Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Individual tickets go on sale today!  Here’s where.  Or you can call 1-818-955-8101.   I know this means a whole lot to you folks in Norway or Tuscaloosa. But if you’re going to be in the Los Angeles area or God forbid you live in the Los Angeles area, would love for you to check it out. I’ll be there most nights (I’m the one in the back sweating) so it’s a good chance to meet.

Rehearsals have begun and so far it’s looking great! (Okay, first rehearsal was yesterday… but still.) It’s a two-character romantic comedy that explores the difference between the same two couple if they were lovers or co-workers. Sex, office politics, passion, ambition and lots of laughs along the way. Writing Sam & Diane for all those years on CHEERS was good prep work for this.

I must say, I love playwriting. (Let’s see if I still say that after opening night but…) I love writing dialogue and the theatre values that the most. Words are more important. Movies are more visually oriented and television is … whatever some network executive says it should be.

What excites me as a writer is exploring human behavior and interaction. Jokes that stem from character and advance the story. Moving the audience through emotional moments not orgasmic special effects. And for me, as the writer, actually hearing the laughter and seeing if the poignant moments land.

Other reasons why I prefer to write for the stage:

I enjoy the freedom in storytelling. With features and certainly television, you need to outline the story in a very detailed fashion. In television you’re always confined by the clock. Movie outlines can be so extensive that storyboards are drawn to show shot-by-shot. I work off a much simpler outline when writing plays. I know where I’m going (generally) but allow the characters to tell me where they want to go. Sometimes wonderful unexpected surprises come about as a result.

Of course, in my case, that also means a lot of blind alleys and writing tons of pages that I toss out. But even the discarded pages are beneficial. The more I write the characters the more I learn about them. It’s all part of the process. Never feel that the stuff you don’t use was time wasted. It’s most certainly not.

The first draft of my new play A OR B? is considerably different from my current draft. For one thing, I threw out the entire second act and started again. Then I had a reading and from that I replaced two whole scenes and made extensive changes throughout. What’s exciting now is hearing it on its feet, getting director and audience feedback, and continuing to fine tune.

Now I just have to figure out how to do revised pages with Final Draft.

Subscriptions still available!
The other great thing about writing for the theatre – actually, the GREATEST thing – is that no one can change a word without the playwright’s permission. This is in marked contrast to films where the writer is just below the honey wagon maintenance crew in the pecking order. Anybody and everybody can manhandle the screenplay. In television the showrunner can change your script, the staff can change your script, the network, studio, standards & practices, and lawyers can change your script. Even Chuck Lorre doesn’t have final say. At the end of the day, Les Moonves does. But a playwright makes the call in the theatre. Imagine getting notes you don’t HAVE TO take! It’s very liberating.

Yes, there are downsides. You make practically nothing. Submissions to theatres or companies take as long as a year to receive a response. And if no one wants to produce your play you might have to produce it yourself, which could get expensive. But come on, that’s quibbling.

The final argument for live theatre is just that – it’s LIVE. Real people performing for a real audience. A one-to-one connection. And when it works, it’s thrilling… for all concerned – the actors, the audience members, and even that poor guy sweating buckets in the back.

As Neil Simon puts it:

I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.

My play plays from Oct. 15-Novembe 16.  Lots of tickets have already been sold to subscribers.  So don't wait.   Come see it so I don’t have to write teen coming-of-age movies on spec. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mission Impossible meets Top Cat

This is another crazy story that happened along the way in our career. This was on a pilot rewrite.

In 1976 there was a somewhat popular movie called MOTHER, JUGS, & SPEED about ambulance drivers starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch (as Jugs of course), and Harvey Keitel.

Two years later ABC commissioned a TV pilot of the movie. They changed Jugs to Juggs so it would sound (or at least read) less sexual… although unless you’re from the hills of Kentucky there is no other meaning for “jugs.” Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay, was hired to write the pilot.

For whatever reason, ABC greenlit the project but wasn’t happy with the script. David Isaacs and I were recruited to do a rewrite. We were on MASH at the time, this was a project about funny medicos, produced for the same studio (20th) -- so we got the call. Whether seventeen other writers had gotten the call before us and turned it down, we’ll never know.

