Monday, February 29, 2016

The 2016 Oscars: My review

Time once again for my snarky review of the interminable Academy Awards. It was 3 ½ hours of political message-flogging delivered by the most narcissistic sanctimonious community on the planet. We were bombarded with non-stop passionate pleas for diversity, tolerance, feminism, gender “confirmation,” and warnings about sexual abuse, “weirdo billionaires,” and saving the environment. And then at the after-parties, the big heartbreak was that Lady Gaga didn’t win.

Academy voters don’t exclude people because of their race. They exclude people because they’re friends they don’t want to see do better than them. Get real.

I boycotted the Oscars for the same reason Will Smith did. I wasn’t nominated.

And Jada Picket Smith boycotting the ceremony had the same impact as Sarah Palin boycotting the Mensa convention.

Chris Rock’s opening monologue was scathing and quite funny. If only the show’s producers had left it there.

I’m very empathetic to the cause, but by the time they did that montage with Whoopi Goldberg entering JOY bemoaning the lack of black actors in movies I screamed at the screen: I GET IT!!! I FUCKING GET IT!!!

No Oscar review would be complete without first checking in on the KTLA Channel 5 Red Carpet Show hosted by Sam Rubin (the man who put the “hyper” in hyperbole) and Jessica Holmes (prom night in Biafra). Plus, fashion expert, Lawrence Zarian (whoever he is). Eagle-eyed Lawrence critiqued the stars on the red carpet, somehow mistaking Mindy Kaling for Joy Mangano. That’s a common mistake. When they finally did show Mindy he gushed: “I love when a television actress looks like a movie star.”

But you can’t beat Sam and Jess for sheer insipid babble. How’s this for a segue? Sam: “The award season has been described as an endless slog, beginning in December, going all the way into February, but here’s Sam Smith!”

Jessica to Louis Gossett Jr.: “You’re here to be a presenter.” No, he corrected her; he was there to introduce the In Memoriam segment. Jessica covered beautifully by asking: “I’m sure, you being in the business so long yourself, have lost someone you love. We all have friends that unfortunately… we all have friends – so many have passed.”   Where's Tawny Little when you need her?

But nothing tops Sam Rubin’s interview with Jacob Tremblay, the kid from THE ROOM. First Sam asked if he brought toys with him. When Jacob said no but he brought candy, Sam asked: “Do you like mints?” But then he asked this towhead, who is 9, whether he wants to direct? You can’t make this stuff up.

Over on another network the woman host asked Saorise Ronan, “Is that your dad?” to which she said, “No, that’s Nick Hornby.”

But I digress...

New this year: a running scroll at the bottom of the screen with the names of people the winners wished to thank. How many folks in the south turned it off thinking they were watching the Chabad Telethon? Heck, at one point there was even a tote board.

And you didn’t have to be anti-Semitic to cringe at Sarah Silverman’s routine. Funnier was Joe Biden’s speech.

Still, the low point was Chris Rock introducing Stacey Dash. Next to Bill Cosby, I can’t imagine a person of diversity that crowd wanted to see less.

Olivia Wilde looked like the woman holding the torch at the beginning of every Columbia Picture.

Big night for MAD MAX. It won most of the technical awards. I was quite happy because (a) it deserved them, and (b) the Australian’s speeches were refreshingly free of thanking the Gersh Agency.

A black man almost won an acting award. Sylvester Stallone must’ve spent the entire month in a tanning booth. He was darker than Lou Gossett Jr. That Sly lost to Mark Rylance was the upset of the night. But Rocky Balboa will be back I’m sure, this time coaching Abraham Attah.

Writers were honored by showing examples of their screenplays. These are among the dialogue snippets they chose: “Cool.” “Yes.” “Why?” “Yeah.” “OK.” I hope moviegoers can now finally appreciate what we do.

Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander looked spectacular in a strapless lemon-yellow gown. Now I’m sorry I used my screener of THE DANISH GIRL for a potholder.

How many years has John Williams been nominated for writing the same damn score?

R2D2 was funnier than Sarah Silverman.

The random aerial performer during Weekend’s singing of “Earn It” gave that number a real “Carnival Cruise line” feel.

Other than thanking her “team”, Brie Larson sounded genuine and humble. Glad she won. Although a little part of me was hoping Charlotte Rampling would win and be booed.

Did you notice how every actor thanked his “team?” Three years ago they’re telling you the specials at Buca di Beppo and now they’ve got a “team.”

“Sexiest dress of the night” award went to Rachel McAdams – a shimmering green gown with a long slit up the side. I now have a right leg fetish.

Jared Leto made a merken joke, acknowledging that most people don’t know what a merken is. If Rachel McAdams’ slit were any higher she could have given a demonstration.

Was there ever a bigger lock than Leo DiCaprio? First win in six tries. Too bad he gave all six acceptance speeches.

Expect Will Smith to be sleeping in an animal carcass come next Oscar season.

SPOTLIGHT winning Best Picture said to me the Academy not only doesn’t have enough diversity; it doesn’t have enough Catholics.

How great was Louis CK? Funniest presenter speech by far – championing the short documentary filmmakers who will never get rich and just make films that are important. Then the winner got up and the play off music began almost before she reached the microphone.

Olivia Munn’s make up person must’ve been the same guy who did Joel Grey in CABARET.

EX MACHINA won for Best Special Effects yet they played them off with the STAR WARS theme.

Distinguished movie actress Sofia Vergara (HOT PURSUIT, MACHETE KILLS, THE 3 STOOGES) was there to once again do her tired Charo act. She couldn’t even pronounce “Saul.”

Not cool. They played off the director of SON OF SAUL (a Holocaust movie) with Wagner.

When Margot Robbie walked out, I thought there was going to be a salute to GOLDFINGER.

The Girl Scout Cookie bit didn’t work when Ellen did it with pizzas a couple of years ago.

Meanwhile, the last thing Patricia Arquette needs is more Girl Scout cookies.

I found Ennio Morricone’s speech very touching, even through a translator. It must’ve been excruciating for Lady Gaga to see a standing ovation that wasn’t for her.

When they don’t even perform your nominated song, don’t even bother writing a speech. Same if you’re up against Pixar.

Cate Blanchett’s gown looked like a couch she was sitting on exploded.

Ellen K. did a great job as the booth announcer.

Since when do they give the Best Director award before the Best Actor & Actress awards? Congratulations to Alejandro Inarittu, truly an artist. With this win he is now pre-approved by CBS to direct an episode of SUPERGIRL.

Am I the only one who thought Lady Gaga’s performance was just a tad overwrought? Seeing all of those survivors was very moving, even if their entrance did remind me of the kids from OLIVER. But cutting back to Lady Gaga alternating between Celine Dion and Jerry Lee Lewis was a little much. Does she have to upstage everybody? Always?

Congratulations to all the winners. Well deserved every one, although I have no idea what Sam Smith was singing. Something about breaking a fall, suffocating, and Spectre hires too many whites, I dunno?

All in all, this year’s Oscarcast was 3 ½ hours of being lectured, harangued, and blamed for the world’s ills by the people who brought you TED 2. Weren’t we were supposed to be celebrating movies? I think Idris Elba is a great actor and I bought three boxes of Girl Scout cookies, so leave me the hell alone!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Take a flying Leap Day

My heart goes out to those poor people born on Leap Day (which is tomorrow but I'm reviewing the Academy Awards tomorrow). Three out of four years they never get friends wishing them Happy Birthday on Facebook. There are other heartaches they face as well, but who are we kidding? That’s the big one.

In New Zealand on non-leap years a February 29th birthday is officially celebrated on the 28th. Those folks can legally drink one day early. And your boyfriend who’s been holding off because you’re a minor can now sleep with you one day sooner. No big deal for you but a huge big deal for him.

