Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Red Carpet Stupid Question of All-Time

From TNT's Red Carpet arrival show for the SAG Awards. TNT correspondent/idiot Danielle Demsky interviewing Rashida Jones -- daughter of Peggy Lipton & Quincy Jones. Listen to what this airhead asks Rashida. Great job, TNT.

My day at the DMV

Is there anything worse than having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles? It combines all your favorite activities – dealing with bureaucracy, taking tests, waiting endlessly, and paying money.

My driver’s license was up for renewal. In the past they’ve let me do that online. Not this time. I guess they figure my picture is so old it looks more like my son than me.

Every time I go to the DMV I can expect confusion, crowds, and the wrong forms. I can also expect it’ll take the entire day.

Now in California they let you make appointments, which is great… except you have to make them months in advance. My license is up in a few weeks. The first appointment I could make was for early March. So that option is gone.

At this point it becomes a challenge to see if I can beat the system.

The first question is which DMV to target? Are any less crowded? Are any more efficient? Which has the fewest number of crack heads sitting in your row? For the answer to that I went to check Google reviews of the various Westside DMV’s. These proved to be no help. Culver City, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood all seemed to get the same mixed reviews. Half the people thought they were fine, the other half thought they were Guantanamo. Some said they waited for four hours. A few said they were in and out in five minutes? Unless the DMV was open during Monday's East Coast blizzard I can’t imagine how that could be possible. If Obama showed up to renew his license it would still take forty-five minutes because the computers would be out.

I decided on Santa Monica. I just figured I’d be mingling with a higher class of crack heads and gang members.

Next question: When is the best time to go if you don’t have an appointment? If you wander in at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon you’re a blithering idiot. You’ll be there longer than it took to film BOYHOOD.

One reviewer said to show up at the very end of the day. If they close at 5:00 and you get there at 4:30 it’ll be clear sailing. He may be right, but it’s a schlep to get across town. And if he’s wrong then I’ve wasted an entire afternoon for nothing.

The other option is to arrive right when they open at 8:00. Since this seems like a no-brainer I figured I wouldn’t be the only one employing this gambit. So I decided to get there early. Real early. An hour early. There was already a line. I was maybe tenth. The people in front of me must be the same folks who camp out at Best Buy for four days before Black Friday. By 7:30 the line was around the block. This was the longest line in Los Angeles where they weren’t selling iPhones.

At 8:00 they opened the doors and we charged to the START HERE counter. Within seconds the back-and-forth line looked a TSA checkpoint. By force of habit I started taking off my shoes. I was assigned a letter and a number and told to go to the waiting area and wait to be called. In only ten minutes I was called. Sweet, except I had already been waiting an hour.

As expected, there was confusion. I was there two minutes and someone else approached saying they were called for this window. Actually, they had been called but never responded so the clerk moved on. They didn’t understand the system. You have a number. They call your number. How difficult is it to understand that system? But apparently it was. They were sent back to the START WINDOW and I’m sure, never heard from again.

Sure enough, the computer wasn’t working. I asked if this happens often and the clerk said he didn’t know. How long had he been working there I wondered? Several years. So… sitting at the same computer for a several years he didn’t know if the shutdown was a regular thing or an anomaly? Ohhh-kay.   After about ten minutes it slowly returned to life.

Maybe it’s because I was in the army but I’m always nervous when talking to government employees at windows. He’s going to check the wrong box and I’m going to have to repeat Basic Training.

I didn’t have to take any driving tests or written exams, but I did have to take an eye test. There are eye charts placed periodically behind the windows and I was asked to read one (which I did fine). But depending on which window you were at the top line was either 20/30 or 20/80. I would not use this system to determine your prescription.

I had to take a thumbprint of my right thumb. I just placed it on this electronic pad. I had to do it four times. It wasn’t working.  This must be the same company that made the thumbprint software for iPhones. 

Finally, I was given my form and sent to get my photo taken. Here too there was a line, but only three ahead of me. There was a problem with this computer. It took twenty minutes before I reached the front of the line. Seriously, if you arrive at 10:30 you’re at the DMV until Haley’s Comet returns.