We accepted the assignment and met with the executive producers. Here’s where it got a little weird. The two executive producers were Bruce Geller (who created MISSION IMPOSIBLE) and Joseph Barbera (one half of Hanna-Barbera, the animation mill that turned out Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Jetsons, etc.). Kind of an odd pairing. Apparently the idea for the original movie was Barbera’s so that’s how he got involved. Bruce Geller’s involvement? I have no idea.

They met with us and told us what they wanted. The realism of MASH. It shouldn’t feel sitcommy. The humor had to come out of attitudes and real situations. We were to think of this as a drama with comedic touches. Okay. That was fine with us.

Then Joe Barbera pitched a possible beat.  And I swear to you this is true.  The ambulance is at the top of a hill. The back door flies open and a guy on a gurney rolls out and barrels down the hill. He hits a fire hydrant, which flips the gurney, sending the patient airborne where he lands in an open garbage can. Joe even made a “boing!” sound as he described the patient landing in the trash can. We sat there totally gobsmacked. This was “real?” Maybe in Quick Draw McGraw’s world.

Everyone was pleased with our rewrite (despite not doing the gurney gag), and the show was filmed. No actors from the movie participated. Ray Vitte, Joanne Nail, and Joe Penny got the lead roles. I never saw it. The show was not picked up. But that figures because in our entire career we’ve never gotten a show picked up by ABC – we’re talking 30 years, 50 regimes, and three owners.) It aired that year in August on Failure Theater, but I was either busy or just didn’t care. We were uncredited (which was fine).

The real kick for me was being in a story session with Joe Barbera. Yeah, his gag was absurd. But as a kid I loved Hanna-Barbera cartoons (I still do). I would drive by their complex on West Cahuenga Boulevard in the valley and wish that I could work there. Or even get a tour. And now I was in a room with the man himself. And he was pitching me Top Cat. Dreams sometimes do come true.

Monday, September 15, 2014

10 feet from stardom

Last Thursday night was one of the highlights of my career. I got to direct a show my daughter Annie co-wrote along with her terrific partner, Jonathan Emerson. I’ll spare you seven paragraphs of sentimentality that would make IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE seem hard-edged (that’s what Facebook is for), but suffice it to say it was a very special occasion and I’m still kvelling (Jewish expression for bursting with pride).  I'll just sprinkle a couple of photos in this post. 

Instead, I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production – the camera operators. Have you seen the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM? If not, WHY? It’s great and even won an Academy Award. The subject was backup singers. You learned how utterly amazing these background invisible performers are. Such is the case with TV camera operators. If their names even appear in the closing credits (and I’m not sure they do) they go by so fast and there are so many names on the same card that you can’t even hit pause fast enough on your remote to freeze their names to where they’re legible.
Me and the kid taking a curtain call
But here’s what they do on multi-camera shows. The actors are performing live before a studio audience, a la a stage play. During their scenes the cameras are constantly moving, getting different shots. It is all carefully choreographed so that anytime any actor moves all the action is covered in masters, group shots, and close ups. Let’s say you have a scene with six people in it. Six people/four cameras – do the math.

The director has to figure out who goes where when, but that’s for another post.

For many years each camera was a three-man operation. Shows were shot on 35 mm film and you needed a trio to schlep around those large camera mounts. As each camera was given a mark a piece of tape was set on the floor. After a half hour show had been blocked the floor looked like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade. But now, with HD cameras that are way lighter and Hollywood always looking to save money, that three-man crew has been reduced to one. No more marks. The camera operator has no time to glance down at the floor. So now he must swing the camera around himself and get all of his shots, guided only by some quick notes he’s jotted down.

Here's the process:  The camera operator sees a scene once, then is given his shot list, then does it once, maybe twice with the stand ins, and once maybe twice with the cast (the “reallys” as they are called). Some fine tuning then the show is shot. Not a lot of rehearsal time for a super complicated process. 

And yet, by show night, he (or she) is ready to go and damn near flawless.

