take issue with me even if I like something. I got hammered by several of you for liking Barbra Streisand. When I wrote a glowing review of ZERO DARK THIRTY some readers accused me of condoning torture.

I have two objectives when I write these reviews. 1) To entertain. Whether you agreed with my review or not, were you amused? My favorite movie critic is Anthony Lane in THE NEW YORKER. There are many times I wonder if he and I saw the same movie but damn I enjoy his writing. And 2) To be fair. I’m just as happy or happier to say I liked something. The reviews are harder to make funny, but I’ll take that any day to thoroughly enjoy a program.  I don't condone torture, by the way.

On to specifics:

The best line about the Oscarcast from anybody came from Carl Reiner.

This is what he tweeted last night:

I was so excited to discover I was not in the in memoriam!

One comment I saw on another site made a great point.  Was it really necessary to have the First Lady announce the Best Picture?  How weird would it have been had Michelle Obama had to announce ZERO DARK THIRTY or DJANGO UNCHAINED?   Future Oscarcasts might want to avoid this potentially awkward situation.

Seth MacFarlane. You were sharply divided on this topic. Right off the bat I will concede this: He was not worse than James Franco. It’s quite possible no one could be.

And if you liked him, great. I’m glad you were entertained.

Some claimed I was already prejudiced against him. That’s partly true. But what I liked about the idea of him hosting was that he was a wild card and there was the possibility that the show could be crazy unpredictable epic fun. So I was rooting for him. By the end of the monologue those hopes were dashed.

Many who disagreed with me accused me of being old fashioned, unwilling to accept change, etc. That’s the common charge whenever I don’t like anything. “This chicken is dry.” “Oh sure. Just because it’s not the way Colonel Sanders made chicken in 1964 you don’t like it.”

Go back and read my review from last year. You’ll see how much I enjoyed Billy Crystal’s trip down Cobweb Lane. My problem with Seth wasn’t that he was edgy or topical. It was his judgment. Although a few things scored, most of his material did not. In fairness, I put some of the blame on the producers. These are the Oscars. They are supposed to celebrate Hollywood’s highest achievements. It is supposed to be an elegant glamorous sophisticated affair. That’s why everyone needs two days and three stylists to dress up. “We Saw Your Boobs” is not the right production number for an event that strives to be classy. MTV Movie Awards? Sure.  But not the Oscars.

Make no mistake -- the motion picture royalty sitting in that auditorium take themselves VERY VERY VERY seriously. You can needle them a little as long as it’s in good fun and the person doing the needling is an accepted member of their exclusive club, but if you start really taking potshots you will bomb. Ask Chris Rock. His monologue was hilarious and scathing. You could hear crickets in the hall. So Jews-running-Hollywood jokes were destined to fail horribly, which they did. Seth couldn’t predict that? The producers couldn’t? Poor judgment.

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler managed to be biting yet respectful enough to pull it off at the Golden Globes before essentially the same audience. Review my review. I don’t hate all hosts.

Part of my issue was that Seth was inexperienced. I give him credit for having the balls to go out there, although low self esteem has never seemed to be one of his big problems. But this is the biggest show in front of the largest audience in the world. Over a billion people. Would you take a good college athlete and let him make his professional debut by being the starting pitcher for game seven of the World Series or by being the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl? That’s what this is. So Seth was given a near-impossible task – although he knew that going in.

It’s not only a difficult job; it’s a thankless one. If a billion people are watching, half of them are making fun of the show. They’re sitting in their living rooms goofing on the dresses and the speeches and especially the host. And now with Facebook and Twitter the entire world is one living room. Tell me you don’t do that yourself. Oscar hosts have to have thick skin. Even personalities who are beloved get skewered. Ask Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Hugh Jackman. So why do it? Two reasons: the exposure obviously. A billion more people know who Seth MacFarlane is today than did on Saturday. And secondly, if you do manage to somehow pull it off you are an overnight smash. Billy Crystal’s career skyrocketed after he successfully hosted the Oscars. It’s a high risk but very high reward proposition. And here’s the thing: You’re expected to hit a home run. If you get mixed reviews (like most hosts including Seth) that’s considered a strike out. There are no singles or doubles. It's brutal.

The thing I’ve noticed that great hosts manage to do is react spontaneously to the events of the night. When Oscar winner Jack Palance did push-ups on the stage Crystal used that as a running gag all night. The message it sends is: this guy is truly funny and comfortable enough in this role that he can stray from the teleprompter. Again, Tina & Amy were able to do this. Seth did not. It’s understandable. This was his first time.

And finally, people accused me of criticizing him for taking shots at people when I was doing the same thing. Uh, writing a blog piece and hosting the Oscars are two very different venues, don’t you think?

So who should host the Oscars? As I said, he should be someone already embraced by the community. And it wouldn’t hurt if viewers in the country know and like him too. Having a genuine love for movies would also be nice.  A few of you had some good ideas. Jerry Seinfeld for one. I liked Hugh Jackman but I sense the pressure of the assignment was not fun and he’s turned down all further requests. But how about George Clooney? Handsome, personable, funny. I’m sure he’s been approached. And here’s my first choice: After seeing him host the JIMMY KIMMELL SHOW, Matt Damon is the man! So much charm and ease and command. I thought to myself, “there’s a reason this dude is a movie star.”

Nothing would please me more than next year to say in my review that Matt Damon was the best Oscar host ever, Anne Hathaway looked much healthier, Seth MacFarlane was hilarious as a presenter, Steven Spielberg deserved those two Oscars, and the tribute to VOLUNTEERS was incredibly touching.


People are pointing to the improved ratings of the Oscars as vindication for Seth.  That's probably partially true.  BUT... as opposed to past years, six of the nine Best Picture nominees have grossed over $100 million.  So as opposed to past years when no one saw the movies in contention, folks had a rooting interest in the candidates this go-round.  And for the most part, the actors nominated were names moviegoers knew.   Add to that the whole Ben Affleck directing snub and you had a little intrigue going on.   So it's hard to pinpoint just why more people were watching this year.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

My 2013 Oscar review

The Oscars broke new wind last night. For the first time ever they were hosted by a man who left visible slime trails. The only awards show that Seth MacFarlane is qualified to emcee is the Adult Video Awards. Even then, they should shoot higher. This was that smarmy, unfunny, egotistical cousin at a wedding who stands up and tells the room the bride has herpes.

