Thursday, April 30, 2015

Just too funny not to share

Girls, don't let this happen to YOU!

Oh, the humanity!  The heartbreak!  Imagine if she had slept with a roadie.  Or worse -- a writer

Let this be a cautionary tale.  Never sleep with a celebrity until you've determined he's important enough.   Now this poor girl has to go through life with the shame of knowing she only slept with a bass player.    Let the years of therapy begin. 

My favorite related concerns a certain character from the '60s and '70s.  He was in a series of commercials for a gasoline company.   At the same time he was acting in dinner theater.  One night he goes to bed with one of the ushers.  They're in the throes of passion and she yells out, "I'm fucking Mr. Dirt!" 

You gotta love show business! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Richard Dreyfuss is in a sitcom?

Did you know there is a sitcom starring Richard Dreyfuss? It’s on the air now. It’s been on the air for a couple of weeks. Yes, Richard Dreyfuss, the Oscar winner. The show is called YOUR FAMILY OR MINE and it’s on TBS. Other cast members include JoBeth Williams, Kat Foster, and Kyle Howard. Greg Malins, a terrific writer from FRIENDS and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is behind it.

Is it a good show? I don’t know. I haven’t seen it. I didn’t even know about it until a friend mentioned it. Guess I’m not a big TBS viewer – I don’t feel the need to watch THE BIG BANG THEORY eight hours a day. But I’ve seen no ads, no billboards, no radio commercials, no nothing. How is anyone who doesn’t watch TBBT and Conan supposed to know?

In fairness, maybe there have been ads. They just didn’t register. But it points out a bigger problem. There is so much product out there on so many platforms that it’s hard to keep track. Even with an Oscar winner in the cast. Time was a TV producer would inquire about Richard Dreyfuss for a pilot and the agent would laugh. Now he’s in a sitcom that’s in the Witness Protection Program.

Recently, FX aired the JUSTIFIED finale. It was masterful. For all the hoopla surrounding MAD MEN I defy them to do a more emotionally satisfying finale than the one JUSTIFIED just did. MAD MEN will certain generate more media attention, but for sheer execution and elegance my money is on JUSTIFIED. Matt Weiner will get an Emmy nomination and Graham Yost and the other JUSTIFIED writers will be shut out.

Why? Because JUSTIFIED is a cult hit. MAD MEN is a critics’ darling. Credit where credit is due, MAD MEN cut through all the rabble and distinguished itself with superb quality and originality. But there are a lot of other deserving shows that don’t get the love, and one reason is that most people have never even heard of them. (like ORPHAN BLACK)

And it gets worse than that. Not only do I not know many current shows, in some cases I’ve never heard of the networks they’re on. There are sub-networks. Did you know there is an offshoot of BET? Or several variations of NICKELODEON? There is FXX, or is it FXXXX? And there are more Disney Channels than kids in North Dakota.

The show my daughter Annie and her partner Jon is on, INSTANT MOM starring Tia Mowry, is beginning its third full season. It’s currently on five networks including NICK @ NITE and TV LAND. And creatively it’s a damn good show. In its orbit it's a huge hit.  But there are still millions of viewers who are unfamiliar with it.

Broadcast networks are not immune to this. Who can tell me what network WEIRD LONERS was on? Or IN AN INSTANT?

The only saving grace, as I see it, is that there is this whole subculture of production going on. Thousands of talented people lending their craft and expertise to make shows that are as well-written or better written than shows you know. Same goes for directing, acting, set decoration, wardrobe, you name it. It’s unfortunate their efforts are not better appreciated, but at least they’re working. I just don’t want to be the poor guy who bumps into Richard Dreyfuss at a Starbucks and says, “So are you still acting?”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where is Howard Beale when we need him?

This is a RANT.  A real angry one.  

What’s the point of having a union if it goes against the overwhelming wishes of its members? That’s exactly what happened last week when Los Angeles Actors Equity members voted over 2-1 to keep things status quo in the small theater (99 seats or fewer) LA scene; to not demand they be paid minimum wage per hour for all performances and rehearsals – and the New York board completely dismissed their vote and implemented it anyway.

This is unconscionable!

What I don’t understand is why the LA Equity members aren’t revolting.   Hopefully they will.

Your national board just told you members to go fuck yourselves. The message is clear: They don’t give a shit what you think. And we’re only talking about your careers.

Why even conduct a vote if you completely ignore the results? Jesus! Elections in Iran are more legitimate.

My hope is that the LA branch breaks off from Actors Equity. Or files such a blizzard of lawsuits against the union that it completely strangles its ability to govern.

Here’s the issue: Small theaters make no money. For the most part they lose money. Everyone concerned does it for the love of theater. No one really gets paid – not actors, playwrights, directors, crews. The Whitefire Theatre in Studio City will be doing a one act play in June my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote. I’m also directing it. We’re making nothing. Not $9.00 an hour. Not $.09 an hour. But we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to see our work performed. We’re also employing eight actors. That means eight actors get to work on their craft, have a nice showcase, and perhaps get discovered.

And the evening will feature three one acts. Both the others also have casts of about eight. So do the math. Twenty-four actors, all the hours of rehearsal and performances – even at $9.00 an hour that adds up pretty quickly. Especially for a production where we have to buy our own props. If this ruling had already been in effect we simply would not do the production.

And this is what’s going to happen all over town. Producers will stop staging shows, small theaters will close, actors won’t work, and everybody loses (but Actors Equity). 

LA actors understand this. They make their living in TV or films or commercials. And again, they voted 2-1 to not implement new restrictions.  That's a mandate, folks. 
As it is, theaters have a tough time making ends meet. They’re all about saving costs. Plays now have to have four characters AT THE MOST and preferably two. This is why I wrote A OR B? for only two actors. Compare that to a few years ago. Even a simple play like THE ODD COUPLE, which is primarily a two-hander has a cast of seven. If written today, it would just be Felix and Oscar. That’s five more actors out of work. Now you add these new requirements and the future is clear – there is no future.

But your union clearly doesn’t care. So what if they destroy the LA theater scene? As long as they maintain their control.

