Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween memories

This has always been one of my favorite holidays, especially when the kids were little. Taking them trick-or-treating and seeing them so excited and happy was one of the true joys of parenthood. And then eating the candy they collected was fun too. Of course there’s always that one eccentric house. We had a dentist who gave out toothbrushes. Thank goodness he wasn’t a proctologist.

And where I live, near UCLA, there was always a second wave of trick-or-treaters.  After the kids had turned in for the night, sorority girls in yummy costumes would ring the bell. I’d be holding the candy bowl for them in one hand and my Emmy in the other.

During Matt & Annie’s elementary school years there was also the annual Halloween carnival. This was a public school catering to the local neighborhood but we were hardly a typical neighborhood. One year I volunteered to make snow cones and Hugh Hefner and his six bimbos strolled up to my cart. He had a kid in the school. A noted soft-porn actress whose children attended the school offered this for the silent auction: A two hour nude session where you could photograph or paint her. The principal graciously declined that offer, but I bet it would have brought in a lot more money than the autographed WINGS script I donated.

For the school’s “Haunted House” Gene Simmons participated. He would pop up and stick out that four-foot tongue. One mother was so freaked she literally sued the school.

Ah, good times.

One thing I learned though -- Halloween is an OUTDOOR holiday.

My son’s birthday is November 2nd. (Happy upcoming birthday, Matt!). When he turned five Halloween night fell on a Saturday. So for his party we invited a bunch of his friends to the house where I would take them all out trick-or-treating and then they’d come back for pizza and cake. 5-7 PM. No muss. No fuss. Great plan.

Except it rained. No, it POURED.

First off, as parents deposited their kids they asked if we’d take siblings since they couldn’t take them trick-or-treating in the rain. Of course we said yes, and so at 5:00 I had forty screaming crazed children running around my house – chasing each other with hatchets, and fairy wands, and Star Wars blasters. After relentlessly trying to wrangle this supercharged mob I finally sat down on the stairs and took a breath. I was so proud of myself. I had gotten through it. It’s almost 7. Then I checked my watch. 5:20.

If you have little kids enjoy these precious Halloweens. Soon enough they’ll outgrow you, want to be with their friends instead, and trade blasters for tequila shooters. At least I still have my memories… and the sorority girls keep coming around.

One last Halloween note: I’ve always found it odd that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in this holiday so they stay home…on the only night of the year when people would actually open their doors to them.

Happy Halloween.


This is a repost from several Halloweens ago.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Questions

This year for Halloween I’m going as a blogger. Here are this week’s FQ’s.

TF leads off:

Do you have a favorite on screen credit "title card" for want of a better name?

That is to say - a favorite broadcast image from a show with your name juxtaposed against something/someone pretty/weird.

See the above screen grab. This was from the movie VOLUNTEERS. As a baseball fan it was cool to have my name over Roger Maris hitting his historic 61st home run.

This was another favorite.  Our first.  It was from THE JEFFERSONS and at the time, we had no idea whether this would be the ONLY on screen credit we'd ever have.  
From Belle:

Throughout the course of MASH Hawkeye has a habit of sniffing his food before eating it, something which seems to have started quite early in the show's run. By the time it was actually acknowledged properly, it had been happening for a while. Do you know if that was something that was written in and just not used straight away, or if it was something Alan Alda started doing and the writers eventually decided to use?

It’s something that Alan came up with. The food, by the way, was not bad at all. It was from the commissary. The problem was they’d be eating for quite some time. Most of the time we had scenes in the mess tent there were five or six people sitting at the table. We did multiple takes – masters, two shots, and singles for reactions. So two bites could easily turn into twenty.  That's a lot of creamed corn.

Stephen wonders:

Ever written something that, looking back with more modern sensibilities, you wish you had done a little differently?

No. Not for PC reasons. Whatever I wrote was appropriate for the times. I can’t worry that maybe two generations from now some people are going to find a certain reference offensive. Get a life future generations!

There are however, shows I’ve written in the past that I wish I could have back, but that’s because I feel I could now tell the story better or beat the jokes.

Matt asks:

It seems to me several TV shows have such strong premises that I don't see how they can be long running shows. For example QUANTICO. There are 12 recruits, one is a spy. Once you catch the spy what is the series about? How can you delay catching the spy more than one season?

Is this type of problem a concern or does everybody just assume that if it is possible they will figure something out.

It should be a concern, but apparently it’s not. Networks are now so desperate to hook in viewers that they will mortgage a series’ future to open big. What will BLINDSPOT ever do that’s more compelling than finding a hot naked tattooed woman in a duffle bag?

Networks now just hope that once a series is launched the producers will find a way to keep the stories going. And often they don’t.

Take PRISON BREAK. The first year was great, watching inmates planning their escape. But once they got out the series wandered all over the place.

As a showrunner, it was always important to me that anything my partner and I developed had legs. We were going to be the ones breaking stories. We were the ones who sitting in rewrites at 3 AM. If we didn’t know what the show was about we would be trapped in that room forever.

I’m waiting to see long it will be before another naked girl will be discovered on BLINDSPOT. This time it will be a star. Stunt casting.

I’m also waiting to see how long before the tattoos will be ads for products.

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

We really like UNDATEABLE on NBC. We liked it when it was taped before a live studio audience and now that it's always LIVE before an audience.
The show is consistently laugh out loud funny and we smile the whole way through.

I know NBC forced it to play live (twice a night) for it to be renewed and on the air (Friday nights).

However, doesn't this eventually hurt the syndication of the reruns? I can't imagine LIVE shows play as well on a repeated cycle. Doesn't this hurt the property and the payments for the future?

Not if the show is genuinely funny. If the only reason it survives is because of the novelty of the live presentation then that will wear off soon. But if it's entertaining in its own right, then it should do fine.

What’s your FQ?

Thursday, October 29, 2015


... to everyone who took the time to tell me who you are.   I greatly appreciate the support and will do my best to keep you entertained or at least suitably distracted.   If you haven't checked in, please do.  Just add a comment with who you are, where you're from, how old you are, why you're here, and what you do or don't like.  Enough of you seem pleased with the current variety of topics that I don't feel compelled to add medical advice or photos of pets.   Thanks again. 

