Saturday, August 31, 2013

Working with Robin Williams

A reader asked me recently to talk about my sordid days doing improv. I started in 1979. Disco was dying and I was looking for the next big thing. My partner, David and I sold a pilot to NBC about a Nichols & May type improv team. The concept was could a man and woman work together and just be friends (long before Sally faked her orgasm for Harry)? To research the arena I called Dee Marcus, director of the improv group OFF THE WALL (still in existence, still performing around town, and still hilarious) and asked if I could audit a class. She said only if I agreed to participate. I figured, what the hell? I couldn’t be much worse than the other beginners.

I arrived and was blown away by how unbelievably great everyone was. SNL quality people performing over a beauty school at Santa Monica Blvd. and Fairfax. These were the beginners? Shit! I was lucky to get through a scene without pissing on myself (although, I know I passed up a sure laugh) After a few trying weeks of this I learned Dee hadn't put me in the beginners class, she put me in the performance class. These were all the top professionals. (Thanks, Dee) The tip off came when Robin Williams showed up one night.

I stayed in the class for a couple of years, learned an enormous amount, and eventually became part of a comedy troop, THE SUNDAY FUNNIES. We played to crowds often fewer in number than the cast.

After many years of sabbatical I'm back, taking Andy Goldberg’s workshop. Of all the improv teachers he’s by far the best. As a comedy writer I recommend improv training. It teaches spontaneity, committing to a character, and creating scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends. The hardest part is going to a deli afterwards and watching your classmates eat fried kreplachs at 11 at night.

One story about Robin. Needless to say, doing scenes with him was an adventure. He is so fast and brilliant he just uses you like a prop. One night I got called up to do a two person scene with him. If you were lucky you sometimes could get in two words. The scene began, he went off in fifteen different directions. I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. Finally, I heard a beat of silence. He must've been taking a breath. Now's my chance, I thought. I don't know why but the only thing I could think to say was "fuck you". Much to my surprise it got a laugh. He was off and running for two more minutes of inspired word jazz and then it was my turn again. Since it got a laugh the first time I said, "fuck you". It got an even bigger laugh. This became the scene. Robin riffing, me occasionally blurting out "fuck you". And every time I got the biggest laughs.

When the scene was over I worried that Robin would be pissed that I upstaged him. Instead, he took me aside and said, “that was great.” I consider it one of my greatest achievements in comedy.

And I guess he remembers it because every time I see him the first thing he says to me is “Fuck you!”

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Questions

First off, Happy Birthday to my daughter, Annie. Hope you like the autographed copy of my book. I know, I know... sometimes I spoil you.

Here are these week’s Friday Questions:

An (is my actual name) starts us off:

Watching later episodes of Cheers, I can't help but notice all the negative Diane Chambers references. She comes up a lot for a character who was long gone. It seems odd that a character who left on good terms (Carla notwithstanding) and with a thoughtfully crafted, no-villain exit would be demonized in later seasons-- especially after such a fine line was walked by writers and Shelley Long to keep her so likable. Was it a character severance device or a reliable laugh or catharsis or what? What was the thinking there? Thanks!

We only did one or two Diane references a year. We tried to be very judicious and not go to that well too often.

Usually it was Frasier who made the jokes and the point of them was showing a psychiatrist who got left at the altar and just couldn’t let go. This supposed pillar of mental health held a massive grudge. We considered them Frasier jokes, not Diane jokes.   And they were the type of jokes Frasier made to her face when she was on the show, and she never was rattled by them.  So we felt they were okay to do.  Were one or two maybe a bit too cruel?   Looking back, you may be right. 

We also felt that by doing these sporadic references it kept Diane in the show. She was such a huge and integral part of the series that you could make a reference to her five years after she had left and the audience still responded.

From Mark P.:

Ken, if a guest star gets sick or is otherwise unable to appear at the taping, what do you do? Did the casting director who chose them also choose an understudy?

I assume you mean for a multi-camera show that is filmed all at one time in front of a live studio audience. For single-camera shows, they can just adjust the shooting schedule.

But when there’s an audience and a lot of money committed to filming the entire episode in one night, things can get sticky.

There are no understudies. Sometimes we re-cast, sometimes we write the character out of the show if we can. And then it depends on how pivotal he is to the episode and how big a part it is.

If he’s in say, one scene, sometimes we can just shoot it the following week after the audience has left.

Another option, although it’s a very costly one, is to just push the filming back a day. But the guest star has to be central to the story and probably a big name.

I must say, one of the many things I admire about actors is that they really are troopers. They have to be close-to-death to not come in. I’ve seen actors persevere with colds, the flu, twisted ankles, and heavy hearts from personal tragedies. People like to portray actors as fragile hothouse flowers, but they are some of the toughest people I’ve known.

Amy wonders:

When writers create shows about worlds they aren't intimately familiar with-- for instance, a show about the old west, or about prison, or about the inner workings of a police precinct-- how do they ensure that they're getting the world right? Do they hire consultants, do copious research before writing the pilot?

They try to do as much research as possible. Now this won’t help you writing GAME OF THRONES, but if your show is set in a police precinct or a high school the writer almost has an obligation to spend time there and really immerse himself in that world.

When I wrote for MASH we conducted hundreds of interviews with doctors, corpsmen, nurses, soldiers, and patients who served in Korea during the war. My partner, David Isaacs and I had been in the army so we knew that world. I honestly don’t think we could have written MASH had we not had that experience.

(See my post last weekend on technical advisors.)

Now CHEERS was way more fun. Imagine hanging out in bars, drinking, and then writing off your bar tab as research.

I don’t know what you do for a show like STAR TREK although there are several writers that I seriously believe do commute from outer space.

And finally, from Carson:

You have worked on three shows that each lasted 11 seasons (MASH, Cheers, Frasier). After that length of time they all ran their course. But I wonder even after all these years do you ever still get ideas for these shows? Or are they emptied from conscientiousness?

I never think of MASH ideas, but all the time an incident will occur or an idea will pop into my head and I’ll think, “That would make a great Sam story on CHEERS” or “I could so see Frasier and Niles doing this.”

After spending so much of my life with those characters it is a little weird to think I’ll never write them again. So I do still think of ideas for those shows.  Either I have a very fertile mind or I’m just in denial.

What’s your question? And again, Happy Birthday to my favorite comedy writer.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Kevin Spacey's take on the future of television

Worth a listen. It's about 5 minutes. He makes some great points about how television is changing and what it should do to accommodate viewers.