But more on that later. The big story was that Steven Spielberg was not able to buy any Oscars this year. Despite his “important” film, an ad campaign that cost more than the Civil War, numerous industry screenings, free coffee table books, and Bill Clinton the Best Picture went to ARGO and the Best Director went to Ang Lee for LIFE OF PI. (Considering PI’s story about a tiger I assume Steven’s next film will be THE SIEGRIED & ROY STORY.)

The truth is LINCOLN was ponderous and ARGO was an entertaining film where Hollywood saves the day. Who do you think the Academy is going to pick?

Was it personal? Is there a Spielberg backlash? Considering Michelle Obama announced that LINCOLN lost from the White House I’d have to say yeah. My feeling?  Steven Spielberg is a great filmmaker when he's not trying to make great films. 

This was maybe the first time ever that the Red Carpet show was more entertaining than the actual ceremony. As always I tuned to KTLA for babbling bootlicker, Sam Rubin and (to use fashion jargon) his side boob, Jessica Holmes. The intro promised “intimate conversations with Hollywood’s newest stars and royalty.” Royalty included Seth MacFarlane’s father. And intimate questions like Sam asking Quvenzhane Wallis: “Do you have Milky Ways in your purse?” He also asked this 9-year-old nominee if she was “used to all this stuff?” Jessica followed with, “Do you still have to clean your room even though you’re an Oscar nominee?”

Sam to Bryan Cranston: “Is ARGO going to win Best Picture primarily because of you?” To 83-year-old Christopher Plummer he asked, “You cast an Oscar ballot. Was it difficult to figure out?” Why not just ask if he brought his nurse? And finally, to nominee Jacki Weaver: “We’ve had this discussion about this embrace Hollywood has given you at this point in your career and now to be embraced by Chris Tucker!”  Sam & Jessica are the Romy & Michele of TV journalists. 

Seth MacFarlane’s opening monologue of Borsht Belt one-liners was painful. Ron Jeremy jokes (he’s in the hospital, by the way)? Chris Brown? Mel Gibson? Jodie Foster? The only amusing part was when William Shatner appeared as Captain Kirk and correctly said he’s the worst Oscar host ever. 80% of Americans were still asking who the fuck this guy was? They wouldn’t actually hate him until the appalling production number celebrating tits (Rob Lowe and Snow White – you’re finally off the hook), and then the deal was sealed when he harassed dear sweet, Sally Field dressed as the Flying Nun. By the way, Seth – the Flying Nun was television! Hard to be funny when you can’t be Stewie, huh?

Seventeen minutes of pointless jokes, sock puppet sketches, gay references, and dance routines. The show itself lasted over four hours. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were quick to yank winners off the stage yet allowed time for Seth to personally thank them during the show and then had not one but two tributes to CHICAGO, a movie they produced.

The most egregious winner being cut off was the LIFE OF PI visual effects gentleman who acknowledged the bankrupt studio Rhythm & Hues. After the movie was done all the workers were fired. My daughter Annie and her writing partner Jon said: Hopefully Cash4Gold accepts Oscars.

There was a big protest about this outside the Dolby Theater, but you never saw any of that. Instead you saw Jeffrey Katzenberg saluted as a great humanitarian.

Annie & Jon also added: “This was the first year the orchestra was brought in on remote. Next year musicians in China will be cutting off stars for twenty cents on the dollar.”

Paul Rudd & Melissa McCarthy were so unfunny they should host the show next year.

Reese Witherspoon added a touch of old time Hollywood glamour with her wavy hair swept off to one side. And Halle Berry was a throwback, wearing Joan Crawford’s wetsuit.

Not a lot of fashion disasters this year. Most of the women looked elegant and spectacular. At the after-parties I’m sure half of them will be eating for the first time in a week.
Christoph Waltz winning Best Supporting Actor was a pleasant surprise. Everyone thought it was going to be Tommy Lee Jones because he had the only good lines in LINCOLN.

Spielberg will hire Waltz to play Siegfried.

The set decoration looked like the leftover props from HUGO.

What was with Jennifer Aniston’s scowl the entire time she presented? Did someone just tell her she had to make another movie with Adam Sandler?

Where was Price-Waterhouse? Probably bumped for the Ted “Jews-run-Hollywood” routine – Seth’s desperate attempt to win back the south.

Michael Douglas looked great. Actors talk about their arduous “journeys” but this guy went through hell and back. Having worked with him I can tell you he’s a mensch.

How was AMOUR nominated for both Best Foreign Film and Best Picture? If Spielberg knew that, LINCOLN would have been in French.

One argument people had with ARGO was that it made up facts. So was Ben Affleck the best choice to present the Best Documentary category?

Nice to see Amy Adams can still get into her ENCHANTED costume.

The Bond tribute was heartfelt considering that before Sunday, the last Bond film to win an Oscar was THUNDERBALL in 1966. I loved the montage and Bond music. Even though there were quick cuts that bounced from film to film it still made more sense than the story for MOONRAKER.

What a great night for divas. Shirley Bassey could still hit many of the GOLDFINGER notes, Jennifer Hudson screeched through her DREAMGIRLS song, Adele was wonderful although I have no idea what any of the lyrics of SKYFALL mean, but the best of them all was still Ms. Barbra. 

Annie & Jon observed: The clip reel for AMOUR made the In Memoriam segment look upbeat.

Thank you Academy for not extending the Bond tribute by playing “Live and Let Die” over the In Memoriam segment.

Helena Bonham Carter looked like Marge Simpson after robbing a thrift shop.

Did it bother Seth that most of his jokes about assassinations, Nazis, children having sex with George Clooney, gays, Latinos, Adele’s weight, and Jews got huge groans not laughs? Not since Rush Limbaugh announced Monday Night Football has there been a worse casting decision. Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist made more sense than Seth MacFarlane hosting on the biggest stage of the world.

How come actors all have “teams?” That's a fancy word for people who just take your money. 

Note to Anne Hathaway: your phony humility and surprise is ridiculously transparent. To see what real surprise and genuine emotion is like study Adele acceptance speeches. And you’re not fooling anybody either with the short hair. You’re not Audrey Hepburn. Grow your hair and eat something.

After the LES MIS number I was hoping the producers would corner Hugh Jackman and say, “Would you do us a favor and take over hosting?”

From Annie & Jon: LES MIS won Best Make Up meaning it's easier to turn a man into a dwarf than it is to make Anne Hathaway look dirty.

During one cutaway to Steven Spielberg you could see him thinking: “I went in the wrong direction. I should have told the story of how Lincoln introduced tax breaks for motion picture productions.”

Do all winning crew guys have long stringy blonde hair and look like the goon in DIE HARD?

