Saturday, May 31, 2014

My thoughts on Kevin Reilly leaving Fox

Kevin Reilly is stepping down from running the Fox television network. He wanted to explore other exciting opportunities and familiar bullshit like that. Considering how bad Fox’s ratings have been (and that's with the Super Bowl), one could make a case that he was fired. Or cancelled.

I like Kevin Reilly. I have not had too many dealings with him. My partner and I did a pilot for him when he was at NBC that didn’t go, but that’s the business. Every pilot you write for any network might not go for any variety of reasons. But I found Kevin to be passionate, smart, and refreshingly candid. I have no doubt he will land on his feet. Top executives always do. If Jeff Zucker can still find work after destroying the National Broadcasting Company, anybody in the industry who once held a high title can.

But Kevin did not do a great job at Fox. The network has fallen steadily over his seven-year tenure. And seven years is more than enough rope. In fairness, he inherited AMERICAN IDOL when it was a national phenomenon. Good luck topping that. It’s tough enough to replace hit shows, try replacing absolute juggernauts. THE X-FACTOR fell short.

But having hit shows like IDOL or HOUSE or 24 at the time, allows you to launch new series easier by airing them after the monster hits. For years, NBC didn’t have that luxury. Again, thank you Jeff Zucker.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the shows you develop and put on the air for sampling have to be good. The ones on Fox weren’t. And they squandered their golden opportunities.

In particular was comedy. I’ve said this before, it’s baffling that Fox would renew THE MINDY PROJECT considering it has been on the air two full years and gets atrocious ratings. Yes, it has a loyal fan base and ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY editors who are ga-ga over it, but in a 500 channel universe it is getting trounced. The fact that it’s still on says Reilly had no faith in his development slate or made a huge tactical error in thinking that niche programming on a major broadcast network could succeed. It’s like if the Yankees kept a player in the line-up who was hitting .042 because he had a loyal fan club of fifty people who came to every game.

(To be clear:  I'm not talking about the quality of the content of that show.  I'm just saying that America has voted.)

Look, all networks make mistakes. All networks put on bombs. Programming geniuses like Brandon Tartikoff and Fred Silverman put on bombs. Anybody remember SUPERTRAIN or PINK LADY AND JEFF?

But Reilly of late has backed a lot of wrong horses. And then kept entering them in the race. Giving Seth MacFarlane a guaranteed season-long on air commitment for a multi-camera show when he had never even done a multi-camera show and he had his finger in ten other projects was insane. The result was DADS. Reilly and his team couldn’t tell before the pilot aired that it was terrible, offensive, and painfully unfunny? They didn’t say go back and do it again… and again… and a third time if that’s what it took? As big as Chuck Lorre is, CBS made him re-do THE BIG BANG THEORY until he got it right. And boy, did that pay dividends for everybody. Whether it was the executives he chose, the writers he hired, his taste, or just a perfect storm of all the above, Reilly could not launch a comedy. I think in his tenure he had only one mild sort-of-hit and that was THE NEW GIRL. And even that show, instead of building an audience over time, spiraled down to where it’s now getting close to MINDY ratings.  By definition THE NEW GIRL is not a hit.

Reilly kept trying to re-invent the wheel. He talked about eliminating pilots, going right to series, etc. To me, he was flailing, desperately searching for anything to shake things up and halt the slide.

At the end of the day, Reilly and Fox were just not a good fit. Now I don’t know how much interference he had from on-high. I don’t know the politics and pressure he was under. I bet it was enormous.  Plus, the TV landscape was shifting right under his feet. In many ways he was shooting at a moving target. Let’s see how well the next person does. I wish whoever that is well. It wouldn’t surprise me if their first order of business was nixing a certain low rated show.

I also wish Kevin Reilly well. Given the right job and circumstances I still think he’s a winner. Fortunately, there are 498 networks left.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday Questions

Brace yourself for some Friday Questions.  TOMORROW:  My thoughts on Kevin Reilly vacating the presidency of Fox television. 

Ron Rettig gets us started.

What do you write on? George R. R. Martin works on an outdated DOS machine using Eighties word processor WordStar 4.0. Larry McMurty paid tribute to his Swiss-made Hermes 3000 typewriter.

Like all screenwriters, I use an L.C. Smith typewriter from 1895 with the carriage arm on the right side.

Actually, that was my grandmother’s typewriter, but it sits on my desk. I write on a Mac – either a desktop or laptop. Since my son, Matt, is an engineer at Apple Computer we’re somewhat partial to that company (although they do make a superior product).

I use Final Draft although I don’t love it. I used to use Movie Screenwriter, which I much preferred, but Final Draft has become the industry standard. There are always little annoyances and idiosyncrasies that drive me batty. I will say this though, their customer service has been lovely, except it takes 24 hours to get a response. But if there’s something in the format I want to change it’s not intuitive. You really have to know what the six steps are to follow in exact sequence to change one thing to another.  Am I alone in this?  I acknowledge I'm a village idiot when it comes to computers. 

Jim S asks:

Has a show ever stayed on the air just because someone at the network likes it? I heard a story about "Gunsmoke" getting 20 season because William Paley liked it. When he left, the show left. That could be a tall tale, but still there must be a couple of shows that got extra life because of fans who were also suits.

The GUNSMOKE saga has been long debated -- on this blog alone. But yes, shows stay on because someone on high believes in them or just likes them. CHEERS and HILL STREET BLUES are two examples of shows NBC president, Grant Tinker stuck with despite poor initial ratings. There are others I’m sure.

Someone at Fox must really love THE MINDY PROJECT because its ratings certainly don’t justify a pick up. At least with CHEERS and HILL STREET BLUES, their poor numbers were early in their runs. The thinking was that once an audience discovered them they would be hooked and in time the series would find a large audience. But MINDY has been on for two years. America has voted. So it has to be personal.  Someone in the tower must be a huge fan. 

RyderDA wonders:

A recent piece by Esquire Magazine suggests that the BIG BANG THEORY has matured and morphed over time. In your experience, do shows become more successful when they mature and change, or do they lose out when they deviate from the basic successful premise they started with?

If a show evolves based on responding to the audience then it’s usually an improvement. Also, if you give characters more dimension and depth then you are steering the series in the right direction.

It often takes a half a season or more before the writers can really find that groove. Early episodes are more experimental until writers can determine what’s working and what’s not. In time, writers learn the actors’ strength and weaknesses, they know what pitfalls to avoid. A great example is PARKS AND RECREATION. The first few episodes were not good. But eventually the show evolved into one of the best sitcoms on the air.

Shows tend to fall apart when they run out of good stories, become caricatures of themselves, or the original writers depart, replaced by inferior ones.

Character humor tends to improve a show over time; shock humor diminishes it. Why? Because you have to keep upping the ante to continue to shock people. Just saying “vagina” is no longer enough.

And finally, from mdv1959:

It seems to me that one of the main reasons most of the highly regarded shows (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc...) are on not on Network television are the FCC regulations protecting our easily corruptible minds from the evils of bad words and naked bodies. Why do you think the networks haven't pushed back to get the rules relaxed?

