Monday, January 26, 2015

You gotta see this

I posted it on my Facebook page but wanted to share it here too. This flight was stuck on the tarmac. How lucky for those passengers that these guys happened to be on board.

Does anyone know how to fix network comedies?

Warning:  Here comes a rant.  Hide the children.

Just caught a NY Post article from the end of November (okay, I don’t usually read the NY Post, especially if there’s no A-Rod scandal). It’s by Robert Rorke and it’s entitled DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO FIX NETWORK COMEDIES?

In the article he claims the new crop of sitcoms did not catch on because they’re not funny. I don’t disagree with him. But the problem comes when trying to answer the question he poses – does anyone know how to fix them?

He basically claims that the answer is no and sitcoms, long rumored to be dead, might indeed be endangered species.

I respectfully disagree.

A writer friend of mine offered this suggestion on his Facebook page. Here’s who he feels is to blame: THE. PEOPLE. IN. CHARGE.

And to that I say ABSOLUTELY. The network executives were the ones who chose the projects, chose the writers, noted them to death, and then made more cast changes based on research.

What I don’t know is this: Were these show unfunny because the writers were not that good, or were they bowing to dogmatic network directives that flattened and destroyed their product?  Probably a mixture of the two.

But what I do know is there are a lot of talented writers who are no longer on the development slates. Writers who have proven track records. What track records do the “deciders” have?

(DISCLAIMER:  I'm talking about other writers, not myself.  I'm quite happy writing plays, blogs, and sharing factoids about Neil Simon.)  

At a time when networks are operating exclusively out of fear, when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks, it’s understandable to see why sitcoms are suffering. Networks by and large, are hiring writers who they trust (read: will take their notes without objection), basing their decisions on faulty research, and at all costs are avoiding unique visions, projects not geared directly to specific demographics, or writers who might question their brilliant suggestions.

And let’s be real – this is not going to change.   I can bitch all I want.  I'm trying to hold back the Pacific Ocean with a broom.   And when sitcoms don’t catch on these same executives will claim the reason is that the public has lost its appetite for comedy. That’s what they ALWAYS say.

And it’s bullshit.

Here’s what I think will ultimately happen. People always love to laugh. They will flock to shows that do make them laugh – legitimately make them laugh (not occasionally smile over quirky characters or pithy pop culture references), and they don’t care whether they’re on NBC, TBS, their computer, their phone, or (soon) their watch.

Networks will die before sitcoms.

And that's what we call "the last laugh."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Disco MASH

This is the way the song was MEANT to be heard. Presenting the Disco version of the MASH theme by the New Marketts.   Boogie down, Colonel Potter!

Maybe my favorite bad review

I've posted this before, years ago, but it's one of my all-time favorites.  Do you remember a comedian named Gallagher?  I think he's still around.  His basic act was smashing watermelons.  When he performed in Cerritos, California in 1999 the LA Times reviewed it.   The review was so hilarious and scathing I had to keep it.  And share it.   If you can imagine the thinking that could have produced such a staggeringly ill-conceived show, you laugh twice as hard.

And so, as a public service to anyone even thinking of attending an upcoming Gallagher show if he's still touring, here is this LA Times review.


CROSSED-UP CROSSOVER

Comedy: Promoted for Latinos, Gallagher's pseudo-Spanish show is a litany of degrading stereotypes and insults.By ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ, Times Staff Writer


Hmm. How to put this delicately? We'll simplify: Mime-like, stringy-haired man in black hat smashes food with mallet on stage for living. Man, who no espeakey no Spanish, hears Spanish, thinks Spanish good, Spanish muy muy dinero. Man spends one month learning important Spanish words such as cerveza, caca and culo (butt). Man invents Spanish words, such as "sperm-o" and "embarazamante." Man decides this is enough Spanish to put on show for Latinos. Man smashes pinatas, wears giant sombrero and shakes keg-sized maracas. Man mocks Jews and gays and women and constipated old people. Man thinks he is muy funny comedian-o.

Man hopes all Spanish-speakers agree.
But wait. There's more. Mucho more.

Man rents hall in Cerritos. Man advertises "Gallagher en espanol: La Fiesta Grande" on Spanish radio. Man hopes thousands will come. Two hundred come, many with children and babies and old (possibly constipated) people. Man babbles for three hours Thursday night in "language" neither English nor Spanish. Language heretofore known as Gallagher-bonics. Next day, executive director of Cerritos Center for Performing Arts issues statement stressing that "Gallagher show was a rental event and not produced or presented by the Cerritos Center."