For those who missed it, here are the lyrics to the Best Song nominee from LIFE OF PI: “Oooooooo oooooooo ooooooo oooooo.”

Did Kristen Stewart forget to shoot up before going on stage?

Thrilled that Jennifer Lawrence won. If a Best Actress nominee had to trip on the stairs I’m sure glad it was her and not Emmanuelle Riva. Seth and Kristin Chenoweth would have been doing their snide closing number while avoiding the paramedics.

HUNGER GAMES 2 will now star Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence.

Charlize Theron looked like the world’s sexiest white cremation urn.

But no gown was as white as Jessica Chastain’s skin.

Notice that Quentin Tarantino’s wrap-it-up song was “Gone With the Wind?” At least they didn’t play him off with something from “Song of the South.” I guess Seth was over-ruled.

Daniel Day-Lewis was hilarious. He should host the Oscars next year. Ang Lee was also amusing. Let him emcee.

Always great to see Jack back. Even a four-hour Oscar show is better than a Lakers game these days. He still has that wild-eyed look that probably prompted Kristen Stewart to approach him offstage and ask if he had any horse.

All in all, this was one of the worst and longest Oscarcasts in recent history. A bad lounge singer as host, random indulgent production numbers, and disrespect for the winners in favor of self-praise for the producers. The Golden Globes were a thousand times better. Tina & Amy indeed!

And here’s the worst thing about Seth MacFarlane – I bet he thought he did GREAT.

Truly, Seth, go back to the drawing board.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing the Academy Awards

I’ve never written for the Oscars. I would very much like to, just for the experience. But from what I understand it’s a horrible thankless job.

I did have the chance once, but had to turn it down. My partner and I were showrunning ALMOST PERFECT in 1996. We got a call from Quincy Jones (who was producing the show that year). He had first asked Larry Gelbart who passed. Quincy asked if he could recommend someone else and bless him, Larry mentioned us. I can’t tell you how many writing offers we received thanks to Larry Gelbart. He got us way more work than our agent. But we had to turn it down because we were already working 90 hour weeks.

All of the following information is second and third hand, but from what writers of award shows have told me, this is pretty much the assignment.  You might find it somewhat less than idyllic.  

The hosts generally have their own people. But they may want you to assist. And of course, the host’s people are in charge. Depending on who that is, you may serve at the pleasure of some asshole you wouldn’t hire to write a laundry list.   Or someone you've fired. 

You write the banter between presenters. Then it has to be approved by each presenter, their manager, agent, publicist, dog walker, and psychic. Also the producers, network, and standards-and-practices. When revisions come back you don’t know if they’re from the star himself and must be followed or his pool man in which case they’re just suggestions. And more often than not these revisions are way worse than what you wrote.

Still, when they bomb you’ll be blamed for it.

There’s also the issue of writing for some actors who couldn’t be funny if it meant world peace. They will take your genuinely funny lines and trample them into the ground.

You’ll be blamed.

Or worse, they will ad lib. We’ve all seen excruciating examples of that.

It’ll be your fault.

Sometimes presenters come in with their own schtick. So when Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller do a bit that bombs you’re the one who takes the heat.

From what I hear the weekend of the show (i.e. now) the rehearsals are insane. Presenters jockey for position, things get changed, stars are in, stars are out, your lines get cut, you’re scrambling to write new ones then don’t know who to give them to for approval.

The night of the show you’re on call to feed ad libs to the host so that he looks good. And if he doesn’t pull them off you-know-who is held responsible.

Meanwhile, some presenters can’t read off the teleprompter so they inadvertently kill a few of your jokes that have worked every rehearsal. Pin those on you, too.

Still, it’s gotta be a trip to at least experience this once. Even if Dustin Hoffman muffs your joke, hey, you can say you wrote for Dustin Hoffman. For two days you rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. Perhaps Penelope Cruz or George Clooney will say hello.  I don’t know if you’re invited to any post-Oscars parties. Or whether you get any swag. I doubt it but maybe you do.  Like I said, it would sure be worth doing once. 

Of course if I wrote the show I couldn’t review it. Hmmm. That’s probably reason alone to hire me.

But since they didn’t this year I will be reviewing tonight’s Academy Awards. My bitchy recap will appear in this space early Monday morning.  And if you don't like it, blame the Oscar writers. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

How the Best Picture Oscar is determined

Getting you ready for the Oscars tomorrow night. As always, I will be reviewing them Monday morning. But for today…

Ever wonder how the Motion Picture Academy determines “Best Picture?” For the last four years they’ve gone to what they call a Preferential Ballot. How does this work and how can Florida sabotage it?

Voters rate the Best Picture nominees in order of preference. So it might be ARGO – 1, LINCOLN – 2, SILVER LINING PLAYBOOK – 3, etc. No write-in votes. You can’t slip BATTLESHIP in there.

Voting ended Tuesday. Now the Academy or Price-Waterhouse or hired day laborers – whoever gets the assignment – collects all the ballots and puts them in nine piles based on everyone’s number one choice. The stack with the fewest number one votes is eliminated and each of its ballots get moved to the pile of their second choice. Again, the smallest stack is eliminated and those voters’ ballots go to their third choice.

This is repeated until one stack has over 50% of the votes.  That's the winner.   So in a runaway year a movie could win on the first round. But if it’s close – like this year figures to be – it could go down to the seventh or eighth round. In a sense, more important than how many voters select your movie as their top pick is how many place it third instead of sixth?

Is this a fair system? I don’t know. I suspect Nate Silver would have a bitch of a time making an accurate prediction. Karl Rove would have BATTLESHIP winning according to his polling.   But what this system does is encourage members to vote honestly. Don’t not vote for your favorite simply because it’s not a frontrunner. The movies that don’t win have a big impact on the one that does.

And if LINCOLN loses Spielberg will demand a new system next year.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Missing actors and authors

Join in the fun! Leave your questions in the comments section. Thanks.

Rob starts us off:

Around 1977 there were a series of episodes where Loretta Swit appeared in only one scene and was absent from the rest of the show - even the OR scenes. Do you remember if she shot a bunch of random scenes in one day? In the mystery-novel show Nurse Bigelow had more screen time than Margaret!

Wow, you're observant.  Or you had a huge crush on Loretta Swit.  Loretta was sick for about three weeks in the summer of that season so we had to work around her. Just one of those things writing staffs have to deal with on an almost daily basis. But boy was I thrilled the day she came back.

Allie Illwaco has another MASH question:

Curious, did you get to meet Dr. Richard Hooker?