Major over-the-air networks are in a tough spot. They are broadcasters, in the true sense of the word. They reach a large and very diverse audience. There are many in that audience (millions) who don’t want to be exposed to that language and nudity, and they believe strongly that all family members should be able to watch without encountering such objectionable fare.

Remember, that TV stations require a license from the FCC. There are only a few precious broadcast channels and to own a license for one was a real privilege. Along with that permission to broadcast came a contractual duty to serve in the best interest of the public.  Enough complaints and the FCC could take away your license.   And it's not an idle threat.  They've done this on some occasions. 

Cable channels are not bound by that. They don’t broadcast on frequencies. Neither does Netflix or Hulu. They’re under less scrutiny and their audience is more niche. They can get away with a lot more.

And that’s a big problem for networks because they’re competing against far more adult-oriented material. Cops on cable shows swear. Cops on networks don’t. Cops in real life swear, so the network cops feel bogus. And writers would much rather gravitate to where they can write the way people really talk.

So networks are forever trying to stretch the envelope, but it’s hard. When the ridiculous Janet Jackson nipple episode happened on the Superbowl and caused a major shit storm over a partial nipple shot of maybe one second, you know the American public as a whole is not yet ready to move into more mature subject matter. Cops on CBS are still going to have to call vicious drug dealers “dirt bags.”

But network shows can now say “vagina” in order to get a cheap laugh. Boy, that’s progress.

What’s your question? Just drop it in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Could you play him "shorter?"

Casting is such a subjective and horrible process. My heart goes out to actors, especially character actors. Theirs is a life of constant rejection. And usually never knowing why. Someone thought they were too tall, their voice was too high, they had blue eyes instead of brown, they were too hot and it would be distracting. There are a million reasons why an actor doesn’t get hired and only one of those is that he didn’t give a good reading. Most of the time they are rejected for reasons they have no control over. “The next time you go in for an audition play him shorter.”

And if you are lucky enough to get a number of roles then that works against you because the producer will say, “We’ve seen this guy in everything. Can’t we find someone fresh?” Or if you’ve been overexposed on a commercial campaign. The good news is you make a fortune for awhile; the bad news is you can’t play a neighbor mom when everyone in the audience goes “That’s Flo from Progressive Insurance.”

Often there will be two or three actors who are equally good. Any one of them could get the part. So how do you choose? There have been many times when it comes down to literally a flip of a coin. How’d you like your livelihood to depend on a coin flip?

The toughest casting decision I ever had regarding a guest actor came while on MASH. We had an episode involving a USO troop and needed an accordion player.

Seven accordion players paraded into our office. All were great. All could play “Lady of Spain.” All were able to deliver the three lines. They all looked perfect.

There’s no seven-sided coin.

Somehow we selected one and I felt terrible. I kept thinking, how often do these guys get a casting call? Once every three years? Ten?  And what could they have done differently? Nothing.

Meanwhile, the lucky winner got to work two days. At SAG minimum, that’s probably less than a Polka wedding. 

This is why I never hired myself to do a guest role in any show I ran. In addition to the fact that I’m not very good, I always felt I was taking work away from a legitimate actor. It’s hard enough without idiot writers sticking their mugs on TV just for kicks.

The sad thing is I’ve written a couple of characters who were essentially me and actors have played me way better than I could.

So for all the character actors out there every day fighting the good fight, just know that it’s not you. Sometimes we reject ourselves too.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Random rants, observations, questions, and nonsense

Here’s another edition of Short Attention Span Blogging.

The one thing I took from seeing MILLION DOLLAR ARM is that Jon Hamm needs Matthew Weiner’s words. Don Draper’s really a boring guy without great writing.

I wish every episode of MAD MEN was a season ender. This last one was spectacular. To the moon! And Bobby Morse can still warble.

Huffington Post Headline from earlier this week: Study Shows What Happens To Gay Dads’ Brains When They Raise A Child.

I joked about this yesterday, but seriously, how does Adam Sandler still get to star in movies? How many atrocious comedy/boxoffice flops does he have to turn in before Hollywood finally says “Enough!” BLENDED, his latest, was a bomb and savaged by critics. I think the last Adam Sandler movie I liked was THE WEDDING SINGER, and that was what, ten years ago?  Twenty?   Please let BLENDED be his LOVE GURU.

President Obama was in Afghanistan earlier this week, screwing up their afternoon traffic.

HuffPost Headline: WATCH: Sad Goat’s Heart-Lifting Reunion With Donkey Bestie.

So on 24, the evil bitch terrorist has her daughter’s finger cut off, then tries to make nice by saying, “Don’t blame yourself, dear.” What the fuck?! I don’t understand how Peyton Manning is a National Treasure and Jack Bauer is an enemy of the state.

I’m very much looking forward to the CNN documentary series, THE SIXTIES, beginning May 29th. Finally! An excuse to hawk my book about growing up in the ‘60s. You’ll read about what that era was really like, get some laughs, and it won’t be interrupted by a bulletin stating they still haven’t found the Malaysian airliner.

Are Kanye and Kim still married? I had three days in the pool.

HuffPost Headline: 15 Songs To Listen To While Having Sex On The Beach.   (I'll leave the funny caption to you.)

Every week we read about another movie breaking boxoffice records. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is on track to be the biggest seller of all-time or some such balloon juice. If tickets for GONE WITH THE WIND were $15 not seventy-five cents it might still rank higher than a comic book sequel.

A Dodger pitcher threw a no-hitter, and the next night another Dodger pitcher almost pitched a perfect game. And 70% of Dodger fans couldn’t see them because they’re not on Time Warner Cable. I’m one of the “lucky” ones that has Time Warner Cable. But I couldn’t see the no-hitter because the cable went out.

Is AMERICAN IDOL still on?

For some reason this year I’m seeing more Hollywood tour buses driving around my neighborhood. Not sure what there is to see. “This is where Maya Rudolph once had a sleep over in the seventh grade.” “This is the school where Judy Landers kids once went.” “This is where Lloyd Bridges lived.” The last movie filmed in this area was SUSAN SLEPT HERE starring Dick Powell and Debby Reynolds in 1954. How much are these vacationers paying for this tour?

The Tony Awards are assembling a star-studded line-up of celebs like Clint Eastwood (there to plug his upcoming movie JERSEY BOYS), Bradley Cooper, Carole King, Kevin Bacon, Will Ferrell, and more so you'll still watch even though you've never heard of any of the nominees.  

HuffPost Headline: Everything You Need To Know About Going To The Bathroom At The Office.

Proving that if there was an Armageddon it would have happened already – KEEPIING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS begins its ninth season next month.

The new season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK begins June 6th on NETFLIX. I’m sure I will finish all 13 episodes by June 7th.

My everlasting thanks to Dan O’Shannon for uncovering my long lost credit. So what if I was only 11 when I wrote for this show?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Great acting advice from Robert DeNiro

And it sounds so simple....

But he's right.  Brilliant acting advice in only one minute.

Here comes summer!

