Thursday, October 30, 2014

The future of network sitcoms

As I discussed Tuesday, networks are frantically rebooting old sitcoms. Soon they’ll run out of them. And then what? Original ideas are not an option. So they’ll start redeveloping drama franchises as comedies. Here’s a glimpse into the future and what TV viewers can expect:

INT. VP OF COMEDY DEVELOPMENT’S OFFICE (2019) – DAY

The Comedy VP is taking pitches from the few comedy writers who are still approved. We CUT from pitch meeting to pitch meeting.

WRITER #1: This is a can't miss idea.   HOMELAND: THE COMEDY. I want to do a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW type thing with Claire as Mary and Saul as Lou Grant. The terrorist leader could be Ted Baxter.

VP: Be careful with that. We have to be sensitive to all nationalities. The terrorist watchgroup is always on our ass. But we can now show Carrie giving a blowjob. That’s okay.

WRITER #1: "Oh Mr. Berenson."

VP:  "Who can blow the world up with her smile?"  I love it!

CUT TO:

WRITER #2: Talk about "comedy gold" --  DEXTER as a Benihana chef. Can’t you just see it? “Hey, Dexter, where’s Manuel?” “Manuel isn’t coming in tonight.” Ha ha ha.  And we set it in New Jersey. For the killings, instead of a weird abandoned warehouse, we give him kind of a fun man-cave. “Tonight we’re featuring Hibachi Mobster.”

VP: Single-camera?

WRITER #2: No. I see it multi-cam, in front of an audience.  The first row might have to wear ponchos though. 

CUT TO:

WRITER #3: THE GOOD WIFE but set in a high school.

CUT TO:

WRITER #4: COLD CASE but as a musical.

CUT TO:

WRITER #5: CSI: BLYTHE. Here’s the twist: there hasn’t been a murder in five years. The CSI team is analyzing each others hair and using their sophisticated equipment to determine if they need to rotate the van’s tires. Think of the fun things you could do with all that equipment if it were put to other use. For instance: two technicians compare the molecular content of their sperm. I’m laughin’ just thinking about it. You could also call the show BORED-WALK EMPIRE. Get it?

CUT TO:

WRITER #6: BLACKLIST with real blacks.

CUT TO:

WRITER #7: I want to bring back THE EQUALIZER.

VP: (after a beat) Yeah…?

WRITER #7: That’s it. Just show the original. Trust me it is now a comedy.

CUT TO:

WRITER #8: I know it’s a movie and not a former TV show but what about SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? They screw up and try to save Ryan Reynolds from making bad career choices.

Enjoy the 2019-20 season.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

At least I wasn't naked

This is not a baseball post (even though baseball is involved and tonight is game seven of the World Series). It’s a real life version of that nightmare we all have. You know the one – it’s the day of your final and you were never in class and you woke up late and forgot your bluebook, etc. Or you’re on stage and know none of your lines and your costume is falling apart and your throat is parched so you can’t speak. For a baseball announcer, the equivalent would be you’re on the air, you’re totally unprepared, and you have no idea what’s going on in the game. I had that happen to me. In REAL LIFE.  And to make matters worse, it was my first game ever in the major leagues.   So this is not really a baseball story; it's a "why I'm still in therapy" story. 

Travel back to 1988. I was announcing minor league baseball for the Syracuse Chiefs. They were the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was invited to come to Toronto to announce a couple of innings on their radio network. I of course accepted. Forget that I had only a half year experience calling professional baseball at the time.

So I fly up there (in a four seat prop plane that reminded me very much of “the Spirit of St. Louis.”) to do play-by-play for a couple of innings. Their longtime announcers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth couldn’t have been nicer or more supportive. I had done tons of prep work and knew everything there was to know about everything. I was READY. It was a quiet 1-0 game until I took over. I had a triple and busted squeeze play in the first five minutes I was on the air. Amazingly, I called them both well.

Somehow I survived the two innings and tossed it back to Tom & Jerry (yes, Tom & Jerry). A local TV station wanted to do a feature piece on me. They asked if they could interview me. I said “sure” and we went to the roof of Exhibition Stadium (this was before the Jays moved to the Skydome, or whatever the hell they call it these days). Meanwhile, the game continued on. I wasn’t following it. What did I care? My night was done.

After the interview I was invited to sit in on the Blue Jays TV broadcast with Don Chevrier and Tony Kubek. Cool, I thought. They’ll ask me about their farm club, we’ll chat about CHEERS, etc.