I had to take a thumbprint of my left thumb. This electronic pad didn’t work either. Three times was a charm. For the photo I was told to take off my glasses. I always wear my glasses when driving, but whatever.

And that was that. A grand total of 1:45 hours, counting my wait outside the building. I felt like I had won THE AMAZING RACE. For the DMV that was lightening. As for my review, I have to say that all the clerks were very pleasant. It can’t be easy processing all of us nimrods for eight hours a day. Which takes me to this, one of my favorite scenes of all-time. It’s from TAXI. Reverend Jim goes to the DMV to get his license. It was written by Glen & Les Charles. I bet, in real life, these clerks have seen this and worse.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The most bizarre sentence I've ever written

My father is on Pinterest.

I can't think of a sentence I've ever written more bizarre than that. Why he is on Pinterest is a total mystery to me, as well as how. I guess one of his social media pals signed him up.

He’s already on Facebook. At his request a few years ago I signed him up. At first he was into it. I’d get emails from former high school girlfriends and showrunners saying, “Hey, your dad befriended me.”

God bless him that he wants to stay current. And it’s not like he’s posting baby pictures of me for TBT so I’ve got no problem. But it just speaks to how widespread this notion of social media has become.

I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Dad on Pinterest makes more sense than me on Linkedin. I never use it except to endorse friends. I don’t think Lincoln Center is going to produce my play based on reading my Linkedin profile. I actually tried to unsubscribe to Linkedin and it won’t let me. I am signed up for life and beyond. In fact, I’ve somehow gotten “connect” requests from a person I know has died. Linkedin must really have reach.

I got on these sites initially to help drive traffic to my blog. But I must confess I spend way more time on Facebook than I anticipated. It’s nice to keep up with people who otherwise would fly under my radar. On the other hand, I never know what to do when someone announces a loved one has died or they have been diagnosed with some disease. How do you click “like?’”

I also tend not to comment on someone’s status because I then get email alerts anytime anyone else also comments. So if someone says their 104 year-old grandmother died, if I offer a condolence my in-box will be filled with 160 emails from people I don’t know also offering sympathy.

Similarly, I rarely wish people a Happy Birthday. It’s not that I have anything against it, and I am much more apt to click “like” when it’s their birthday as opposed to their death, but I just never remember to check who’s up that day. And then I feel guilty when hundreds of people wish me a Happy Birthday. So if you’re one of my Facebook friends, please accept my birthday wishes for whenever it is. I’m thinking of you on your special day.

It bothers me that social media sites create whole new areas of unintentional inconsideration. I look like an asshole because I didn’t congratulate someone for some posted achievement or offer sympathy for some loss when the truth is I just wasn’t on Facebook for a few days and missed it. If someone is nominated for an Emmy and I don’t congratulate him is he going to think I’m jealous and resentful? Again, what an asshole I am! Forget that I had a power outage at my house and couldn’t get on line for two days and everything in my freezer spoiled.

And then there are Facebook friends who I am very fond of personally but think their politics are insane. So I never “like” anything they post. And eventually I become afraid of them.

When I post something I try to make it humorous. But as a comedy writer I feel almost obligated to. Plus, I don’t have cute cats so what else am I gonna post? 

Same with Twitter. It’s a forum to toss out one-liners. I don’t get to hear actual laughter, but I can judge how successful the jokes are by the number of people who retweet me. Twenty retweets = one guffaw.

On Twitter I’m an asshole because I don’t automatically follow people who follow me. I don’t even know most of these people. I follow a few select folks whose tweets are either funny or about baseball. So again, I apologize. And ask you, how can you follow 10,000 people? When do you have time for anything else? And of the 10,000, how many are actually interesting? Six? Why not just follow them?

So I continue to participate in social media. You’re welcome to follow me on @KenLevine on Twitter if you so desire. I’ll try to be funny enough so you don’t unfollow me. That’s another way to judge my one-liners. I post one and a half hour later twenty people unfollow me. That also equals a guffaw, by the way.

I’m not on Pininterest yet. I’ll have to ask Dad what the advantage is.