In certain European nations March 1st is the recognized date when there is no leap year. To me that’s even weirder. Some years you celebrate your birthday in February and others in March. This becomes of primary importance when restaurants offer complimentary meals for your birthday month. If Café ‘50s thinks you’re scamming them to get that free burger and shake you’re in for a world of grief.

Being a Leap Day baby was a big advantage in the ‘60s when it came time to register for the draft by your 18th birthday. You could put it off for sometimes three years. Not so great when you went to the DMV and tried to get your driver’s license and had to convince the idiot clerk you do in fact exist.

I wonder how many Feb. 29’ers have trouble when carded. They think you screwed up in making your fake ID.

In Ireland there is a tradition where women get to propose to men on Leap Day. If this sounds familiar it’s because it was the premise of that lame romcom you never saw starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. As legend has it, if the boy rejects the proposal he has to buy the jilted lass twelve pairs of gloves… to cover the public humiliation of not wearing a ring. Seems to me white gloves would be more noticeable and mortifying, but hey, I’m not Irish. Take that up with Conan O’Brien.

In ancient times they used to just repeat a day in February. That’s kind of what NBC does with their primetime lineup on Saturdays. At one time in Sweden they not only added a 29th of February but a 30th as well. I think that ended when Volvo complained that their warranties were too long as it was.

The Jewish calendar doesn’t have a Leap Day. It has a Leap MONTH. Yes, every four years they add another month. That’s like an entire astrological sign.

The Chinese year contains 13 months with a leap month added every three years. That’s the Year of the Pregnant Kangaroo.

For the rest of us it just means one day of free rent, one extra day before we have to pay taxes, and studios can inflate their boxoffice receipts for February.  In 2012  Disneyland and Disney World remained open for 24 hours.   I don't know if they're doing that this year.  But Irish girls can wear their white gloves with Minnie Mouse ears and no one will know they were left at the altar.

Happy Leap Day!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Here's something you won't believe

And I have the video to prove it!

CBS is always revamping its morning show. (Who's doing it now?  Charlie Rose? Steve Avery?) Well, in 1973 someone got the brilliant idea to do an hour news show and hire someone to anchor it who had never been on television before. She had no experience whatsoever. Sally Quinn was a reporter for the Washington Post. And with no training, no rehearsals, no nothing -- CBS threw her on the air doing a national broadcast. In a book she wrote about the experience, Sally said that no one even told her the red light on a camera meant it was on. She's broadcasting coast-to-coast and doesn't even know which camera to look into. Great preparation.  I swear, if you pitched this idea as a series, every network including CBS would say, "Too ridiculous.  Too stupid.  It could never happen in a million years."

Well, it did. 

They gave Sally a partner, Hughes Rudd, who, by his own admission, was not a normal anchor. He was more of a rumpled reporter.

Needless to say, this experiment was an absolute disaster and lasted only a few months. Your heart has to go out to Sally Quinn who was just a deer in the headlights. When you watch this you will probably be shaking your head saying, "This can't be real!"

It is. 

By the way, on her first broadcast, Sally also had the flu and collapsed an hour before going on national TV live. I'm guessing some of that was nerves. Anyway, here is that ill-fated first broadcast.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Questions

What better way to get ready for the Oscars than to answers some Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Andy Rose asks:

When audience and critical feedback indicated that a character or plot line was beloved (or hated), how quickly could you incorporate that feedback into your writing? Is it harder for limited-run cable series where an entire season is shot before the first episode has aired, so they have no audience feedback at all during production?

It’s the dilemma we all face with a new series. You like to be several scripts ahead (because your lead time disappears), but you don’t want to be so far ahead that you can’t make adjustments based on the audience's reaction.

As a result, early on, as a showrunner you’re really living on the edge. However, finding out that a character you didn’t expect becomes a breakout stars and needs to be serviced is not the worst problem to have. Give me a “Fonz” and I’ll be happy to scramble and write new scripts any day.

But limited series or series on streaming services that air all episodes at once make it tough or even impossible to make mid-course corrections. If your season is in the can before it airs you’re stuck.

THE GOOD WIFE manages to walk the line as well or better than any show I know. They take chances, introduce new characters and storylines, and sometimes they fizzle. One in particular was introducing Kalinda’s ex-husband a few seasons ago. We GOOD WIFE fans hated that story arc and they quickly jettisoned it. I’m sure that meant a lot of re-thinking and rewriting, and long nights and weekends, but kudos to them for rolling up their sleeves and doing what had to be done.

And speaking of THE GOOD WIFE, Thomas Mossman asks:

Now that word has come down that The Good Wife is ending after this season, do you feel there are any dramas left on network TV worth watching?

Well, there are certainly entertaining dramas. Shondaland dramas can be good fun. And certainly EMPIRE has its fans. As does the current trend of hot (sometimes tattooed) brunettes in serialized thrillers. If you’re a fan of procedurals or shows with initials or “Chicago” in their titles you have plenty to choose from. And there is very inventive storytelling on ONCE UPON A TIME for you fantasy lovers.

But sophisticated, layered dramas with real depth? I can’t think of another network show besides THE GOOD WIFE. Meanwhile, on cable and streaming platforms there are dozens of them.

From DonR:

While watching "Grandfathered" the other night I noticed it's produced by ABC Studios, yet it runs on Fox. How does that happen? Did ABC pass on its own show and sell it to Fox?

The bigger question is why were you watching GRANDFATHERED? But yes, networks will buy shows produced by competing networks.

I think the first time (or at least one of the first examples) was CAROLINE IN THE CITY. Developed for CBS by CBS, they passed but NBC was interested in the series. It ran on NBC for quite a few years.

I will say that these occurrences are somewhat rare and if say Fox has a choice between a pilot they like that was produced by themselves vs. one produced by ABC, they’ll usually opt for their own. At times to their own detriment.

Chris wants to know:

I recently watched the Cheers episode, "Heeeeere's...Cliffy!" again. I was wondering where the idea came from and how you got Johnny to go along with it? Was the filming done during one of his regular tapings or on a separate day? Also, I noticed Doc did the "Heeeeeeere's Johnny!" in that episode. Did Ed already have a commitment that day or was it some contractual thing that he wasn't in it?

I did a whole blog post devoted to that episode. You can find it here.

And finally, from Casey C:

Have you or your partner ever taken an unproduced script and reworked it to accommodate the project you were presently working on, or do you start from scratch every time?

Projects, yes.  Stories, no.   I adapted a spec screenplay into a comic novel (MUST KILL TV, available here for a mere pittance), and a spec pilot into a full-length play (although I changed practically all of it), but those are essentially adaptations -- changing from one genre to another.  We've never put a fresh coat of paint on a pilot and then tried to resell it, or changed a movie title and tried to peddle an unproduced screenplay as something new.    

And we NEVER recycle story ideas for future episodes.

I know of writers who will go back through old editions of TV GUIDE, read loglines, and steal them for the show they’re currently working on.

To me that’s lazy writing, not to mention unethical. That’s what hacks do.

It’s our job to come up with NEW ideas, fresh stories, and if possible, stories that you could only do on that series. And I don’t even see that as going to extraordinary lengths. To me it’s just professionalism.  Taking pride in what you do.   And not having to worry that someone will be watching GIDGET on AntennaTV and say, "Hey, that's the same story they did last week on that Levine & Isaacs show!" 

UPDATE:  Because a bunch of you requested it:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Golden Age of LA Comedy

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because I drifted into nostalgia and just kept writing and writing. So stagger down comedy memory lane with me.

BA wonders:

I saw a bowdlerized version of the NatLamp documentary on the History Channel and I thought there was a lot of comedy talent on the East Coast. What was your experience as a DJ with West Coast counterparts like The Credibility Gap, the Committee, and the Ace Trucking Company? I know there's a few alumni out there like Shearer/McKean, Howard Hesseman and Fred Willard.