Instead, I get there just as a commercial break is about to end. I put on the headset mic, we all shake hands, and they go on the air. Don says, “We have a treat this inning. This is Ken Levine, who announces for our AAA team. Ken, it’s all yours. Take it away.” HOLY SHIT! They wanted me to do play-by-play?

First off, I had never done TV play-by-play. Ever. Was I supposed to watch the monitor? The field? Both? Neither?

I also had no idea what the score was, what inning it was, or who was up. Usually, I have a scorebook where I chart what each player does. I had nothing. A player would come up. I’d see his name on the screen and say, “Okay… Chili Davis batting now. So far tonight Chili has… been up before. The score is…” I’d now look around the stadium for the scoreboard. “Wow. 3-0 Blue Jays. How’d that happen?”

My big problem was the pitcher. Nowhere on the scoreboard could I find who was pitching. And even if he turned his back to me and I saw his number, I didn’t have a roster so I couldn’t identify him.  I find it's hard to discuss strategy when you don't know who's on the field.   Finally, I just copped to it. I said, “Tony, you’re the analyst. Let me ask you a real technical question. Who’s pitching right now?”

So basically I just had to completely fake my way through the inning – knowing that the Blue Jays telecast was seen throughout the country of Canada. There were literally millions of people of watching this.

I have a tape of the radio innings but not the TV inning. My guess is it was somewhat of a complete fiasco. Hopefully it was somewhat amusing the for the viewers. But I was never more terrified in my life. Like I said, it was one of those work-related nightmares come true. At least it wasn’t combined with that other standard dream – the one where you’re naked in public.

Angel announcer Al Conin gave me a terrific gift. He took his scorecard, highlight my two radio and one TV innings, and got all the players involved to autograph it for me then added a couple of photos. Thanks Al.  Yes, that's me in a beard.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oh no! Another TV rant from me

I guess original ideas are now out. For years networks have been “claiming” that want new ideas, fresh voices. They’re done with tired hackneyed sitcom premises. They have no use for old style rhythms. It’s time to reinvent the form. Be daring. “This is not your parents sitcom.”

Well, they're past that. This year practically everything they’re buying is either adaptations of old movies or adaptations of old TV shows. Gee, that worked so well for NBC with IRONSIDE and THE BIONIC WOMAN.

NBC is rebooting BEWITCHED. Like we need to see that bastardized again. Anyone remember the Nora Ephron film version with Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell? Probably not because no one went to see it. Could it just possibly be, and I know this is a crazy notion, that the charm and appeal of BEWITCHED was Elizabeth Montgomery? Brooklyn Decker might not measure up. Or Sarah Chalke. Or “fill in blank of blonde actress who bombed in three previous romantic sitcoms.” By the way, there was a bidding war for this project.

Every day I read that another chestnut is being dusted off. The movie HITCHED recently. ABC is remaking THE BACHELOR PARTY. FOX just bought THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (that one is a real head scratcher).

NBC tried to reboot SAY ANYTHING, but Cameron Crowe (God bless him) made a stink and they dropped the project.

For every adaptation that works (like MASH) there are twenty that don’t.

And that goes the other way too. Movies based on TV series rarely connect. Without Denzel Washington I don’t think anyone would go to see THE EQUALIZER. And there weren’t long lines to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE HONEYMOONERS, CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU, DRAGNET, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, DUKES OF HAZZARD, GET SMART, THE GONG SHOW MOVIE, I SPY, LOST IN SPACE, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, SGT. BILKO, THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, STARSKY & HUTCH, and S.W.A.T. Before you race to the comments section to list STAR TREK and the other franchises that were hits, I know there have been some but way more have missed.

My point is that Hollywood (and the networks in particular) is once again playing it safe.  Waaaay safe.  Trading on a name or concept. It worked once before, why not again? And if a network should also own the property then they get to double-dip in success. I’m not planning on pitching anything this season, meaning I’m not going out with VOLUNTEERS. But if you are, don’t waste your time coming up with something you’ve never seen before; go to ME-TV and attach yourself to GIDGET.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Closing in on Opening Night

Here’s the latest installment of the mounting of my play, A or B? now playing at the Falcon Theatre.

Everything was geared towards Opening Night, which was last Friday. We had seven previews to tinker. Thanks to all the guinea pigs who attended one of those shows. Come back. It’s different now.

