Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Transitioning from comedy to drama and vice versa

Had lunch recently with fellow writer/blogger, Earl Pomerantz. Topics included the usual: shows that aren’t funny, baseball, health insurance, our kids, Hawaii, and of course other writers.

One name that came up was a writer we both admire, Chris Downey. We both worked with him on LATELINE, the (Senator) Al Franken sitcom of the late ‘90s. Chris is currently executive producing SUITS after co-creating LEVERAGE. We noted how well he transitioned from comedy to drama.

And that got us to thinking of others who made the switch from half-hours to hours. I am a huge fan of Shawn Ryan. THE SHIELD is one of my all-time favorite shows. But when I met him a few years ago he said his real goal when he got into the business was to write for CHEERS. His comedy scripts weren’t cutting it and he gravitated towards drama (where he is an exceptional writer). Likewise, David Shore wanted to be a yuckmeister but found much more success creating HOUSE. And sitcom hopeful Leonard Dick is an integral part of THE GOOD WIFE.

Stephen Nathan wrote on Diane English sitcoms and now is running BONES.

Matthew Weiner toiled on BECKER and THE NAKED TRUTH before sliding over to THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN. Comedy veterans Janet Leahy, Tom Palmer, Michael Saltzman, and even my writing partner David Isaacs all had stints on MAD MEN.

Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (poor guy) before writing AMERICAN BEAUTY and then SIX FEET UNDER.

Was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES considered a drama? Well if so, add a bunch of former FRASIER writers to the list – Anne Flett Giordano, Joe Keenan, Bob Daily, Lori Kirkland to name a few.

And former CHEERS scribe, Phoef Sutton worked on TERRIERS and BOSTON LEGAL.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples but they needed our table.

Here’s the interesting thing we noticed though: Whereas lots of comedy writers have transitioned to drama, very few go the other way. Writers of drama rarely reinvent themselves as comedy writers. Even Aaron Sorkin struggled with STUDIO 60. Not saying that it hasn’t happened or can’t happen (Jane Espenson goes back and forth with ease), but it’s more difficult. Oh yeah, and Shakespeare could do it pretty well.

This phenomenon makes sense to me. A good comedy is just drama with a comedic spin. Comedy writers still have to know dramatic structure, suspense, and at times, tapping into genuine emotion. But the ability to write and construct comedy requires a different skill set than drama.

Some drama writers might disagree. And often when they do attempt a comedy they treat it like they’re slumming. David Mamet writes brilliant dramas but sorry, his comedies aren’t very funny – certainly not as funny as he thinks they are.

This discussion made Earl and me feel better about ourselves, which was really the point. Especially after the discussion of health insurance. Comedy writers rule! Fortunately for you drama writers, most scripted shows are dramas. And many have dashes of humor.  Maybe one reason why drama writers aren’t getting into comedy is that they don’t have to.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My review of THE NIGHT OF

I can’t wait for Sunday night’s conclusion to THE NIGHT OF (now showing on HBO). This eight-part series has been absolutely gripping. It feels and looks like a Sidney Lumet movie. (Have you noticed that television limited series are way better and more complex than movies? Few and far between are films like THE VERDICT.)

In THE NIGHT OF you start with A-list writers in Richard Price and Steve Zaillian. And Zaillian has become an A-list director as well. But here’s the thing: they actually deliver. How many times have you seen a marquee pitching match-up like Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner and the final score is 10-9?

But Price and Zaillian both pitch perfect games.

This was taken from a British series and adapted for US audiences. James Gandolfini was supposed to play the lead character (the rumpled lawyer) but tragically passed away. (He still gets an executive producer credit.) DeNiro was in for five minutes but he bailed (probably to take DIRTY GRANDPA or some other truly terrible role). John Turturro stepped in and gives the performance of his career.

And yet he doesn’t steal the show. There are two ahead of him. Riz Ahmed as the Pakistani kid who is charged with murder goes down this rabbit hole of hell and to see him adapt to his circumstances is the stuff of Emmys.

And he still wasn’t my favorite.

Bill Camp was. I’ve mentioned him before. Camp is a character actor who has a bunch of credits although he’s one of those guys you never remember. Well, that will change with this role. His portrayal of the chief detective is so real, so riveting, so better than anything you see on CSI that for me, he was the stand-out of stand-outs.  And isn't it fun to see someone NEW (or at least new to you)? 

The supporting actors were equally terrific. Notably Jeannie Berlin, Peyman Moaadi, Glenne Headly, Amara Karan, and of course, Chip Zien.

This is probably not a series you can binge. The intensity level is pretty high – especially when they go to Riker’s Island. This is OZ with better lighting. I think I’d last eleven seconds – and that’s if I had protection. What’s bizarre is that I watched an episode of this and then an episode of SUITS where their lead character Mike is in prison, and compared to Riker’s it is like a W Hotel.