Monday, January 26, 2015

You gotta see this

I posted it on my Facebook page but wanted to share it here too. This flight was stuck on the tarmac. How lucky for those passengers that these guys happened to be on board.

Does anyone know how to fix network comedies?

Warning:  Here comes a rant.  Hide the children.

Just caught a NY Post article from the end of November (okay, I don’t usually read the NY Post, especially if there’s no A-Rod scandal). It’s by Robert Rorke and it’s entitled DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW TO FIX NETWORK COMEDIES?

In the article he claims the new crop of sitcoms did not catch on because they’re not funny. I don’t disagree with him. But the problem comes when trying to answer the question he poses – does anyone know how to fix them?

He basically claims that the answer is no and sitcoms, long rumored to be dead, might indeed be endangered species.

I respectfully disagree.

A writer friend of mine offered this suggestion on his Facebook page. Here’s who he feels is to blame: THE. PEOPLE. IN. CHARGE.

And to that I say ABSOLUTELY. The network executives were the ones who chose the projects, chose the writers, noted them to death, and then made more cast changes based on research.

What I don’t know is this: Were these show unfunny because the writers were not that good, or were they bowing to dogmatic network directives that flattened and destroyed their product?  Probably a mixture of the two.

But what I do know is there are a lot of talented writers who are no longer on the development slates. Writers who have proven track records. What track records do the “deciders” have?

(DISCLAIMER:  I'm talking about other writers, not myself.  I'm quite happy writing plays, blogs, and sharing factoids about Neil Simon.)  

At a time when networks are operating exclusively out of fear, when suddenly they all are scrambling to hastily develop the next EMPIRE because it did well in the ratings for three weeks, it’s understandable to see why sitcoms are suffering. Networks by and large, are hiring writers who they trust (read: will take their notes without objection), basing their decisions on faulty research, and at all costs are avoiding unique visions, projects not geared directly to specific demographics, or writers who might question their brilliant suggestions.

And let’s be real – this is not going to change.   I can bitch all I want.  I'm trying to hold back the Pacific Ocean with a broom.   And when sitcoms don’t catch on these same executives will claim the reason is that the public has lost its appetite for comedy. That’s what they ALWAYS say.

And it’s bullshit.

Here’s what I think will ultimately happen. People always love to laugh. They will flock to shows that do make them laugh – legitimately make them laugh (not occasionally smile over quirky characters or pithy pop culture references), and they don’t care whether they’re on NBC, TBS, their computer, their phone, or (soon) their watch.

Networks will die before sitcoms.

And that's what we call "the last laugh."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Disco MASH

This is the way the song was MEANT to be heard. Presenting the Disco version of the MASH theme by the New Marketts.   Boogie down, Colonel Potter!

Maybe my favorite bad review

I've posted this before, years ago, but it's one of my all-time favorites.  Do you remember a comedian named Gallagher?  I think he's still around.  His basic act was smashing watermelons.  When he performed in Cerritos, California in 1999 the LA Times reviewed it.   The review was so hilarious and scathing I had to keep it.  And share it.   If you can imagine the thinking that could have produced such a staggeringly ill-conceived show, you laugh twice as hard.

And so, as a public service to anyone even thinking of attending an upcoming Gallagher show if he's still touring, here is this LA Times review.


CROSSED-UP CROSSOVER

Comedy: Promoted for Latinos, Gallagher's pseudo-Spanish show is a litany of degrading stereotypes and insults.By ALISA VALDES-RODRIGUEZ, Times Staff Writer


Hmm. How to put this delicately? We'll simplify: Mime-like, stringy-haired man in black hat smashes food with mallet on stage for living. Man, who no espeakey no Spanish, hears Spanish, thinks Spanish good, Spanish muy muy dinero. Man spends one month learning important Spanish words such as cerveza, caca and culo (butt). Man invents Spanish words, such as "sperm-o" and "embarazamante." Man decides this is enough Spanish to put on show for Latinos. Man smashes pinatas, wears giant sombrero and shakes keg-sized maracas. Man mocks Jews and gays and women and constipated old people. Man thinks he is muy funny comedian-o.

