Friday, September 20, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions roll around again.

Kubelsky starts us off:

I read that at the 31st Emmys (1979), the "ceremony [was] remembered for problems with the Pasadena Civic Auditorium's air-conditioning..."
Ken, you were nominated this year for "Point of View." Can you shed some light on this? Was it sweltering in there? Noisy? Too cold? 

Also, this seems to be the only year where sitcom and comedy/variety categories were merged... how did it feel to be up against an SNL episode in the writing category? They are completely different animals!

For those keeping score, the other nominees that year were the "All in the Family" episode where the Bunkers visit Mike & Gloria in California, Michael Leeson for "Blind Date" (Taxi) and Alan Alda for the M*A*S*H episode "Inga" (which won, prompting Alda to do a cartwheel on his way to the podium).

Oh, that’s right. The Emmys are this weekend. I may or may not even watch them. No review. As I’ve said before, the nominees and categories are now a joke. At this rate, WALKING DEAD will soon win for Best Variety Special.

Yes, it seemed unfair to be lumped in with SNL simply because it was a different genre. It wasn’t fair to any of the nominees including SNL.

To be honest, I don’t remember an air-conditioning problem that night. The auditorium may have been hot but I was sweating for other reasons. I was, of course, disappointed that we didn’t win for POINT OF VIEW but I was really furious that Charles Dubin didn’t win for directing POINT OF VIEW. He did a masterful job.

From -30-

If you were a major league baseball player, what would your walk-up music be?

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

Edward wonders:

What are your thoughts on season-ending cliffhangers to hopefully keep the viewer's interest so they stick around to watch a new season?

The problem with cliffhangers is the audience has to really be invested in your show to care. I see some shows doing cliffhangers and laugh. No one other than the people who work on that show give a shit. And probably half of them don’t.

If your show is doing well enough that a sizeable audience does care then it’s unnecessary to inflate the ratings.

And it can really be ludicrous if your show is on cable or a streaming service because you can go a year or more between seasons. No one is going to sit at the edge of his seat for 18 months. By the time the show comes back most people will have forgotten that there even IS a cliffhanger.

All that said, if you’re the type of show that does cliffhangers and you’ve got a real doozy, then by all means do it. And if it captures the audience’s imagination it might become an “event” like “Who shot JR?” from DALLAS.

And finally, from Chris in Cleveland

I know the old adage; If you want to write for Hollywood TV and films, you need to BE in Hollywood. But in this 21st century age of Netflix and other streaming services, is there a way to pitch scripts or series ideas to any of these content providers living outside of LA LA Land?

Yes. If you’re Aaron Sorkin. If you’re established. You can Face Time from Bhutan.

Otherwise, you need to be available for face-to-face meetings. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t live elsewhere and just fly in for the meetings. But that could get expensive.

And if you hope to get on staff then at some point you need to move to LA. For freelance screenwriters, once the meetings are through and you’ve got the assignment, you can go off and write the draft at the Starbucks in Bhutan.

So I wouldn’t say, no, you have to live in LA. But this is an incredibly competitive field and NOT being “in the room where it happens” puts you at a distinct disadvantage.

Best of luck. 

What’s your Friday Questions?


Curt Alliaume said...

Regarding cliffhangers, I can also remember at least two programs (Caroline in the City, I'm With Her) that had cliffhanger season-ending episodes and then weren't renewed. You think a year is a long time to wait for resolution; no resolution at all is undoubtedly worse.

E. Yarber said...

And just to let the other shoe drop... LA is full of hopefuls who think that simply moving to LA is enough to begin a career. They don't understand how the business works and come here expecting some sort of Cinderella moment like bumping into an jolly father-like executive at the car wash who needs an episode of GAME OF THRONES written that weekend.

