Sunday, February 26, 2017

Writing the Academy Awards

I’ve never written for the Oscars. I would very much like to, just for the experience. But from what I understand it’s a horrible thankless job.

I did have the chance once, but had to turn it down. My partner and I were showrunning ALMOST PERFECT in 1996. We got a call from Quincy Jones (who was producing the show that year). He had first asked Larry Gelbart who passed. Quincy asked if he could recommend someone else and bless him, Larry mentioned us. I can’t tell you how many writing offers we received thanks to Larry Gelbart. He got us way more work than our agent. But we had to turn it down because we were already working 90 hour weeks.

All of the following information is second and third hand, but from what writers of award shows have told me, this is pretty much the assignment.  You might find it somewhat less than idyllic.  

The hosts generally have their own people. But they may want you to assist. And of course, the host’s people are in charge. Depending on who that is, you may serve at the pleasure of some asshole you wouldn’t hire to write a laundry list.   Or someone you've fired. 

You write the banter between presenters. Then it has to be approved by each presenter, their manager, agent, publicist, dog walker, and psychic. Also the producers, network, and standards-and-practices. When revisions come back you don’t know if they’re from the star himself and must be followed or his pool man in which case they’re just suggestions. And more often than not these revisions are way worse than what you wrote.

Still, when they bomb you’ll be blamed for it.

There’s also the issue of writing for some actors who couldn’t be funny if it meant world peace. They will take your genuinely funny lines and trample them into the ground.

You’ll be blamed.

Or worse, they will ad lib. We’ve all seen excruciating examples of that.

It’ll be your fault.

Sometimes presenters come in with their own schtick. So when Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller do a bit that bombs you’re the one who takes the heat.

From what I hear the weekend of the show (i.e. now) the rehearsals are insane. Presenters jockey for position, things get changed, stars are in, stars are out, your lines get cut, you’re scrambling to write new ones then don’t know who to give them to for approval.

The night of the show you’re on call to feed ad libs to the host so that he looks good. And if he doesn’t pull them off you-know-who is held responsible.

Meanwhile, some presenters can’t read off the teleprompter so they inadvertently kill a few of your jokes that have worked every rehearsal. Pin those on you, too.

Still, it’s gotta be a trip to at least experience this once. Even if Dustin Hoffman muffs your joke, hey, you can say you wrote for Dustin Hoffman. For two days you rub elbows with Hollywood royalty. Perhaps Amy Adams or George Clooney will say hello. (Good luck with the twins, George.)   I don’t know if you’re invited to any post-Oscars parties. Or whether you get any swag. I doubt it but maybe you do.  Like I said, it would sure be worth doing once. 

Of course if I wrote the show I couldn’t review it. Hmmm. That’s probably reason alone to hire me.

But since they didn’t this year I will be reviewing tonight’s Academy Awards. For the first time I'll be delivering my snarkfest personally on my podcast.   And if you don't like it, blame the Oscar writers. 


Peter said...

Just read the sad news that the truly wonderful actor Bill Paxton has died, aged only 61. It's probably too late for him to be included in tonight's Oscars In Memoriam, but I hope someone mentions him.

Looking forward to your review, especially on the pretentious speeches. I wonder how many times winners will mention the word 'journey'?

On a different note connected to the Oscars, the actor Robert Davi penned an open letter to Hollywood suggesting that all those who oppose 'extreme vetting' allow illegal immigrants and Muslim fundamentalists to attend the ceremony and after party.

Now, I've made it clear that I don't support Trump and I absolutely condemn the deportation of people who may have come in illegally but have made a life for their families and contributed to society as law abiding residents. But I can't help but feel that Davi has a point. If rich celebrities who live in a bubble far away from the reality of ordinary people's lives don't want ANY restriction and ANY vetting of potential terror threats, then they should have the courage of their convictions and allow such people to attend. And why not? Who are the real bigots here? We know that they would reject such an idea and anyone attempting to attend would be escorted out or arrested.

And isn't that the problem? Rich privileged celebrities like to pontificate about things as long as they're not affected personally. They return to their mansions and celebrity parties. Meanwhile, in Dearborn, Michigan, men and women are forced into separate lines at fast food joints and elsewhere because the local Muslim population demand it. Here in London, self-proclaimed 'Muslim Patrols' have harassed gay men, women in short skirts and anyone drinking alcohol. And of course in Germany there's a new terror related incident at least once a week.

I know this isn't a political blog, but I'm only commenting because so many celebrities have taken it upon themselves to educate us the little people whilst at the same time rejecting Davi's suggestion to invite the very people they claim to be concerned about. I'm sorry but I won't be lectured to by millionaires with personal staff and mansions behind gates who wouldn't be caught dead being in the same room as a Muslim extremist or gang member residing illegally in the country. It doesn't make me racist just because I don't want to be harassed and terrorised by fanatics who hate gays, women who dress how they please and anyone drinking alcohol.

