Saturday, February 28, 2015

You can't say that on the radio

Here's another tale from my misbegotten radio career.  It's also a re-post from six years ago.

1972. I’m a relief engineer at KABC and their sister station KLOS-FM. That meant I played the records on KLOS and played the commercials on KABC. My shift on Sunday nights was to play the public service shows. As preposterous as it sounds now, radio and television stations once were expected to actually serve the community. A certain amount of their programming had to be devoted to public affairs. So of course stations would bury these shows in the middle of the night or early and late Sundays when no one was listening.

One Sunday night I see we have a new program scheduled. IMPACTO. It’s a talk show geared to the Hispanic community. I’m thrilled. It was live. Normally I played half hour tapes on how to fill out Social Security forms.

The host is Joe Ortiz. He’s relatively new to radio; primarily a community advocate. I ask, “What’s the game plan?” He says he’ll take calls and if there’s a lull I’m to just play a record. What kind of record? He says it makes no difference, just grab something KLOS normally plays. Sounds easy enough to me.

So he starts taking calls. And every other one starts off like this: “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” Whoa! Every two seconds I’m diving for the kill button (we were on an eight second delay). I tell Joe on a break to remind his callers they’re not allowed to swear on the radio. He gets pissed at me. That’s censorship. No it’s not, I tell him. It’s the FCC. We could lose our license. He ignores me.

So for weeks I’m hitting the kill button so often you’d think I was tapping out Morse Code. Needless to say, our relationship was frosty.

From time to time there are lulls and he calls for a record. He says, “We’ll be back right after a little music” and I play Crosby, Stills, & Nash or whomever. KLOS was your classic rock station even before we knew the stuff was classic.

So one night the swearers aren’t calling. He signals for a record. I grab one from the rack and cue it up. He announces on the air, “We’re going to take a break but here is a record that expresses the perception of the Hispanic community.” I let the record fly. It’s “Dead Skunk In the Middle of the Road”.

Joe goes nuts. I show great restraint by not falling to the floor in laughter. I say, “It’s on the playlist. Who the hell told you to introduce it like that?”

So Joe files an official union grievance on me. I have to go before a board of the Chief Engineer and union representatives. I’m charged with being a racist. Once they hear my side of the story they fall on the floor laughing. The grievance is dropped and I’m completely pardoned. Better yet I’m taken off that shift.

For years I had no idea whatever happened to Joe Ortiz. He hasn’t befriended me on Facebook. I understand he's no longer in broadcasting. But ironically, his last on-air gig was hosting a talk show on a Christian station. I wonder how “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” would go over there.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from somewhere in the Far East.   Here are some Friday Questions although where I am it's Saturday.

willieb asks:

Any truth in those "everybody has a screenplay" stories ("My hairdresser/valet/dry cleaner gave me a screenplay to read")? Have you been bombarded with sample scripts? If so, what's the weirdest situation you've had to deal with?

I’ve received scripts at my high school reunion, I’ve told the story about getting pitched a movie while making funeral arrangements for my grandmother, and a couple of years ago one of the host helpers during my mother’s condolence wanted to pitch me a pilot idea. When I announced minor league baseball people would come up to the press box all the time with scripts. It's not like there was great security in ballparks in Rochester and Toledo. If someone had the lung capacity to climb those stairs they could get in.

A director I know was attending High Holiday services one year at his temple and a fellow congregate pulled a script out from under his prayer shawl.

I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier wonders:

I just saw a M*A*S*H episode written by MacLean Stevenson. When actors do this are massive rewrites usually required or are they pretty good to start with?

I don’t know about that particular episode but yes, massive rewrites usually are required. One reason: they often give 90% of the good lines to themselves. But in fairness, they’re not writers. If I were to suddenly have a big guest role in a MASH or CHEERS episode I’m sure I’d suck. I’m not an actor.

I will say this though, Alan Alda’s scripts were terrific and we changed very little.

From Steve:

On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season.  Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED has said recently he doesn't know how the series is going to end.  Hopefully he does by now.  We're halfway through the final season. 

Some shows have built in endings. the war ends on MASH.  And of course, the final scene of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER? was filmed only a couple of years into the series, and since kids were involved and they have the audacity to grow, the producers were pretty locked into that ending. 

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that's one reason why.

My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, "You're canceled! Now get out!" that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

Ask your question in the comments section. Thanks. Have a great weekend wherever you are.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I think I need therapy

I think I need therapy based on a very disturbing dream I had last night. (No, it wasn't that you didn't buy my book.)

First, I should mention that I’m not a great dancer. You know when clothes get clogged in your washing machine during the rinse cycle and the whole machine shakes so violently you think it’s going to break? That’s me during slow dances.

But back to dreams. They’re supposed to provide you with wish fulfillment. You’re making love to that one unobtainable person you lust after. You’re a superhero and you can fly. You’re at a Cubs World Series game (okay, that’s maybe too crazy). In any event, unconscious desires often get played out in the privacy and safety of dreams (your Democrat friends are not going to kill you because Ann Coulter is your nightly dominatrix).

Anyway, last night I dreamed I was at some party in a ballroom and there was a large dance floor. Very SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. (My dreams do have good art direction, I will say that.)  No one was dancing, but in the dream I thought to myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could go out there and bust some moves? Wouldn’t it be cool if I were suddenly Fred Astaire?” I sighed and that was that.

When I woke up I thought, “Hey, I shouldn’t be WISHING to dance in the dream. I should be actually DOING it.” If I can't dance in my own fucking dream then when can I?

How pathetic am I that my fantasy is to wish for something? And that’s when I realized I was in need of professional help.

Now this could just be a by-product of being a writer. I’m used to playing out cool scenarios, but only on the page. Highly paid actors get to do the steamy love scenes I construct – not me. Actors get the big laughs. Actors light up the dance floor.  I get network notes. 

Here's another dream I once had.  This was back in the days I was writing for MASH: I was with Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers. We were just talking. And then, at one point I stopped them and said, “No, David you say this, and then Alan, you say that.” I was rewriting people’s dialog in my dream. This too is not normal.

I hope to eventually work through these nocturnal issues. I long for the days I can actively play out my fantasies. I’ll let you know if that’s what I wish for in my dreams tonight.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

There was comedy before 2005

As some of you know, I am in Andy Goldberg’s Improv Workshop on Wednesday nights. It’s always a blast. I did a scene a few weeks back with a fine improver (if there is such a word), John Content. It was a “Man on the Street” scene. You’ve seen those. Jimmy Kimmel does them frequently – an interview snags passersby and asks them various questions.

I was the interviewer and John was the “man on the street.” We got the preliminaries out of the way. I asked him his name and where he was from (New Orleans). The objective of this exercise is to force you to really create a “character.”

At that point John launched into a hilarious ridiculous story involving UFO abductions, space cows, God knows what. He got big laughs. But what made it funnier was that he delivered it all very matter-of-fact. As he was unspooling this absurd raft of bullshit a thought hit me. When he finally took a breath I interjected, “You’ve said some very interesting things. I don’t want to just slide over them, so let’s back up a bit. What part of New Orleans?”

This too got a big laugh.

John answered my question then launched into more outrageous nonsense, much to the delight of the audience.

I finally broke in with “What side of the street in New Orleans?” Again, a big yuck.

The bit worked for several reasons. First, John figured out immediately what I was doing and played along. And secondly, the construct was very funny. We all know interviewers who don’t listen.

