Monday, March 31, 2014

I've killed a TV character too, y'know

So for the producers of THE GOOD WIFE, I know what you're going through.   Note to Michelle & Robert King:  We got nominated for awards. 

My take on THE GOOD WIFE

A lot of you have asked my thoughts on the shocking story turn on THE GOOD WIFE. I waited a week so you DVR folks could catch up, but if you don’t know by now – they killed Will Gardner.

First, as a huge fan of the show, let me react personally. “NOOOOO!!!! HOW COULD THEY DO THAT?!! NOOOOOO!!!!! ANYONE BUT WILL!!!! Except maybe Alicia. Or Elsbeth. NOOOOOO!”

Okay. Had to get that out of my system. Now my professional opinion. “NOOOOOO!” Sorry. That just slipped out.

It’s very hard for a writing staff when creative decisions have to be made not based on the best dramatic storytelling but to accommodate some real life roadblock. Actors want to quit. Actors tragically die in real life. Actresses get pregnant. Actors get hospitalized. Snowstorms halt production. Strikes halt production. Actors have conflicts that must be dealt with.

Occasionally these lead to great stories or a terrific new direction that the showrunner would not have thought of otherwise. But more often than not these hurt the shows. When CBS forced us to get rid of the male lead on ALMOST PERFECT it effectively killed the series. The heart of the show was the romance and now that was gone. I think season two episodes were extremely clever and very funny, but they lacked the emotion and thematic clarity that season one had.

I’ve always admired Michelle & Robert King, the creators and showrunners of THE GOOD WIFE. They’re exceptional writers who consistently devise fresh, original stories and characters. I’m in awe of their talent. If there was one hour drama I wish I could write it's THE GOOD WIFE.  And I greatly appreciate that they’re willing to make bold story choices. Some work better than others, but they keep the show vibrant. The relationships are always changing, and it’s great fun to watch all the different permutations.

So when Josh Charles announced to them last year that he wanted to leave the show, they were left with an agonizing decision. They chose to kill him off. And somehow they managed to keep it a surprise. How they did that I’ll never know.

Anticipating a lot of viewer outrage, the Kings wrote an open letter to THE GOOD WIFE fans explaining why they opted for that decision. And their reasoning made perfect sense.

And knowing how artful they are, I’m sure the rest of the season’s episodes will deal with his demise in honest yet surprising ways (unlike say DOWNTON ABBEY that dealt with character deaths in the most on-the-nose ways possibly).  Last night's episode had some wonderful moments.

Still, I worry.

Not only was there such amazing chemistry between Alicia and Will, in the three episodes leading up to his death they ramped up that chemistry even more. Yes, it made the death more shocking and more of a loss, but there’s the real danger that it backfires, only pointing out how important Will was to the series, and will result in angry fans abandoning THE GOOD WIFE for good.

A lot of people won’t give a shit why the Kings felt this move was justified. They hate it and won’t come back. Period.

I also think so many series regulars have been killed now off of shows that audiences are frankly just tired of the devise. Hasn’t Rob Lowe been bumped off of multiple series?

THE GOOD WIFE in reruns will now play differently. There will be a sadness to watching earlier episodes. I don’t know whether that will make them less enjoyable or more poignant. Killing Will Gardner could be a very costly mistake. Time and ratings will tell.

So the Kings have taken a huge risk (only because their hands were forced). Can they rebound from this? If any writers can it’s Robert & Michelle. I strongly recommend you don’t give up on THE GOOD WIFE. Even if you’re furious or haven’t gotten out of bed in a week. Give them a chance. Yes, their backs are up against the wall. But isn’t that what makes for great drama?

I also look forward to whatever Josh Charles is in next.  He's a terrific actor.  

That said... "NOOOOO!"

UPDATE: The ratings for last night's episode went up.  And I expect when DVR viewing is figured in the number will rise even higher.  Stick with the show.  Trust me, you will be rewarded. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What I read on my spring vacation

Spending three weeks in Hawaii gave me a chance to catch up on my reading.  Here's what I read:

Shell Shocked -- the Howard Kaylan autobiography.
Well-written, candid, and very funny.   The lead singer of the Turtles takes you through his remarkable career.  "What a life!" and "Why isn't he dead?" are the two statements you'll be making.

Children of the Canyon -- by David Kukoff
A dark but engrossing novel about the kids who grew up in Laurel Canyon during the '70s.  Filled with rock stars, drugs, alternative lifestyles, bullshit rhetoric -- back when "family"  meant Charles Manson.

Effed Up -- by Russ Woody
A wickedly funny dysfunctional family by one of Hollywood's best comedy writers --  who needs to get in therapy quick.

Deadly Heat -- by Richard Castle
For a TV character, Castle really packs his crime novel with murders, terrorist plots, clues, twists, and sex.

Mad as Hell -- by David Itzkoff
The making of one of the great movies ever, NETWORK.  It really gets into the mind of writer Paddy Chayefsky -- worth the price just for that.

And I had already read this book but wanted to plug it anyway:  Must Kill TV -- by me.  85 reviews (78 real good ones).  And the Kindle is only $2.99.  Don't wait for the movie. 

TOMORROW:  My thoughts on THE GOOD WIFE.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Picture Day

All taken with my iPhone. Mostly sunsets. To go along with the photos and travelogue I posted earlier in the week.  (Sorry there's no place to click "like" but enjoy just the same.)
A selfie with Annie
From Amasia.  Yum.
That's a chocolate shell.  To die for.
Matt & Annie, my humble children
This ridiculous feature at the Grand Wailea simulates being tossed in the waves.  Real waves are five yards away.
Who the fuck wears fur in Hawaii?
NOTE: Monday my thoughts on THE GOOD WIFE.

First music video...

...I was ever asked to give notes on. And they even took one. It's a great video for a GREAT song. "Girl You Look Amazing" by Nicole Atkins. I never caught the name of the guy who plays her boyfriend in this. Rock on.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Questions

Have you submitted your Friday Question yet? Here are four readers who have.

Steve B. is first:

How do you decide whether to make a sitcom pilot single or multi cam?