Man hopes all Spanish-speakers agree.
But wait. There's more. Mucho more.

Man rents hall in Cerritos. Man advertises "Gallagher en espanol: La Fiesta Grande" on Spanish radio. Man hopes thousands will come. Two hundred come, many with children and babies and old (possibly constipated) people. Man babbles for three hours Thursday night in "language" neither English nor Spanish. Language heretofore known as Gallagher-bonics. Next day, executive director of Cerritos Center for Performing Arts issues statement stressing that "Gallagher show was a rental event and not produced or presented by the Cerritos Center."

Man hires dance troupe to open show. Man performing for mostly Mexican American audience. Dance troupe, called Salsa Kids, performs Puerto Rican dance style. Male dancers wear guayaveras, the four-pocket shirts worn by old Cuban men in Miami. Mexican American audience appears unimpressed. Stone faces say: Ugh, bad medicine. "Is this like ballroom?" a woman in the audience asks. "My sister, she's taking that ballroom dancing."

Show goes on.

First nine rows of audience are in white plastic chairs. People in white plastic chairs equipped with clear plastic bag to wear over clothes because later mayonnaise and refried beans will spew over them. Signs warn: Cuidado, Piso Resbaloso. Wet floor. Man shoots water on audience from giant penguin after salsa dancers leave stage.

Other man named Vic Dunlop, a comedian hired to help because he supposedly speaks Espanol, takes stage. Dunlop wears Mexican blanket, sombrero and glasses with eyes painted on them. Makes jokes about black people and blind people in bad Spanish. Says show is sponsored by Culo Cola, the soda with the taste of an expletive. In audience, Debra Garcia, 50, is bored and thinks the show immature and plans to leave early.

Man appears with penguin and yells, "Como? Este hombre no esta en mi show. Vamanos."

Second assistant "comedian" who actually does speak Spanish comes on stage. Her name is Dyana Ortelli and she is Mexican American and makes a living mocking Jennifer Lopez's bottom, stereotyping Chicanos, and wearing bad wig and no pants. Ortelli helps man throw chocolate at crowd. Man says: "Quien no tengo chocolate?" Translation: Who I don't have chocolate? No one sure what he is saying.

Man introduces Chupacabras. Chupacabras is goat-sucking monster seen in Puerto Rico three years ago. Man in ape suit pretends to be goat-sucking monster. Man forces child onto stage with monster. Man asks: "Quien tiene mas pelo de Chupacabra?" Translation: Who has more hair of Chupacabras? Child makes disgusted face, jumps off stage. Ortelli looks sad. Man babbles about goat-sucker: "Es muy fuerze, es muy fuerza." Translation: Is very strength. No one laughs. Man frustrated. Tries to say "espectaculo," which means "show," but says "specta-culo," which sort of means butt-gazer.

Man calls for rock band. Fulano de Tal, from Miami, plays well. Man wears giant parachute dress and dances. Man spray-paints a lie on the back wall: Yo No Soy Gringo. Man says in Spanish that he is a cowboy. Man says he is newborn Mexican and caresses his naked hairy belly.

Man tells joke about bear and rabbit pooping.

Man gathers audience volunteers for Mexican hat dance. Says "Tengo un muchacha" over and over. No one laughs. Man says "Culo, culito" until people laugh. Man says "moco" for extra humor. Man is tired of trying. Man says in English "I need a beer." Man curses under breath off mike, but audience hears anyway.

Man begins dumping buckets of food onto plates. Man stops trying to speak Spanish. Man gives up and speaks English. Man says: "We were expecting a big crowd tonight and we're going to do a show for a big crowd anyway" because the crowd is small and shrinking. Man is booed again. Man yells: "It's the Fourth of July weekend, you don't got no place to go so just shut up." Man hits Pop Tarts with tennis racquet. Man says "Un muchacho quiero comer," which means "I want to eat a boy" and the boys look scared.