The only problem I see is that to greenlight a thirteen-episode series without any kind of pilot is a huge gamble.  And just as most pilots fail, so will most series.  Except, you put a series on the air, it dies quickly, you halt production after four episodes.  You cut your losses.  You can't do that with a Netflix type series.

So after being burned big time a few times, Netflix and other providers who follow this concept might become super conservative in what they buy.  Big stars and big names will have to be attached.  Adaptations of blockbuster novels.   We've seen this with studio motion pictures.

That said, I totally agree with him on one thing -- the model of television is changing -- whether the networks like it or not.   New delivery systems, new ways of accessing content -- they're not just theories anymore.  They're HERE.  And there are more to follow.

The good news is that whatever these models are, they are going to need CONTENT.  Whether people watch on movie screens of telephone screens they want to watch stories.   That means more opportunities for writers.  Who knows what form they'll take?    But it's an exciting time.  I wish someone had let me go right to series and make all thirteen episodes without having to get everything approved including the set dressing and without having to subject my show to focus groups and dialing testing.  And for good measure I wasn't at the mercy of a time slot.  I also wish I could get Kevin Spacey to star in it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why you can't let rejection dash your hopes

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.

She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:


He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why is poker night like rewrite night?

Got invited to a poker game last weekend. A friend plays in a regular game and needed an extra body. Poker is an ingenious game. It involves both skill and luck. If only I had either.

I hadn’t played poker in probably fifteen years so I pretty much had forgotten everything other than I always lose.

Still, I enjoyed myself.  The players were usually a group of comedy writers or improv chums so there were always more laughs than chips (especially in front of me). I likened it to a rewrite night where you didn’t have to address network notes.

This time the only person I knew going in was my friend. But it was a low stakes game so I figured what the hell? The guys all turned out to be fun, and they all came from other branches of the industry so I got to hear all-new horror stories. Nothing breaks the ice like getting fucked over in Hollywood.

I was worried that these dudes would hate me. Since I didn’t know what I was doing I would surely test their patience. And if I won they’d really despise me. Fortunately, they were tolerant, and fortunately they took all my money. So my fears were for naught.

I needed one of those little cheat sheets that told you that a royal flush beats a pair of threes. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to watch an episode of THE WORLD SERIES OF POKER and one of the finalists has the same cheat sheet next to his chips?

Remembering what beats what is hard enough for someone who needs a cheat sheet to retrieve his messages from voicemail, but we rotated dealing and the dealer got to select the game. Holy shit!

Seven card night baseball with the next card after a queen is a wild card

Hi-lo – 5 ½ or 21

Three chip buy-in pass your garbage

Seven card elevator (not to be confused with seven card crisscross)

Seven card Texas hold ‘em, 3’s are wild and 4's entitled you to buy another card if you wanted

On and on. They know you’re not a savvy player when it’s your turn and they say, “What are we playin’?” and you begin your answer with “What’s the one where…?” As the deal was going around the table I was getting progressively more anxious. What to do when it came to me?

Finally, I was up. I decided to just fake it. “Okay, five card double-draw hi-lo Taj Mahal, pig fives are wild, threes are sevens, sevens are tens, face cards are a half, and Jews get six cards instead of five.” Everyone laughed, but one guy who asked what Taj Mahal was.

The night moved along but required a lot of concentration. More than I could muster after a couple of hours. Again, it was like a rewrite night where you just zone out. “What page are we on again?” “Who’s asking who to stop doing what when?” “Has the food arrived yet?”

The food was another reason poker night is like rewrite night. Delivered pizza that you eat off of paper plates while standing . All we needed were Red Vines for me to feel really nostalgic.

You’d think as the night went along I’d get better. But actually, I got worse. I knew I was in trouble when I won a pot with nothing in my hand. Everyone complimented me on how well I bluffed. But I wasn’t bluffing. I actually thought I had a winning hand.

They should also have a cheat sheet for poker slang. Clubs were puppy paws. Pocket aces were American Airlines. Full houses are full boats. If you have a nine and a five that’s a Dolly Parton. But why do they call kings “cowboys?” When I think of cowboys I rarely imagine Richard Burton.

But it never fails.  The minute any six guys sit down to play poker they all start talking like they're in GUYS AND DOLLS.    The Pope and his cardinals get together and the Pope is dealing saying, "No help. crabs, Kojak, bitch in the bleachers.  Pony up gents."

All in all, it was a fun night, I made some new friends, now am aware of more industry shitheads, and I think after all this time I finally figured out how to win at poker. Have Jennifer Tilly play for me while I drive around for four hours picking up the pizza. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Another humiliating adventure in radio

This is yet another sordid true story from my early radio career – those halcyon days in the ‘70s when I bounced around the country playing top 40 hits as Beaver Cleaver.

Top 40 stations back then courted teenagers. So a number of our promotions centered around high schools.

We jocks would host Friday night dances and pep rallies. Those were fine, but at a couple of stations we put together a basketball team made up of the disc jockeys and we would play local high school faculties. Those were brutal.

First of all, out of seven disc jockeys there was maybe one who could dribble. The most exercise most of these guys ever got was rolling joints and opening pop tops.

Meanwhile, these faculties would put together six or seven decent athletes. It’s bad enough they embarrassed us in front of crowds of two thousand or so, but invariably there was one asshole gym teacher who took it upon himself to be Dennis Rodman. He’d elbow us, clock us the face with a forearm and really prove himself to be a big man by outplaying seven stoned undernourished sad sacks.

But the creepiest promotion I ever did was when I was a jock on KYA in San Francisco in 1974. Dean Goss, one of my fellow jocks on the station I’m sure can confirm this story. He gave me shit about it for months.

Here’s the contest: High school girls were asked to send in postcards and I would take one of them to her spring prom. Can you imagine? What parent would let his 16 year-old daughter go out with a 24 year-old disc jockey? I happened to be a nice guy, but on the scale of depravity, disc jockey is just below sex offender.

A winner was selected. I had to rent a tuxedo and buy a corsage. By the way, I loathed proms when I was in high school. I asked if the station was going to provide a limo or some cool mode of transportation? No. I had to drive her in my beat up Mustang.

Not being that familiar with San Francisco at the time it took me twenty minutes to find her place. It turned out she was very sweet.  Honestly, my heart went out to all the girls who entered this contest. Obviously you don’t resort to this if guys from your class ask you to the prom. So it was all the Janis Ian “At Seventeen” unpopular girls who vied for this “honor.”