Who are you?

I try to do this at least once a year -- throw it back to you.  I'm always curious as to who is out there.  So today I'm asking you to file a comment.

I'd like to know where in the world you are?  How old you are?  How long have you been following the blog?  How did you find out about it the first time?    How often do you read it?  What do you hope to get out of it?  What's your blood type?

And I know I'm leading with my chin but I'd also like feedback.  What topics and posts do you like and (besides baseball) what areas don't you like?

I especially want to hear from the lurkers and new followers.

Any and all suggestions are welcome.  This blog is coming up on ten years next month.  But it's still very much a work-in-progress.

Thanks for reading.  Thanks for participating.  Thanks for buying my books (those of you who had). 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My thoughts on THE MARTIAN

Hollywood movies take creative license. They all do. The question is whether the audience is willing to suspend belief. STEVE JOBS has taken a lot of heat for its stylized portrait of a real person. And yet, THE MARTIAN has gotten a free ride. I’ve seen THE MARTIAN and it’s excellent. No real spoiler alert here since you all basically know the story. Matt Damon is an astronaut who is stranded on Mars. He survives on his ingenuity. NASA attempts to rescue him.

Matt Damon is sensational. You know an actor has star power when you can watch him grow potatoes for two hours. (Imagine Keanu Reeves in the part and the movie loses $400 million.) Screenwriter Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s book is both exciting and surprisingly funny. And director Ridley Scott returns to familiar territory, once again directing a movie set on Mars. (THELMA & LOUISE and HANNIBAL being the others.)

But if you want to get picky

Yes, they say they took great care to ensure that the science was correct. And I’m sure some of it was. But again, if you wish to step back and really analyze it, you can find tiny holes in the plot and execution that the filmmakers obviously just glossed over in the name of “creative license.”

So just to show that every movie fudges with the truth, even boxoffice darlings, let me point out a few examples of why discerning moviegoers might have big problems with this film.

First of all, Mark (Damon’s character) got absolutely no help from the Martian people. You’re telling me that not one Martian would offer jumper cables or even a Mars bar? This alone almost ruined the movie for me.

They didn’t use Apple computers? Really?
There was not enough diversity among the astronaut crew members. This is the same problem I had with THE KING’S SPEECH and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Oh sure, there were African-American and Asian scientists, but they don’t count. What’s important is the crew. In this case, one Hispanic and one guy who didn’t have pretty hair. I’m not saying they HAD to have a Martian, but they left themselves wide open to criticism.

Sean Bean played a high official at NASA. He was once a Bond villain. Don’t they do security checks?

When watching in 3D the Russet Potatoes don’t jump out at you.

He never celebrated Christmas. If he can grow potatoes, why not a tree? Uh, this is not a summer release, people.

Oh?  He was alone on Mars?  Then who were these guys?

You mean to say there were all these supplies on board but not one volleyball?

And finally, later in the movie Damon is wearing glasses. Why wasn’t her wearing them earlier? I saw the film at a WGA screening where screenwriter Goddard did a Q&A afterwards. And one fellow Guild member actually asked him that question. Why wasn’t he wearing glasses earlier? Suddenly my other quibbles don’t seem so far fetched, do they?

I recommend you see THE MARTIAN despite its glaring flaws.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The best way to enjoy the World Series

Both the Mets and the Royals have GREAT local radio announcers.  If you have the AT BAT app or get Sirius/XM you can hear these broadcasts.   The Mets have a sensational team in Howie Rose and Josh Lewin, and the Royals counter with terrific broadcasters in Steve Physioc and Ryan Lefebrve. Check 'em out.  Especially now that Jon Miller isn't doing the national radio. 


Okay, I liked SUPERGIRL.

But why?

Is it because I’m still eight and always loved Superman comics and anything associated with Superman?

Is it because I’m still fourteen and like seeing a hot girl in a skimpy outfit fly?

I’d like to think there are other reasons because if not then Jesus, I’m either immature or a perv.

There are other reasons, thank goodness. First and foremost, it was a pleasure watching a superhero who LIKED being a superhero. The reason little boys all loved Superman was because we all secretly wanted to BE Superman. (Well, not so secret. When the original TV series came out me and all my friends ran around the neighborhood with towels tied around our necks. My grandmother once said, “He can fly, he can stop bullets – God forbid he’s Jewish.”)

The point is, there was actual JOY happening on SUPERGIRL – unlike that atrociously depressing Zack Snyder version of Superman. Melissa Benoist wants to be Supergirl. Yeah, it’s a burden and there are all these super villains (I just zone out during all the backstory and legend balloon juice), but she’s having F-U-N fun.

I also liked how earnest she was. I prefer my superheroes positive and plucky, instead of damaged souls who are haunted by the murder of their parents or listen incessantly to right wing talk radio.

There were a lot of exciting action sequences, but I kept reminding myself this was the pilot. Next week, when they’re making the show for whatever the network license fee is her biggest stunt might be bending a lead pipe. I hope they keep the action up because the dialogue was Kryptonite. At one point her Earth sister says, “I wanted to be a star. You could actually touch stars.”  Jeepers!

The rest of the cast was fine. Calista Flockhart, her devil-Prada boss, has skin the color of Great Caesar’s Ghost. Chyler Leigh plays her sister. One of the rods from Kara’s spaceship must’ve broken off on impact and lodged up Leigh’s ass. Kara saves her life by averting a plane crash she was on, and her reaction is to scold Kara for exposing her powers. “Hey bitch, how about thank you?” Mehcad Brooks is “James” Olsen, not Jimmy Olsen and is African-American. Diversity enters the Superman universe. And Jeremy Jordan plays Kara’s friend/confidant/possible love interest if it turns out there’s enough diversity and he doesn’t have to be gay.

Do I have quibbles? Sure I do. It’s mindless, it’s silly, and God forbid Kara is Jewish!