Man hires dance troupe to open show. Man performing for mostly Mexican American audience. Dance troupe, called Salsa Kids, performs Puerto Rican dance style. Male dancers wear guayaveras, the four-pocket shirts worn by old Cuban men in Miami. Mexican American audience appears unimpressed. Stone faces say: Ugh, bad medicine. "Is this like ballroom?" a woman in the audience asks. "My sister, she's taking that ballroom dancing."

Show goes on.

First nine rows of audience are in white plastic chairs. People in white plastic chairs equipped with clear plastic bag to wear over clothes because later mayonnaise and refried beans will spew over them. Signs warn: Cuidado, Piso Resbaloso. Wet floor. Man shoots water on audience from giant penguin after salsa dancers leave stage.

Other man named Vic Dunlop, a comedian hired to help because he supposedly speaks Espanol, takes stage. Dunlop wears Mexican blanket, sombrero and glasses with eyes painted on them. Makes jokes about black people and blind people in bad Spanish. Says show is sponsored by Culo Cola, the soda with the taste of an expletive. In audience, Debra Garcia, 50, is bored and thinks the show immature and plans to leave early.

Man appears with penguin and yells, "Como? Este hombre no esta en mi show. Vamanos."

Second assistant "comedian" who actually does speak Spanish comes on stage. Her name is Dyana Ortelli and she is Mexican American and makes a living mocking Jennifer Lopez's bottom, stereotyping Chicanos, and wearing bad wig and no pants. Ortelli helps man throw chocolate at crowd. Man says: "Quien no tengo chocolate?" Translation: Who I don't have chocolate? No one sure what he is saying.

Man introduces Chupacabras. Chupacabras is goat-sucking monster seen in Puerto Rico three years ago. Man in ape suit pretends to be goat-sucking monster. Man forces child onto stage with monster. Man asks: "Quien tiene mas pelo de Chupacabra?" Translation: Who has more hair of Chupacabras? Child makes disgusted face, jumps off stage. Ortelli looks sad. Man babbles about goat-sucker: "Es muy fuerze, es muy fuerza." Translation: Is very strength. No one laughs. Man frustrated. Tries to say "espectaculo," which means "show," but says "specta-culo," which sort of means butt-gazer.

Man calls for rock band. Fulano de Tal, from Miami, plays well. Man wears giant parachute dress and dances. Man spray-paints a lie on the back wall: Yo No Soy Gringo. Man says in Spanish that he is a cowboy. Man says he is newborn Mexican and caresses his naked hairy belly.

Man tells joke about bear and rabbit pooping.

Man gathers audience volunteers for Mexican hat dance. Says "Tengo un muchacha" over and over. No one laughs. Man says "Culo, culito" until people laugh. Man says "moco" for extra humor. Man is tired of trying. Man says in English "I need a beer." Man curses under breath off mike, but audience hears anyway.

Man begins dumping buckets of food onto plates. Man stops trying to speak Spanish. Man gives up and speaks English. Man says: "We were expecting a big crowd tonight and we're going to do a show for a big crowd anyway" because the crowd is small and shrinking. Man is booed again. Man yells: "It's the Fourth of July weekend, you don't got no place to go so just shut up." Man hits Pop Tarts with tennis racquet. Man says "Un muchacho quiero comer," which means "I want to eat a boy" and the boys look scared.

Many people who paid between $21.50 and $26.50 per ticket walk out as man flashes white underpants and yells culo, culo, culo and cerveza. Man angry Latinos have no sense of humor. Man throws egg and marshmallows at old woman and baby as they waddle out of theater. Man calls old woman vulgar name in English. Man spits beer on children. Some in audience too polite to leave. Others impolite enough to boo. One courageous enough to hurl a lunchbox-sized chunk of watermelon at man's head.

Man smashes food with 16-pound mallet. Man says, inexplicably, "Todo el mouthwash el hits me en el crotch-o." Man sings "La Cucaracha."

Man smashes more food. Show over. Man bows. Man slips on floor.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

RIP Sky Mall

Oh no. I just read where the Sky Mall has gone belly up. Readers of this blog know it’s one of my favorite subjects (targets). Where else are you going to find all the ridiculous inventions the Sharks reject on SHARK TANK? Yeah, you could go to The Sharper Image or various spy stores, but it’s not the same thing. The Sky Mall assembled all these "wonders of modern science" in catalog form. What a fun way to pass the time while you’re stuck on the tarmac for eleven hours.