But here’s the dirty little secret: I was essentially doing a Bob & Ray routine. Bob & Ray were a radio comedy team back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their sketches were uproarious. Always dry, always underplayed, but their premises were always absurd and their timing was impeccable. Although they did not do this exact bit, they did a lot of similar interviewer-guest sketches. Once John launched into his crazy UFO scenario I thought to myself, “This feels like a Bob & Ray sketch. What would Bob & Ray do?”

So two points I want to make: The first: seek out Bob & Ray radio shows. They’re hilarious. And two: comedy evolves. Current comedy has been influenced by what has gone before. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob & Ray didn’t borrow some of their routines from old Vaudeville comedy teams of the early 1900’s.  Comedy wasn't invented in 2005. 

Just being a “funny” person isn’t enough. You need to do your homework. You need to study forms of comedy in the same way that musicians analyze the greats that have gone before them.

If you want to be a sitcom writer watch great sitcoms like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, CHEERS, and twenty other classics. If you want to be a stand-up comedian watch borscht belt comics like Alan King, great storytellers like Bob Newhart, edgy comics like Lenny Bruce, edgier comics like Richard Pryor. Louis C.K. is fucking awesome, but he didn’t invent stand-up.

If the theater is your goal -- read plays by Noel Coward, Kaufman & Hart, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon. Screenwriters -- watch Preston Sturges screwball comedies, and Billy Wilder comedies, and Mel Brooks parodies. Long before there was SNL there was Sid Caesar’s YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Yes, some of the routines are dated. But watch how they construct sketches. How they get in them and out of them. How they create characters.

Ask yourself the question: why is this funny? You don’t have to deconstruct every line, but figure out the game plan. Recognize and appreciate templates that work. And then make them your own.

Often you’ll find it’s a lot easier to get laughs by creating a funny comic premise than just coming up with “jokes.” I got laughs with “Where in New Orleans?” “What side of the street?” It was all about context. Do your homework. The good news is it’ll be the most enjoyable homework you’ve ever done.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why it's cool to be a TV writer

I’ve bitched in the past about the frustrations of being a TV comedy writer -- notes, crappy food, etc.  So you might ask: “why WOULD I want to become a TV comedy writer? What are the pluses?”

Okay, how about these?

First – a disclaimer: these points apply to when you’re in a good working situation. No matter how “dream” the “dream job” is, if your boss is a monster, your co-workers are the Manson family, and the working conditions are a notch below the Triangle Shirt Factory you’re going to be in the sixth ring of hell. But assuming you’re in a decent situation (and many of them are):

You get to work in a big Hollywood movie studio (or maybe a warehouse in Chatsworth but there are still sound stages and stuff).

Parking is provided (usually)!

You spend all day working with funny people. And I don’t mean “Funny People” like the Judd Apatow movie – these people are ACTUALLY funny.

So all day long you laugh and make them laugh. Can you think of a better way of making a living once you’re too old to be a porn star?

Without having to give thousands of dollars to charity first, sometimes hot actors and actresses on your show will hug you.

You see your name on television.

People who thought you were a total loser see your name on television.

Words that you write get performed. Not by waiters but former waiters who are now TV stars.

You’re fed all day long. This is great for the first couple of years.

You hear amazing showbiz stories. Every so often one is true!

You receive a birthday cake from your agent. And, as a bonus, he doesn’t drop you!

You have scripts to donate for your kids’ school silent auction. (But do yourself a favor and don’t compare what your script brings in versus the MODERN FAMILY that another parent donates.)

As you hear other writers discuss their upbringing, you suddenly feel sooooo much better about yours.

You know the expression “women are attracted to men with a sense of humor”? The REAL expression is “women are attracted to men with a sense of humor who are getting paid for it.”

You sometimes get nominated for awards...

You sometimes win...

Sometimes a show that you write goes into syndication and pays residuals. In how many professions can you make money while you sleep?

People will follow you on Twitter.

When you have a blog in twenty years people will bookmark it.

You get show SWAG. I still get compliments on my WINGS jacket.

But most of all it’s that laughing thing. For all the hours and aggravation, being able to laugh all day is a wonderful way to your spend your life. Hopefully the bad food won’t shorten it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

My (sort of) review of the Oscars

Since I am in Korea I was unable to watch the Academy Awards.  And no Korean channel shows them.  Maybe next year when THE INTERVIEW is nominated for Best Picture. So I wrote my snarky review before I left. I’ve done this before. Let me know how right I was.

Most people in America thought this was the first time Neil Patrick Harris ever hosted an awards show.

Harris had good moments but was better hosting the Tony Awards. And again, most of America is saying, “What are the Tony Awards?”

Spielberg did not attend because he wasn’t nominated.

Channel 5’s Sam Rubin gushed that every big star in the world was there and then was grateful to interview Richard Linklater’s daughter.

And at least one of the Red Carpet hosts asked her, “So you have the same last name as the director. Coincidence or are you related?”

Another asked her: “So Art Linkletter is your father?”

They did not take my suggestion for doing a Red Carpet Show version of In Memoriam for Joan Rivers.

You cannot remember who hosted last year’s Oscarcast. You probably can’t remember who won Oscars last year either although, as a hint, they were presenters this year. You still can’t name them, can you?

More people here in China know who is Rita Ora is than in America.

Anna Kendrick looked spectacular. So did Sienna Miller.

You’d think after totally fucking up last year, the Academy would not have John Travolta be a presenter again. How many stars had to say no for this to happen?

There was a bit using the audience that surprisingly worked thanks to Neil Patrick Harris.

Julianne Moore was a lock. She played the more fashionable disability this year.

Lots of jokes about how "white" the nominations were.   And lots of African-American presenters so the Academy could save face. 

Eddie Murphy came off bitter.  Why isn't he a bigger star?  Because he's always bitter. 

If BOYHOOD had followed nine years of the kid’s life instead of twelve there would have been no contest.   As it is, the Best Picture went to B_______.

Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple, who were mega stars in the ‘30s and ‘40s only got fleeting mentions in the In Memoriam section.

Remember how “concerned” and stricken Hollywood was over free speech and Paris at the Golden Globes? Not a word mentioned at the Oscars.

However, you would think that Amy Pascal, who took the fall for THE INTERVIEW, was the martyr of all-time. She was acknowledged six or seven times. Amy of Arc.

It was sad that Glen Campbell couldn’t sing his Oscar nominated song.

No Hollywood star knows how to read a teleprompter.

Jennifer Lopez’s tits almost popped out of her dress, which is why she is still considered a movie star.

When you saw Kevin Hart, did you say (a) “he’s really short” or (b) “How is he a movie star?”

Tegan and Sara were hot. Well… Sara was. Of the two identical twins she clearly got the looks.

FOXCATCHER won the award for Best Picture nominee that most academy members hated.

Ben Affleck was a presenter and there was a Batman joke. Yawn.

There were also eight FIFTY SHADES OF GREY jokes. Better do them now. It won’t be nominated for anything next year (since there’s no category for props).

At least the Grammys had Kanye West to liven things up. There were two Kanye West jokes – one in the opening monologue.

The intrusive play-off music began the minute any winner acknowledged his dearly departed mom/dad/grandfather/manager/pet. 

Lady Gaga was a hit.   Even though she's never been in a movie and was only there as a blatant desperate attempt to get young viewers.  Still she kicked ass... even without Tony Bennett.  

And she didn’t wear a meat dress, although that would not have been the worst gown of the night.

There were at least two shots of Oprah in the audience unhappy.

There were billboards in LA for the film VIRUNGA the last few weeks. Yes, I know – what is VIRUNGA? Best Documentary films now mount campaigns.

Jennifer Aniston was a presenter in the hopes that the Academy will nominate her the next time she does a courageous role where she wears no make up.  In the meantime, back to stupid comedies with Adam Sandler.