But the bottom line: SUPERGIRL is a guilty pleasure. It’s COVERT AFFAIRS with flying. It’s ALIAS with a cape.

And it’s not on my DVR just because I’m either eight or fourteen-years-old, although maybe if I were, CBS would once again give a shit that I was watching.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Some people you might want to know

Last week in a blog post I made a reference to Oscar Levant. He was a personality/actor/musician with a razor sharp wit, a drinking problem, smoking problem, and a thousand and one neuroses. He spent time in mental institutions. He said some of the funniest lines in his day. He composed music for twenty movies. No less than George Gershwin thought no one played and interpreted his music better than Oscar Levant. In his later years, Levant would be a frequent guest on talk shows, chain smoking and shaking so bad it appeared he was having a seizure. He even hosted his own local talk show in Los Angeles, when he wasn’t hospitalized. He once fell asleep on the air interviewing a guest.

When his first wife married the movie theater tycoon Arthur Loew, he found the hotel they were staying at and on their wedding night at 2:00 in the morning called the room and asked Arthur, “What’s playing at the Loew’s State tonight and what time does the feature go on?”

He once said, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity and I have erased that line.” A noted hypochondriac, this is what it says on his grave stone:

                                            OSCAR LEVANT
                                      See, I told you I was sick

Pretty interesting guy, no?

Some readers took me to task for referring to someone they felt was too obscure (i.e. they didn’t know who he was). I noted in the comment section, and repeat here – either just skip the reference or, if you’re curious enough, look it up. Gone are the days you had to schlep to the library. Two/three clicks and you can find out all you ever wanted to know about Oscar Levant. Or any public figure.

I also mentioned that I learned a lot about show business that came before me by seeing unfamiliar people (like Oscar Levant) on talk shows and seeking out their backstory. I owe a great debt to Jack Paar (you may have to look him up too) for exposing me to many of these colorful individuals.

So what I’d like to do today is list a bunch of names. If you are a serious student of comedy you should be familiar with these people, or at least a lot of them. Maybe some of them you are. But exploring their work might open you up to exciting new vistas. So that’s your homework assignment if it feels like something worth it to you and something you want to do.

Here they are. There are way more but this is a good start.

Bob & Ray
Kaufman & Hart
Laurel & Hardy
Abbot & Costello
Mosher & Connelly
Gosden & Correll
Klavan & Finch
Patchett & Tarses
Persky & Denoff
Larry Gelbart
Nat Hiken
Patrick Dennis
“Sgt. Bilko”
Preston Sturges
Jack Benny
Stan Freberg
Doug Kenney
Chuck Jones
Billy Wilder
Jerry Belson
Carole Lombard
Buster Keaton
Bob Hope
Fred Allen
Gary Larson
Jackie Gleason
Art Carney
Audrey Meadows
Moms Mabley
Steve Allen
Tom Koch
Gary Owens
Andrew Bergman
Richard Pryor
Robert Benchley
The Smothers Brothers
The Marx Brothers
The Charles Brothers
The Zucker Brothers
The Farrelly Brothers
S.J. Perelman
I.A.L. Diamond
Sophie Tucker
Phyllis Diller
Neil Simon
Bob Uecker
Jonathan Winters
Lenny Bruce
Peter Sellers
Sid Caesar
David Lloyd
Carol Burnett
Jeff Martin
Steve Gordon
Harold Ramis
Herb Gardner
Pat McCormick
Pat Paulsen
Senor Wences
Jack Lemmon
Ian Frazier
Flip Wilson
Paul Rudnick
John Hughes
Dale Launer
Jay Ward
Walter Matthau
Ernie Kovacs
Elayne Boosler
Mort Sahl
Tom Lehrer
Godfrey Cambridge
Elizabeth Montgomery
Tony Randall
Mort Drucker
Gary Burbank
Abe Burrows
Edgar Bergen
Marshall Brickman
Alan Arkin
Arne Kogen
Don Knotts
Louie Nye
Alan King
Jan Murray
Foster Brooks
Dave Thomas
P.J. O’Rourke
Zero Mostel
James L. Brooks
Danny Kaye
Eve Arden
Victor Borge
Dudley Moore
Dan Ingram
Dick Gregory
Terry Southern
Jackie Mason
Jackie Vernon
Robert W. Morgan
W.C. Fields
Ben Hecht
Gene Wilder
Steve Martin
Tracey Ullman
John Cleese
Mel Tolkin
Carl Reiner
Christopher Guest
Ivan Reitman
Lowell Ganz
Babaloo Mandel
Dorothy Parker

Look up even five.   I bet you'll thank me.

You're also welcome to add names I inadvertently omitted.

NOTE:  Woody Allen was omitted only because you all know who he is.   He was a HUGE influence on me and I suggest if you haven't read his comic essays or seen his early "funny" movies you're in for a real treat. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Love Letters

This is a revised re-post.  I first wrote this piece in 2006.  I was reminded of it last night because I finally saw LOVE LETTERS.  This version starred Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw.  They were both terrific.  I'm friends with Ryan and went backstage after.  Thrill of thrills, I got to meet Ali MacGraw.  Like every Jewish boy of my generation, I fell in love with her in GOODBYE COLUMBUS. 
So I thought I would reprise my LOVE LETTERS post.  But it was shocking how many of the people I had listed are now gone.   Thus I've had to sprinkle in a few new pairs.  Enjoy again for the first time:

LOVE LETTERS by AR Gurney is an enormously successful play. Ingenious in its design, an actor and actress sit at tables or stand at podiums and just read love letters. So no blocking or rehearsal or memorization is ever really needed. Actors can easily rotate in and out of the piece and frequently do. This can result in prestigious A-level actor pairings but there have also been productions by Charlton and Lydia Heston. Since I couldn’t attend either of those I shall wait to see LOVE LETTERS until one of the following pairings is announced:

Ann Coulter & Al Franken

Woody Allen & Mia Farrow

Donald Trump & Megyn Kelly

Bruce Jenner & Caitlin Jenner

Marc Cherry & Nicollette Sheridan

Ben Affleck & Jennifer Garner

Billy Bob Thornton & Angelina Jolie

Tom Cruise & anyone

Mary Tyler Moore & Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Regis Philbin & Kelly Rippa

Dr. Laura & Dr. Phil

Liza Minelli & David Gest

Donnie & Marie

Paula Abdul & Simon Cowell

George W. Bush & a mannequin

Andrew Dice Clay & Amy Grant

Bjork & Bob Dylan

Kermit & Miss Piggy

Matt Lauer & Ann Curry

Jennifer Aniston & Brad Pitt

Pamela Anderson & Rick Salomon (divorced for the third time)

Stephen Collins & anyone

And of course, Broadway’s favorite stunt casting duo, whether they fit the roles or not….