At your expense.

And by the way, I’m very pro-union. I’m a proud member of the WGA, DGA, AFTRA-SAG. I totally understand that without unions the studios and networks would pay us all less than a janitor makes in Cuba while raking in billions on the wings of our work. But no one is making money in small theaters.

So now it’s time for actors to take action. Your union is supposed to represent YOU. Actors Equity most definitely does NOT. Are you going to stand for that? Are you going to let a board with its own agenda dictate your career path? Send the message. Your vote COUNTS.

It’s bad enough actors face rejection every day, but to be rejected by its own union is, to me, intolerable.

And so I ask you, even though I can’t pay you $9.00 an hour to do it, to perform one of the great acting scenes in film history. It’s from Howard Beale in NETWORK.  I think you know it.

I want you to get mad!

I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot. I don't want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.

All I know is that first, you've got to get mad.

You've gotta say, "I'm a human being, goddammit! My life has value!"

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell...

"I'm as mad as hell,

and I'm not going to take this anymore!!"

You may not win an Oscar, but you might get your theaters back.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Next up on open mic night -- the President of the United States

Some random thoughts on last Saturday's Correspondents Dinner...

Obama killed. He should be the new host of THE DAILY SHOW.

My guess is Nixon wasn’t hilarious at his Correspondents Dinners.

I missed the Red Carpet show. Was Sam Rubin & Mindy Burbano there to ask Katie Couric if she’s had a colonoscopy lately?

Comics like to tryout their material. Wouldn’t it be cool to be at your local comedy club on a Thursday night and the President of the United States shows up unannounced at midnight to test some jokes?

Of course “unannounced” in Los Angeles means every street in the city is closed for 72 hours. There is still gridlock from his March appearance. (Again, I will vote for any candidate from any party who promises never to come to Los Angeles.)

The real laughs came after the event when CNN had the obligatory roundtable analysis. Four of the unfunniest people on the planet weighing in on his material and delivery. Makes you wonder if they have same expertise when analyzing politics.

What does it say about Cecily Strong when she’s not as funny as a politician? She was getting groans.

Based on her lackluster performance I can only assume she’ll be asked to host next year’s Oscars.

How funny could Carter have been?

If Obama had delivered this speech as his State-of-the-Union he’d be way more popular.

Was Amy Schumer unavailable?

After maybe eleven minutes in office, has there ever been in recent times a President who wasn’t at odds with the media?

The President made a reference to ABC’s BLACKISH. See, NBC? This is what happens when you put on sitcoms that people watch.

The funniest part of the anger-translator bit was Obama starting to lose it. Otherwise, the routine went on too long.

Regarding that bit, thank you Mr. President for getting Keegan-Michael Key instead of Tyler Perry.

Tea Leoni was at the Correspondents dinner. Why? Tea, you’re not really the Secretary-of-State. You’re just play-acting a role on a television show. Please don't announce your plans to run for President.

How many irate comments am I going to get today because I wrote a post that's even remotely political? 

The big celeb of the night was not the President of the United States. It was Bradley Cooper. The POTUS finished third behind vlogger Bethany Mota.

How funny could Eisenhower have been?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The MASH finale returns

Next Sunday night, MeTV is airing the MASH finale, along with new interviews with members of the cast, production team, and even me. These interviews were recorded last year for a proposed documentary on MASH (that is still in the works).

Much to my surprise, I’m included in the promo that MeTV is airing.

When it originally aired in 1983 it was seen in 50.2 million homes. I’m sure MeTV would be happy with just half of that.

Here’s the promo:

What does studio coverage look like?

There has been a lot of discussion in the comments section about the value of readers and coverage.  A number of you have asked "What does a coverage report actually look like?"  Tying in with yesterday's post where I reference the screenplay David Isaacs and I wrote in 1981 called STAR SPANGLED ADVENTURE, here is the actual coverage. 

What exactly is studio coverage?    They're synopses of scripts prepared for studio executives and agents by hired readers.  Primarily they're meant to judge the value of a screenplay, both for its commercial potential and quality.   Rival studios also prepare coverage to keep track of the competition and get a heads up on possible new hot writers.    Coverage is Hollywood's Cliff Notes.

Hope you can read it  (you might need a magnifying glass or telescope).   Writers generally never see this.  A friend of a friend of a friend uncovered it.  Gee, I feel like Edward Snowden.  Squint and enjoy.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Levine & Isaacs -- you're fired!

It’s not uncommon for writers to get fired off of film projects. You turn in a draft, the phone stops ringing, and then you learn that someone else has been hired to rewrite you. Larry Gelbart, at a WGA membership meeting debating one of our many contracts, spoke to the crowd of about a thousand and said, “At one time everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room”.  He's right. 

But how many writers have been fired even before they wrote a single word? Not many. The only two I can think of are me and my partner, David Isaacs.  What a dubious distinction!

It’s 1980. Director Randal Kleiser is hot based on an unlikely hit movie he megged (I love that bullshit Hollywood term) called BLUE LAGOON. A young nubile Brooke Shields (before becoming the toast of Broadway) and pretty boy, Christopher Atkins are trapped on a tropical island together. They frolic for two hours and this audiences wanted to see.

So Kleiser gets a big development deal at Columbia. He has an idea for a coming-of-age movie set in an amusement park. David and I are hired to write it. We do. He loves it. The studio loves it. Everybody loves it. No one makes it but everyone loves it.

While we are writing the screenplay, Kleiser is busy writing and preparing the next movie he was going to direct, SUMMER LOVERS. This classic starring nubile Darryl Hannah and pretty boy, Peter Gallagher, is about a gorgeous young couple who fall in love one idyllic summer in picturesque Greece. BLUE LAGOON with Lachanodolmades.

We turn in our screenplay to much praise and get a call from Randal. He’s going off to Greece in a week to begin principal photography of SUMMER LOVERS. But he’s getting a little nervous about the script. Would we be interested in doing a fast rewrite? Nothing major. No story or structure changes. Just round out the characters and maybe add a little humor and dimension. A messenger drops off copies of the script. We read it overnight, meet in the morning to discuss what we’d like to do, and then drive over to Burbank to confab (another favorite bullshit Hollywood word) with him in his office on the WB/Columbia lot.

