Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the other hand...

Hot topic on the blog this week: Writers asked to provide voluminous amounts of free material to audition for jobs.

Here’s one example I personally encountered early in my career. But I can see the rationale for it.

I used to dabble in cartooning. The picture above is one I drew. (Yeah, I was somewhat “influenced” by Al Hirschfeld.) And one of the things I always wanted to do was get a cartoon in THE NEW YORKER magazine.

This was the late ‘70s. David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH. But I inquired as to how you submit cartoons to THE NEW YORKER. I understand things have changed, but back then you were instructed to submit five or six cartoons – just pencil drawings, nothing real elaborate with the typed captions underneath. If they bought a drawing you would go back and do a full pen-and-ink version. So the real effort was coming up with five or six ideas for cartoons. Quick pencil sketches are a breeze.

I came up with some cartoon ideas I thought were funny and off to Gotham they went. A couple of weeks later I received a standard rejection letter. But at the bottom was a hand-written note from the cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz to call him.

I did and got him on the phone. He said he really liked my stuff. But he needed to know if I was prolific. He needed to know he could count on me every week – that these weren’t the only five jokes I ever came up with. So he proposed this: I send him five cartoons a week for a year. After that he would start buying them. And he would even buy a few he had rejected. But he had to be confident that I didn’t just want to get one or two cartoons in on a whim. Unfortunately, that WAS my intent. I told him I was writing MASH so five cartoons a week might be a little tough. He laughed and said, “Well, no wonder the jokes were good.”

I didn’t pursue it further. I just had no time. But I could see his point. And even if it was a lot of work, (a) at least you knew you were being seriously considered, (b) you still might be paid for some of your effort, (c) there was no way he was going to steal your material and use it, and (d) it was THE NEW YORKER, the most prestigious magazine for one-panel cartoons. So if you were accepted you hit a home run.

Interestingly, had I not been on staff of a show, had I submitted those drawings a couple of years earlier when I was writing spec scripts and trying to break in, I probably would have taken him up on his offer and submitted drawings for a year. My career path might have been very different. There would be a lot more drawings on this blog.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

BRAINDEAD -- My sort of review

If I went into CBS and pitched a political series set in Washington D.C. where ants from outer space get into people’s heads through their ears and turn them into zombies/radicals/health nuts/Scientologists/Stepford Wives and the tone is satirical but with sci-fi overtones with thriller aspects they’d probably call security. They’d think, “Yep, this is what happens when writers are over forty. Such a shame. He once wrote CHEERS.”

But if you’re Robert and Michelle King and you were the creative force behind THE GOOD WIFE (my vote for the best network drama series in the last fifteen years), not only do they not throw you out, they give you a series order.

I’m not usually a fan of shows about ants (Yes, I know I’m in the minority), but in deference to the Kings, who I greatly admire, I’ve been watching their new summer show, BRAINDEAD.

I’ve seen all three aired episodes, and I can honestly say – I have no idea whether or not I like this show. And it’s not the ants. They’re fine. A few overact but generally they give a yeoman’s performance.  (I can’t believe that RAID doesn’t sponsor this show. Or Bose headphones.) And I get that the political arena is hot right now. Every show set in Washington that doesn’t star Katherine Heigl seems to be a hit. But BRAINDEAD mixes genres in a bizarre uneasy way. It’s like MARS ATTACKS meets HOUSE OF CARDS.

One problem is it’s a political satire without much bite. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are really skewered. The series theme is that extremists are crippling the government, but the attacks are (a) pretty balanced (and what fun is that?), and (b) mostly a lot of poli-speak gobbledygook that is hard to follow and who gives a shit? Maybe if it were on a cable network or subscription service it would have more punch. I get the sense CBS doesn’t want to offend either political party or eusocial insects.

Another problem is that it’s hard to follow because I still don’t know what the rules are. What are these space ants trying to achieve? Why do some of the invaded people turn into Bill O’Reilly and in others their heads explode? Are there Kamikaze ants? Do the ants take political sides?  Are there red ants and blue ants?  On THE GOOD WIFE I never had that problem. It’s the Roach Motel of storytelling ideas go in and they never come out.

And yet, along the way, there are some fun moments or scenes, and the best part of the show is the musical recaps composed and sung by Jonathan Coulton.

Also, Tony Shalhoub (as always) is a hoot! He plays a Republican senator
whose brain has either been infected by ants or Ann Coulter. Series star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (an indie-film darling) is good as the anti-ant heroine trying to piece together all of the weirdness and stop them before they can get into Bryce Harper’s ear and ruin the Washington Nationals’ season. So far it’s not a very taxing part for Lizzie. She needs just two expressions. “Huh?” and “HUH?”

What do you guys all think? I’ll give it another week. I want to like it. Maybe next week it will all come together. Or, at the very least, Elizabeth will come home to find her vibrator scurrying across the living room floor.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Shame on you, Stephen Colbert

As readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of Stephen Colbert. Even his CBS show.  Despite the growing pains, I'm rooting for him in a big way.  But he and his show are doing something I find highly objectionable. They’re looking to add a new staff writer, and inviting people to apply. Nothing wrong with that. Nice that they’re inviting everyone, not just folks with a long resume or Harvard grads.

They’re asking to submit some material. Okay. We all have to audition. But here’s where it gets dicey: There is a packet with specific instructions of what you must submit. And trust me, it’s not three or four jokes.

Briefly, here is what you’re expected to provide:

Two examples of cold opens. These often feature Stephen backstage or in the office. They’re full sketches. Two of ‘em are required.

Five opening monologue jokes.

A topical news segment – digging deeper into a news story. Since Stephen performs these at his desk, also suggest specific over-the-shoulder graphics, elaborate props, or “even characters that emerge from beneath Stephen’s desk.”

Three confessions where Stephen “admits to faults and asks the audience’s forgiveness.” They should be real but crazy.

And finally, two pitches for segments, at least one must be an idea for a guest segment. You don’t need to script these out (as opposed to the other requirements). Just explain how the bit would go, provide examples of jokes, and only be a page tops.  A page?

That’s all. Forget that it would take a seasoned writer several days to complete this. The deadline is today. And the packet reiterates that the applicant is doing this for free.

Here’s a confession I would include. “I’m taking advantage of young writers. I’m asking for a ton of free work. I’m preying on the fact that jobs are hard to come by. I’m probably going to use at least some of the material from applicants I reject and just claim that we ourselves were working on something similar.”

Oh wait. I forgot to add two free jokes.

My first thought of course is why is the WGA allowing this practice? Supposedly they’re “investigating” this. I hear that other late night shows have done similar stunts but I can’t confirm it.

