Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spec Etiquette

I’ve had several people ask me what NOT to do when trying to get someone to read their spec. It’s a case by case basis of course but I’ll just share some of my own personal experiences or things I have witnessed.

I’ve had people give me spec scripts at high school reunions. Not a good idea unless it’s from the person you always had a crush on and they haven’t gained 300 pounds.

A well known comedy director was in temple during High Holiday services one year when a fellow congregant reached inside his tallis and pulled out a spec script. Not kosher.

When I was announcing for the Orioles I once got thrown out of Bobby Valentine’s office for asking tough questions. He was then the manager of the Texas Rangers. Fifteen minutes later I was summoned back, obviously to receive an apology. No. He had heard I was a writer and pitched me a movie. Try not to be an asshole first.

And then there was the time I was in a funeral home with my father making final arrangements for my grandmother who had just passed away. At one point the mortician asked what I did. When my father said I was a writer the ghoul launched into a twenty minute movie pitch. If my dad wasn’t there no one would believe that story. But it’s true. Pick your spots.

What you need to do is first introduce yourself and try to establish a relationship. How intimate is up to you. But here’s my favorite story. Years ago I and another writer, Larry, were asked to speak at a UCLA extension class. I was a story editor on MASH at the time and he was story editor of RHODA. As we stood in front of the class lecturing, a friend overhead one young woman saying to another: “I think I’ll fuck Larry. I’d rather do a RHODA”.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Getting my start as a director

Sometimes a Friday Question is worthy of an entire post. Like this one by reader, Michael:

How did you get your start as a director? Was it on one of the shows you were a show runner on? If not, was it difficult convincing the producers to give you a chance?

I originally became a director out of necessity. Along with David Isaacs, I was showrunning MARY in 1985 – one of the comeback vehicles for Mary Tyler Moore.

This was maybe episode five. We got a call from the stage that Mary and the freelance director we had hired had had a major blow up and she no longer wanted to rehearse with him. I don't know if it was a clash of styles, a specific disagreement or who was right or wrong.  All I knew was -- we were fucked.  There was a stalemate and the show had completely shut down.  This is not a good thing on a first-time showrunner's watch. 

So we went down to the stage, and just to get everybody back to work I offered to direct it myself. Mary and the cast were fine with that. So I went to work blocking the scene.

Now understand that to this point I had never directed ANYTHING. Not a high school production, not a class, not a skit in camp, nothing. And here I was telling television royalty where to stand. It was positively surreal.

Once the show was blocked, the director we had hired did all the camera blocking (we knew even less about the technical aspects than the performance aspects). And on the screen he got full credit.  I went home and drank heavily. 

Unlike in features, in television the showrunners have final say on the directing. And frequently over the years, on shows I was showrunning, I would ask for scenes to be reblocked or tweaked during runthroughs. I would give performance notes.  Little by little I was familiarizing myself with that process.

And then in editing I would ask for certain shots only to learn that the director didn’t get them.   Example: One character is commenting on another character’s dress and we don’t have a head-to-toe shot of her in the dress. All we have is her close-up. Well, that’s worthless. Or I’d ask for a reaction shot. Sorry, there were none. So there too I learned how to cover a show. It wasn’t enough to have the person delivering a line on camera, you also needed a reaction shot, or a wide shot on occasion.

Eventually, I wanted to try directing myself. It looked like fun, it was a different challenge, and what better way for a writer to protect his material than directing it himself? So for a couple of years I audited James Burrows, Andy Ackerman, Jeff Melman, David Lee and a few other top multi-camera directors.

Once, when I asked Jim Burrows what advice he could give me in preparation he said, “Get the job.” He was right. Until you are thrown into the fire you don’t really know what it’s like.

I was extremely fortunate. I had been consulting and writing on WINGS since the show’s beginning. Showrunners Peter Casey, David Lee, and David Angell graciously gave me my first assignment. I obviously knew the show very well and had a good relationship with the cast.

So that was my first.  But I couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Lee. By then David was already an accomplished director. He would go on to win Emmys. Camera blocking was Monday. He gave up his Saturday to sit with me and help me plan out the camera assignments. A better and more patient teacher you will never find. Looking back, without that day, I would probably still be camera blocking that episode... that first scene actually.  

It was a frantic week but I loved the experience. And some 50+ episodes later I still enjoy directing.

“Getting that first job” is the key and admittedly it’s very hard to do. Some come up through the writing ranks. Others come up through the technical side. Former editors, first assistant directors, technical coordinators, post production supervisors. A number enter the field through an acting background. And then there are stage directors or directors of short films or music videos that break through. Also, AFI and student intern programs provide an occasional “in”.