Being a BBQ, lay around the pool reading Paul Rudnick compilations kind of guy, I love the summer. It’s my favorite time of the year.

Summer marks the return of warm weather and COVERT AFFAIRS. (How does Piper run in heels and still shoot a gun?)  Beaches, baseball, and crappy new reality shows that usually involve idiots doing ridiculous stunts. I think WIPE OUT is proof of Darwinism.

I get to see all my favorite comic book heroes come to life on the big screen. Hey, why doesn’t somebody do a reboot of SPIDERMAN where you don’t leave the theater incredibly depressed? Just a thought.

Summer is the time when you can kick back and mull over the existential questions of the universe -- like how come Adam Sandler keeps starring in movies and what's the big deal about Pinkberry?

The summer of course means – The NBA. After 82 exhibition games to eliminate four teams and Donald Sterling, the playoffs began in the spring, and now we’re finally getting down to the nitty gritty. Don’t you find it odd that the NBA Finals are played in 90 degree weather and the baseball World Series is played in 35 degree conditions?

For TV writers, the day after Memorial Day means going back to work. My heartiest congratulations to all the writers who got jobs on staff this year. Staffing season is Hollywood’s answer to musical chairs on speed.

Meanwhile, there are concerts, events, and movie sequels at night so I never have to watch UNDER THE DOME. Watermelons are cheap. Ice cream tastes better. The Turtles are going on tour. Jon Stewart isn’t taking this summer off. It’s light in Alaska till September. Thongs. The Tony Awards (with Hugh Jackman this year!). Vacation packages to Phoenix are super cheap. Fireworks.  Home fireworks accidents.  EW releases its Holiday Preview issue.  And finally, the All-Star Game without Tim McCarver for once!

Have a great summer. Most of you have had a brutal winter. You deserve the sunshine and warmth. Hopefully Global Warming will subside and a month from now we’re not all saying, “Jesus! When is this summer going to end?”

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

It always seems weird to me that a festive occasion should be called “Memorial Day.” The purpose of the day is to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces who have given their lives for our freedom. There is a national cemetery near my home and every Memorial Day American flags are posted in front of all the tombstone. It’s a startling sight – endless rows of matching white gravestones with American flags. When my kids were teenagers they helped plant the flags.

Having served in the Armed Forces Reserves, I've always considered myself incredibly lucky that I didn't have to fight in a war.  Back in those days we were drafted.  And it's all the more reason to give thanks to our current military personnel.  Not only are they there putting themselves in harm's way in awful hellholes, but they volunteered.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of participating in the Veterans Retreat Weekend put on by the WGA.  Returning vets worked in small groups with professional writers who served as mentors.  It was amazing how talented these people were.  And the stories they had to tell -- wow.

Maybe a cool thing to do today is watch some war movies.   And they don't have to be horrifically gruesome (although SAVING PRIVATE RYAN should be on the top of your must-see list).  CASABLANCA is a war movie of sorts.  And there are comedies like MASH.  APOCALYPSE NOW really captures the absurdity of war (and has some amazing performances), and if you've never seen Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY you will be blown away.

Others worth seeing are FULL METAL JACKET, SGT. YORK, PATTON, THE HURT LOCKER, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THREE KINGS, DEER HUNTER, and a film with one of my favorite titles ever -- DUCK, YOU SUCKER.

All terrific, and I'm sure you have your own, but my all-time never-to-be-topped favorite war movie is BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.   It's David Lean's three-hour masterpiece starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.  It's not just one of the greatest war films ever made, it's one of the greatest movies PERIOD ever made.   And it's in Cinemascope!

Hope you have a wonderful day.  I plan to too.  But I'll be thinking of those flags. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Celebrities read their mean Tweets

One of my favorite features of the Jimmy Kimmel show is celebrities reading their mean Tweets.  Here's the latest edition.  They're hilarious... even though I agree with one or two of them. 

My All-Time Favorite Job

Earl Pomerantz, in his wonderful blog, wrote a recent post describing his “All-time favorite job”. A few readers of both his site and mine have asked me what was my all-time favorite job? Here’s how blessed I am – it’s really hard to pick. I could easily say MASH, CHEERS, or ALMOST PERFECT; each for different reasons. Throw in FRASIER too. But that’s like trying to pick which of your four kids is your favorite? So putting those shows aside, I’d have to say the winner was BIG WAVE DAVE’S.

For the 95% of you not familiar with BIG WAVE DAVE’S, it was a short-lived series that my partner David Isaacs and I did for CBS in 1993. You can watch the pilot here.

We made the pilot in March of that year. It was multi-camera, in front of a live audience. Usually you’ll have a laugh spread of two or three minutes, which allows you to trim out the things that didn't work. BIG WAVE DAVE’S had a ten minute laugh spread – pretty good for a twenty-two minute show.

We tried to edit it down to time but it was impossible. So we figured, “what the hell?” and submitted a rough cut that was seven minutes too long. The heads of CBS noted it was too long and offered to watch it with us and determine further cuts. They couldn’t find additional trims either. We were allowed to turn in that version. (When the show got picked up we had reshoot some scenes so characters didn't fly across the room when certain lines were cut out.)

It tested great. Jane Kaczmarek tested better than Bob Newhart did on his new show. We went back to New York for the May Upfronts feeling we had a real shot at getting on the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, CBS had commitments to Diane English and Linda Bloodworth and there was no room for us. But we knew they loved the show and figured we’d at least get a pick-up for mid-season.

Several weeks went by. We heard nothing.

Finally they came to us with this proposal: As an experiment they wanted to try putting new shows on in the summer. They had success with that strategy with NORTHERN EXPOSURE. They wanted to air six episodes of BIG WAVE DAVE’S on Monday nights at 9:30 following MURPHY BROWN (their top sitcom at the time).

Here was the problem: it was the beginning of June. They wanted the show to begin airing mid-summer. We’d have to assemble a staff, hire a crew, rebuild the sets, and go into production in two weeks. We had no scripts, nothing.

So we came back to them and said, “We will do it… but only under one condition. There can be NO NETWORK INTERFERENCE.

At all.

We will not run story notions by you. You will see no scripts ahead of time. No notes after runthroughs. No casting input. No rough cuts for approval. Nothing. You could watch the show on the air." (We gave them that.)

Every show must deal with Standards & Practice but even then, we said their notes had to be minor and any disputes easily resolved or we had to shut down production.

This was not about us being prima donnas; we physically could not do the show if we had to go through those hoops. As it is we would be making a lot of decisions on the fly. And we understood if that kind of autonomy went against CBS’ policy but then we’d respectfully pass on their offer. We’d take our chances that they still would order us for mid-season.

To our shock and amazement they said okay; they’d go along with that arrangement.

We quickly assembled a staff (Dan Staley, Rob Long, and Larry Balmagia), brought on Andy Ackerman to direct and Larina Adamson to gather a crew. The next three months were insane. We were writing around the clock, editing, casting, post production. But God bless CBS, they were true to their word. They did not interfere even once.