The prom itself could not have been more awkward. I knew no one of course, and all the kids eyed me like I was some pervert. The teacher/chaperones really viewed me with contempt. I’m sure there was a gym teacher who wanted to clothesline me.  WKRP IN CINCINNATI missed a bet not doing this episode.   My date was very shy and I think more uncomfortable in this environment than I was. Had she been enjoying herself I would have stuck it out, but after a half hour I asked if she wanted to ditch this place and get something to eat? She was so relieved.

I took her to dinner at the Hungry Tiger (a nice lobster place – you can’t show up at Denny’s in formal attire) and probably had her home before ten. I mean, what do you talk about? “So, how is Algebra this year?” “Who’s your favorite Osmond brother?”

It was the only time a date said to me, “This was really a bad idea” and I didn’t take it personally.

The station was mad because I didn’t come back with a prom photo. The whole point was to put that on the cover of their weekly survey they distributed to record stores. What good was the promotion if they couldn’t promote it? The promo director was so mad he wouldn’t reimburse me for the dinner.

The truth is I did have the prom photo. But my date had been through enough. I could at least spare her this.

I can only hope her yearbook showed the same discretion.

That was my last prom. It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have asked me to hand out candy at a middle school from the station van.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Here's a first look....

at the cover of my new book:
...coming to a Kindle or ebook near you!

If there's a genre of "Comedy Noir" it fits into that category.  MUST KILL TV is a scathing satire on television and murder.  It's the only novel that asks the question:

What's more important -- Renewing your Tuesday night line-up or human life?

And there's sex in it! 

So this is just a tease.  If I had the time and money I would have made a trailer.   But at least you get to see the cover.  The rest of the book will be released soon. 

It's the comic/thriller you've been waiting for.  Did I mention there's sex in it? 

And the best part is -- I'll be plugging this now instead of my '60s book!

Stay tuned for more exciting details -- like when you can read it!   MUST KILL TV -- coming soon!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why I love Meryl Streep

The only thing better would be if she were holding one of her Oscars.

Technical advisers

A lot of shows use technical advisers. It’s hard enough to write a good autopsy scene without also having to know anatomy. Sure, writers spent a lot of their high school nights at home alone, but we didn’t spend the time learning forensics. While others were taking pre-med courses in college we were taking Sitcom 101 and playing poker. 

So when we’re asked to write lawyer/cop/doctor/dance shows we need a little help. On MASH we had three technical advisers. Dr. Walt Dishell who was our medical expert. We also had a trained nurse on the set to make sure the actors weren’t picking up scalpels from the wrong end. (The extras who played the patients in the operating scenes used their own organs, by the way. There were no guts-doubles.)

Additionally, we had a military adviser. When you hear Radar rattle off a list of incomprehensible army directives some are actually legit. And who needs to make up insane military procedures when all you have to do is use the real thing?

A Colonel from the Public Information Office of the army was assigned to us. When we first spoke to him he was very by-the-book, very wary of what we show business personnel were going to do with the information he was asked to provide. He also was new to the assignment, having only recently been transferred to Los Angeles. He had been overseas for two years.

We would ask him a simple question. He would call back with a long excruciatingly detailed answer that would include no less than five directives, four regulations, and seven procedures.

Now flash forward a year.

We call him for clarification on where death certificates were sent and he says, “Yeah yeah, sweetie, I’ll get to that. But first, I’ve got a great idea for a pilot. Okay, now picture this: establishing shot…” And he goes on to describe this stupefying idea. And all the while I'm thinking:

Sweetie? Establishing shot??

From then on we called him very rarely. Making stuff up was better than hearing his latest movie/pilot/mini series idea. And how do you complain to his superiors that we wanted a different adviser because this highly decorated war hero Colonel had gone too Hollywood?

So the next time you see a TV doctor or lawyer spouting authentic dialog just know there is a technical adviser somewhere, who spent years in law school or medical school, making an appointment for a Botox treatment.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday Questions

Here hey are:

Todd A. starts us off:

Both Cheers and Wings went through a couple cast shakeups.Wings alone added Tony Shaloub, Farrah Forke & Amy Yasbek, while losing Thomas Haden Church. Have you ever had any less than favorable reactions from original cast members when a new castmember is added? Conversely, how do cast members react when a colleague gets another opportunity and bails, potentially jeopardizing the harmony of a tight ensemble?

I’ve been very lucky. When there have been cast changes on shows I’ve worked on – like MASH, CHEERS, BECKER, and WINGS -- the casts have embraced the new actors. They recognized that new blood can often re-energize a show and add a few more years to the life of the series. They also happened to be lovely people.

But there are plenty of cases where a cast will feel threatened by new members.  And then life on the set is hell for everybody. 

There are also actors who count the number of lines they have in a script. By the way, if we catch an actor on one of our shows doing that, the next week he will see that the number of lines he has is zero.

When a castmember leaves an existing hit, I’ve seen their fellow actors react in one of three ways -- 1) happy for him that he got this opportunity, 2) resentment either due to jealousy or just the added uncertainty of what impact his departure will have on the future of the show and him, and 3) bafflement, or as I’d like to call it “the McLean Stevenson Syndrome.”

Along those lines, Basil Kiva wonders:

How close was Cheers in renewing for a 12th Season and do you think that all shows should die a natural death at seasons 10-11 if they make it that far (except for animated shows like Family Guy, Simpsons and South Park)

CHEERS would have easily been renewed had Ted Danson wanted to come back. I think we could have gotten one or maybe two more years out of the show, but it was getting harder and harder to come up with stories. And the actors were understandably losing interest. So, all things considered, it was time.

I can’t speak for all shows but yeah, usually ten is the expiration date.

GaryJ asks:

You mention Elizabeth Montgomery a lot. Why do you have such a thing for Elizabeth Montgomery?

From Austin:

Here is a possible topic for a future blog: Funniest Novel (You may have covered this topic before, but it may be time for a rehash).

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole. It’s a comic wonder. I’m teaching a course on comedy at USC starting next week and that book is on my required reading list.

The saga of the book's history is quite remarkable. It was written in the early ‘60s by a young man in his 20’s. He shopped the manuscript around for a number of years, kept getting jerked around by editors, and eventually, out of despair killed himself.

A number of years later his mother happened to meet author Walker Percy and asked if he’d read her son’s unpublished manuscript. He agreed and was horrified to see a giant box of smudged pages arrive at his office. It’s quite a big book.

He dutifully started reading and was shocked to discover that it not only was good, it was GREAT.

He got it published and the book became a national best-seller and won a Pulitzer Prize.