While waiting for that big break to come out of nowhere, they party like it's a permanent spring break and take selfies at the tourist traps to prove to the folks back home they're in HOLLYWOOD, but instead of concentrating on their work spend all their time talking endlessly with similar wannabes about how they're going to storm the studios. Eventually they go home with a bitter account of how the system is so corrupt that a sensitive artist never has a chance to succeed with the crass barbarians in the rotten entertainment business, but they never really made a serious effort to build a career.

If you just want to come to the city to act out that fantasy, you can get just as much accomplished staying at home daydreaming about how all those things would happen if you made the move, and you wouldn't have to pay ten times as much rent. It's essential to have a clear idea what you need to do with the time you have here and whether you are producing material professional enough to get your foot in the door. Still, I've found myself saying these things directly to would-be writers who continued acting as though they were in the City of Dreams rather than an often grim factory town, so I know the people who need to understand this the most are usually the least likely to grasp the reality of the situation. They just gripe that I'm trying to undermine their confidence.

As always, though, it's worth slogging through hundreds of half-baked applicants to find someone who understands how high the bar really is and brings along the chops to reach it.

Pat Reeder said...

Ever since I was a kid and watching "Dick Van Dyke Show" reruns after school every day, I wanted to be a comedy writer. Being from rural Texas with no showbiz contacts, I had to find all sorts of ways to write and perform my own material, working it into my radio air shifts, commercials, industrial videos, greeting cards, etc. But the big prize was to work in TV.

So I went out to L.A...and absolutely HATED it. I've recently visited again and enjoyed it, but back then, it really rubbed me the wrong way. The smog was awful, and everywhere I looked, I saw sleazebags, flesh merchants and runaways hustling on the streets. It made me feel like I needed to take a shower. By the fourth day, I couldn't wait to get back to Texas.

I went back to doing comedy wherever I could, including a series of humorous instructional videos with Tony Randall, who liked me enough to recommend me to Letterman's head writer. So I went to NYC. He liked me, too, but there was a writer's strike dragging on and on at the time, and both my parents were diagnosed with terminal cancer. So I made the hard decision to give up that dream and go back to Texas and spend their final days with them.

Once back in Dallas, I continued doing radio and creating comedy material wherever I could, which led to me being hired to contribute to, then later be head writer of the Morning Punch syndicated radio humor service based in Dallas. Around this time, a friend who wrote for Letterman recommended me to his agent, who, I later discovered, was a big name at CAA. He offered to sign me if I would move to L.A. I thought it over for about 30 seconds and politely declined.

A year later, my wife and I launched our own syndicated radio service, the Comedy Wire, and wrote it for years before transitioning to writing some major syndicated radio shows, books, and now, for the Internet and a couple of TV shows. I never made Chuck Lorre money, but on the bright side, I never had to work for Brett Butler or take notes from some 22-year-old squirt in a suit about my jokes. I've made a good living writing exactly what I wanted for people who like my style of humor, usually while sitting at home in Texas in a recliner in my underwear. Like now.

I guess the moral is that if you really want to be a TV comedy writer, you need to move to L.A., as Ken said (or New York, if you're shooting for "SNL" or one of the shows based there.) But if you just have the unstoppable drive to be a humor writer, you will find a way to do it, no matter where you are.

Ben K. said...

Hi Ken, on today there's an interview with an (anonymous) comedian who tried out for "Saturday Night Live." It focused on other things, but I was interested in what he said about hiring practices. Apparently, you have to sign a contract that would require you to stay on "SNL" for five years (and that also restricts any outside projects) before you can even audition. So they still get to decide whether or not to hire you, but you have to agree to take the job before it's even offered. If this is true, is it a common practice in TV, or is it unique?

Gron said...

Best cliffhangers were on Batman, with the announcer encouraging the viewer to tune in the next day, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

Unknown said...