The show ran long.  

Okay... so how did I do?   

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A horrible way to lose an award

Helping you to get in the mood for yet another awards show, here’s another of my old war stories.

My partner David and I were head writers of MASH. We had a very small staff so quite a few scripts were assigned to freelance writers. Some, like Everett Greenbaum & Jim Fritzell and Tom Reeder did terrific work and most of their first drafts are what you see on the screen. But others didn’t pan out as well. In those cases, David and I would rewrite their scripts (often 100%). Since the plotting of MASH was somewhat intricate, it was always easier for me and David to break the story and write the outline ourselves. The freelancer would come in, we would hand him the story and talk him through it.

Never did we try to share credit. We figured that was part of our staff responsibilities. Most shows operate that way, or at least they did.

Anyway, we get a very disappointing draft and do a page-one rewrite. It’s now award season. We get nominated for writing (not the Emmys). And this freelancer gets nominated for that script.

And we lose.

To him.

Essentially we lost to ourselves. Ouch!!

So good luck to all the Oscar nominees. I hope you win, and if not, I hope you at least lose to someone else.

Check in tomorrow for my review of the Academy Awards -- that I wrote last week. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015


This is a re-post from several years ago when the book came out.  But with the movie now out and doing boffo business I thought it would play better now than when I originally wrote it.  
In case you’re one of the eight who haven’t read or seen it yet – it’s a love story about a college graduate, Ana and her kinky boyfriend, billionaire Christian Grey. It’s only told from Ana’s side, and we get her account in minute detail. There’s not an expression she doesn’t over-analyze, a line of dialogue she doesn’t examine for hidden meaning. Add to that, she has her inner goddess and subconscious chiming in every other paragraph. I kept yelling at the Christian character: “Gag her!!”
That said, it’s shattering sales records worldwide. It will sell a lot more books than mine, but it’s my own fault. Silly me, I didn’t have a room of pain in my tract house in Woodland Hills.
Still, I figured a way to get on the bandwagon. Why not write the same book but from Christian’s side? So I did. As a gift to you loyal readers and a way of saying thanks for buying my book (you have bought my book, haven't you?), I’m going to give it to you for free. See what you think?

I spend most of my time in my giant swank office. I’m the equivalent of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs except I’m also gorgeous looking and not dead. I preside over a massive global conglomerate that feeds the poor (thus making me likeable) and brings in billions. I’m always on the phone speaking generically. “Get me those numbers, Ted.” “That sounds risky, I’ll need to look over the proposal.” “Reschedule the acquisitions team for Monday at 3:00.” So you can plainly see I’m legit.

On Friday night I fly down to Portland to see my brother and pick up some items from a hardware store. I fly my own helicopter. I also play concert piano, have read and can quote the classics, collect fine art and first editions, and look awesome in jeans. It’s clear I’m an expert helicopter pilot because I say things to the tower like, “Charlie-Tango descending to 1000 feet.” Don’t even try to make sense of it. You have to be a pilot.

I go back to Seattle because I need to be at my desk and look over reports when I tell people on the phone, “Have Brian call me tomorrow, and I want a meeting with his people.”

But before you know it I fly back to Portland to speak at a college graduation. My speech goes over well because I’m incredibly charismatic. Those kids hang on every generic word.

Home again in Seattle I drive to Bellvue to have dinner with my equally wealthy step-parents and siblings. They have a large mansion. The food is delicious.  I'm a foodie and wine connoisseur too.  

A few more days of taxing business decisions (“I’m not going forward till I see the projections!”) and I need to take the corporate plane to Savannah, Georgia. As you know, I’m also an expert glider pilot. But my trip is cut short. A business emergency.

I fly back to Seattle and now on the phone I use an angry tone. “Unacceptable!” “Call Gary. We have to re-think this.” That’s me in crisis mode – firm but in complete control.

And that’s about it. Oh wait. During this period I also banged a high-maintenance loony college chick.

Hmmmm. Now I that read it over, it might be a little short for a novel. What do you think? I’ll add a scene where he walks on water.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from Beijing.  Where are all the Olympic athletes?  Did I miss it?  Oh well.  It’s Friday question day. What’s yours?

Damian J. Thomas wants to know:

Why do TV series waste my time with retrospective episodes? Some episodes simply show parts of the same stuff I’ve already seen. Was someone, such as the head writer, on vacation that week?

Retrospectives are a cheap way to fill out a season’s worth of shows. They generally do well in the ratings. And networks promote the crap out of them.

One of the most horrifying experiences in my life involves a retrospective. I was taking an MRI (already a heart pounding endeavor). Mirrors were set up in the tube that allowed patients to watch a television. So there I was, claustrophobic, not allowed to move even an inch, for 45 minutes, forced to watch the NANNY retrospective.

Years ago I pitched a sitcom pilot to NBC. When it was time for questions one network whiz asked (in a straight face yet): “What’s the first episode of season seven?” I picked my jaw off the floor and said, “The clip show featuring all the classic moments from the first six years.” I wanted to add but didn’t: “What the fuck do you think is the first show of season seven? How the fuck would I know that? Are you insane?” They didn’t buy the show.

Retrospectives are great for writers. They get royalties for any clips used from their episodes. My partner and I cleaned up on MASH and CHEERS. I think on CHEERS they used something like 25 of our episodes. After that, anytime in the writing room we were stuck on a story at CHEERS I would say, “Let’s just scrap this and do another clip show!”

We were there during the MASH retrospective and although it was cheap to produce it required five times the effort on our part to put it together. For a month every night after we finished our writing we drove to a production house in Hollywood and screened episodes until midnight or 1 AM. Then came the impossible task of culling seven years of great highlights into one expanded episode.

An additional problem is determining the format for the clips. There is the wraparound approach. This can be real dicey. I remember one series got around this problem by having their characters being robbed. While tied up together in the kitchen, to pass the time (as all bound families do) they started reminiscing. “Hey, remember the time you wrecked the car?” And then they’d show the clip. Smooooth.

Nowadays shows tend to steer away from that artful device. On CHEERS we took the cast out of character and put them on a panel. They answered a moderator’s questions and we used the clips to support those answers. Other shows use just strictly clips tied together by graphics or voice-overs.

One trend I’m noticing lately – these retrospectives are appearing sooner and sooner. It used to be you wouldn’t even think of doing a clip show before 100 episodes. Now it’s getting to where the clip show comes as a celebration of getting picked up for the back nine.

Someday I’ll have to put together a clip show of this blog. Various sentences from different posts. Wait a minute. I could say I’m doing that right NOW. Yes, welcome to my retrospective post.

From Jim:

Is there an etiquette among scriptwriters, both inside and out of the writers' room, of how to let your colleagues know that you don't get the joke, or even worse that you get it but you think that it stinks? Or does everyone else just quietly move on and let you work it out for yourself? And is there a further etiquette for when you think that you've just come up with the funniest line ever, all these other fools want to move on but you refuse to give up so easily?

Each showrunner is different of course, but I’ve always tried to be as diplomatic I can when rejecting a pitch. I’ll say stuff like, “Yeah, it’s getting there” and “it’s funny but I’m not sure it’s right.” If you really shoot the writer down you run the risk he’ll clam up and then he’s worthless to you. On the other hand, I know showrunners who rule strictly by fear. You pitch something he doesn’t like and he’ll take your head off. You might say, don’t they realize they’re only stifling creativity and shooting themselves in the foot? And I would say, yes, but they’re assholes. I’m lucky. I’ve worked for showrunners who had their quirks and I wanted to kill them but I’ve never served under one of these tyrants.