And that’s what it made it my all-time favorite job. I can’t tell you how creatively invigorating it was to have the chains removed. I think we did some of our best work (even under ridiculous circumstances). The truth is I’m sure we were tougher on the scripts than the network would have been. Rewrite nights tended to go long. But we all had so much fun.

The show aired and got a 19 share every week. We kept close to 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience. The headline in the LA Times entertainment section when the first week’s rating came out was BIG WAVE DAVE SAVES CBS. If you got that number today you'd get a five year pick-up.

Everything was going great (except for the Tom Shales review – he said single-handedly destroyed television, which I view as a pan) and thought we were on our way. But after the six episodes CBS cancelled us. Why? They felt they didn’t need us. They had sitcoms coming on in the fall starring Peter Scolari, Faye Dunaway, and Shelley Long and there was no need. Besides, they felt our star, Adam Arkin wasn’t strong enough to carry a series. A couple of years later he proved them wrong with CHICAGO HOPE on their network.

But that was my all-time favorite job... in television. (I have all-time favorite radio and baseball jobs too. Subjects for future posts.) And I still believe television would be better today if selected writers who have proven their worth were given that kind of autonomy.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Impressive but useless talents

There’s a guy who imitates baseball players’ batting stances. I saw him at Dodger Stadium last night. He’s uncanny at it but it got me thinking – how the hell do you make a living imitating Yasiel Puig's  batting stance?

And then I starting wondering – how many other gifted people are blessed with a talent that ultimately does them no good?

There’s a guy in San Francisco I once saw who did amazing reproductions of great works of art in chalk on sidewalks. Very impressive but THAT’S his calling? Of all mediums why select chalk?

A few years ago at the Hollywood Bowl an incredible mimic did the Danny Kaye Dodger song and you could swear it was Danny Kaye. How do you support your family as a Danny Kaye impersonator?

Here are a few other artists that only Broadway Danny Rose would consider representing:

There’s a guy who can snap his fingers the fastest. I guess he's the world's fastest hipster. Another can hold the most eggs in his hand. Who’s going to pay good money in Vegas to see that?

Someone claims to be the fastest texter (besides my daughter). Another is the fastest clapper. I feel sorry for the second fastest clapper because the first fastest has to be starving.

There’s a gentleman who can draw a perfect circle. Other than getting chicks I don’t see the point.

I’m sure there are others. What do baton champions do? What kind of legacy can gingerbread house makers have?

Meanwhile, Gallagher makes a handsome living smashing watermelons and Vanna White is rich from turning over vowels.

My heart goes out to these talented individuals. Oh, I just thought of another talent that yields no discernible profit.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday Questions

Getting you ready for the long Memorial Day Weekend with Friday Questions. If you have one, just leave it in the comments section. I answer as many as I can.

Jeremy gets us started:

You have had a ton of success with a writing partner in your career. I know you have shared what to look for in a writing partner, but I wanted to know how to find one. Is there a special screenwriter classifieds section somewhere?

Not that I know of, although I’m sure there are Facebook groups or other online communities.  I haven't checked Craig's List.   The WGA occasionally hosts events like speed dating except for writing partners. Check with the guild. 

One good way is to take writing classes and see if there’s a fellow student who shares your aspirations and sensibilities and is open to teaming up.

So much of it is luck. My partner and I met in the Army Reserves. Peter Casey & David Lee met while both were typing scripts in the middle of the night for a script typing service. David Pollock & Elias Davis were network pages at CBS. I don’t know how the Charles Brothers met.

From Stoney:

The "Cheers" episode "Rat Girl" is currently available (on my system at least) on TVGN On Demand. The story ends with the suggestion of a second child for Frasier and Lillith but that never transpired. Is there much difficulty in writing something into a single episode which could have a major affect on the future of a series?

Well, you certainly have to clear it with the showrunner. And today probably the network, studio, federal government, and the Pope.

In the case of Rat Girl we weren’t really making a major commitment. There was no immediate game plan to have Frasier and Lilith raise a second child. It’s not like Bebe herself was pregnant. But it left open several options (none of which we ultimately took).  

solarity wonders:

Ken, why is it so rare to see sitcom characters laugh at each others jokes? The writers clearly seek to cause the audience to roll on the floor with laughter but the other characters to whom the line is delivered usually don't even break a smile. Is character laughter some kind of unwritten rules violation?

There’s a certain amount of creative license. To me there are two types of jokes. In most cases the characters don’t know they’re saying something funny and in other cases they’re consciously making a witty remark. In those cases, I love when characters laugh.

We use humor to disarm people, to charm them, to needle them. In those cases I want the characters to react. There is a definite motivation behind telling the jokes.

The trouble is when characters laugh too often or too loud it sounds very self congratulatory. Look how amazingly funny we are. I cringe at that. Same with characters saying, “That’s the most brilliant idea ever!” Essentially the writer is saying, “I came up with the most brilliant idea ever. Aren’t I great?” Let the audience decide how brilliant it is and how great you are.

And finally, from Chris:

In a bar/restaurant scene, who choreographs the extras, especially if you have 40 of them? Do they just move freely or does someone tell them what to do? Sometimes in bar scenes, some of them take their jackets and exit, who decides that?

The second assistant director. They do a remarkable job that goes unnoticed. They choreograph the background. When you see extras getting out of an elevator or crossing through restaurants or airline terminals, that’s all been carefully planned. In order for shots to match from take to take those people have to get out of the elevator or cross behind the main characters at the same time every take or the scene won’t cut together. The second AD has to keep all of that in her/his head. Imagine how much easier it is on THE BIG BANG THEORY where the show is set primarily in an apartment vs. 2 BROKE GIRLS where they’re in that restaurant for most of the show. A tip of the cap to second AD's.

Have a safe and sane weekend.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What am I up to these days?

Several people have asked this question so I thought I’d respond, but I can’t provide too many details yet. Hope this will suffice.  The latest to ask was John.  He tried to pose the question very delicately, which I appreciate.  He could have just as easily wrote:  "Have you finally been kicked out of show business?"  Instead, he asked:

Are you actively writing or attempting to write for TV / movies anymore? Are you just working uncredited, or pitching and failing, or are you retired or semi-retired from scriptwriting / directing / producing to concentrate on books and blogs? Are you turning down opportunities, or have they dried up? I can see at some point in everyone’s life not wanting to work the hours required to be on staff or running the staff, so turning those down makes sense. I would think that an occasional directing job would be there if you wanted it, but maybe the age bias, or just out of sight out of mind kills that?

John, I am in the wonderful and enviable position where I can pick and choose what I want to work on. And at the moment I’m quite busy.

My writing partner, David Isaacs and I have sold a pilot to a major cable network and are in the process of writing the script even as we speak. We’re leaving it up to them to announce it publicly.

I also recently wrote another stage play. I’m having a reading of it next week for a select audience, and hopefully in the next month or so will have exciting news to report about that. Stay tuned.

And in July I will direct an episode of INSTANT MOM written by my favorite young writing team – Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson. It’s a multi-camera show but I’ve been studying Fellini for some stylistic choices I’ve always wanted to try.

