Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from the Pala Resort, somewhere in the middle of nowhere – site of tonight’s big B100 radio reunion. If you think high school reunions are scary, imagine former disc jockeys from the drug and alcohol era.  I'll be on the radio today from 5-6 PDT.  "Beaver Cleaver" returns.  Anyhoo, here are some Friday Questions:

Bradley is first:

Do you think sitcoms benefit more from the consistency of having a single director or the variety of using multiple directors? When I watch many episodes of, say, Will & Grace or The Big Bang Theory back to back, I start to see very predictable patterns in shot selection and staging. I imagine this is easier (and more efficient) for the actors and gives the audience exactly what they’ve come to expect. Yet when I watch a show that uses many directors, I see episodes from time to time that are shot quite differently from the others. Frasier is a good example of this. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Well, first of all, it depends on the director. If you can get James Burrows or Andy Ackerman or Pam Fryman to direct every episode of your series DO IT. I’m assuming your question relates to sitcoms, and multi-camera in particular. (For single-camera shows directors need a few days of prep time so one director can’t do an entire season.) But for sitcoms…

Showrunners generally prefer to have one director they can rely on. And the cast prefers the consistency.

New directors always require a period of adjustment. It’s like a parade of substitute teachers.

On my first day of one show one of the stars took me aside and said, "So who the fuck are you?" 

Most important for a cast is to trust their director and that can take time.

So unless you have one of the A-Listers like Burrows you need to see which director clicks with the cast and showrunner and that may take four or five candidates to determine. And even once you've found that person, sometimes casts will fall out of love with certain directors.  Time to round up the usual suspects.

Back in the halcyon days when there was a glut of sitcoms, many directors preferred not being chained to one series. They enjoyed the variety of bouncing from show to show. But once the landscape shrunk they grabbed the opportunity to stay with one show. Musical Director Chairs.  So you see more consistency these days.

And yes, at times directors can get complacent and lazy.   But so can the actors.  It's one of the downsides of a long running hit series -- a problem that's really good to have. 

Johnny Walker is up next.

I just noted that "Goodbye Radar" was actually a Season 8 episode, technically after you, David and Gary had left. I assume this is because they were a "holdover" from Season 7. But can you explain: What IS a holdover? Why do they happen? I see that the same thing happened on The Simpsons quite frequently, too. I always imagine TV production as being several scripts behind, not several shows ahead. Could you explain more?

Gary Burghoff was supposed to leave at the end of season seven and David Isaacs and I were going to write the script.

However, CBS convinced Gary to stay on for the first few episodes of season eight and then do his farewell as a two-parter during November sweeps. So David and I agreed to come back and write the twofer, which we did.

With THE SIMPSONS, I can only guess that the long lead time needed for the animation to be completed can cause delays and some episodes slop into the next season.

From Ethan:

Why did you leave Frasier?

My wife and I are watching all of the episodes on Netflix and it jumped out at me that David Isaacs is credited as "creative consultant" without you in seasons 7 and 8 (possibly more?), unlike seasons 1 and 2.

You mean I was actually missed? 

I was freelance directing during that period. Those are the years I directed FRASIER, JUST SHOOT ME, DHARMA & GREG, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, and a bunch of shows that have long since been forgotten.  So I'll pop up on Netflix elsewhere.

Mark P. has a question about my recent trip.

Had you been to Korea before? What do they think of MASH?

No. First time. Most of the locals there are unfamiliar with the show. It’s not aired in Korea. I asked a couple of people and they had no idea what I was talking about.  And yes, they spoke English.

And finally, from Carson:

Why do you think the broadcast networks gave up on made-for-TV movies? It can't be that they were too expensive or unprofitable. Hallmark and Lifetime appear to have struck a gold mine with them.

I suppose they feel for their brand the audience would prefer existing shows and characters they know.   Movies of the Week are a wildcard. Since they feature new premises each week the audience can’t really build.  Networks need that traction.  They can't afford to start each week back at square one.

HALLMARK, LIFETIME, and a few other cable networks have used MOW’s to forge their brands. And the films are getting better. They used to all be Meredith Baxter Birney with the disease of the week.

Got a question?  Leave it in the comments section.  Thanks.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Short attention span blogging

Random stray thoughts.. in no particular order...