There was a showrunner who would say, “How the fuck is that funny? Explain to me how anyone is going to laugh at that.” Needless to say the writers’ testicles retreated so far up his body he needed tweezers to find them.

Comedy writers need to develop a thick skin and often times showrunners are under tremendous pressure so they may not be as gracious as you would like. But I’ve always felt one of the showrunner’s jobs was to create a safe fun environment in the room so every writer could produce his best. To me it’s a complete win-win.

As for the second part of the question, this is more than etiquette. This is pretty much a RULE.

If you pitch a joke, even if you think it's the greatest joke ever conceived, if it’s rejected the DROP IT. It makes no difference if you’re right. The fastest way to get yourself fired from a show is to belabor joke pitches. You get one shot. If it doesn’t go in then move on. Don’t pout, don’t bring it up a half hour later, don’t say “we’d be home by now if you went with my joke”. And for godsakes, if the line that did go in didn’t work on the stage DO NOT say your joke would have killed.

Jose asks:

Hey Ken, where in LA do u think most first-year TV writers, and then show runners, tend live?

Wherever they can find something reasonable. And most recently, not underwater. There’s an area of West Hollywood that’s unofficially known as “First Stop L.A.”. It’s around Melrose and La Brea. There are older apartments and small houses and duplexes. And lots of young single people. The older single people (generally they go by the nickname “divorced”) hole up in the Oakwood Garden Apartments in the valley. So avoid that.

New Los Angeles arrivees also gravitate to the Silverlake district. It’s kind of artsy and bohemian and if you don’t mind the fact that it can also be a little dangerous you might consider roosting there.  Hey, I can see Silverlake from the Great Wall!

Burbank is another haven. I’m sure some of my readers can suggest other neighborhoods for newbies.

From Paul Duca:

…And speaking of "off the top of your head", is that how you do those play by play voiceovers, or do you watch an actual game clip?

It depends. I’ve done it both ways. Usually there is no picture but I have to tailor the play-by-play to the screen because often a character will react to something on the TV so I have to time the commentary to fit. Most of the time I’ll be watching the scene while doing my spiel.

There have been times when we do see the action on the TV and then it’s a snap because I just call the play-by-play of what I see.

Sometimes I’m asked not to use actual names or teams. That’s a little trickier. It’s easy to make up names for the players (usually I just use members of the crew) but it’s hard to give the score when you can’t identify the teams. I’ll do something like “And the Good Guys lead 4-2.” Yeah, I know... pretty lame.

My favorite experience was for the show BROOKLYN BRIDGE. I got to call the 1955 World Series. I wonder if it’s too late to get a ring.

What’s your Friday question? Leave it in the comments section. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Actors I've worked with who won't remember me

Michael Keaton is getting a lot of Oscar buzz (despite winning a Golden Globe) and I can proudly say that I’ve written for him. But not in a big movie. He did a guest spot on FRASIER that David Isaacs and I wrote. And it got me thinking about all the major names I’ve worked with, especially as a director – but not in the projects they’re really known for. It’s like I’m in the shadow of everyone’s career. But here’s a partial list. Ready for some name dropping?

I directed an NBC sitcom in the ‘90’s called LATELINE. Among the folks I pushed around were now-senator Al Franken, Miguel Ferrier (I can't keep up on what series he's currently on), Megyn Price (RULES OF ENGAGEMENT), Sanaa Latham, Caroline Aaron, Michael McKean, soap opera star Lisa LoCicero, Bob Elliott (from Bob & Ray), Robert Reich (of all people), and Allison Janey.

I’ve had to direct sports stars. Karl Malone (not funny), Terry Bradshaw (sort of funny), Mike Ditka (what do you think?).

This year’s Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris was directed by me… in STARK RAVING MAD. Also in that cast was Tony Shaloub. Can you imagine a better pairing?

Lots of shows come and go. I hope my directing didn’t directly contribute to their demise. But check out some of these barely remembered series with great casts. I directed three episode of Kristin Chenoweth’s sitcom KRISTIN. In addition to working with her, I had the pleasure of giving acting notes to Jon Tenney (you’ve seen him in everything Miguel Ferrier is not in), Ana Ortiz (kicked ass in UGLY BETTY), and playwright Christopher Durang (like he needed me to tell him what’s funny).

Joan Plowright is one of the finest actresses to ever grace a stage. And yet, she was directed by me. That was in ENCORE ENCORE where I also worked with the great Nathan Lane, and Glenne Headly (DICK TRACY). 

How many of you remember PEARL? It starred Rhea Perlman and I “megged” that show. In the cast were Malcolm McDowell (the guy starred in a Stanley Kubrick film), Carol Kane, and Lucy Liu (now starring in ELEMENTARY).

I never directed Leah Remini in KING OF QUEENS, but I did direct her in FIRED UP. On that show I also worked with Jonathan Banks (BREAKING BAD), Dixie Carter, Sharon Lawrence, and Mark Feuerstein. Actually, I did two shows with Mark. FIRED UP might be the most well known of the two.

But CONRAD BLOOM, which starred Mark, also featured a rather nifty cast of Linda Lavin (Broadway royalty), the late comic genius, Steve Landesberg (BARNEY MILLER), Julie Benz (murdered horribly in DEXTER), and Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham.

I also worked with Julie in ASK HARRIET. Yes, my directing resume is impressive. Willie Garson (WHITE COLLAR) also toiled in that cast. And Ed Asner guested in both of my episodes. I never got to direct him in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, just ASK HARRIET.

On my own show, ALMOST PERFECT, in addition to the amazing cast led by Nancy Travis (I was the showrunner, they had to tolerate me), we had Lisa Edelstein (HOUSE) as a frequent and hilarious guest. I also directed her in JUST SHOOT ME. Again, these are not shows any of these people are particularly known for. Tom Verica (now in HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER) played a porn star in one episode and Katherine LaNasa (lots of hour series that didn’t last) was an occasional guest, as was Talia Balsam (Mrs. George Clooney before Amal), and comedian Steven Wright. My note to Steve was “more energy.” Actually, it was “any energy.” But damn was he funny when the cameras rolled.

BECKER provided me the chance to work with a lot of great people you didn’t know were on BECKER. Comedians Gilbert Godfried and Avery Schreiber. Among the cast members were Shawnee Smith (SAW I-XIIVI), and Jorge Garcia (found on LOST). I also got to work with Brenda Vaccaro (celebrated movie star and one-time spokesperson for Playtex Tampons), reality star and jailbird Richard Hatch, and Nicolette Sheridan (happily, I’m not involved in any of her lawsuits).

A terrific show that got no love was IT’S ALL RELATIVE. I directed a bunch of those. And what a cast. Harriet Harris, John Benjamin Hickey (at the moment in THE GOOD WIFE), Chris Sieber, and Maggie Lawson (PSYCH). I had the privilege of working with Victor Garber (who came in the day before we shot with a large difficult role and just crushed it – I love that guy).

And just as you may not remember some of these shows, I’m sure a large portion of the actors and actresses I listed above don’t remember me. Well, Al Franken does. I gave to his campaign.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A crazy award season story

They say it’s an honor just to be nominated. And I guess that’s true. But it kind of depends on what the award is you’re nominated for. “Best Sleeper” in camp is not as prestigious as an Oscar (although it is on a par with a Golden Globe).

Awards given by your peers generally hold more weight. And that’s why being nominated for a WGA Award is an honor. At least for me. I’ve won a People’s Choice Award and they wouldn’t even give me the statue. They wanted me to pay $300 for it. No thank you.