No.  I never met him... or "them."
As reader Johnny Walker pointed out, Dr Richard Hooker" was a pseudonym for two guys: H. Richard Hornberger, the guy who was actually a doctor in a M*A*S*H unit, and his ghostwriter/helper, W.C. Heinz.

Hornberger was very bitter that he sold off the rights to MASH to 20th Century Fox and thus never participated in the windfall bonanza that that property yielded. (Of course at the time, who knew?) So he refused to have any involvement with the show. Or us.

On our own however, we did manage to track down the real doctor Hawkeye was modeled after and flew to Phoenix to interview him. That was very cool.

Carol wonders:

How many degrees away from Kevin Bacon are you? (Full disclosure - I'm two - I used to sing with Calista Flockhart before she was famous-High School-and she did some movie with Kevin Bacon.)

Asking, because I wonder how many degrees from you I am removed. (Assuming blogs don't count.)

I’m only one degree away. Here’s a post I once wrote about it.

From Liggie:

Do you think networks will consider new anthology shows? Either with rotating casts and stories like "The Twilight Zone", or with a couple of constant characters but guest casts and settings like "Quantum Leap" and "Touched By An Angel"?

For several reasons networks shy away from anthologies. First off – they’re expensive. New sets, new cast each week. And secondly – viewers tend to like the continuity of characters and situations they are familiar with.

Another problem with anthologies is that depending on the story, setting, cast, and writer they can vary wildly in quality. It’s amazing to me how uniformly excellent THE TWILIGHT ZONE was. That Rod Serling feller was pretty good. 

Stephen asks:

Sitcoms have shorter running time than they did in the 70s (a recent Big Bang episode ran 20:03 compared to Mary Tyler Moore's 25:00 average). So does this shorten the time it takes to shoot an episode as well as giving the writers more time during the week to work on the script?

Actually Stephen, the shorter running time makes it harder for writers. It’s more difficult to tell a story with any depth when you have so little time. And when you have B and C stories you’re really up shit’s creek.

Remember, shows got shorter not because the networks felt they would be better creatively as a result. Their time got slashed so networks could sell more commercials.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


When I was six I could draw Popeye. The only time I was popular in my entire sixteen-year school career was in the first grade because I would draw Popeye on paper towels for everybody. Unfortunately, by high school that no longer worked. Still, cartooning became a big hobby. By the time I was ten I was drawing entire comic books. Forget that nobody read them. (It’s kinda like when I started this blog.)

When I became a teenager I thought seriously about cartooning as a profession. The idea of having my own comic strip was very intoxicating. I’d seen articles about Charles Shulz (creator of PEANUTS) and it seemed like a great life. You have this nice art studio at home with large picture windows looking out at lush gardens or the beach or the Alps (depending on which side of the house your office was situated). You send in your panels to a big syndicate and voila, your comic strip appears in 300 newspapers. You’re right there with HI & LOIS and LITTLE LULU. Hollywood eventually comes calling, an animated Christmas special follows, a series, and then the Holy Grail – action figures!

But, I thought, there’s a problem. I would have to come up with seven jokes. Every week. Like clockwork. Who could possibly perform under that kind of unimaginable pressure?

Later I became a Top 40 disc jockey where I had to come up with a new joke every three minutes for four hours, six days a week. For way less than the artist of BLONDIE makes.

From there I gravitated towards sitcom writing. Here I was expected to come up with thirty or forty jokes a day for ten months.

Recently I picked up the comic section of a major newspaper. It had been years since I scanned the funny pages. Without naming names, I was shocked by how bad they were, how painfully unfunny they were. And these are the current cream of the crop? Getting a national syndicate to pick up your comic strip is like winning the lottery only with worse odds. So you’d expect each strip would kick ass.

I read THE NEW YORKER every week and their one-panel cartoons are always funny and sharp. Their batting average is probably .900. But that’s what you’d expect. THE NEW YORKER has the pick of cartoonists. Why doesn’t the same high standard apply to the comic strip world?

Or is it me? Or is the level of humor designed strictly for kids? There are a few exceptions but for the most part I was disappointed.

And then it occurred to me, back when I was such a fan of comic strips were they any better? Was BEETLE BAILEY really funny? I thought THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was hilarious back then, too.

What do you think about comic strips? Do you have a favorite? Has the quality of a favorite gone downhill over time? Is it lame comic strips and not the internet that is killing the newspaper industry?

Comic books were different. I favored the action hero genre – Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Isis (you know – the classics). They didn’t have to be funny. I had MAD magazine for that.

But it seems to me daily comic strips could be better. Underground comics are. I know what you’re thinking – then why don’t I submit a comic strip? Are you kidding? That’s seven jokes a week.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The pros and cons of gangbanging

How's that for a provocative title?    Actually, this is a post about TV comedy writing.  Sorry.  It stems from a Friday Question that's worth an entire post. 

Dana Gabbard asks:

Recently you noted that while in the past show staffs were small and freelance writers were a source of most scripts (at least first drafts) now most shows are room written. Can you describe why? What are the pluses and minuses of having a show staff written versus using freelancers?

The biggest advantage of room writing is efficiency. Drafts can be slapped together fairly quickly. Perhaps that’s why the delightful nickname for this practice is “gangbanging.”

Some showrunners just prefer this method, but primarily the need for it comes from the increased interference producers now endure from network and studio executives. These days almost every step of the process has to be approved by seven departments. That means story notions, detailed outlines, and first drafts are submitted to everyone short of postal inspectors. Getting responses can take days or even weeks. Meanwhile, valuable lead time evaporates. By the time everyone has weighed in there’s no time to send a writer out to do the draft. The next best option is to gangbang.

Advantages: It is more efficient. When you send a writer out with a draft you need a day to go over the story with him and a few hours to go over and revise his outline. Once the draft comes back it generally still needs work. You have to make notes and go over them with the writer. That’s another afternoon or more. The second draft comes in and is closer but still not there. So more time is needed to get the script ready for production. That rewrite can require as little as an hour or two, or it can take days.  And then there are times it's decided that the story doesn't work.  The staff must now still gangbang it, except now weeks have been wasted.

The other advantage is that everybody is on the same page. If you have a good staff the writing can move fairly quickly and there are generally a lot of laughs in the room. It’s a much more social process than writers all off in their individual Starbucks.

Further advantage:  you’re never second-guessing the showrunner because he’s running the room.

For the most part, shows that are joke-oriented (like BIG BANG THEORY) lend themselves better to gangbanging than more character-based shows like MODERN FAMILY.