Which “Real Housewife” do you wish Robert Durst was married to?

When a ballplayer who has played for several teams goes into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown the big question is always which team’s hat will he wear? For comedy writers the question is which show jacket will he be buried in?

I still love JUSTIFIED but glad they’re wrapping it up. I think one more year and Boyd Crowder will be buying Acme explosives and setting a trap for Raylan Givens by offering “free food for U.S. Marshals.”

NBC scraped its Monica Potter pilot after a bad table reading and runthrough. They claim it “doesn’t live up to potential.” Don’t kid yourself. A network doesn’t pull the plug on a pilot two days into production unless it’s a fucking trainwreck. The pilot was produced by Ellen DeGeneres’ company. Guess it wasn’t as funny as MASH.

There have to be no less than six pilots where empty nest couples learn their kids or parents or grandkids or any combination of same move back in. Wasn’t that idea tired fifteen years ago? And networks wonder why audiences don't embrace their new comedies.

Always great to hear Verne Lunquist call March Madness. Old School is the Best School.

I don't see anyone beating Kentucky including the Lakers.  

The X-FILES is coming back to Fox. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Kathy Griffin has quit FASHION POLICE. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Will Ferrell is expected to make the Houston Astros’ 25 man roster.

HuffPost Headline: Vin Diesel Thinks 'Furious 7' Should Win Best Picture

On his premiere episode Monday night, James Corden and Tom Hanks re-enacted every one of his movies – except VOLUNTEERS.

Lots of ethnic casting this pilot season. Is it because the networks feel they have a moral obligation to promote diversity? Of course not. EMPIRE and BLACK-ISH are hits.

Frank Underwood’s approval rating is higher than Obama’s.

There’s a terrific movie about the studio musicians who backed all the hits in the ‘60s called THE WRECKING CREW. It’s playing in selected cities and available on iTunes. All those great rock songs were really done by 45-year-old former jazz and big band musicians. Check it out.

This year’s Oscarcast was the lowest rated since 2009. So the Board of Governors are in a panic. One solution discussed: going back to only five Best Picture nominees. Yeah, that’s the problem. I think they’re missing the real reason for viewership decline – the podium is a little low.

At what point does the media finally admit that nobody watches GIRLS? Its season four finale drew only 326,000 viewers in the key 18-49 demo. Seriously, for a nationally televised program in the United States that’s embarrassing. It’s not just Lena Dunham who has no clothes.

DANCING WITH THE MARGINAL CELEBRITIES rebounded in week two after its worst season debut. Could this mean the return of Alf?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Save L.A.'s theater scene

A TV writer friend of mine used to be an actor. I once asked why he switched. He said, “Writing I can do myself anytime. But as an actor, to practice my craft I have to be hired.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he’s right. It was never an issue for me because I can’t act my way out of a hard rain.

And then actors have the added hurdle of competition. There are always hundreds of other actors vying for the same few parts. It’s a blessing I’m a terrible actor.

Equity is a union that represents actors in the theater. As a member of the WGA and DGA you know I’m very pro union. Especially in the movie and TV business where major conglomerates are now in control and care only about making huge profits. Unions provide at least a modicum of protection for the little insignificant people who actually make the product.

Likewise, when there are big Broadway productions and theatergoers are paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, the actors deserve their fair share. Leaving it to the goodness of benevolent producers would ensure that these actors would starve. Equity provides a valuable service.

Here in Los Angeles we have two tiers of theaters. Large theaters like the Taper Forum and Pantages, and small theaters of 99 seats or less. There are not that many large theaters in LA. And of those, many feature roadshow productions of big Broadway hits. WICKED was here recently. I’m surprised THE SOUND OF MUSIC isn’t playing. The point is there are not a lot of parts for actors.

A second-tier is the 99-seat theater. These are small neighborhood theaters in the valley, or West Hollywood, or Atwater Village that often are next door to furniture stores or massage parlors. David Isaacs and I once had series of One Acts that were performed at a theater above a pizza parlor in a part of the city that gang members wouldn’t enter.

No one really makes money in these theaters. You’re lucky if you break even. People put a tremendous amount of time and effort into shows that will be seen by a precious few or fewer. Even if you sell out every seat for twenty performances at $20 a ticket you’ll probably still lose money.  We're not talking Time-Warner.