I remember going to see THE COMMITTEE numerous times at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Howard Hesseman, Gary Goodrow, Valerie Curtain, Richard Stahl, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Bonerz, and if memory serves, Rob Reiner (although don’t hold me to that) were among the performers. I recall Valerie distinctly because I had a crush on her.

THE COMMITTEE came down from San Francisco as did OFF THE WALL (pictured above), founded by Dee Marcus. That’s how I got involved in improv. I joined one of Dee’s workshops in 1979. That group featured many brilliant performers including Andy Goldberg, Paul Willson, Wendy Cutler, Robin Williams, Bernadette Birkett, Tom Tully, Harry Murphy, and Chris Thompson. I never performed in an actual OFF THE WALL show for one very good reason – I sucked compared to all of them.

Around the same time, a group from Minneapolis hit town with FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK. Michael McManus, Doris Hess, John Bates, Nancy Steen, Pat Proft, and Neil Thompson were among their standouts. I apologize if I’m leaving out any names.

And performing in a small theatre in Hollywood was THE WAR BABIES. Archie Hahn, Renny Temple, Mary Edith Burrell, Caren Kaye, Susan Krebs, John Welsh, Peter Riegert, and Marsha Myers were members of that great group.  I must've seen them at least twenty times. 

But the biggest local improv factory was clearly THE GROUNDLINGS. Their roster of stars is too long to list. But just a small sample off the top of my head: Phil Hartman, George McGrath, Lorraine Newman, Lynne Stewart, John Paragon, Jon Lovitz, Edie McClurg, Mary Cross, Robin Schiff, Kip King, David Ruprecht, Craig T. Nelson, Will Ferrell, Paul Reubens, Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, Cynthia Szigeti, Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), Phyllis Katz, Wendy Goldman, and that’s all in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They have a long roster after that. THE GROUNDLINGS was a feeding station for SNL (and probably still is). 

Many of these performers moved around and were in multiple groups. Although I was never in THE GROUNDLINGS I worked with just about everybody I listed. Same with FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK and WAR BABIES.

For awhile I was in a performing group called THE SUNDAY FUNNIES, featuring a lot of the names I already listed.  There were times there were more people on stage than in the audience.  I think we lasted six months.  

Around St. Patrick’s Day, Tom Tully always had a party at his apartment and EVERY improv performer in town would attend. We were just packed in. You can imagine the laughs. And amount of alcohol consumed. It’s the only time I didn’t mind being in a room where fifty people were funnier than me.

The ‘70s was a golden age for comedy in Los Angeles. That’s just the improv scene.

There was also the stand-up world. I lived near the Comedy Store on Sunset in the mid-70’s and it was not unusual on a Tuesday night to just pop in, grab a drink for a few bucks, and see Richard Pryor, who would appear unannounced to just try out material. A typical Saturday night line-up might include David Letterman, Jay Leno, Al Franken & Tom Davis, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman, and Crazy Charlie Fleisher (among many others) all on the same bill.

For TV we had ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAUDE, RHODA, and THE ODD COUPLE. Starting mid-‘70s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE exploded onto the scene, followed shortly by SCTV.

For movies we had Woody Allen (when he was still trying to be funny) and Mel Brooks.

And for radio, LA was blessed with Lohman & Barkley, Robert W. Morgan, Hudson & Landry, Gary Owens, the aforementioned CREDIBILITY GAP, and Sweet Dick Whittington.  

Fortunately, I didn’t take all the drugs they do on VINYL so I was able to appreciate it all at the time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

HAIL, CASEAR!: My review

I used to love the Coen Brothers. Their films were always entertaining and highly original. BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, THE BIG LEBOWSKI were great movies (in my opinion). FARGO was an absolute masterpiece.

And even when they didn’t hit the bullseye, there was usually something redeemable about their movies. I had no idea what was in the box in BARTON FINK (and neither did they according to one of the actors), but there were some great scenes and performances. THE HUDSUCKER PROXY was a noble attempt at doing a fast-talking screwball comedy. And NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MAN was fascinating when I wasn’t confused.

Every so often there would be a real dud, but I could forgive the bros because at least they took chances.

But lately, it’s been one dud after another. A SERIOUS MAN was a wisdom tooth extraction. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. And now comes HAIL, CASESAR!

In fairness, it’s not as bad as those other two, and it has some funny moments, but by and large it’s just a giant mess.

And I’m done.

I’ve wasted the last two hours sitting through indulgent crap and suffering through horrible storytelling by two filmmakers who know better but don’t give a shit. Their films are now just pointless exercises designed to amuse themselves and maybe their Hollywood friends.

HAIL, CAESAR! is the first kidnapping movie with absolutely no suspense. There are some amusing send-ups of 1950’s movies, but even those are belabored. And for some reason they make George Clooney mug like crazy thus transforming him from a charming romantic comedy lead into a member of the HEE HAW cast.

I’m sure all the actors were having yucks-a-plenty making this movie. And the Coen Brothers probably had a blast recreating all these beloved cinema tropes from the ‘50s. I’m sure Spielberg howled at his private screening. The Hollywood old guard would have laughed at every reference if they weren’t dead for the last twenty years. But for us, the lowly audience (that pays $15 or $20 a ticket) it felt like watching a party you weren’t invited to; and in fact – were banned from.

And it makes me angry because the sense I get is that the Coen Brothers don’t care. Satisfying paying customers is no longer a priority. They don’t care that their stories all now have a beginning and then nothing followed by nothing followed by more nothing. They’re not making the movies for you, they’re making them for themselves. They’re not saying, “How can we make better films?” They’re saying, “What genre could we do next that might amuse us during filming?”

Critics of course still fawn all over them, mistaking indulgence for depth. But I think it’s very telling that HAIL, CAESAR! on Rotten Tomatoes received an 81% approval rating from critics and a 46% approval rating from audiences. The Emperor has no toga.

There’s always the chance that their next movie will be another FARGO. At their best there’s nobody better. You’ll let me know, won’t you? In the meantime, I’ll be using their next screener as a coaster.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Readings and writing

I’m currently in the process of rewriting my new play. I am a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Playwright Unit and once a week we get together and share each others work-in-progress. We get actors to come and do an informal reading (above is my cast), and by “informal” I mean no rehearsal, sitting on card chairs in a living room, performing for an audience of 15-20. We’re not allowed to have a helicopter land on the stage.

But it’s an invaluable tool. Hearing it aloud for the first time, even under less than ideal circumstances, can really give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, in this case, I got feedback from peers I respect.

That’s the good part. The bad part is when stuff sucks and you want to crawl into a hole or buy everyone a car. But that’s part of the process. There’s a reason even the best comedy playwrights like Neil Simon have readings, workshops, out-of-town tryouts, and previews before “opening night.” And even then – you sometimes find yourself changing a line or two during the show’s run. When I did my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre I went back after the show had closed and did another pass. The new production in April at the Village Theatre in Hatboro will be the beneficiary.

The key is not to get down on yourself. Accept that it is indeed a process. Again, using A OR B? as an example, I re-ordered and re-structured several key scenes in the last act. When did I have my “aha moment?” In the middle of previews.

I had watched rehearsals for a month along with a week of previews. In rehearsals the original scenes seemed fine. But then seeing the whole piece on its feet and reading the audience’s reaction, the last act just felt off. I wrestled with possible solutions for several days until the answer popped into my head.

When we made the changes and they worked I was delighted and relieved. And there was also a little voice in my head that said, “It took you five weeks? You’re this hotshot Emmy winner and you couldn’t see this problem two weeks ago? Or six months ago when you wrote it?” The answer is: no, I couldn’t see it. Thank goodness I saw it when I did.

