Thursday, May 05, 2016

My latest podcast appearance

I did a fun podcast recently, STORY WORTHY with Christine Blackburn and Hannes Phinney.  I tell a story about my crazy first girlfriend and then we talk and play games.   You can listen here.   Christine and Hannes chat with each other (a la Kelly Ripa & ?) for the first ten minutes or so and then I'm on the rest of the hour. Whimsy and banter ensue. 

And in case you missed it, here's my podcast with Kevin Smith & Matt Mira.  You can listen here. 

Now you may return to today's regularly scheduled post.  Thank you.

Two MASH stories I hadn't heard

I had lunch recently with two MASH producers – Gene Reynolds (still rockin’ at 93) and Burt Metcalfe. It was the Mount Rushmore of lunches. Naturally we got around to trading MASH stories. They told me a couple I had never heard.

We were talking about censors, and they said there was an early episode called “Tuttle” where Radar reveals he had an imaginary friend. And she was a girl. Trapper asks him to describe her and Radar says, “Like me, only with tiny little breasts.” CBS had no problem with this in the script or dailies, but once the show was finished and turned in they freaked out. When the episode aired they actually bleeped “breasts.”

Compare that to today when every CBS comedy must have the words vagina, penis, and jugs in the teaser.

The other story they told was even more incredible. When MASH aired the famous episode where Henry Blake died there was a huge uproar. To their credit, Gene and Larry Gelbart responded personally to every letter of protest they received. (No, that’s not the incredible part… although it was pretty incredible.)

When it came time to rerun that episode, CBS said “We got a lot of complaints the first time so we think we’re going to cut that scene.” Needless to say Gene and Larry had a fit and CBS aired the episode in its entirety. Can you believe that?

I’m still laughing. That’s a suggestion worthy of Colonel Flagg.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Writing that very tricky series finale

DOWNTON ABBEY ended recently.  THE GOOD WIFE bids a final adieu this Sunday (I'm already crying).   One of the toughest assignments a writer will ever have is crafting a series finale. 

They're much harder to write because the expectations are so much higher.

Some producers make it even harder on themselves by sprinkling in all these mysterious story turns with the promise they'll all be explained at the end.  When they're not (because there are just too damn many of them) their fans are let down.  Such was LOST and X-FILES (although X-FILES keeps coming back... and disappointing more). 

Audiences want to feel confident that their beloved characters get a nice sendoff.  They've almost become friends of the family.

Plus, in sitcoms, the convention is there never really is an ending.  Whatever the conclusion of a normal episode, there is the understanding that the saga will continue next week. Now, all of a sudden, it all comes to an end. How do you wrap that up to the fans’ satisfaction, your satisfaction as the creator, and have the ending not be so definitive that it hurts the syndication run. Remember, if your show is that successful, it should be around for years in reruns.

You'll have a larger audience that night so you need to be at your absolute best.  Best jokes, cleverest story turns.  You're really in the limelight. 

There is also an added pressure that sometimes now occurs. The networks try to get as much mileage from your finale as they can (i.e. sell as many spots for high fees) and often they will now ask for supersize episodes. And in a few cases (e.g. CHEERS, FRASIER, MASH, SEINFELD) that can mean as long as two-hours or even more. Your show has a rhythm for 30 minutes and now you have to expand it times four. The weight of that generally pulls down the show. That’s how I felt, quite honestly, about the last MASH. It was waaaaaay too long. Extra length didn’t help the SEINFELD swan song either.

My favorite final episodes were THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART,and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. All three were standard half hours.

Now if you ask me my favorite last show EVER, it would be a radio show and it absolutely broke every rule imaginable. Lohman & Barkley were a morning team on KFWB, Los Angeles in the ‘60s. They were extremely funny. Lohman did a great number of voices and their show was populated with many hilarious recurring characters. KFWB changed formats to all-news and everyone was let go. On Lohman & Barkley’s last show they systematically killed each of their characters, offing them in the most gruesome ways. Now THAT’S a final show. (Of course six months later they resurfaced on KFI and all their characters magically returned to life.  Not easy to do once you've been -- for example -- buried alive. )

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

And the rich get richer

Celebrities continue to take over the world.