It’s not easy but it’s worth it. How often in your life do you get to tell Mary Tyler Moore when to sit?

This is a re-post from many years ago.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Questions

I prepare for the Memorial Day Weekend by answering some Friday Questions.

The Bumble Bee Pendant starts us off:

Ken, as you know British shows do not have Writers Rooms, mostly because they have shorter series runs, and the penchant for Sorkin-type showrunners, plus a couple of freelancers to write everything. However, BBC is considering it. Would you prefer something like this if you had a limited Netflix type series or do you feel that comedy has to be done by the Writers Room?

I’d like a combination of both. I would like to write all of the scripts (along with my partner David Isaacs), but then when the show is in production I’d like a few writers on staff to help rewrite and fix the mess we had made. I also really enjoy the camaraderie of a writing staff. So I would not choose to go it alone even if I could.

From Liggie:

Is the age of the classic miniseries like "Roots" and "The Winds of War" long gone? Or is the format still alive today in a different look, like a 10- episode season like "Better Call Saul" our "Agent Carter" have had?

I wouldn’t call those two shows miniseries. They’re “series.” (AGENT CARTER is a former series. It was cancelled.)

To me, miniseries are stand-alones. There used to be more of them on networks because they were considered big event programming and were carted out during sweeps. In some cases they were huge home runs (like ROOTS), but they’re risky. And expensive.

Networks still do them, but more on a limited basis. And now there are so many other avenues for miniseries. But they’re around. Every year on the Emmys there are five nominees and I’ve never heard of any of them.

Neal Grinnell asks:

I see that a stage adaption of "Cheers" is coming to Boston in September. Were you or David Isaacs involved at all?

No. We also don’t know if any of our scripts are being used. But we are looking into it. Or should I say our representatives are looking into it? 

Justin Russo queries:

Can you choose a favorite joke or scene that you wrote (from any series) that you are most proud of writing?

It’s hard. Not because there are so many, but because I forgot most of them. But in the first season of CHEERS there was an episode called “Boys In The Bar,” in which the patrons worried that the bar might go gay because Sam came out in support of his former roommate who announced that he was gay.

Sam is in the poolroom with Diane and says something to the effect of: “I should have known. One time on the road we were in a piano bar and he requested a show tune.”

For some reason that got a five-minute laugh. The laugh was so long that the director ordered the cameras to stop rolling. We were wasting too much film. For a comedy writer that’s a walk-off home run in a World Series game.

And finally, Stoney wonders”

Allright Ken; let's say your phone rings. You open it and see that it's James Brooks calling. "Hi Jim" "Hi Ken; we've decided it's time to end THE SIMPSONS and we need you to write a finale for us." Well?

I would have the characters wake up and suddenly be their real ages. And I would have the episode dedicated to Sam Simon.

What’s your Friday Question? Have a great and safe holiday weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

LA prepares for summer

As summer approaches with the Memorial Day Weekend just ahead, here’s how we in LA are gearing up for the season:

There are already billboards for Emmy consideration. Obscure shows on networks you’ve never heard of have giant billboards on Sunset.   More people will see the billboards than the shows themselves. 

Billboards for the upcoming Fall TV season are already starting to pop up. 

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen a single billboard, bus board, newspaper ad, TV or radio commercial for the Rams. You would think by now the Rams returning to Los Angeles after twenty years would be a big fucking deal but apparently it doesn’t warrant the attention that Starz mini-series get.

Freeway traffic is beginning to ease somewhat when school is out for the summer. You’ll be able to drive the 405 Freeway at 3 AM with no problems.

“Back to School” displays are already being erected.

Movie premiers are happening in Westwood every week. Barriers are set up to hold back the crowds, desperately hoping to catch a brief glimpse of the stars of SAUSAGE PARTY.

Hollywood sightseeing buses are everywhere. What stars are these tourists going to see in San Pedro?

Sports talk radio is discussing the Lakers 24/7.

Residents brace themselves for June Gloom, that treacherous weather season where there’s cloud cover until early afternoon.

The LA FRINGE FESTIVAL arrives with fun live theater events all over the city. Pull yourself away from the premier of TEENAGE NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS and go see real actors performing for the love of it.

Disneyland probably raises prices.  Take out a loan or refinance your house. 

Six Flags Magic Mountain unveils a new rollercoaster. It seems like they do that every year. They seem to name them after superheroes. Batman, Superman, etc. By now they’re down to Culligan Man.

Now that the LA METRO RAIL goes all the way down to Santa Monica Beach, locals will be thrilled until they realize there is limited parking at most of the stops beforehand.

Stars move into their Malibu Colony homes for the summer.  Streisand still won't let any of them shop at her private mall. 