The meeting goes swimingly. He loves our suggestions. He laughs at the jokes we propose. He couldn’t be more effusive and enthusiastic. What we pitch is just what the script needs he says. So he sends us off to write it, complete with his blessing and thanks.

We drive back over the hill to my condo on the Westside. Takes about a half hour. We walk in my place and immediately the phone rings. It’s our agent. No pleasantries. She starts out with, “Just what happened in that meeting?” I was sort of thrown by the question. “It went great. Why?” I asked. “Well, it couldn’t have gone that great,” she said, “Columbia just called. They fired you.”


"You're no longer on the project."

"Even if we were never on the project."

"Yep.  Your services are no longer needed."

"What services?  We never started service."

"You're fired!"

So that was that.  We never found out why. My guess is Randal didn’t like our suggestions but was just too much of a wimp (an expression I shall use in place of the one I really want to use but am taking the high road – although you know the word I mean) to tell us face-to-face. Randal went off to the make the movie. I never saw it. It bombed. I don’t think our rewrite would have made a damn bit of difference.

By the time he had returned, our amusement park project was dead. We learned later that Columbia had no intention of ever making it. They wanted another BLUE LAGOON, not a teen comedy out of Randal Kleiser. They were just indulging him.  We didn’t know it at the time but we were always just spinning our wheels (back in the days when studios still paid for the spinning).

There’s no real moral to this story. The only advice I could give writers so that this never happens to you is, I guess, don’t ever come home taking Laurel Canyon.

This is a re-post from way back before Global Warming. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Questions

Who’s ready for some Friday Questions?

Gazzoo gets us started.

I notice that beginning in season six of MASH, two chopper shots were changed in the opening credit sequence (the one under the main title, and the quick one before the chorus). The shots that were replaced had clearly shown bloody soldiers with their arms dangling...were those eliminated due to a complaint?

No, just for a little variety. I said to Burt Metcalfe, the producer, “You can change anything but the shot of the hot nurse running towards us.” No, I don’t know her name.

UPDATE:  Thanks to blog reader Curt Alliaume the mystery has been solved.  Her name is Kathy Denny Fradella.

Interestingly, the only day I was out at the ranch (where we filmed the exteriors) was the day they shot those new opening titles. I heard the whirring sound of the chopper blades, looked up, and it was just like Radar sees in the opening shot – there were the helicopters flying against the purple mountain range. Very cool but not as cool as being there the day they shot the original opening titles.

From AJ Thomas:

Ken, as a comedy writer and baseball announcer what are your thoughts on Bob Uecker in MAJOR LEAGUE? Do you ever wish you could just truly tell it like it s?

I think he steals the entire movie. And all of his dialogue was improvised. Bob is one of the funniest people I know in any field. He’s a national treasure and I still love listening to him call Milwaukee Brewer games on the radio.

As for wishing I could really “tell it like it is” when doing play-by-play, you bet. And believe me, that’s what’s going on between innings when the commercials are on and the mics are off.

Doug Thompson has a radio question:

What was the single best piece of advice you received while in radio that you continued to use in your television/movie writing/directing career?

It was advice by example, received by the late Gary Owens. Treat everyone with respect. We worked together at KMPC Los Angeles. He was the big afternoon jock and star of LAUGH IN (then the number one show in television). I was a lowly sports intern making minimum wage. And he treated me as if I was the station or network president.

It’s a practice I have always followed. Production assistants, background extras, cable pullers – they’re just as important as the stars. What it is really is just simple human decency. But being shown that much kindness from someone as big as Gary Owens made a huge impression on me.

The other thing I learned from radio was always be on time. If you know radio people you know we are really punctual. Being late is not an option when you’re on the air live.

And from Bert in Petaluma:

You've mentioned a few times the records that drove you crazy when DJing especially because you had to play them repeatedly. I'm curious if there were also records you played with the same frequency but yet still enjoyed.

One summer when I was in high school I worked at a record store. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and we played it on a continual loop for twelve hours a day for the entire summer. I must’ve heard every cut at least 1,000 times. And I never got tired of it. I still could listen to that album over and over again.

Same with Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon & Garfunkel, the Phil Spector Christmas album, Both Sides Now by Judy Collins, the Highway 61 Revisited LP by Dylan, Layla by Derek & the Dominos, Suzanne by Leonard Cohen, almost anything by Queen, It’s Too Late by Carole King, Billie Jean by the King of Pop, anything (but Dock of the Bay) by Otis Redding, Year of the Cat by Al Stewart, American Pie by Don McLean, and anything by Roy Orbison.

And then my all-time favorite Beatles song – In My Life. That song kills me, as does Caroline No by the Beach Boys.

What’s yours? Song or question?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Crazy Jewish Mom

Jewish mothers are a staple of comedy. From Ida Morganstern in RHODA to Beverly in THE GOLDBERGS to Marie in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (Yes, the Barones are technically Italian, but don’t kid yourself, she’s JEWISH) Jewish mothers provide a wealth of hilarity, frustration, bizarre logic, and jaw dropping statements. They're easy to dismiss as a cliché, but here’s the thing – they’re REAL. What made Marie so funny was that she was so relatable. How many times did you say, “Ohmygod, that’s MY mom?” Or, “I know someone just like that?”

Generally they’re loving and well meaning but have no censor and feel they need to be proactive. You need conflict in comedy. But ideally you also want your antagonist to be likeable.  No one fits that bill better than Jewish mothers.

They have to ability to say the most outrageous things and still be rooted in reality. Want a real life example?

Kate Siegel is a 26-year-old single urban professional in Manhattan. She is Jewish and has a nice Jewish boyfriend. She also has a “Crazy Jewish Mom” who has learned how to text. Last Fall Kate attended a bachelorette party and received numerous texts from Mom. She shared them with her friends who were on the floor. Kate decided to open an Instagram account in November and share some of these texts with more of her friends. At last count she has 370,000 followers (and I’m sure after exposure on this blog that number will grow to 370,010). She also has a Facebook site.