Many people who paid between $21.50 and $26.50 per ticket walk out as man flashes white underpants and yells culo, culo, culo and cerveza. Man angry Latinos have no sense of humor. Man throws egg and marshmallows at old woman and baby as they waddle out of theater. Man calls old woman vulgar name in English. Man spits beer on children. Some in audience too polite to leave. Others impolite enough to boo. One courageous enough to hurl a lunchbox-sized chunk of watermelon at man's head.

Man smashes food with 16-pound mallet. Man says, inexplicably, "Todo el mouthwash el hits me en el crotch-o." Man sings "La Cucaracha."

Man smashes more food. Show over. Man bows. Man slips on floor.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

RIP Sky Mall

Oh no. I just read where the Sky Mall has gone belly up. Readers of this blog know it’s one of my favorite subjects (targets). Where else are you going to find all the ridiculous inventions the Sharks reject on SHARK TANK? Yeah, you could go to The Sharper Image or various spy stores, but it’s not the same thing. The Sky Mall assembled all these "wonders of modern science" in catalog form. What a fun way to pass the time while you’re stuck on the tarmac for eleven hours.

But alas, now that most airlines offer Wifi, people can go on line and order the same crap cheaper elsewhere. Of course they’re now paying $14.95 for internet access but still.

It’s just another bit of goofy Americana that is fading into history – like photo booths, responsible government, and radio.

I’d say we all go to HoJo’s to commiserate over a clam bake, but… well, you know.

RIP Sky Mall. May you be forever memorialized in a plaque that attaches to any gravestone by miracle glue and contains a sensor that allows it to light up whenever a mourner gets within two feet – all for only $269.99 ($289.99 in Canada).

Christopher Walken when he could remember lines

You guys keep requesting my intros and outros so here's another one.  One of my favorite Neil Simon films was BILOXI BLUES, primarily because of Christopher Walken, ol' Captain Hook himself.  Here was my wraparound for last night's showing on TCM. 

INTRO:

Hi, I’m Ken Levine – a tv writer and director, a former major league baseball announcer – but my coolest gig ever is this – hosting TCM's Friday Night Spotlight this month.

We’re focusing on writer extraordinaire Neil Simon and up next we have the second story in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy,” which was a trio of more loosely-autobiographical tales that nostalgically looked back at Simon’s youth and early adulthood. Eugene, by the way, is the lead character’s first name, modeled after Simon himself.

All three began as Broadway plays – the first being “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1983, then “Biloxi Blues” in 1985, followed by “Broadway Bound” in 1986. The first two were turned into feature films, and we have the movie version of “Biloxi Blues” right now – which was released in theaters in 1988.

The film was directed by Neil Simon’s long-time collaborator Mike Nichols and it stars Matthew Broderick as “Eugene,” he also played the role on stage. It’s based on Simon’s experiences suffering through army boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi during World War Two. Broderick plays an aspiring writer trying to figure out his place in the army. As if anyone can. 

His fellow recruits are a wide range of interesting characters, who are all led by a soft-spoken yet eerie drill sergeant, played by Christopher Walken. How often have you heard a drill sergeant described as “eerie”? When I was in the army, drill sergeants were more like “Full Metal Jacket” than this, but hey – it’s Christopher Walken and he is great.

In his memoirs, Neil Simon said that during rehearsals for the movie, Walken completely paraphrased a big speech – which was unusual for actors when working with Neil Simon dialogue. Simon was actually ok with doing it Walken’s way but Walken told him that was just his process and when cameras rolled he intended to do it as written. Imagine! Christopher Walken with a strange process?

Here he is, in the film version of a story that won a Tony as the best play on Broadway: from 1988, “Biloxi Blues.”

OUTRO:

It’s so interesting to me how movie habits have changed. When this film was released in 1988, i was working as the announcer for the Syracuse Chiefs, a minor league baseball team. It’s Syracuse, so it was snowing – in the spring – and the Friday night game was snowed out.