The disadvantages: You lose any individuality. You’re not a writer in the real sense. You just pitch jokes. It’s a very specific skill and doesn’t always suit the best writers. Some writers craft wonderful drafts but are shy and uncomfortable just pitching jokes in the room. Neil Simon and Woody Allen fall into that category. Imagine having them in their prime and not being able to utilize their talents.

Also, writers I know who have worked in this system for several years start feeling insecure about writing scripts on their own again. To combat that I always suggest that room writers have a script of their own they’re writing in their free time. Keep those muscles strong. Retain your individuality. And who knows? Alan Ball did that while working on CYBILL. He wrote a spec screenplay called AMERICAN BEAUTY.  So another perk of writing specs is that they give you Oscars.

Clearly, there are plusses and minuses. Personally, I prefer to let my staff write drafts. They feel more valued and the scripts are often richer. But if I only have two days to write a first draft I’m going to circle the wagons and room write.

Now blogs, on the other hand, should probably not be gangbanged.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

If I wrote for GIRLS

Allow me to channel my inner 25-year-old girl with tattoos and try my hand at GIRLS.


Hannah (Lena Dunham) is completely naked, brushing her teeth. Marnie (Allison Williams) is taking a shower, fully dressed. Jessa (Jermina Kirke) is shaving her armpits. And Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) is on the toilet. This is where the four friends seem to have all of their meaningful conversations. Oh, outside the door we hear a party going on.

HANNAH: My life is such a tragic joke. I loathe myself every minute. I have now registered so low on the degradation scale that I actually went back to Adam. I guess I should have called first because when I got to his place he was fucking my best friend-slash-slut from high school. Awk-ward! I of course was furious but he convinced me that this was all my fault.  Then he let me stay and watch. Like this was great theater.  I asked if he wanted me to join and he said no but did want me to darn his socks.  So I did.  But things improved. I said, “Hey, how come you don’t fuck her in the ass?” and he said, “I only do that to you.” Like that’s supposed to make me feel special.  Well, it worked.

MARNIE: Booth, that super weird conceptual artist who scares me came back into my life. Maybe the rudest most appalling human being I’ve ever met. I told him to go fuck himself and he said, “I’d rather fuck you” which of course I found so endearing that I let him. It’s just so refreshing to find a man who doesn’t admit to masturbating over how hot I am. Once we got into bed things took a turn for the deranged. What sick guy asks a girl to take off all her clothes to have sex?

SHOSHANNA: NowthatI’mnolongeravirginIthinkIwanttomodelmylifeafterSamananthanotCharlotteorCarrie.

JESSA: Now that we’re married, NOW that lame-o has a problem with my heroin addiction, atheism, and near abortion? My cute phony accent isn’t enough for the douchebag?  What’s next, I should get a job? When we first met and he tried to have a three-way with me and Marnie, that should have been a sign. Okay, it was and that’s why I fell in love with him. But I’m still too fucking adorable to have to endure this shit! I’m too young to have all my abortions with just one man.

HANNAH: Adam masturbated in front of me last night. How intimate. I see us getting ever-closer to a deeply emotional relationship. Now if I could just get him to call out my name while he’s doing it instead of Adele's.

MARNIE: I had this hideous dream last night. I was walking around Soho shopping and there were all these guys. At least fifty. And they all wanted to fuck me of course, but there was this one dude who like didn’t. I woke up and cried for an hour.  Why do these things happen to me?  I couldn’t go back to sleep so I watched SID AND NANCY on Netflix.

SHOSHANNA: CarrieissowisebutCharlotteiskinderanddressedbetterthanCarrieineveryseasonbutthethird.

JESSA: I fucking hate when people tell me to grow up. Like it’s their business. Taking heroin is an adult decision. Having unprotected sex is an adult decision. I don’t know where they get this.

HANNAH: Maybe the world would be a better place if I weren’t in it. Would Adam even know if I killed myself? I would have to use his gun.

MARNIE: (drying herself off) That was so sad about Nancy. But what a traumatic way to go – stabbing yourself? I wouldn’t know what to wear. You have to look nice for when they find you.  I cried for an hour.

SHOSHANNA: (wiping) Samanthahadthehardestlife. Iwouldn’tbesurprisedifshetookherlifeonceherlooksstartedtogo.

HANNAH: Or I could do it right in front of him. I’ll strip naked, point the gun, and if he doesn’t say it’s okay to wash his dishes while he sleeps with one of you I’ll do it.

JESSA: Y’know, I feel so much better having you guys to talk to.  I so appreciate your input.

MARNIE: Yeah, where would I be without all of you and your caring insight into my shit? 

SHOSHANNA: (pulling up her jeans) You’retheonlypeopleintheworldwholistentome.

HANNAH: I love you all so much. (gestures to all come together) Come on. Last-scene-of-MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW-hug.

They all embrace. 

HANNAH: So we're good?

MARNIE: Amazing.

SHOSHANNA: I'malwaysgood.

JESSA: Still, I need a drink.

HANNAH: Yeah, I could use some leftover cake.

MARNIE: I need someone who will love me less than I love myself.

SHOSHANNA: Ineeddictionlessons.

HANNAH: Let’s get fucked up!!

Hannah opens the door and exits.

MARNIE: Hannah, wait! Put your clothes back…. okay, whatever.

Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna exit as we:


Monday, February 18, 2013

Some random thoughts, rants, and suggestions

Haven’t done this in awhile so what the heck?  

True story: Was in a restaurant Friday night. By mistake we made reservations for four instead of two. The cute Millennium hostess showed us to our table and asked if two others were joining. Wiseass that I am, I said, “No. They died.” And she said, “Please don’t make this awkward for me.” Lena, I want a dollar if you use that.

Happy birthday to my lovely wife, Debby. Here's how wonderful you are -- today has been declared a national holiday.  I promise much love and no singing. 

In a recent study of which country has the most sex on flights, the winner was Great Britain. My first thought was DOWNTON ABBEY.  Can't you just see Anna & Mr. Bates getting it on in the Hindenburg lavatory?

Mike Piazza is a dick. Roger Clemens now has my permission to drill him.

Attention bartenders: Ginger ale is not Sprite with a splash of Coke. If you don’t have ginger ale say so. Even drunks know the difference. If someone ordered whiskey do you think you could just substitute vodka and he'd never notice? Rule of thumb: The determining factor in what makes ginger ale is not color.

In another defensive battle, the Western NBA All-Stars beat the Eastern All-Stars 143-138.  What a joke!  Why not just give each team 120 points and let them play for five minutes? 

