Thursday, July 24, 2014

Katherine Heigl is at it again

In a move that further cheapens what REAL executive producers do, Katherine Heigl’s mother Nancy is an executive producer on Katherine’s upcoming new series, STATE OF AFFAIRS.

I get the question all the time: What do executive producers do? In theory they set the creative direction of the series, oversee the writing, cast the show, hire the director and crew, supervise editing and post production, deal with the network, studio, media, and generally put out fires. It's a hundred hour a week job.  Maybe more. 

As an executive producer, what will Nancy Heigl do? When asked this at a TV critics panel recently, her daughter Katherine said, “She bakes us cookies.” When a critic suggested Nancy only got the position because she's Katherine's mother she answered: “I am her mother for sure, so, of course I care about her, but I am just learning about exec producing, and am learning from those who really know….I’m a newcomer to it.”

So in other words, she will do nothing. She will get a handsome salary. She will (hopefully) wrangle her daughter. She will get the network credit that many writers who have toiled for years working their way up the staff ladder never receive, and I’m sure she’ll have a nice office with a decorating budget.

Bottom line: she’ll be taking the job away from a qualified deserving professional.

But let the spin and the justification continue.

NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke said that Katherine and mom Nancy both pitched the pilot idea. She said she found Nancy: “incredibly smart through this process” and added: “She is someone who has strong opinions, but we found her to be nothing but additive.”

First of all, is “additive” really a word used in that context? It sounds like a joke from EPISODES. And secondly, what the fuck does all of that mean?

Let me just say in fairness that this is not an isolated incident. Stars’ managers will often attach themselves as executive producers while they too do nothing. Their big contribution was one time sending over the pilot script to their client. It’s a form of extortion, plain and simple. “If you want my client you have to pay for protection.” They’re the partner you don’t need.

But at least in Nancy Heigl's case she'll bake cookies. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

They've closed WHAT?

Are there support groups for people who have lost restaurants? If so, I need to join one. Yes, I know, it seems silly to mourn the closing of a KooKooRoo but local eateries almost become like friends. You seek them out for comfort, familiarity, nourishment, and they generally cost you money. And it’s gratifying to know they’ll always be there – welcoming you in until 10 on weeknights, validating your parking, and serving that special corned beef hash that is so good you forget it’s out of a can. Think CHEERS with patty melts.

Lately, a number of reliable local establishments have closed their doors for good and it has totally bummed me out. In some cases, I never even loved their food, but loved that they were always there. And unlike favorite cancelled TV show that you can just watch again on DVD or Netflix, there’s no LaBarbera’s pizza On-Demand, or Anna’s minestrone soup, or Kelbo’s Hawaiian ribs (although those would probably kill me today).

What’s even sadder is that most of these restaurants have gone under because their landlords have squeezed them out with unreasonable lease increases. Many of these establishments have long histories. Some of your all-time favorite stars have gotten drunk or been thrown out of these iconic eateries.

Among the recent fallen:

Kate Matallini’s – for over twenty years this spacious upscale comfort food diner has been an LA staple at Wilshire and Doheny. Lots of tables, high ceiling, giant photos of MAD MEN, walking distance to the WGA theatre and my car mechanic, and for years it was open late, which for Los Angeles means after 9 PM. Cause of death: Jacked up rent.
Hamburger Hamlet – This was a killer because it’s a part of my childhood snuffed out. At one time this popular chain had locations all over the city. In addition to burgers, they were famous for their Lobster Bisque, which was probably 7,000 calories a spoonful. I used to like their fried chicken wings appetizer back when fried meant "tasty" not "heart attack." A couple of years ago their Sunset Strip location closed. It was there that Dean Martin and Bette Davis used to hold court, and David Isaacs and I formed our writing partnership. Since the Hamlet’s 50 year run there it’s been a failed nightclub, failed high end Chinese restaurant, and soon to be another Chinese restaurant.

KooKooRoo Santa Monica – I don’t get it. A few years ago KooKooRoo was the biggest thing. They were the Starbucks of fowl. People suddenly stopped eating chicken?