Look, all writers do work for free. We all write specs, pilots, screenplays, and various samples. We have to audition like everybody else. But a few jokes, maybe one sketch, a sample of sketches you wrote on spec for SNL or THE DAILY SHOW. Not thirteen specific bits.

The movie industry has stretched gratis labor to professional writers. Now, for an open assignment, you’re expected to come in with a fully worked out story treatment for free. Same with a rewrite assignment. I was once up for a movie rewrite and had to pitch an entire new outline, how I would change the story, solve all the existing script problems, and redevelop the characters.  It took me an entire week.  The executive listened (my pitch took about an hour) and said, “Let me hear ten jokes.” I told him I didn’t write any jokes but assured him the script would be funny. I had written extensively for CHEERS and MASH and FRASIER. The jokes would be there. I didn’t get the assignment. Why? I didn’t provide the jokes.

This too is an issue the WGA should address, but at least we’re working writers. We can say no to participating in a pro bono rewrite derby (assuming we have other work). But what recourse does a non-professional writer have?

And the abuse goes even further. Do you know that on a lot of sitcoms now writers assistants are required to pitch jokes? Showrunners can claim it’s a great way to audition them, but let’s get real. They're getting staff writers at rock bottom assistant prices. Again, where is the damn WGA?

Stephen Colbert’s show is currently in a state of flux. There have been showrunner changes, new directions, major changes in the way the show is put together. For all I know, Colbert himself was either not aware of this “submission packet” process or didn’t fully understand the ramifications. I would still like to think that if he realized how young writers were being taken advantage of, he would put a stop to it. The fact that networks and studio pull this kind of shit, hey, that’s to be expected. That’s why (in theory) we have a watchdog union. But come on, Stephen. You’re better than that.

Monday, June 27, 2016

"Comedy In Theory"

NEW YORK magazine did a big article recently on today’s television comedies. It acknowledged that they were edgy, groundbreaking at times, and clearly the new trend. And the article gave them a label: CIT – “Comedy in Theory.”

It’s a fancy term for comedies that aren’t funny. And that’s my problem with them. Call them whatever you want – “Slices of Life”, “Dramadies,” “Label Free,” “Genre Stew,” "Out of the Box," whatever -- just not comedies. I myself watch and enjoy a number of them (I even LOVE a few like BETTER CALL SAUL). I appreciate their ambitious approach and willingness to blur genres and styles. I'm excited to see new things come along. 

Just don’t call them “comedies.” “Comedy in Theory” is a bullshit term. And it’s an insult to those who write “Comedy in Practice.”

Here’s why: Writing comedy designed to make people actually laugh is HARD. Much harder than a dramatic structure where you can sprinkle in a humorous line or moment now and again. It is a skill that very few have. I wonder how many writers of “Comedy in Theory” could even write “Comedy in Practice.”

Just because a show has a serious undertone doesn’t mean the writers can’t strive to make them genuinely funny. What’s a more serious backdrop for a series than MASH? And yet we went for laughs -- not wry smiles; not irony. And I may be biased, but I don’t think the comedy took away from the dramatic impact or diminished it in any way.   (Disclaimer:  I can only speak for the years my partner and I were involved.) 

One distinction the article tries to make between current comedies and current dramas is that dramas are story-driven and comedies are character-driven. Comedies today can just go off on tangents and explore behavior. Yes, it’s different from sitcoms past, but in many cases it is also lazy. Look at the classic comedies. Storytelling was not just important it was critical. We took great pride in devising stories that were clever, surprising, funny, and meaningful. It’s like “Comedy In Theory” gives you license to take shortcuts.

And again, you want to do a series that just explores the minutia of someone’s behavior – great. If you’re a good writer and you create a compelling character it might be a terrific show. Just don’t call it a comedy unless it really is.

Since it’s hard to classify these shows, the article points to the confusion that arises when it’s time to enter them for Emmys. And some switch back and forth depending on which category they feel they have a better chance of winning in. If they go for laughs like SILICON VALLEY or VEEP or KIMMY SCHMIDT they’re legitimately comedies. If they’re PETE AND HORACE or YOU’RE THE WORST they’re not. Hey, someone might have hummed a tune in an Arthur Miller play but he never entered it as a musical to win a Tony.

The article claims that since there is so much niche programming the standards are significantly lower for what is considered a “hit.” To me, this too is a cop out. They’re “Hits in Theory.” They’re a trend because there are so many of them, not because they’re so popular.

And what’s wrong with creating a legitimate HIT? Make no mistake, this trend is geared solely to attract Millennials. And a few may like YOU’RE THE WORST, while others don’t care for it. Same for CATASTROPHE, GIRLS, BASKETS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and a dozen others. But I bet fans of all of those shows still love and watch FRIENDS. And by the way, FRIENDS goes for hard laughs, is character-driven, and has two to three clever storylines in every episode (and for the record, I had no involvement whatsoever in the making of FRIENDS).

Yes, I'm prepared for all the "Get off my lawn" accusations that will surely follow.  So to repeat -- it's not that I don't admire a number of these shows, just that they belong in a different category... in the same way that Denny's might serve spaghetti but doesn't claim to be an Italian restaurant. 


Ranter in Practice

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Writing advice you might not want to hear

Since I can't think of an appropriate photo...
This is one of those Friday Questions that deserves a separate post. It’s from Chad (even though he admits that that is not his real name).  

My question is about crafting and selling scripts. You mention that story credit goes to the person who submits the episode outline. I realize this is a necessary part of the process in getting each story told...but I'm not really an outline kind of writer. I jot down some relevant notes/lines/jokes and then head into the first draft, which is where the story really takes shape. Writing the entire story in advance always throws me off because I know that when I get in the groove, it's gonna shift directions easily. So the basic question is, is this practice frowned upon and if so what's your advice on how to amend it?

Chad (or whoever you are) – how can I say this nicely? If you want a career writing for television throw out that shit and become an “outline kind of writer”. Outlines are mandatory.

Let me walk you through the process.

First off, you only have a limited amount of time to tell your story. And you have to tell another story next week. And the week after, and the week after that. You have no time for seeing where the Muse might want to take you.

TV episodes are highly structured. As a showrunner, this is my method and thinking:

Working with the staff, we arrive at a notion we feel would make a good story. We then construct the beats – usually not in a linear way (first this happens, then this, then this, then that, the end). I want to know the act breaks first. I want to know the ending. I want to know where the fun of the story is. I want to know the characters' attitudes.  Then we work back from there and fill in the rest.

Then we revise. Is there a better act break? Is there a more inventive ending? Are we getting the most bang for our buck comedy-wise? Is the show too plot driven? Are all the characters well served? Does part of the story work but part still feel undercooked?

In the interest of efficiency and good story telling, I make sure all these questions are answered before someone goes off to write the draft.

