Saturday, October 25, 2014

Opening Night

Details Monday when I continue my series on the making of my play, A or B? but thrilled to say that the official opening last night came off extremely well.  I can exhale for the first time in two days.   Opening "days" before Opening Nights are nerve wracking as hell I've just learned. 

Don't know what the reviewers will say, but there were a lot of big laughs, and the cast of Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert just crushed it.  They were thrilling to watch. 

Here's a big difference between Broadway and Burbank:  On Broadway you have Sardi's nearby, the ritzy watering hole of the theater set.  Sondheim, Simon, etc.  In Burbank there's Sardo's.  It's a bar that has porn star karaoke.

Lots of people to thank.  My amazing cast and crew.  Andy Barnicle for proving I was so right not to direct this play myself.  The audience certainly.   And Garry Marshall and the incredible staff at the Falcon Theatre.  

A or B? runs thru November 16, and I'll be there every night.   Come see it.  And say hello. I promise to breathe.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Questions

This is the Opening Night of my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre. And yet, I still have time to answer Friday Questions.   We run until November 16.  Wanna come see it?  Sure you do.  Here's where you go.

Tyler asks:

Do the actors who aren't part of the regular cast but play recurring characters (such as Gil Chesterton or Kenny Daly on Frasier) know at the beginning of a season how often and when they will be appearing? Or do they basically have to keep their schedules open from week to week?

No. Rotating characters are usually worked in depending on the story. And things can shift quickly. Stories change from draft to draft. Gil Chesterton may be in the first draft but not in the second if the story veers in a different direction.

We try to prepare the scripts enough in advance that we can check on the actor’s availability. But if we call last minute for an actor and he’s committed to something else we’re either just out of luck or have to juggle the production schedule to accommodate him. It’s certainly not fair to ask hem to just sit by the phone waiting for us to call.

Sometimes however, actors will know that they’re in a six or seven episode story arc and in that case we lock in their dates. And other times studios will make deals for supporting actors who are really recurring. They’ll sign for six or eight out of thirteen. And in those cases the actors will usually keep their dates relatively free.

For many character actors, it is their DREAM to be a recurring character on a successful sitcom.

And along those lines, Lou H. wonders:

Ken, since you have a foot in both the TV and theatre camps, can you talk about how much a 6-days-a-week play consumes its actors and whether they have time for anything else? A few years ago, Chris Noth was on Broadway and could only appear in a few episodes of The Good Wife. This year, both Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing are in It's Only A Play, and Lane has said he probably won't have any time to appear on The Good Wife.

If you don’t sign the actors to series deals you always run the risk of losing them. If the actor decides a Broadway play takes priority over appearing in your show that’s the way it goes.

However, I’ve seen actors do both simultaneously. I remember Judd Hirsch was starring in TAXI and appearing at the Taper Forum in Los Angeles starring in TALLEY’S FOLLEY. It obviously takes some juggling and accommodating on both ends but it can be done.

Considering his schedule, I would assume Ryan Seacrest could do two plays and star in three TV shows at the same time, and still have four hours a day to host an early morning radio program.

From MikeK.Pa.:

I've been seeing a lot of Will and Grace in re-runs and that show holds up well with a joke a page minimum (granted about half are gay jokes, but still funny). Max Kohan and Mitch Mutchnick, the creators of the show, have had three bites at another series and none lasted more than 9 episodes. Bite Four is coming soon on TBS in a comedy called "Buzzy." My question is how can creators of such a funny show fail miserably in re-creating another one? Did everything just come together between writing and casting for W&G? Were K&M just one-hit wonders (TV version)?

First of all, the planets have to line up for anybody to have a hit show. The most successful writer/producers can have multiple bombs. No one is immune from Normal Lear to James L. Brooks to Aaron Sorkin to Dick Wolf to Chuck Lorre.

But in the case of WILL & GRACE, I think that series benefited greatly by having James Burrows directing every episode and Jeff Greenstein guiding the writing. Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally also didn’t hurt.

gottacook wonders:

Since Alan Alda was brought up: As a director yourself who apparently still enjoys directing, why do you suppose Alda gave up feature film directing? (Or do you actually know why?)

I can’t say for sure. This is purely speculation on my part. But the answer seems simple. His movies stopped making money. Hollywood can be very cold-hearted. There’s an expression called “Director’s Jail.” That means when a director has made three or four bombs he no longer can projects greenlit.

How do you get out of “Director’s Jail?” Do an Indie film that hits, or now just move into television. There are a number of former feature directors making quite comfortable livings directing series or MOW’s.