Here are some examples:

I spoke to Kate last week. She said that she and her mother do have a great relationship. They can poke fun at each other; it’s all in good fun. She stressed these texts are just one aspect of their relationship. And Kate only posted them after clearing it with her mom first. Kate said her mom’s feeling about all this is, “More people will get my advice. It’s all good.”

Here’s what I love most – Kate’s reaction to these texts. Instead of being horrified or enraged she saw the absurdity and humor in them. Kate’s mom truly IS funny. And again, she means well.  Kate’s boyfriend, Superjew, is a good sport too. One of my recurring themes in this blog is that there is great humor out there everywhere if you just allow yourself to recognize and appreciate it.

For now Kate is dealing with her new-found notoriety, career, relationship, and mother. She’s got quite a full plate. I’m sure the offers for book deals and TV adaptations have already started pouring in. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kate’s mother doesn’t wind up one of the co-hosts of THE VIEW or at the very least, Brian Williams’ replacement on the NBC NIGHTLY NEWS.

I’ll leave you with a few more – with thanks to Crazy Jewish Mom and Sane Jewish Daughter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The most insane game show ever... or at least, this week

WARNING:  Adult content.  (So now you want to read on even more.)

How has American TV not jumped on this concept? Talk about “can’t miss.” Remember a reality show a couple of years ago called KILLER KARAOKE? Contestants had to sing karaoke and maintain their concentration while being bombarded by tomatoes, given electroshock, or waterboarded – fun stuff like that. The first episode was somewhat amusing, but it became repetitive quite quickly.

The Japanese have solved that problem! They’ve created a show called SING WHAT HAPPENS. Similar premise – can a contestant be disrupted while singing karaoke? Except here’s the twist: A girl is giving him a handjob during his performance. He has to finish the song uninterrupted and not ejaculate. No, I’m not kidding. Really. Seriously. It’s true. Honest. Don’t believe me?

It’s the first game show where there are no losers. I imagine even the screening process to get on the show has its own rewards.

I know on FEAR FACTOR they hired production assistants whose job it was to test out the stunts. Depending on how many beetles they could swallow or feet they could fall before dying, the parameters were set for the contestants. What about this show? It’s bad enough they make interns go for coffee.   What is the average time it would take to disrupt a contestant?  What method is more effective?   These are all vital questions that must be answered -- by somebody... making $2.00 an hour.  

And then there's the auditioning process.  “Very impressive Sally – graduated tops in your class in television production at NYU – I think there’s a place for you here. First assignment: we have 70 guys in the other room here to try out for our show. We need you to give them all handjobs. After that, could you get me coffee?”

I have no idea whether they have women contestants. (Although they’d have an easier time getting interns for that assignment.)

It’s only a matter of time of course before this show hits the American airwaves. The only question is whether Paris Hilton, Monica Lewinsky, or Carson Daly is going to host it.

The trouble is: How do you write sketches spoofing reality shows when shows like this actually exist?

And God knows what is next? Paddy Chayefsky wrote a scathing satire on television in the ‘70s called NETWORK. (If you haven't seen it, you MUST!!!) We have so far gone past it that we’ve now probably lapped it…twice.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What are the chances of your favorite show coming back next year?

Some of your favorite shows may be on the bubble. Networks are now just getting in their pilots and in a couple of weeks will announce their fall schedules and order additional shows for midseason. Most of the hit series have already been picked up. But each network has two or three “bubble” shows – they could go either way.

Determining whether your fave will survive or face the chopping block is difficult because each show is in its own unique situation. If your show gets a 1.5 share on NBC you might scrape by. The same 1.5 gets you axed with extreme prejudice on CBS.

Many factors figure in. Does the network own your show? Is your show a critical darling? Is the audience small but building? Does it attract the right demographic? Are there commitments attached?

Example: TNT has paid CBS a fortune for syndication rights to HAWAII 5-0. But they must have a certain number of episodes. So CBS will keep HAWAII 5-0 on the air until they reach that number. That’s great for Alex O’Loughlin; not so great for you if you have a drama pilot at CBS. That’s one less slot that’s open.

Also, what are the needs of the network? Good luck getting a comedy on CBS only because they’ve picked up most of their current crop. TWO AND A HALF MEN is gone but that’s only one opening. CBS could add another hour of comedy or pick up a few shows for midseason, but that will depend on how well they like their pilots, whether they want to lean more towards comedy than drama, and whether they keep bubble shows like THE NEW ODD COUPLE.

It seems you have a better chance of getting on the air if you have a comedy pilot at NBC. But the trouble there is that their comedy presence is a disaster. So they have no idea what they want, where to put the shows, and how to launch them. On Tuesday you’re exactly what they want, on Wednesday you’re dead, and then on Thursday you’re back in the mix. You’re shooting at a moving target.

And if you’re a bubble show on NBC like UNDATEABLE and ONE BIG HAPPY with shitty numbers (and they are), are your chances enhanced simply because you’re already a known entity and NBC doesn’t have to launch you? Or will the game plan be to flush out all the marginal shows and start fresh with new shows? And if so, how many new shows? And where? And when? And paired with what? 

Or… a combination of both. Pair a new show with ONE BIG HAPPY. Good luck to that new series, by the way.

Networks pay studios a “license fee” to produce shows. Once you get down to the eleventh hour, negotiations for license fees can get hairy. There may be a show the network wants to add but the studio balks at how little the license fee is. Or the studio goes back to the showrunner and says, “Can you still do the show if we have to cut the budget by 20%?” His answer, and the studio’s willingness to settle for the license fee determines whether the show gets on the schedule. And your pilot or bubble show might hang in the balance based on the negotiations with this other show. Nerve wracking, huh?

And like I discussed last week, re-signing actors whose deals are up is also key.  
But wait… there’s more! Counter-programming. Although time slots are not as crucial as in years past, it’s still important. Maybe half the viewers still watch TV in real time. So will your bubble show or pilot serve as a nice alternative to what else is on during a particular time slot?