Why am I not surprised by last week’s Carnival Cruise line mishap? They are floating trailer parks. Here’s the account of my one (and only) Carnival cruise.

UP ALL NIGHT was finally put out of its misery.  Yanked in November after filming 11 single-camera episodes, it was being retooled for 5 additional multi-camera episodes.  Then the creator left.  Then the showrunner left.  Then Christina Applegate quit.  Then the order was cut to one.  This has become the "Terri Schiavo of sitcoms."  Mercifully, they've pulled the plug. 

COMMUNITY’s ratings fell 42% -- a series all-time low -- in its second week. Maybe if they change the format to multi-camera….

Congratulations to all the winners of last night's WGA Awards... especially Chris Terrio for ARGO.   Spielberg's probably saying, "Why didn't I get him to write LINCOLN instead of that Kushner hack?!"

If you ever get the chance, see Linda Eder in concert. Imagine Barbra Streisand but she doesn’t charge $2000 a ticket and she doesn’t take the attitude that she’s doing you a whopping big favor.

Spotted Saturday on Pico Blvd.:
In an attempt to gain credibility, Fox News has hired Herman Cain. I only wish I were joking.

Do you “hate-watch” any shows? Those are shows you can’t stand but are compelled to watch anyway. It’s not a healthy thing to do and I am proud to say I don’t do it… now that PARTNERS has been cancelled.

I will not be reviewing this year’s Grammys. But I will be filing my annual bitchy recap of the Oscars… next Monday morning. A lot of suspense this year. Who will win the Second-Best Director Oscar (since the REAL Best Director, Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated)?

Compliments of Dodger historian Mark Langill, this was my most prized possession growing up.   Vin Scully & Jerry Doggett were my constant companions.  Like imaginary friends only better.  At 10-years-old they told me I should drink beer. 

There's a great program being offered by the Writers Guild Foundation.  A course called MY ANATOMY OF A SCRIPT.  Each Thursday night a different showrunner or filmmaker is interviewed at the WGA on 3rd and Fairfax.  This week: Graham Yost of JUSTIFIED.  In future weeks: Robert & Michele King (THE GOOD WIFE), Ben Lewin (writer/director of THE SESSIONS), and many more.  Here's where you go for information.   I'll see you there most Thursdays.

The Girl Scouts are getting smart.  They're selling their cookies this year next to ATM's. 

How many key Major League ballplayers are going to be injured playing in the silly World Baseball Classic?

Looking for immortality?  Become my 10,000th follower on Twitter.

If Spielberg loses the Best Director Oscar to Ang Lee Steven's next picture will be THE SIEGRRIED & ROY STORY.
Tomorrow: I try my hand at writing a scene for GIRLS.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Guys are not going to want to f**k her

 Of all the things I've posted over the last eight years, this has been my most requested.  And since we're right in the middle of pilot casting season, I thought I'd re-post it with sincere admiration to those gallant actors and actresses trying to beat the incredible odds. 
My heart always goes out to actors during pilot season (which this is). Here’s how hard it is to become a cast member of a hit series:

When a writer/producer gets the good/bad news that his pilot has been greenlighted the first thing he does is hire a casting director and together they prepare a list of possible worthy candidates for each part. They then meet with the network casting person. She responds to your list. “No, no, hate him, uch, no, no, no, uch, no.” If one of those “uchs” is you you’re dead.

The network casting person will then present her list. One name sticks out. The writer/producer tells her he won’t cast this guy because he killed his grandmother. The network casting maven says, “Well, he didn’t kill a member of your immediate family. Read him anyway.” Basically writer/producers are expected to pursue the names on her list. If you haven’t already been eliminated you’re now at a huge disadvantage if you’re going up against one of these golden names. (By the way, it is very easy to go from this list one year to "uch" the next. Beware.)

Now comes the reading process. Out of all the pilots there may only be a few roles you’re right for. There are also a few more you’re not right for but you apply anyway. You can play Asian if you have to, no sweat.

Your agent submits your name. The casting director may not think you’re right or not be a fan and you’re dead. Assuming you’re over that hurdle you’re invited in to read. There usually are a hundred or more actors reading for every role. Great odds, huh? In these initial sessions you’re usually reading for a committee – the writer/producers, the pod producers, a couple of studio representatives. All you need is one of them to not like you and you’re toast. And by “not like” that could mean “too tall”, “good but we’ve seen him in things”, “he was my waiter last week at the Daily Grill and was terrible”, and “guys are not going to want to fuck her”.

Now there’s a new wrinkle. Networks insist the auditions be recorded and sent to them for perusal. Let’s say you’re reading for a part you’re not right for. Or you just didn’t do well. Not only are you dead but now the network gets to see your bad audition and you’re now on the “no, uch” list for other projects. So for the seven pilots you’re going up for, that one audition just cost you four of them.

Ready to go back to Michigan and teach 5th grade yet?

You make the cut. You get a call-back. By that time you’re not sure what you did that they liked so much? Can you do it again, whatever it is?

You’re on a roll. You kill at the call-back. You’re now a finalist. Your agent makes a deal contingent on studio and network approval.

You read for the studio. Another committee, mostly made up of non-creative types. All it takes is one to hate you.

They don’t hate you. You move on to the network test. You and four other candidates are led into a screening room one at a time where you audition for the network president (and a committee but when the network prez is there their opinions mean nothing).

Talk about pressure. Let’s say you were up for the role of “Rachel” in this pilot called FRIENDS. How different would your life be depending on whether or not you got that part?

You can hit it out of the park and still not get the part. The network president may be partial to a name on his golden list. He may have no ability to judge talent. He may not want to fuck you.

By some miracle he likes you. But there’s a hang-up. He still wants a bigger name. So you hold your breath while the producers make an eleventh hour plea to Paula Marshall. She passes. They settle for … I mean “cast” you.

You’re in, right? Not so fast.

During the week of production there are network table readings and runthroughs. You could get fired at any one of them. And it’s not necessarily your fault. The material could be awful, the director gave you bad direction, they never really wanted you in the first place.

But you survive the week of production and film the pilot. Now comes research and test screenings. I’ve observed these focus groups. One woman says she hates you. Why? She can’t believe you wore those shoes. (That’s a true story.) The network says if the show goes forward you’re to be replaced.

That’s IF she show goes forward. You could give the performance of a lifetime but if the show doesn’t get picked up you’re dead. And again, there are sooooo many factors that go into that decision that have nothing to do with you... although your life depends on it.