So i decided to go to the movies and “Biloxi Blues” was what I saw. It was date night, so there were plenty of young couples in the theater. And looking back, i realize how date night and movies in general are so different today. If “Biloxi Blues” was released in 2015, it would be considered an “art” movie.  Kids in Syracuse today are seeing “Sex Tape” or “Hangover 7.”

fortunately, there will always be an audience for the work of Neil Simon. And up next, we have a Simon comedy from 1980 that marked the second on-screen teaming of Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Questions

Got a bunch of Neil Simon movies to host tonight on TCM starting at 8 in the East and 5 in the West… including one of my favorites, BILOXI BLUES. So join me on the TV. Turning to the print mediim, here are this week’s Friday Questions.

From Johann:

I was watching a Cheers rerun and noticed it was directed by John Ratzenberger. I recall seeing an episode of Frasier directed by Kelsey Grammer. One episode of Seinfeld was directed by Jason Alexander.

What's involved in an actor directing an episode of his own show? Is it a professional courtesy, or something more? Do some actors request a chance to direct, and get turned down?

It all depends on the actor. Some, like Alan Alda and Kelsey Grammer really take it seriously. Same with Adam Arkin, who has become quite a sensational director.  Jason Alexander directs a lot of theater. 

On the other hand, yes, there are times when actors are directing but are essentially carried by the crew. For the most part they are good with directing actors but inexperienced with the technical aspect of the job. And especially in multi-cam where you have four cameras moving simultaneously, there is a steep learning curve. But a good camera coordinator can generally just do the camera blocking for the actor-director.

Sometimes actors are allowed to direct as a courtesy; other times actors get it in their contract. Harry Morgan had it in is deal at MASH to direct one episode a year. He did one of ours. The problem was we made Harry light in the show so he had less acting to concentrate on, but we missed his presence in front of the camera.

I’m sure there are cases of actors asking to direct episodes of their series and being turned down, but those are usually private conversations.

George Wendt directed an episode of CHEERS that David Isaacs and I wrote and did a great job.

Brian Phillips is next.

You've recounted the "Hot Rod Lincoln" story as an example of campaigning for a joke that you thought was funny and fell flat.

Do you recall some instances where you fought especially hard, whether it was with David Isaacs, an actor or executive and it paid off?

Yes. Once when I was directing BECKER. In the episode, Becker (Ted Danson) goes on a cruise but doesn’t realize it’s a gay cruise. He’s now back in the diner regaling everybody with what it was like. It was a hysterical scene. If I remember correctly, it was written by Michael Markowitz (who always writes hysterical scenes).

One of the actors didn’t like the scene. Thought it wasn't at all funny.   What he really didn’t like was that Ted had pretty much all the lines and all everybody else did was laugh at the crazy stories Ted's character shared. 

The actor kept putting a bug in Ted’s ear that the scene didn’t work. Eventually he got Ted to question it himself.

I had to take Ted aside and tell him that he had to trust me. I was adamant that the scene would work. To his credit, Ted did the scene as written and it got screams from the studio audience. It’s still one of my favorite scenes ever on BECKER.

Did the other actor ever acknowledge that he was wrong? What do you think?

From willieb:

What I've never been able to understand -- and this may be a Friday question in disguise -- is why sitcoms cannot cope with couples once they are married and have children. Writers are great at the stop-and-start, will-they-or-won't-they romances -- but once they do, sitcom writers are lost. Why? Most of us get married, have kids, and have family lives with tons of funny stories attached. Why do writers lose the funny when couples finally couple?

It’s easier and sexier to explore romantic relationships. This is not just true in sitcoms. There are not a lot of romance novels set in the world of a married couples coping with teething babies. 

That said, there are some terrific sitcoms that do deal with married life. For my money, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND is the gold standard. That show is funnier and more authentic than just about any romantic comedy sitcom out there.

And then there’s the show that I feel is the most underrated on television, THE MIDDLE. They make family comedy work… as does MODERN FAMILY.

And currently, I’m a big fan of INSTANT MOM on Nick @ Nite. Yes, I know I’m somewhat biased, but aside from my daughter writing on it, it really is a well-mounted funny family show. Check it out yourself.   I bet you'll agree.

RyderDA asks:

When writing something, do you ever deliberately write two separate, distinct, independent versions of the same thing for any reason (such as to explore how different story arcs could play out)? Is there utility to a writer in consciously creating two different versions of the exact same thing?