It depends on the premise, the tone of the show, and how you want to tell the story. Some premises are no-brainers like MASH. You can’t exactly shoot that in front of a studio audience, so you’re pretty much locked into a single-camera format.

But let’s say you’re doing a show about funny police detectives. You could center the action in the squad room and easily shoot it multi-camera. That’s what BARNEY MILLER did.

On the other hand, you could decide to show the detectives at work out of the station. You’d want more flexibility and more sets. Single-camera might be the way to go in that case. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE for example.

And then there are shows like THE ODD COUPLE and HAPPY DAYS that both started out single-camera and converted to multi-camera.

Sometimes networks will dictate the format they want. Multi-camera shows are cheaper to produce so some networks may favor them. Other networks prefer single-camera shows. Fox has had trouble for years launching a multi-camera show. They’re trying with DADS (and trying is an apt description of that show). CBS, on the other hand, has had great success launching multi-camera show – from BIG BANG THEORY to 2 BROKE GIRLS.

So if you have a premise you think might lend itself better to single-camera you might pitch it first at Fox, and if your show is more multi-camera-friendly, CBS might be your first destination.

Don Graf wonders:

Who would be on your All-Star team of character/supporting actors from the 50's and 60's?

Ed Norton and Alice Kramden from THE HONEYMOONERS. Ethel Mertz from I LOVE LUCY. Eddie Haskell from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. Colonel Hall from THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW. Buddy and Sally from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Maynard G. Krebs from DOBIE GILLIS. Endora from BETWITCHED. And of course, Algonquin J. Calhoun from AMOS AND ANDY.

The Bumble Bee Pendant asks:

What are your thoughts on how Writers are paid compared to "the on-screen talent"? Writers are generally underpaid and under-appreciated unless they are the creators.

This is certainly true, but audiences don’t tune in to see writers. They watch actors. Actors attract viewers. Actors open movies. Without James Spader there is no BLACKLIST, despite the writing. MASH survived when Larry Gelbart left. I don’t think it would have survived if Alan Alda had departed.

So naturally actors demand higher salaries. They have the leverage. When WEST WING can continue without Aaron Sorkin you know a co- producer of LAST MAN STANDING can’t hold out for Tim Allen’s salary.

That said, I find it heartening that after firing Dan Harmon, NBC brought him back to COMMUNITY. But truthfully, if Harmon had declined to return, NBC would have just found somebody else – probably for a lot less.

If your primary goal in the entertainment industry is to make as much money as you can, don’t pursue writing. Those of us who are writers do it for a different reason. We’re nuts.

And finally, from Carson:

Has modern technology made it easier to write scenes? By that I mean that it used to be that for a character to receive outside news that could be important to the plot, they needed to be by their home phone. Now you can just script that they received a text.

For me, the jury is still out on whether it’s better. Yes, now any character can be reached, and you don’t have to figure out how a character is going to get to a phone in the middle of the desert, etc.

But easy access to communication can sometimes be a problem for comedy. You want characters not being able to get ahold of each other at times. You want confusion, you want mis-information, you want people over-reacting to what they think is the situation. If a quick cellphone call can clear up everything, you forfeit lots of delicious comic possibilities.

I always wonder how they’d do THE FUGITIVE today. Richard Kimble would have a bitch of time getting a new identity every week and getting an apartment and job without having his credit record and job history revealed. Whatever story he told employers could be checked on line. How would he get a driver’s license without submitting to a fingerprint? And today fingerprints can be cross-checked immediately. His face would appear on AMERICA’S MOST WANTED. How would he avoid all the security cameras in buildings and on city streets? We found Bin Laden. We’re going to be baffled by Richard Kimble?

On the other hand, his story that a one-armed man committed the murder could today be checked from DNA samples. The one-arm man probably had a rap sheet and Richard Kimble could identify him from photos emailed from headquarters. Maybe Richard Kimble wouldn’t have to run at all. You’d have no show. Damn this technology?

If you have a question, please leave in the comments section. Thanks.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The HAWAII 5-0 I'd really like to see

Back from Maui. You’re saying, “Weren’t you just in Hawaii?” and the answer is “Yes, but this time our kids joined us, and so what if we were?” My wife arrived with a hellacious cold, I had a swollen cornea, and Annie was getting over bronchitis. There was so much coughing our rented condo sounded like a poker game at Elaine Stritch’s. Matt then arrived with a strained calf. So between us we couldn’t see, hear, speak, or walk. Let’s hike the crater!

Once again we stayed at the E-coli Village. Our condo came complete with all the deluxe amenities -- a partial view of the ocean, internet access (from other units that were not password protected), and stolen towels from the Grand Wailea.

Rain greeted us the first few days, which was fine because like everyone else we came to Hawaii for the theater.

Within days the clouds gave way to brilliant sunshine, everyone got well, and I caught a cold, which became a major sinus infection, and then full-blown ear infection. Koleamoku, the Hawaiian God of health must’ve paid to see MANNEQUIN 2 because he really kicked my haole ass this trip.

Mahalo” means “thank you.” But since it’s on every garbage can, most tourists think mahalo means “trash.”

Who needs to visit the Hawaiian Cultural Center when there’s a Panties in Paradise within walking distance?
I must say it was a little weird being in Hawaii during that period where the Malaysian airliner just disappeared. LOST fans know what I mean. As do GILLIGAN’S ISLAND fans.

Just opened: the new Andaz Hotel. They renovated the Renaissance. It took over five years. It looks the same. Five levels of pools now but otherwise pretty similar. And you have to climb all five stories to get to the hotel. I asked an Andaz rep about that and he said, “Well, the hotel is designed for young people who are fit.”
He showed us a typical room. At the Renaissance it was $200 a night. Here it’s $675, and only 450 square feet. That’s the size of Roseanne’s refrigerator. But here’s a… “unique” feature: the bedroom and bathroom are separated by glass. So you can sit in bed and watch someone taking a shower. This must be their idea of “room with a view.”
Hawaiian uniformed policemen must cover up all tattoos beginning July 1st. That means long sleeve shirts, and if they have tats on their hands or neck they’ll be required to wear make up. There’s nothing more badass than a cop wearing Estee Lauder Double Wear All Day Glow.