Sunday is the finale. We’ll hopefully learn who committed the murder and whether Turturro will keep his cat? Now THIS to me is a cliffhanger (the cat part I mean).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Gee, that "sounds" great! But...

At first blush, this sounds like a fantastic thing for writers. A newly formed production company, Adaptive, is going through discarded studio screenplays and giving some of them new life.

All screenplay writers bitch about the dreaded “Development Hell.” You do draft after draft and eventually the studio says “Nah, we’ll just reboot SPIDERMAN again” and your project is dead. Sometimes you can get it in turnaround, and sometimes another studio will be interested, but most of the time the script just sits in a warehouse that must look like the final scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

Once it goes there, rarely is it ever heard from again. I don’t know a single feature writer who doesn’t have at least two screenplays in that graveyard. Maybe three.

Only one time did David Isaacs and I enjoy a second life with a screenplay. We had written a movie for Columbia (now Sony) called PLAY-BY-PLAY, based loosely on my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. By the time we turned in the draft there had been a regime change at the studio and as is usually the case, the new execs toss out everything developed by the old execs. I don’t know if anyone there ever read it.

Years later, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE became a big hit and its director, Tom Shadyac became the flavor-of-the-month. He was given stacks of scripts to consider for his next project. Somehow, through all the rubble, he unearthed and loved PLAY-BY-PLAY. It was once again in play. We spent that summer with him rewriting it, and the day we turned in what I still believe is a killer draft he got offered to step in last minute and direct THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. He took that, moved on, and our project was once again “strike three.” Welcome to the world of Hollywood – and this was 20 years ago when the business was way better.

But that was still one of the GOOD stories because at least we got paid.

Getting back to Adaptive. They bought up a number of screenplays that languished in development purgatory. Then they novelize some and make movies from some. (Their first movie hasn’t been released yet. Let’s see how well they fare. Lots of start-up production companies come and go. There seems to be an article in the LA or NY TIMES once a year about this. Here’s the recent one for Adaptive. )

So all of that is the good news.

But…

The scripts get torn apart and re-imagined by the Adaptive executive team. And the original writers are usually kicked to the curb. Plus their compensation is minimal. Something like $1000. And Adaptive then owns the intellectual property. If it goes on to be the next HUNGER GAMES, everyone gets rich but the writer.

If Adaptive decides to novelize the script they “audition” five or six writers, who are asked to write sample chapters, ON SPEC. And I’m sure Adaptive asks those writers in the bake-off to come up with treatments, their take, suggestions, etc. FOR FREE.

Something about the original script had to spark the Adaptive execs. It seems to me that original writer is entitled to more involvement or more compensation. The whole approach by Adaptive is ingenious in that it can develop terrific material while still paying very little. Not that they’re remotely interested in anything I’ve done, but my discarded screenplays are worth at least the WGA minimum. I also deserve the option to write the novel or redevelop the project with them. And you know what? If the resulting book and/or movie is a hit, it was still a bargain for them.

When something sounds too good to be true it usually is.

The one place you won't find Hollywood endings?  In Hollywood.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.

This is a re-post from five years ago.   There is some good stuff in the archives.  Check it out if you're bored with life. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

I hate Robert Hall

When I was a kid this was one of the worst times of the year. “Back to School” ads started appearing on the radio. The biggest offender: Robert Hall Clothiers. You have to be of a certain age to really remember (over… uh 30) but Robert Hall ran these truly tacky 40’s style jingles well into the ‘60s and maybe even the ‘70s.

You’d be at the pool enjoying the day, blissfully believing that summer would never end. The radio would be blasting the latest rock tune and all of a sudden, there it was – that first miserable Robert Hall commercial.

That’s it. Summer was as good as over. It was only a matter of time before you were gearing up with new school supplies (we never shopped at Robert Hall) and trudging off to another endless year of doom.

The Robert Hall jingle might as well have been the Volga Boatman.

Listen to these commercials and see if they still bring back that feeling of dread even though you are long past about to enter the seventh grade. I bet they do. They did for me. And I don’t care if it means I get a lunch box. I hate "Back to School!"  And Robert Hall. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday Questions

These are the Dog Days of Friday Questions.

Chris gets us started:

Any thoughts on Ted Danson in Fargo? Is it just me or does his laid back "cautious" type of vibe is amazing for a drama, maybe even better than it works for comedy?

Readers of this blog know I’m Ted Danson’s geekiest fanboy. I’ve raised a family thanks to how well he’s made my jokes work. I’ve also had the privilege of directing Ted on many occasions.

So I can tell you first hand that his craft, dedication, versatility, and professionalism are second to none.