And never forget the importance networks place on research, despite how untrustworthy the results are at predicting success. When a staggering number like 90% of shows fail, you have to really question the validity of research that gave these shows a thumbs up. Remember last year? The big story was CRISTELA. ABC had passed on the script. The producers took the penalty payment they received, made the show anyway, and it tested absolutely through the roof. This was going to be the next COSBY. ABC then put the show on the air with great fanfare. The result: it’s a bubble show.

If you have a comedy pilot at ABC I hope it’s about a family. Those are the sitcoms that get on the air. If there’s one slot open and it’s between your pilot that’s set in an office or CRISTELA, who do you think gets the nod?

But wait… there’s STILL more! Casting. Stars (or at least actors networks think are stars). A Matthew Perry project has a much better chance than a pilot starring a fresh new face – even though Matthew Perry has had a string of bombs. Star power matters. Does your pilot or bubble show have one?

And in rare cases, showrunners are stars. Networks want to be in business with them. Chuck Lorre and Shonda Rhimes can pretty much get anything they want on the air. They’ve earned that right.

But wait… yes, there’s even still more. Under the table deals. When our show ALMOST PERFECT got renewed it was only because CBS wanted JAG, which was at the same studio. Paramount tied us into the deal. ABC also wanted JAG. Had Don Bellasario, the producer of JAG decided to take the ABC deal our show probably would not have survived or been pushed to midseason. Instead we were on the fall schedule even though the network demanded we drop one of the stars and we had no idea what the actual show was.

And finally, fan campaigns. It’s a Hail Mary, but the more fans of a bubble show can rally, send letters, emails, and flood the network with love the better. In fairness, networks have been burned by these. They’ve kept shows on the air that had small but fierce fan bases and rarely do those shows suddenly blossom given a second life. But it could happen. And it does get the network’s attention. I’m sure CRISTELA will have a fan campaign. I suspect it will be hard for ONE BIG HAPPY to get six people to write in on their behalf.

The next few weeks will tell. In the meantime, we have pilot buzz, rumors that change hourly, and secret deals in the works. If only the shows themselves could be as exciting as the process.

Good luck to all the writers, producers, and actors who either have pilots or bubble shows still in the ring.

UPDATE:  Speaking of pilots, my writing partner David Isaacs' daughter just graduated from the University of Miami and is trying to produce a sitcom pilot.  She has a Kickstarter campaign and could use your help, dear blog readers with money who like to support the arts.  Here's the info.   Between Annie Levine and Andie Isaacs we're getting ready to pass the baton to the next generation of Levine & Isaacs.   Thanks much.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Women I love

At a newsstand once I saw an Esquire magazine with the headline “Women We Love.” I eagerly leafed through the magazine, figuring I was going to see great glossy photos of hot women. Instead, the women they loved were like Golda Meir and Madeline Albright. Still, it was a great feature and very effectively made the point that the women we love don’t have to be hot. So I’m stealing the concept. Here are some women I love (and to me they all are hot).  NOTE:  These are only SOME of the women.  There are many others. 

EDEN SHER – She plays Sue on THE MIDDLE and is far and away the funniest girl on television. Why she doesn’t have five Emmys is beyond me. While most kids in sitcoms are stereotypes, Eden’s portrayal of a gawky teenager is 100% real and 200% hilarious.

CONSTANCE WU – Second funniest lady on TV. But you know that. I gushed about her a couple of weeks ago.

VIOLA DAVIS – The very definition of a television star. She lights up the screen. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Writers can get away with murder with Viola as their lead.

PAM FRYMAN -- In a predominantly male industry, she's one of the best sitcom directors in the business.  Among her many credits -- all of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.  I'm a director, but when I had a pilot a few years ago I still hired Pam Fryman over myself.  And it was a wise choice.  

TATIANA MASLANY -- See my post on ORPHAN BLACK.  She's the five best actresses in North America.

MICHELE TAFOYA – Best sideline reporter ever – man or woman. Maybe the only smart thing NBC has done in recent years is not replacing her because she stopped being 22. Besides, half the time she’s in a parka or under an umbrella anyway.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON – NPR Ghana correspondent. Very thorough and okay, I just love that someone uses that name on the radio. In my day she’d be Sally Adams.

ILANA GLAZER & ABBI JACOBSON – The Romy & Michele of Millennials.

KELLI O’HARA – When is she going to win a damn Tony already?

ROBIN ROBERTS – The gold standard in class and grace.

AMANDA SCHULL – Can play deliciously evil. Loved her in SUITS. She’s now in 12 MONKEYS.

NAHNATCHKA KHAN – A comedy writer/showrunner not afraid to go for laughs instead of mild detached irony. Created FRESH OFF THE BOAT and the underrated B____ IN APARTMENT 23.

TARAJI P. HENSON – Viola Davis with more bling. With all the good things going for EMPIRE, she’s the best thing.

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY – Okay, so I have a crush on her. But she’s a damn good actress… isn’t she?

AUDRA MCDONALD – Broadway royalty who understands you don’t have to belt every song (like some “Frozen” diva I know).

WENDY LIEBMAN – A comedienne with her own unique rhythms and style. And she’s very funny.

OLIVIA MUNN – See Keira Knightley.

MAGGIE SMITH – The only reason to still watch DOWNTON ABBEY.

VALERIE GELLER – Radio consultant who believes listeners want entertaining, informative compelling personalities and not soulless voice tracked generic drones. So she’s an industry maverick.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG – The hottest Supreme Court Justice ever.

MARGO MARTINDALE – As long as there’s this list, she will be on it.
Who are some of your favorite women?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Character actors

My heart goes out to character actors.

When you read casting breakdowns there are a lot more productions seeking, “Male, 30’s, handsome, charming” than “Overweight, 50’s, Italian/Russian mix, unibrow”.