So why would anyone want to join the HPD? Because it is legal in Hawaii for undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes as a means of catching them. Their retirement plan might be for shit, but who cares? That’s the cop show I want to see. HAWAII 5-0, OR 4-0 WITH GROUPON.

We did hit the Grand Wailea resort for a few days. Picture the Amazon Rain Forest in Derek Jeter’s winter home. Best restaurant there is Alan Wong’s Amasia. Try the tasting menu. I have no idea what I ate but it was all spectacular. They call the cuisine “conceptual future supercontinent” and featured items from Asia, Europe, and Atlantis. We had a large party so we sat at a Japanese-style sunken table in our own little room. The poor servers were forever climbing all over us or crawling behind us. It was like every Passover Seder you’ve ever attended.

There has been a surge in shark attacks off Maui beaches. Swimmers are cautioned to not venture out past the third pool at the Andaz, or bring your smartphone for a really cool selfie.

The latest health trend is wristbands that measure your number of steps. I was so happy until it turns out you’re supposed to walk 10,000 steps a day, not the whole three-week trip. I came so close.

Purim in Hawaii – celebrated as much as Prince Kuhio Day is in Arkansas.

You won’t believe it but prison inmates in Hawaii can request kosher meals. Yeah, “those” laws they can’t break. No separate trays for meat and dairy, however.

Swung by Lahaina for some tourist watching. Lahaina is a charming little fishing village where structures that were built in 1916 now house soap bomb emporiums and art galleries that feature work of the masters -- Anthony Hopkins and Red Skelton.

Forget the gentle trade winds. One Sunday we had 60 mph gusts. Idiots were trying to fly like human kites off mountaintops. At least I think they were idiots.

Paradise for locals means “Pair of Dice.” The number one vacation destination for residents is Las Vegas. Who needs the pristine beaches of Muana Lani when there’s the manmade one at the Mandalay Bay Hotel? And a view of the Lance Burton Billboard! An airline commercial shows happy Hawaiians on a Vegas-bound flight shooting craps in the aisle. Of course, after watching the human kites I think the ad would attract more takers if they were playing craps out on the wing.

Unless a killer shark is actually up on the sand munching on a flower girl, there are weddings going on every moment on every beach. Matt took a picture of four of them going on at once.
The only thing better than Panties in Paradise is NO Panties in Paradise. There is a clothing optional beach at Makena (think of all the money you brides could save on wedding dresses). I hear it’s perfect for anyone who likes to gawk at naked people and can’t afford a room at the Andaz.

I saw a car with Connecticut license plates. Google Maps GPS system is working on the bug.

Matteo’s is back! Best pizza on the island (without pineapple). They closed over a year ago. The only thing recommending the terrible new replacement is that they’re next door to an Urgent Care. But Matteo’s has returned in a new spot, and if you take a bite of their pizza and close your eyes you can imagine yourself in Italy. Or at least in their old location.

Tell the Russians to go screw themselves. Hawaiians make vodka on Maui. With sugarcanes, just the way the Bolsheviks used to do. "Vashe zdorovie, bra!" The distillery is just up the road from the Surfing Goat Dairy.

The problem with March Madness in Hawaii is that games begin at 6:00, and by the time you wake up your brackets are already destroyed.

Finally, I got over all my ills, was feeling 1000%... and it was time to leave. As usual, everyone had a wonderful time. I leave you with this ancient saying from the islands: “I hiamoe au ma luna o kou 'uha?” It means: May I sleep on your lap? An undercover cop taught it to me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The one word to watch out for

Now with YouTube, everybody makes videos. HD cameras are so inexpensive that full-length films can be produced on a shoestring budget. Recording an album no longer requires a million bucks. You can do all the engineering and processing on your iMac Mini.

But what the new technology still can’t do is provide feedback.

You still have to show it to your friends and get their reactions. But rarely, if ever, are you going to get an honest appraisal. They’re not going to insult you. They’re going to be very diplomatic. You have to learn to read between the lines.

Here’s what people say when they really hate something.

“That was really fun.”

If you hear “fun” you’re doomed.

It used to be “Well, you did it!” or “How did you do it?” or “That was something else!” but those are so old school. “That was really fun” is both a veiled compliment and right up to date.

My favorite left-handed compliment came the night of the big industry screening for VOLUNTEERS, the Tom Hanks/John Candy movie that David Isaacs and I wrote. We’re standing in the lobby receiving guests. It’s me, David, and to my right – Walter Parkes, one of the producers.

People are coming up congratulating us until one woman took our Walter's hands in hers, looked him straight into the eye with a pained expression, and said, “Oh Walter, we love you anyway.”


I laughed so hard I almost fell over.

We live in a time of superlatives. Awesome now means okay, perfect means acceptable, and epic means it will be remembered for four hours.  So "fun" has been elevated to where it now means sucks. 

Oh, for those days when people were honest and told you “I never knew you had it in ya.”  So beware of false flattery. 

I know what you're thinking.  You want to go to the comments section and respond to this post by saying "that was fun."  I'm ahead of you.   You'll have to be more creative.  

Note: For those new to the blog -- whenever I can't find an appropriate photo to go along with the subject matter I post a picture of Natalie Wood.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rookie mistakes

Everyone has to start somewhere. For me and my writing partner, David Isaacs our first paid writing assignment was for an episode of THE JEFFERSONS. Prior to that we had been writing spec scripts, schlepping down to the Writers Guild to register them for protection, and then we peddled them to anyone who would read them.

Our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which had already been rejected by THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and RHODA) found its way into the hands of Gordon Mitchell, one of the story editors of THE JEFFERSONS. He liked it well enough to invite us to come in and pitch story ideas for the show. One hit the mark and we got the assignment.

Now came the hard part. Not the writing – but covering the fact that we were both utterly clueless of the process.

Step one was breaking the story. We met with Gordon and his partner, Lloyd Turner and worked out the beats of the story. Gordon then asked how long we needed to write the outline?

The outline? You have to write an outline?

I didn’t say that, but that’s what I was thinking. David and I wrote outlines for ourselves but they were usually handwritten scribbles on a couple pieces of notebook paper. I didn’t think that’s what he meant.