Here are the kinds of assignments they’re given:

“When Tia crosses left, let her out, drop down and give me Michael over Trey.”

“Set for Sydney’s entrance. Bring her to a master. Land her, give me a beat then get a two-shot right.”

“When Sheryl says ‘did anyone see my shoe’ kick right and give me a single of Tia. And then when Michael says ‘I’ve had enough of this’ swing right back and give me Trey. It’ll be a quick move.”

“When the Coco Puffs start flying go to the door.” (Yes, I gave a Coco Puff cue this week.)

Depending on the shot the operator might have to move to his next precise mark or change lens, or both. And sometimes there may be three or four scenes that take place in the same location (like the kitchen). Different blocking, different cast members, and yet they still have to keep everything straight.

One of the camera operators on INSTANT MOM this week didn’t even take notes. He just kept it in his head. I was confused and I was giving him the notes, which were carefully written out on my script.

And during the actual taping, actors might be off their marks from time to time. A good camera operator will adjust to get the shot he wants and not wind up with the back of a head blocking the person who’s speaking.

When taping night comes, if you ever attend one, it looks like a well-oiled machine. Cameras are gliding around, every shot is falling effortlessly into place. Anytime you need a reaction shot it’s there. The scene is never interrupted by two cameras crashing into each other. You’d think everyone had two weeks to rehearse this. The camera operators had maybe twenty minutes a scene.

A quick shout-out to the actors too. At the last minute we will often ask them to turn a little one way or another (to “cheat out”) or step back a half a step to allow us a better shot. They have to incorporate these tiny technical instructions in with their performances. I don’t know how they do it. I’d be glancing down every two seconds for my mark.

So the next time you watch a multi-camera episode, take note of all the camera angles, and just try to imagine what’s going on down on the floor as these four guys are constantly scrambling – swinging cameras around, setting sizes, adjusting shots. It’s truly amazing to watch. These ladies and gentlemen have my undying respect and gratitude.

I’d suggest making a documentary like 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but all these guys would rather be behind the camera shooting it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Worst designed jerseys ever! Or maybe the best?

The Colombia's women cycling team's jerseys should sell well in concession stands and sporting good stores.  Yikes.

This would send me into therapy for fifty years

From a 70s sex education film. Guys, don'tcha hate it when this happens??

Yeah. Knock, mom. And take acting lessons.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Maybe the weirdest story you'll hear all year

WARNING:  This is a re-post from four years ago.  Not sure if this place is still thriving but boy, wouldn't you like to see the mastermind pitch this on SHARK TANK?

Remember those songs like “Lonesome Town” and “Heartbreak Hotel”, metaphoric destinations for the lost and lonely? Imaginary havens for love’s refuse. Well, it turns out one such place actually exists!!

There is a seaside resort town in Japan named Atami. It used to be a romantic getaway for young lovebirds. Well, either business was bad the women were stealing too many hair dryers but the town decided to go in a different direction. Atami now caters to a new clientele – the world’s most pathetic losers.

To increase tourism, the town has become the destination for male enthusiasts of Love Plus, a dating simulation game. This is according to Discovery News.

The town has partnered with gaming company Konami Digital Entertainment, the creators of Love Plus, to establish a resort that brings together the virtual girlfriend and her real-world boyfriend in a beach-side setting.

Yes. Yikes. Hang on. It gets worse.

Love Plus is an extended scenario in which the real-life "beau" plays a high school boy character in a relationship with a virtual girl. "The goal is to see how good you can be to her [the virtual girlfriend] and to build a relationship." And what better way to capture the heart of a screen cartoon image than by whisking her away for a romantic weekend by the sea?

Wow! And I thought the Burning Man festival was weird.

Now I know I shouldn’t be judgmental here. No one’s getting hurt (although some of the virtual girls might get their hearts broken or fail Algebra 2 because they’re spending too much time with their beaus), it’s all in good fun, but I’m sorry – middle-aged guys acting out fantasies with high school girls… in public – that’s a Sunday drive into some serious dementia.

