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…