In Alan’s case, he’s such a gifted actor that he has always enjoyed a great career in front of the camera. So he’s gravitated back towards that with much success.

And finally, Marianne has a question about one of the stars of my play:

Hey Ken! Friday question: Is Jason Dechert single?

Yes. Come see him on stage.

What’s the Burbank equivalent of Sardi’s? Oh hell, I’m just going to want any place that serves alcohol. Wish me luck tonight.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lazy writing

I know. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. There are many writers who disagree. Many writers I respect. So this is one scribe’s opinion. One lowly scribe with a blog.

But I am not a fan of narration. Unless it’s in prose.

And lately there seems to be a plethora of narration on television, especially among new shows.

What’s my issue? For the most part I think it’s lazy writing.

The hardest part of telling a dramatic story is doling out the exposition. Backstory tends to be dry. Actors hate to say it. And for good reason. It’s just briefing the audience; a data dump of facts the writer feels are important. The trick – no, the art of storytelling is finding clever ways to either show the audience what they need to know or communicate it through entertaining dialogue.

Unless narration is integral to the premise of the series (like in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where the entire conceit of the show was the father talking to his kids), or a Bullwinkle cartoon (where the narrator was not just a character but did the comedy heavy lifting) it’s generally not necessary. 

When I hear “This is the story about Sarah and Skippy….” Or “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys…” I zone out. Anybody can write “Sarah is a good student but has trouble talking to boys,” but a good writer can create a character (who by her actions) shows us that in a fresh and funny way. He relies on behavior and attitude and the situation. Just saying it is the bald on-the-nose easy way.

And just who are these narrators anyway? Why are they there? Why do we need a narrator to guide us through the story? Another big offender of this is Woody Allen. The first five minutes of VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA is all flatfooted narration that tells you who the heroines are, what their personalities are, what they’re desiring, and why they’re there. LAY-ZEEEE.

Then there are shows where one or more of their characters provide narration. Unless there’s a real good reason for it I don’t know why it exists. Often it’s used to wrap up the show or tell us that week’s theme or life lesson. I like to think I’m smart enough to determine that on my own. I don’t need to be spoon fed.

I suspect one reason shows employ this device is so when scenes they’ve shot turn out poorly they can just scrap them and have the narrator cover the information.

On MASH we occasionally used narration to frame episodes by having a character write a letter home. First off, you knew who the narrator was writing to and why. And secondly, we used this technique very sparingly. It was a way to break the format. And even then, by year seven when David Isaacs and I were heading the writing staff we felt the device was wearing thin. We devised an episode where a Korean spy was writing about the MASH unit and the fun was hearing how he misinterpreted everything he (and we) saw. We never used it as a crutch.

Some shows break the fourth wall and have their lead characters talk directly to the audience. In some cases it works. FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF would be one shining example. But that’s because the narration was less about relaying info and more about philosophizing. And I like it in HOUSE OF CARDS. But in that show the narration is part of Kevin Spacey’s character. He uses it to justify his behavior and toot his own horn. And he uses it very sparingly. I love the episode in season two where he doesn’t talk to the audience for almost the entire show, and then at the last minute he turns to the camera and says, “Did you miss me?”

But other times it feels like characters are talking to the camera just to be stylistic. There’s always the danger that you’ll take the audience out of the moment by shattering the reality. So the question becomes – is the device really necessary?

I find this less concerning in the theatre where stories are generally told stylistically, but the reality of film and TV makes it harder to buy… at least for me. JERSEY BOYS is an example where narration worked on the stage, not on the screen.

Some may argue that a narrator is necessary because there are so many facts and the exposition is very dense. The audience would be confused without it. If that’s so I question whether the story itself is too complicated.

Another problem with narrators is that they often just drop out after awhile. You hear them at the beginning and maybe an hour into a movie for three sentences and that’s it. If you establish that the narrator is your vehicle for telling the story then stick with him. To have him just pop in when you need a hole patched is again, lazy writing.

I have no conclusion here. It’s not like writers are going to stop using narration because of this post. Or Woody Allen is going to send me an apology. But if you’re an aspiring writer I want you to challenge yourself. I want you to avoid shortcuts. I want you to rise above. Or I want you to just say screw it and write a novel.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What movies do you hate that everyone else loves?

Doesn't it make you crazy when there’s a movie out that’s real popular and all your friends love it but you don’t? It’s like you're totally out of step with pop culture – and is there a worse fate than that? I’ve listed some movies that were boxoffice dandies and zeitgeist zeniths but just didn’t do it for me. You’re going to look at this list and be outraged over a couple. But that’s the whole idea. I KNOW you and most everyone in the world likes these movie but for whatever reason I hate 'em.   Sorry.  I do.   I’ve also left out films from genres I just don’t care for, so it’s unfair to dump on SAW III. And I won’t go to see a Katherine Heigl or Nancy Meyer romcom. Just loathe ‘em.  I know what I’m going to get. And I’m never not being disappointed in being disappointed.