The Daily Grill Brentwood – Couldn’t pay the new lease. At one time you had to know someone to get a booth there. You’d be standing in its entrance waiting for tables along with Neil Simon, Bob Newhart, and Dustin Hoffman. You’d still be standing there after they had all been seated but still.
Asuka Westwood – It stood for over thirty years -- the sushi place next door to the glorious Crest Theatre, which also closed. Instead of super-cool hipsters, Mel Brooks was usually in a booth. They proudly posted a signed headshot of some beauty queen named Porntip. If you ordered teriyaki chicken they charged more for white meat. So by all rights, they should have made a lot of money.

Part of what makes any area unique is it’s long-standing restaurants. I’m sure wherever you live you’re missing a few of your once favorite hangouts. Here in Los Angeles you’ll see restaurants with signs that proudly proclaim “Established 1998.” Sadly, in this town, that is a big accomplishment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We all have to start somewhere

I was hoping the CNN documentary series THE SIXTIES would cause a huge national craze for that decade, and my book, THE ME GENERATION...BY ME (GROWING UP IN THE '60s) would start selling like Beatles records.  I was counting on it, actually.  But alas, so far sales have been more like Freddy and the Dreamer records.  Obviously, I must do something about that.  So as an excuse to get you to pick up a copy and support this free blog (guilt guilt guilt), I am featuring a summer excerpt.  Travel back to 1966 and my first theater experience.  

No family vacation that year, not that we could go very far anyway. 35,000 airline workers from five major carriers went on strike, crippling the industry. From July 8th to August 19th, the peak summer travel season, 60% of U.S. commercial flights were grounded. And it was still easier to fly than it is today.

I had my part-time job at Wallichs and got another part-time gig as well. This one ushering at the Valley Music Theater.

The Valley Music Theater on Ventura Blvd. was a huge concrete white shell, very modernistic, very JFK airport terminal.
The big musical theater fad in Los Angeles in 1966 was theater-in-the-round. Who needed Broadway when Angelinos could be treated to smash hit musicals of the past with knock-off casts, no sets, and no piece of scenery taller than their ankles? In the LA area there were three venues – the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim (across from the Dopey section of the Disneyland parking lot), the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills (later to become the home of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Carousel Theater in glamorous West Covina (gateway to the Inland Empire). The productions would bicycle this circuit, usually for two-week runs.

I showed people to their seats at the Valley Music Theater and could not wait for each new show to bring jaw-dropping performances by miscast actors. Dance numbers tended not to be very elaborate since the stage was the size of a conference table. (If they had lasted long enough to do The Lord Of The Dance, they would use three guys.)

Headliners tended to be of the B variety. Instead of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, and Julie Andrews we got Dennis Day, Frank Gorshin, and Betsy Palmer (best known as a perky game show panelist and knife-wielding crazy in Friday the 13th: Part One).

After several years of burning through the Broadway catalog the trend petered out. By 1968 they were down to It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman starring local TV news anchors.

Still, I was able to see beyond the game show-celebrity-guest-caliber casts and really appreciate the writing. That summer I also read Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One and was intrigued by the notion of being a New York playwright. It all sounded so romantic to me – writing all night in a hotel room in exotic New Haven, getting a brainstorm, and saving a play at the last minute, opening on Broadway, having a hit…and someday seeing my work performed at the Valley Music Theater by Barbara Walter.

Ironically, my new play A or B? will be performed in the Valley, at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank this fall.  I would get Betsy Palmer is she could pass for 29. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

RIP James Garner

So sorry to hear of the passing of James Garner Saturday night. He was 86. I never met him but never heard one bad thing from anyone who did. And you know this town – ten people will tell you Mother Teresa was a nightmare.

But James Garner was the actor every comedy writer coveted. A handsome fella who was charming, could play comedy with ease, was self-deprecating, smart, and could act. Every TV sitcom pilot has that guy. I’m looking for that guy for my play. And there are sadly, very few. They’re harder to find than white truffles. And they make all the difference in the world.

Imagine CHEERS without Ted Danson. Imagine MASH without Alan Alda. Imagine any Cary Grant movie without Cary Grant.

And Jim's talent extended to commercials too. You have to be of a certain age, but in the late ‘70s he was the pitchman for Polaroid cameras. He had such warmth and sincerity that those cameras were flying off the shelf. He did the same as the spokesman for beef but was dropped from the campaign after he needed open heart surgery.

James Garner made it all look effortless. Probably because he was that guy. He was well-intentioned, supported causes for the public good, and was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Korean War.