Behind the scenes – David and I sold a spec pilot to FX a few years ago that didn’t go because they couldn’t find a companion piece for it. And I’ve helped out on numerous pilots (coming in to provide punch up); some that have gone, others that have not.

What I’m not interested in doing is being on staff of someone else’s show. Happily, I still get asked from time to time, but if I’m going to put in that time and effort it’s going to be for a show I co-created and am very passionate about (like this current pilot). It’s a good thing I don’t have four ex-wives and invested heavily in dot.coms.

That said, I would entertain a gig to come in once a week to consult on a show, but those jobs have pretty much become extinct.  And there are certain hour shows I would like to write for the experience, but it's hard to get a GOOD WIFE assignment off of a CHEERS script. 

Otherwise, I co-wrote a musical (THE 60’s PROJECT starring Andrew Rannells) that got produced at the Goodspeed Theatre in 2006, wrote another play, three books (at least one of which you NEED to buy), created my SITCOM ROOM seminar, teach a course at USC, do improv comedy, storytelling, did play-by-play for the Seattle Mariners, “Dodger Talk” for the Dodgers, and I continue to do talk shows on KABC radio and fill in for Marilu Henner on her nationally syndicated radio show. Oh… and this blog, which I've updated daily for 8 1/2 years.

Jesus, this sounds like I’m writing my bio for a Playbill. All I need is to include my awards, say I guest starred on LAW & ORDER even if I never did, and thank my parents.

So the short answer is: Yes, I'm still in show business. I’m still writing and directing and very excited about the projects I’m involved in, but I’m eating lunches off of actual plates and not Styrofoam. And that has been my goal for many years. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Determining credits

Credits seem to be a popular Friday Question topic.  Had one over the weekend.  And here’s another that's become an entire post.

Terry asks:

A show I saw the other day had a credit for "story by" and for "teleplay by" on one of its episodes. What prompts an unusual situation such as that?

If a writer does an outline and the actual script is assigned to another writer, the first writer gets story credit and the second receives teleplay.

When the show reruns and a residual payment is issued, the various credited writers split it, but the teleplay writer receives more.

Back when David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH we wrote every outline. It was easier for us to just break the story and write the outline ourselves than explain to the writer what our complicated format was. But we never took story credit. We believed that providing the outline was part of our responsibility as staff writers and the freelance guys shouldn’t get jobbed out of some money and residuals. MTM shows also adhered to that policy. Other shows, like BARNEY MILLER, did not. But I could have had my name of close to fifty more MASH episodes. Still, I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do.

Now the teleplay and story credits on Chuck Lorre shows are essentially a joke. Every episode is room written by the entire staff. There is no outline and no writers’ draft. So credit is just assigned to people and rotated. The names you see on any single episode of one of these shows mean nothing. But the WGA limits the numbers of writers who can receive credit so in fairness to the staff, they take turns receiving credit.

And that’s fine until it comes time for awards. Ethically, you’re not allowed to submit a script with your name on it if you didn’t significantly write that script. I don’t think many Chuck Lorre show scripts do get submitted for that reason, even though their scripts are often way better than the shows that do get nominated.

Where things get real sticky is when different writers are assigned on pilots. The writer who ultimately gets teleplay credit may make more money, but the writer who gets story credit gets at least a shared "created by" credit, and that comes with a weekly royalty. So the arbitration fights are generally over story credit. I’ve been involved in arbitrations where there were as many as five writers. Deciding who is entitled to what can make your head explode. (By the way, the WGA provides a credit manual that clearly defines each credit category. But every script is different and murky.)

Credits provide the only recognition for writers. So it’s important that they be correct and represent each participant’s true contribution. It’s not just me who reads the writing credits on every show. There are at least six of us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Real Housewives of Thailand

Among the many things we learned on MASH was the value of research. Gene Reynolds, the showrunner, loaded us down with transcripts, articles, books, and even maps. The more authentic, the more real you can make your world, the richer and more interesting it will be. During our time on MASH we conducted numerous interviews with doctors, corpsmen, nurses, and soldiers who had served in Korea. And there were five years of interviews before us. Gene and series creator, Larry Gelbart, even took a trip to Korea. Many of the stories we used came right out of the research.  In some cases we had to tone them down.  The real stories were too absurd to be believed. 

On staff we had a medical adviser, a technical adviser, and a military adviser. We had no fashion consultant for Klinger however. The budget was only so large.

But my partner, David Isaacs and I continued to do our homework on future projects. Hey, Paddy Chayefsky used to do extensive research and so does James L. Brooks (although Brooks got it from Gene Reynolds as did we) so you know there's value in it. 

Over the last 8 ½ years of this blog I might have mentioned once, twice at the most, that we wrote the Tom Hanks/John Candy movie VOLUNTEERS. If I didn’t mention it, now you know. The bulk of the film was set in Thailand in 1962. Tom’s character joins the Peace Corps to avoid a gambling debt. So we wanted to know about the Thai culture – what their lives were like, their food, their homes, customs, religion, concerns, etc.

Our producer, Walter, said he knew someone from Thailand who was living out here now. We arranged a dinner with him.

The gentleman, whose name was At (that’s a name we used in the movie) selected the meeting place – the most expensive Thai restaurant in Los Angeles if not the world.

At apparently was a relative of the royal family. He ordered for us. Every dish was scrumptious, but hugely rich. Lobster sauce, and filet mignon, and exotic noodle dishes. We asked what the common folks ate. “This,” At ansswered. “Really?” I said, “Jungle Curry Pork Ribs, Ginger Whole Seabass, and Crab Meat Noodles?” Yep, he insisted. That’s how the peasants ate.

Except, according to At, there were no peasants. Everyone in Thailand lived in nice homes. I guess the real unfortunate ones didn’t have a view.

We asked how the general population in outlying areas filled their days. Working in rice fields? Taking shelter from the monsoons?   Oh no. They played a lot of sports.

We of course used none of this nonsense in the film but stayed late into the evening asking more questions because we were highly entertained.  Had we used his stuff our movie would have become REAL HOUSEWIVES OF THAILAND.
I’d like to think he was bullshitting us and didn’t actually believe any of the balloon juice he expounded. According to At -- there were no communists or warlords. Many huts had TV (in 1962). Recreational opium was the perfect nightcap after a feast of Lamb with Spicy Lime or Roast Duck with Mint Leaves.

Research is great… as long as its valid. I don’t know whatever happened to At. I do hope he wrote the Thailand page on Wikipedia.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The current state of network comedies

Now that the Upfronts are over and the networks have announced their fall schedules we can assess the state of comedy. In short: not too good. After a resurgence for a few years due to the success of BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY, the networks are cutting back this fall.

MUST SEE TV is no more an NBC tradition, partly because there are no shows on NBC that are must see, and because their comedy cupboard is now pretty bare. So they are scaling back.

And comedy stalwart CBS is cutting its longtime Monday night two-hour comedy block back to one.

According to a recent article in Deadline Hollywood, network executives have said that “comedy is hard.”