Once we’re all happy with the story I ask the writer to give me an outline. Each show is different but I like detailed outlines. 8-12 pages, complete with a lot of suggested jokes.

I give the writer notes on the outline. Sometimes minor, sometimes throwing out whole sections or subplots. If the story changes significantly I request a new outline.

Once the outline has been approved then the writer goes off and does the first draft. Usually under time constraints. But he’s got the story all worked out, the block comedy scenes all in place, and a lot of good jokes.

When my partner and I set out to write an episode, even if we’re the showrunners, we take the time to write an outline for ourselves. We just don’t have the time to feel our way around blind alleys. We can’t count on finding “our groove”.

And now more than ever, outlines are mandatory. Because now stories have to be approved not only by showrunners but by the studio and network as well. I’m not saying that’s a good thing (in fact, it’s not) but hey, that’s the new reality.

I don’t know how Aaron Sorkin or David E. Kelley (pictured right) work. I know they’re very prolific and write scripts very quickly. I suspect they may not work off outlines as lengthy as ours but (a) they still work out the story in some detail first, and (b) they’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve developed internal mechanisms to guide any mid-course corrections. But that comes after years of experience and extraordinary God given talent.

Look, here’s the bottom line: constructing stories is the hardest part of the process. It’s much easier and more fun to just go off writing. So human nature would suggest that if you can skip the hard part why not do it?

Because that method is fraught with traps. It’s inefficient, it’s unreliable, and it’s not collaborative in an industry that is built on collaboration.

So my advice? Learn to outline, and more than that – accept the process. It’s here to stay. And you know what? It’s a bitch, but it works.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.  But the points can't be emphasized or repeated enough. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

RIP Stu Nisbet

There are actors you’ve seen a thousand times but have no idea who they are. One was Stu Nisbet.

He passed away this week at 82. You won’t see a thousand Facebook tributes. There won’t be a TCM retrospective. I doubt he’ll even appear in the Emmy’s “In Memoriam” section this year. His credit was often in the closing titles, so squeezed or sped up. But if you go to his imdb page you’ll see he’s been in practically every television series that’s ever been. 172 of them are listed and that’s only a partial compilation. It only begins in 1960 and he did dozens of series in the ‘50s including multiple episodes of the original DRAGNET. He was a semi-regular on THE VIRGINIAN, he was in the classic “Plastics, Ben” party scene in THE GRADUATE, Martin Scorsese’s CASINO, MISTER ROBERTS, and even PROJECT UFO.

I knew him because at 82 he was in the improv workshop I attend every Wednesday night. He was actually one of the reasons I did attend because I loved watching him work. His mind was quicker and funnier than folks half his age. And talk about spry – even in his 80’s if he had to play an elderly character he put on an old man voice. He never thought of himself as old (probably because he never was.) 

Characters were his forte. My favorites were clueless classical thespian Chester Darby and a senior citizen stoner (“Dude!”)

He was self-deprecating as well. At the end of class the instructor, Andy Goldberg, always asks if anyone has an announcement (an upcoming appearance, etc.). Stu would raise his hand and proudly announce that “As of tonight my likeness has not been committed to celluloid for 247 weeks.” (Of course that was not true.)

To me Stu Nisbet was an inspiration – someone that age still eager to learn, to improve his craft. And no one was more supportive of the younger members of the group. He had a loud easy laugh and thoroughly took joy in the success of other performers.

He will live on through his work. I bet if you tuned to MeTV or TV Land right now, there he is as a bartender, doctor, banker, policeman, technician, judge, or storekeeper – and that’s just on DRAGNET ’67.

He loved people and especially loved entertaining them. RIP Stu Nisbet. You are forever “aces.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Questions

It’s that time of the week again….

Joseph Scarbrough starts us off.

What about episodes where guest/one-shot characters are the main focus and the main characters are reduced to secondary roles? We were discussing "The Nurses" on a M*A*S*H site earlier this week and, to me, with the main focus being on the one-shot nurse whom Margaret confines to quarters, but tries to spend a romantic night with her husband, a passing foot soldier, and the other nurses as secondary characters in her corner for support, it felt less like an episode of M*A*S*H, or more like an entry in an anthology series.

Showrunners do this at their own peril. Unless you have a very gracious and secure cast, you do run the very real risk of causing acrimony or even mutiny on the set. MASH had a pretty remarkable cast, and that episode was several years into the series run. It also helped that it was a terrific episode.

Personally, I try to avoid doing them.  If my cast can't carry a show then I'm in big trouble.  

Over the years when I was on staff I’ve had a number of extras give me spec scripts they’d written for that series. Invariably, THEY would be the featured actor that week and not say, Ted Danson or Alan Alda. But I’m sure they took their cue off of episodes like “the Nurses.” By the way, when writing spec scripts, DON’T DO THAT.

From Brian Phillips:

Harlan Ellison said that a person wrote him a letter about one of his stories saying that reading the story helped give him further insight on Ovid's poem Metamorphoses, because of the parallels between the story and Ovid's poem.

The catch was, Ellison, to that point, had not READ Metamorphoses!

Have you had anyone notice references that weren't there to any of your work?

Someone once wrote a thesis on all the classical references and symbolism in an episode of MASH David Isaacs and I wrote called “The Billfold Syndrome.”

It was very impressive and we sure came off looking scholarly except for one small thing: None of it was true. I didn’t even know half the references.

You have to take yourself waaaaay too seriously as a writer to even attempt to do shit like that.

One line I vaguely recall had us “clearly” comparing Hawkeye to the Anti-Christ when in truth we were just looking for a joke so we could go to lunch.

Jeff Alexander asks:

There is a Ken Levine who is credited with six versions of a video game titled BioShock. Has there been any confusion -- has he gotten job offers that should have gone to you or vice versa?

No job offers but there has been confusion. When I did my famous Kickstarter rant against Zach Braff (it went viral and I got one million hits in one day), he had to post something saying it wasn’t him. And when he laid off a bunch of employees a few years ago I received many angry emails and Tweets.

At one time someone was trying to put together a panel on creativity for some tech convention and wanted to get both of us to be the panelists. That would have been awesome, but the timing didn’t work.

There’s also another Ken Levine who I know has taken credit for my work. Avoid that Ken Levine. The Bioshock guy is pretty cool.

And finally, Jahn Ghalt wonders:

Ken, you described your "firsts" on MARY in 1985 as a first-time show-runner and first-time director - the latter as a crisis-response on short notice.

Your role was to block the scene, then the original director blocked the cameras.

For Mad Men Matthew Weiner hired his own first-timers (without the crisis) - Jon Hamm, John Slattery, and Jared Harris.

These "rookies" started preparing at least two weeks before shooting. Hamm and Slattery prepared on the same days that they acted on earlier episodes (Harris was already "dead" when he directed his episode).