A recent article in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY (Yes, I read EW, what of it?) centered on celebrities getting “imprint” book deals with major publishers, in other words their own divisions within publishing empires. Literary giant Gwyneth Paltrow has launched Goop Press at Grand Central Publishing, just to mention one. Lena Dunham (of course), Reese Witherspoon, Chelsea Handler (dear God), Mindy Kaling (at least her books are very funny), and Johnny Depp are others. (Paltrow has said she won’t be editing, just assisting in procuring material. Wouldn’t you love to see J.K. Rowling getting editing notes from Gwyneth Paltrow?)

Good luck to promising new authors getting deals when Reese Witherspoon is available. I mean, it’s understandable. There is so much product and so many options for the consumer that major publishers feel they can cut through all the noise by presenting known entities who already have a fan base and can sell themselves. Hey, it’s just good business.

But the trend extends beyond book publishing. Try getting a play or musical on Broadway without stars. Even if it means Ashlee Simpson starring in CHICAGO (and no, that’s not a joke).

Full-length animated films are now voiced almost exclusively by big stars. Lots of terrific experienced animation voice people now have trouble making a living. Are you saying an animated movie won’t open unless Bridget Mendler does a voice? Or Casey Affleck, or Tempestt Bledsoe, or Anna Kendrick, or Leslie Mann, or Isla Fisher, or Winona Ryder, or Conchata Ferrell, or Cee Lo Green, or Molly Shannon, or Sean William Scott, or Peter Dinklage, or Joy Behar, or Rebel Wilson,or Jessica Chastain, or Frances McDormand, or Jada Pinkett Smith, or Taylor Swift, or Jeremy Piven, or Imelda Straunton, or Lea Michele?

Ditto for voice over commercials. You can’t sell your product without the pitchman being Will Arnett, Zach Braff, George Clooney, John Krasinski, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges, Robert Downey Jr., Mandy Patinkin, Tim Allen, David Duchovny? You can’t sell Pampers without Julianna Margulies? Normally I would say, “who cares?” but these celebrity endorsements are taking jobs away from voice over talent who are trying to support their families.

For the celebrities it’s a lark. Just a quick windfall. Julia Roberts goes into a studio, knocks out some copy for an hour and walks out with a bundle. I don’t blame the celebs. Julia Roberts didn’t hold a gun to the ad exec. Someone offers her a lot of money for very little effort she’d be nuts not to take it. And if she didn’t take it, they’d give it to Gwyneth Paltrow, not a voice over artist.

And I understand the appeal of celebrity endorsements IF you can recognize them. It’s one thing when June Allyson was on camera hawking Depends; it’s another when you just hear Julianna Margulies’ voice pitching Pampers. Two hundred seasoned voice-over actresses couldn’t do that Pampers spot just as well or better? And cheaper? I’m pretty sure Julianna Margulies is not getting scale.

Celebrities take advantage of the opportunities they’re afforded. Again, can’t fault them for that. For years TV stars have been given their own “production companies.” A few like Desi Arnaz, Danny Thomas, Henry Winkler, and Kelsey Grammer took them seriously and produced multiple series but most are just vanity companies. The stars get bored, or the hit show they’re on gets cancelled, or they realize there’s some actual “work” involved and they’re out of the producing game. Longtime writer/producer/creators have trouble getting development deals but co-stars get to hang their shingles.

Like I said, I totally get the reason for this trend. I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of non-celebs just trying to make a living.

Maybe I’ll write a book about it. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow is accepting submissions.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Larry Wilmore bombed at the White House Correspondents Dinner

I keep wanting to like Larry Wilmore.

From what I hear he’s a lovely guy. And I sure liked THE BERNIE MAC SHOW, which he ran.

I know he’s talented. I know he’s funny. I was pleased when I heard he was taking over for Stephen Colbert.

But when I watch that show it just doesn’t do it for me. It feels smug and I rarely laugh. Samantha Bee – I laugh. Trevor Noah – Well, I wasn’t expecting much anyway. But Larry Wilmore – it’s like when your five-year-old hits the ball in T-ball but runs to third.

I still tune in from time to time hoping he’s settled in and finally knows to run to first base. But there he goes up the third base line.

Fortunately, I know other people who find his show entertaining, so maybe it’s just me. You can’t tell from his studio audience because those bleachers are filled with screaming hyenas that go batshit over every line.

In any event, I was looking forward to seeing how he’d do hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night. And honestly, I was rooting for him.