So now I’m rewriting my play. I took a few days to digest the notes, select the ones I felt were helpful, come up with solutions to the problems I felt needed to be addressed, draw up a game plan, and roll up my sleeves.

At least for me, there’s something invigorating about starting a rewrite when you know you’ve got the tools to make the script better.

And my favorite part: making cuts. Jokes I thought were so brilliant three weeks ago – I can’t wait to highlight and delete. Especially for a comedy, you could have a page with six jokes that get laughs. But if you take out the three that got meh laughs and just kept the three that really worked, the scene will be much funnier. Putting solid laughs closer together heightens the comedy of the whole scene. The trouble is (and the reason you need the reading) is that it’s hard to tell which of the six jokes are the winners. Could be three, could be five; could be none.

The other thing I do, if I’m being honest, is over-write the first forty pages. I’m learning the characters, getting comfortable with them, but ultimately I don’t need as much explaining. In this case I took out four pages from the first forty. Some good stuff, but just not necessary and it slowed the piece down. 

As the expression goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies. Don’t be afraid to cut things, even things you love. Always think of the big picture. Does this conversation go on too long? Is this joke funny but too jarring or slightly out-of-character? Are there too many callbacks? Does this joke hurt your emotional moment? Is this a good joke but takes too long to tell? Do you need to lose four pages? Do you want to get to someone’s entrance sooner? Is this joke a holdover from a previous draft? There’s another expression (this one from Broadway): Cut twenty minutes and the show will run two years longer.

If you have a script (screenplay, teleplay, stage play), I recommend you arrange for a reading. Gather some actor friends, or any friends. Invite a few people to provide feedback (and maybe some laughs if it’s a comedy) and have your cast either sit on chairs or around a dining room table. You’ll see things good and bad that you never expected. And you wrote it to be performed, so treat yourself. All it will cost you is maybe your ego, and you should probably feed these people. At least provide water. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Hire the villain

It's pilot casting season!  Looking to cast an actor who can play comedy? Hire a villain.

It’s been my experience that actors who can play interesting compelling bad guys generally can also get laughs. Not sure why. Maybe they just have to work harder to take an unlikable or clichéd character and breathe some fresh new life into them. I dunno. This is my own half-baked theory based on nothing but my own observations.

Ed Asner always played thugs and evil doers, and look how great he was as Lou Grant on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

Nick Colasanto was a mob guy in RAGING BULL before becoming the Coach on CHEERS. He shot a lot of gunsels in his early acting days.

How many scary dudes did Anthony Anderson portray before spreading mirth in BLACKISH?

Gene Hackman: Oscar winning bad guy in UNFORGIVEN, very amusing bad guy as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (the good one with Christopher Reeve; not the last dreadful dirge).

The late Alan Rickman was a spectacular villain in DIE HARD. I saw him on Broadway doing PRIVATE LIVES and he killed. He got laughs from straight lines.

Christoph Waltz was both terrifying and hilarious in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

When I first saw ROBOCOP, which at the time (1987) was a little underground hit, I was entranced by an actor I had never seen before – Kurtwood Smith. He played Clarence and was so deliciously evil I made a vow that someday I wanted to work with him.

Sure enough, six years later we were casting BIG WAVE DAVE’S for CBS and needed an ex-pat who was mysterious, larger-than-life, and funny. We asked for Kurtwood Smith. The network was a little hesitant because he primarily was known for drama. He had also played the strict father in DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY by that point. But no one could deny he scored in his reading and he got the part. I was thrilled.

And he exceeded our wildest expectations. Unfortunately, our show was short-lived, but Kurtwood went on to play the dad in THAT 70s SHOW.

So I tip my cap to the screen villains. Sure you murder and destroy lives and property. Sure, if you had your way you’d rule the world after blowing half of it up. But all is forgiven if you can get solid laughs. And many of you do. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

It's James Burrows Night on NBC

Tonight NBC is running a two-hour salute to sitcom director, James Burrows, featuring reunions from some of the greatest casts of television (CHEERS, TAXI, FRIENDS, WILL & GRACE, FRASIER, TWO AND HALF MEN, etc.).  Jimmy directed the pilot and multiple episodes of all these classic series.  Recently he directed his 1000th episode (which is a staggering number). 

You may be wondering -- so who is this guy and what makes him so special?  A reader essentially asked me that very question six years ago.  I thought with this being the night he's saluted on NBC, I'd re-post my thoughts on why Jimmy Burrows is the all-time best at what he does. 

This week’s query comes from Stephen.

What is it about James Burrows that makes him such a popular director? Obviously at this point he has a great track-record with directing popular shows but in your experience of working with him, what makes him *so* good?

In baseball we talk about a “5 tool player”. That’s a player who can do it all (hit for average, hit for power, great speed, great defense, great arm). We’re talking Willie Mays here, and as you can imagine, there are very few.

James Burrows is the Willie Mays of directing. If a multi-camera director is proficient in two of the facets I’m about to list he’s considered a good director. Jimmy is the best at all of them.

Primary of course, is his ability to work with actors. Jim speaks their language, he understands their needs and concerns. He also realizes that each actor has his own process and timetable for getting to where he needs to be. Jim works with them individually and establishes the optimum creative environment. Bottom line: actors trust Jim Burrows. And he always justifies that trust.

He also “adds” things to the production. He has a keen sense of what’s funny (his father was the great Abe Burrows so it must be in his DNA) and he’s not afraid to add to some physical business or find little ways to improve any scene he directs. Most directors are traffic cops.

Jimmy appreciates the importance of story and the script. After runthroughs he goes back to the writers room and is involved in the rewrite discussions. I can still hear Jimmy in my head saying, “This is weeeeeird.” He knows dramatic structure and is a great help in shaping the script. Quite a few directors come from a technical background, not dramatic, and are intimidated by the writers. They feel very uneasy coming back to the room. Not Jimmy.

As for technical aspects, Jimmy is a marvel. No one camera blocks a show faster. I sit at the quad-split and carefully instruct each camera operator. I’ve spent the weekend preparing my shot list. Jimmy does it on the fly… without even LOOKING at monitors. Even complicated scenes (say a big wedding) he knows just what he needs and gets it. His shows always edit together perfectly. You never say “Geez, why don’t we have a two-shot here?” when Jimmy is directing. He knows the jokes and knows how they will best play on camera. And just as he adds business to the performances, he finds interesting creative shots. Watch the first year of CHEERS. You’ll see fabulous shots looking down hallways or shot from unusual angles. He really sold the bar as a character.

Most directors take all day to camera block a show. He can do it in about 90 minutes.

Like all good directors, he pays great attention to the details. Wardrobe, props – nothing escapes his eagle eye.

And then there’s show night. Hopefully you’ll be in the audience of a Jim Burrows show one time. He’s a trip. As the scene is playing he’s gently pushing cameras over to get better shots. He never watches the monitors. He paces the floor and doesn’t even watch the show. He LISTENS to it – listens for the flow, the pace, the delivery.

Of the many things I’ve learned from Jimmy, these two stand out. I once asked him about certain camera angles and he said if the story is right you can place one camera in front of the stage, shoot a wide master for the whole show and it’ll work. But if the story is wrong than all the technical wizardry in the world isn’t going to save it.

Second, I can usually tell a Jim Burrows’ directed show just by watching it. How? A lot of the camera angles aren’t perfect. In some cases there are shots that look downright sloppy. But Jim understands that performance and energy are more important than precision. So if an actor doesn’t exactly hit his mark, so what? The payoff is that the scenes have more energy and the actors seem looser, more natural… funnier.