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES is so good I try to re-read it every few years.

There have been numerous attempts to make it into a movie but so far no one has been able to crack it. So much of the book is the attitude of the main character and how he misinterprets everything around him and it’s hard to adapt that. I’ve read several screenplay attempts and they all fall flat. They follow the story and even contain a lot of the actual dialogue but they can’t really capture the spirit and essence of the book. Not that I could either.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

IN A WORLD -- my review

In a world of mind-numbing hollow big budget summer blockbusters and lackluster sequels, one little film dares to be sweet and funny and real.

I wish I had the big booming voice to do that last sentence justice, but you get the idea. IN A WORLD written, directed, and starring Lake Bell is the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen this summer.

In a world where Lena Dunham is overrated for her self conscious look-how-cool-I-am calculatingly shock dialogue, Lake Bell proves to be more real, more entertaining, and way more funny.

It seems you can write a comedy about young people without the humor emanating from self loathing, cruelty, sexual perversion, and humiliation. Who knew?

Since IN A WORLD is a movie about people who don’t fly, live in the next century, or are talking animals it is considered an “art” film. Hopefully it is showing in your town and not in the one shoebox theater that is usually reserved for Werner Herzog films.

IN A WORLD is set in the world of voiceover artists who do movie trailers. Yes, it’s a small niche, but even at five or six there are still more of them than vampires. And today we are so savvy about every aspect of show business that these artists who once toiled in anonymity now are known. The late Don LaFontaine (pictured: left), who actually did all the “In a world…” trailers, even appeared in his own Geico commercial. A longtime family friend was Dick Tufeld, who in the ‘50s and ‘60s was the voice of everything – from the Academy Awards to all the Disney trailers to a thousand national commercials. No one knew who he was. You might know him best as the voice of the robot on LOST IN SPACE. And before Dick Tufeld there was Art Gilmore.

Not that you should feel sorry for these basso profundos. Dan Ingram, the top disc jockey in New York on WABC for twenty years also did a ton of national voiceover spots. I asked once if it bothered him that no one outside of Gotham knew who he was, and he said, “When I walk out of a building I don’t want people saying ‘Hey, there’s Dan Ingram’, I want them saying, ‘Hey, who’s that guy getting into a Rolls’?”

Having come up through radio I’m happy to say I know a lot of voiceover people. Among them: Mark Elliott & Joe Cipriano (who were in the movie) and not to be a name dropper, but Lee Marshall who is the voice of Tony the Tiger. (Talk about a grrrrrrrrrrreat gig.).

The one note of the movie that didn’t ring totally true was that this was still an old boys club and women weren’t allowed. There are a number of successful women voiceover artists. For example, Randy Thomas, who was the first woman to announce the Academy Awards. Go to the William Morris website and you’ll see there are just as many women voiceover demos as men. But that’s quibbling. By the way, for a competitive cutthroat business, I’ve found voiceover people to be almost universally lovely people. If there’s any jealousy or resentment it’s from me because their damn voices are so much better than mine.

Although the movie is a satire on Hollywood, at its heart is a story about relationships, primarily between fathers and daughters.

In a world of Hollywood hokum relationships with two-dimensional characters and by-the-numbers focus-group approved unearned endings oozing with treacle, one film rings true.

Ms. Bell also proved to be a topnotch director getting spirited but nuanced performances out of her pitch perfect cast. Standouts were Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Fred Melamed, and Eva Longoria was very convincing as herself.
In a world where character actors are relegated to occasional guest-starring roles on NCIS, one film dares to give them more than one scene.

Lake Bell is a terrific young talent. She has a great future in movies, or at least trailers.

In a world where pundits write snarky film reviews, one blogger dares to highly recommend a movie even though his quote will never be used in a poster.

Go see IN A WORLD. You’ll love it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

Like all writers, I was greatly saddened to learn of Elmore Leonard’s passing yesterday. He was 87. Until a recent stroke, he was writing until the end. His fiction was always so vivid, his stories clever, and most of all his characters jumped off the page. When people ask me for examples of good dialogue I say pick up any Elmore Leonard book.

His work was also filled with humor. He was Quentin Tarantino long before Quentin Tarantino. He was Carl Hiaasen long before Carl Hiaasen.

Many of you were introduced to him late. JUSTIFIED is based on one of his novellas. Two movie adaptations of his novels are worth seeking out – GET SHORTY and OUT OF SIGHT.

At one time he wrote screenplays but got tired of receiving idiot notes.  Can you imagine?  Some studio D-girl, two months out of Sarah Lawrence telling Elmore Leonard what works and what doesn't.  Happily for us, the world of novels beckoned. 

I never met him, just learned from him. In an article for the New York Times he once listed his TEN RULES FOR WRITING. In honor of Mr. Leonard, and because they’re great rules we all should follow, I’m posting them today. If you're not a writer, well -- apply them to life.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

R.I.P. Elmore Leonard. Thank you for showing us all how it’s done and introducing us to the most interesting characters we've never met. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

One of my most cherished possessions

When working with the great Larry Gelbart, I had mentioned to him that my favorite MASH script of his an episode called "The More I See You" from season four.  Blythe Danner guests as Hawkeye's former love who is assigned to the 4077.

Larry used to write his scripts in longhand on legal pads with black Sharpies.  Rarely would he have cross-outs.  It was like Mozart.

The next day Larry came in and gave me a Xerox copy of his handwritten original draft.  From legal pad to air, the script remained virtually the same.

Wanna see what a Larry Gelbart script looks like?   I was able to scan a page.  This will give you some idea.   If I scanned a page of my handwritten scripts, even I wouldn't be able to decipher it.  There'd be arrows, lines in the margins, cross-outs throughout, sometimes arrows to other pages.  But Larry's were clean, legible, and damn near perfect. 

So here it is... literally from the PEN of the master  -- Larry Gelbart.  Enjoy.
Here it the actual revised final script.    Thanks to reader Matt Barnett for this.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lee Daniels' THE BUTLER: My review

I truly wanted to love this movie. The story is important and its message is one that everyone needs to hear. Unfortunately, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER falls way short of the mark. The subject matter deserves way better. If only it was MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE BUTLER or KATHRYN BIGELOW’S THE BUTLER. Instead it was more like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE’S THE BUTLER.

All of the stunt casting took you right out of the movie. Just as you watch an SNL skit with Fred Armisen and decide how well he’s playing Obama, that’s what you do with Liev Schreiber playing Lyndon Johnson (answer: ridiculous).