Here’s what’s hard: Choosing the right writers. Choosing the right ideas. Allowing them to make to make the best pilots.

Networks always claim that they are at the mercy of whatever ideas writers bring to them. That’s very true. But networks now hand-pick who they will hear ideas from. Sometimes it’s not even a writer. It’s a hot company the network wants to be in business with, or an actor or stand-up comedian.

So they assign numerous pilot scripts to writers who are not very good.  What a shocker when they come back bad.  

As for the ideas themselves, it’s rarely the best ideas that sell, it’s the safest. It’s also whatever theme the networks have decided are in vogue. This year it’s romantic comedies featuring gorgeous upscale urban couples.  There are three or four across all networks.

At ABC it’s ethnic families. They now will have a Jewish family, a Latino family a Black family, and an Asian family… to go along with an upscale family, a sorta upscale family, and a middle class family.
CBS picked up THE ODD COUPLE, a long established premise starring Matthew Perry – talk about hedging your bet.   And they’re not even premiering it in the fall.

NBC has two somewhat novel new sitcoms  – one about astronauts in 1962 (although there’s the MAD MEN safety net of that era), and one about a girl rescued from a cult (from blue chipper Tina Fey), but both are being held till mid-season.

ABC’s one non family/romantic comedy is GALAVANT, which is either a cross between ONCE UPON A TIME and GLEE, or just a horrible knock off of SPAMALOT. Judging by the jaw-dropping trailer, this might be the COP ROCK of the 21st Century. You can’t even say it’s really different. It’s just mashing together two successful genres. Sometimes you get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups but most times you get pastrami ice cream.

Once a network okays an idea then the story, the detailed story outline, the script, the casting, the director, the crew, the wardrobe, and the set dressing all has to be approved by multiple sources. By the time the pilot is done it’s a watered down compromised shell of what it might have been. And then the same people who gave the notes, bemoan the fact that the pilots came back disappointing. “Comedy is hard.”

Here’s the bottom line. Networks are operating out of fear. The best comedies are daring. The best comedies have singular voices and take strong stances. They’re born of inspiration not wildly second guessing what might be popular. They defy testing. Sometimes they defy logic. “Safe” is a dirty word in comedy. So is “nice.” And “mild.” And “politically correct.”

Watch the trailers for the new sitcoms. 90% of the casts are J..Crew models. Hunky guys, hot girls, and if an actress is ten pounds overweight it’s a big deal. Clearly, looks were the mandate, not hire the funniest people you could find. Again – safe.

I don’t fault the networks for not putting on more comedies. Why should they? The ones they had on bombed and the ones they have in the pipeline are not worthy. The truth is in the best of times comedy is hard. But they make it harder. At least accept responsibility. Don't just throw up your hands and say "Comedy is hard."  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What do all those goofy credits mean?

Here's one of those Friday Questions worth an entire post. As always, if I can't find an appropriate picture I put up one of Natalie Wood.
sonderangerbot asks:

Ken, I'd be interested to know what the difference is between the different writing credits you see on a show; you have your staff writers, story editors, creative consultants (which I think you described once in a post as authorities doing basically nothing) etc etc , could they all be that useful?

Here's the short answer: they're all bullshit. At least in half-hour comedy. There's actually only one meaningful title and that is "Show runner" and it's also the only title you’ll never see.

Originally if you created and ran a show you got a coveted Producer credit. Everybody else had to settle for Story Editor or (for the newbies) Staff Writer.

Only producers were entitled to Emmys if their show won Best Comedy. And along with the prestige (chicks dig dem producers), the titles helped establish pay grades.

So everyone wanted in on that action. (And by everyone I mean ME.)

The show runners were promoted to the made-up title of Executive Producer and Story Editors became Producers.

Then writing staffs grew. More bogus titles were needed. That led to Co-Executive Producer, Supervising Producer, Co-Producer, Executive Story Editor, Executive Script Consultant.

And then there were the punch-up guys, writers who helped out once or twice a week, usually on re-write nights. The spiffy title of Creative Consultant was dreamed up for them. But even they started getting into the act. There are now Consulting Producers. Soon there will be Consulting Executive Producers, Consulting Supervising Producers, Consulting Co-Supervising Co-Executive Story Producers.

And now you also have the non-writing producers and managers who take ersatz producer credits.

In general, the Executive Producer is the show runner and his second in command is the Co-Executive Producer. Everyone else is just on staff. They do the same job they did when they were Script Captains or Executive Story Wage Slaves.

The only exception to this producer alphabet soup is the “Produced by” credit. That always goes to the person who is in charge of the production, hiring crews, supervising post production, and overseeing budgets. In other words, unlike everyone else who has the credit, this person actually PRODUCES the show.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The time I thought my career was over

Every writer has doubts. Some mild, some nagging, and for me in one case – crippling. This might surprise you since I seem fairly prolific – banging out a new post every day (a few even decent). And my list of credits is rather lengthy (more than you know -- imdb doesn’t even include our classic BRAM & ALICE). But there was one point in my career when I seriously thought I was done. The well had run dry. It was fun while it lasted. That’s all she wrote (actually “he”).

It was 1986. My partner David Isaacs and I had created and produced MARY, the comeback series for Mary Tyler Moore (actually comeback two of four). It was an exhausting, grueling experience. The specifics are for another post. But suffice it to say a typical day was writing from 10 AM to 5 AM, getting two hours of sleep, and heading back to the office to repeat the process. Yes, I’m exaggerating; there was one night we finished at 4.

But after six months of that, when we finally completed the order, we were completely fried.

I had lost 35 pounds. I couldn’t write a grocery list much less a script. David wasn’t much better.

We decided to just take time off. “How much time?” our agent wondered. We didn’t know. Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. Maybe forever. We were that burned out.

For the next few weeks I just sort wandered around in a haze, eating stuffed potatoes in malls just to get my weight back up above Nicole Richie’s. Usually ideas for pilots or movies will pop into my head when I’m just out doing something else. But now – nothing.

I seriously started contemplating what I could do besides writing to make a living? That’s what drove me to the upper deck of Dodger Stadium to try to learn baseball broadcasting. Drawing caricatures on the Redondo Pier was another option I was seriously exploring. Not a lot of money there but no pressure – just drawing big ears all day.

After about three months we got a call from the Charles Brothers. They had an idea for a CHEERS story and wondered if we’d like to write the script. We were still gun shy but our agent implored us to give it a try.

So we met with the brothers, the story fell into place rather easily. So easily that it became a two-parter. Normally when that happens you’re thrilled. Double the script, double the fee. To us it just meant extra pressure. But we forced smiles throughout the story conferences. We didn’t want them to surmise they were giving an assignment to two basket cases.

The way David and I write scripts is we dictate them to a writers’ assistant (once upon a time called a secretary). Since we weren’t working on a show we asked if we could use one of the CHEERS writers’ assistants. They said sure and we could use Les Charles’ office.