There is a God. The show gets picked up. You’ve tested okay. You’re home free now.

Uh, no.

There may be an actor from a pilot that didn’t get picked up that the network really loves. They want to make a place for him. That could well be your role. Again, you’re dead.

But that doesn’t happen. Not in this case. You get on the air. I’ve seen actors replaced after three or four episodes (although it’s fairly rare) but chances are you’re safe…

IF the show becomes a hit. How many shows get canceled? About 90%.

You can understand why my heart goes out to actors. I just can’t imagine facing that level of constant rejection. So congratulations to all the actors who do make it. Savor each and every moment. Go to the parties. Be in the parades. Do the photo shoots. Fly in the company jet. You’ve won the lottery. Also, print this out and read it in three years when you start wondering if the show is holding you back.

Good luck this pilot season, thesps!

Friday, February 15, 2013

How we determined credit

Got some Friday Questions & Answers for ya.

Chris starts us off:

Does WGA have any rules about who goes first on a writing team credit? Peter Tolan and Denis Leary kept switching theirs on the "created by" credit on Rescue Me. Seemed it was a fair way to handle the issue.

How did you guys decide?

There are no guild rules as to who in a writing team gets top billing. The team has to fight it out themselves.

We went in alphabetical order (but just couldn’t spell).

Seriously, I don’t know why I got top billing originally. Maybe it’s because I was the one who called David about teaming up.

There are some teams that switch off every year. I made that offer to David years ago, but he said “the only people who read these are relatives and they now know where to look, so let’s just keep things as is.”

And after awhile you’re just known as a single entity. “What about Levine-Isaacs for that project?” etc.

And then there’s the famous story about one member of a writing team walking alone at a studio and a passing executive saying, “Hello, boys.”

Camille Couasse has a question from across the sea:

I’m a French TV screenwriter who’d like to write for American TV, but I’m not sure where to start. For a foreigner like me, isn’t it simpler (Visa wise) to write a feature and try and sell it, rather than write a spec script and hoped to be hired on a show (over more legitimate Americans)?

So, my question is: As a foreigner, if I want to make it in the US, should I write for TV or for the film industry? What’s my best shot? And also, If I sell one feature, isn’t easier to work in TV?

I’m not an agent, but I would assume you’d have better luck writing a screenplay. Plus, you could set it in France if you’d like and have better command of the world.

And I imagine if you wrote a spec for an existing TV series there would be some producers who – unfairly – might just assume you don’t know the show because you’re not here.

The lines have been blurred considerably between television and feature writers. It used to be if you were in TV you had a tough time cracking the feature market. And feature writers considered television “slumming.” Now they’re all hopping back and forth between the two.

But if your spec screenplay sells and you suddenly have a feature career, ride that wave all the way to the shore.

The Comic Scholar has a question along those same lines:

Do writers tend to stick to one type of show or another? For example, is it common/unheard of for a writer to work on sitcoms and dramatic hour-longs?

There’s a lot more crossover now. This really began about seven or eight years ago when comedies seemed to dry up. (Now they’re back, thank God.) But I know a number of half-hour writers who have done hour shows. Phoef Sutton, Janet Leahy, Steve Nathan, Mike Saltzman, Dan O’Shannon, and of course Matthew Weiner to name a few.

Going the other way, it happens as well. Ryan Murphy leaps to mind with NEW NORMAL. And Aaron Sorkin has tried his hand at half-hours with SPORTSNIGHT.

And now that comedies and dramas are blending it really depends more on a writer’s sensibility than track record. I certainly wouldn’t classify GIRLS strictly as a comedy. And there are more laughs in JUSTIFIED than 90% of today’s sitcoms.

Helena queries:

The formatting rules for a script are clear, but I rarely read anything about how to format a show's bible. Some scriptwriting contests for instance suggest that other information, like future episodes, is sent along with the pilot. So what exactly should a bible look like and contain?

There is no standard format. Each show seems to have its own. And the content varies as well. The show bible generally is an account of past episodes. I’ve been on some shows where that means just a detailed synopsis of the episode. Other shows have sections for each character that grows as the character develops.

It mostly depends on who is assigned to maintain the bible. If it’s a writers’ assistant they usually are quite up to date. If it’s a story editor or staff writer chances are months will go by before the bible is updated.

Honestly though, the need for show bibles is much less today because of the internet. You can easily find synopses of every episode. There are probably character sections as well. Are these online bibles accurate? Yeah, I guess, sort of. There might be some inaccuracies but so what? Bibles are just used for reference anyway.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. As always, many thanks.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day

Not my favorite holiday.  My big problem with Valentine’s Day is that it’s also my birthday. Try going out to a nice celebration dinner when every restaurant is packed, all the prices are jacked way up, and everyone is trying so hard to create a “romantic atmosphere” that when their date isn’t looking they’re popping Lexapros like Tic Tacs.

Still, not to be a cynic I would like to offer an explanation for what love really is. It comes from that font of romance -- an episode of TAXI (written by Ken Estin).

Louie is trying to win back his girlfriend, Zena. He asks if she loves him. She says she doesn’t know what love is. He tells her she’s in luck because he does. And he’s the only person alive who can say that. He’s read what everyone else says love is and they’re always wrong. She finally asks him what it is, and Louie says:

“Love is the end of happiness!

The end. Because one day all a guy’s got to do to be happy is to watch the Mets. The next day you gotta have Zena in the room watching the Mets with you. You don’t know why. They’re the same Mets, it’s the same room…but you gotta have Zena there.”

That to me expresses more heartfelt love than any bouquet or bling or blowout dinner. Maybe you should change your plans and just get together in her apartment. Especially since I still don't have dinner reservations and would prefer not celebrating my birthday at Taco Bell.

Thank you and happy Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fox announces "ShortComs"

Fox has announced an experimental series for the summer called “Shortcoms.” These will be hour shows split into four segments. Each segment will be a multi-camera sitcom starring and written by a stand-up comic. Fox claims they will give the comics great freedom.

First off, I applaud any attempt to do comedy, especially an innovative one.

But I have some concerns:

Last year Fox picked up no multi-camera shows. The distinct impression was that they thought single-camera comedy was the only way to go and that multi-cams were too old fashioned. Now they’re saying they’ve always loved multi-cam shows?

On the surface giving these comics free reign sounds great in theory but are they really going to allow them that much leeway? Networks today are incredibly hands-on. Story areas, outlines, and scripts all must be approved.

And if they are going to give these comics freedom why don’t they do that with real writers? Especially since real writers know what they’re doing and comics are just feeling their way around the form.