So my question - how much of the usual director's chores would go to others for the rooks? For instance I suppose they would lean on the DP for camera blocking. How are the decisions (and the "labor") divided between Director and DP?

First time directors do get a lot of help. A good DP is not going to let a green director plan a bad shot or shoot a scene that can’t be edited correctly. Ultimately though, it's the director's decision. 

In our case with MARY, it was meatball surgery. We were just looking to get through an emergency situation.

But this does bring up a big pet peeve of mine. Especially on multi-camera shows, the camera blocking and shot selection can be very complicated. You have four cameras all filming simultaneously, moving during the scenes, changing actors, changing sizes, etc. First-time directors can easily be overwhelmed. So they rely on the camera coordinator to do most of the work.

But ultimately the director needs to learn those technical aspects to where the camera coordinator is just there for support. It takes time and experience and most importantly, the willingness to learn.

There are some “directors” who know nothing about cameras and just expect the camera coordinator to handle that. To me that’s not right. The director is getting paid a lot more than the camera coordinator. Assigning shots is part of the JOB of being a director. If you’re a surgeon you need to know how to make incisions. You can’t just say to the nurse, “You do the cutting and I’ll be over at the craft services table.”

Also, you need to know cameras to efficiently block the actors. Otherwise you may have blocked one actor upstaging another, or two actors too far apart, or an actor totally in profile, or action in a corner of the set you can’t shoot. So not only do camera coordinators have to do the director’s job, the director has made it way more difficult. And of course if a shot looks bad, who gets blamed? Of course. The camera coordinator. It doesn’t seem fair.

Okay, enough of my ranting.  What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

More credits confusion

Yesterday I discussed how difficult it is to assign proper recognition on screen credits. You can find that post here.

Today I want to discuss “gangbanging,” which is the delicate slang term writers have for room writing drafts.

A moment to discuss the difference been “and” and “&.” If used correctly (which is not always the case), an & between two names means those two are a team (and considered one entity). For example: “Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs.” If a writer does a draft and another writer later comes in and rewrites it enough to share credit, this is what it will look like on the screen: “Written by Gore Vidal and Ethel Mertz.”

The WGA tries to limit the number of writers who can share credit. Only two writing entities can share “written by” or “teleplay by” credit. And the same for “story by” credit.

So the very maximum number of writers would be eight – but that’s four teams of two (lots of &’s).

If you want to change that you must get a waiver. The WGA insists that each entity receives at least half the Guild minimum. In the case of ALMOST PERFECT when Robin Schiff co-ran the show, whenever the three of us wrote a script together the studio had to agree to pay each of us one-half Guild minimum.

Still with me?

A growing trend is to now “room write” scripts. All of Chuck Lorre’s shows are written that way. No first drafts are assigned. Eight or ten or twelve writers all sit around a table and together they write the first draft. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was like that too.

So who should get credit? In truth, they all should. But that’s against the rules. Ironically, on variety shows, all writers can be listed. What “gangbanged” sitcoms usually do is rotate the credit, and put people together as teams, and give some writers story credit and others teleplay credit – however they can squeeze in the most names.

The point is, when you see the writing credit on one of these shows it’s utterly meaningless. And to me, this is wrong. The credits committee needs to address this new form of writing. More and more shows are doing it and you could argue the pros and cons of such an approach, but I think we’d all agree the people involved deserve to be recognized.

Another problem is that even if the Guild did allow everyone to get credit, the screen time allotted for the writing credit is so short you’d never be able to read all the names. The producers could hold the credit longer but the network would scream bloody murder.

And finally, you might ask, “So what? If names are being rotated you’ll get yours on a few.” True. But what if one of the episodes wins an Emmy? And it just happened to be one you’re not credited for? And you wrote that big poignant speech that put it over the top. If you’re listed as a solo writer the Academy requests that you only enter your episode if you indeed wrote most of it (let your conscience be your guide), but gangbanged scripts are a different animal. So again, in the name of fairness, some new ruling should exist to cover this form of television writing.

I don’t have the solution. But I’m one person. Maybe if ten people approached this problem together…

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Credits should stand for something

Screenwriters have only one means of recognition – credits.

And the WGA does its best to ensure proper recognition. But things can get very complicated.

I’ll just deal with television here. The feature world has its own tangled web. There were something like sixty writers involved in THE FLINTSTONES movie (and look how great that turned out).

Even though a scribe may write a draft, in almost all cases the showrunner and his staff will polish or rewrite the script. Even if the original writer is on staff.

That can still mean that 90% of the original writer’s script makes it to air, but it’s also possible that 0% of his draft is left. Should the 90% writer receive the same credit as the 0% scribe? And if not, who among the rewriters deserve credit and how much? And is the original writer entitled to something because he wrote the first draft?

You start to see where it gets sticky.

And that doesn’t even address the issue of “story credit” vs. “teleplay credit.” All of a sudden the Mideast Crisis becomes easier to solve than an episode of DR. KEN.

If any writer other than the original writer wants to share credit the script must go to the WGA for arbitration. This protects the original writer from showrunners just attaching their names.

And this is important for two reasons. The recognition obviously, and also, residuals are determined by credits. So if a showrunner shares screen credit with you he will also share in royalties.

The WGA has a Credits Manual, or as I like to call it: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It tries to specify how to determine each writer’s contribution. But in most cases it’s a judgment call. That’s why, when scripts are being arbitrated, there are usually more than one arbiter. Credits are determined by committee.

Each showrunner has a different policy regarding credit for rewriting. Some, like me, never take shared credit. I’m getting paid nicely as the showrunner. Improving scripts is my job. Whoever does the first draft gets sole credit. I would say that most showrunners subscribe to that policy.

So how do you know if the name on the screen really contributed most of the script? You don’t. But if you keep seeing the same name pop up you figure he routinely gets a lot of his stuff in.

Other showrunners feel that if they legitimately change enough to warrant credit then they are entitled to share the recognition. Matthew Weiner did that frequently on MAD MEN. He wound up sharing credit on a lot of scripts. My guess is that by the time the script aired, Matthew’s contribution was close to 100%. You could argue he’s hogging credits. But you could also argue he didn’t have to assign the script to another writer in the first place. The original writer got paid for a script and shares in the royalties. In that sense, Matt was being generous.

This is getting long so I’ll pick it up tomorrow. But I want to discuss a new challenge for determining fair credits – scripts that are room written. How’s that for a cliff-hanger?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Can a multi-camera sitcom ever win an Emmy?

Here’s a Friday Question that became a whole post even though I don’t really have an answer and went off on a tangent.

VP81955 asked it.