We planned to begin the script on Monday morning. Driving to Paramount I was literally sweating. Could I do this again? How embarrassing would it be if David and I just stared at each other for eight hours while a writers’ assistant sat there wondering “what the fuck?!” If that happened I was prepared to go back to the Charles Brothers and say, “You know what? We just can’t do it. But can I draw you?"

We convened at 10, our assistant Barry introduced himself and got out the steno pad.

This was it.

I was so afraid of prolonged deadly silence that I just started pitching. And somehow, amazingly, my mind began to work again. Some jokes were coming out. Same thing for David. One or two of them even keepers! Slowly we got back into a rhythm and things picked up.

I can’t begin to tell you the relief. Not to compare myself to the Man of Steel but it was like Superman when Lois got rid of the Kryptonite. I could feel my comedic powers returning. By lunch I knew – “We were BACK!”

This gift (and it is indeed a gift) was there all the time. You don’t just lose it. You may need to step away, take some time and recharge your batteries, but your ability doesn’t desert you. You may someday face a crisis like this yourself. The real lesson here is to just relax. Don’t lose your confidence. Just roll with it knowing in time you will once again be fine. Don’t be like me. Don’t make things worse by making yourself nuts. Don’t waste money on an easel.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Questions

Thanks as always for your Friday Questions. Here are some answers.

HikenFan asks:

I've been reading a lot of multicamera scripts, and often see the transition "RESET TO" at the end of a scene.

I understand CUT TO and DISSOLVE TO, but what is actually being "reset" when this transition is used?

When you CUT or DISSOLVE you stop filming (or taping). When you RESET you keep filming for a few seconds while the camera move to new marks. Generally this is in multi-camera shows.

Let’s say you have a scene in a living room and it continues into the kitchen. As the characters move from one set to the other it’s hard to move all four cameras with them. So generally they will enter the kitchen, the director will yell, “Reset!” the cameras will roll across the stage to their new positions in the kitchen, the actors will back up a few steps, the director will yell, “Action!” and the characters enter the kitchen and the scene continues.

Whenever you yell “Cut!” you can expect at least a three or four minute delay before resuming – and usually much more. Hair and make up people swarm around the actors doing touch ups. The director will often have last second notes to the actors. At times the writers huddle to quickly come up with a new joke to replace one that bombed. And when you’re ready to shoot again you have to wait for sound to be up to speed, and you have to slate the new scene.

So if it’s a continuous scene in two adjacent sets it’s often more prudent to just reset.

Frank from Silly Cone Valley wonders:

Hey Ken, could I send you a one-page draft of an idea I am working on? I would love you to go all Dennis Miller on me.

Frank, unfortunately my one rule is that I don’t read unsolicited submissions. No ideas, treatments, scripts. Two reasons: One is for legal purposes. You may have an idea similar to something I’m already working on and think I stole your idea and sue me. I don’t need that headache.

Also, if I read yours I have to read everybody’s and the floodgates would open. I would have no time to do anything else.  Even sleep.  So please understand it’s nothing personal and I wish you the best with your project, but I can’t read it.

That said, I’m happy to continue answering your questions and providing blog posts that hopefully you all find helpful.

From Ane:

I recently applied for a radio job. I've never been in that business before, so I probably won't even get an interview. But just in case they happen to like something on my resumee or the mp3 I sent, any advice, Ken? What do radio people look for in an interview? Someone who's outgoing and well spoken, I guess but what else? Thanks in advance.

Say the magic words: “I’ll work for cheap.” I’m only half kidding.

Especially when breaking in, radio pays crap. Beyond that, I’d say do your homework. Know as much as you can about the station, the format, the market, etc. And maybe mention my name. I’d be curious to know if that helps. But seriously, just be yourself. That’s always the best advice. Good luck.

And finally, friend of the blog Johnny Walker has a CHEERS question.

In Season One there's at least one episode where we see the "fourth" wall (where the audience is in reality). How did this work on a practical level? Didn't pulling the fake wall out obscure the audience's view?

There was a lot of experimenting that went on the first season. One of the things we tried was having a fourth wall. It was really just a wall on rollers that could easily be moved wherever we wanted it.

But we only used it during pick-ups after the audience had been released. So there was no interruption or obscured views during the filming.

After using it a couple of times the general consensus was that it didn’t add much, and was time consuming to set up (the cameras had to be wheeled into the set, furniture moved, and new lightening set up).

Besides, when you announce that the show is filmed before a live studio audience, who are you fooling that this is a real bar?

You’ll notice as you watch that first season that director James Burrows gets some amazing shots, some long tracking moves as he really established that bar as almost another character in the show. So much of the success of CHEERS is in the mood set, the depth of field, and the interaction of the characters – and that was all James Burrows. He deserves his 395 Emmys.

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

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Unlock the creative YOU

A recent study conducted by Stanford University (so you KNOW it’s legit) found that people were way more creative when they walked as opposed to sat. The study was conducted with human subjects. I was curious whether they had rats run a maze and then see if they could come up with better stories for 2 BROKE GIRLS.

These findings are no surprise to me. Often, while writing, I’ll pace with a yo-yo. (Still waiting for the study to conclude that yo-yo’s are the key to creativity – get busy Stanford.) But moving around seems to free your brain a little. Perhaps it’s just the increased activity. I don’t know. I was rejected by Stanford.

And even if you don’t get that great breakthrough, you still get your cardio in for the week!

Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman wrote ANNIE HALL while walking around Manhattan. If David and I are working on a script and get stuck we’ll often take a walk just to clear our heads. That’s one of the advantages of having an office on a movie lot – cool places to walk to. We’d stroll through the New York streets and occasionally duck into the Star Trek stage. You get good ideas in outer space. Perhaps Yale should tackle that study.

Other writers I know have unusual methods of working. One prominent writer/showrunner likes to lie on the floor and dictate the script to an assistant while his staff is commanded to sit around him and watch. That would not be my preferred method.

George Orwell and Marcel Proust used to write in bed. That wouldn’t work for me either. Too many crumbs.

Truman Capote wrote with a pencil in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. That seems so odd to me. Why write in pencil?

John Cheever wrote in his underwear. Do not try this and walking around the neighborhood at the same time.

T.S. Eliot supposedly tinted his face green with powder to look cadaverous when he wrote. Why? I don’t know. But I had that look without powder when I had to sit through CATS.

There’s a writing team of women who have it figured out. One floats on a raft in the pool while the other sits poolside with a computer and cocktail.  That's the AbFab writing regimen. 

But my favorite is author Charles Bukowski’s method. He said, “You must sleep with many beautiful women, drink beer like water, and lock yourself away until madness looms.”

Does this work?  Time to once again turn to science.

ATTENTION STANFORD COEDS: Your help is needed to participate in a clinical behavioral study. Must be beautiful. 

I'll let you know the results.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to fix television

WARNING: This is another rant from one of those old school cranky comedy writers.

Networks today are more hands-on. Showrunners need approval for everything, from story notions to day players to set dressing. My question is: what was wrong with the Grant Tinker template?

Grant Tinker, along with his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore, started MTM Enterprises in 1970. Beginning with THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, Tinker built a dynasty of top notch, high rated, quality shows. How did he do it?