So we were on the spot. We didn’t want to say a week and have them say, “A week? It should take you two days.” Or we say two days and they say, “What? You’re just going to dash it off? It should take a month.”

We asked to see a copy of one of their outlines because we said, “every show has its own preference.” Even this was a stretch. They do vary, but we didn’t know that. There could have been one standard outline format used by every television show since Shakespeare’s day – how did we know?

They provided an outline. It was about seven/eight pages. We glanced at it and figured about three or four days. “Perfect,” they said. Whew. We navigated that minefield.

Once our outline was submitted and approved we were turned loose to write the script. Only hitch was that they needed it in two weeks. Normally that would not be a problem. But David and I were in the Army Reserves and those happened to be the two weeks we were ordered to report for active duty. Fortunately, we were in the same unit (we met in the Army Reserves) and were able to write the script at night at Fort Ord. Of course, that was a little strange. Picture one of those large barracks like in FULL METAL JACKET that houses fifty or sixty soldiers. It’s the evening. Guys are blaring the radio, smoking pot, drinking beer, playing cards or nerf basketball, and we’re sitting on a bunk saying things like, “Weezy, get over here!”
Script completed. Duty to country served. Monday morning upon our return I call Gordon to tell him we were bringing in the draft. “Great,” he said, “When can I have it?” I said, “Well, it’s 9:30. The Guild doesn’t open until 10. We’ve got to go over there and register the script, so I guess about 11:00.” He stopped me. “Schmuck!” he said. “You don’t have to register the script. I bought the script. You’re protecting yourself against me.” Oops. Didn’t know that. “Oh,” I said, “Then we can be there in twenty minutes.” “There you go!” he replied.

We hand-delivered the script and they were still laughing when we arrived.

Down through the years David and I have given a number of young writers their first assignment. And learning from our experience, we spell everything out. For you aspiring scribes, hopefully you too will get that first elusive script assignment. And hopefully you’ll get showrunners who will walk you through the process. But if not, don’t be proud. If there’s something you don’t know – ask. You may save yourself a lot of laughter that won’t be yours.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Killing at a banquet can kill your career

I’ve never done standup, but I have done a lot of banquet speaking. Especially in baseball. I’d speak at Rotary Club meetings or emcee charity dinners, that sort of thing. If you think the crowd is rough at the Comedy Store on open mic night wait’ll you face an Elks Club after they’ve had their raffle and 99% of them didn’t win that grand prize power saw.

Back in 1993 when I was announcing for the Mariners (that’s the “other” sports team in Seattle), I got a call from the great Jerry Coleman (who recently passed away). He sponsored a San Diego charity and every offseason held a fundraising banquet. For guest speakers he would always ask various major league announcers from around the league. This year he asked me. I was delighted to accept.

On the dais that night were Ralph Kiner of the Mets (who also recently passed away at 87), Harry Kalas of the Phillies, Ted Leitner (pictured above) of the Padres, and me. So legend, legend, legend, skeesix.

As it happened, I killed that night. (The raffle was after the speeches.) I was a tough act to follow and poor Ted Leitner, who is a very funny man in his own right, got that assignment. He did okay but would have done better following Ralph Kiner.

The next morning I’m driving home from San Diego and Ted is on the air doing sports for a local radio station. He mentions the banquet and does five minutes on never follow a Hollywood comedy writer. He thought he had bombed (which he didn’t) and got a lot of mileage out of how bad he looked in the process.

Now flash forward a couple of years. Jerry Coleman is doing the CBS Radio Game of the Week every Saturday and the Padres need a play-by-play guy to just work weekends. Their new president, Larry Lucchino had been president of the Orioles when I was broadcasting in Baltimore. He remembered me and thought I’d be perfect for the role. But since I’d be partnered with Ted Leitner, out of courtesy he ran the idea by Ted.

Now Ted could have easily said, “Not a chance. I don’t want that guy upstaging me. I got burned once. Ixnay.” Their conversation was private. No one would be the wiser. But instead Ted said he thought hiring me was a great idea. As a result I was offered and accepted the job.

And Ted and I got along great on the air. Padres fans were treated to some hilarious exchanges over the next three years.  Trust me, most of the time the broadcasts were better than the product on the field.

Performers in all mediums can be very insecure. But no more so than in the acting profession. Some actors feel horribly threatened by anyone whose talent might show them up. I’ve seen series stars treat guest cast members like shit. There are many instances of actors counting lines to make sure they have more to say than their rivals… I mean, fellow cast members.

But the truly good ones understand. They know that if they’re in a scene with someone good they will come off looking better as a result. Good actors elevate each other. It’s the old story – a high tide floats all boats. And the reverse is also true. A bad actor can totally bring down a scene.

Happy to say I have also witnessed many examples of gracious, unselfish actors embracing their fellow thesps. As a showrunner, these actors are Gods to me.

Thanks again to Larry and Ted. I loved my association with San Diego.  And in all future Padres banquets I let Ted go first. And there were a couple of times he was way funnier than me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Open All Night

I’m amazed and delighted that some of you actually remember OPEN ALL NIGHT. David Letterman did make a cameo in one episode. So did Joe Montagne, Elvira, David Paymer, and me and my writing partner, David Isaacs (playing two swinging lawyers trying to pick up female mud wrestlers at a mace class).

For the other 99.9% that don’t recall the show, it starred George Dzundza and Susan Tyrell as owners of a 24 hour convenience store. Sam Whipple played Susan’s weird nerd son, and the always hilarious Bubba Smith played a co-worker. It ran for 13 weeks on ABC in the fall of ’81.

We wrote two of the episodes. Here’s part of a scene from one. The weird son, Terry (Sam Whipple), runs away and becomes a desk clerk at the Bates Motel. Step-father, Gordon (George Dzundza) goes to get him back. Once you read it you'll see why we were astounded that we got a WGA award nomination for this script.



(We pick up the scene with GORDON TALKING TO TERRY AT THE FRONT DESK.)

Look, Terry, it took me three hours to find this place. Now I apologize. So go get your stuff and let’s get out of here.