That’s my play, A OR B? I take the same two people and create two different scenarios. In one they’re co-workers and the other they’re lovers. I then do parallel scenes and show the differences and similarities in their relationships based on the circumstances.

And finally, from Ted O'Hara:

Have you ever found that you've boxed yourself in on future stories due to some plot detail in a past show that seem innocuous at the time? And if so, how did you get out of it?

On CHEERS, very early on, maybe even the second episode, we say that Sam has an ex-wife. We even show her (played by Donna McKechnie). It was all for one joke to get out of a scene. Later, we just ignored it.

Long running series will often have continuity problems. The name of Potter’s wife changes, Hawkeye has a sister in one episode; a brother in another. You just try to skip over that stuff real fast. But it was way easier in the days before streaming and the internet.

What’s your Friday Question?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In defense of multi-camera sitcoms

The multi-camera format of sitcoms has become the gluten-free section of the TV menu. It’s offered but only begrudgingly and the assumption is it will only appeal to a very few. When networks announce their development slate, the first thing they say about a project is whether it’s single or multi-camera. And if it’s a multi-camera, half the time they quickly add that it’s a hybrid, so it’s not REALLY a multi-cam. It’s like multi-camera shows are on a quota system.

The multi-camera shows currently on the air tend to be either family comedies, tween comedies, or raunch. Other than MOM and BIG BANG THEORIES (two big hits), I can’t think of another exception currently on the air on a major broadcast network. THE NEW ODD COUPLE debuts soon but the verdict is still out since no one’s seen it.

Before MULLANEY premiered there were big articles from the folks responsible claiming they were doing something really daring by committing to a multi-cam format. The show itself is terrible and has been unanimously rejected by America, but trust me, it’s not because of the number of cameras.

Was anybody bothered by the fact that CHEERS was multi-camera? Or FRIENDS? Or FRASIER? Or SEINFELD? Or ALL IN THE FAMILY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW? You get the idea.

The fact that the bar has been so lowered by shows like 2 BROKE GIRLS doesn’t mean quality shows can’t be mounted. Networks just have to buy them and writers have to write them.

The swing away from multi-camera shows has been such an over-reaction. It’s as if theater owners no longer staged plays because movies gained in popularity. No one wants to just watch actors relate to each other on a stage when they can see giant explosions and special effects on a screen.

Obviously there’s room for both.

In terms of comedy, some of the sharpest, deepest, and funniest endeavors have been for the stage. From Kaufman & Hart to Neil Simon to Chris Durang, Paul Rudnick, and a host of other sparkling scribes – playwrights have created inspired work. And they've been held accountable for the comedy. Audiences have to laugh. (And unlike a TV taping, there’s no warm-up guy pleading for the audience to laugh). So you better bring your A-game.

Why can’t that be translated to today's television? I’d like to think if Noel Coward was around in the ‘90s he’d be writing for FRASIER.  I'd probably be squeezed out to make room for him. 

With a few rare exceptions, every great iconic sitcom from I LOVE LUCY to SEINFELD has been multi-camera.

Networks just have to once again embrace them. And I’m not just speaking to major broadcast carriers. Premium cable networks and streaming services -- this goes for you too. Who subscribes to these services? People with money who can afford them. Grown ups. The same grown ups who grew up on quality multi-camera shows. God forbid Amazon or Netflix or HBO would air a new series in this format.

There aren’t comedy writers currently toiling on middling single camera shows who wouldn’t kill to do their own CHEERS? There aren’t network executives who would love to be proud of their comedies and not have to justify them with bullshit excuses or niche numbers?

It sure seems worth doing... and not just because they feel obligated to toss in a couple of gluten-free items.   Oh, and another thing – multi-camera shows are CHEAPER. So really, what’s the big downside?

UPDATE:  But if you're a big fan of single camera shows, I have one for you to check out.  It's DOWN DOG, one of the Amazon pilots currently under consideration.  It was written/created by Robin Schiff who co-created ALMOST PERFECT with us and wrote ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION quite nicely without our help.   Here's where you go.  And if you like it, please give it a whole bunch of stars.  Thanks.