But I’m always been extremely humbled and grateful to be nominated for a WGA Award. And David Isaacs and I have been nominated numerous times (we won twice).

But one time was very weird. In the summer of 1981 the WGA membership went out on strike (big shocker). But some of the small production companies that were getting killed by the layoff made a deal with the WGA that they would accept whatever terms were eventually reached if they could continue to do business. A new sitcom premiering that fall on ABC was called OPEN ALL NIGHT. An small independent company produced the show – I think they were called Freeway Productions.

The show was created by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, former showrunners of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and future showrunners of BUFFALO BILL.

At the time, David and I had a development deal with Lorimar, making us exclusive to them. But our deal was temporarily suspended during the strike. Tom & Jay asked if we wanted to write a couple of episodes of OPEN ALL NIGHT. Since it was legal and we loved working with those guys, we happily accepted.

Both of our episodes aired although the series never caught on. The show debuted the end of November and was gone by March. Still, we were happy with the two episodes we wrote.

Then it came time to submit scripts for the WGA Awards. Usually we had MASH scripts, but this year all we had was OPEN ALL NIGHT. So we figured, what the hell? We submitted one of the two scripts, "Terry Runs Away."   

A few months later we got a call from our agent. She said the WGA nominations were just announced and she congratulated us for making the cut. We thanked her, but both of us honestly thought she was joking. How could an OPEN ALL NIGHT get nominated? You still had MASH along with TAXI and I believe, BARNEY MILLER. So we hung up and thought nothing of it.

The next morning the paper arrived (yes, we still got newspapers in those days) and I was curious to see who actually did get nominated.

HOLY SHIT!  She was telling the truth!

The Awards were given out at a gala dinner – by gala, I mean expensive. But the production company always paid for their nominees. Usually they also provided limos. Unfortunately, once OPEN ALL NIGHT was cancelled the production company disbanded. There was no one to cover our tickets.

Also, the production company (or studio) will buy a table for your show. The studio execs, showrunner, and maybe some staff members will be there in support. No one from Freeway Productions planned on attending.

We were assigned a table that had four vacancies. So David and I and our Plus Ones joined the folks at HILL STREET BLUES. It felt like we crashed someone’s party. And it didn’t help that none of the HILL STREET folks had ever heard of OPEN ALL NIGHT.

HILL STREET BLUES won the Best Drama Award. The writer had a whole list of colleagues to thank. I turned to David and said, “Who would we thank? Other than Tom & Jay, we never met anybody from Freeway Productions. Have we even gotten paid?” David wisely said, “What difference does it make? We’re not going to win.”

Sure enough. He was right. Yes, it was disappointing. It always is. At the moment they announce the nominees you never think just being nominated is an honor. You hope you WIN. In this case, we weren’t expecting a victory. But it sure would have been a hoot. Especially walking up to the stage, hearing the murmurs of “OPEN ALL NIGHT? What the fuck is that?”

This year’s WGA Awards are Saturday night. Best of luck to all the nominees. It really IS an honor.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bon Voyage

Just so you know…

I am leaving today for a three-week trip to the Far East. I’ll be in Beijing for the Chinese New Year (counting ours and the Jewish one – my third New Years this year). Among my other stops will be Seoul, Korea (which I can write off as research for MASH), Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, several stops in Japan, and Tokyo (where I’ll inquire if any Japanese baseball teams need a play-by-play announcer).

I will continue to post something new each day I’m away, including Friday Questions. No, I’m not going to China to sit in a hotel room writing blog posts. I have prepared and scheduled them already. So fair warning, nothing is time sensitive. Note to any public figure I really admire: Don’t die. I won’t be able to write a tribute.  There have been enough this past week to last the entire year.

So what about my annual Oscar review?  I have something special planned.  Check in.  

I’m not sure that I’ll be able to access my blog in China. It might be blocked. 

On the other hand, it’ll be a nice vacation not having to write my blog.

But like I said, I’ve done my homework, and I think I’ve got some pretty cool posts coming up during my absence. I remember when Johnny Carson would take a vacation from THE TONIGHT SHOW he’d get a guest host to substitute for him. His two main go-to people were Joan Rivers and Bill Cosby, so neither of those options will work. Best to just do it myself.

Now I’m going to ask your help on something. If I’m not allowed access to the blog it means I can’t monitor the comments. So I’m going to leave it up to you guys to play nice with each other. No going off on some political thread that leads to insults and bad feelings. Remember, this is a humor blog. We’re here to have fun.  I should be able to read them via email, but I might not be able to get in to delete any.   Eventually, I will. Don’t make me delete yours. Thank you.

Also.  Any dining suggestions for Beijing, Dalian, Seoul, Shanghai, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, Taipei, Kagoshima, Kyoto, or Tokyo? 

I’ll miss you all, but I’ve got to get out of town. Since hosting on TCM I’ve just been mobbed everywhere I go. It’ll be nice to not have to sign autographs every five seconds. I will come back with many stories I’m sure. And if you’re in one of these places and can get the blog, just know I’ll be coming. Let me know if I can make a legal right turn on a red light in your country.

Monday, February 16, 2015


No surprise that FIFTY SHADES OF GREY opened big this weekend. There was tremendous curiosity about whether this masterfully written book could possibly be adapted for the screen. Could all the subtlety and subtext somehow make the transition? Could the complex themes resonate when the story was put on its feet (or on it's back)?

And what about the task for the actors? There was so much depth and dimension to Christian and Anastasia, would any actor – no matter how well trained or naturally gifted – be able to pull it off? Maybe Meryl Streep but alas she can play everything but young.

Based on the boxoffice, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are virtual locks to win Best Actor & Actress Oscars next year.

The real battle will be for Best Supporting Actor & Actress. All of the roles in this movie were challenging. Each one was so well-drawn and specific on the page. Like “best friend” or “guy who works with her.” I fear the sterling performances will cancel each other out and someone less deserving from another movie will win those Oscars instead. Thank goodness for the Golden Globes. We can at least count on them to get it right. And the AVN’s.

The screenwriter wisely decided to keep the sex scenes. What a courageous move! There is always the danger that nudity, graphic sex, and kinky sex will detract from the poetic dialogue. Especially when it occupies half the movie. Credit as well to the director. Bold choice to show as much as the MPAA will allow.

The ultimate success of a chick flick is whether the studio can lure guys in as well. And this one does, even without major explosions or comic book heroes. The story twists and turns are just so riveting. It’s a master class in filmmaking.

I haven’t seen the movie myself yet. Yes, I’m sure it’s glorious on the big screen. (Size does matter in IMAX). But I worry that I won’t get the full appreciation of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY if I can’t hit pause, rewind, and slow motion. Yes, I’ll be tempted. That’s what the movie is all about, isn’t it? But hopefully, I’ll be able to see it in a couple of months. In the meantime, thank God for the internet.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why did we leave MASH?

In light of Jon Stewart leaving THE DAILY SHOW, I'm reminded of the national uproar when David Isaacs and I left MASH.  Here's a re-post of a Friday Question from five years ago.  Trust me, with Brian Williams as my witness, bevo is just one of MILLIONS who asked this question.  

bevo asks:

How come you left MASH?

We had just completed the 7th season. From the time David Isaacs and I became head writers we pretty much wrote or re-wrote every script. We had a very small staff.

Most of the stories came from the research that we, and before us, Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart conducted with doctors, nurses, and soldiers who served in Korea. Usually we had two, maybe three story lines in every episode that would dovetail and eventually connect with each other.. The plotting was very intricate. And our shooting schedule was so demanding (an entire episode was shot in only three days; today a half-hour single camera show takes five or six days to complete) that we had no time to fix stories once they were on the stage. So we really had to get them right beforehand. On multi-camera shows sometimes you go to the stage with a script that’s still a little undercooked but you figure you have a week of production to shore it up. We had no such luxury.