And of all the various roles I’ve seen him play, his turn in FARGO was his absolute best. In fact, let me take that a step further. I think his work in FARGO was one of the best character performances ever in a television series.

So I guess you could say I thought it was okay.

And for a real change of pace, watch him in the movie BODY HEAT as the tap dancing assistant deputy prosecutor.  The man can do anything. 

From Liggie:

What is the purpose of upfronts, other than providing a red carpet opportunity for the actors?

I wrote a play called UPFRONTS & PERSONAL about the TV industry and had a character ask a studio president that very same question. This was his answer:

Simple. The networks announce their new Fall schedules then the advertisers buy commercial time “up front.” Spending billions on nothing more than blind faith. It’s like if you put an off-track betting window in a mental institution.

John Jackson Miller asks:

Ken, do you see in series writing a reluctance to establish facts about characters' histories that might close off future stories? Obviously the lines about Frasier being an only child whose parents were dead on CHEERS had to be dealt with later on (and were, deftly!) -- but I think there was also something about Martin Crane not having a brother, which later on got undone. Do people look that far ahead, or is it more about what serves the story at hand?

(This was something I ran into writing for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where my first editor's advice was "When you define, you confine." Today's one-off casual reference can become tomorrow's continuity conflict.)

There are two schools of thought on this. Personally, I think it’s an advantage to me as a writer to know as much about a character as I can. And if you’re writing in a team it helps both partners view the character the same way.

But I can also see the other side. From what I understand (and this is second-hand) Aaron Sorkin believes the “when you define, you confine” theory. He wants the freedom to add information along the way and discover new things about the character himself.

And then there are the characters who are purposely mysterious. Like Kalinda on THE GOOD WIFE. Those characters can be delicious fun as the audience tries to fill in the puzzle pieces.

The more you define, the more you risk continuity problems down the line, and that’s a price you have to pay. It used to be a lot easier to get away those before the internet allowed viewers to go back and fact-check every detail of every episode. Now we have to tap dance sometimes. Or we could be like Donald Trump and still ignore inconsistencies while attacking the person who pointed out the problem.

And finally, from Michael who has a question about BRAINDEAD.

It sounds like you are sticking with this show for the time being because it was created by Robert & Michelle King. Friday question: Who are some of the other show creators or actors you would always give benefit of doubt to and sample their new show or give them time to improve?

Writers: The Charles Brothers, Aaron Sorkin, David E. Kelley, James L. Brooks, Peter Casey & David Lee, Vince Gilligan, Graham Yost, Tina Fey, Matthew Weiner, Phil Rosenthal, Larry David, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, Mike Shur.

Actors: Ted Danson, Gene Hackman, Viola Davis, Walton Goggins, Margo Martindale, David Hyde Pierce, Forest Whittaker, Alan Alda, Chris Pratt, Bryan Cranston, Claire Danes, Courtney B. Vance, Kurtwood Smith, Edie Falco, Nancy Travis, Tony Shalhoub, Adam Arkin, John Slattery, Allison Janney, Patricia Heaton, Tim Oliphant, Hugh Laurie, Josh Charles, Tatiana Maslany, and Olivia Munn (just because).

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

WARNING! Watching too much TV can make men infertile!

Think about that, guys the next time you binge on MR. ROBOT (I’d say the Olympics but not many people of either sex are doing that).

Here’s the scoop: A study has found that watching more than five hours of TV a day can greatly reduce a man’s sperm count. By a third even! Yikes. One Jerry Lewis Telethon could make you sterile for life.

The study was conducted by Copenhagen University and the findings were published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. You can pick one up at the checkout stand of most supermarkets.

They also learned that too much TV lowers testosterone levels. (Either five hours of general programming or one hour of DOWNTON ABBEY.)

Binge at your own risk, fellas. No more GILMORE GIRLS marathons at the frat house.

Too much television on a daily basis also dramatically raises the risk of dying from a blood clot on the lungs. But it’s the “less lead in your pencil” that’s the real calamity here.

But there is good news. This study did not find sperm levels reduced by spending time at the computer.

So this poses some murky questions.

If you watch TV on your computer for five hours, is that still okay?


Is it number of continuous hours or content that causes a man to lose sperm if he binges on PARENTHOOD?

If you watch five hours of TV every day isn’t sperm count the least of your problems?

What if you’re sitting on the couch watching porn on your TV?

If you binge-watch FAST & FURIOUS movies, do you lose more sperm or brain cells?

Wouldn’t a laptop on your crotch for five hours be just as bad as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on your big screen?

If these findings are true, how is any male between the ages of 18-29 fathering a child?

I present this as a public service – doing my part to help repopulate the planet and keep men from watching the last six Adam Sandler comedies and last five DIE HARD movies.   You're welcome.