He is best known, of course, for his roles in THE ROCKFORD FILES and MAVERICK. But he also appeared in quite a few movies. Since comedy is never taken seriously, Garner was only nominated once for an Academy Award – for the 1985 movie, MURPHY’S ROMANCE. Some of his movies worth seeing are THE GREAT ESCAPE, DUEL AT DIABLO, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERRIF, and VICTOR/VICTORIA.

But there’s one movie he starred in I’d like to recommend. If you haven’t seen this movie, rent it or stream it tonight. THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY from 1964. He gives the performance of a lifetime as a wheeler-dealer in the Navy just before D-Day. The screenplay is by the great Paddy Chayefsky. He delivers a powerful speech on the idiocy of glorifying war that says in three minutes what we took eleven years to say in MASH. Here it is:

James Garner was very self-effacing. On acting he once said: “I’m a Methodist, but not as an actor.” In his memoir he wrote: “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth. I don’t have any theories abut acting, and I don’t think about how to do it, except that an actor shouldn’t take himself too seriously, and shouldn’t try to make acting something that it isn’t. Acting is just common sense. It isn’t hard if you put yourself aside and just do what the writer wrote.”

From that last line alone you can see why I loved him.

The legacy of James Garner will live on. At least in my writing. I generally create two types of characters – one who is similar to who I am and the other is someone I wish I were. That’s James Garner.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside story on the CHEERS "Jeopardy episode

Sometimes a Friday question requires its own post. And someone other than me answering it. Dan O'Shannon and his partner Tom Anderson wrote the Jeopardy episode of CHEERS. When a blog reader asked about it I sought out Dan for the answer.

Dan O'Shannon became a show runner on CHEERS, FRASIER, and has executive produced MODERN FAMILY. He also wrote the definitive book on comedy analysis.    Many thanks to Dan for writing back and writing the episode in the first place. If he ever writes a blog and someone asks a question about MANNEQUIN 2 I'm happy to return the favor.

From Ed:

I loved the Cliff blows the Jeopardy show ep. I'm curious as to how much back and forth there may have been amongst all y'all in deciding categories and what questions would be asked - and most especially, the Final Jeopardy question. Any anecdotes would be much appreciated.

The idea of Cliff trying out for Jeopardy started with Tom Anderson. It was the B story in our spec script, which eventually got us on the show. (Cheers, not Jeopardy). Once it was decided to use the story in an episode, we needed to expand what we had.

As we pitched on it in the room, I came up with the notion to fill the board with Cliff's dream categories. I'd scribbled down four or five possible examples, like "bar trivia" and ending with "celibacy." Once the idea was pitched, we batted categories around the room, which was great fun. I remember us all shouting out ideas and laughing like crazy.

The final Jeopardy question came from something I'd observed back when I was doing stand-up. Anyone could win all the money on Jeopardy every night if they wanted, because for each answer given on the show, there are an infinite number of technically correct questions. The final exchange (the names of the three celebrities, and "who are three people who have never been in my kitchen") came directly from that.

PS -- I like to think that a young Ken Jennings caught my act in Warren, Ohio in 1983 and now owes me -- at the very least -- a big thank you.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Have studio comedies really sunk THIS low?

Seriously? In a trailer yet? With so-called "movie stars?"

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS DISGUSTING MATERIAL -- all from the studio approved trailer.

There's a segment in this preview of HORRIBLE BOSSES 2 not to be believed. Jason Bateman tells "movie star" Jennifer Aniston that he has to go to the bathroom. She says, "You're welcome to do that on me." He signals that it's number two. And she says "And?" In other words, unless I missed the subtlety, "movie star" Jennifer Aniston is telling Jason Bateman she's okay if he takes a shit on her. Class-eee.    And oh so hilarious. 

Remember, the best jokes are usually in the trailer.

Now I don't want to sound like I'm a hundred but has American screen comedy really sunk to that level?   Those are the best and funniest comedy writers Hollywood can employ?    Any twelve year old on the playground can write that joke.

The original HORRIBLE BOSSES was a spec screenplay by Michael Markowitz that sold.  His script was sharp, sophisticated, and hilarious.  The studio thanked him and hired other writers.  Any resemblance to his vision and characters in both films have been completely obliterated by different writers, studio notes, directors, actors, etc.  Such is the studio "process" of improving a comedy. 