Once we broke the stories David and I wrote every outline, even for the freelance writers we hired.

We made 25 episodes a year so that’s somewhere between 50-70 stories a season. And by year seven we had pretty much picked the bones of all that research. Plus, we were locked into the time and place. It’s not like other shows where characters can marry, have kids, get new apartments, new jobs. Our conceit was the entire run of the series took place over the span of roughly one year.

So by the end of year seven we had done every hot show, cold show, every visiting general, everyone had slept with everyone else, Klinger had worn every dress, we had done every practical joke, everyone had been caught naked in the shower, every activity had been interrupted by choppers, they raised money for every good charity, they performed every tricky operation, they endured every shortage, and everyone had written four letters home.

And worse for us as writers, the characters no longer surprised us. They were so established that by this time we knew exactly what they would say and how they’d react in every situation. (I can’t explain why exactly, but I never felt that way about CHEERS.)

Anyway, we were a little fried and figured it was time. We were offered a big development deal and pilot commitment from NBC so the timing just felt right.

Looking back, I think we could have squeezed out one more year. But then we’d be in the same situation. The show lasted 3 1/2 seasons after we had left. No way could we have done another 90 episodes without winding up in post op ourselves. Once we left they got smart and expanded the staff and I thought the new regime did a great job.

All that said…MASH was an incredible experience. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the work David and I did on the show. And we are forever grateful to Gene Reynolds, Burt Metcalfe, and Alan Alda for giving a couple of kids in their 20s such an extraordinary opportunity.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day

Most guys don’t love Valentine’s Day. It’s a holiday designed to trap them. If you’re dating more than one woman, you’re dead. If you get the wrong gift, you’re dead. If the gift is too cheap or too elaborate, you’re dead. If you get her a humorous card with Bush on the front you’re dead (although in that case you deserve to be).

Or worse, they love the gift and card too much. Then you’re REALLY dead.

My problem with Valentine’s Day is that it’s also my birthday. Try going out to a nice celebration dinner when every restaurant is packed (especially on a Saturday night), all the prices are jacked way up, and everyone is trying so hard to create a “romantic atmosphere” that when their date isn’t looking they’re popping Lexapros like Tic Tacs.

Still, not to be a cynic I would like to offer an explanation for what love really is. It comes from that font of romance -- an episode of TAXI (written by Ken Estin).

Louie is trying to win back his girlfriend, Zena. He asks if she loves him. She says she doesn’t know what love is. He tells her she’s in luck because he does. And he’s the only person alive who can say that. He’s read what everyone else says love is and they’re always wrong. She finally asks him what it is, and Louie says:

“Love is the end of happiness!

The end. Because one day all a guy’s got to do to be happy is to watch the Mets. The next day you gotta have Zena in the room watching the Mets with you. You don’t know why. They’re the same Mets, it’s the same room…but you gotta have Zena there.”

That to me expresses more heartfelt love than any bouquet or bling or blowout dinner. Maybe you should change your plans and just get together in her apartment. Especially since I still don't have dinner reservations and would prefer not celebrating my birthday at Taco Bell.

Thank you and happy Valentine’s Day.

Friday, February 13, 2015

R.I.P. Gary Owens

Every career starts with that first person who believed in you and gave you a chance; who saw potential in you when others didn’t. For me, that person was Gary Owens. He passed away last night. He was 80.  I'm heartsick.

You’re all familiar with him, whether you know it or not. Gary was the cupped-hand announcer on LAUGH IN, the voice of Roger Ramjet, and the voice of thousands of commercials and cartoons. His rich deep voice was distinctive and golden.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Gary Owens was also one of the most creative individuals I’ve ever met – wickedly funny, irreverent, absurd, and with impeccable comic timing. He elevated silliness to an art. The voice was just the instrument. He made the music.

I first met Gary in 1969. At the time he was doing afternoon drive on Los Angeles powerhouse radio station, KMPC, starring in the number one show in the country, and doing countless voice overs. I was a lowly sports intern making minimum wage. He took me under his wing. I wrote comedy bits for him and was blown away that he used some of them on the air. The great Gary Owens thought they were good enough. He even, on occasion, let me go on the radio and perform the bits with him.

Without my knowledge, he submitted my material to the producer of LAUGH IN and I was offered a job. (I couldn’t take it because it was full-time, I would lose my student deferment and wind up in Viet Nam, but still, what a mensch.)

In Gary’s autobiography he mentions that he discovered me, and that’s absolutely true. Here he was, an entertainment titan at the top of his game and powers, still making time to mentor a lowly intern. And I wasn’t the only one. Although he won’t admit it, Gary did the same a few years earlier for a kid named Albert Brooks.

Another kid, in Indiana, also was inspired by Gary Owens, and Gary would give of his time to critique the lad's tapes and encourage him. I hope that “kid”, David Letterman, makes some mention of Gary tonight on his show.

But that was Gary -- forever kind, forever helpful and supportive, inspiring by his example.  My guess is he gave hundred of people their start in broadcasting -- maybe more.

If ever it appeared someone led a truly charmed life it was Gary Owens. But in fact, he did not. Gary suffered from diabetes throughout his life. He once said to me that there was never a day where he “felt good.” Imagine what a nightmare that must’ve been. And yet, he handled it with his typical grace and good humor.

Gary Owens is maybe the only person I know in show business who EVERYBODY liked. He had no enemies. None.  Personally and professionally, he was universally loved and respected. The magic voice was a gift; the rest was a conscious choice.

I’m proud to say I was his friend for almost fifty years. Getting together with G.O. was always a treat. No one was a funnier dining companion. He taught me a lot about comedy and more about humility. Gary Owens was a special person. His voice will live on in cartoons, his memory will live on in the hearts of all who knew him.

Thank you, Gary, from the bottom of my heart.  

Friday (the 13th) Questions

Wow.  Two scary days in a row -- Friday the 13th and then Valentine's Day.  For a little distraction here are some Friday Questions. 

Michelle L. leads off:

I just recently read "Why Are You So Sad" by Jason Porter. One of the characters is obsessed with M*A*S*H, and is a somewhat depressed man because he didn't grow up to be Hawkeye. The fact that I somewhat related to him freaked me out a bit. What would you say to fans that become too obsessed with TV shows?

First off all, I’m depressed that I didn’t grow up to be Hawkeye either.

Like everything else, when a TV show becomes an obsession it can’t be healthy.

On the one hand you want people to identify with your show but not to where they attach their self worth to it.

This topic was addressed hilariously in my favorite all-time SNL sketch -- William Shatner speaks at a Star Trek convention. This video has snippets of it.

Bottom line, binge watch the shows, buy the companion book, engage in social media discussions of the show, buy a signed script, visit the exhibit if there is one, but don’t have your ears surgically altered to look like a Vulcan.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

I've noticed on M*A*S*H that a few of Margaret's big episodes ("Hot Lips and Empty Arms," for example) were written by Linda Bloodworth & Mary Kay Place. Is it common among writing staffs for certain characters to be assigned to certain writers?

It’s not uncommon. Writers can sometimes channel certain characters. Linda & Mary Kay really had a great feel for Hot Lips (sorry, I never refer to the character as Margaret – force of habit over many years), and at the time they were trying to give the character more dimension so having two women writers added richness.  It also helped that they were two great writers. 

(I channeled Radar. What does that say about me?)
Another example is the Rhoda character on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Treva Silverman (pictured: right) was her voice, especially early on when the character was being formed. Find your favorite Rhoda episodes and you’ll see they were written by Treva Silverman.