The Saturday night before Opening we had a great crowd. I told the cast I really got the chance to hear what jokes worked and didn’t so to expect a blizzard of new jokes tomorrow. I wasn’t going to do that to them every day, and they’d have several days to learn them, but I warned them they were coming. I then went home and rewrote until 4:30.

Sure enough the new jokes helped. Most worked. I felt I was plugging up holes.

The somewhat major changes I had proposed the week before we put in on Wednesday. This required new blocking, light and sound cues, and the actors getting comfortable with a new scene (which was really the intercutting of two previous scenes). Oh… and then performing it later that night. Three hours of rehearsal were all they required to pull it off. Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert are amazing. Hey, it turns out years of classical training comes in handy.  Who knew?   (Unless you want to be a sitcom star and then just be a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.)

The Wednesday and Thursday previews played okay. The actors were still feeling their way a little. I told them I was not going to give them any more lines this week and they could just learn what they had. Of course I lied and gave them a couple.

Hey, I’m so neurotic I rewrote the pre-show turn-off-your-cellphones announcement. Why not get a few chuckles even before the show and send the message to the audience that it's okay to laugh.  (Preferred even.)

Friday was Opening Night. What they don’t tell you is that opening day of opening night is murder. I kind of walked around in a daze, just looking for things to do, but I’ll be honest, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I don’t wonder how Neil Simon wrote so many plays. I wonder how he survived so many opening days.

I picked up some Opening Night gifts for the cast and some crew members. That killed a little time. I stopped off at nearby Vendome Liquor and bumped into my radio friend, Rick Dees. He had this bottle of bourbon and invited me to take a sip. I did. It was good. He then told me the bottle cost $2000. Wow. It’s a good thing I didn’t ask for some ginger ale to go with it. We made plans to get lunch and I’ll return the favor by offering a sip of some vintage Mogan David’s.

At 7:30 the theatre started filling up. Garry Marshall, who had been in New York directing a play, flew back for this. I love the fact that he did, but no additional pressure there. My son Matt and his wife came down from Silicon Valley. A few other familiar faces including my writing partner David Isaacs and Treva Silverman who is my unofficial dramaturge. Lots of others streamed in who I didn’t know. Which ones were critics?

Some playwrights like to pace in the back during the show but there’s no space to pace. So I sat in the last row with my family and the Marshalls two seats over.

Boy, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear the first big laugh. And the second. And that they came within the first couple of minutes not hours. Garry was even laughing. I still couldn’t breathe because at any moment the laughs could stop. But thankfully they continued, the cast rose to new heights, and everything finally came together. I was able to exhale for the first time in two days. Seriously, how does Neil Simon do it?

The Falcon always has a great reception in the lobby after the Opening. Fantastic meatballs. I was able to eat everything AND keep it all down.

Now the show is in its run. Five performances a week. Come see it. I’m there every night. How often do I have a play in production? Am I still giving them new lines? Only a few. And not every day. Honest. Like today. No new lines today. Okay, today is a day off. But still.

Hope you enjoyed this series on the making of my play. If I ever become a Benihana chef I will chronicle that journey too, assuming I still have any fingers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

R.I.P. Dale Dorman

So sorry to hear of the passing of Dale Dorman. Most people don’t know him. But those that do – and I’d bet it’s about a million – loved him. Dale was a longtime disc jockey in Boston. So many listeners felt a closeness to him that he was not just a friend; he was almost a family member. He was known affectionately as Uncle Dale, a nickname he received when he was 21. He was 71 when he died, after battling a long illness (which he always downplayed). 

We were close friends for over 40 years.

I first heard Dale on the radio in 1966 at KFRC, San Francisco. They were the powerhouse Top 40 station back then, one of the pillars of the Drake format that dominated radio in the late ‘60s. But he was very different. Most Drake jocks had rich deep voices. Dale had a high squeaky voice. He was the last person you could imagine would ever get an on-air gig on a major market station.

But Dale compensated by his personality. He was warm, engaging, and wickedly funny. He did the kind of content I appreciated (and adopted although not as well) – all off-the-cuff. In short, he was a revelation.

In 1968 he was transferred to WRKO in Boston where he became the morning man. Almost instantly he was a sensation. For all the announcers with deep authoritative pipes, the guy who sounded like Mickey Mouse kicked their butts. (It’s a lesson that radio still hasn’t learned.)

After 10 years at WRKO he moved on to KISS-FM where he ruled the ratings for another 20 years, then ending his career at WODS.