I can't think of another industry where experience is considered a detriment. 

Lastly, this sounds like a transparent attempt to find the next LOUIE. But Louis C.K. is special and has a distinct vision. Will these 6-9 comics have true unique voices?   I listen to the comedy channels on Sirius/XM and I'd be hard-pressed to find nine truly original performers.  Most of them trot out an endless parade of bad tech help, women are bitches, men are assholes, kids are nightmares, Facebook sucks jokes.   (Unfortunately for all of us, the most original creative stand up comedian of the last ten years, Mitch Hedberg, is no longer with us.) 

15 minute multi-cam segments are not sitcoms. They’re elongated sketches. And again, that’s fine. I’ll try it out. I hope they’re great. I hope I laugh my ass off. But successful sitcoms are the ones where the audience connects with the characters and have an emotional investment in them. It’s hard to create that in fifteen-minute chunks. It’s hard to do any story with depth in fifteen minutes. And to me what makes LOUIE so great is that it does have depth. Louis C.K. has time to let his stories breathe. And it’s never the number of cameras – it’s the content.

The argument can be made that with webisodes, shorter bite-sized (or byte-sized) sitcoms are being made every day.  True.  And some are quite good like HUSBANDS.  But if you ask the creators of these webisodes what their ultimate goal is many will admit it's to get their show picked up by a network where they can expand them to a half hour.  

So we’ll see. I’m approaching this experiment with some reservations but all good wishes.  I hope it works. I hope they find the next Mitch Hedberg (who, by the way, shortly before his death had a deal to develop a show... for FOX.   And how refreshing to hear a network want to use the summer to develop comedy rather than just more reality shows.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Terrestrial Radio sucks


Terrestrial Radio is the guy in an iron lung who’s smoking. Except the guy is smart enough to know he’s dying.

For almost a hundred years Terrestrial Radio has ruled the airwaves. And as readers of this blog know, my first love (besides Natalie Wood) is radio. That’s why it really pains me to not only see it heading towards its own demise but sprinting.

Now we have satellite radio (such as it is), internet radio, music services like Pandora, our own playlists, and my book-on-tape. At one time the only way you could hear the hits was to tune to a terrestrial station or maybe two. Now there are literally thousands of alternatives. On iTunes radio there are 543 stations streaming Top 40/pop music. Right this minute a Lady Gaga song is on 523 of them. There’s probably a 24/7 station that plays nothing but Spandau Ballet – and they only had one hit.

So how does Terrestrial Radio deal with this? By ignoring it. By increasing their commercial load. What’s the single biggest complaint listeners have about Terrestrial Radio? No. Rush Limbaugh is number two. Commercials! Of course! So to counter-program all these alternative delivery systems they just add more commercials. Do stations know they’re mortgaging their future? Of course again. But they don’t care. They just want to bring in a profit now. In their list of priorities, the listener falls right below watering the plants in the lobby.

Listen to your local Top 40 station (if you can). There are probably close to 20 minutes of commercials an hour. When one of those stations goes into a spot break it can last up to seven minutes. Do the math. Most commercials these days are 30 seconds. That’s 14 commercials all at once. Even the Guantanamo detainees weren’t subjected to that.

And not only is that horrific for the listener (assuming he hasn’t already tuned out or given the name of Bin Laden’s courier), how’d you like to be the sponsor with your commercial number 8 of 14? What impact does that have? None. You’re taking your advertising budget and lighting cigars with it.

And what about news and sports formats? Those stations are either on AM or if they’re on FM they come with the full load of commercials.

Here’s the problem with AM: You can’t buy AM radios anymore. Go to a Best Buy or any major store selling radios. Good luck finding an AM. And if you want an AM transistor radio – the one-time staple of every teenager -- your best bet is to buy one on ANTIQUE ROADSHOW. Transistor radios that receive AM are almost impossible to locate. You have to special order them as you would a Betamax player or Teri Hatcher’s self help book.

Most people listen to the radio in their cars. For any of these new delivery systems to really make a dent they have to be easily available on the dashboard. Satellite radio already is. For a number of years now auxiliary outlets have been available so you could play your iPods over your auto’s audio. And in newer models iHeart Radio – a collection of stations although most commercial – is an option. Manufacturers are hard at work making receivers that will play streaming internet radio. You’ll be able to set push buttons for your favorite internet station the way you’ve set one for KISS-FM (every city has a KISS-FM). On the new Prius you can mix and match the push buttons. 1 – a satellite station, 2 – your favorite FM station, 3- satellite, 4—an AM station, etc.

And once internet stations are as easy to play in the car as terrestrial stations then the terrestrial stations are toast. Internet stations contain little or no commercials. Their overhead is minimal. And it’s only a matter of time before a few break out and become viral hits. That means that some dude’s station that he runs out of his mother’s walk-in closet could be worth more than the terrestrial stations Clear Channel and Cumulus and CBS overpaid millions for.

This does not just apply to music-based stations. Long-time talk show host Tom Leykis now does his show exclusively on the internet. And in less than a year he has millions of listeners.

I am firmly convinced that the next great radio star, the next Howard Stern, will come from an internet station. Actually, that’s almost a given since Terrestrial Radio, in another effort to cut costs, rarely employs live talent. They just run syndicated programming or voice tracks. So there’s no training ground for young talent anymore.

Asking Terrestrial Radio to clean up its act is like asking Lindsay Lohan to clean up hers. You know it’ll never happen (even after that jaw-dropping Liz Taylor movie). Terrestrial Radio needs to cut way back on the commercials for starters. Then they have to figure out what they can provide that all of the alternatives can’t. Local programming is one answer. I’ve heard so many stories of tornadoes and freak storms hitting cities and the citizens turn to the radio to get disaster coverage and are treated to Carrie Underwood’s greatest hits. It used to be that radio had an obligation to provide public service to the community. That’s now a joke. Who cares where the emergency shelters are located? Taylor Swift has a new single!

The other thing Terrestrial Radio can offer is personalities. If everyone plays the same songs it’s what’s in between them that make the difference. But personalities cost money. And reducing commercials loses money. So it will never happen. Lindsay Lohan will be arrested for urinating on Kim Kardashian and Terrestrial Radio will go on believing surveys that say that most people still listen to them. I think those surveys are from the same pollsters that predicted Romney was going to win.

As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a ‘changin’.” You can find that song on one of 267 iTunes stations streaming Classic Rock and 212 Oldies streams. With little or no commercials.

Note to Terrestrial Radio: Cigarettes will kill you.