Another thing about current cliff hangers, people forget the series over the summer. Years ago, the summer was all re-runs, you could catch missed episodes, watch ones again. When the new season starts, you are in tune. Story lines are fresh in your memory.
Network shows rarely do re-runs, so if you missed an episode, you have to find it on line (if it is there). Current shows I watch (or try to watch) like Rookie or Madam secretary, weren't on over the summer. So if there was a cliff hanger, I don't remember. I guess I could search it out, but I'm of the mode of 'entertain me', and use the remote. I'm not one to search for entertainment, unless I know of it being good (Chernobyl). But that is just me, who is not a robot.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Funny you should mention "Dallas." I never watched a single episode of that show. Including, "Who Shot J.R." I didn't care, so I felt no need to see it. But, that show benefited from all the hype surrounding that episode. (Whomever handled the publicity for CBS at that time should be in the P.R. Hall of Fame.)
I'm also sure that many of the people who weren't fans of "Dallas" watched just because they were caught up in the zeitgeist. But that's not unique to "Dallas." Every day you see people participating in some current fad just because it's "trending."

Maybe one has to live here if he or she wants to be a TV writer. But, does that also apply to playwriting? You've mentioned many times how one of your plays is being produced and/or included in some festival out of state or even out of the country. Must you move to New York or Chicago if you want to be a playwright? Or, with modern technology, could you live in say, northern Nevada and submit to a festival regardless of where it is?

P.S. Sorry I didn't day anything controversial today. I'll have to work on being more inflammatory.

Stephen Marks said...

E. Yarber. I enjoy your writing but dude holy crap, in the last couple of months you've crushed more dreams than a steam roller driving over a 16-year-old kids bed while he jerks off to Kaley Cuoco.

Andy Rose said...

Another problem with cliffhangers these days is the fact that so many series are limited-run and have tremendous downtime between seasons. If the next season that resolves the cliffhanger isn't coming for more than a year, I tend to lose interest and have to be reminded what the big deal was in the first place.

I don't know of any in-demand writers living in Bhutan, but Arthur C. Clarke did live in Sri Lanka when he was co-writing the screenplay for 2001. Some of his communication with Stanley Kubrick was done through a very early form of email.

Stephen Robinson said...

The second season finale "cliffhanger" of CHEERS still blows me away whenever I see it. Sam's reaction when he see Diane's portrait... Ted Danson deserved all the Emmys just for that one moment. The breakup fight is also FUNNY with great physical comedy, then seamlessly transitioning to bittersweet drama. This has rarely been matched.

I enjoy SEINFELD but I have sometimes knocked it for perhaps popularizing the trend of what I call "comedic sociopathy." Everyone on the show is terrible and is terrible to each other. We laugh but we don't *care* about them. And that's a shame. I was watching the second season FRASIER episode "Slow Tango in South Seattle" and really appreciated how *genuine* the final scene is. On so many modern "hip" comedies, they would've gone for an easy joke and stayed far away from a "sweet" moment.

It's been argued that the shift is that sitcoms today are more often built around standup comedians and/or SNL alums. You couldn't do the second season CHEERS finale I mentioned if you don't have *actors* like Ted Danson and Shelley Long. I don't think I'm being snide. Jerry Seinfeld would probably agree that he's not the actor Kelsey Grammer or David Hyde Pierce is.

Hawkeye Pierce, Niles Crane, and Sam Malone just don't work the same without Alan Alda, David Hyde Pierce, or Ted Danson.

DBenson said...

Actually, "Caroline in the City" didn't end with a cliffhanger. The final episode played like a recap of the season they planned to do, whipping through character arcs and ending with Caroline about to marry a boyfriend from a few seasons prior when her ex -- the pre-ordained Mr. Right from episode one -- shows up at the wedding. They broke up because he couldn't see himself with a family, and now he was a single dad raising a daughter. Her reaction makes clear that he's the one she's going to marry.

"Smash" was clearly teeing up long-term complications for a third season, but that show's finale hastily and absurdly paired off the pregnant star and the womanizing director while waving away the consequences for her show and all the characters involved in it.

DBenson said...