In last week's "The Envelope" in the L.A. Times (which included a conversation between Norman Lear and Chuck Lorre), it was noted no multi-cam sitcom has won a best situation comedy since "Everybody Loves Raymond" in 2005. What do you think will be the next one?

Whatever it is, it’s not on the air yet.

An argument can be made for MOM, but the Academy seems to resent Chuck Lorre so I think it would be an uphill battle. And that’s unfortunate because MOM is certainly deserving. Over the years it has deepened and gotten sharper.

It seems silly to me that THE BIG BANG THEORY has never won. Say what you will, it is the most popular sitcom on the air by a large margin and has been for years. Shouldn’t that account for something? There may not be a lot of depth there, but it is funny and at least one year deserves recognition. But then you have the Chuck Lorre factor.

Other than those two, I can’t think of another serious contender. Multi-camera shows are no longer in favor so networks are putting fewer on the air. And the ones that do make the schedule seem to fall into one of two categories: mainstream family fare or low road raunch.

CBS has two new multi-cams premiering in the Fall. They’re the same show. Former sitcom star plays a dad who must now take care of his kids, and big shocker, the kids are more of a handful than he expected. Kevin James and Matt LeBlanc are the two former sitcom stars. I don’t think the ultimate goal is Emmys.

Although the genre is in a rut now, there’s no reason why the next groundbreaking hit comedy can’t be a multi-camera. Over the last sixty years the overwhelming majority of best written, most loved, and most admired sitcoms have been multi-camera. You don’t have to do 2 BROKE GIRLS. You can do FRASIER. Or SEINFELD. Or FRIENDS.

And one day somebody will. It will seem like a revelation. A well-written intelligent comedy that’s actually funny, is relatable to young audiences, and is about something – why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?

Emmys will follow. And television, being what it is – the star of that show will come back ten years later in a new show about a father having to wrangle three kids.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Trying to be a good responsible TV Academy member I’ve been watching a lot of the screeners provided “for my consideration.” Shows and networks I’ve never heard of. It’s the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of ION programming.

A lot of the comedies, in particular, are disappointing. Show after show of Millennial Romy & Micheles blundering through Manhattan encountering “kooky” things. Or shows that try so hard not to use any comic tropes that they’re painfully unfunny and boring.

But I continue to screen, always looking for that hidden gem. And huzzah! I found one.


First off, how many of you have even heard of it? It’s on Hulu.

Disclaimer #1: This show is not for everyone. It’s very non-PC and depending on your sense of humor, the stars are either wickedly funny or reprehensible assholes who deserve to die. I like ‘em. You may not.

The show stars Billy Eichner (who also does those hilarious ambush interviews on the streets of New York) and Julie Klausner (the tolerable version of Kathy Griffin). They go through life providing a running commentary of snark on everything and everyone they see. What makes them sort of/kind of/a little redeemable is that they’re both losers in their careers so you can see where the bitterness originates from and they pay a price for the snark – they often go too far and shoot themselves in the foot.

But the snark is funny. The show is funny. Hey, I’m just excited that the show WANTS to be funny. Julie Klausner created it and does a lot of the writing. What impressed me most is that she also tries to tell actual stories. In some cases they’re absurd, but there are even episodes with A and B stories that share a common theme or come together at the end. This, in contrast to “Hey, wasn’t that fun dropping my keys down a sewer line? Oh wow, there’s a construction site. Let’s see what mishaps we can get into here.

There are some fun supporting players too, notably Andrea Martin as Julie’s equally narcissistic mother, and James Urbaniak – Julie’s bizarre roommate.

There are no sacred cows. Disclaimer #2: Any show that takes potshots at Chelsea Handler is a show I’m going to love. But no one is spared, not handicapped people, not religions, not even BLACK-ISH.

Not all of the jokes land and because of the myriad of pop culture references this show will have a shelf life of eleven minutes. But Billy & Julie are a winning comic pair with a somewhat unique relationship, and they hate Chelsea Handler. So what the hell? If nothing else, it’s a potential guilty pleasure.

The big question is: If you don’t subscribe to Hulu, is it worth shelling out the money? I’m sure Billy & Julie would agree: Just binge during the free trial or see if there are bootleg clips on YouTube.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Happy Father's Day

Especially to my own father, Cliff, who is both my hero and role model.  And now my son, Matt, who has been a father for three weeks. 

This is a perennial post, now updated.

Note to those wives and kids planning to celebrate: no brunches. That’s Mother’s Day stuff. Let the old man sit in front of the TV and watch the U.S. Open or the Arena football amateur draft in peace.

Or watch FIELD OF DREAMS.And now, as a public service, here are some movies NOT to watch on Father’s Day:


Some TV shows and telefilms NOT to watch:

Any CBS family comedy

Some unfriendly father plays:

DEATH OF A SALESMAN (any Arthur Miller, actually)

Some books to avoid:

Any Bing Crosby biography
Any Frank Sinatra biography
Any Papa John Phillips biography 
Any Screaming Jay Hawkins biography
LOVE STORY (for so many reasons)

Records to skip:

PAPA WAS A ROLLING STONE by the Temptations
BOY NAMED SUE by Johnny Cash
MY DAD by Paul Peterson
CATS IN THE CRADLE by Harry Chapin

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Again, happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The worst agent sales pitch ever

It’s 1982. My writing partner, David and I are at William Morris. Several years prior we signed on with a young agent at a small tenpercentery (I love that expression), and as she moved on to bigger and better agencies we followed her. She and we were now at William Morris.

When clients get shows on the air their agencies can package them. In other words, William Morris gets a piece of the action.  That's really how they make their money in television.  It's not off the ten percent commission they collect.

For this package they’re supposed to help you get the show on the air, clear paths for signing talent, etc. We had a pilot the year before that was a William Morris package and it was not a pleasant experience. The only actors we had trouble signing were Morris clients. At this point I should mention that the William Morris Agency of today is completely under new ownership, management, and not even located in the same building. So no one in the current WMA should be held accountable for the deeds from those days.

One thing about mounting a pilot, you get to meet and deal with lots of agents. And you see how they operate. Who calls you back? Who is an asshole? Who never follows up? One agent in particular really impressed us. Bob Broder. Among his clients at the time were James Burrows and the Charles Brothers. Bob was extremely helpful and frankly did more for us than our own “partners.” But we were very loyal to our specific agent so we stayed with her and William Morris. She believed in us when we were nobodies and now that we were successful we didn’t feel it was right to pull a Broadway Danny Rose on her.

But now it’s 1982. We’re on CHEERS and our agent tells us she’s getting out of that end of the business and getting into producing. She was offered a great job running a very successful film director’s production company. We were thrilled for her, but now felt no pull to stay at the agency.

Instead of just taking free expensive lunches and letting agents from all over town court us, we called Bob Broder. He was interested in representing us so we decided to make the switch.