From Rick Wiedmayer:

How many writers are on a show typically? Does the show runner make that decision and hand out the writing assignments?

Typically yes, working within the show’s budget. Sitcoms today have much larger staffs than in decades past. There can be ten to fifteen writers on a show. On MASH, David Isaacs and I had a staff of two. On the first year of CHEERS the fulltime staff was Levine & Isaacs and the Charles Brothers.
But staffs have grown to where, in some cases, there are two writing rooms. And I must say I’m all for it – more jobs for writers.

That said, if I ran a show today I would hire a smaller staff of writers who I really trusted. I just think it’s more efficient. Try getting fifteen people to agree on anything. But that’s me and I’m not running a show.

Showrunners do hand out the script assignments, unless it's a show like BIG BANG THEORY that's all room written.  Then credits are just "assigned," which is a joke.

And finally, from Ian:

Kelsey Grammer and John Ratzenberger are both outspoken conservatives. Rob Long has written for conservative magazines. Did the cast and crew of Cheers ever argue about political issues behind the scenes?

Not that I recall although I wasn’t on the set most of the time. Kelsey and John were less outspoken back then.

Rob Long was always happy to debate the issues in the room and the Republican Party would be wise to recruit him to replace Karl Rove. In addition to being smart, articulate, and seeing things with perspective, he’s probably the funniest Republican in the party.

And by the way, just as it’s good to have characters with different points-of-view, so too in the writers room. I’d hire Rob on any show I do. But again, I’m not doing a show.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Great advice for young TV writers

... that doesn't come from me.  It's from Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who is currently the showrunner of Syfy’s “Helix.”   He posted a series of Tweets that blogger Kate O'Hare compiled (You still with me?  I know -- lots of names being tossed around.)    His advice was terrific (read: I agree with it) and worth passing on.  You can find it here.   I especially appreciate his suggestion that young scribes write specs for existing shows, not just pilots.  He'll tell you why.

Bob Dylan Sings Frank Sinatra

As strange at that seems, it's true. As per the press release:

Bob Dylan has released Shadows in the Night, a studio album featuring interpretations of Frank Sinatra tracks. The collection of 10 songs and standards was released today via Columbia Records, and marks the first new music from Dylan in three years.

Produced by Jack Frost, it will be the 36th studio album from Bob Dylan, and follows the release of the rewired Sinatra hit Full Moon and Empty Arms last spring. “It was a real privilege to make this album,” Dylan said in a statement. “I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time, but was never brave enough to approach 30-piece complicated arrangements and refine them down for a five-piece band.” 

Yes, I'm sure his interpretations will be unique.  Here is a brief sample:


Bob: Sjejekttj liw  e keuhtkt... eheilzhlty uwtyhpaghheeitnyleyghalmehseimlqnusrrnnyhg.


Bob: Sjejekttj liw  e keuhtkt... eheilzhlty uwtyhpaghheeitnyleyghalmehseimlqnusrrnnyhg.


Bob: Sjejekttj liw  e keuhtkt... eheilzhlty uwtyhpaghheeitnyleyghalmehseimlqnusrrnnyhg.

and of course, NEW YORK NEW YORK.  Sell it, Bob!

Bob: Sjejekttj liw  e keuhtkt... eheilzhlty uwtyhpaghheeitnyleyghalmehseimlqnusrrnnyhg.

I can't wait for his duet salute to Steve & Eydie with Bjork.

Here is brilliant Drew Friedman's vision of what the album cover should be.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams, Jon Stewart, Kanye, Uma, and random (a)musings

In no particular order of importance:

Comedy Central – please don’t let Larry Wilmore replace Jon Stewart.

Like everyone else, I’m bummed about Stewart leaving THE DAILY SHOW. How will Millennials get their news now?

But seriously, it is not a national tragedy.  Note to everyone on Facebook:  He didn't die. 

So Brian Williams is suspended for six months. It’s the right call. Let the story blow over, and by the time he returns people will be wondering what the big deal was. Plus, forty more women will have come out saying Cosby drugged them.

Williams will get big ratings upon his return. Depending on how big, NBC may ask Al Michaels to say he killed Bin Laden.

Allison’s father might have been fired if (a) his numbers weren’t good, and (b) NBC had anyone else in the wings. Sorry, but Lester Holt is not the answer. Where’s Ann Curry when we need her?

Kanye West is an asshole, and I hope somebody gets him a front row ticket for the Oscars. Wouldn’t you love to see him storm the stage slamming the Academy because SELMA didn’t win Best Picture?

I can’t wait for baseball.

Uma Thurman must've said to her plastic surgeon -- make me look like Joni Mitchell.
High today here in LA: 88.  No need for the CNN Blizzard Mobile.

And a recent article claims that Los Angeles now has better pastrami than New York.  Soon we'll lead them in heart attacks too. 

I'm having withdrawals until THE GOOD WIFE returns.  

The best baseball beat writer in America may be Tom Gage who covers the Tigers for the Detroit News. After thirty years of brilliant reporting, his paper has said thank you by taking him off the assignment.

I guess they feel that as long as people need to wrap their dead fish there will always be a need for the Detroit News.  But it was bush league.

Who do you think should replace Jon Stewart?  If someone says Carson Daly I'm deleting it.

Networks are casting their comedy and drama pilots – all with familiar faces.  The people you rejected last year will be back this year. 

I love how in Europe, in anticipation of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, stores are stocking up on rope and tape. What, no rushed orders for helicopters and gliders?

Huffington Post Headline from yesterday: NOW WE KNOW HOW MANY LICKS IT TAKES TO REACH THE CENTER OF A LOLLIPOP. Another mystery of life revealed.

The NBA All-Star Game is coming up. Prediction: West 187, East 184 in another defensive battle.

After a disappointing season, JUSTIFIED has come back strong for it’s final hurrah. Comedy Central could do worse than getting Boyd Crowder to replace Jon Stewart.

Why would ANYONE care what Jenny McCarthy says about ANYTHING EVER?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a tribute to a friend and brilliant disc jockey, Lee Baby Simms. Going back through old archives, it turns out he was a contributor to this blog. I wrote a post about getting fired from a radio station just before Christmas. Lots of you chimed in with similar stories. And then this:

Y`all, please quit yer bitchin`.
Forty years in the business.
25 markets. 36 stations. 41 jobs.
Fired 25 times.
I loved every minute of it.
Lee Baby.
Merry Christmas.

I'll miss Lee Baby Simms.  And Jon Stewart.  Brian Williams?  I can hang on for six months. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Shows that work in syndication and shows that don't

Okay, this is my theory. And it's based on no empirical facts. Zero research. Not one shred of supporting evidence. So needless to say, I feel very confident about it.

It is my contention that people watch first-run television differently than when they watch reruns on cable channels. And as such, shows that play well in one instance play less well in the other.

Example: Serialized dramas. You eat ‘em up the first time. But once you’ve seen ‘em – "Next?"  LOST has not done well in syndication. Neither has THE SOPRANOS. You watch, you binge, you’re done.

On the other hand, shows like LAW & ORDER and NCIS, they’re ideal for late night viewing. Video nightlights. They’re self-contained. Not so complicated that you have to pay strict attention. And you can see them again and again. There are a lot of people who have seen the first forty-five minutes of 200 episodes of LAW & ORDER but have never seen an ending because they fall asleep. So the episodes will be forever new. Genius!