Getting together with Dale meant either steaks (LA), lobster (Boston), and enough laughs to fill the space in between. As funny as he was on the air, he was twice as funny off. Irreverent, satiric, and sooooo damn fast. If he had gone into comedy writing instead of radio he’d be a legend in that field. He’d be a premiere comedian if he had chosen stand-up as his career. Or he would’ve out Dave Barry’d Dave Barry if prose was his dish. He was just that good, just that hysterical.

My trips to Boston would always include a day just watching him do his show. I was a middle-aged geeky fanboy.

Dale Dorman is proof that one can beat the odds with talent, heart, and dedication. He had a high voice but a deep mind. And he leaves behind a million nephews and nieces who will forever love and miss their Uncle Dave.

How we plotted stories on MASH

MASH episodes tend to be complicated and I’m often asked how we plotted out stories. So here’s how we did it.

First off, we chose the best stories we could find – the most emotional, the most interesting the best possibilities for comedy. Plotting is worthless if you have a bad story. Chekhov would pull out his hair trying to make “B.J.’s Depression” work. (Side note: stories where your lead character is depressed generally don’t work in comedy. Moping around is not conducive to laughs. Better to make them angry, frustrated, lovesick, impatient, hurt – anything but depressed… or worse, happy. Happy is comedy death.)

We got a lot of our stories from research – transcribed interviews of doctors, nurses, patients, and others who lived through the experience. But again, the key was to find some hook that would connect one of our characters to these real life incidents.

Some of these anecdotes were so outrageous we either couldn’t use them or had to tone them down because no one would believe them.

For each episode we had two and sometimes three stories. If we had a very dramatic story we would pair it with something lighter. The very first MASH we wrote, Hawkeye was temporally blind and Hawk & Beej pulled a sting on Frank.

We would try to mix and match these story fragments so that they could dovetail or hopefully come together at the end.

All that stuff you probably knew. What you didn’t know is this:

We broke the show down into two acts and a tag. Each act would have five scenes. Brief transition scenes didn’t count. But go back through some episodes. Five main scenes in the first act and five in the second. As best we could we would try to advance both of our stories in the same scenes. But each story is different and we tried to avoid being predictable.

Usually, we wrapped up the heavy story last. That’s the one you cared most about.

The tag would callback something from the body of the show, generally drawing from the funny story.

And then we had a rather major restriction: We could only shoot outside at the Malibu ranch for one day each episode. So no more than 8 pages (approximately a third of the show). And that was in the summer when there was the most light. By September and October we could devote 6 pages to exteriors. And once Daylight Savings was over that was it for the ranch for the season. All exteriors were shot on the stage. So if we wanted to do a show where the camp is overrun by oxen we better schedule it for very early in the summer. Those 20th guards never let oxen onto the lot without proper ID.

If possible we tried to do at least one O.R. scene a show. We wanted to constantly remind the audience that above all else this was a show about war.

We always feared that a sameness would creep into the storytelling so every season we would veer completely away from our game plan for several episodes just to shake things up and keep you off the scent. That’s how all format-breaking shows like POINT OF VIEW, THE INTERVIEW, and DREAMS came about. And during our years we extended that to a few mainstream episodes. We did NIGHT AT ROSIE’S that was more like a one-act play. Everything was set in Rosie’s Bar. (I wonder if a series like that but set in Boston would work?) We moved them all to a cave. We did an episode set exclusively in Post-Op and assigned each of our characters to a specific patient. Letters-to-home was another nice device.

I should point out here that I didn’t come up with the MASH guidelines for storytelling. That was all Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds (pictured). We just followed the template. And for the record, in all my years in the business, no one is better at story than Gene Reynolds. It was amazing how he could zero in on problems and more impressively, find solutions. The story had to constantly move forward, it had to have flow, logic, surprises, the comedy had to real as well as funny, and most of all – the dramatic moments (especially during the conclusion) had to be earned.

So that’s how we did it, based on how they did it. And when I occasionally watch episodes of MASH from our years there are always lines I want to change or turns that could be made more artfully or humorously, but those stories hold up beautifully. Thank you, Gene Reynolds.

This is a re-post from over four years ago.   Check out my archives sometime.  There are one or two decent entries.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

First review is in

I'll take it.  Any review that starts out with WOW! I'll take.  It's from Stage Scene LA.    Am I allowed to thank a critic?  Oh hell, I'll do it anyway.  Thanks Steven Stanley.

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.