So this is my partial list. I’d be curious. What’s yours? And I’ll make you a deal. If you don’t rip me for not liking LINCOLN I won’t attack you for not liking AMERICAN BEAUTY (although, seriously, what’s wrong with you?).

ENGLISH PATIENT
Last Batman movie
Last Superman movie
CRASH
MATCH POINT
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
NEIGHBORS
LORD OF THE RINGS
LINCOLN
THE NATURAL
NEBRASKA
THE DESCENDENTS
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING
LES MISERABLES
YOU’VE GOT MAIL
MOULIN ROUGE
LUCY
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The pros and cons of networking

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post when I drifted off and started talking about something else.

It’s from Jim S:

Networking. I've noticed that many writers often work on each other's projects. Do you ask Mr. X after seeing his show for job?  I recall reading about a showrunner who would give one assignment a year to his old mentor who had aged out of the business so that the mentor could keep his health insurance from the writer's guild.

Is that kind of loyalty common?

I don’t know if it’s common, but we gave our mentor an assignment in his later years. We were thrilled to do it. And we were rewarded with a great script. It’s not like athletes. Talent doesn’t fade with age.

Showrunners will often hire writers they’ve worked with and trust. It only makes sense. That said, openings do come up that require showrunners to hire people they have no history with. Lots of time these positions will be lower level thus allowing the showrunner to groom and mentor the new scribes.

One way that new writers can “audition” is to offer their services free to showrunners when they have a pilot in production and are looking to put together a temporary staff to help rewrite and punch up.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this practice. First of all, I feel the young writers are being taken advantage of. It’s one thing to ask a friend to help. We have a relationship, and I also feel I can reciprocate by helping out on his pilot somewhere down the road. But to ask someone I don’t know to come in for eight hours, help out, with no guarantees at all seems unfair. I would feel too guilty. I’m getting paid a lot of money; he's getting nothing but a lovely parting gift and cold Chinese food. It doesn’t seem right.

Yes, if you’re a young writer and you’re offered a chance to participate in a rewrite for a showrunner you don’t know I would say jump at it. You never know. You might impress him and ultimately get a job out of it. I will just say this tough: the odds are against it. Lots of things have to fall in place. But it does happen.  And even if chances are low, you gotta take it. 

My other concern is that when I have a pilot in production it is no time to break anybody in. I much prefer to surround myself with a smaller group of All-Star writers I know. We move quicker and more efficiently. We all have the same comic sensibility. No one is going to waste our time pitching completely inappropriate jokes. Everyone is rowing in the same direction.

I was in a room a couple of years ago for a pilot rewrite. I kid you not, there was no less than twenty writers – probably more. High level, mid level, newbies, maybe even a few people from the studio tour who just happened to wander in. And before that, at the table reading, there were five to ten more writers in attendance. It was nuts.

I’d say most of the writers in the rewrite never spoke a word. I don’t know why they were there other than to eat lunch or maybe hide out from the cops. Others were pitching drivel. Maybe four of the writers actually got jokes in. And they were primarily veterans. Most of the stuff came from the two showrunners themselves. And here’s the irony, they’re both terrific writers. If we had a pilot I would invite just the two of them to help. That’s all we’d need.

So for young writers, not only is it hard to stand out in normal circumstances, you’re trying to be noticed in a room of twenty. Depending on when you enter the room you might be stuck in the back corner – like having the farthest booth in the county fair.

What was the original question? I’ve gone off on a tangent and forgot what he asked. Oh yeah. Networking.


Networking is important. Showrunners help their mentors, friends who are down on their luck, writers’ assistants that have earned a shot, staffers they’ve worked with before, and newbies that dazzle in pilot rewrites.

The trick is getting in. And if free labor is one way then you’ve got to do it. But make no mistake -- you’re doing the showrunner a favor as much as he’s doing one for you.

Somewhere in all that I hope I answered Jim's question.  Or at least touched on it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Previews

We’re now up and running. Here’s the latest installment on mounting my play, A OR B? – now playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank.

When we last left our heroes… tech work had been completed. Now it was time to prepare for the first preview, which was last Wednesday night.

The actors pretty much have the script memorized although more changes were expected once I heard preview audiences. The thing I’m stressing now is to hold for laughs (assuming there are any). When actors don’t hold for laughs two things happen. First, the audience misses the next line or joke because they’re laughing through it. And secondly, after that occurs a few times the audience will just stop laughing for fear of missing something. Of course it’s hard to know just what will get laughs so previews are very helpful.