But alas, now that most airlines offer Wifi, people can go on line and order the same crap cheaper elsewhere. Of course they’re now paying $14.95 for internet access but still.

It’s just another bit of goofy Americana that is fading into history – like photo booths, responsible government, and radio.

I’d say we all go to HoJo’s to commiserate over a clam bake, but… well, you know.

RIP Sky Mall. May you be forever memorialized in a plaque that attaches to any gravestone by miracle glue and contains a sensor that allows it to light up whenever a mourner gets within two feet – all for only $269.99 ($289.99 in Canada).

Christopher Walken when he could remember lines

You guys keep requesting my intros and outros so here's another one.  One of my favorite Neil Simon films was BILOXI BLUES, primarily because of Christopher Walken, ol' Captain Hook himself.  Here was my wraparound for last night's showing on TCM. 

INTRO:

Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a tv writer and director, a former major league baseball announcer – but my coolest gig ever is this – hosting TCM's Friday Night Spotlight this month.

We’re focusing on writer extraordinaire Neil Simon and up next we have the second story in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy,” which was a trio of more loosely-autobiographical tales that nostalgically looked back at Simon’s youth and early adulthood. Eugene, by the way, is the lead character’s first name, modeled after Simon himself.

All three began as Broadway plays – the first being “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1983, then “Biloxi Blues” in 1985, followed by “Broadway Bound” in 1986. The first two were turned into feature films, and we have the movie version of “Biloxi Blues” right now – which was released in theaters in 1988.

The film was directed by Neil Simon’s long-time collaborator Mike Nichols and it stars Matthew Broderick as “Eugene,” he also played the role on stage. It’s based on Simon’s experiences suffering through army boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during World War Two. Broderick plays an aspiring writer trying to figure out his place in the army. As if anyone can. 

His fellow recruits are a wide range of interesting characters, who are all led by a soft-spoken yet eerie drill sergeant, played by Christopher Walken. How often have you heard a drill sergeant described as “eerie”? When I was in the army, drill sergeants were more like “Full Metal Jacket” than this, but hey – it’s Christopher Walken and he is great.

In his memoirs, Neil Simon said that during rehearsals for the movie, Walken completely paraphrased a big speech – which was unusual for actors when working with Neil Simon dialogue. Simon was actually ok with doing it Walken’s way but Walken told him that was just his process and when cameras rolled he intended to do it as written. Imagine! Christopher Walken with a strange process?

Here he is, in the film version of a story that won a Tony as the best play on Broadway: from 1988, “Biloxi Blues.”

OUTRO:

It’s so interesting to me how movie habits have changed. When this film was released in 1988, i was working as the announcer for the Syracuse Chiefs, a minor league baseball team. It’s Syracuse, so it was snowing – in the spring – and the Friday night game was snowed out.

So i decided to go to the movies and “Biloxi Blues” was what I saw. It was date night, so there were plenty of young couples in the theater. And looking back, i realize how date night and movies in general are so different today. If “Biloxi Blues” was released in 2015, it would be considered an “art” movie.  Kids in Syracuse today are seeing “Sex Tape” or “Hangover 7.”

fortunately, there will always be an audience for the work of Neil Simon. And up next, we have a Simon comedy from 1980 that marked the second on-screen teaming of Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Questions

Got a bunch of Neil Simon movies to host tonight on TCM starting at 8 in the East and 5 in the West… including one of my favorites, BILOXI BLUES. So join me on the TV. Turning to the print mediim, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

From Johann:

I was watching a Cheers rerun and noticed it was directed by John Ratzenberger. I recall seeing an episode of Frasier directed by Kelsey Grammer. One episode of Seinfeld was directed by Jason Alexander.

What's involved in an actor directing an episode of his own show? Is it a professional courtesy, or something more? Do some actors request a chance to direct, and get turned down?

It all depends on the actor. Some, like Alan Alda and Kelsey Grammer really take it seriously. Same with Adam Arkin, who has become quite a sensational director.  Jason Alexander directs a lot of theater. 

On the other hand, yes, there are times when actors are directing but are essentially carried by the crew. For the most part they are good with directing actors but inexperienced with the technical aspect of the job. And especially in multi-cam where you have four cameras moving simultaneously, there is a steep learning curve. But a good camera coordinator can generally just do the camera blocking for the actor-director.