We told the fine folks at William Morris and one of their agents – who we had dealt with from time to time – asked if he could speak with us. Could we give him one last chance to convince us to stay? Although our minds were pretty much made up, we still felt it was the honorable thing to do. And who knows? Maybe there was some reason why we really should stay.

So this agent ushers us into his office. He was in his ‘30s, part of the young new breed that the agency was hiring. I must say, I’m always fascinated by salesmen. When I go to state fairs I make a beeline to the exhibition hall where all these hucksters are selling miracle mops and titanium woks. I’m a sucker for a great sales pitch. At their best, those guys are artists. The mop is pretty good by the way.

We sit down on his couch, the agent closes the door, crosses to us and yells, “You guys are fucking ASSHOLES!”

Say what?

“If you leave this fucking agency you’re fucking assholes and fucking idiots!” He goes on for five minutes to call us stupid, immature, ungrateful, dickless, only marginally talented, and how we’re making the biggest mistake of our lives not letting him guide our careers. All of this laced with more expletives than a DEADWOOD episode.

Wow! What a masterful presentation. Who wouldn’t want to re-sign after that declaration of love?

Well, as shocking as it may seem, we did leave and began a long and happy association with Bob Broder.

Meanwhile, this agent left the Morris Agency himself in 1999. So I guess in the end, he too was a “fucking ASSHOLE!” I haven’t seen him in years. I don’t know what he’s doing today. I just hope it’s not eulogies.

This is a re-post from almost five years ago. God bless you if you've been reading this blog long enough to remember it. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Questions

Come and get ‘em.

Houston Mitchell starts us off.

I always wondered why MASH kept the same opening screen shots despite all the cast changes. Sure, they would cut in a shot of Mike Farrell, but you could always see the arm of Wayne Rogers in the opening titles long after he was gone. Why do you think they never bothered to shoot something new?

There were some new shots inserted along the way over the years, but the MASH opening titles were great. Why change them? They were our “Golden Arches.”

I happened to be out at the ranch where they filmed the exteriors the day they re-shot the helicopters coming over the mountains. I heard the sound, looked up, and there they were. Needless to say – COOL!!!

And while we’re on the subject of Opening Titles, Courtney asks:

An opening title sequence (often with a really good theme song) used to be essential to enjoying a TV show. Care to weigh in on your favorite-ever?

It’s hard to pick just one. But if I could select a few: the aforementioned MASH would rate, along with CHEERS, MIAMI VICE, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, (the original) HAWAII FIVE-O, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and currently it’s tough to beat GAME OF THRONES.
What are your favorites?

I mentioned once that Ted Danson was not allowed to attend CHEERS editing sessions. That prompted a question from Scott:

Why wasn't Ted allowed in the editing session? Is it a union thing? Or just a personal/show rule that you didn't want anyone involved in what you were editing to be present, so that he wouldn't (consciously or subconsciously) affect what you were doing?

Showrunners need to be able to edit shows objectively. Let’s be honest, showrunners and actors would emphasize different things. Actors might favor shots that show them in the best light as opposed to shots that better tell the story or sell a joke.

Plus, if you have one actor who has say in the editing, his fellow cast members may feel slighted if lines of theirs are cut. Dissension within the troops is often the result. You're just asking for trouble.  Better to let the showrunner be the bad guy. 

However, actors do participate in editing on occasion. If an actor directs an episode he’s entitled to see a rough cut and offer suggestions. Or if an actor is an executive producer or has contractually authority he can attend sessions.

But generally, actors are not welcome in editing bays. I always say to my casts that if they have a problem with the way the show is edited come talk to me about it.

So far I’ve never had an actor complain about the editing. A couple have grumbled because lines they liked were cut, but that’s a creative call.   They have to remember that when we're cutting their lines we're also cutting our lines. 

And finally, from Allan V:

I've recently seen a few articles arguing that MLB needs to take away the job of calling balls and strikes from umpires, and have an automated system (like PITCHf/x) do it. The claim is that there's still other work for the umpires to do during games, and the system could call the pitches more accurately.

What is your thought on this? Without an umpire calling the pitches, it wouldn't seem like baseball to me, and I think bad calls generally even out over time.

First of all, it will never happen. The unions wouldn’t allow it. Plus, you can’t take the human element out of baseball. A lot of weird things happen and they’re ruled by the umpires’ discretion. And finally, who says the tracking machines are all that accurate? There are plenty of improvements MLB could make. This isn’t one of them.  Play ball!

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A computer wrote a script -- this is the result

You have GOT to see this. Filmmaker Oscar Sharp and techie Ross Goodwin built a computer that could write screenplays. They loaded tons of screenplays, provided a title (SUNSPRING), a setting in the future and a brief premise. The computer did the rest.

Then they filmed it using three terrific actors – Thomas Middleditch (SILICON VELLEY), Humphrey Ker, and Elisabeth Gray (whose final emotional monologue brought her to tears – THAT is acting).

The result is hilarious, and I think (at least for the moment) that our screenwriting careers are safe. Minimal Intelligence still beats Artificial Intelligence. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My first sort-of girlfriend

In honor of today being June 15th (the significance will become apparent later) I'm posting a story from my memoir, THE ME GENERATION BY ME...GROWING UP IN THE "60S (available at a ridiculously low price and check out those reviews!  Wow!) that I revised somewhat for the SIT N' SPIN story-telling event I participated in recently.   It got good laughs and there's really only one day to post this, and you'll see why.  Enjoy (and buy my book). 

Springtime 1966. My best friend Gary saw that the Ike & Tina Turner Review was playing one-night-only at the Chatsworth Bowl.

I wasn’t a huge Ike & Tina fan and figured, how good could anybody be if they were booked into a bowling alley? But he said we had to go, and I was fine as long as I didn’t have to rent shoes.

Ho-ly shit!

Tina Turner was the sexiest woman I had ever seen. I was like that wolf in the Looney Tunes cartoons with his tongue hanging out and his eyes flying out of his head as if they were on springs. Tina writhed, she growled, she slithered, and my teenage hormones exploded. I had never seen anything like this. The truth is I never found her particularly attractive (even that night), but the raw sexuality that just oozed out of every pore knocked me on my 17-year-old ass.

I was left with an insatiable need to get a girlfriend. Actually, the need was to get laid but that couldn’t happen until you were in a committed relationship for as many months as it took to doggedly wear her down.

My “sister” Terry was on the Drill Team. Like at most schools, Taft girls fell into one of three categories. The popular girls who had boyfriends to go with to football games, the unpopular girls who felt they had no shot and always stayed home, and then that group in the middle who didn’t have boyfriends but were ever hopeful. These girls were called “the Drill Team.” Several hundred of them would march in formation during halftime shows, twirling flags and making sharp left turns, hawking their wares. (Today we’d call them “e-Harmony members.”)