There’s no one in his league. And just imagine how many more home runs and more MVP awards Willie Mays would have had had he been able to play for 35 years. Say hey, Jimmy!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Remembering Dave Niehaus 1935-2010

Yesterday would have been Dave Niehaus' 81st birthday. He passed away in November of 2010. Northwest residents knew him as the beloved voice of the Mariners.  I still miss him a lot.  So on this occasion of his birthday (and with spring training underway) I thought I would re-post the tribute I wrote when he passed.   Dave, we still miss you.
The best way for a baseball announcer to endear himself to a new audience is to be with a winning team. You report good news every night and the fans will love you. Piece of cake. On the other hand...

When I first became a broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners in 1992, I joined Dave Niehaus, who had been their voice since day one back in 1977. He said to me, “I figured it out, Kenny. For me to get to a .500 record, the team would have to go 2042-0.”

And yet, he became the second most treasured icon in Seattle, right behind Mt. Rainier. 

Can you imagine how many truly bad, ugly games he called over the years? Not a lot of good news to impart there. The Mariners for the first twenty years were just God awful.

Still, people in the Pacific Northwest clung to his every word. The attraction was not the team; it was listening to Dave. His passion for the game, vivid descriptions, and magnificent voice made any baseball game sound exciting, even a Mariners’.

Prior to joining Seattle, Dave worked alongside Dick Enberg calling games for the then-California Angels. Team owner Gene Autry once said to Dave, “You call a hell of a game. It’s not the one I’m watching but it’s a hell of a game.” Actually that’s only half true. It was the game you were watching, only better. Because Dave had something that so few announcers have today – SHOWMANSHIP. You were not just getting play-by-play, you were being told a tale by a master storyteller. Name me a better way of spending a warm summer night sitting out on the front porch.

Dave Niehaus passed away yesterday at age 75. Like all of Seattle, I’m devastated. We didn’t lose an announcer; we all lost a member of the family. Personally, Dave was the greatest broadcast partner I ever had. I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the best, including four Hall-of-Famers. I greatly respect them all and am eternally grateful for their friendship.

But I loved Dave Niehaus.

Summer will never be the same. And neither will Christmas, at least for me. My yearly tradition was to call Dave on Christmas morning. That’s what the holidays are all about, right? Reaching out to the people who mean the most to you, and bitching about the Mariners’ pitching.

There are many tributes to Dave today, along with replays of his classic calls and glowing testimonials. Nice to see that some ballplayers, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner, have already weighed in.

But I’d like to share some off the air memories. No one was more enthusiastic, laughed harder or as often, and looked better in white shoes than Dave Niehaus.

On the 4th of July he always wore this ridiculous red, white, and blue jacket. I tried to get him to wear it all year.

He still would go to movies with me even after I made him sit through Woody Allen’s SHADOWS AND FOG. To this day I still feel guilty about that.

It could be twelve degrees in Cleveland in April and he’d keep the window open in the booth because he felt it was cheating the audience to not be “in the game”. I told him in 1992 this was not good for his health! I was right!

I don’t remember just how it started but whenever the Mariners were down by ten runs or more, Dave and I would sing the “Wabash Cannonball” on the air. Unfortunately, we sang it so often we no longer had to consult the lyric sheet.

He referred to himself as “the Veteran Spieler”.

Three years ago, when I filled in for him, (and that was like Steven Seagall filling in for Brando), he called me after the first inning to say how great it was to hear me again. What made that even more touching was that I was rusty as hell. He called me anyway.

He was a great joke teller. His telling was far better than most of the jokes.

He knew every advance scout, coach, owner, reporter, umpire, official scorer, PR person, PA announcer, organist, clubhouse attendant, pressbox attendant, and commissioner in baseball.

I was forever in awe of the descriptive images he would just routinely toss off. A high pop fly one random night in Baltimore was “a white dot against a black sky”. A ground ball down the line would “rooster tail into the corner”. How did he think of these things?

He knew great restaurants in every town. Some of them have since burned down.

If you worked for the Mariners, he knew your name and your kids' names.

Dave's broadcast booth led the league in laughter every season.

He had several offers to go to other teams in larger markets but always turned them down. He loved Seattle.

On the road he never took the team bus to the ballpark. We always caught an early cab. It could be September, three weeks after the team had been mathematically eliminated, a thousand degrees in Texas with hail and locusts in the forecast, and Dave was at the park four hours before game time doing his prep. Every day. Every game. No exceptions. Ever.

He personally welcomed every new player to the team. In the years I was there, that was probably close to a hundred.

He never refused an autograph, a handshake, picture request, or invitation to emcee a program for a local charity.  

He's still remembered fondly in Los Angeles and he hasn't broadcast there for 45 years.  

No one loved the game or knew the game better than “the Veteran Spieler”.

I was so glad he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year. And I am so sorry he never got to call a World Series game.

Dave will always be remembered in Seattle. If Yankee Stadium was “the House that Ruth Built”, then Safeco Field is the “House that Haus Built”.

He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, broadcaster, mentor, ambassador, Hoosier, military veteran, citizen, and proud to say – Hall of Famer. I will miss him terribly.

Dave Niehaus enjoyed life and made everyone else’s life more enjoyable.

But Dave, your calculations were a little off.  According to me, your record as a Mariner broadcaster was 5,284-0.  That's well above .500.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Questions

And Friday has come along once more. Here are this week’s FQ’s.

David gets us started:

If you where an up and coming writer today what existing show would you choose to spec?

First know this changes every eleven minutes, but for this moment of time I would maybe spec a BROAD CITY, KIMMY SCHMIDT, VEEP, BROOKLYN NINE NINE, and if you want to do a multi-cam I would probably pick MOM.

I think today you have a short shelf life with BIG BANG THEORY, MODERN FAMILY, NEW GIRL, GIRLS, or CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.

I’d also stay away from LOUIE because it has such a personal voice.

And then there’s the question of the shows that are sort of comedies like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, TRANSPARENT. If those fit your sensibility more, do one of them.

Above all, spec the show YOU like the best and feel would best show off your talents. Good luck to all.

Gregg B wonders:

Have you seen the new Louis CK show "Horace and Pete"? It's a throwback to the Playhouse 90 days. And your old pal Alan Alda is excellent in it. Your thoughts on the show and the distribution method?

I have not seen it. I am curious but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’m too busy with VINYL, THE PEOPLE VS. O.J., and catching up on BETTER CALL SAUL. Oh, and I’m behind on SUPERGIRL.

Yes, it’s a fairly new model of delivery. He put up his own money to produce this show. He’s taking all the risk. And I can see where it could be successful. He's charging a reasonable price. BUT, you have to have a big following going in and a lot of money to invest.  Not a lot of creative people can do this. 

So kudos to Louis CK, who I love. I wonder however, how the FX executives feel. They give Louis all this freedom to turn out a show for them and he puts it on hold to just do something else. There’s part of me that thinks he has an obligation to FX first before he goes off and writes, stars, and produces another series. But that may just be old school thinking.

MikeK.Pa. has two FQ’s.

Would you write for an awards show, given your criticism of them?

I would write the Oscars one time to see what that experience was like. I almost did once. It was in the mid ‘90s and Quincy Jones was the producer. He called and asked if my partner, David Isaacs and I would be interested in writing on the show, and we would have jumped at it, but we were running ALMOST PERFECT at the time and there was no way to get away.

Like I said, it would be fun to do…once.

Again this year, I will be reviewing the Oscars.

Are you planning any trips to Pa. for A or B (and if so, when)?

Yes. I will be there April 8th and 9th. It’s at the Village Theatre of Hatboro, Pa. The show is in rehearsals now. I can’t wait. It will be fascinating to see a different take on the play. If you’re going to be in the Philadelphia area, it runs the first three weekends of April. Come see it.

And finally, Tammy wants to know:

Ken, could you talk about what happens after the first draft - is it just a back-and-forth between the writer and the showrunner, or do the other writers, the network etc. give further input? Thanks!