Nathan Lane & Matthew Broderick

Here's the product you HAVE to have!!!

But don't just take my word for it. Here are some actual reviews:

Wendy Sherer ("Cosmetic Guru") from Pittsburgh, PA, writes: "Not only a wonderful teaching model, but while trying to find the tumors, I discovered, it acts as a makeshift stress ball! When I am in line at the grocery store I just whip out this handy little bugger and squeeze away [and] the line around me just [disappears]."

Tricky Rick of Satantonio, TX, says, "finally a product I can use." "Who doesn't love playing with scrotum? I know I do! So does my wife. But sometimes I have to leave the house to, I don't know, go to work or buy groceries and I have to take my scrotum away from my wife's hands. This made her sad... until NOW! Now she has a scrotum to play with when I'm not around. I also find it useful when I feel the need to play with a scrotum other than my own and don't want to impose on coworkers, friends, family members (I said 'members') or our local priest."

C.H. Risk finds that it "makes a great fashion accessory." "They are a real lifesaver on the cold winter days, and the ladies go wild for the smooth, polished look."

And the winner is:

Thanks to my friend, Alexis for turning me on to this vital product. Not sure why she thought of me though.

Re-posted just in time for holiday shopping.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sitcom Room 2015

Highlights from the Sitcom Room.

Attendees were treated to a great panel on writing. From left to right, the moderator (only me), Jane Espenson (ONCE UPON A TIME, GAME OF THRONES, BUFFY, HUSBANDS), Jim Vallely (ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, GOLDEN GIRLS, TWO AND A HALF MEN), and a couple of young writers talking about breaking in today, Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson (INSTANT MOM, GOOD LUCK CHARLIE).
I believe these were the attendees.
After my long-winded lecture on comedy writing the attendees were split up into four four "writing rooms."  They were given a scene to rewrite.  The problems were all on the page.  The actors were great.  Andy Goldbert, Mandy Kaplan, Jack Zullo, and Annie Abrams. 
The writing teams were then given network and studio notes.  "Studio Head" Bob Rosenfarb gave them the bad news.
At this point the groups went to their writing rooms.  Lots of smiles.
But within twenty minutes...

The next morning the groups got together to watch the revised scenes they had written.  Here are a few of the actors rehearsing tirelessly.

They then performed the scenes.  Every one got big laughs.   My kids grow up so fast.

SITCOM ROOM was a great weekend.   Thanks to Dan O'Day, Andrea Wachner, Bob Rosenfarb, my cast and panel, and especially my attendees.  Hopefully they had fun, learned a lot, and will catch up on sleep by 2016.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Questions

Let’s get to some Friday Questions to get you ready for the weekend.

Mitchell Hundred leads off:

How do you prevent yourself from overusing a character (i.e. to an extent that the novelty or the thing that made them popular in the first place gets worn out)?

This is always a tough call because if an actor is really scoring you naturally just want to keep going back to that well. We faced that with the Colonel Flagg character, played so well by Edward Winter. Ultimately, we felt once a season was just about right. The character was a little cartoonish so we felt once a year was enough. And he was so funny that his appearance always became an event.

On FRASIER, the Bebe character, a tour de force for Harriet Harris, was so strong, but the feeling was “Bebe” would have more impact if used in spots. The goal was to have her appearance be a real treat for the audience. And it was.

Although, for my money, Harriet Harris is hilarious in whatever role she plays.

From MikeK.Pa:

What’s your feeling about sight gags in sitcoms? I could think of classic ones from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE HONEYMOONERS and I LOVE LUCY but couldn't think of any recent ones. Are they outdated like the silent movies, which relied on them and made comedies by Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd truly universal (except for the translated title cards) and timeless?

I unabashedly LOVE sight gags. Even on sophisticated shows there’s room for physical comedy. We did them on MASH, CHEERS, and FRASIER. And did you ever NOT laugh at Kramer on SEINFELD? 30 ROCK did some sight gags as I recall.

Why there is less of it today on sitcoms I can’t say. There certainly are wonderful physical comedians out there.

And sight gags are still a staple of films, especially studio releases. Has there been a trailer in the last ten years for a comedy that didn’t feature a pratfall?

Dan Ball asks:

Which actor, whether they played either a series regular or even frequent background player (like Al Rosen or Phil Perlman), was the best ad-libber on CHEERS? Like they could take what was written on the page and take it up a few notches, either by changing the words themselves on the spot or killing it with their timing? Someone who would always deliver something way better than what you guys had imagined in the writers room.

None of the actors ad libbed, but they pretty much all lifted the material. If I had to pick one though it would be David Hyde Pierce on FRASIER. If there ever was an alchemist it was David. I was and continue to be in awe of his ability (and his kindness). And talk about a great physical comedian. If you haven’t seen this yet, treat yourself. Sheer mastery.

ChicagoJohn wonders:

Occasionally, I see a show that sends me into a writing frenzy. The show is sooo f*#king good that I'm inspired and jealous at the same time.

1) does this happen to you?
2) what shows have "sent you writing"?

When my writing partner, David Isaacs and I were just starting out we happened to get tickets to see the filming of a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It was the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode written by David Lloyd.