I’m not going anywhere. I’m happy where I am. I fit in. I like it here. It’s quiet. I’ve got friends (RE STUFFED BIRDS) … and nobody hassles me.

You gonna stay here for the rest of your life?

Probably not. The place is sinking into the swamp.

I never thought I’d say this… but it’s important to me that you come home.


Excuse me… I have a customer. Welcome to the Bates Motel.

Do you have a room? I need a room.

We’ve got rooms. Twelve cabins. Twelve vacancies. Do you have a reservation?

No, I just need it for the night. I’ve got a long drive back to Phoenix.

You can have Cabin One. It’s the closest if you need anything.

I won’t need anything.


Oh… does the room have a shower?

Sure it does, Gor-don.

(TO GORDON) What’s the matter with you?


I wonder if I changed the linen in that room?


Yep. All set.


Terry, no more arguing. Get your stuff.

Are you gonna hit me?

Hit you? Have I ever hit you before?

We’ve never been this close before.

Terry, come on home. I’ll make it up to you.

Oh, really? Oh, really? You’ll stop ignoring me? You won’t chop me down behind my back? You’ll take a weekend off just to be with me? I think not. I’ve had it with fathers. And step-fathers and uncles. None of you have ever wanted me. You all think I’m weird. Maybe I am weird. A lot of people are weird. A lot of people. Isaac Newton was weird. So was Wolfgang Mozart… and Fred Silverman, and the list goes on and on. Carly Simon, Garry Marshall, Charles Kuralt…

All right, all right. I get the point.

Thomas “Tip” O’Neill…

Okay. (BEAT, THEN) Terry, I don’t know what I’m trying to say… I guess I’m trying to tell you…

Could you tell him in the men’s room? I’m trying to read.

Pardon me. I’ve gotta go set the coyote traps.


Wait a minute… What if I was to promise to try harder? To… start from scratch, give you a break or two. I don’t know if we’d ever wind up “buddies” but you deserve more than I’ve given you.

Would you take me on a two-week father-son cruise to the Bahamas?


How about a day in the mountains?

What day and what mountain?

Here we go again.

Okay, okay, a day in the mountains.

You’d really do it? Just you and me?

Why not? You’re the only kid I got.


I love you, Gordon.

Yeah.. uh… that’s fine. Let’s.. uh… get goin’, huh?

I’ve got to go up to the house and return Mr. Bathes’ clothes.

You mean that spooky place on the hill? It’s dark except for some old woman sitting in an upstairs window.

That’s Mr. Bates. I’ll be back in a minute… “Dad”.


I heard a scream. Was that a scream?

Yes. But you get used to them.


Oh, my God. Are you all right in there?

Yeah. Except there’s no hot water. (THEN) Do you mind?



Oh, to be a "hot" screenwriter again

This is a typical story. In the mid 80’s my partner and I had a pretty good movie career going along with our TV work. (I think this was that honeymoon period between the time VOLUNTEERS was made and actually released…because that window was pretty short as I recall.) Disney wanted to meet us.

We trooped down to Burbank, appropriately entered the Dopey Building and met with this very nice energetic young executive. If we had any movie ideas he wanted us to bring them to Disney first. Because of our work on CHEERS we were the perfect writers for them. They were looking to do sophisticated romantic comedies with with and heart, and smart crackling dialogue. Very few people could do that but we could and that’s what they wanted. We were the next Preston Sturges (master of the screwball comedy). We were obviously very flattered and said when we came up with something we would call them. He then said, “Listen, while you’re here, we do have one project that’s open, and we think you guys would be perfect for it. ERNEST GOES TO JAIL.”

We graciously passed. We could write sophisticated comedy but we weren’t Noel Coward.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

My role in the Patty Hearst kidnapping

BBC Radio is airing a documentary tonight on the Patty Hearst case.  I was contacted and interviewed for that program.   Here's my involvement in that major international story: 

Before I became a writer and blogger I traveled around the country like a nomad “spinning biscuits” as a Top 40 D.J. 

It was 1974. I was working at KYA, San Francisco. KFRC was the big station then. Throughout my disc jockey career I always worked at the “other” place. There would be a powerhouse number one station like KHJ, KFRC, and CKLW in town, and I was always hired by K100, KYA, and WDRQ.

But KYA was a great station. We had a terrific program director, Bob Whitney, who believed in freedom and fun on the radio. That made us unique… at times amazing, and at other times, uh, well... strange. Our afternoon jock called himself Jimmy Jet and had a chipmunk-voiced sidekick named Wonder Wings. He also had all these airplane whooshes (the same sound Rocky the Flying Squirrel made whenever he took off) and would play them constantly over records. He was a lovely guy but yikes!  (Jimmy is now a commercial pilot, UFO investigator-journalist.  I'm not making this up.) 

Anyway, I was on from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. I didn’t have any “whooshes” but I was pretty out there. I also had to read the news at 1:30. The name I was using was Beaver Cleaver, but I couldn’t call myself that during a newscast. At the time there was a late night program on NBC called THE TOMORROW SHOW. Host Tom Snyder would interview a different guest from 1:00-2:00 AM. Whoever his guest was, that was the name I chose for that night. So one night astronaut Neil Armstrong would report KYA news and next night it was Helen Reddy.

I used to take phone requests from listeners.  Hey, I was bored. One night I got a call from someone who identified himself as a member of the SLA.

Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and great-granddaughter of millionaire George Hearst had recently been kidnapped in the bay area by a radical group that called themselves the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army). This was the big story of the day. Back then heiresses had to get kidnapped to receive notoriety. They couldn’t just make sex tapes like today.

The SLA made their ransom demands through envelopes left in public places.

I guess they were fans of the show. I was told there was an envelope at the station’s front door. Before I could ask if he would say, "Hi, we're the SLA and KYA is our favorite radio station!" he hung up. 

I was a little freaked out I must admit. I wasn't used to actual listeners. I went to the front door and sure enough, there was a manila envelope. I called the station manager (who just LOVED being woken up at 1:00 AM) and he said he would handle it.