And the few character actors that are successful enough that they don’t have to be service managers at Jiffy Lube ultimately get trapped by their own success. Producers will glance at their headshots or see them read and say, “Him again? Jesus. This guy’s been on a million shows. Can’t we find any new overweight Italian/Russians? “

When you walk into a room and the producers go, “Hey, it’s the ‘can you hear me’ guy!” or “I’ve seen that big white head before. Aren’t you Jack from Jack in the Box?” you’re dead.

Or if a production is to be filmed on location in say, Houston. They’ll cast from the local pool there. Yes, that Nazi soldier might speak with a drawl but it’s cheaper to over-dub him than fly a real Nazi halfway across the country.

And time is never a friend. They get too old to play the cute waitress, the ballplayer, or Julia Roberts’ best friend (although Julia Roberts miraculously never ages herself).

If a character actor isn’t hot agents often lose interest. There’s always some Chihuahua who’s easier to book.

The most heartbreaking casting session I ever held was on MASH. We had a USO subplot in an episode and needed an accordion player. One by one, ten accordion players came in to audition. They all looked right, they all could play “Lady of Spain”. We had to choose one, which we did. But I felt so terrible for the others. How many calls do they get from their agent saying “MASH needs an accordion player”? How many of them kissed their wives goodbye on the way to the casting session saying, “I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

So the next time you’re in Jiffy Lube or Wal-Mart or Staples be nice to the clerk. He may be one hell of an accordion player.

This is a re-post from four years ago, but really, do you remember it? 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

ORPHAN BLACK returns tonight!

Here in the States, ORPHAN BLACK returns tonight for it’s third season. This is the TV equivalent of pitchers and catchers report. I’ve been waiting for months.

For those who are not familiar with ORPHAN BLACK (like TV Academy members obviously), it is a show on BBC America that is part science-fiction/part thriller about cloning. It’s well written and stylish but what elevates it to must-see status is Tatiana Maslany who plays at least five clones. Each character is well drawn, and that’s just for starters. There are scenes where several of the clones are in the same scene interacting with each other. And other scenes where one of the clones tries to pass for another and Tatiana deftly portrays two distinct characters at once. Sound confusing? It’s really not. You pick up on it very quickly.   And you're in awe. 

(This is in contrast to Debra Messing who can play five characters different and make them all seem the same.)

What is confusing is the plot. It’s filled with conspiracies and double agents, but you know what? Forget all that. Sarah is the main character. Just assume that everyone is a bad guy and out to get her. Then just go with it. You’ll be fine, even if you’ve never seen the show.

And this year there will be two clones. Ari Millen will be a boy clone. The mating possibilities are infinite!

The fact that Tatiana Maslany has not won an Emmy is a travesty.   Jessica Lange can't carry her make-up case.  

For all I know the season has already aired in the U.K. and Canada, but here in America season three premieres tonight at 9:00 on BBC-America. I can’t wait to see it… them.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Questions

Time for more of your FQ’s and my FA’s.

Eric E. Durnan starts us off:

I've read on here where there have been complaints/comments about the color on MASH. Now that all the episodes save the finale are on Netflix, have you seen the quality presented there? I think the color is very good on Netflix. The episode where everyone dyes their hair and wear red for Hawkeye really stands out compared to syndication.

On a side note, have you ever had MASH scripts rejected, and if so, what were they about? 

That episode where everyone dyes their hair is called "Peace on Us" from season 7 (written by me and David Isaacs) and stemmed from an actual incident we found in the research.   But to your question...

I haven’t watched MASH on Netflix. But I will say this, the color on the DVD’s is considerably better than when the show originally aired.

Don’t know if it’s like that now (haven’t paid much attention) but back in the ‘70s you could tell which network a show was on just by looking at it. NBC was warmer. ABC was a little brighter. And CBS was a tad muted. I think the CBS signal had a touch of red in it.

At the time, we filmed the show in 35 mm. We delivered a 35 mm print and a 16 mm print that CBS would run as a back up. When it left us the color was brilliant. Then we’d see the same episode on the air it never looked great.

It really wasn’t until I saw the DVD’s that I said, “Yes, that’s the print I remember delivering.” I suspect that’s the version Netflix is showing.

On a couple of occasions I complained to CBS about the color and they said I was crazy.

In this digital age it’s hard to imagine that back in those days a network would take a 35 mm print and 16 mm print, physically cut in the commercials, and run both simultaneously off a special projector called a “film chain” just in case the film broke.

As for rejecting scripts, yes. There was usually money in the budget for us to eat one script a year. I don't recall the specifics, but usually it was because we just couldn't get the story to work.  It wasn't the writer's fault.  It was ours for developing a story that just wouldn't come together. 

From blog regular, Hamid:

You often mention Steven Spielberg, notably in your Oscar reviews. So I have to ask the inevitable: have you met Spielberg? And if you have, what did you talk about?

I met him once and he was delightful. It was at an industry charity picnic. Jim Brooks introduced us. I was way nervous to just walk up and introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t really remember what we talked about. I do recall he said he liked CHEERS. I probably said something stupid like, “And I like SCHINDLER’S LIST.” But we must’ve chatted for five minutes. He was actually very approachable and gracious. Of course I didn’t ask him to sign anything and this was before selfies.

Steely Dan (one of my favorite groups) has a question.

Can you explain the difference between an agent and a manager? Are they interchangeable? If not, do they work together? Do you need both?

Also, I've read that Bill Murray does not have an agent. How common is that for someone of his stature in the industry?

Managers can’t negotiate contracts. Agents do that.  In theory, managers have smaller lists of clients and are there to really guide your career, provide more personal attention, and see that your agent is giving you the proper attention and service.

I think a manager is more useful for an actor. Several of my actor friends complain that they’re just “types” to their agent. They’ll be sent out on things along with ten of their other clients who are similar “types.” A manager focuses on you and your needs and desires.

If you’re a big enough star to where you just get offers, then no, you really don’t need an agent. An attorney can negotiate contracts.

And finally, from Jim S:

With Coach returning, Boy Meets World becoming Girl Meets World, the X-Files returning, and Full House Returns rumors hitting the net, what show would you like to see come back, and which show of yours would you like to work on again. If the answer is none, why?