Some version of the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson will appear. 70 year-old guys singing “When I Grow Up To Be a Man.”

In anticipation of the 2021 Super Bowl, hotels are jacking up their room rates.  

The Hollywood Bowl and Greek Theater schedules come out and you decide whether seeing certain attractions are worth the parking nightmare.

More sound stages are empty as the production exodus to Vancouver continues. One of these shows should actually be set in Vancouver.

People stop watching television. Except for the lucky few who can still see Vin Scully call his last season of Dodger baseball. That’ll be me this summer. Hope you have a great one wherever you are.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

HORACE AND PETE: My review

First, let me say I’m a huge admirer of Louis CK. I love his comedy, think he’s a terrific actor, and love that creatively he’s willing to take big chances. If I’m being honest, I have mixed feelings about LOUIE. There are episodes that are brilliant and others that feel very self indulgent to me.

Recently he took his biggest risk (so far). He completely wrote, directed, stars, and financed a ten episode limited series called HORACE AND PETE. It’s not on any network. You plunk your $5 down per episode and screen it on his website. Now that’s a way to get around ABC network notes.

HORACE AND PETE is a dramedy set in a Brooklyn bar and features an astounding cast. Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Rebecca Hall, and a host of the best character actors you see every night on LAW & ORDER reruns.

For weeks you readers have asked what I thought of it.

There’s a lot I applaud. It’s ambitious, it’s out of the box, Edie Falco is sensational, and Alan Alda’s foul-mouth angry character is the best thing he’s done since Hawkeye.  (I missed a golden opportunity not writing in seven "fucks" in his dialogue every week.)

But Jesus, it's a grim show.

Imagine CHEERS with Eugene O’Neill as the showrunner.

There are parts of HORACE AND PETE that are fascinating (although I’m totally confused by all the generations of Horace and Pete’s over the last hundred years and who’s related to who), and other parts that have me scratching my head.

And part one had an intermission.  An intermission?  I'm sorry but how fucking pretentious is that???

The most remarkable achievement is that Louis CK managed to produce a whole star-studded television series in secret. How does that happen in this day and age when Jennifer Lawrence peeing makes social network headlines?

The second most remarkable achievement is getting Alan Alda and Jessica Lange to drop C-bombs at will.

Louis CK has announced that he has lost millions on this show. (Of course he can just go out on tour for three months and make it all back. It’s not like he mortgaged and lost Downton Abbey.) But still, that’s a considerable amount of money and creative commitment. The sense I get from seeing him on interview shows is that he’s somewhat disappointed in the results.

To me the problem is that it’s not a comedy, which is fine, but his fan base – the ones who would shell out $5 – want to pay for a comedy. That’s his “brand.” When he put a concert on line and charged for it he got a lot of takers. They paid to see his stand-up act. But this is like Woody Allen, after ANNIE HALL and a host of inspired comedies, charged people to see INTERIORS.

Still, what excites me about Louis CK is that he’s always willing to take a big swing at bat. So who knows what brilliant, groundbreaking, or even really funny projects are yet to come? Give me that over the next Seth Rogen NEIGHBORS film any day.  But don't have an intermission.  An intermission???

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Naked Jennifer Lawrence Pelted By BB Gun While, Of Course, Peeing

Headline writing used to be an art. Back in the (very) old days when people got their news from newspapers, headlines would entice them to plunk down the nickel or whatever those rags charged. It was a very competitive field then and newspapers actually had headline writers on staff. In later years the tabloids took these headlines to classic extremes. Probably the most famous being from the New York Post:

Headless Body In Topless Bar

Sports sections also featured great headlines from time to time. I was up in San Francisco for the grand opening of AT&T Park. The Dodgers were playing the Giants to an SRO crowd. Dodger shortstop Kevin Elster uncharacteristically hit three home runs en route to a Dodger victory. The headline in one of the San Francisco papers the next day was:

Three Of A Kind Beats Full House

Today everything is on line and we bloggers and webmasters use headlines to try to grab eyeballs. Ideally, they’re intriguing enough that you’ll want to click through.

A major online publication is the Huffington Post. Their front page offers dozens of articles, each containing audience grabbing headlines. But some of them are, well… ridiculous. Over the course of just a couple of days last week I assembled these actual HuffPost Headlines. Why write comedy when I can just cut and paste this?