So why do we do it? Because we love the theater. Because we can practice our craft. Because of the camaraderie. For actors, it’s a showcase. And many intimate shows have gone on to bigger venues or even Broadway keeping the original casts. For playwrights, it’s a chance to present your vision without network or studio interference. Trust me, if you’re a writer and you want to make money – you write spec screenplays or TV pilots. You don’t write a play for God sakes!

Up until now there has been an Equity Waiver that has allowed these 99-seat theaters to mount plays without having to pay actors more than car fare. On the other hand, it means more chances to “be hired.” And again, it’s not like everyone is getting rich but them. Viacom does not own 99-seat theaters in NoHo. 

Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative. This isn’t jury duty.

Now Equity wants to eliminate the waiver. There is a referendum that would force these small theaters to pay minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance. You could make the argument that that’s reasonable. And I think we all could agree that no one, actors especially, should be taken advantage of.

But producers claim that those concessions would add so much to the cost of productions that they would not be worth doing. They’re losing money as it is.

So the end result might be this: 99-seat productions go away. Theaters close. And then who benefits? Equity actors are getting minimum wage of nothing. Potential roles will no longer exist. If you’re an Equity actor you better get cast in PIPPIN or you’re out of luck.

To me this is shortsighted. There is the real danger that if this referendum passes it will kill the small theater scene in Los Angeles. Or producers will only seek non-Equity actors. And you might want to be a non-Equity actor in that case because suddenly your competition for parts might go down from 100 to 10.

Actors themselves don't want this.  On Monday a large group of them picketed their own union.  

I’m a playwright so I have a horse in this race. I’d love to have 99-seat theaters as options for mounting one of my plays.   But that's not my only option.

My greater concern is for the actors themselves. Casting directors go to these Equity Waiver Theaters. These productions provide the opportunity to do the thing you love. The theater scene is shrinking already. Even Equity theaters primarily want plays with only two to four actors now. Twenty years ago plays would routinely have eight to ten parts.

Equity actors will get a chance to vote, although I’m told the Board ultimately will decide. So essentially they could ignore the wishes of its membership. The scuttlebutt is that’s what they plan to do. They want to adopt this referendum. Ballots should be received by members today. The only way to get the Board’s attention is to resoundingly vote NO.
I hope this referendum is defeated. And by the way, should the status quo remain and a play of mine gets produced at a local Equity Waiver venue, I’m happy to make just as much (or little) as the actors. After all, it’s the thee-ah-tuh… unless the referendum passes, and then it’s the 7-Eleven.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FRESH OFF THE BOAT -- my review

FRESH OFF THE BOAT just keeps getting better. And how refreshing to find a new sitcom with some genuine laughs.

Created by Nahnatchka Khan, who also pumped some good laughs in DON’T TRUST THE B______ IN APT. 23, FRESH OFF THE BOAT is on ABC (so it’s obviously a family show) and deals with the culture clash of a Chinese family trying to make sense of Orlando, Florida (as if anyone could). It’s based on the memoir by Eddie Huang and set in 1995. So it’s WONDER YEARS, THE GOLDBERGS – a formula ABC is comfortable with – but more deliciously subversive.

I must admit I’m a sucker for Americana. Goofy-themed restaurants, fads, franchises, fashions, slogans – that’s what makes America great. And FRESH OFF THE BOAT explores all that nonsense, but through the unique perspective of foreign eyes. There’s actual social commentary going on here. It is possible to get yucks without crass vagina jokes. Who knew?

Just the fact that the show goes for laughs and doesn’t settle for smiles, low road humor, pop culture rhetoric, or tired irony separates it from the pack.

The pilot had some good moments but with each subsequent episode the series is really finding its stride. The stories are clever and offbeat. Centered primarily around 11-year-old, Eddie, one features his pubescent doofus friends getting all aroused over a sexual harassment video. In another they covet a new Shaquille O’Neal video game and one of the kids’ mother instead buys him a video game based on the Dolly Parton/Jane Fonda feminist workplace comedy, 9 TO 5. And it turns out to be better.