We didn’t know whether to be incredibly inspired or intimidated because what were the chances we were ever going to write anything that even approached being that good? You don’t know whether to shoot for the moon or give up.  Fortunately, we hung in there... although we're still trying to write something that good.

What’s your FQ?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

STEVE JOBS -- my review

As readers of this blog know, I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing. Yes, it’s stylized; no, real people don’t talk like that – but it’s smart and thought provoking and in a world where Donald Trump is actually a serious candidate for President and people give a shit about the Kardashians it’s a nice fantasy that not everyone is a dolt.

Sorkin always chooses arenas filled with bright Mensa members so you believe that his characters are at least capable of spontaneously delivering a masterful speech with a killer closing line. He’s not writing SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT 9.

His latest endeavor is STEVE JOBS. Clearly a fascinating subject, Jobs was a visionary, a tyrant, a genius, a nutcase, a failure, and spectacular success. All before breakfast. He was admired and feared. He was a perfectionist to where Oscar Levant would say “lighten up.” Jobs was truly larger-than-life. Unless you had Ashton Kutcher starring as him, it’s hard to imagine a bad movie about such a dynamic personality.

Add to the mix, Danny Boyle as director. He is without a doubt one of the finest, most creative, visually stunning directors we have. So on paper this was an absolute Dream Team making this film.

The result is very good. But if the real Steve Jobs were running the studio he would probably send it back for more development, rewrites, and reshoots. It’s an iPad that still has some bugs in it.

And to a certain extent, I blame the director.

Sorkin wanted to do a biopic that wasn’t the standard linear timeline you most often see. He also knew he couldn’t tell the whole story. The book he adapted is probably 10,000 pages (I don’t know. I have the Kindle version. It just tells me what percentage of the book I’ve completed. I read it a few years ago and seem to recall he was well into his teens before I reached 2%.) I applaud Sorkin for that. What he came up with was an interesting conceit. He would show the introduction of three of his signature products. The action would take place during the final few minutes before he had to go on stage and make his presentation.

Taking a bit of creative license, in all three scenarios people in his life would appear and get into verbal wrestling matches with him. His ex, his daughter, his former business associate, his former tech partner, his girl Friday.  Who provided security for these venues?  

Now in real life, at least some of these people might say “there may be a better time than five minutes before you have to address thousands of uber nerds.” Perhaps a discussion of why he was fired from his own company ten years prior could come at another time. When I was about to go on the air and broadcast a baseball game to a thirty-station network I generally did not get into a big argument with a former girlfriend over whether she should convert.

But like I said, it was a conceit and artists do that all the time. I think it would have served the material better if it were a play, but that’s neither here nor there.

So why I’m I blaming the director?

Because the dialogue, as rich and wonderful as it was, was relentless. Each segment played the same – fast paced, up against the clock, juggling crises – but without a break it was ultimately exhausting. David Fincher figured that out directing Sorkin’s SOCIAL NETWORK. He left some room for the audience to breathe. As a result, it was much easier to process, and when there were those high-charged super Sorkin exchanges they really popped. There were sections of STEVE JOBS when I admit I zoned out.

The film plays at one level – hyperspeed. Danny Boyle should know better. God forbid Jobs sat back, had a cup of tea, and reflected for five minutes. Instead, it seemed like he was mainlining Red Bull while downing bottle after bottle of 5-Hour Energy and then washing it all down with Jolt Cola.

Michael Fassbender was terrific as Jobs. Seth Rogen stood his ground as Steve Wozniak. Jeff Daniels is now a veteran of Sorkin-speak and Kate Winslet had the thankless role of his marketing director/handler. Still, she had some good speeches when she wasn’t saying, “Steve, you’re late. Steve, you can’t do that. Steve, let me tie your tie.”

At the end of the day, IF you are a Sorkin fan, you will be entertained. But you won’t learn anything new about Steve Jobs.

To me the essence of Steve Job is that his greatest gift is what ultimately killed him. He had this belief that he could will things into being. Engineers would tell him certain things were impossible, he would say they’re not, and sure enough he was right. The success of Apple is his vision and ability to create reality. That blind faith built a multi-billion dollar business and changed society.

But when he was diagnosed with cancer, instead of treating it medically and vigorously, he let it slide, counting on his ability to control outcomes. Well, this outcome he couldn’t control. To me, that’s a better story – the price of greatness, the irony that his greatest strength proved to be his greatest weakness. None of that was touched on in the movie – which I understand, but I would have been more interested in that story rather than would he and his teenage daughter reconcile?

Oh well. Maybe it’s time for a remake. What’s Ashton Kutcher doing these days?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Does anyone remember THE DREW CAREY SHOW?

Most TV shows are forgotten. They air for a short while, get cancelled, and poof, they're gone forever. In many cases mercifully. Of course, now there are so many shows on so many platforms that some are forgotten even though they’re still on.

A few cancelled shows remain as faint blips on the radar because their creator now has a blog and keeps reminding people of them. (No names because I don’t want to call any of those almost perfect people out.)

But rarely do you have a long-running series that has completely disappeared into the ether. You figure a show that stayed on the air for nine seasons would be in syndication or on a streaming service or the complete series would be available on DVD. BECKER, which deserves way more credit, still pops up on Netflix and is occasionally seen in syndication.

MURPHY BROWN had its day but the topical nature of the humor proved to be its later-life downfall. Still, you can rent one season on Netflix.

But then there’s the case of THE DREW CAREY SHOW. From 1995-2004 this show aired on ABC. It was never a smash. The best it did was finish 13th for a couple of years (which is damn good).  And then the ratings dropped like a stone. It’s last year it finished 150th. (Not sure why ABC kept picking it up, but whatever.)

There’s a couple articles about this in Uproxx.

A lot of the actors have gone on to do other things. Carey is hosting THE PRICE IS RIGHT. Kate Walsh is on GREY’S ANATOMY, Craig Ferguson became a talk show host and is now doing game shows and I don’t know what. And among the writers was the great Sam Simon.

If anything, you’d think the show would still be on the air in Cleveland.