On the comedy side – first a disclaimer. I LOVE LUCY and MASH are anomalies and in a category all their own. They adhere to no rules. They are special, unique, beloved, and will continue to be attract large audiences as long as there are flickering images on a screen of any size. I’m talking about the other 99.999999% of sitcoms.

My sense is that multi-camera shows play better in syndication. Why? Because they’re more joke-centric. Compare THE BIG BANG THEORY and MODERN FAMILY. Both do extremely well in first-run. But BBT performs way better than MF in syndication.

MODERN FAMILY is a wonderful show and worthy of all the Emmys it’s received. But it’s one of those shows you need to pay attention to. There are amusing situations and lots of throwaway lines and moments. Many goodies for those willing to give it the effort. But once you’ve seen an episode of MODERN FAMILY, do you really want to watch it again three or four times?

THE BIG BANG THEORY, and FRIENDS, and SEINFELD, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and GOLDEN GIRLS are shows you can easily re-watch countless times. They’re comfort food. Along the way, you can be reasonably assured of three or four laughs – even if they’re laughs you’ve seen. In fact, in the case of SEINFELD, if you’re like me, you’re thrilled when one of your favorite episodes comes on. I could watch “sponge worthy” and “shrinkage” on an endless loop.

Single camera shows struggle in syndication. 30 ROCK sputtered. SCRUBS never approached the success of FRIENDS.

I think multi-camera shows work better because they’re essentially radio shows. CHEERS was consciously a radio show with visuals. When you have the TV on in the early evening, you’re preparing dinner, checking the mail, catching up on Facebook, drinking heavily, etc. You’re not actually watching the show most of the time. But it’s still easy to follow because it’s very dialogue driven.

And it all goes back to my other completely unsubstantiated theory that people want to laugh. Early evening or late night sitcoms function to provide a little light entertainment, a pleasant diversion. Multi-camera shows work harder to provide laughs.

You may disagree, and I realize I could better defend my position if I had a single morsel of evidence to back me up, but putting aside the inevitable exceptions I stand by my theory. And who knows? There’s even the slight possibility that I’m right.

Monday, February 09, 2015


Usually movie musicals are lavish spectacles. Hugh Jackman and a thousand peasants. Julie Andrews and Nazis. Giant budgets, and in the case of INTO THE WOODS, giants. Very rarely does a movie based on a musical play in art houses. Most open big in glorious Technicolor in movie palaces that once showed SPARTACUS and SUPER FLY.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS, which opens this week in New York, LA, and maybe your town if TRANSFORMERS 5 isn’t still playing, is a small but delightful movie musical. (I understand it may also be available on VOD.)  If you’re into musicals or are already familiar with the show this is just your dish, but even if you’re only a casual fan of people breaking out into song in Manhattan without being arrested (like me) you’ll thoroughly enjoy this film.

Before I discuss the story and the score, let’s first get to the big reason to see it: ANNA KENDRICK.

LAST FIVE YEARS is essentially a two-hander, and Jeremy Jordon holds his own nicely, but Anna Kendrick is luminous. You’ve heard her sing in PITCH PERFECT and (for those that saw it) INTO THE WOODS, and you’ve seen her act in UP IN THE AIR. There’s no question, she’s the real deal. And in this film she just lights up the screen. She’s funny, touching, adorable, heartbreaking, and playful, which is hard to do all in one song.

The story itself is rather ingenious. It follows the five year relationship of a young couple, Cathy & Jamie, but through each of their sides. In Jamie’s case the show moves from the beginning to the end of their relationship. In Cathy’s version it goes from the break-up to their meeting. In the theatrical version, they alternate scenes, singing solo on stage. The only time the two actually are on stage together is when their stories intersect in the middle.

What writer/director Richard LaGravenese has cleverly devised is a way to have them both in every scene, and it makes all the difference in the world seeing them able to relate to each other throughout. (And it means more screen time for Anna.)

The story is told almost entirely in song.

For that to work, obviously the songs better be great. And in this case, they are. Written by Jason Robert Brown (who has more Tonys than shelf space), and semi-autobiographical, the songs are filled with emotion, keen observations, humor, and depth. I saw a preview of the film and would cheerfully see it again. You couldn’t drag me to see LES MISERABLES a second time.

Assuming it’s playing in your city… or state or you can access VOD, check out LAST FIVE YEARS. Did I mention it stars Anna Kendrick?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Just 'cause they don't change your words...

...doesn't mean they still can't screw up your scene. Here’s an example: It’s from VOLUNTEERS written by me and David Isaacs.

The setting is Thailand 1962. Lawrence (Tom Hanks) and Beth (Rita Wilson) are in the Peace Corps. They’ve helped build a big wooden bridge over the river for this tiny village. But now they learn that communists and a war lord will be using it to invade them in a few hours. So along with Lawrence’s sidekick, At, they hastily start packing. The fun of the scene is that Beth misunderstands something Lawrence says and it leads her to the idea of blowing up the bridge. And later Lawrence blurts out that he loves her. And even he’s surprised. But it all has to happen fast. The director shot our words exactly as written but instead of shooting it as a frenetic scene he made it slow and rueful. So to me it made no sense.

Here’s the scene. Imagine it both ways. Which do you think works best?


Our three heroes have returned soaked. Ai Po (the town elder) sits solemnly at the bar.

CAMERA STARTS on the bridge and pulls back to reveal the back of Beth’s head, facing it.

Our bridge. Our beloved Goddamn bridge.

She turns to face the interior where Lawrence and At are on the floor, catching their breath.

At, my pathetic little friend, are you all right?

I’m fine. So I die before I ever have a woman. I helped build a bridge and some fat guys touched me. I had a full life.

If you want any more of it we’d better get going. At seven a.m. this morning all Hell’s gonna break loose.

You didn’t tell me it was seven o’clock. Jesus, there’s no time to lift a finger –

Just one of those days, I guess. At, up and at ‘em. I’ve gotta get my dope, my booze – you know, the essentials.

They rise and start collecting booze, etc.

Oh, my God, how did this happen? All the speeches… all the promises…

I’m taking my grandfather.

All right. Just jam some hooch into his jumper.

What about our genuine Persian carpet?

Tear it down. We’ll roll it up around your grandfather.

Beth whirls around.

Tear it down – of course! We have the dynamite. We’ll just blow the bridge to bits.

Beth, we’re in kind of a hurry here –

Blow it to bits – Lawrence, that’s a brilliant idea. We’ll show those war-mongers that the people won’t stand for their tyranny.

At, tell he it can’t be done.

Should have been done in the first place. I’ll help you, Beth.

(picks up Beth)
Thank you, At.

Put me down!

Beth, don’t be crazy.

Leave me alone, I’ll do it myself.

I won’t let you.


Because I love you… Who said that?

If you love me, you’ll help me.

Now I know I didn’t say that.

Lawrence, you can’t have me unless you blow up the bridge.

That’s blackmail. Okay, fine. If that’s what it’ll take, I’ll blow up your silly bridge. I’ve done crazier things.

Lawrence and At start to move off.

No, wait. I’m sorry. I know you think the right thing can be done for the wrong reason, but for me motives are important. Lawrence, you can’t be part of this if you’re doing it for yourself.

What have you learned, Dorothy?

Alright, fine. I’m blowing up the bridge for me, I’m blowing up the bridge for you, for At, for the people, for America! Please, just let me blow up the goddamn bridge!

A beat, then:

You really do love me.

Yes, I do. Can we go now?

Right away.

Thank you! Thank you very much!

Beth and At run out. Lawrence follows, figuring out what just happened.

(muttering to himself)
I think I’ve just changed my mind about grad school.

Lawrence exits.

This is a re-post from six years ago.  Whattaya think?  Too soon?