They're also redoing BEWITCHED for the ninth time.  

I understand why the networks do this. It’s the same reason there are movie and theatrical versions of TV shows – because in this era of so much product, any franchise or project with name recognition going in gives you a leg up. That said, as a viewer I would prefer new shows rather than retreads. We really need another version of FULL HOUSE?

I'd I had to pick a show from the past I'd like to see again I'd have to say SHINDIG. 

If I could reboot one of my series I would do ALMOST PERFECT again. I would not want to reboot CHEERS, MASH, or FRASIER for the same reason I would not want to make a hip hop version of “Rhapsody In Blue.”

In general I like to move on, not go back and redo things I've done.

What’s your FQ? Leave it the CS (comments section). T (Thanks).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The real suspense this pilot season

Most people in television are either underpaid or overpaid.

When actors sign on to pilots they commit to the series for five to seven years. If the show becomes a huge hit in season two, the network and studio (often they’re the same) makes a shitload while the actor works for his agreed upon price, usually based on what he made on a failed series or two busted previous pilots.

So it stands to reason that should the series go long enough that the actor’s contract is up he will ask for the moon to stay with it. And many times get it. (This is the plot of my comic novel, MUST KILL TV, which you should have already but if you don’t, go here immediately and order it.) Many times stars have the production company and network over a barrel. Remember the FRIENDS negotiations? Or MODERN FAMILY? Actors go from underpaid to overpaid in a blink.

But networks do have options in most cases. They can continue the series without the star. LAW & ORDER is just a revolving door. THE OFFICE survived "Michael's" departure.   But usually this ploy does not sit well with viewers. NBC lost both Sanford and son and changed the show to THE SANFORD ARMS. As someone said, “they just renewed the set.”

A lot depends on how integral the star is to the show’s success. When CSI’s Jorja Fox and George Eads tried to play hardball they were temporarily fired from the show.

I’m reminded of the story of Ralph Kiner, a once great power hitter, who socked over fifty home runs one year for the Pittsburgh Pirates although they wound up in the cellar. When he wanted to renegotiate his contract, team president Branch Rickey said no raise. Kiner reminded him of his fifty home run feat and Rickey said, “Ralph, we can finish last without you.”

Obviously you need Nathan Fillion on CASTLE since he is Castle. (His contract is up for grabs.) But if one of the guys in the squad wants to hold out for a big payday, good luck to him.

How successful a show is also determines whether the network will back up the Brinks truck to the star’s garage. CSI, for example. Star Ted Danson’s deal is up. I’m sure he makes more than pocket change, especially since his joining CSI turned it around and saved it. But now, after either 15 or 60 years on the air (I forget which), the numbers are dwindling. Is it worth it to CBS to pay Danson what he justifiably deserves to keep the show going another couple of years, or is it time to just pull the plug? They sure have enough episodes for syndication.

So as the next couple of weeks unfold and networks decide on their upcoming Fall schedules, they’ll have lots to consider. Are returning stars worth the big bucks they’re demanding? Are the pilots good enough that it’s worth replacing some of these old franchises? Will the void left by one show hurt the shows around it? Can the series survive without the star in question?

And for the actor – is it worth walking away from a big existing hit? How many of them are there? Is it worth holding out? One thing is for sure – networks won’t give you what you deserve unless you demand it and back them into a corner. Don’t ever expect benevolence.

So it’s game on. Shows that were locks for renewal might not get on. Shows that were on the bubble will live or die based on negotiations with other shows. Shows that were once dead will suddenly find themselves on Thursday night. Boy, to me, all of this seems much more fun and suspenseful than the shows the networks put on air.

UPDATE:  It was just reported that Nathan Fillion has signed so the announcement says CASTLE is virtually assured of continuing.   However, Stana Katic is still unsigned.  What does it say about her leverage when ABC is essentially saying we can do the show without her?   Expect her to sign real soon. 

UPDATE 2:  I will performing at Sit n' Spin tonight -- it's a fun night of storytelling. 8 PM at the Hudson Theater in Hollywood. For reservations: 323-960-5519. Warning though: it's free.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Happy Birthday, Elizabeth Montgomery

I will get to Liz.  Read on. 

At first I was very excited about nostalgia channels. How cool to be able to watch shows I loved as a kid again. But then I discovered some problems.

A lot of these shows don’t hold up. Kojak seemed really cutting edge at the time. But compared to shows like THE WIRE or THE SHIELD, he sounds as street and authentic as Inspector Gadget.

The old DANNY THOMAS SHOW used to make me laugh. Now, Danny Thomas’ character just comes off as a bombastic misogynistic asshole. How did grown-ups back in the day not see this at the time? I was a kid. I had an excuse.

A lot of the comedies don’t hold up, which makes you appreciate even more the ones that do – like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. But in fairness, even as a kid, a lot of the sitcoms of the day didn’t wow me. I never thought GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was remotely amusing. Nor did I laugh once at I DREAM OF JEANNIE. BEWITCHED was funny the first season but I continued to watch because I was in love with Elizabeth Montgomery (today would have been her 82nd birthday, by the way). Same with PETTICOAT JUNCTION. When you have three hot babes Sean Hannity could write the comedy. Milk has a longer expiration date than BATMAN jokes had. And neither character Patty Duke played in THE PATTY DUKE SHOW was funny (but Patty was less unfunny than Cathy). Still, I watched every week – and I think you can surmise why.

On the other hand, DOBIE GILLIS and CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? still provide some genuine laughs. Shows that had a certain anarchy seemed to age better.

Once you get into the ‘70s things improve considerably. BARNEY MILLER, the MTM shows, ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH. But the ‘70s create another problem. Shows of mine are on it. I’m way too young to have shows on the fucking nostalgia channel! It’s bad enough I have shows on TV LAND.

The other depressing thing is the commercials. GIDGET, a show about fun loving teenagers who surf and hang out at the beach is now sponsored by Depends and drugs to prevent strokes. Where are the Pepsi: For Those Who Think Young commercials? With all the girls running around in bikinis at least advertise Viagra.