There are so many celebrities making cameo appearances the movie might as well have been called IT’S A MAD MAD MAD SOUTH. I mean, it starts out with Mariah Carey playing a sharecropper’s wife. You’re going “What the fuck?” five minutes in. Then they have Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, and you’re not even following the movie – you’re just evaluating how well he’s doing and wondering why Ed Harris wasn’t available? Or Louis C.K.? James Marsden did the standard Mayor Quimby as JFK impression, and Roberto Benigni could have done a better Texas drawl than Liev Schreiber. Alan Richman as Reagan was… different, but to be fair, Jon Cusack as Nixon stole the movie. He had a more abstract take on Tricky Dick – hard to explain but he was hilarious. An Oscar nomination is not out of the question.  (Of course, this whole project is one huge Oscar grab.)

Along the way they also had Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Redgrave, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, and Minka Kelly (as Jackie Kennedy, who in one of the most absurd scenes in the film is mourning the death of her husband, still wearing her blood-stained suit, and she takes time out to give the butler Kennedy’s tie. Yet another “What the fuck?” moment.  There's maybe six of them in this film.) How did they miss Randy Jackson and Mike Tyson? 

As for the leads – Forrest Whittaker was sensational. I wish he had more to play, but he proves (once again) that he is one of our finest screen actors. An Oscar nomination for sure and probably a well-deserved win for Forrest.

(Interesting that the star is named Forrest because even the director admits this movie is sort of a black FORREST GUMP.)

Whittaker is the good news. Then there’s Oprah Winfrey. First, let me say this – I don’t think anyone ever has or ever will be as good a talk show host as Oprah Winfrey. Charisma, poise, accessibility, showmanship, humanity – the woman is the absolute gold standard, and I have nothing but respect for what's she done and all she's accomplished.

But she’s not a great actor. I’m sorry. She's just not. And it’s even more apparent when she’s playing a scene against a great actor.

Every time Oprah came on the screen I suddenly felt like I was watching a vanity project. Again, this story deserved more. This subject matter deserved your complete undivided attention. All I kept thinking was how much better this role would be if Viola Davis or Queen Latifa played it.

I wish the director and the studio trusted the material. I wish they felt that the saga was compelling enough and socially significant enough that they didn’t have to resort to tricks. They didn’t need stunt casting. They didn’t have to jam their characters in every historical event Zelig style. This movie should be taken seriously, but it’s hard to do that with Mariah Carey.

Still, you should probably see it – unless you’re a diehard Republican (because you will hate it I guarantee you). It’s well-meaning, certainly ambitious, and ultimately this movie is not about liking, it’s about appreciating.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Attention fellow Natalie Wood freaks!

TCM is devoting this whole day to a Natalie Wood marathon. There goes my Sunday.

As longtime readers (two weeks) of this blog know, I am obsessed with Natalie Wood. Whenever I can’t find an appropriate photo to go with a post I present pictures of Natalie Wood. And according to recent feedback, you guys seem to like the photos more than the posts themselves.

This infatuation began when I was an impressionable teenager (read: hormones exploding) and I saw a bloated slapstick comedy called THE GREAT RACE at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Ohmygod! This creature came on the screen and I was like that wolf in the Looney Tunes cartoons whose eyes sprung out of his head every time he saw a hot girl.

So I started following Natalie Wood movies. It’s the same principle as ducks and imprinting. Fortunately, she also turned out to be a terrific actress.

I never actually met her, but I did see her once in the MGM commissary when she was filming her last movie, BRAINSTORM. Again, the cartoon wolf.

And then my Nataliemania reached its peak with her untimely and questionable death. Just as some folks are obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, I still want closure… and justice on the Natalie Wood case.

So there you have it. She leaves behind a legacy of wonderful movies. Here’s the TCM schedule for today. And if you’re on Time-Warner cable it’s not like you can watch CBS.  Happy binging fellow Natalie Wood freaks.

9 a.m. WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
11:45 a.m. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
1:45 p.m. REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)
3:45 p.m. SPLENDOR IN TH E GRASS (1961)
8 p.m. THE GREATRACE (1963)
11 p.m. GYPSY (1962)
1:30 a.m. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE (1969)
3:30 a.m. INSIDE DAISY CLOVER (1965)

The 44th anniversary of Woodstock

What's more monumental than a 44th anniversary?  This is Woodstock's. 500,000 long-haired stoned members of my generation attended this three-day open air music festival. I was not one of them. But at least I admit it. For every person who attended there was another thousand who said they attended but really spent that weekend doing chores for mom. And while half a million rain soaked, bathroom deprived, hippies grooved on three days of love and understanding, I was in LA bombarded by news updates on the Charles Manson murders.

I did see the movie WOODSTOCK that came out the next year. Jesus, did that scene look crowded! And uncomfortable! Yeah, Hendrix and Janis were great, but good God, I’d have to go three days without a toilet! I always thought the tagline for the film should have been, “Great Music! Stereophonic Sound! Clean Rest Rooms!”

But like I said, anyone who was east of the Mississippi in the summer of 69 says they attended Woodstock. In fairness, some who didn’t were probably so loaded they thought they were there. When their favorite Woodstock act was Katy Perry that’s a clue.

But one friend of mine claimed he was there and I believe him. Why? Because this is what he said, “Most of the time the music was really bad.” Everyone remembers the headliners – Crosby, Stills, & Nash, the Who, Joe Cocker – but there were a lot of no-name bands that screeched through endless sets. Again, I wasn’t there so I didn’t hear for myself, but there’s probably a reason the movie didn’t include Quill (doing a 40 minute set consisting of four songs), the Keef Hartley Band, the Grease Band, and six or seven other headliners that died on the editing room floor. He said at times it was also hard to hear and impossible to see. There’d be hippies staggering around completely lost. Babies screaming, people talking through the music.

Another person I know was there was Grace Slick, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane. As luck would have it I met her and talked about it. What a cool lady. She said the groups were housed at a nearby motel and airlifted by helicopter to a field behind the stage. So for most of the festival she watched bored musicians shoot pool.

She and the "plane" arrived on the scene at 9 pm, but the program was running just a tad long. They didn't get on stage until 6 am. Not the best time I would imagine to perform rock n' roll. But she thought it was an incredible experience and seeing 500,000 people from the air was a sight she'll never forget.

Amazingly, there were only two deaths. One from an overdose (duh!) and the other was run-over by a tractor. But considering the number of people, in such close quarters, with precious little food and shelter, the fact that there weren’t riots and chaos, and new Scientology chapters says a lot about my ge-ge-generation.