As mentioned, the show is focused on Eddie, played nicely by Hudson Yang but the actress who absolutely steals the show is Constance Wu, who plays his mother, Jessica. She’s a comic revelation. Can play attitude, cluelessness, and physical comedy at just the right pitch and level of dryness so it never looks like she sees the joke coming. No matter how broad or absurd the situation her character never knows she’s in a comedy. She deserves an Emmy nomination although I’m sure the Academy will fill that category with women who are not funny and not even in a comedy.

FRESH OFF THE BOAT airs tonight at 8:00 (for the six people who still actually watch TV shows live and in real time). And you can get access to past episodes on probably forty different streaming sites, On Demand channels, websites, or fish-out-of-water-comedy apps. Nahnatchka Khan is a funny writer, Constance Wu is a funny actress, and FRESH OFF THE BOAT is a funny show getting funnier.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How important are TV titles?

Here's the short answer:  Very.   Especially now when there are so many choices… and so many titles. A good title might not lure viewers but a bad one will surely drive them away.

In addition to whatever other problems it had, SELFIE was a truly terrible title. It just sounded so faux hip and trendy, and frankly “so five minutes ago.” Shows with negative connotations fight a real uphill battle. COUGAR TOWN just screamed “creepy.” Good luck getting women over 40 to watch a show called TROPHY WIFE.

TERRIERS was a good show with a bad title.  No one knew what it meant.  

My current favorite show is THE GOOD WIFE but honestly, that title kept me from watching the show when it debuted. I thought it was going to be a soap opera disguised as a lawyer show. Happily, it’s a classic disguised as a network show.

Some titles can confuse audiences. HAPPY ENDINGS. If you’re a pervert like me that suggests massage parlors and handjobs. Imagine my disappointment when that wasn’t what the show was about. Other more innocent people might have thought HAPPY ENDINGS was another fairy tale show like ONCE UPON A TIME. And since they never did a story where Little Red Riding Hood met urban hipsters those expectations were not met. When you see that a show is named MANHATTAN don’t you sort of think it’s about New York? The Manhattan Project is not your first association. A more appropriate title might be KABOOM. Just a suggestion.

We even had a little trouble with CHEERS at first. Before the show caught on there were those who assumed by the title the series was about high school cheerleaders. Seeing Norm must’ve really befuddled them then.

One of the worst titles in recent years is HALT AND CATCH FIRE. What the fuck does that mean? It just sounds like a random command. FREEZE AND MAKE BLINTZES.

And then there was EXTANT. That was always my fear on becoming a contestant on PASSWORD. The word I would get is “extant” and everyone in America would know I had no idea what that word meant. If your show title could be mistaken for one of those eye-chart sounding arthritis drugs then it’s a bad title.

Or just using initials when they mean nothing to us. GCB. The real title was Good Christian Bitches but ABC was skittish. So they went to initials which told the audience nothing.

Producers sometime go the opposite way though, and make their titles too generic. THE JOB, GO ON, TURN, MOMS AND DADS, and GIRLS are examples. Or just stringing words together to create phrases like FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES. They sound generic even if they’re not.

And then there are titles that sound alike. BAD TEACHER and BAD JUDGE. I guess by putting “Bad” in the title networks think they’re edgy. Along the same lines, another trend I feel has backfired is putting profanity in the title but not saying the words. DON’T TRUST THE B**** IN APT 23 or $#@& MY DAD SAYS. It’s bad enough networks can’t say those words. Why promote that you can’t by using this B**$@% tactic?

Other similar titled shows tend to have city names. CHICAGO P.D., CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO HOPE, CHICAGO CODE. And then there are the R shows. RESURRECTION, REDEMPTION, REVOLUTION, REVENGE, RECKLESS. Really?

A couple of years ago there was a sitcom called PARTNERS that not only had the same title as an earlier series named PARTNERS but also stole the premise. Classy.

Another danger is making your title too long. Yes, you want to stand out but HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS (FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE) is a mouthful. Who’s going to say, “Hey, did you see HOW TO LIVE WITH YOUR PARENTS (FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE) last night?” You’ll never have a water cooler show if it takes the length of the office break just to say the title of the show. And good luck getting that on the back of a show jacket. 