Sometimes actors are allowed to direct as a courtesy; other times actors get it in their contract. Harry Morgan had it in is deal at MASH to direct one episode a year. He did one of ours. The problem was we made Harry light in the show so he had less acting to concentrate on, but we missed his presence in front of the camera.

I’m sure there are cases of actors asking to direct episodes of their series and being turned down, but those are usually private conversations.

George Wendt directed an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote and did a great job.

Brian Phillips is next.

You've recounted the "Hot Rod Lincoln" story as an example of campaigning for a joke that you thought was funny and fell flat.

Do you recall some instances where you fought especially hard, whether it was with David Isaacs, an actor or executive and it paid off?

Yes. Once when I was directing BECKER. In the episode, Becker (Ted Danson) goes on a cruise but doesn’t realize it’s a gay cruise. He’s now back in the diner regaling everybody with what it was like. It was a hysterical scene. If I remember correctly, it was written by Michael Markowitz (who always writes hysterical scenes).

One of the actors didn’t like the scene. Thought it wasn't at all funny.   What he really didn’t like was that Ted had pretty much all the lines and all everybody else did was laugh at the crazy stories Ted's character shared. 

The actor kept putting a bug in Ted’s ear that the scene didn’t work. Eventually he got Ted to question it himself.

I had to take Ted aside and tell him that he had to trust me. I was adamant that the scene would work. To his credit, Ted did the scene as written and it got screams from the studio audience. It’s still one of my favorite scenes ever on BECKER.

Did the other actor ever acknowledge that he was wrong? What do you think?

From willieb:

What I've never been able to understand -- and this may be a Friday question in disguise -- is why sitcoms cannot cope with couples once they are married and have children. Writers are great at the stop-and-start, will-they-or-won't-they romances -- but once they do, sitcom writers are lost. Why? Most of us get married, have kids, and have family lives with tons of funny stories attached. Why do writers lose the funny when couples finally couple?

It’s easier and sexier to explore romantic relationships. This is not just true in sitcoms. There are not a lot of romance novels set in the world of a married couples coping with teething babies. 

That said, there are some terrific sitcoms that do deal with married life. For my money, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is the gold standard. That show is funnier and more authentic than just about any romantic comedy sitcom out there.

And then there’s the show that I feel is the most underrated on television, THE MIDDLE. They make family comedy work… as does MODERN FAMILY.

And currently, I’m a big fan of INSTANT MOM on Nick @ Nite. Yes, I know I’m somewhat biased, but aside from my daughter writing on it, it really is a well-mounted funny family show. Check it out yourself.   I bet you'll agree.

RyderDA asks:

When writing something, do you ever deliberately write two separate, distinct, independent versions of the same thing for any reason (such as to explore how different story arcs could play out)? Is there utility to a writer in consciously creating two different versions of the exact same thing?

That’s my play, A OR B? I take the same two people and create two different scenarios. In one they’re co-workers and the other they’re lovers. I then do parallel scenes and show the differences and similarities in their relationships based on the circumstances.

And finally, from Ted O'Hara:

Have you ever found that you've boxed yourself in on future stories due to some plot detail in a past show that seem innocuous at the time? And if so, how did you get out of it?

On CHEERS, very early on, maybe even the second episode, we say that Sam has an ex-wife. We even show her (played by Donna McKechnie). It was all for one joke to get out of a scene. Later, we just ignored it.

Long running series will often have continuity problems. The name of Potter’s wife changes, Hawkeye has a sister in one episode; a brother in another. You just try to skip over that stuff real fast. But it was way easier in the days before streaming and the internet.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In defense of multi-camera sitcoms

The multi-camera format of sitcoms has become the gluten-free section of the TV menu. It’s offered but only begrudgingly and the assumption is it will only appeal to a very few. When networks announce their development slate, the first thing they say about a project is whether it’s single or multi-camera. And if it’s a multi-camera, half the time they quickly add that it’s a hybrid, so it’s not REALLY a multi-cam. It’s like multi-camera shows are on a quota system.

The multi-camera shows currently on the air tend to be either family comedies, tween comedies, or raunch. Other than MOM and BIG BANG THEORIES (two big hits), I can’t think of another exception currently on the air on a major broadcast network. THE NEW ODD COUPLE debuts soon but the verdict is still out since no one’s seen it.

Before MULLANEY premiered there were big articles from the folks responsible claiming they were doing something really daring by committing to a multi-cam format. The show itself is terrible and has been unanimously rejected by America, but trust me, it’s not because of the number of cameras.