Woodstock was a statement of peace (I think it was made just before the Sha-na-na set). And a declaration of unity. Whether we were there or not I’m sure we’d all like to go there now – to recapture those old feelings, to feel a sense of shared purpose, to buy a summer home we could escape to on the weekends.

For more on the '60s I recommend my book -- THE ME GENERATION... BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s).  It chronicles all the many epic events of the decade I didn't personally attend.  But the Kindle version is very cheap.   And it's the perfect Labor Day gift.  Here's where you go to get yours!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"What is time again?"

A movie that David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS, opened this weekend in 1985.  As you know, most potential summer blockbusters open two weeks before Labor Day.

Of those of you who remember VOLUNTEERS, the scene most recall is the “what is time again?” scene. So as an anniversary treat, here it is.

To refresh, it’s 1962 and Tom Hanks plays Lawrence, a spoiled preppy who takes his roommate’s place in the Peace Corps in Thailand to avoid a gambling debt. He befriends At Toon, a Thai villager. They’re kidnapped and brought to the lair of Chung Mee, a fierce warlord. To spoof all those characters who spoke so cryptically in these types of movies we decided to have Chung Mee speak exclusively in cryptic double-speak.


A spacious atrium. Chung Mee, financed by the CIA, has loads of household gadgets – blenders, air conditioners, etc., none of which work on account of there’s no electricity. It’s the thought that counts. Instead of air conditioning, an AGED MAN pulls the rope for an overhead fan.

Chung Mee is feeding fish raw meat as At Toon and Lawrence are brought in by the huge sumo guards. Chung Mee has an unlit cigar in his mouth. He dips the end in a brandy snifter.

This is nothing. My parents have friends who are twice this pretentious.

The bridge you are building. When will it be completed?

The bridge? You’re interested in our bridge. Here you go –

He takes a wooden match and strikes it along the stubble of one of the monster sumo guards presenting Chung Mee with a light. A frantic scuffle ensues, but Chung Mee stays cool and accepts the light, eyeing Lawrence shrewdly through the smoke.

We’ve got a fine young man working on it, but it’s hard to say. Why do you want to know?

Opium is my business. The bridge means more traffic. More traffic means more business. More business means more money. More money means more power.

Before I commit that to memory, would there be anything in this for me?

Speed is important in business. Time is money.

No, you said opium is money.

Money is money. And money is my objective.

Then what is time again?

When the bridge is completed, you can have whatever you need.

Got it. (to At) And they told me to go on those interviews at Yale. (to Chung Mee) Well, gosh. Of course, for now, I’d want to run things in Loong Ta. And then, when I’m ready to leave, passage to Bangkok and a plane ticket to America. And – it’s hardly worth mentioning – twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash. I have some library books overdue.

Nice knowin’ you.

I want the bridge finished in six weeks or you are finished in seven.

(to Chung Mee) You’re goin’ along with that?

No problem, commander. The bridge is yours.

And you are mine.

It’s only fair.

A door opens and a beautiful Eurasian WOMAN enters. She wears a slinky low-cut dress and gloves. She is obviously the most enchanting creature Lawrence has ever seen.

Business is completed. After business comes pleasure. Pleasure is also my business.

For me?

If I say “yes” and not “no.”

You want me to translate?

Got it. (to Chung Mee) A little incentive. You’re a sly boots. (walking to the woman) Lawrence Bourne the Third, junior partner. And you, of course, would be…

My name is Lucille.

NOTE: Lucille speaks English with a very thick Chinese accent. It’s indecipherable, so her words are always SUBTITLED.

Pardon me?

My name is Lucille.


Lucille! Her name is Lucille!

Oh, Lucille. That’s highly erotic. How did you get a name like that?

My mother was English.


(losing patience) That is her name!

She’s staying for dinner, of course.

Yes, but you are leaving.

Right now? I just got here. (sidles closer to Lucille, sotto) What do you see in him? Are you a chubby chaser?

Lucille grabs Lawrence’s hand and bends the fingers back. He winces in pain.

Lucille is my bodyguard. She doesn’t like it when my orders are questioned.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers and Lucille releases Lawrence.

Thank God my fly was zipped.

Chung Mee snaps his fingers again. The two henchmen grab Lawrence and At, leading them out.

Glad to be aboard.

Thank you for dinner and not killing us.

I’m free any night. Lucille… Did I mention that back home I own a Corvette?

The group exits.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Who is that guy with the weird laugh?

Here are answers to some of your Friday questions.

velvet goldmine wondered this last week:

I know that even shows filled before a live audience sometimes used to "sweeten" them with recorder laughs. But there's this one man's laugh that you hear on TONS of shows from the 70s, from MTM to Taxi. You know the one I mean? First there's a startled "Haw!" as the setup gets underway, then this extended "Haw Haw Haw..." when the joke reaches its zenith.

Why in the world would they keep using this familiar, even annoying laugh? And if by chance it was the same guy at all the tapings -- say, a superfan, or a self-impressed writer -- why wasn't he muzzled?

This is less of an answer than a confirmation. As several people correctly mentioned in the comments section, the distinctive laugh you hear belongs to James L. Brooks (pictured above). It’s less annoying when you realize it’s genuine. And when he laughs at something I’ve said or written, it’s sheer music.

There are also two very distinctive laughers on the last seven years of CHEERS. Phoef Sutton and Bill Steinkellner. I can’t describe them but watch any episode from those middle and later years and you’ll know what I mean.

Jim Stickford asks:

What's the procedure for deciding what particular line to use. I saw Carl Reiner in an interview years ago and he said one of the reasons he stayed in the writer's room for Your Show of Shows was that he could type, which was a big deal in the days before computers and photocopiers. When the writers threw out lines, Carl picked the one he liked best and typed it in.

Is there a procedure? Is it decided by the show runner? Do you vote on it?

It’s either the showrunner or the person designated to run the room in the showrunner’s absence. Someone has to have the final say otherwise you have the scene in MAN OF STEEL with all the people running through the streets crazed. Although, wait a minute. It's like that normally.

From Jaime J. Weinman:

Do you prefer writing sitcom episodes with a tag before the closing credits (M*A*S*H) or episodes that have no tags and end the episode with the second act (Cheers)?

Also what are the reasons for having tags or not having tags: is it usually network policy (like in the '80s when almost none of NBC's sitcoms used tags), or is it sometimes the showrunner's decision?