But nope. After an initial limited syndication run, it’s been gone for years. And even then, only five of the nine seasons were shown. Due to music rights, it’s not even on Netflix or another streaming platform. You can only find the DVD of the first season.

I just find it odd that a series that ran for nine full seasons has vanished from the cultural landscape. And it brings up several questions I have for you dear readers: Do you remember THE DREW CAREY SHOW? If not, what is your age? And for those that do remember it, is it something you miss and would like to see again? I’m very curious. For all I know there is mad love for THE DREW CAREY SHOW. Or the distributors are right and no one gives a shit.  You decide.  Thanks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How did "Lilith" get her name?

Here’s a question that actually came from a Facebook friend. And I’m doing it as a complete post because it’s a CHEERS question I receive a lot so I want to give it the maximum exposure.

David Kruh asked:

Where did you get the name Lilith?

First of all, I didn’t name her. The writing team of Cheri & Bill Steinkellner did – originally just for a teaser. But the character was so funny and she and Frasier were such an interesting couple that Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) just kept returning and eventually became a series regular.

Cheri Steinkellner was gracious enough to answer the question on Facebook, but I wanted to share it with all of you. So here it is:

Last name first, Billy and I named her Sternin as a pairing for Frasier in honor of our old "Who's The Boss?" writing buddies, Rob Sternin and Prudence Frasier (they went on to co-create "The Nanny").

We wanted a first name to go with it that embodied stern-ness, like a Dickensian or Hodgson-Burnett headmistress in a high-necked blouse and tight bun; (the seed of the character is Frasier's "I can count the comb-marks in your hair" - but that's another story). Back in the 80s, we had to use actual books with paper pages to look stuff like names, and our favorite was written by Leslie Dunkling (whose name we gave to a character in Disney's Teacher's Pet).

"Lilith" was the sternest, least-nonsense, comb-mark-counting-est name we could find. The Biblical badass didn't factor in. It just sounded right to our ears and made us laugh.

I think we’d all agree that Lilith was the PERFECT name. Thanks, Cheri. They went on to write some great episodes of CHEERS and eventually became co-showrunners. Not much after that – Emmys, a few series they created, and a Tony nomination for musical of the year.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Are you ready for some idiotic commercials?

The only time I watch commercials is when I’m watching a live sporting event and am forced to.

So that means Sunday afternoons as I watch NFL football. The commercials, I've discovered, all fall into three or four categories.

The new car commercial. Always a city at night, gleaming skyline, and for some reason the streets and highways are completely deserted except for this one shimmering car. It roars over bridges, barrels through tunnels, and speeds through downtown. Forget a policeman or stoplight, there’s never another car.  Or pedestrian.

The driver is often in a tuxedo. So he’s going to a black tie event the night after the city has been evacuated. He never wonders why a heavy populated urban center is deserted. If I could hop in a new car and be assured police would put up barricades and detain 2,000,000 people allowing me to go from Santa Monica to the Staples Center without stopping once at 7:00 on a Friday night, I would buy that car. Assuming of course that it was always washed and waxed. If I can’t see the lights of the city reflecting off my hood in cool geometric patterns the deal is off.

The subliminal selling point of cars used to be that you’d get women and get laid. Now it’s that you can make a left hand turn at any intersection.

There are still the truck commercials. They haven’t changed. They’re tough. They’re rugged. You can haul redwoods. You can drive through mud.  When am I ever going to haul trees?  I live in a deserted city. 

Crappy franchise junk food is another popular category. Every combination of meat, cheese, bacon, and sauces on every combination of bread, roll, tortilla, or wrap. Burger King is boasting a black bun for Halloween. Um, doesn’t that suggest burnt?

These commercials generally feature some super hot babe eating one of these monster sloppy drippy bacon laced heart attacks, which to me is even less plausible than driving through a deserted Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Taco Bell is selling healthy alternatives like salads with the slogan “Un-Freshing-Believable.” Uh, “un-fresh?” Doesn’t that sound like the food is anything BUT fresh?  Don Draper let that go through?  It actually makes no difference because the minute they show lettuce on a Taco Bell commercial they’ve lost their audience. Ironically, you never see a Kardashian eating a salad, just a triple-deck Tabasco pulled pork sandwich with pineapple slices and cinnamon-swirl cheddar french toast .

Beer commercials are plentiful and they too have not changed their approach. All are geared to stupid frat boy/man children who love their teams more than their girlfriends, which is easy because none of them have girlfriends.

And for every other commercial, no matter what the product, whether it’s food or life insurance – there’s an NFL player in it. Usually in uniform (because as we all know, football players never go anywhere without their shoulder pads). These commercials are all designed to be humorous. I could throw a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl before one of these guys could deliver a joke. It’s just one clam after another. LeBron James in TRAINWRECK is the Charlie Chaplin of pro athletes.

It’s a great temptation to just DVR the games, but I like the feel of watching a sporting event in real time. I like having the ticker to follow the scores of the other games. And if Ian Eagle is calling the game I don’t want to miss any of his deliciously wicked throwaway lines. But we’re not halfway through the season and already I’m tearing my hair out. I just want to get in my car, floor it, and drive. Unfortunately, there’s stop-and-go traffic on Wilshire at 4:30 on a Sunday.  I hate you, Madison Avenue! 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

How to create a hit procedural

Network development season is in full swing. Comedies are hot commodities this year but one staple that never seems to go out of style is procedural dramas. Fame and fortune and a spin-off with :MIAMI at the end of the title can be yours if you just follow my simple rules.

Your star must have some supernatural power. He or she can read minds, has an amazing photographic memory, can remember every lunch he/she ever had, is a math whiz, or the most common – can see Fairy Tale characters.

But with this gift must come a curse. They must be tortured emotionally. They must have a dark past. Their wife/sibling/child/imaginary friend has been killed and they’re still haunted by it.

They’re only helping the police solve crimes as a way to better get in touch with resolving the unsolved circumstances of their dark past. The killer is still out there!  But only week one and the season finale.  Otherwise, it's business as usual.  Solving crimes and tossing off zingers.