Ohmygod. He was painful.

Now, it didn’t help that he followed President Obama who was hilarious. Say what you will, the man knows how to deliver a joke. And apparently how to hire excellent comedy writers.

Larry absolutely bombed. And without the benefit of his Red Bull/orgasmic normal audience his material was getting groans. In many cases, the best he could hope for was silence. The only real laughter was sporadic nervous chuckles – coming from Larry himself.

Hard to know who to blame – bad writers, bad judgment on his part, or a less-than-polished delivery. But his monologue was a disaster. Lame jokes and cheap shots. Kelly Ripa jokes. Ha ha. Bill Clinton hooker jokes. Snicker snicker. Jeb Bush jokes. Yawn.   Ben Carson jokes. Zzzzz. And Bill Cosby jokes. Outright disgust. At times I thought people were going to storm the stage.  CNN Correspondent Don Lemon gave him the finger. 

He had no less than twenty jokes about Ted Cruz being the Zodiac killer and not a single one worked. You would think after the fifth one tanked he would know enough to scrap the remaining fifteen.

And it’s not like he didn’t know he was bombing. At one point he said, “Hey, groans are good.” Another time he said to the audience, “You guys are tough.”  No, they weren't.  They laughed uproariously for a half hour before he got on. 

He wrapped it up by saying to the President of the United States, “You did it my n*gga!”


If ever there should have been walk-off music, if ever there should have been a hook or a gong five minutes into a monologue this was it.

It’s as if your five-year-old hit the ball then took off his pants – moments after Roseanne sang the National Anthem.

And I like Larry Wilmore. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

May Day (Malone)

With this being May Day, I thought I’d focus today’s post on Sam “Mayday” Malone (not that I haven’t mentioned him 46 times already this year).

First off, as I’m sure you know, I greatly admire Ted Danson, both as a person and an actor. So I’ll skip the two paragraphs of fawning that would otherwise go with this profile.

Some things you may know; some you may not.

As originally conceived by the Charles Brothers, Sam Malone was a former football player for the Patriots. Fred Dryer was more who they had in mind. And he was a finalist for the role (along with William Devane).

Ted however, was so charming and there was such chemistry with Shelley Long that they decided to cast him instead. But Ted as a football bruiser is only slightly more believable than me as an NFL lineman so they made Sam a baseball player instead.

The supposed photo of Sam in uniform at the bar was really Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg.

To prepare for the role Ted went to bartending school.

Over the course of eleven years he must’ve cut up 18,000,000 lemons. Actors always like to have some “business;” something to do. The obvious thing for him would be to make drinks all the time, but then the waitresses would have to get them, deliver them to tables, etc. Cutting lemons was an activity that required no further logistics. (I jokingly used to say that Sam should sell the bar and become a sushi chef.)

Ted really struggled finding the character in the first season because in real life he’s so unlike Sam Malone. He’s not a womanizer, not a jock, not vain, and not a recovering alcoholic. The fact that he appears so convincing and so effortless is a real testament to just how excellent an actor he is. (Again, jokingly, I used say it was okay if he wanted to model the character after me.) 

Over the course of the series Sam became dumber, a decision that offered more room for comedy, but I never liked it. Most characters grow and evolve over time. Personally, my favorite version of Sam Malone was the one in the pilot.

Ted never threw his weight around as the star. One day the Charles Brothers, Jimmy Burrows, David and I, our line producer and editor were in Les’ office going over a roughcut. Ted wandered in and sat down. Glen hit pause, Les politely told Ted that actors were not allowed to sit in on editing, and Ted apologized and ducked out. I can think of ten other stars who would have reacted quite differently.

Ted was always protective of the other cast members, guest cast, and extras. Oh wait. I said I wouldn’t fawn.

Ted never watched the show when it was on the air. He felt he would be too self-critical and would tinker with his performance – possibly ruining it.  Years after CHEERS ended Ted finally began watching, and guess what? He really liked it.

How accurate is testing? In one of the later seasons Sam’s arc was that he was trying to get Rebecca into bed. We had him do some of the most horrible deceitful things. Audience testing came back and Ted ranked the highest. He was most likeable – seen as a father figure to everyone at the bar. What show were they watching? (Meanwhile, Frasier tested the worst.)

Ted rarely complained about the material. And when he did, he was always respectful. And most always right.