Morons Charged After Stomping On Iconic Yellowstone Hot Spring

Naked Jennifer Lawrence Pelted By BB Gun While, Of Course, Peeing

Turns Out Matthew McConaughey Is Really Good At Making Weird Noises

Kim Kardashian Vows To Keep Breaking The Internet With Nude Selfies

Meet Kim Kardashian: A Spy Intent On Corrupting Iranian Youth

Stunning Photos Finally Give Cat Ladies Their Due

How To Live An Orgasmic Life When You Don't Have A Sexual Partner

Texas Republican Wants Schools To Decide How To Police Bathrooms -- Unless They Decide Wrong

Congress Is Using Zika To Weaken Truck Safety

This Couple Decided To Take Their Engagement Pictures At Costco

Lawmaker Briefly Proposes Regulation To Keep Strippers Young, Trim

It Turns Out That Having Sex In A Self-Driving Car Is Kind Of Dangerous

Proof That George Washington Would Be Ashamed Of Trump

The 8 Avocado Hacks You Want And Need

Mysterious 'Ghost' Voice Turns Out To Be A Guy In The Chimney

Monday, May 23, 2016

Wow. Talk about an a-hole...

Check this out. The news anchor made the unconscionable error of reading a story this sports guy was going to do. Listen to how graciously he handles it.

The day I was threatened with an injunction, federal and state lawsuit

Who hasn't had that?

I don’t think it’s possible to have a long career in television or motion picture production without being sued, threatened with cease and desist orders, and legal action.

Mine came when my partner, David Isaacs, and I created the series MARY for Mary Tyler Moore in 1985.

I hadn’t thought of this for a long time but in Googling something else recently I came across this article in the Los Angeles Times. You can read the article here.

I actually never saw it when it came out, but it is filled with inaccuracies. Had the Times bothered to talk to one of us and get our side maybe they would have had a more accurate account of events, but let me share that now since it’s an interesting story of gamesmanship and negotiation (and greed).

David and I conceived a series set in a tabloid newspaper in Chicago. There is a research service that clears names for legal purposes. We submitted a list of possible newspaper names and they came back with the few that had cleared. One was the Chicago Post. So that’s the one we chose.

Before designing the set we went to a few newspaper newsrooms to see what they actually looked like. One thing we noticed when we compared the photos was you couldn’t automatically identify one from the other. None had the name of their paper plastered on the walls. So, in designing our newsroom, nowhere did we show the words Chicago Post.  This proved to be a lucky break.

We filmed the pilot early in October (to air in December). The following week the director, Danny DeVito, and Mary went back to Chicago to film the opening title sequence. David Isaacs went with them. I stayed back and worked on upcoming scripts.

On the morning of October 16th I went into the office early. My plan was to work in the morning then go to the Dodger-Cardinal playoff game in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, in Chicago they were shooting scenes of buses going through town with billboards of “the Chicago Post” with Mary's picture prominently displayed (she was supposed to be a columnist).

At about 10:00 I get a call from a gentleman saying he was the publisher of the Chicago Post and happened to see one of these buses. What the hell was going on? I said I would call him back.

I quickly dialed Chicago information and asked for the number of the Chicago Post. Sure enough, she had one. Clearly, our research company fucked up big time.

I called the higher-ups at MTM and alerted them. They said were on it.

An hour later they called and asked how difficult would it be if we had to change the paper's name? I said not difficult at all. We would have to reshoot those opening title scenes with the bus boards, and do some looping of dialogue, but that’s about it. It would be a pain in the ass, but in no way would we have to reshoot the pilot (thus saving a million dollars). Relieved, they said “Great” and told me to stand by.

Then they called the paper’s publisher and very generously offered $100,000 for use of the name. In truth, the Chicago Post was just a throwaway paper. The owner said the name was worth much more and wanted some astronomical fee. He figured we’d have to reshoot the pilot. MTM said that was their final offer and he had until the end of the business day.

With that hanging over my head I sped down to Dodger Stadium to watch the game where Jack Clark hit the three-run home run to win the pennant over my beloved Dodgers. Not a good day. 

Now I go back to the office. The Chicago Post publisher thought we were bluffing and let the deadline pass.   We made those changes and the Chicago Post became the Chicago Eagle.

If he ever called back the next day and said he'd agree to the offer or was open to negotiate I'm not aware.  All I know is when the deadline passed the offer was pulled off the table and MTM was done with the matter.

We reshot the bus board scenes in Los Angeles, reprinted copies of the paper, looped the actors (I think it was said only three or four times), and that was that. Long before the show aired it was done.

So that's the real story.  To my knowledge there were never any injunctions, and federal and state lawsuits.  The show's airing was never in jeopardy.   If the publisher did file those legal salvos he wasted a lot of money because Chicago Post was never in the broadcast version.

I remember at the end of that day, the MTM exec saying, “It’s now only a minor problem of making some fixes. Go home with peace of mind.” And I said, “Screw that. How come Lasorda didn't walk Clark with first base open?"