Tags are those little two minute scenes at the end of sitcoms. They serve the purpose of rewarding the viewer for staying through the last spot break. Some shows have them, others don’t. It depends on their format and needs of their network. There seem to be fewer today as networks are going more to a three-act format -- again, all in the cause of audience maintenance; none in the cause of better storytelling.

I MUCH prefer writing tags to the teasers we employed on CHEERS. At least with tags you could draw upon content established in the episode and just do a call-back. Teasers were completely independent of the story that followed. The Charles Brothers thought it would be novel and help establish the world of the bar. They were right of course, but teasers were a bitch to pull out of our ass every week.

What’s your question???

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The unsung heroes of Hollywood

HBO is currently running a terrific documentary called “Casting By.” It’s primarily about the dean of casting directors, Marion Dougherty, but features a lot of other highly influential casting directors and quite a few major stars along with film directors. I highly recommend it.

Casting Directors are the unsung heroes of Hollywood (and New York). I’ve always said that the most important decisions producers and directors will ever have to make is casting. Everything else can be changed. Everything else can be fixed. But if you have the wrong people you’re dead. Period.  You could write the greatest screenplay in history and if there’s no chemistry between the leads your movie will suck.

And the decisions are totally subjective. Someone thought Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor was a good idea. William Devane has been in comedies. So has Vin Diesel.

Not only is it hard to find the actor with the perfect quality, even if that actor is out there, he may not be available for your project. Timing and good fortune are major factors.  What if Shelley Long and Ted Danson were both doing movies and couldn’t sign on for CHEERS? How long do you think the show would’ve lasted with Fred Dryer as Sam? (And yes, he was a finalist.)

The planets pretty much have to line up.

A good casting director must scour the landscape, discover new faces, glean talent from inexperienced performers, satisfy a producer’s or director’s vision when often times that vision is hazy, and essentially shoot at a moving target.

Then you often don’t make the final choices – the producer or director (or network or studio) does.  But they only see who you bring them.  That's a huge responsibility.  And your reputation hangs in the balance of someone else’s performance. An actor tanks in front of a live studio audience and even though the producer chose him, you get the blame.

And rarely get any credit.

There is no Oscar category for casting directors. When numerous stars and studio heads tried to get Marion Dougherty an honorary Oscar for fifty years of service and basically redefining the position, the request was denied.

Film director Taylor Hackford is interviewed in the documentary and comes off like a fucking asshole. He claims that no one other than the director should receive a director title. A casting director is not a director. The Director of Photography is not a director. There’s only one director. The DGA has successfully gotten casting credits to read “casting by” instead of “casting director.” Like it’s such a big important thing.

Hackford also believes that casting directors are not entitled to Oscars. Ultimately, he says, HE makes the decision, HE is the director and so the casting director doesn’t really contribute. He had no answer when the questioner asked, “Well isn’t that true about make up and production designers? Ultimately the director makes the final decision. And yet these craftsmen are recognized."  As a director myself, and a proud member of the DGA, I’m appalled and ashamed by his pompous selfish misguided stance. Yeah, it’s all YOU, Taylor. No one else deserves any credit for LOVE RANCH.

I hope this documentary will expose people to the monumental contribution casting directors make. And maybe the Motion Picture Academy will someday give them their proper due. (But the reality is they don’t want to add any more categories because they weigh down the show and the whole point of the Academy is to get ratings for the Oscarcast. So instead of honoring the dedicated people who actually make the movies, they set aside time to expand the Best Picture category to ten even though seven have no fucking shot and are only there to attract younger viewers. Like TOY STORY 3 was ever going to beat THE KING’S SPEECH and THE SOCIAL NETWORK.)

I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing casting directors. Lynn Stalmaster, Lea Stalmaster, David Rubin, Molly Lopata, Sheila Guthrie, Steven Kolzak, Jeff Greenberg, Sally Stiner & Barbie Block. For our last pilot, Sally & Barbie found us Aaron Paul and Kat Dennings. For the MARY show Molly Lopata discovered Katey Sagal. Sheila Guthrie brought us unknown actress, Jenna Elfmann. For FRASIER, she discovered David Hyde Pierce. And the list goes on and on.

The TV Academy awards Emmys for casting. The Motion Picture Academy stages production numbers about women’s boobs.

The documentary is called “Casting By.” I’m sure HBO will be airing it throughout the next couple of weeks. It’s also on HBO ON DEMAND and HBO GO if you can access either of those. Trust me, it’s a much better film and far more enlightening than LOVE RANCH.

UPDATE: Comment from reader Wayne --

Don't mess with Taylor Hackford. He's so powerful, Washington did away with the title CIA Director. It's now Intelligence By...

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lunch with Sally Rogers

It’s always risky meeting people you’ve really admired. There’s always that danger that in person they scream at waiters, preach Scientology, or think A-Rod is misunderstood. They use the pedestal you put them on to throw rocks down at you.  They belittle you for wearing an authentic HERMAN MUNSTER costume when you stop them at Costco. 

And so it was with great delight and relief that I can report that Rose Marie is an absolute doll. Thanks to my friend, Stu Shotak, I had lunch yesterday with “Sally Rogers” from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.

Tomorrow she turns 90 years old and in her own Sally Rogers words – still has all her marbles. That’s being modest. She has an amazing memory. She was recalling events in the 1930s and I’m thinking, “What did I order again?”

I’ve been in the industry quite a long time (nothing like her – 87 years. I asked if she had decided yet to pursue show business fulltime?), and I’ve met a lot of celebrities. But I was a total geek fanboy listening to Rose Marie share inside stories of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, her years on Broadway (Ethel Merman saw her in previews for one project and went backstage after the performance. All Rose's well-wishers were praising her, and Ethel said, “GET OUT OF THIS SHOW!”), her appearance on WINGS (which she loved), and tales of HOLLYWOOD SQUARES.

Whereas most people ask “What was so-and-so really like?” and “Did you ever work with this person or that?” I asked how much rewriting was done on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (a lot). I asked if there were ever any scripts that were really in trouble? I asked what was the process like on the stage? How collaborative was it? And okay… I did ask if any cast member was a giant pain-in-the-ass and she said none of them were.

Our lunch was interrupted several times by adoring fans coming up to her to thank her for all the joy she’s brought us all.  Rose was touched and genuinely glad they approached. Imagine being recognized and praised everywhere you go for fifty years? How does your head not swell to the size of Cowboys Stadium? And yet, she remains very down-to-earth.