So this was a rich vein of potential girlfriends to tap into and Terry was gracious enough to provide me with some introductions. The one I sparked to was Eleanor.

Eleanor was extremely cute. Huge blue eyes, a slight over-bite (which works for me), svelte figure, and a pre-Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut. She seemed perky and lively and based on Terry’s recommendation, accepted a date with me.

I took her to see the Doors and Jefferson Airplane in concert at the Birmingham High football stadium. Both groups had a hit or two and this was that brief transition period between small clubs and giant venues. Now I’d like to say that the night was electric and I just knew I was witness to the start of a musical revolution, but actually the acoustics weren’t great. Gracie Slick of the Airplane was amazing, but Jim Morrison of the Doors was on autopilot, and Eleanor didn’t shut the fuck up during the entire concert.

During “Volunteers of America” she mentioned she was a witch, all through “Back Door Man” she discussed her childhood diseases, and as “Light My Fire” was building to a stirring crescendo she revealed her real passion was shoes.

Afterwards we went to Sambo’s for dessert (yes, there was an actual coffee shop chain named “Sambo’s”). Her months in bed with mono required no further details (although I would hear them again… and again… and again). I followed up on the witch thing. “So you mean you’re like Samantha in Bewitched?” “No,” she snorted, “that show is so unrealistic.” (Really? You mean you can’t wriggle your nose and turn someone into a gerbil? Why isn’t there a disclaimer at the beginning of the show?)

It’s been awhile so I hope I can recall this correctly. Jesus blessed her by making her beautiful, but with the extra attention came people who would take advantage of or resent her. And so, as protection, since He might find himself preoccupied with other things (like seeing that the Packers covered the spread in the Super Bowl), He also blessed her by making her a witch. Her faith in Jesus was rewarded with an interest in the occult. And she now had the power to inflict curses (which she assured me she only did when absolutely necessary or during her period). I think that’s pretty much the gist. It was always my understanding that the Christian Bible strongly denounced any occult practices because they were the work of Satan, but why quibble?

She squeezed my hand as we walked to her front door and kissed me on the lips. Suddenly she went from major nutcase to delightfully eccentric.

Such are the concessions we make for a potential first girlfriend.

We started going out every Saturday night, usually to concerts. At the Teenage Fair we saw the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. This was a loud screechy psychedelic rock band that featured a continuous light show. Kaleidoscopic images would swirl around the venue (in this case, a tent) trying to create the illusion of a “righteous” acid trip. That’s the rock band I should have joined. “What instrument do you play?” “The movie projector.”

I would get my kiss on the lips goodnight. I would get to put my arm around her in the movies. And eventually we made out in my car. I was allowed to grope and pet but she always had to be fully clothed. I was never permitted to learn just how cold a witch’s tit really is.

I didn’t fare much better with her at the Drive-In either. Drive-In theatres were big in the ’60s. Gigantic parking lots with a huge movie screen. The novelty here was being able to watch movies in your car. In 1967, if someone opened a medical clinic where you could get gall bladder operations in your car, people would flock to it.

Usually B-movies were booked into Drive-Ins – cheesy horror flicks or Jerry Lewis comedies. No one cared. Everyone was groping and pawing in the back seat. I always thought it would be great if suddenly one night, that film we saw in health film with the girl getting knocked up was shown.

Drive-Ins are highly romanticized, but I never really got it. The sound was always atrocious. You would attach these clunky portable metal speakers to the driver’s side window. Everything sounded muffled and distorted. You were always going, “What did that mad professor say?”

There was usually one snack bar -- a bunker that was a half-day ride on a bicycle from wherever you parked. Someone from your car would go to the snack bar and you’d see him again at the ten-year reunion.

The spring prom was coming up and I thought, okay, finally, here’s the perfect time to really make my move. Rumor had it that lots of girls lost their virginity on prom night (not Jewish girls, but still) – it being a special occasion and more importantly, curfews were relaxed.

So I rented a tuxedo, bought her the obligatory wrist corsage, and escorted her to the elegant Taft multi-purpose room for this gala occasion. It was my first prom and I couldn’t be more underwhelmed. Overdressed classmates awkwardly milling about drinking punch or standing in a long line to get their pictures taken. Missing this is what drove Janis Ian to madness?

After the prom we drove to a secluded spot up in the hills for a little amore. At first I stabbed myself on her corsage but things improved. We were making out, she was seemingly receptive so I reached behind to unzip her dress.

And she stopped me.

She wasn’t ready to do that (at least with me). I lied and said all the right things – I really cared about her, respected her, she was the most beautiful girl in the entire world, I would pledge to a coven. No dice. But she said it was because of her, not me. And then she explained. I must say, I’ve been given the brush-off a fair amount in my life, but no rejection since Eleanor’s could even compare when it comes to originality. She said she couldn’t get involved because of her birthday. I said, “You have to be at least 16, you’re a junior in high school.” No, no. That’s not what she meant. Her birth date.

Eleanor was born on June 15, 1950. That’s the middle of the month, the middle of the year, the middle of the century. It was her lot in life to always be in the middle, always stay uncommitted.

Even at the time I thought, “Wow, that was impressive. She’s a fucking loon but that was impressive.”

We broke up after that. My birth date is February 14th. We weren’t compatible. I was meant to gun down gangsters in a Chicago garage.

(Eleanor Epilogue: After graduation she was the first person in our class to get married. I guess numerology doesn’t matter when the guy owns a motorcycle shop.)

So I was back on the market. Again.

Usually fix-ups can be awkward. Especially when the woman who taught Sex Education sets you up with her daughter. Mrs. Richman, my Health teacher from last year, took me aside one day and suggested I take out her daughter, Becky. I had never met Becky. She went to Chatsworth High. Why Mrs. Richman thought I was the perfect match, I do not know. I’m guessing I was the safest guy she could find who wasn’t gay.

So a blind date with a teacher’s daughter – how could I resist? Much to my surprise and delight, Becky was beautiful. Big green eyes and a melt-your-heart smile. She was also very sweet. I was incredibly attracted to her, but every time I even thought of making a move, there was the vision of Mrs. Richman with her Gonorrhea handout. We stopped going out after a couple of dates – as if I could afford to be choosey. But it was just too weird.

This was the first time that I was the one breaking up. Usually it was the other way around. So of course, I was clumsy at it. I really didn’t know what to say. Thinking back, I just cringe. Without going into particulars, let’s just say I lied and said my birthday was June 15, 1950.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

You never forget your first

In 1976 very few people owned VCR’s. They were expensive and not really for consumer use. They played ¾” tapes that were the size of coffee table books. And I believe they could only record one hour.