Was anybody bothered by the fact that CHEERS was multi-camera? Or FRIENDS? Or FRASIER? Or SEINFELD? Or ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? You get the idea.

The fact that the bar has been so lowered by shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS doesn’t mean quality shows can’t be mounted. Networks just have to buy them and writers have to write them.

The swing away from multi-camera shows has been such an over-reaction. It’s as if theater owners no longer staged plays because movies gained in popularity. No one wants to just watch actors relate to each other on a stage when they can see giant explosions and special effects on a screen.

Obviously there’s room for both.

In terms of comedy, some of the sharpest, deepest, and funniest endeavors have been for the stage. From Kaufman & Hart to Neil Simon to Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, and a host of other sparkling scribes – playwrights have created inspired work. And they've been held accountable for the comedy. Audiences have to laugh. (And unlike a TV taping, there’s no warm-up guy pleading for the audience to laugh). So you better bring your A-game.

Why can’t that be translated to today's television? I’d like to think if Noel Coward was around in the ‘90s he’d be writing for FRASIER.  I'd probably be squeezed out to make room for him. 

With a few rare exceptions, every great iconic sitcom from I LOVE LUCY to SEINFELD has been multi-camera.

Networks just have to once again embrace them. And I’m not just speaking to major broadcast carriers. Premium cable networks and streaming services -- this goes for you too. Who subscribes to these services? People with money who can afford them. Grown ups. The same grown ups who grew up on quality multi-camera shows. God forbid Amazon or Netflix or HBO would air a new series in this format.

There aren’t comedy writers currently toiling on middling single camera shows who wouldn’t kill to do their own CHEERS? There aren’t network executives who would love to be proud of their comedies and not have to justify them with bullshit excuses or niche numbers?

It sure seems worth doing... and not just because they feel obligated to toss in a couple of gluten-free items.   Oh, and another thing – multi-camera shows are CHEAPER. So really, what’s the big downside?

UPDATE:  But if you're a big fan of single camera shows, I have one for you to check out.  It's DOWN DOG, one of the Amazon pilots currently under consideration.  It was written/created by Robin Schiff who co-created ALMOST PERFECT with us and wrote ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION quite nicely without our help.   Here's where you go.  And if you like it, please give it a whole bunch of stars.  Thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What's in a name?

These are the most popular baby names of last year --  according to the website Nameberry.com. As usual, my name doesn't make the list. But I think that's because it's just not WEIRD enough. Holy shit! I can't believe some of these names. Khaleesi? How many pregnant women watch GAME OF THRONES? Hazel is back? Sadie is back? Katnis? Daenerys? Gemma?  Declan? Bodhi? Lachlan?

These names will show up in Levine scripts you can bet.  

Imogen is the number one girl's name?  Maybe it's popular in the UK but I don't know any Imogen's.  

Names go through phases.  When LOVE STORY was the big movie of the day, Jennifer was the most popular name.  Wendy is actually a made up name for PETER PAN that caught on.  Debbie Reynolds in the '50s inspired lots of Debbie's back then.   My name was popular until the fucking Barbie dolls came out. 

Studies have shown that parents do their kids no favor by giving them an unusual name.  Potential employers look less favorably on applications by job seekers with odd names.  Exact same resumes have gone out with more common names (like Susan) and more creative ones (like, well... Daenerys).  By a wide margin, the more common-named applicants get called in for an interview.  So think about that before you tag your darling baby with Eustacia

And then there's the "getting beat up in the schoolyard" factor.  Poor Dudu Fisher -- can you imagine?

Anyway, here they are.  Good luck finding souvenir mugs with the name Maisie or Wren or Jasper

Girls

1. Imogen
2. Khaleesi
3. Charlotte
4. Isla
5. Cora
6. Penelope
7. Violet
8. Amelia
9. Eleanor
10. Hazel
11. Claire
12. Adelaide
13. Adeline
14. Ivy
15. Lucy
16. Alice
17. Olivia
18. Evangeline
19. Genevieve
20. Maisie
21. Lila
22. Beatrice
23. Rose
24. Maeve
25. Scarlett
26. Ava
27. Aurora
28. Nora
29. Willa
30. Elizabeth
31. Eloise
32. Elodie
33. Caroline
34. Emma
35. Matilda
36. Clara
37. Grace
38. Cordelia
39. Clementine
40. Aurelia
41. Ellie
42. Poppy
43. Arabella
44. Elsa
45. Ella
46. Harlow
47. Harper
48. Iris
49. Seraphina
50. Katniss
51. Luna
52. Mila
53. Ruby
54. Aria
55. Sophia
56. Mae
57. Mia
58. Juliet
59. Eliza
60. Evelyn
61. Audrey
62. Josephine
63. Maya
64. Isabella
65. Emmeline
66. Emily
67. Stella
68. Chloe
69. Olive
70. Anna
71. Sadie
72. Wren
73. Louisa
74. Annabelle
75. Lily
76. Piper
77. Daenerys
78. Jane
79. Gemma
80. Lola
81. Esme
82. Margaret
83. Willow
84. Zara
85. Ada
86. Frances
87. Everly
88. Mabel
89. Lydia
90. Daisy
91. Pearl
92. Madeline
93. Phoebe
94. Delilah
95. Kinsley
96. Isabel
97. Georgia
98. Hannah
99. Abigail
100. Millie