We had a full dress rehearsal on Tuesday night for an invited audience of maybe 15. With that small a group I was pleased to get a few big titters. As I expected, it was also the NOISES OFF runthrough. In other words, there were wardrobe malfunctions, props not being where they were supposed to be, missed light cues, lines jumped, etc. Best to get all of that out of the way now.   Do you know there’s such a thing as zipper oil? If you’re doing a play with costume changes make sure you have some.

It’s amazing how you can watch rehearsals for four weeks and everything looks great but then you see it on its feet and there are moments you go "Yikes!"  So my routine this last week has been this: show up at the theatre at 4:00. Actors rehearse trouble spots or new material. The show at 8:00, notes at 10:00, and then I go home and rewrite until 2:30.

One thing I miss about being on staff on a TV show – writing material and seeing it performed the next day. Serving it while it’s hot.

Each night gets better. In fact, a new joke I wrote Thursday might get the biggest laugh in the play. And then of course there are the “Bono’s” (see yesterday’s post for explanation). There are a couple that I think I’ll be wrestling with until opening night. The actors are good sports, gamely delivering the new lines without complaint (at least within earshot).

Another difference between the theatre and TV: In TV I go down for a runthrough that consists of about 22 minutes of content. I then go back with seven or eight highly trained comedy writers to fix the script. Here it’s 90 minutes of material and just me. But I will say this – the TV training has been INVALUABLE. You learn to be facile and attack problems. There are a lot of excellent playwrights who happen to write very slowly. This is like catching a moving train. There’s also the temptation for thoughtful (i.e. slow) playwrights to keep things that should go because it took so long to write them in the first place.

I had one scene that felt too long. I couldn’t wait to get home and chop the shit out of it. Jokes I liked a week ago I couldn’t wait to cut. The next night the scene played sooo much better. That’s what often happens. You have a scene with say ten jokes and they all play okay. You cut five and the ones you keep get even bigger laughs. Don’t be afraid to cut.

I generally go into runthrough with some ideas of cuts I’d like to make. Same has been true with the play. There was one joke I was thinking of cutting because I’d like the scene a little shorter. But it got a good laugh. My first reaction was “damn, it worked.” And then I thought, “You idiot. It WORKED.” I’ll find a trim somewhere else.

We also made some lighting and blocking adjustments that quickened the pace.

The Wednesday and Thursdays previews played pretty well. The weekend was better. What’s always odd is that certain jokes that work one night don’t the next and vice versa. And from time to time straight lines will get laughs. Don’t ask me why. I’ll take it.

Something was nagging me however. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the weekend, but a lightbulb went off and the answer was clear. But it will require major light and sound cue adjustments, some new blocking, new wardrobe, and two existing scenes being intercut. It sounds more radical than it is, but still, it will take a little coordinated rehearsal time so we'll put it in this week. It’s not fair to the actors (or crew) to just throw them out there without proper preparation. Especially since I like them. But I’m excited to see the new stuff that goes in starting Wednesday.

Another problem we had to address was costume changes. Our actors, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, have to make some quick ones. They do it under 30 seconds, but that’s still a long transition on stage with nothing happening. We tried covering it with music and visually interesting things going on on stage, but it wasn’t enough. Our director, Andy Barnicle, came up with the fix – voice over funny dialogue. So I went off into a corner, wrote them, and they were recorded that night.

So a few more days of tinkering and previews, and then Friday is Opening Night. I think we’ll be okay… as long as we have enough zipper oil.

It’s been a blast meeting some blog readers who’ve attended the previews. Thanks so much. Here’s where you go for tickets, and if you do attend a performance please flag me down. I’m the one in the corner of the lobby just rocking back and forth.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's a "Bono?"

In between the time Sonny Bono wore fur vests and became a US Congressman he owned an Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in LA named “Bono’s.” He picked a bad location. Within months it went belly up. Since then, every time I drive by that place it’s something else – Japanese, Indian, American diner, etc.

When we’re in production on a show it seems that every week there is that one nagging joke that doesn’t work. It’s replaced on Tuesday. That joke doesn’t work. Wednesday, same story. On and on throughout the week.

That joke is called a “Bono”. And like I said, there’s ALWAYS one (at least one). The term was coined by Denise Moss, a fabulous writer on MURPHY BROWN.

What it teaches you is to stick with it, never settle, try new areas. And never just go for the easy joke…which is why I’m refraining from any reference to skiing.

This was a re-post from God knows when.