By hiring the best creative people (from writers to wardrobe) and then staying out of the way to let them do their jobs. I was at MTM for a short while and it was truly Camelot.

The best writers in town wanted to work at MTM. Grant Tinker let you do your thing. He ran interference with the networks. He surrounded you with great talent. He encouraged you to strive for excellence, not commercial pandering. He never gave script notes. He never saw outlines. He was never in casting sessions for waiters who had two lines. He never dictated who you had to hire.

And for the most part, his shows turned out great. From THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to THE BOB NEWHART SHOW to HILLSTREET BLUES, and six or seven in between, MTM was not only a beacon of quality, it was churning out ratings winners.

The truth is we MTM writers didn’t need network notes to keep us all staying late. We were tougher on ourselves than they would have been. We all took great pride in the product and worked tirelessly. And at the end of the day when the result was something we were proud of and the network was proud to air, everybody won. Advertisers were happy, viewers were happy.

Grant Tinker left MTM in the early ‘80s to run NBC and instituted the same game plan. As a result, shows like CHEERS, FAMILY TIES, HILLSTREET BLUES, and COSBY turned the peacock around from last to first in only a few short years.

Why can’t a network employ this policy today? I mean, it’s not like the current model is working. Network sitcoms are drawing miniscule numbers. The only ones that have drawn decent ratings the last few years are shows by Chuck Lorre, Larry David, Chris Lloyd & Steve Levitan, and Phil Rosenthal – producers who have earned a certain amount of autonomy. Are networks so panicked that they feel they can’t relinquish control of anything? Are showrunners no longer to be trusted with selecting actors who only have one line? Do seven people have to approve every outline?

Television comedy was in a golden age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, primarily due to upper management types like Grant Tinker. I’m quite sure there’s a current crop of writers who are every bit as talented and original and dedicated as we were in that age. Let them fly. Give them room. See what they could do. You have nothing to lose. Sitcoms are getting a 1 share. You’re never going to get chicken salad out of chicken Suburgatory.

Don’t tinker. Think Grant Tinker.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How TV shows get selected for the fall schedule

This week is the Upfronts, when the major networks are announcing their fall schedules to much hoopla and ice mountains of shrimp.  Of the hundreds of pilots that had been commissioned, only a select few have made it to the promised land. My heartiest congratulations to the winners. I’ve always maintained that for the producers of pilots, when you get the news that your show has been picked up or your show has not been picked up, the reaction is the same. “Oh shit!” Now the work really begins for the lucky ones and there’s great disappointment for the losers.

In a business model that has about a 90% failure rate, you would think the best hedge against defeat would be to air only the very best shows creatively. But the truth is, the quality of the product is only one factor and in many cases, not even the primary one.

Let’s look at some other reasons shows get series orders:

Guaranteed commitments to producers or talent. In a bidding war, Michael J. Fox got a firm 22 on-the-air last year from NBC. It didn’t take 22 episodes to see that the public had rejected that show. If Chuck Lorre has a pilot, you can almost bet it’ll get on the schedule (although you can also bet it will be one of the best pilots in contention).

Network need. Are they looking to do more or less comedy? Are they looking for a companion piece for a certain show? Which project is most capable? The subject matter of your pilot could well determine your pick up, not quality.

Format. Is your sitcom a single-camera or multi-camera? That affects compatibility. Networks tend not to put one of each in the same hour. Personally, I think it makes no difference and neither does the audience (MASH did okay behind ALL IN THE FAMILY), but I’m not calling the shots.

The zeitgeist. Networks are desperately chasing young audiences. What movies do they go see? What trends are the rage? Comic book characters and superheroes are very in this moment. Jewish westerns are not.

Same goes for talent. Last year ABC jumped at Rebel Wilson (who wasn’t even the Flavor of the Month. She was the Flavor of the Minute). The result was an utter train wreck with Wilson rewriting every writer and making a flimsy premise even worse. UP ALL NIGHT got rejiggered a few years ago to feature more of Maya Rudolph because she scored so big in BRIDESMAIDS that summer.

Network love returning stars. Was there a chance in hell, THE CRAZY ONES starring Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Geller wouldn’t get the nod last year? Good luck if there was only one opening left and you were against Robin Williams. This year CBS picked up a Matthew Perry show. It may be great. I don’t know. It certainly has A-list writers attached. But this is the fourth new Matthew Perry series I can recall, and there may be three more. Some talent get unlimited times at bat.  THE CRAZY ONES was cancelled, but if Robin wants to do another series all four networks would jump. 

Network ownership of a show gives it a huge leg up. Again, one slot open at NBC. The contenders: A show from Warner Brothers and a show from NBCP. Which do you think will probably get on?

Then there are financial considerations. NASHVILLE’s renewal this year hinged strictly on whether the state of Tennessee would give the production group a multi-million dollar tax break. And PARENTHOOD hung in the balance on whether the cast would take a pay cut. There are programs that don’t get picked up because the network and production company can’t come to an agreement over the license fee (the amount the network pays to produce each episode).

A show might get picked up if it's on the bubble because the network owns it, it's been on for a few years, and the net needs a few more episodes to send it into syndication.  So it airs even though the network knows it's not going to get good ratings anymore.  

There are personnel issues. Can they scramble and get a suitable showrunner? My partner David and I once got a call from our agent saying there was a pilot at a network and if we agreed to take over as showrunners they would pick it up. It was very flattering that they asked, but the pilot was the dog's breakfast.

And finally, there’s bartering. COMMUNITY’S return last year was tied to NBC really wanting THE BLACK LIST from the same company. Our show, ALMOST PERFECT, got a second season because CBS really wanted JAG from Paramount. Paramount owned some CBS affiliates and CBS also wanted their late night Tom Snyder show to be cleared in those markets as a condition of picking us up.

That was insane, but you know what?  I understand it. Networks use leverage to get production companies to accept fewer episodes, a smaller license fee, or a partnership arrangement. Why shouldn’t the companies take advantage of any leverage they may have?   In this case, both used their leverage.  I would have done the same thing if I were on either side of the table. 

I also understand the networks going after stars. In a landscape of failure they’re betting on past success. The truth is, television creates new stars. Jim Parsons, Steve Carell, and Tina Fey all burst upon the scene thanks to television. But new people are longshots compared to Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, Allison Janey, and Robin Williams (who were also longshots who burst upon the scene thanks to television).

When you produce pilots for networks you know all of this going in. It’s a business. Sometimes it’s not fair. Sometimes you get shafted. But sometimes you have the golden star, or premise, or right number of cameras and benefit. It’s the world we traffic in. But as a show creator, my focus is on writing and producing the best pilot possible. There’s always that hope (or pipe dream) that if you mount a creatively superior product you’re going to get on the air regardless of all those other factors. And it happens. Sometimes. But I’d rather bet on myself than on beating the system. After all, if my show does get picked up, I’ve got to make more of them. “Oh shit!”

TOMORROW: My ranting continues.  My thoughts on how to fix television.  As if anyone cares.