Typical of Rose Marie: In talking about THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW she said, “When we were making those shows we knew they were good, but we had no idea what they’d become.” This, as opposed to Diane English, who when she accepted the Emmy for MURPHY BROWN called it the “greatest comedy in the history of television.”

Needless to say, this was a special treat for me. I was just a super-nerd boy hanging on every story. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW wasn’t just a TV show; it was a revelation. It had a major impact on not just me but my family. I grew up to be Buddy Sorrell and my daughter Annie grew up to be Sally Rogers.

I sincerely hope that someday you get to meet the people who meant the world to you, and that they turn out to be as lovely (and funny) as Rose Marie.

You can make Rose’s 90th birthday special by contributing to the Doris Day Animal Foundation in her name. Here’s where you go to do that.

I’d like to think that if “Sally Rogers” were turning 90 she’d still be working, punching up HOT IN CLEVELAND.

Happy Birthday!  Let's make this lunch an annual tradition for the next twenty years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Deja View

CHEERS – year three. My partner, David Isaacs and I were writing movies that season and doing a few CHEERS episodes on the side. So we were aware of the story arcs but weren’t there every day.

One Thursday night I was watching a first-run episode that I believe Sam Simon wrote. It was very good. I was laughing at the jokes, surprised by the story turns. All of a sudden a scene came on and the dialogue sounded vaguely familiar. It’s as if I had seen this scene before. But how could I? This wasn’t a rerun. And the rest of the show was unfamiliar. Still, I was almost able to predict the lines. Like everybody, I’ve experienced déjà vu, but not for four minutes at a time.

Finally it dawned on me why I seemed to recognize this scene. We wrote it.

Backstory – That was the year that Shelley Long was pregnant. The creative decision was made that Diane should not be. So how to hide it? The Charles Brothers came up with an ingenious way. Early in the season she would not be showing, and when she started to show they could hide her behind trays and that sort of slight-of-hand. And they set up the following storyline: Diane and Frasier would go off on a long vacation to Europe. All of those scenes would be written in advance and shot early on in Shelley’s pregnancy before she started showing. By the time she couldn’t hide it any longer the scenes were all in the can, ready to go. 

All of this was laid out even before the season began. We wrote an episode over the summer that contained one of these European scenes. Diane and Frasier are shown their hotel room and don’t know how much to tip the bellboy. As I recall, little or nothing was changed from our draft in that scene. The night it was filmed however, I was out of town. So I never actually saw it.

But I guess the show ran long. And they decided to swap our Europe scene with a shorter one from another show. This was not an uncommon practice. Teasers and bar runs got shuffled around all the time. But no one informed us. And Sam’s episode was scheduled to air before ours -- maybe in January.  

So there I was seeing my scene for the first time... on the air with the rest of America. Now you might be saying, “if you wrote it how could you not immediately recognize it?” I suppose the answer is that I so wasn’t expecting it. My first thought when something looks familiar is usually I must’ve seen another movie or show that did something vaguely similar, not “I must’ve written it.”  Also, it aired eight months after we had written it. 

I’m sure there have been cases where writers have seen shows or theater productions and realized that their material had been outright stolen. That obviously wasn’t the case here. I’m just glad our scene didn’t bring down Sam’s show. But it was a weird viewing experience. I imagine that’s how Paris Hilton must’ve felt after watching a sex tape for fifteen minutes and finally realizing, “Hey, that’s me.”

Again, I know you join me in sending out prayers and best wishes to Sam Simon. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Rejecting Woody Allen

Dating back to the ‘30s, THE NEW YORKER has always had a feature called “Shouts & Murmurs”, a weekly essay by one of the premier comedy writers of the time. This was the gold standard. Today the best of the best contributors is Paul Rudnick. Always hilarious, head and shoulders above the rest.

Back in the ‘70s when I was starting out and devouring comedy in all forms, I often gleaned inspiration from the “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces. And back then the best of the best was Woody Allen. Two compilations of his NEW YORKER pieces have been published – GETTING EVEN and WITHOUT FEATHERS. I recommend them both. Yes, there will be things that are dated, but his comic premises are wildly inventive and even the stuff that might seem a little stale was fresh back then.

So it was with great excitement that I saw in the August 5th NEW YORKER edition that there was a new piece by Woody Allen. Imagine my disappointment when it was terrible. Instead of great jokes there were random funny words that when put together were supposed to evoke laughter. The premise was wandering and everything about this piece felt tired and forced.

Now I hear all the time that the editor of “Shouts & Murmurs” is very tough on submissions. I find that a little hard to believe when I see that if you starred in SOCIAL NETWORK or GIRLS your piece gets printed even if it’s not in the same league as Paul Rudnick’s.

But what do you do about Woody Allen? Here is an icon, a giant who has brought prestige and notoriety to your magazine. What if the editor read his piece and felt the same way I did? (I would hope that he or she did.) But how do you reject Woody Allen? What is that letter like?

Much tact would be required. This is a writer who deserves the upmost respect. So after giving it much thought, this is how I would write that rejection letter:
Dear Woody,

Thank you so much for your submission, “Now Where Did I Leave That Oxygen Tank?”

First off, let me say that I am in awe of how prolific you are. Considering the number of screenplays you’ve written, it’s commendable that you even had the ten minutes you obviously spent to conceive, write, and polish this humor piece.

If I may, congratulations on your latest movie, BLUE JASMINE. This was a wonderful film, one of your best, and I appreciate how you were able to basically repeat scenes numerous times and yet get away with it because of the performances – especially from Cate Blanchett. That same repetition was in fine evidence in your latest submission.

I couldn’t help but notice that BLUE JASMINE bares a striking resemblance to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and just as you are obviously paying homage to Tennessee Williams in the film, in this humor piece you are paying homage to Woody Allen.

So, as stated above, there were many positive aspects of your submission. However, I wonder if perhaps this is the wrong department for it. Might you be better served offering it to the “Fiction” section? Or perhaps “Annals of Technology”, “A Reporter at Large”, or “The Sporting Scene? Unfortunately, our upcoming slots have been taken. Lena Dunham has submitted a laundry list that is both hilarious and unique to Millennials. And Jessie Eisenberg has a wonderful piece that we might have considered even if he wasn’t one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars.

Please do not consider this a rejection in any shape or form. In fact, should BLUE JASMINE receive numerous Oscar nominations next January, please resubmit. You are one of the pillars of this publication and are entitled to special consideration. If I have to move Mindy Kaling’s piece back a week I will.

Congratulations again,

Editor, “Shouts & Murmurs”

(You know what? I should probably submit this.)