Re E. Yarber: My hometown's official song, "Do You Know the Way to San Jose", isn't really about San Jose at all. Under the perky tune it's just whining about going to LA to become a star and having to work at a job instead, and optimistically predicting the good folks back home will be eager to take them in. Even though "I've been away so long I might go wrong and lose my way" (Just aim North, for pity's sake! Did the songwriters even look at a map?).

My father, a doctor and a realist, suggested I take six months after graduation (BA in Philosophy) to make a go of writing in LA. Was never sure if he thought I was that gifted or he trusted that would flush all theatrical ambitions out of my system. Instead I took a clerical job at the local newspaper and, improbably, got into advertising as a copywriter.

E. Yarber said...

I'm certainly not trying to crush anyone's dreams, but I hate seeing the futility of hopefuls coming here trying to live out a scenario that isn't how the industry works. If you can get a job writing anywhere, you're ahead of the pack.

I had already been a freelance writer since the age of fourteen and knew how rough the business here would be, so I spent over two years carefully studying the field as well as analyzing box office patterns so I could predict the commercial potential of projects in development. It took me a year to get an internship, but six months later I was picked up as a reader by one of the big three agencies, from there to a studio staff job, finally getting scripts of my own optioned. There are possibilities here, but you have to know way more about this environment than the tabloid scandal stuff so many people use as an excuse to assume that it's just some crazy game.

Aside from the museums, I'm still out of place in LA and always will be. I don't really socialize with people in entertainment. My closest friend is an engineer, which makes sense when you reflect that I have to have the same eye for detail in connecting the elements of a screenplay as she has overseeing the design of an electrical substation.

Tom Galloway said...

I don't think it was possible for Clarke and Kubrick to have used a very early form of email for 2001. My understanding is that we're coming up next month on the 50th anniversary of the first ever email message, sent over what became the ARPANet. Which postdates 2001's release.

Kaleberg said...

Clarke and Kubrik were almost certainly using Telex. I'm not sure of its internals. I don't think it used packet switching, but it let one type on one's personal teletype and send a message that would be printed on the teletype of anyone else who was signed up for the service. It was very up to date and futuristic. It was like having your own Western Union telegraph branch office. If I remember correctly, Buckminster Fuller had the Telex handle BUCKY on his business card.

I know one guy who moved to Los Angeles and made himself a career as a script writer. He was always very imaginative and creative. He wound up working for Spielberg among others and won an Emmy or two. Then again, I also knew a guy who started his own tech company and made it onto the Forbes 500 wealthiest people list for a year. Like the one guy I know who won a technical Oscar, one has to be driven, one has to have talent and one has to have a clue in order to make it.

Todd Everett said...

Pat Reeder said...
The smog was awful, and everywhere I looked, I saw sleazebags, flesh merchants and runaways hustling on the streets.

Stop! I'm getting all misty.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

The announcer on "Batman" and its sister show on ABC, "The Green Hornet," was the programs' executive producer, William Dozier.

He died in 1991.

Rhoda Lexington said...

"Point of View" is still one of the best episodes of television, hands down. One of my favourites.

April Acton said...

About Clarke and Kubrik's emails: The first ARPANET email message was sent in 1971. By 1998 I was sending email messages from my home (I had both Hotmail and Yahoo accounts back then) and from the local middle school, where I was teaching. We were not particularly cutting-edge then either. Even my parents, who are in their 80s now, had an email account by 1999. Clarke and Kubrick were very likely emailing over a pretty "modern" version of email in 2001.

Stephen Marks said...

E. Yarber. Thank you for commenting. Any chance you can enlighten us as to which commercial endeavors you've been involved with?

Mike said...

Interesting comments about “Seinfeld”. I also really enjoy the show, but it has no heart, and that was a deliberate choice by Jerry Seinfeld (“no hugs, no lessons”). I don’t like those MIller/Boyett family comedies from the 80s and 90s that had lots of sappy moments. But more sophisticated shows like “Cheers” (especially in its first five years) weren’t afraid to have serious moments, and they made you care about the characters. I think the reason “Friends” has eclipsed “Seinfeld” in nostalgia culture, even though “Seinfeld” was a bigger hit in its day, is that the show had strong emotional underpinnings and you cared about the characters. Every other week, we hear speculation about a “Friends” reunion; you never hear the same type of speculation/hope about a “Seinfeld” reunion.