It depends on how the show is run. Usually, either the showrunner will give second draft notes, or collect the thoughts of the other staff members and then give notes.

I imagine there are some shows where the writer gets notes from everyone on staff, but that would seem counter-productive to me. He’d be bombarded with notes, some conflicting.

I understand that in some cases today, networks actually receive first drafts. To me that’s INSANE. As a showrunner, I want the opportunity to work on the script before it’s distributed. I want the ability to change the story, improve the product, and protect the writer. Scripts can change wildly from first to second drafts. At the end of the day, the network and studio should only see a draft once I feel it’s ready. I know – that’s crazy talk.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Warped VINYL

The two-hour premier of HBO’s new mini-series VINYL played like a K-TEL version of Martin Scorsese’s Greatest Hits. You had the New York “I’m walkin’ heah” street gunsels, you had cocaine, you had the ‘70s, a dead body in a trunk, period dress, sleazy Times Square marquees, rich decadent assholes, private jets, champagne, busted knees, and a rock n’ roll soundtrack any lounge lizard with a Plato’s Retreat membership card would be proud to play for a whore he picked up thinking she was a farm girl from Ohio.

The production values were excellent (duh!). All that was missing was Superfly hats, goldfish in platform shoe heels, disco balls, and pet rocks.

If you like the hits of the ‘70s, then this show is for you. Listen to the ‘70s channel on Sirius/XM. What a great time for music. You’ll hear a Led Zeppelin record going into “Sweet and Innocent” by Donny Osmond, followed by “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter then “You’re Having My Baby” by Paul Anka, topped off with “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” and “Aqualung.” 

My problem was there was nothing in the two hours that was new. And hadn’t been done better elsewhere (in many cases by Scorsese himself). There are a lot of drugs in the music industry. Record companies rip off artists. There are wild parties. Rock stars are divas. There’s an ugly side to the record industry. Oh… sorry… SPOILER ALERT.

Somehow BOOGIE NIGHTS managed to give everyone the same leather jackets and sideburns, the same cocaine and exploitation of talent but still turn out a film that was loaded with original characters, fresh ideas, and startling revelations. VINYL was all the scenes they cut from GOODFELLAS, MEAN STREETS, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.  And there's one entire sequence they practically lifted from BOOGIE NIGHTS (and Alfred Molina did it better). 

I’m assuming there was a lot of authenticity. Mick Jagger is one of the executive producers (which probably means he went to two meetings, read an outline, and collected a fortune).   But the entire pilot plot hinges on a complete absurdity.  Andrew Dice Clay is supposed to be an owner of a major chain of radio stations and is banning Bobby Cannavale's record label over some slight.  A) No station would ban an entire record label.  Radio was highly competitive then and a station would be shooting itself in the foot if it didn't play hits, even if they came from the Hitler label.   And B), by 1973 all the top rock stations in the country were owned by large corporations.  The three biggies in LA: KHJ (RKO General), KMET (Metromedia), and KLOS (ABC).   In NY: WABC (ABC), WNEW-FM (Metromedia), WPLJ (ABC). 

I was very excited to see this show. But it’s like a friend telling you there is this amazing steak restaurant, and you can’t wait to go there, and then find out it’s the Sizzler.

On the plus side, Bobby Cannavale is terrific. Andrew Dice Clay is surprisingly convincing as an obnoxious New York asshole, and Ray Romano has turned into a real actor. Not a lot of great women’s parts so far. Olivia Wilde as the wet blanket wife, and Juno Temple as the drug dealing topless sandwich girl.

To be fair, this was only the debut. Maybe future episodes will get better. Maybe they’ll expose a side of the industry I haven’t seen as recently as last week on EMPIRE. Or maybe by week seven we’ll just see a mash-up of the lost scenes from HUGO, THE AVIATOR, and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.

Still, I’m going to hang in there for now (out of respect for Martin Scorsese, Bobby Cannavale, and the decade that brought us string art). But there better be some hits in the next couple of new releases.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Worst writing advice I ever got

Back when David Isaacs and I were trying to break in we discovered a major hurdle was that we didn’t know shit. Neither of us had taken writing courses and we were essentially just floundering. So we decided to take a night class taught by a teacher who claimed he had written for BARNEY MILLER. These were back in the days before IMDB when you blindly just took someone’s word. And to answer your next question – no. He never did. We eventually sold some stories to BARNEY and when we mentioned his name no one on staff knew who he was. We then cornered him. He claimed that he ghostwrote episodes for a writer. No one at BARNEY had ever heard of that writer either.

This “teacher” actually made his money playing poker. Eventually he split town (or was chased out of town -- one of the two). Last I heard he was living in Hawaii as a registered sex offender for exposing himself. This was our writing professor.

The horrible advice he gave was this: He said take the amount you were being paid for a script and divide it by the number of pages in the script. Let’s say for round numbers $500 a page. Then he said after we had written each page we were to ask ourselves, “Is this page really worth $500?”

AAAAAAA!!!

All that accomplishes is putting extra needless pressure on youself. The worst thing you can do is make sure every single line is perfect before going on to the next line. The end result will be a safe stilted script and you’ll have an ulcer.

It’s the absolute opposite of what you should be doing. You should be freeing yourself, allowing your imagination to run free. Follow an outline, but give yourself permission to try things. If they don’t work, delete them. Sometimes a direction won’t work but there will be some jokes along the way that do. Or the wrong direction leads you to the right direction that you never would have found if you were just painstakingly crafting every word of every line.

Think of the big picture. Does the story work? Are there fun moments and scenes? Sometimes it takes a page or two to set up a big laugh or payoff. So is one page worth $100 and the other worth $900? It’s craziness.

Similar idiotic advice is there must be a certain number of jokes per page. If you have instructors who tell you this, run. His future in the industry might be living in a cave in Kona with a police record.

Don’t think of money when you’re writing. Think of having fun and being creative when you’re writing. The money will come.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Meet Pete Myers a.k.a. Mad Daddy

The early days of Top 40 radio produced some real characters.  Some pioneers became legendary like Wolfman Jack and Alan Freed.  But a few others never got the recognition they deserved.    At the top of my list is Pete Myers.  Talk about a Jekyll & Hyde.  Myers, who studied acting at the London Royal Academy and had an IQ of 175 (Einstein's was 160) drifted into Top 40 during the dawn of rock n' roll in the late '50s.  He created this bizarre persona, Mad Daddy, complete with echo, bubbling cauldrons, maniacal laughter, and he spoke exclusively in rhyme.  Sprinkled liberally with hep cat nonsense jargon, Pete Myers would spew these rhymes right off the top of his head.  And he would do his show in a darkened studio while wearing a Dracula cape. 

Mad Daddy was an absolute sensation in Cleveland.  Then in 1959 the big time called.  WNEW in New York.  Pete left for Gotham.  The only trouble was WNEW was a middle-of-the-road station, playing Frank Sinatra and Doris Day records.  Pete convinced them to let him do his Mad Daddy character at night, arguing it would broaden the station's audience.  They gave the okay, he did one show, and the complaints and uproar from the regular listeners was deafening.   They almost burned down the station.  The Mad Daddy experiment lasted all of one night.

So he became Pete Myers, a relaxed polished disc jockey who played Frank Sinatra records and didn't wear a cape.  The two presentations could not be more different.    

Everything about Pete Myers was bizarre.  Who gets their picture on a book of matches?

A few years later a Top 40 station in New York, WINS hired him away and Mad Daddy returned for two years (until the station went all news).  He was welcomed back at WNEW and once again he was "lovable laughable" Pete Myers.

I thought today I would play you samples of both and you can see for yourself what an unbelievable contrast in styles these two acts were.  First up, Mad Daddy.  This is from WINS in 1963.  Get ready for a TOTALLY unique act.  (Note: The music on both airchecks is cut out.)   That's followed by Pete Myers on WNEW in 1961.  To give you some context, this was around the time of MAD MEN in the early '60s.  Don Draper was still wearing hats.  (My thanks to Rob Frankel for providing the WNEW segment.) 