I guess I won't be writing any mainstream Hollywood comedies in the near future.  I have no desire to write for children.  I have no desire to have my name associated with Jennifer Aniston defecation jokes.   And the fact that she does, is to me even more appalling.  Some "movie star." 

Creative license in technology

One of my favorite bullshit TV conventions is when the cop/detective/investigator/president/terrorist/curious bystander asks the technician to enhance the screen. Somehow they can zoom in and get crystal clear images.  Zowie!  They can see mirror reflections, read fortune cookies sticking out of pockets, identify hair follicles. If only this technology actually existed.  Here is a fun montage Duncan Robson made of all these moments.  Hopefully, it will enhance your enjoyment of procedurals... and mirrors.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

A great New Yorker cartoon

... from J. C. Duffy. 

Friday Questions

Who ordered the “Friday Questions?”

Bill starts us off:

What are the responsibilities of the creative consultants and how does it differ from being the writer and were you the creative consultants on the shows you are credited with writing?

Generally, creative consultants are writers who come in once or twice a week to help out on rewrites for whatever episode is being produced that week. They're not on staff full-time.  Their day usually begins with the afternoon runthrough and they stay through the rewrite. They provide another set of eyes, can offer story suggestions, but primarily they’re there to help pump in jokes.

It’s a position that has pretty much been phased out because studios don’t want to pay, but good creative consultants can be invaluable. I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best. David Lloyd and Jerry Belson were amazing, but the best of all-time was (and is) Bob Ellison (pictured right). Bob is a joke machine and tireless. It could be 4 in the morning, everyone on the staff is totally gassed, and Bob is still firing in great jokes like an AK-47.   During the '80s and '90s Bob would sometime work on four different series a week.  Whenever we got a show picked up, our first call was to see if Bob Ellison was available. 

At some point I was a creative consultant on CHEERS, FRASIER, WINGS, BECKER, and about six other shows that came and quickly went. (We wrote episodes for most of those shows.)

This is a practice that dates well back into the American theater. Plays would tryout out of town and playwrights would enlist the help of “script doctors” like Abe Burrows who would help fix troubled projects. At least we didn't have to go to New Haven every week.

From Steve:

A couple days ago, you mentioned that you gave overuse of names a pass in the case of pilots, where the writer needs to establish who everyone is. It occurred to me that most of your viewers aren't going to start with the pilot; they'll get into the show after it been on the air for weeks or years, or even in syndication. How much do sitcom writers think about the fact that every episode is someone's first? Is any attempt made to make sure each episode works without prior knowledge?

The second episode is in many ways harder to write than the pilot. Because you have to re-tell the pilot for all those who are coming to the show for the first time, and you have to provide a new story for those who saw the pilot.  And you have two weeks to write it, not six months. 

Over the first four shows we try to keep rebooting the premise, but after that we feel viewers can either pick up on what’s going on, or go back to find the previous episodes online or On-Demand. Why should we do all the work?

Michael wonders:

Other than THE SIMPSONS, I am not aware of any shows you wrote for that included kids. Did you and David ever try to develop family-oriented sitcoms or was this something that didn't interest you?

We’ve written other shows that have had kids and we’ve done a few family pilots that didn’t get picked up. Earlier in our career we got asked to write a family pilot, but we were committed to another show so we had to pass. That family show was COSBY.  Not that I'm still bitter.

OrangeTom asks:

When a show is on air as long as Frasier do the network executives start paying less attention; i.e., is there more the writers can get away with which might be considered too offensive or "out there" in the first couple years of a show's run? "Tonight on Frasier Daphne's true identity as a KGB operative is revealed after she's caught trying to blow up the Space Needle"

Yes, once a show has established itself as a hit networks tend to back off. But not entirely. Networks still want to know what stories you have planned and if you want to do something very different or jarring you still might have a fight on your hands. You may win that fight but it won’t just be rubber stamped because you have millions of Twitter followers.

Still, it’s quite a contrast from when we were doing MASH. CBS wanted us to submit loglines of the stories we were doing. We would send in six or seven at a time. Of course, by the time we got around to submitting them the episodes had already been filmed.  That's a great way of getting around notes, by the way. 

What’s your Friday Question?