You wonder whether there will be nostalgia channels for today’s fare. You wonder whether there will be channels period. But with so many niche shows on so many platforms and all episodes being so readily available on streaming services or DVD I suspect there will be no equivalent in thirty years. And if there is, with whatever technical advances they will have then, since no one will watch commercials, they might just digitally include products into the body of shows. They’ll give Liz Lemon a walker. Raylan Givens will be wearing Depends when he takes his pants off for a sex scene. Oh, for the good old days when the shows were originally aired… with seventeen banners, network logos, animated promos, storm warnings on the screen...

And BEWITCHED still on four times a day.   God bless nostalgia channels.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

HBO's Sinatra

Who’s seen the four hour HBO documentary on Sinatra? Who under the age of 50 has seen the four hour HBO documentary on Sinatra? Who under the age of 20 has even heard of Sinatra?

You really should see it. I’m sure they’ll replay it a gazillion times. It’s chock full of great footage and does a pretty good job of giving you a portrait of this extremely gifted and complex man.

As in all Sinatra bios, it’s somewhat slanted in one direction or the other – in this case, favorably. Little surprise there because the family sanctioned it and gave them access to lots of unseen stuff. On the other hand, you can pick up Kitty Kelly’s bio of Frank, open to any page and he’s either having someone roughed up or he’s sleeping with Bacall while Bogie is on his deathbed. A book by his longtime valet reveals that in the early ‘50s when the clock reached 1:00 AM and none of Sinatra’s girlfriends or high-priced hookers were available, he’d call neighbor Peggy Lee and go over to her place to bang her. (That must’ve been lovely for Peggy Lee’s family to read.)

The impossible task is to determine truth from myth. I’m sure some of the stories about him aren’t true, while other, even more outlandish stories, are.

From the valet’s bio: When Sinatra was considering going out with Mia Farrow he was concerned she was still a teenager. Would he have anything to talk about with her? Would he feel like a dirty old man? So his cronies arranged for him to sleep with a few teenagers to, y’know, take ‘em for a test drive. This was not in the documentary. But was it even true? Did Joseph Kennedy and JFK spend weekends at Sinatra’s Palm Springs pad just passing around girls? Again, not in the doc. (But probably definitely true.)

The documentary was very selective. It referenced his father’s death but said nothing about his mother, who died in a plane crash. It talks about the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping but doesn’t tell you how they caught the idiots who pulled it. There’s a section about Frank Jr.’s career as a singer but nothing about Nancy’s – and she was successful.

But to its credit, the documentary does not completely whitewash. It practically states that Sinatra got Kennedy elected thanks to the mob fixing the Illinois election. And although Sinatra was truly a champion in the fight for Civil Rights, the movie does show him making horribly offensive racist jokes at the expense of Sammy Davis Jr.   Face it, the man was an enigma.

But he was also a remarkable singer. And the documentary really celebrates that. You see snippets of many performances and get glimpses into his process. He learned a breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey that allowed him to pause in songs based on story points, not the normal breaks. He originated the theme album, chose all his material, and had strong input on his arrangements. For six weeks before recording an album he quit smoking and drinking. In the valet’s book, he said Sinatra also sang opera to prepare his voice. He recorded all of his songs with the orchestra live in the studio. No headphones, no glass booth, no singing over pre-recorded tracks.

Personally, I think his Capitol Records period in the ‘50s was remarkable. He was at the absolute height of his powers at a time when that kind of music was in vogue. To this day I marvel at those albums. No one could sing a torch song like Sinatra. When I was nine they made me cry and I had no idea what he was singing about. Check out this song from 1957. Your heart positively breaks for him even though you know that any girl you ever loved would leave you in a second for him.

His swinging repertoire, masterfully arranged by Nelson Riddle, remains in a class by itself. Sorry, Michael Buble, you’re a cover band.

The fact that Sinatra seemed to record every single song written between 1935-1980, there is a huge body of work. Lots will be forgotten but I feel some of his Capitol tunes will be heard for the next hundred years. The only surviving art of the 20th Century will be I LOVE LUCY and Sinatra’s “Only the Lonely” album.

But then came the ‘60s and his ultimate downfall. I blame it on the Rat Pack. Yes, they were entertaining and put Vegas on the map, but it spawned the Sinatra “ring a ding ding” persona and as the music scene moved on he became more entrenched as this anachronistic hipster and became a joke. He was completely out of touch with rock music, and when he attempted to sing it (with his special “spin”) it was laughable. Listen to his appalling version of Mrs. Robinson. “Jilly” loves you more than you will know. How’s your bird, Mrs. Robinson? Wouldn’t you have loved to be in the room with Paul Simon when he first heard that?

The documentary does show a clip of Sinatra on a Fifth Dimension special wearing a sequenced Nehru jacket and looking like a clown and then later a two-shot of him with Michael Jackson where it’s hard to tell who’s more creeped-out.

But ultimately Ol' Blue Eyes redeems himself, has one last hurrah with “New York/New York, and goes out on a high note.

I saw Sinatra in concert once. It was towards the end of his career. He was bloated, couldn’t hit most of the notes, the toupee was a little crooked, and his jokes were lame. (Quick aside: His jokes were always lame. He thought he was hilarious but never was. If he tried to make a living as a comedian instead of a singer, Peggy Lee would have said, “Stop calling me in the middle of the night! Get lost!”) But it was an unmistakable thrill. Just seeing him, just hearing him sing – and by that time he went back to familiar standards; no massacring Jim Croce songs – I felt I was in the presence of greatness. And how often do you experience that?

SINATRA, the four-hour HBO documentary ultimately focused on that, which is what I wanted. Being at the Universal Amphitheater that summer night, grooving to “Fly Me to the Moon,” I wasn’t thinking that he probably had Marilyn Monroe before Kennedy, or that he should be in prison on fifty counts of aggravated assault – I just reveled in the fact that I would never hear a better singer in my lifetime… and before every song he acknowledged the writers. I loved the guy.