I tend to prefer short titles; one word preferably. SCANDAL is a great title. Simple, eye catching, and intriguing. HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER? also gets your attention although it's a big long. But Shonda Rhimes knows what she’s doing. THE BLACKLIST is another personal favorite. What’s yours?

Titles make a difference. Make yours short, snappy, and to play it safe tack on STAR WARS to the front of it.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The most fun I ever had in radio

Next weekend there will be a 40 year reunion of San Diego radio station, B100.  I can't wait.  Lots of the original staff members will attend, which should be great fun and horrifying.   We're also going back on the air to recreate the station live.  You'll be able to hear it here.  In honor of the event, I'm reposting the following piece:

Here’s another look back at my disc jockey career – when radio was great and I was passable. One thing that the industry was back then was FUN. Not so today certainly. And it’s a shame – both for the talent and the listeners.

Everything was live and local. You were encouraged to show some personality. Most radio markets had two competing stations playing the exact some music. So the only way to really distinguish yourself was in the presentation. Who had the crazier DJ’s? Who had the wildest contests? Who staged the best concerts? Who had the sluttiest girls call the request line? (Oh wait, that was just for the jocks, not the listeners)

You don’t have that competition today when the same company owns both competing stations (and seven others in the market) and to save money, one guy voice-tracks shows for all of them, they air some syndicated service out of Saugus, California, and the slutty girls are just emailing rock bands.

But the 70s were sweet. The pay was crap, there was zero job security, you had to play “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” six times a night, you usually needed a penicillin shot, and half your annual salary was lost to apartment security deposits because you skipped town so often – but we made up for it in fun.

And if I had to select the single MOST fun experience it would be the launch of KFMB-FM (B100) in March 1975.

Bobby Rich was hired to create an exciting FM Top 40 station for San Diego. SD was a tough market. There already was a juggernaut AM station – KCBQ, and FM rock had already failed once before with KSEA (a station I was on and helped kill).

But Bobby was a showman. He understood that you hire really talented people, give them all the support elements they need to succeed, and then just let them do their thing. The result was a cooking radio station that sounded like pure adrenaline mixed with laughing gas.

And to set the tone right off the bat, Bobby devised the B100 Hours to kick off the format. Here’s Bobby himself, explaining the concept:

Getting the station started I was looking for ways to promote the "100" with slogans, contests and other image branding. So having a 100 hour "Boogie-a-thon" with no commercials and giving away "B-100 Dollar Bills" every 100 minutes just worked.

The real magic came when we started bringing in guest dj's from all over the country for the party. It was a reunion of something that hadn't even happened yet. All of our talent was encouraged to invite jock buddies (like you did with Billy Pearl) who would want to "play radio" with our gang of wacko and wild Boogiemasters.

Oh, doing the math it turns out that is FOUR DAYS and FOUR HOURS. So that required much complicated back timing. To say nothing of the jocks being required to start each hour with the countup "and this is hour 78 of 100 hours of Better Boogie", etc.

Tapes of that insane weekend went viral in the radio industry. I still encounter people who say they have airchecks of me and Billy Pearl (at the time a jock for KHJ Los Angeles) on the air together, doing a limerick competition while we kept re-starting the record over and over.

You never knew who was going to be on the air at any hour, and often disc jockeys were paired off. I got to do an hour with the legendary Chuck Browning – maybe the most caustic human being that ever lived. Great jocks from all over the country would come in, sit down, and just blast. One or two were even sober.

The line-up was crazy. I was there all weekend. I’d work 8-9 PM, then come back and do 4-5 AM, 11-noon, 7-8 PM, etc. No one got any sleep.

I recall doing a morning show with Rich Brother Robbin, and at the time there was a syndicated program going around that basically was a fantasy Woodstock. All these live performances from various albums were woven together as if this amazing rock festival actually took place. We did a mock version. Doing my Ed Sullivan impression, we hosted the Concert for Rock n’ Roll Heaven and played all these dead artists. What we lacked in taste we made up for in audacity.

The launch was a huge success. The entire town was talking about it. And within months B100 dethroned longtime stalwart, KCBQ.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Wolfgang Putz?

Okay, is it just me or does this luck like Wolfgang Putz instead of Wolfgang Puck?

Writers' torture: Waiting for your script to be read

For a writer it never gets easier.


You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

This was a re-post from 84 years ago.