I should have called the program director, Bob Whitney.  He would have snapped into action and turned this moment into a contest.  "Guess what's in the SLA envelope and win tickets to the Lou Reed concert!"

So I go back to doing my show as if nothing happened. Five minutes later a hundred FBI agents storm into the building. My engineer was really peeved. He was very overweight and liked to work with his pants off.  Imagine how pleasant that was for me sitting across from him all night.   Now he had to wear his trousers.  I suspect a union grievance was filed.

Normally, the station is empty in the middle of the night.  But now there are agents, sniffing dogs, and SWAT team guys. I’m being interrogated between records.  "What did he sound like?  What exactly did he say?  Did you hear anything in the background?"   I have to excuse myself every three minutes to introduce the next KYA People Power hit and read the Gensler Lee Diamond spot. Just another night at the radio station.

Now an FBI agent begins manning the listener lines, hoping maybe the SLA will call back and request “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”. So imagine Tim Kang from THE MENTALIST cross-examining and scaring the shit out of all the little teenyboppers just calling in to hear their favorite Donny Osmond song.

I finally signed off by saying, “Hey, I had a great time tonight! Would like to thank everyone listening in their homes and cars and hideouts. See you tomorrow night. Rock on! Be cool! And please don’t shoot anybody!”

I never heard from them again. If I ever actually meet Patty Hearst, or if perhaps she reads this blog, there's something I've always wanted to know.  Since the SLA obviously listened to KYA, why didn't they also kidnap Jimmy Jet?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Questions

Happy Friday Question day.  Get in on the fun.  Leave yours in the comments section.  Thanks.

Anonymous starts us off (in the future, please list your name):

Who are some of the stars that you have worked with who WEREN'T monsters? The ones filled with grace and dignity? Would love to see that list.

I’ve been incredibly blessed. It’s a long long list. And it’s not complete. I apologize to those other actors I’ve worked with who also deserve to be in this rollcall but whose names have just slipped my mind. I’m too lazy to alphabetize them so here they are in no particular order. My point is that there are many decent actors. There are ways of getting what you want without being a monster. If you're in the industry and have had occasion to work with actors who were menches please share who they are.

Ted Danson
Tom Hanks
Rita Wilson
John Candy
Michael Douglas
Nancy Travis
Alan Alda
Mike Ferrell
Harvey Firestein
Emma Thompson
Harry Connick Jr.
Harry Morgan
Shelley Long
Rhea Perlman
Nick Collasanto
Woody Harrelson
George Wendt
John Ratzenberger
Kirstie Alley
Kelsey Grammer
Steven Webber
Tony Shaloub
Tim Daly
Julie Benz
Crystal Bernard
Amy Yasbech
Adam Arkin
Jane Kaczmarek
Malcolm McDowell
Kurtwood Smith
Kevin Kilner
Patrick Breen
Ed Asner
Jennifer Tilly
Wendie Malick
George Segal
David Hyde Pierce
Jon Tenney
Peri Gilpen
Laura Linney
Aaron Eckhart
John Mahoney
Jane Leeves
Patricia Heaton
Ray Romano
Doris Roberts
Peter Boyle
Brad Garrett
Tracey Ullman
Julie Kavner
Dan Castellaneta
Neil Patrick Harris
Yeardly Smith
Nancy Cartwright
Hank Azaria
Harry Shearer
Laura San Giacomo
Chip Zien
James Farentino
David Clennon
Matthew Letscher
John Astin
Katey Sagal
Tony Randall
William Christopher
Jaime Farr
Jane Seymour
Lisa Kudrow
Roz Chao
David Ogden Steirs
Alan Arbus
Loretta Swit
Gary Burghoff
Allison Janney
Paget Brewster
Marcia Wallace
Bob Newhart
John Cleese
Lisa Edelstein
David Spade
David Morse
Enrico Colantoni
Al Franken
Megyn Price
Miquel Ferrer
Kristen Chenowith
Robert Forthworth
Sanaa Latham
James Tolkin
Kat Denning
Jenna Elfman
Hattie Winston
Terry Ferrell
Alex Desert
Shawnee Smith
Bess Armstrong
Thomas Gibson
Willie Garsons
William Ragsdale
Sean O’Bryan
Mark Feuerstein
Bess Meyer
Nathan Lane
Joan Plowright
Joel Murray
Jack Coleman
Brenda Vaccarro
Tea Leoni
Gilbert Godfried
Mimi Kennedy
Alan Rachins
Susan Sullivan
Bob Elliott
Steve Landesburg
Victoria Jackson
Jon Lovitz
Rita Rudner
Avery Schreiber
Ryan Mitchell
Maggie Lawson
Harriet Harris
Lenny Clarke
…and Moose (Eddie on FRASIER)

While we're on the subject of Ted Danson, Monsterbeard asks:

I was looking at the credits for Becker the other day, which is full of some really talented sitcom writers, including yourself. Yet, despite all the pedigree, the show wasn't exactly a huge hit. Do you think it failed? And do you know why it wasn't as big of a hit as the writing credits would suggest?

Well, it did run for 129 episodes and is in syndication so it did a whole lot better than any of my shows. But BECKER should have been a bigger hit. The problem was that CBS, for whatever reason, never believed in the show. I don’t know why. Maybe it wasn’t sexy enough for them. But then why make it and order it in the first place?

BECKER always outperformed the network’s expectations. It did wildly better than a host of darlings that CBS put in that time slot (Monday 9:30). Then the network moved it, put it in an impossible slot to win and it still surprised everyone with its numbers. The reward for that? Cancellation. And the irony of course – CBS would KILL for BECKER’s numbers today.

Happily, once the show got into syndication people seemed to discover it. It’s hard to believe but a highly-rated show on CBS for five years was considered a best-kept secret. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw your name on this new show, BECKER. It’s really good.” NEW show??

Dave Hackel, the show’s creator, put together a tremendous staff of writers and directors. Matthew Weiner of MAD MEN for one. Andy Ackerman (director of SEINFELD) for another. And although you might not be as familiar with their names, here are a few of the other terrific BECKER writers who I would hire in a second: Ian Gurvitz, Michael Markowitz, Russ Woody, Steve Peterman, Gary Donzig, Kate Angelo, Liz Astrof, Bobby Gaylor, Dana Borkow Klein, Matt Ember, Anne Flett-Giordano, and Chuck Ranberg.