When we go home with the hero we see he’s lonely. He can’t really get close to anyone because he’s so damaged. He compensates for no social skills by possessing this wondrous ability to bend spoons with his mind.

The hero must have a code. Oh sure he may come off as a cynic or she a bitch but ultimately they’re the champion of the little people.

The hero must have a partner of the opposite sex who finds him/her infuriating but is totally dependent on him/her. The partner is always somewhat of an idiot. He enters the crime scene and every week comes to the wrong conclusion. Only our hero, with his snazzy power, is perceptive enough to surmise what is really going on. And if the partner wasn’t already dumb enough, he has to now argue with the hero. The hero ultimately turns out to be right.

The hero must be surrounded by an investigative team. They stand around, provide exposition, and chase bad guys. Having a superpower means you never have to run. This team should be young and attractive. And one member must somehow be “quirky”. Note: If it’s a CBS show at least one attractive team member must be a brunette.

Throw in some grizzly murders, a cool stylized squad room (who knew police stations looked like the penthouse restaurant in the Space Needle?), and toss in a former major TV star or two and you’ve got a five year run.

So get going. A cop who channels Columbo. A detective who can go forward in time five minutes. A forensic expert who can communicate with inanimate objects. A coroner who can break down the ingredients in food without having to refer to the packaging.  The possibilities are endless!

All I ask for in return is the following credit:

Based on a Tired Formula by Ken Levine  

Let’s all get rich!

This is a re-post from many years ago but nothing's changed it seems.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The CHEERS I'm still writing in my head.

Hello from THE SITCOM ROOM. Since this is a weekend of rewriting and trying to make things work, I thought I'd reprise a column I wrote seven or eight years ago about a moment I'm still trying to fix.

cheers the boys in the bar

Sometimes you just never know.

David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of Cheers the first season called "The Boys in the Bar." We were also producing the show at the time with the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows.

The subject matter was a little tricky. It had been reported in the papers that a former player for the Dodgers, Glenn Burke, admitted he was gay. We thought, what if Sam's roommate during his playing days made the same admission? It seemed like a great way to explore the homophobia you find in some sports bars. Okay...most.

So we came up with this story: When Sam's ex-roommate reveals he's gay, Sam must decide whether or not to support him. There is concern from the bar regulars that if Sam does, the bar will go gay. I never said these were smart bar regulars. Still, Sam does back his former roomy and the regulars are very on edge. The next day, when they suspect two patrons of being gay, they try in their clumsy oafish way to "encourage" them to leave. The suspects eventually do and Norm, Cliff, and the gang are feeling very good about themselves until they realize they chased out the wrong pair. The real gay guys are standing on either side of Norm and both kiss him at once.

There was concern from the get-go that this story might be a little too risky for a series that at the time was struggling to find an audience. (It's bad enough Cheers was losing to Simon & Simon at the time; it was getting its ass kicked by Tucker's Witch too.) We forged ahead anyway and wrote the draft.

Everyone seemed to like it but was still a little worried. To their credit, the Charles Brothers and Burrows did not back away. They put the show on the production schedule.

The first day of production a table reading is scheduled. The cast sits around a large conference table and reads the script aloud. Writers gauge how it's playing and begin rewriting the things that didn't appear to work. "The Boys in the Bar" seemed to go okay. Not through the roof but decent.

As I walked out of the room Ted Danson approached and said, "Don't change a word." I was a little overly defensive and didn't appreciate the sarcasm, "Hey, give me a break," I snapped, "We tried for something, okay?" He waved his hands. "No, no, I mean it. It's great. Don't change a word." Needless to say I felt like a giant ass... but was relieved.

The week of rehearsals went smoothly. Just a little tweaking here and there but no major rewrites.

Cheers, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in the technical work is done. Finally, on day five, the show is shot in front of a live studio audience.

The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We've now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They're hearing the material for the first time.

The crew LOVED "The Boys in the Bar." Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.

So we felt great heading into show night. Sure enough the audience was with us from the first minute. One joke (Sam telling Diane he should've known his roommate was gay; in a piano bar he once requested a show tune) got such a thunderous prolonged laugh that they had to stop cameras. Too much film was being wasted.

The show and the laughs barreled on. I was having the time of my life. There's nothing a writer craves more than hearing big laughs. Now we're at the end. The two gay guys lean in and kiss Norm, and...

Silence. Dead silence. You could hear crickets.

It wasn't like some people got it and others didn't. Nobody laughed. Not a single person.

I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff and is in mid-air for a few seconds before he realizes it, then plummets to the ground. That was me and the rest of the staff.

We quickly huddled. No one had an explanation. The best we could come up with was that the audience didn't realize that was the end. They were waiting for something else. So we reshot the scene and after the kiss we added a line. Norm points to one and says, "Better than Vera." That got a sort-of laugh but was the best we could do. Cut to the closing credit and get the hell out.

We received an Emmy nomination for that show and won the Writers Guild Award for it. It's still one of my proudest episodes. But to this day I scratch my head.

The crew liked it! They all got it! What happened???

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Questions

As I get ready for tomorrow's SITCOM ROOM seminar,  here are this week’s Friday Questions.

GS in SF starts us off:

A few weeks ago you wrote about the favorite episodes you wrote -- what about the favorite episodes you *directed* without writing? I know pie fight may be number 1, so please start after that -- show, episode, and perhaps why.

Actually I did co-write the pie fight episode of ALMOST PERFECT.  Beyond that,  I’m very partial to a FRASIER I did called “Roz and the Schnoz” written by Jeffrey Richman. It was a great script and I’m very proud of how that show came out.  I think it's one of the funniest FRASIER'S ever -- and that's saying something.
But my favorite on-screen directing credit was this one from INSTANT MOM.
Why? Because it came right after this credit:
From Silas:

I have a question about the 7th season of MASH. There is an episode titled "None Like it Hot" about a heatwave. It was followed the next week by an episode you and David wrote called "They Call the Wind Korea." It was about a freezing windstorm. Then just two weeks later an episode titled "Baby It's Cold Outside." Why were there so many weather related stories so close to each other?