Boys

1. Asher
2. Declan
3. Atticus
4. Oliver
5. Silas
6. Henry
7. Jasper
8. Finn
9. Milo
10. Ezra
11. Leo
12. Levi
13. Jude
14. Wyatt
15. Felix
16. Sebastian
17. Soren
18. Beckett
19. Miles
20. Theodore
21. Bodhi
22. Jack
23. Liam
24. Archer
25. Owen
26. Emmett
27. Ethan
28. William
29. Sawyer
30. Caleb
31. Benjamin
32. Oscar
33. Josiah
34. Julian
35. James
36. Andrew
37. Hudson
38. Knox
39. Hugo
40. Alexander
41. Zachary
42. Dashiell
43. Ryder
44. Ryker
45. Ronan
46. Lucas
47. Thomas
48. Elijah
49. Luke
50. Samuel
51. Callum
52. Noah
53. Arthur
54. Isaac
55. Jacob
56. Theo
57. Weston
58. Axel
59. Roman
60. Rhys
61. Everett
62. Zane
63. Grayson
64. Rowan
65. August
66. Kai
67. Harrison
68. Beau
69. Gabriel
70. Jackson
71. Griffin
72. Austin
73. Nolan
74. Xavier
75. Daniel
76. Nathaniel
77. Charles
78. Nash
79. Simon
80. Jonah
81. Holden
82. Micah
83. Flynn
84. John
85. Wesley
86. Christian
87. Elliot
88. Graham
89. Nathan
90. George
91. Nicholas
92. Lincoln
93. Cassius
94. Tristan
95. Gideon
96. Maxwell
97. Tobias
98. Lachlan
99. Arlo
100. Matthew

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What I look for in a spec pilot

A few years ago, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for a major network. The development executive was new to the job. We turned in our first draft and heard he was very happy with it. Instead of going to the network for notes we would just do a conference call. The notes would be minimal. All the stuff that’s music to writers’ ears.

At the appointed time he got on the phone and was hugely complimentary. “It’s amazing how you guys introduced the premise and characters and set up the story and it all flowed, it never felt forced. We learned a lot about the characters along the way, and you got it all in in 46 pages.”

I know the appropriate answer would have been thank you and leave it at that. But for some reason I couldn’t do that. What I said instead was this:

“Thank you. That’s great to hear. But… that’s the job. We were just fulfilling the assignment. All of your pilots should come back like that. If not, you’re hiring the wrong writers.”

He laughed and said I was probably right.

The point is, there is a level of craft that should go into pilots. Setting up the premise, introducing the characters, seamlessly weaving in the exposition, setting the tone, being funny, letting the audience know the direction the show will go in – these are REQUIREMENTS.

The trick is to do all of that and have the jokes be better, the characters more original, and the story more inventive than the other well-crafted pilots. What sets one pilot script above the others should be inspiration not professionalism.

Young writers today are being told to write pilots as their specs. The industry is looking for exciting new voices.

What am I looking for when I read a spec pilot? Exciting new voices are nice, but first I’m trying to determine if this person even has a clue. The basics have to be there. Can this person tell a story? Are his characters well-drawn? Are their actions properly motivated? Are the jokes organic to the characters and tone? Do the jokes move the story along?   If a writer can accomplish all that and have a fresh outlook that is genuinely funny then he’s hit a home run. But if the execution is amateurish the exciting “voice” gets lost.

Learn the basics.

Master the craft of pilot writing. Yes, they're difficult and the process is time consuming and frustrating. But the good news is you’re competing with lots of people out there whose scripts are a hopeless mess. When I told that network executive to hire better writers, I was referring to YOU.

Best of luck.