But the show must finally be catching on. Ted Danson says more people now stop him in an airport and mention BECKER than CHEERS.

If you’re up some morning at 2 channel surfing, check it out. It’s a damn good show.

And finally, from John:

Since you're flying off for (I assume) some time for relaxation, here's a kind-of related topic -- What's your opinion/outcome of trying to be creative in comedy writing while either having imbibed a little, or under the influence of any other intoxicants?

For the most part, not a good idea. Intoxicants tend to cloud your judgment. All too often something you write late at night when you’re well intoxicated or good and medicated turns out to be something Jack Nicholson’s character would write in THE SHINING.

Yes, there are stories of writers who snort coke and bang out entire brilliant hour episodes over night but (a) I don’t know how true they are, and (b) sooner or later there’s a price to pay.

But before I start sounding like your parents, I will admit a glass of wine or beer won’t kill ya. Just don't drive... although you should never write and drive anyway. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

My comedy gods

Phoef Sutton, an excellent comedy writer in his own right, posed this question recently on Facebook: Who are your comedy gods?

Here are mine… in no particular order.  Yes, there are a lot, but isn't it nice that so many people inspired me?   And I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.  If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, they're worth looking up. A few of them I have done posts on in the past and have provided the links.

Larry Gelbart
Jim Brooks
Allan Burns
Jerry Belson
Carl Reiner
Neil Simon
Nat Hiken (creator of Bilko)
Jack Benny
Elaine May
Mike Nichols
Sweet Dick Whittington (disc jockey)
Steve Gordon
Laurel & Hardy
Bob & Ray  (radio team)
Lohman & Barkley (radio team)
Carol Burnett
P.G. Wodehouse (author of brilliant farces)
Alan King
John Kennedy Toole ("Confederacy of Dunces")
George S. Kaufman (playwright)
Gilda Radner
Moss Hart (playwright)
Emperor Bob Hudson  (disc jockey)
Gary Larson ("The Far Side")
Phil Silvers
Jonathan Winters
Dan Ingram (disc jockey)
Glen & Les Charles
Jane Wagner
Billy Wilder
Bob Newhart
Preston Sturgess
Treva Silverman
Mel Brooks
Woody Allen
Richard Pryor
Dorothy Parker
Elayne Boosler
Johnny Carson
Peter Sellers
Tina Fey
Don McKinnon (disc jockey)
Gary Burbank (disc jockey)
Gary Owens
Paul Rudnick
Albert Brooks
S.J. Perelman (humorist)
Robert W. Morgan
Tom Patchett
Jay Tarses
Jay Ward
John Belushi
Buster Keaton
Everett Greenbaum
Jim Fritzell
Bob Ellison
David Lloyd
Stan Daniels
Steve Martin
Daffy Duck
Danny Thomas
Andy Griffith
Fred Allen (network radio star)
Merrill Markoe
Jackie Gleason
Audrey Meadows
Art Carney
Stan Freberg (all around creative genius)
Ernie Kovacs (TV comedy pioneer)
Lloyd Thaxton (Ernie Kovacs of teen dance shows)
Gertrude Berg (radio writer and star)
Oscar Levant (noted curmudgeon)
Dale Dorman (disc jockey)
Garry Marshall
Bob Uecker (Mr. Baseball)
Sid Caesar (despite my personal dealings)
Louie Nye
George Carlin
John Cleese

Who are yours?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Too much of a good thing

There’s a prison in Maine where the inmates were given fresh lobster to eat every night. They eventually revolted. They pleaded for hamburger helper, shit on a shingle, anything but lobster.

Too much of a good thing.

Now Mae West may contend that: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” And I suppose in some cases it is. If someone complained that he was having too much sex with Selena Gomez you could justifiably shoot him. But generally the rule holds true.

In television shows you are occasionally lucky and certain guest or supporting actors become breakout characters. The audience loves them to where they become the new focal point of the series. Such was true of the Fonz on HAPPY DAYS, Urkel on FAMILY MATTERS, Barney on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, JJ on GOOD TIMES, and Alex on FAMILY TIES to name but a few. You have to do a lot of redeveloping and scrambling on the fly, but it’s worth it. A breakout character can turn a struggling show into a powerhouse.

But you must be very careful. Not every actor that scores big for an episode or two is a breakout character. And there’s such a temptation to make him one because of the upside that you could just fall into a trap.

Too much of a good thing.

Characters or shtick can wear out their welcome. In many cases, a little goes a long way. That’s how we always felt about the Colonel Flagg character on MASH. Ed Winters was hysterical in the role, and I’m here to tell you, he was the most fun character to write on the show. But we were very judicious.  At the most we only used him once a season, and there were a few seasons when we didn’t use him at all. We just felt he was the kind of character that would get tiresome if we went to that well too many times.

Bebe Glazer on FRASIER was another. Harriet Harris was screamingly funny as Frasier’s flamboyant agent. But she was just too out there to appear every week. Yes, the decision could have been made to tone her down, but then she wouldn’t be nearly as funny. So instead of over-using her, she appeared sporadically, and each time she did it was a huge treat for the audience.

A more recent example would be Elaine Stritch as Jack’s mother on 30 ROCK, although in that case, I think the producers knew that Elaine is gifted but bat-shit crazy so spared themselves the weekly chaos regardless of how hilarious she was.

Elevating an actor to breakout status when they don’t qualify for it can bring down a series. Screech in SAVED BY THE BELL, and in my opinion (you may not agree) Miles in MURPHY BROWN. You can go from being beloved to Jar Jar Binks in a heartbeat.

A character has to have dimension to work long term. Frasier and Lilth on CHEERS. Reverend Jim on TAXI. Otherwise, it’s…

Too much of a good thing.

Producers have to be careful. One man’s dinner at the Palm is another man’s prison riot.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another rant: in defense of "jokes."

As expected, yesterday’s post generated a lot of comments. I want to further the discussion by defending the use of “jokes.”   There are several definitions for jokes.  Here's one:  A joke is something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention.  