CHEERS ended after eleven seasons because Ted decided he no longer wanted to do the show. Many blame Whoopi Goldberg (his girlfriend at the time). They felt she swayed his decision. I think he left for another reason. I’ve never discussed this with him, but my feeling is he knew that at a certain age the character would border on sad. The slick player might seem very charming in his 30’s but a little pathetic in his 40’s. I think he left because he was protecting Sam Malone.

A few years later, he reprised the character on FRASIER – an episode my partner David Isaacs and I wrote – and we tried to address that by getting him engaged. Ultimately, the wedding was called off, but we wanted to convey that Sam was aware of his situation and was actively trying to move on. Even with that, I still got the sense Ted was somewhat uncomfortable playing Sam Malone again.

BECKER was a spec script written by Dave Hackel. The main reasons why Ted responded to it was (a) it was very well written, and (b) the character was so unlike Sam. Ted wanted to distance himself from Sam and play something very different and age-appropriate. For that I give him so much credit. How many sitcom stars have you seen who continue to play essentially the same character in series after series, even after they’ve long since outgrown that character? (Who remembers LIFE WITH LUCY?)

And finally, Ted truly found his soulmate in Mary Steenburgen. If ever there was a perfect match it’s those two. Sam & Diane could only dream of such a marriage.

Happy May Day. 
This is a re-post from a few years ago.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Louis CK could have been a silent movie star

This is from the very cool folks at AV Club, edited by Dominick Nero. He doctored some footage from Louis CK's LOUIE series and showed how well it could work as a silent movie. Check it out.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday Questions

This would have been my mom’s birthday. I miss her everyday. It’s also Friday Question day.

Charles H. Bryan gets us started.

Is there ever concern in a multi'cam about actors' footwear so as not to make noise on the floor of the set? Clomp Clomp Clomp or click click click would be hard to remove from the mix. (I was watching BIG BANG THEORY and noticed Leonard wearing tennis shoes on the hardwood kitchen floor. That's appropriate footwear for that character, but it can't be so for everyone.)

I must say it’s a question that’s never come up. I do know we did a funny episode of CHEERS where Cliff had squeaky shoes, but I can’t recall ever watching a rough cut of an episode and being distracted by the clacking of shoes. Maybe actors wear rubber souls whenever they can, I dunno.

Here's the squeaky shoes scene:

Unkystan has a question about my play, A OR B?:

Any chance for an off-Broadway run in New York?

I would love that. Just need someone to make me an offer. I’m thinking of changing the title from A OR B? to A OR HAMILTON?  Whattaya think?

From Rashad:

I found a two-act play that I had written approximately 13 years ago, when I was a grad student and still believing I would become a professional writer someday. Should I reread the f**ker in order to refresh my memory...or should I just put it away in another drawer and forget all about it (again)? Thanks in advance!

This is not easy to answer since I haven’t read the play and I’m not clairvoyant. But sure, look it over. What the hell? If it’s terrible you can throw in the drawer, chalk it up to your inexperience and age at the time, but who knows? You might be pleasantly surprised. Or you might see a new way to go and be inspired to rewrite it. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s not like a CAA agent is going to see it lying around and file legal papers to have you banned from show business. (They tried that with me once but it didn't stick.) 

Timothy wraps it up with a CHEERS pilot question.

In reading reviews and the history of "Give Me a Ring Sometime", it seems that there was another patron character that was intended to be in the cast, an older cantankerous woman in a wheelchair. Several places online it is noted that she was played by Elaine Stritch. The interesting part of this is I recall watching a scene with Diane and Coach where there was a woman in purple sitting in a wheelchair that seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to what was being said, and I thought to myself "Well, there's an extra that isn't really doing her job", and funny enough it was this character. Can you confirm that it was Elaine Stritch (it sure doesn't LOOK like her), and why she was editied and written out?

First off, that was not Elaine Stritch. We tried to use Ms. Stritch in an episode seven or eight years and let’s just say it was not a good match.

In the original pilot there was a character named Miss Littlefield who was a cantankerous older woman. Upon seeing a rough cut the producers decided to take her out of the show, which they did with some deft editing. But as you mentioned, she is still visible in the background in a couple of shots, but she has no lines.

Her character also then had to be rewritten out of the next few scripts, as the plan was to make her a regular bar patron.

Happy Birthday, Mom... wherever you are.