Meanwhile, VHS formats were just starting to hit the market. These were ½” tapes, smaller, and could record up to two hours. The problem was there were two formats – VHS and Sony’s Betamax. Of course they weren’t compatible so over time one had to become the standard while the other fell by the wayside. VHS won. Betamax had better quality but was more expensive and their tapes had a shorter recording time (one hour vs. two).

I preferred to go with the professional model ¾” because (a) I didn’t want to get stuck with the wrong format that would become obsolete, and (b) my reason for having a VCR was to record episodes David Isaacs and I wrote. So I wanted the best quality possible. Who knew there were going to be DVD’s and streaming and you could get 250 episodes on a bunch of little discs or just by a few clicks on your computer?

Of course the irony is that ¾” tapes became obsolete almost immediately.

I bought the JVC U-Matic unit you see pictured. It weighed a ton. Literally, one person could not carry it. Certainly not one Jew. I had to have my partner come down and help me load it in and out of the car. And I think we both got hernias.

I didn’t even buy it from a retail store. I'm not sure there were retail stores at that time.  I researched and found the unit at some warehouse in the Marina. Still, it was something like $1700, which is like $5,000 today. Imagine shelling out 5K for a VCR? The tapes themselves (also not sold in retail stores) were like $20 a pop.

Studios had not released Hollywood movies on the ¾” format, and if they did it would require two tapes and cost roughly $60 a film. Thus began piracy and bootleg tapes. But the selection was very selective. People might pay big bucks for STAR WARS; they weren’t going spend a fortune on ILSA, HAREM KEEPER OF THE OIL SHEIKS.

The owner explained how this new fangled contraption worked, how to hook it up, set the timer, etc. Then he showed me its nifty features. There was a pause button. You could freeze the picture. There was also a slow motion button. You would screen something frame by frame. It was perfect for watching porn.

I feigned great enthusiasm. Better to have him think I was a lowlife willing to pay $1,700 for pornography than a pathetic nerd who just wanted to freeze frame his writing credit.

The machine is long gone. You should’ve seen the National Council of Jewish Women trying to load it into the truck. I probably got my VHS unit around four years later. Now all of those tapes are obsolete or disintegrating in quality.

But I bought the big honking VCR the day our first MASH aired. And it taped like a champ. I froze our first MASH credit, took several snapshots (which meant going to the drugstore and getting them developed – more obsolete keepsakes), and found a cleaner copy on the internet. Here it is:
Then, in an effort to get my money’s worth, since the machine was so darn expensive, I bought some porn. My later VHS tapes couldn’t come close to the picture quality.

Monday, June 13, 2016

What if you hate THE WALKING DEAD?

What must it be like for critics when time or circumstances make it harder for them to do their job? Most critics sincerely love the field they cover and perform a valuable (if sometimes necessary) service to their industry. There are only a small handful I would run over with my car.

But what must it be like to be a serious student of film – to have spent years learning cinematic theory, dramatic structure, and film history only to now be reviewing superhero moves every week or sequels of superhero movies every week? If your goal was to be the next Pauline Kael, how do you sit through NEIGHBORS 2 and write two incisive pages on it?

What if you’re a restaurant critic told by your doctor you need to go on a no-salt diet?

Or a longtime rock critic who just can’t stand hip hop?

God forbid you review Broadway and are baffled by HAMILTON. Don’t wait for the next Rogers & Hammerstein musical.

Trends change, tastes change, and what if that new trend just isn’t for you?

With the Emmys around the corner I’ve been flooded lately with DVD’s “for my consideration.” If I watched 24/7 I still couldn’t get through all these series and specials. How do TV critics wade through all this shit? Some TV critics I really admire like Maureen Ryan and Alan Sepinwall do detailed critiques of every episode of certain series. How do they find the time? Or stay married? (not to each other)

And how do you cover every genre? I personally hate zombie shows. I just do. THE WALKING DEAD and RETURN OF THE WALKING DEAD and THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS MEET THE WALKING DEAD might be exceptional shows – great characters, imaginative storytelling, top-flight production values – but I can’t watch ‘em. It wouldn’t be fair for me to pan these shows because of my own personal bias, but how can I just ignore them because they’re “not my thing?”

Do critics secretly worry that at some point they’ll be out of touch and can no longer perform their job effectively? The tough thing here is that critics need to be both objective and subjective? Can they separate their bias to determine whether something is a piece of shit on merit?

How influenced are critics by the zeitgeist? Is there public and peer pressure to like certain things? When GIRLS came out did the ones who hated it feel they had to be kind otherwise they’d appear to be dinosaurs? Do critics ever temper their reviews to present themselves in a better light? Is it really worth selling your soul over GIRLS?

From time to time in this blog I review movies, and TV, and concerts. But I just get to pick and choose. I’m not obligated to break down this week’s MINDY PROJECT or suffer through some Adam Sandler comedy. I also have no pretense that my reviews are trying to educate or provide perspective into the human condition or the environment. I give my opinion about whether I liked something and attempt to make my reviews as breezy and entertaining as I can. I’ve never studied film theory. I’m sure I’m missing out but I have no desire to sit through a retrospective of Bergman. Heaven help me, but I’ll never win a Pulitzer.

But I’m always left with a better appreciation for what the good critics do. Summarizing a movie or show, trying to determine what did and didn’t work and why is difficult (unless Keanu Reeves is in it and then it’s easy).

And finally, add in the awareness that right around the corner someone is creating a brilliant new product that you just won’t get to save your life and I could see why the one thing all critics agree on is Extra-strength Tylenol.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

An LA institution returns!

Clifton’s Cafeteria is back! In this age where treasured local landmarks and restaurants are disappearing faster than GOP Trump supporters, Angelinos can rejoice. Clifton’s has returned following a $10 million renovation.

Businessman Clifford Clinton first opened his doors in 1931. By 1935 he was serving 15,000 dinners a day. And two things you should know: He decorated his establishments with the most eye-popping lavish gaudy furnishing you could imagine. Tropical rain forests, the old West, a chapel, trees and neon lights everywhere with waterfalls and a giant stuffed bison and actual meteorites. Disneyland in one room and they serve Jello!

And the second thing: back in the ‘30s, during the Depression, you paid what you could afford, even if that meant eating for free. And yet, somehow the business prospered.

When I was a kid I LOVED going to Cliftons. No place was goofier and they had a big treasure chest for children. You could pick out a little toy as you left. This was way more exciting than girls.

Last week I went to lunch there with my daughter Annie and her fiancĂ©e Jon. These are some of the photos I took.  Just another reason why I love LA.

Clifton’s is located at 648 S. Broadway in newly-chic-but-not-that-street Downtown Los Angeles. Bring a camera.  And a child.