In some cases it has a punchline, or just something you didn't expect, which amuses you. 

 Jokes have become uncool, passé, something to sneer at and scorn. Writers who resort to jokes are hacks or old or worse – old hacks.  A commenter yesterday who's a writer on a sitcom said his showrunner threw out anything that was too "jokey."  And I will grant you there are many bad jokes, lame jokes, racist jokes, old jokes, formula jokes, juvenile jokes, and blonde jokes.

But there are also good jokes. And good jokes make you laugh. Not smile, not nod in appreciation, but laugh.

That monologue you loved at the Golden Globes delivered by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – those were jokes. The riotous plays that Neil Simon wrote for Broadway for over fifty years – those contained jokes. My Oscar review that many of you enjoyed – those were jokes.

CHEERS had jokes. Single-camera war comedy MASH had jokes. So did ultra-sophisticated FRASIER.  ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was crammed with them. 

THE DAILY SHOW relies on jokes. So does THE COLBERT REPORT. And Louis C.K. builds his entire stand-up act around them.

You get the point. There’s no shame in writing a line that evokes a laugh.

Recently, Chuck Lorre became the first producer to have four shows in the top ten. That is a remarkable achievement. And the one common denominator in all four shows?  Guess.

Now you may say, “I’m just looking to reach a niche audience. I don’t want to pander to the masses.” Again, the jokes don’t have to be stale or "vagina." And if you’re putting in all that time and effort to make your show, don’t you want the largest audience you can get? Plus, always remember that television is a business. Unless you have a big hit you’re vulnerable. Your show drops from a .08 to a .04 Deadline Hollywood will announce you’ve lost 50% of your audience. If your show gets hard to sell or the network has something else in the pipeline they think might do better, you and your niche show are gone.

And the good news is you don’t have to be on a major broadcast network to have a hit sitcom these days. BIG BANG THEORY reruns on TBS get better ratings than THE MINDY PROJECT on Fox. Imagine an original sitcom. Cable networks are trying and sooner or later one or more of their comedies will break through. Then, if you have a .08 share you’re even more vulnerable.

To me, a sitcom avoiding jokes is like an NFL team not employing a passing game.

I’ve been reading all the current pilot scripts, and the good ones just pop out. I’ll reserve identifying them until I see how well they’re actually executed. But on paper at least, they clearly rise above. They’re very funny. There are jokes that are sharp, fresh, and surprising. I’m keeping a list of these writers and should I ever get another show on and they’re available, they’re my first call. Other pilots are forced, familiar, and mild at best. I’d be reading one and think: “I guess if they get the perfect cast and the perfect director who sets the perfect tone and the lighting is just right and the camera angle is just so – then maybe this line will get a half-smile.”

And please, network development divisions, I beg you – no more slacker men-children.

I think agents and execs do young writers a disservice by telling them the industry is only looking for fresh new voices and different points-of-view. Here’s what showrunners are really looking for – young writers who are FUNNY. Their scripts can be single camera, multi-camera, two characters, eight characters, urban, rural, whatever. Just put some laughs in there. And what’s a real good although not trendy device for doing that?


the Old Hack

Monday, March 17, 2014

My rant on the state of sitcoms

A recent article on by Josef Adalian argues that "Shrinking Sitcom Ratings May Be the Best Thing to Happen to Smart Comedies.” He points to the recent Fox pick-ups of NEW GIRL, MINDY PROJECT, AND BROOKLYN NINE-NINE despite their low ratings and thinks in this day and age, only niche comedies will thrive. Gone are the days of the big mass market sitcoms. Even mainstays like THE BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY were introduced before so many viewers had DVR’s so they were able to get a toehold. Adalian believes this new niche trend is a good thing. Who needs mediocre shows like SEAN SAVES THE WORLD (an example he uses)?

In a desperate attempt to make money from these low rated shows, networks are selling heavily on demographics and looking for other revenue streams like streaming.

Adalian makes a lot of good points, but where he loses me is when he says all of this is good for the future of sitcoms.

Since when is shooting low a good thing?

In all of his arguments as to why the current crop is struggling to maintain an audience he neglects to mention that these shows are not really funny. Not to most people.  Do you really laugh at THE MINDY PROJECT? Or NEW GIRL?  You may smile but do you laugh?  They’re quirky, they’re titillating, they depend a lot on irony (“Well, that worked out well.”) but they don’t make you laugh. BIG BANG THEORY makes you laugh. They have jokes, jokes that are funny. FRIENDS had jokes. Since when did “jokes” become passé? MODERN FAMILY sets up funny situations. So did FRIENDS. So did SEINFELD. So does BIG BANG THEORY.

I've spoken to very successful showrunners who lament that very few of today's young writers can write "jokes."  Shouldn't this be a basic skill?   It is if you're a comedy writer that hopes to be around for length of time.  

We’re living in an age where GIRLS is considered a comedy. Any humor derived is a result of humiliation.  And most of the time it's depressing or angry.  Call it a slice-of-life if you like, call it a character study, but don't call it a comedy. 

Someone will come along with a sitcom that is FUNNY and you’ll be surprised how many people absolutely flock to it. People of all ages. The humor won’t rely on humiliation, or pop culture references, or a gaggle of catch phrases (HAPPY ENDINGS), or juvenile vagina jokes (TWO BROKE GIRLS – a show whose ratings have plummeted), or joke-like structures but no actual jokes (THE CRAZY ONES). It’s a tall order I grant you. But why not shoot for that? One monster hit comedy can turn around a network. It can help launch other shows. In success and syndication a big hit comedy is the absolute motherlode. Warner Brothers will make a lot more money off of FRIENDS than Batman.

I don’t care if it’s a show about twentysomethings sharing an apartment, a police precinct, welders, senior citizens, single women, single men, single gynecologists, nerds, families, or aliens. I just want to LAUGH. I just want to be genuinely entertained. Make those shows. Let that be the next trend. Not celebrate shows that in truth deserve to be cancelled.

Don't kid yourself.  If Fox had anything else, those three "smart" shows would be gone. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

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. Chekov 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.