Tammy said...

Pat Reeder: What an inspiring read. Thank you.

E. Yarber said...

I lost track of how many projects I evaluated at somewhere north of eight thousand. Most of them, naturally, were unfilmable but had to be read. I also worked with producers and screenwriters on cable TV films and spent a few years stuck in development on projects funded overseas. There's other stuff in-between all that, but you might excuse me if most of it is a blur.

One of the more memorable submissions I handled was messengered to me in a paper ream box. Inside was a first generation copy of a manuscript done on a manual typewriter. It was Cormac McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, which had been delivered to his publisher only days earlier. Interest in the novel was so intense that buyers weren't even waiting for it to be set in type first. It was 4 pm and I had to have a synopsis, review, and breakdown of the potential for screenplay adaptation ready by nine the next morning. All that was at stake was a possible Best Picture Oscar. I wound up recommending the project.

Another job that comes to mind was reading the galleys of Meg Cabot's THE PRINCESS DIARIES while having a bowl of pesto penne at a restaurant across the street that went out of business years ago. Again, I could see that the manuscript could be a successful film. The penalty for being right was that I spent the next couple of years being considered the resident Princess expert, getting copies of all the godawful ripoff scripts that followed the Disney movie.

You might think ANYONE could see those stories would be hits, but it's different when they're among hundreds of other texts being considered, you have no benefit of hindsight, and your comments are the primary evidence a producer has when investing tens of millions of dollars in something that will eat up months of their life. Even the success of the book was not necessarily a clue. THE GOLDFINCH won the Pulitzer Prize, but hasn't done too well in theaters. My track record had to hold up a year or two later once the films were actually made, and I wound up getting pretty well paid for the quality of my predictions. As I think I mentioned above, I had made a careful study of box office patterns, so I wasn't just guessing at random.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Kaleberg, et al: It's entirely possible that Clarke and Kubrick were using an early version of email, which was invented in the 1960s, even though ARPAnet wasn't set up until later. (April Acton: Kubrick and Clarke were corresponding in the late 1960s about the *movie* 2001, which was released in 1969/1970.) I do know that Clarke visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in researching the screenplay, which is why HAL was turned on there in the movie. He certainly had enough connections to get them access to an early email system. I don't know that they *did* use it, just that it's *possible* they did.


E. Yarber said...

I don't mean to keep horning in, but this is from pp 101-102 of Michael Benson's book SPACE ODYSSEY, printed by Simon and Shuster 2018:

"Apart from that, 2001's production notes contain a number of startlingly prescient glimpses of the world we live in today. As of mid-1965, approximately the same time that that US Department of Defense was conceiving of the internet's direct predecessor, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), Kubrick's intrepid band of futurists had seemingly already visualized important aspects of the new technology's implications. One document sent from Tony Masters to Roger Varas on June 29 listed matter-of-factly--under a letterhead replete with the roaring MGM lion--nine props that he asked Caras to help him with. Number one was '2001 newspaper to be read on some kind of television screen. Should be designed television screen shape: i.e., wider than it is high.'

"Within a week or so, Caras had indeed made an agreement with the NEW YORK TIMES permitting use of its logotype in a mocked-up electronic edition of its front page. If it had made it into the film, ir would have been read by an astronaut on the i-Pad-type tablet computers seen on board DISCOVERY. And had Kubrick followed through and actually presented the newspaper in this way, there's no doubt 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY would be remembered today as an important harbinger of the internet. Instead, the director elected to use only a TV transmission, seemingly from the BBC, on the portable tablet.