Crazy, no? Unfortunately, Pete Myers took his own life in 1968. It's a macabre tragic story, but for those of us radio geeks, there will always be a place in our hearts for Pete Myers.    RIP Mad Daddy. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

My non-review of THE REVENANT

There will not be a review of THE REVENANT on this blog because, well… I have no desire to ever see THE REVENANT. It may win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Leo may win an Oscar. The guy who lit the sky and whoever did make-up on the bear might win statutes too.

No thanks.  

Delighted moviegoers are applauding and vomiting. It’s making money at the boxoffice. I’m sure there’s been a rush on First Aid kits.

But I don’t want to see five minutes of it. From what I hear the cinematography is stunning, the performances are riveting, and it’s a real celebration of man’s strength and courage.

Pass.

Who wants to see someone buried alive (other than certain presidential candidates), a brutal rape scene, bear mauling, eating disemboweled animals – that’s entertainment?

THE REVENANT may just be the worst date movie ever.

I’m sure the popularity of this film breaks down along gender lines. I guarantee they are fewer women in a sold out performance than an Andrew Dice Clay concert.

Some guys watch it and project themselves into the picture. What would THEY do were they in that situation? That’s not a problem for me. I don’t go anywhere that doesn’t offer turn-down service. Me in the wilderness with bears? There’s a better chance that Sarah Palin will pass the bar exam.

I’m just not into survival flicks. James Franco eating his hand or whatever. Robert Redford clinging to a piece of driftwood in the ocean for six years. Tom Hanks giving up Helen Hunt for a volleyball. I like outdoor movies where the hero rents a cabana. This is not just a “guy movie” – it’s “the other guy movie.”

But here’s what I really think: Lots of dudes who say they saw and loved THE REVENANT didn’t see it all. But they’re way too macho to admit that. Not me. I’m man enough to say “Eeeeeeuuuwwwww.”

From what I hear about this film and how rugged the filming was, the real message here might be there is nothing the human spirit can’t overcome and accomplish despite horrendous odds and utter hopelessness. But then comes that unimaginable moment of triumph, pride, and perseverance… when Leo DiCaprio finally wins his Oscar.

I'll still pass. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Thanks for liking me on my birthday

Happy Valentine’s Day.

As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s also my birthday. I’m getting closer and closer to 40.

But having your birthday on Valentine’s Day has its drawbacks. You can’t go out to dinner because everyone is going out to dinner. And restaurants jack up the prices. Or they have special menus AND jack up the prices. Four course gourmet dinner at Applebee’s, that sort of thing.

And you share your birthday with a holiday. I remember in the second grade when we had to give out Valentines to everyone in class, I didn’t get one from Charlene Uranga. Not only did it bum me out because I had a big crush on her, but it’s distressing when the pattern for your love life becomes quite apparent at six.

So I’ve never really loved my birthday. A few years ago I went to a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWUIMSUIT party and one of the chefs came down with Hepatitis. So we all had to get emergency immune globulin shots from a needle they use on horses.

And then there was this happy celebration one year.

But now, thanks to social media, my spirits have been lifted. Like (I’m assuming) most people on Facebook, I’ve been receiving lovely birthday greetings from friends and family members far and wide. Even people I don’t know are wishing me Happy Birthday.

One year I wrote back individual notes. That ate up 90% of my birthday. Now I just write one status update thanking everyone who remembered me on this anniversary of the day a bunch of Al Capone’s gangsters mowed down other gangsters in a Chicago garage.

But I sort of feel guilty because I don’t check Facebook every day and as a result very rarely reciprocate when someone wishes me a Happy Birthday. I know it's horrible, but it’s nothing personal. I love each and every one of you and wish you all the happiest of birthdays, but Jesus, you people have birthdays EVERY SINGLE DAY. This would be so much easier if, like racehorses, everyone just aged another year on January 1st.

So again, to all of you – thank you and Happy Birthday either in advance or belatedly. And I mean that.

And I already wished you a Happy Valentine’s Day. Charlene Uranga, if you’re out there, it’s not too late.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some Valentine's Day suggestions

I find it interesting that arguably the most romantic movie of all-time is about a married woman who has an affair and is ready to dump her husband. The movie is CASABLANCA.

Guys always dread Valentine’s Day because it comes with a huge heap of obligation. You have to buy her a present, you have to take her out to an expensive dinner. There’s a lot of just going-through-the-motions. And any true sentiment gets buried in a price fixed menu.

Might I make a suggestion?

Another way to show genuine affection is to make her laugh. Is there something you can do to celebrate Valentine’s Day that’s fun? Any place you can go that’s a little off-beat and silly? Any way you could let your hair down and do something a bit crazy and out of character? Think of those great old romcoms – guys are always doing slightly embarrassing things to win the hearts of their Audrey Hepburns. Often they wind up fully dressed falling into pools or getting arrested for serenading in a library but the thought is there. Spontaneity can be romantic, too. Is there an Improv show you could take her to?  Goofy motel shaped like a wigwam you can stay for the night?   Drinks on the roof of a police station? A home cooked dinner then watching VOLUNTEERS on TV (that's if you REALLY want to pull out all the stops)?

When I was a teenager and wanted to really make an impression I did not take my dates to expensive restaurants. First off, I couldn’t afford them, and secondly this made more of an impact. Eckberg’s Steakhouse. This is a small excerpt from my memoir, THE ME GENERATION: GROWING UP IN THE '60s (which would make a PERFECT Valentine's Day gift that you can order here):

I took Helen to Eckberg’s Steakhouse. This was maybe my favorite restaurant in the world. It was in an actual house, on a side street off Ventura Blvd. in Woodland Hills. The living room had been converted to a dining room large enough for maybe six or seven tables. You could see into the kitchen where the stork-like Mr. Eckberg cooked the steaks. His dowdy wife was the waitress. All she would ever say was “ice box rolls” when she put a basket of them on your table.

They were both in their 70s, although who knows? They could have easily been in their 90s. They lived upstairs. Mr. Eckberg was a force of nature. He took your order, he cooked your steak, and all the while, cackled like an insane person. If a customer put a nickel into an old juke box, the song “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover” would play. Mr. Eckberg would turn it up full blast and begin to dance and sing at the top of his lungs, all the while ringing dozens of bells. Helen thought this was a riot.

Mr. Eckberg would only take cash, and when you paid at his antique register he would chortle, “Money, money, money!” ring a few bells, and make you kiss a rubber chicken.

See if there’s an “Eckberg’s” somewhere in your town.

For girls, wanting to please their guys on Valentine’s Day, it’s much easier and requires much less thought. Just give them sex.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Questions

Friday Questions anybody? Oh, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln.

Cathal O'Brien leads off:

On Frasier you and David Isaacs were listed as Creative Consultants. What exactly did that mean? Where you in the Frasier offices every day or just reachable at the end of the phone? Did you read over all the scripts and offer input or rewrite?

Am just curious what that title meant compared to the other titles staff had such as producers etc.

The title can mean different things. In our case, it meant that once a week we worked on the show as script doctors. We would go to the afternoon runthrough and come back to the writers’ room and stay for the rewrite that night. Usually this was the first day the script was on its feet and thus needed the most work.

But anytime there is a part-time position, the writer is usually assigned some sort of “consultant” title. In some cases a writer lives outside of LA and is sent scripts. He then suggests jokes and changes and sends it back. In others, a writer may work two days a week, or work the table reading day instead of rewrite night.