Lastly, where's the outcry over the 20 or so Islamic countries that have a PERMANENT ban on Israeli Jews?

cd1515 said...

Friday question: with Paxton dying and his series Training Day now apparently over, I wonder if you can take us thru some of what went on with Coach dying on Cheers, obviously the series wasn't going to be cancelled but the adjustments that had to be made, how far in advance were they planning to make them knowing Coach was sick, what other people were in the mix to play Woody, what other ideas did people have to replace Coach, etc.

Scott said...

That's all so ridiculous. I'd love to see you cite proof of separate lines for fast restaurants, but you can't.

By Ken Levine said...

I'm not letting this turn into a political debate. Done with this thread. Period.

Mike said...
Could be worse - could be music awards.
Wyclef Jean: "That line is important to you?"
"I'm Ch-ch-ch-chaka-chaka-chaka Khan."

Dave said...

My favorite gag was when Seth hosted. That bear calling himself Theodore Shapiro was hilarious. Even audience didn't mind the Jew stereotyping.

The first line itself was the best - Hey is Ed Harris nominated tonight? Ok then we can take the stool with us when we leave..... Ha Ha Ha

Linda said...

They gave the Oscars to those rapists Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. Tomorrow to that anti-Semite Mel Gibson?

Norm said...

I've been to the Academy Awards seven times (with the video/badges/programs to prove it) as a SEAT FILLER and was lucky enough to stay in the room for almost the entire show.

We must never forget this is a GLORIFIED television show, live, and just as Ken said, anything and everything happens.

In my position, with no vested interest, you can really tune in on all the "fun and games" being played throughout the broadcast!

powers said...

I pray that the Academy will one day figure out that the witty banter between presenters is rarely witty.The presenters look awkward & uncomfortable doing it.
It is a lame waste of time that could be better served by giving more minutes to the In Memorium segment.

Peter said...

My favourite Oscars moment was in 1995 when Samuel L Jackson was up for Best Supporting Actor. Usually the losing nominees do their best to appear happy for the winner. But good old Sam didn't care about that. When Martin Landau's name was read out, Jackson mouthed "Shit!"

Cap'n Bob said...

They may need a lot of seat fillers now that so many stars have fled to Canada. What? They what? Oh, never mind.

Anyway, I don't plan to watch but I look forward to your first-rate snark job, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Favorite Oscars was Andrien Brody's win. Well deserved. Great performance.So unexpected. His absolute joy at his win, as well as the happiness of the competition, was heart-warming. Wish he could have maintained his career at the same level. Janice B.

Breadbaker said...

I imagine that the podcast will be delayed while Ken's (and the rest of the world's) jaw is disconnected from the floor.

Pat Reeder said...

Only time I've ever attended a taping of a show with actors reading directly off of prompters, it was the "Grammy Salutes The Beatles" special a couple of years back. My wife Laura and I were in the audience about 10 feet from where big stars like Johnny Depp and Sean Penn were led in to introduce the acts on stage. I was astounded at how terrible they were at it. They mumbled and squinted through reading those cue cards like someone who'd just smoked a kilo of weed for his advanced glaucoma.

Coming out of radio, I couldn't believe that people who get paid $20 million a movie to repeat other people's words with some semblance of feeling couldn't do any better than that. If I'd been that lousy at cold-reading off a blue card in my first job at a 250-watt small town radio station, I would've expected to be fired.

Mike Barer said...

Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one!

Spencer Porter said...

I wrote for the host once - but got lucky in that I just was asked to send in as many monologue jokes as I could a few weeks prior to the show. I was not on the regular staff. I cranked out as many jokes as I possibly could and sent them off and hoped for the best.

That I got one on the air will be a lifelong accomplishment. I'm very proud of that moment.

And yes, I was invited to the host's oscar party.

Peter said...

Well, if people thought Faye Dunaway was difficult to work with before...

Peter said...

Spencer, you can't tease us like that! What was your joke?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pat Reeder: My theory is that they know how to play *other* people, but not themselves.

On another subject. Ken, I listened to your list of favorite "romantic comedies" (I've seen all but two, and have heard of all of them). ALL ABOUT EVE is a wonderful movie, and it's very funny, but how on earth is it a *romantic* comedy? There are three relationships in the movie. Two pre-date the events of the film, and the third is hardly romantic. Several others in your list don't strike me as romantic, either - such as TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, funny as it is.

Everyone's personal list is different, of course. I'd be inclined to replace those two with WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... and L.A. STORY.


Matt said...

Will the writer be blamed for Warren Beaty and Faye Dunaway's inability to read?

Barry Traylor said...

Too be honest I had so little interest in this year's Oscars that I did not realize it was on last night.

Andrew said...

Ken, be honest. Did you write the meta "this is not a joke" moment last night?

Poor Beatty. That frozen smile was awful to watch.

Prairie Perspective said...

Not the first time someone wished George Clooney good luck with twins ...