"As a logical spin-off of the tablet computer concept, a sheaf of production notes written in December 1965--immediately prior to the start of live-action shooting--contained an offhanded description of a sight so common today that it's hard even to remember when it wasn't ubiquitous in the world. "A right should be made for the newspad, so that if one is looking straight at it over a man's shoulder when he is reading, we can illuminate a fixed transparency of one page of a book,' Ordway wrote. 'On the reverse show, we will have to place a small light on the hidden face side of the news pad, so that a little light can be shining on his face.'

"The description is so innocuous, so seemingly blasé, it's easily passed over... At this very moment, of course, a sizable percentage of the planet's population is lit in exactly this way. But inevitably this technology, and its resulting lighting geometry, was described for a first time and in a first place."

Stephen Marks said...

E. Yarber. Excellent, thanks. One more thing, it seems from what I've read there are two scripts that are considered the best ever written, miles ahead of all the others, "Chinatown" and "Shawshank Redemption", this coming from actors, producers, writers, etc. What's your opinion?

E. Yarber said...

CHINATOWN and SHAWSHANK each deserve the respect they're given. The tendency in features today is to go for broad strokes, but those two are fine examples of carefully developed detail building up over the course of the story. For all the care that went into their composition, however, it's interesting to note that the endings of each were changed in filming: Towne's being stripped down to the bare essentials for an appropriately bleak comedown while Darabont's was filled in to give the audience more of a closing catharsis. Sometimes you have to go all the way through the process to find that kernel for the exit. Most people don't know that even a masterpiece like Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE faltered in its final moments through too much restraint, leading to Darryl Zanuck having Lloyd Bacon reshoot a more audience-satisfying coda. Of course, most people these days have never even heard of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, but that's a blog comment for another day.

Anonymous said...

Some E Yarber thoughts:

First, on the 2001 thing -- perhaps they thought it was more visually striking to have a moving image on the screen than a static one. "Who would look at mere print on a TV screen?" Who indeed!

Stephen Marks seems to have felt bad about his comment and softened the blow. That takes guts. There is little of that on the internet.

As to the "tough love" of warning people about moving out here, I wish some of my friends and potential contacts had played more straight with me before I moved my family and realized what it was really going to be like. I heard things "If you lived out here, there are so many things I could have you do for me" (but not for pay); or "Of course we have lots of projects in the pipeline" (and fifty times as many people to do them competing with you); things like that.

The most shocking thing we discovered was how the prices are higher but the pay is the same or even lower. Lots of places want stuff for free. You can meet all kinds of cool people, but try to get work with them and you'll get smiles and maybes. Lots of possibilities that usually either fizzle or go to others.

However, there is always hope and you have to want it very very bad. You have to write and work and follow through. That is Yarber's message. It is possible if you work hard and don't give up. It's also never going to happen for some. Look at the stars of sitcoms of yesterday that appear at those large-scale signings today. Some are doing much better than others, yet at some point they were mainstream.

Yarber seems to have enough left brain to have achieved the success in script reading and assessing the business with a clear head. Most creative people are not wired for that and, by nature, seek acceptance and approval. You have to be careful not to let that become your goal out here. It's just like any company town with an industry, and you have to work. If it doesn't happen, see it as a learning experience and take it with you to a place where you can use it in some other way and enjoy entertainment from the outside.

Thanks to everyone who leaves these comments. Love you, Ken, but I like the comments too.

Stephen Marks said...

Re: Anonymous. Hi, I stand by my comment.....but yours is better

Ray Morton said...

Kubrick and Clarke did not use email or anything like it to co-write the screenplay for 2001. However, Peter Hyams and Clarke did use an early form of email to communicate with one another during the development of the script for 2010 (which Hyams wrote and Clarke consulted on). Their back and forth was published in a book called The Odyssey Files.

E. Yarber said...

Good luck Anonymous. I've been through everything you talked about. The only advantage to enduring those dead ends and broken promises is that you can really feel and appreciate the difference when you finally get into a reasonable berth with honest people. Hope you're already there, but if not what you say makes me feel sure you're perceptive enough to arrive at that place eventually.