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of these gigs. Shows are tightening their budgets and consultants are deemed a luxury. It’s unfortunate because “consultants” offer two very valuable things: They contribute great jokes (the good ones do), and they offer a virgin perspective to the material. Is a story point confusing? Are they over-explaining something? Writing staffs can easily get too close to the material. It helps to have fresh eyes take a look.

I was fortunate enough to work with three of the very best – David Lloyd, Jerry Belson, and the incomparable Bob Ellison.

From Dene:

My question is: as TV episodes are usually made one after another without a break, how does that work with regards to the lead actor sometimes directing? Don't they need prep time?

When, for instance, Alan Alda directed M*A*S*H, which he did often, did he work his prep around acting in the previous ep, or would there maybe have been a production break of some kind beforehand so that he could prepare for directing?

We had very few hiatus weeks on MASH (usually three or four the whole season). We would try to schedule Alan’s directing assignments as the first show after a hiatus so he’d have the break to prepare. But there were times he had to prep while acting in the previous episode.

What made it a little easier was that he knew the location and tone of the show. And often he directed episodes that he also wrote so he had a pretty good idea going in just how he wanted to shoot it.

Michael wonders:

Besides your daughter Annie and her partner, are there any writers that you helped mentor that have become successful comedy writers?

Yes. Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, Robin Schiff, Boyce Bugliari & Jamie McLaughlin, Tom Straw. I’m sure there are others that I can’t remember. And I’m sure there are young writers who I mentored that didn’t realize I had mentored them.

On the directing side, I taught Jerry Zaks camera-blocking. I guess that counts.

DrBOP asks:

Have you ever been tempted to call, or have you called any basketball games? Do you have any favorite basketball announcers ; and/or any Vin Scully level b-ball broadcasters?

Yes. When I was learning how to announce baseball I would also go to the stands of basketball games with a tape recorder and call those for practice. I would go to Clipper games, and back in the ‘80s I had entire sections all to myself.  That was sweet.  Not so easy to isolate myself across town at Laker games with Magic and Kareem and "showtime" happening every night. 

The only time I ever called a basketball game on the air was when I filled in one night on a Golden States Warriors game on KNBR radio, San Francisco.

As for favorite announcers: My all-time favorites are Chick Hearn of the Lakers and Bill King of the Warriors. Honorable mention to Marv Albert.

Today, for TV I like Ian Eagle, Gus Johnson (you either love him or hate him; I love him), Mike Tirico, Kevin Calabro, and Mike Breen.

Dan Hoard does a great job calling University of Cincinnati basketball.  On a national level:  Dave Sims, John Sadak, Kevin Calabro, Ted Leitner, Dave Fleming, and Tom McCarthy. 

And my current favorite is Sean Grande, the radio voice of the Boston Celtics. I think he is absolutely phenomenal. While everyone else is just calling the play-by-play, he’s also weaving in strategy, pop culture references, on-going discussions with his terrific partner Cedric Maxwell, statistics, NBA history, descriptions of everything going on in the building, opinions, overviews, and insights. And his play-by-play calls are crisp, visual, and exciting. He has great command of the game and language. I’d rather listen to Sean Grande than watch the game on TV.

What’s your Friday Question? Don’t get all crazy tonight celebrating Abe’s B-Day.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bonus questions

One of my resolutions every year is to answer more Friday Questions. So I’m going to sneak in a bonus day of them.  I'm really on top of this resolution -- it being February and all.

Charles H. Bryan starts us off:

Ken, for the holiday season and because it's free with Amazon Prime, I just downloaded the first season of The Twilight Zone. All 39 episodes. My Friday Question is: How the hell did they make 39 episodes of a show in one year? Doesn't that just seem insane by today's standards? Sure, one could argue that a lot of those shows back then weren't that good, but this is also the time of some classics (e.g., I LOVE LUCY - 35 eps its first season, PHIL SILVERS - avg 35 eps/4 seasons). This was well before the widespread industry-mandated use of cocaine. How did they do it? Just coffee? Really strong coffee?

And it’s worse. Writing staffs were very small back then. Usually no more than four and often fewer. I want to check myself into a hospital just thinking about it.  

The hard part of course, was coming up with stories. 22 is a bitch, much less 39. Call the ambulance.

The difference is -- especially on multi-camera shows -- they didn’t rewrite nearly as much as we did in later years. Starting in the ‘70s there was extensive rewriting that went on in multi-cam shows. After every day’s rehearsal the staff would go back and continue to tinker with the script. Not so when they were cranking out 39. After maybe a rewrite following the table reading, the script was pretty much locked.

When we made MASH, we produced 25 episodes in six months. Today, single-camera shows take eight or nine months to churn out that many. The key for us was preparation. We spent months in pre-production preparing scripts because we knew that once the actors arrived and cameras started rolling, things got insane.

Still, I can’t imagine having to come up with 39 stories a season. If you look back at THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, truly a television classic, you’ll see that in the last season they pretty much redid a few episodes from the first season. Things got that bad.

You had to be incredibly prolific. But I think even Aaron Sorkin would have trouble cranking out 39 episodes a year. Seriously, I’m calling 911.

Kensi Blonde asks:

Would you be able to have such a flagrantly promiscuous character like Sam today? And I realize that pregnancy scares are hard to plumb for laughs, but how does he sleep with "four honeys" (just by season 1) and no one gets knocked up?? Ah, sitcom land...

He used protection. And we only had him sleep with women who were on the pill.

But to answer your question, not only could you still have promiscuous men on sitcoms today (Charlie Harper on TWO AND A HALF MEN slept with four honeys a show), you also could have promiscuous women. Amy Schumer has made a career out of playing that character. Not to mention the shenanigans that go on with the sluts in 2 BROKE GIRLS.

I’d also add CALIFORICATION, but the fact that he was a “writer” who got all that action, that was so completely absurd it doesn’t count.

From Liggie:

With the recent conversation on live TV, Ken, I'd like your thoughts on the format of Neil Patrick Harris' recent variety show, "Best Time Ever". When I first heard of him doing variety, I thought it would be a callback to the '70s shows like Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Donny & Marie: rotating guests, comedy sketches with recurring characters, musical numbers, a big-production finale. So I was intrigued that Harris eschewed most of that in favor of games with the studio audience (and home viewers), hidden camera events, celebrities surprising audience members, just one set-piece number per show, and a live format. Is this a good way to maintain the variety genre and leave the classic format in the past? (Just the format of "Best Time Ever"; as opinions on its actual quality are divided, let's save that discussion for another time.)

People don’t want variety. Not anymore. If they want game shows they find game shows. There are “Punked” hidden camera shows. You Tube provides thousands of production numbers from various TV, movie, and Broadway shows.

Audiences have no patience for sitting through something they don’t like knowing something they do might be around the corner. Being all things to all people is unfortunately serving no one.

THE BEST TIME EVER was cancelled by NBC. No new variety series are in development.

And finally, from Rashad Khan:

How do you (and Mr. Isaacs) find the "perfect" writers to join your writing staff? Is there an initial interview -- and if so, what sort of questions do you ask to determine whether he or she would be a good fit for you and your show?

Believe me, it’s an inexact science. We read material first. Then interview them. We don’t have specific questions. We’re really just trying to determine their personality, whether they’d be fun to be stuck in a room with for 90 hours a week, whether their sensibility jibes with ours, questions about their background, etc.

After that we might call a few writers who they worked for and get their assessment. And then, like I said, it’s a crapshoot. We’ve made some inspired choices down through the years and some horrible ones.

For young writers going on these interviews, I recommend you just be yourself. Try to relax as much as you can. Be enthusiastic but don’t try to sell yourself too hard. Just have fun with the meeting. Look, you’re either going to get the job or not. And often when you don’t it’s because of circumstances beyond your control. So don’t put any unnecessary pressure on yourself.

What’s your Friday Question? Maybe I’ll even answer it on a Friday. Thanks.