The episodes were shown out of order. We began filming that season right after the 4th of July and new episodes didn’t premiere until late September. So we had eight or so episodes in the can before the season began. Usually the network determined airdates, not us.

We did do a number of weather-related episodes that year and here’s why:

We were locked into that camp site and felt that after six seasons we needed to find ways to create some variety. Weather was one. That year we also did the Point of View episode, another set primarily in a cave and an episode entirely in Rosie’s Bar.

But it would not have been my choice to air the weather episodes so close to each other.

Moving on to CHEERS, Justin asks:

Three not-so simple opinion questions as I re-watch "Cheers" for the umpteenth time:

1. Diane or Rebecca

Each brings a different quality and was wonderful on the show. If I had to pick however, it would be  Diane. Shelley Long was extraordinary playing a very difficult character. It would have been so easy to hate Diane. But Shelley made her warm and funny while still keeping her snootiness and edge. She walked a fine line every week and did so with precision and grace. I’m in awe of some of her performances.

2. Was there a favorite guest star on the program?

Hard to beat Johnny Carson, especially since we wrote that episode, and got to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW stage while he did our monologue and it got actual studio audience laughs.
3. Favorite recurring non-lead character or barfly (mine will forever be Al)?

Al (Rosen) would be mine as well. And by the way, he was never billed as “Al.” He was listed in every script as “Man Who Said Sinatra.” (“Sinatra” was the first line he ever had on the show and the name stuck.)

And finally, from SITCOM ROOM alum, Wendy Grossman:

In the Previously TV thread for the latest episode of NASHVILLE (S04e02), a poster indicates that they've been asked to be on an "ABC advisory panel" for the show, apparently to indicate what storylines they like/don't like etc. It sounds like a focus group, but they haven't given further details. Is this a new low for "network notes"? (I imagine something like, "The advisory panel doesn't like Juliette being so fucked up that she abandons her husband and new baby; can you get them back together pronto? Oh, and do something about Gunnar's hair. They don't like it.")

This is just another example of how networks are operating out of fear and desperation. I would pay way more attention to such research if it ever proved to be accurate. But it's not and never has been.  Remember, every terrible new show you see this fall tested well.

As a showrunner, I would use this as one source of feedback, utilize anything I thought was helpful, and ignore the rest.

God forbid creative people and artists determine the vision and execution of a television show instead of focus groups.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mets fans can thank me

I was having dinner last Thursday night with Howie Rose, their great radio announcer.  I dropped him off at the team hotel and as I was about to pull away, Matt Harvey and five other players crossed in front of my car.   I guess I'm not as big a Dodger fan as I thought.

Congratulations to the Mets.  And the Cubs, Blue Jays, and Royals. 

And Mets fans, you're welcome. 

The strangest rewrite I've ever been in

With THE SITCOM ROOM coming up this weekend, I'm reminded of my craziest rewrite room experience.
A colleague of mine was teaching a writing course at a local Hollywood vocational college that specialized in TV & film production. Several divisions were collaborating on producing a half-hour sitcom episode. The writers branch was supervising the script, the directors branch handled directing, sets were constructed by production teams, editing students would cut it, etc. This was just a school exercise. The finished product would not be aired or even uploaded to the internet.

My friend asked if I would attend the table reading. He was assembling a few professional writers to join in on the rewrite. I was happy to help. They had an existing script, but it was from a British sitcom and he thought it might need some “Americanizing.” Fair enough.

Then I learned the script was from FAWLTY TOWERS. (They had secured permission to do it.) Okay, that was weird right off the bat. I was going to be rewriting John Cleese? “Hey, Mozart, I think you need some quarter notes here.”

But again, no one was going to see this so what the hell?

I arrived at their “campus,” which was several floors of a high rise in Hollywood. There was a big lecture hall. All of the students from the university were invited to attend regardless of their division. A table was set up in the middle of the cavernous room with individual desk/chairs surrounding it, several rows deep. Imagine a boxing ring or theater-in-the-round.

I’m guessing close to a hundred students filed in for the reading. Professional actors had been hired and although they were far from the originals they weren’t “Waiting for Guffman”either.

My writer friend worked on hour-dramas in his day and the other writers he had assembled for the rewrite were also drama veterans. This was going to be an interesting punch-up. FAWLTY TOWERS was so similar in style and jokes to STAR TREK VOYAGER.

The reading went fair. There was some work to do. The actors left, everyone took a break, milling around. I asked my chum where were we going to go to do the rewrite? He said we were going to do it here at the table. “Okay,” I said, “Then let’s clear everybody out so we can go to work.” “Oh no,” he said. “The students are staying.”


Oh yes, this would be a great learning experience for them.

Now understand, writing rooms are the ultimate Las Vegas. What happens there, stays there. It’s a unique environment where people are forced to be creative on demand under extreme pressure. The staff must feel free to say anything no matter how appalling, politically incorrect, or stupid. Add just one outsider to the room and it’s like turning off the tap. Writers become very inhibited. There are certain activities you don’t do for an audience. Even though you can’t go blind doing rewrites they are one of them.

So if one looky-loo can squelch a room, imagine a hundred.

All the kids returned to their seats and for us it was like conducting a rewrite on the set of THE VOICE with a full audience (but at least there was no Carson Daly).

So there I am, rewriting a classic show I have no business touching, working with writers who devise grisly murders while two-hundred eyes were trained on us.

Needless to say, I was the only one pitching jokes. I think one of the other scribes wondered if Basil could kill Manuel but we nixed it.

The only good thing I found about doing a rewrite under these conditions was that when I pitched a joke that got a big laugh there was no argument as to whether or not it should go in. There were even a couple of times I drew applause. It was like I was doing a magic show. And I thought to myself : what was once a highly-sought-after unique professional skill has now been reduced to a parlor trick.

I’ve had strange rewrites before, but never one where it felt like an audition to open for Tom Jones in Vegas.