The Discovery article explains how it works:

In 13 locations around the town, players can find 2D barcodes to scan and call up images of the young women in the game. The girls wear different clothing from their typical in-game looks. One hotel has gone as far as putting a barcode in its rooms, allowing players to see their "girlfriends" in a more private setting wearing summer kimonos.

Double yikes! Triple yikes!

Over 2,000 guys made this their summer vacation this year. I wonder if the iPad has a virtual condom app.

Again, my apologies but this is a giant cry for help. Please, somebody, create virtual therapists!

And here's what scares me. I’m sure there are congressmen reading this right now and booking their trip to Japan for fact-finding expeditions. At least four Florida beach towns and one Six Flags will flip to this next summer. The Fox reality series should hit the air right after the World Series. And worst of all, people will confuse me with the Ken Levine who created Bioshock and think that I created this game.

But the good news is this: You can now go to Comic-Com, wear whatever ridiculous tin foil superhero costume you want, and you're still the well-adjusted one.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Questions

Coming at ya every Friday.

Rob Larkin is up first.

When you and your writing partner began as story editors on M*A*S*H how was it dealing with veteran writers for the show such as Laurence Marks, Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum? Were they open to story suggestions? Or were they, "Who are you kids telling us what to do?"

That’s a great question. Jim & Everett could not have been nicer or more respectful. They were the most open to suggestions and rewriting. And ironically, their scripts required the least amount of rewriting. You could almost just shoot one of their first drafts.

We were such admirers of theirs and remained friends with them for the rest of their lives. I even did a blog post about them years ago.

The other veterans ranged from tolerating us to being downright rude. No names, but clearly they resented dealing with a couple of twentysomethings. And even then I’d forgive them if their drafts had come back better.

From Charles H. Bryan”

I was thinking today, a little, about THE COSBY SHOW of the 80s. I think if you mention the show to someone who was watching TV then, they'll say they liked it and think well of it, but it won't pop up on a list without the prompt. I think people more likely remember SEINFELD, or FRIENDS, or CHEERS as being part of NBC Thursday. I think more people would recall the Keatons than the Huxtables. Do you think THE COSBY SHOW gets the discussion that it should?

THE COSBY SHOW was one of the most influential television programs in the history of the medium. At the time it premiered in 1984 there was a lot of talk that sitcoms were an endangered species. That one show changed everything. The ratings were spectacular and no show in today’s landscape will ever have the impact THE COSBY SHOW had. CHEERS and FAMILY TIES only became smash hits because they followed THE COSBY SHOW.

Creatively, however, I don’t think THE COSBY SHOW aged well. And it’s not just because of those sweaters. In fairness, the first year was wonderful. Funny, fresh, and with attitudes that were real. And it had one of the best pilots ever.  I show it to my USC Comedy class every semester. 

But as the series progressed and Bill assumed more creative control the show became way more preachy. Scripts were routinely just thrown out by Bill so the poor writing staff was churning out material night and day. Not surprisingly, he would burn them out. And the end result reflected that.  Some terrific writers were reduced to galley slaves.  So you never got the advantage of seeing them at their best. 

Today the show feels dated and somewhat overbearing. But again, give it its due. THE COSBY SHOW must go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV.

Cpl. Clegg asks:

It appears that you are a veteran of many pitch meetings. From those, I assume, you must have formed some opinions on studio/network executives. What background makes the best executive? Former actor like Les Moonves? Long-term network employee like Fred Silverman? Or something else?

Taste, perspective, intelligence, showmanship, and courage. Courage to trust their instincts and make decisions out of conviction and not fear. And if they’re in comedy development it would help if they had a sense of humor. (Not all do.)

There are executives who have a great passion for television and always did. Then there are  executives that come from a strictly business background who are there simply to make money. They might as well be in banking or soft drink bottling.

A good executive can enhance a project and by establishing good relationships with top writers can attract the best people to their network. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with some of these very talented men and women.

And finally, VincentS wants to know:

Although the "pilot" for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW - which was actually an episode of THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW - was multi-camera, when the show proper was green-lit Andy Griffith insisted that it be single camera, his reasoning being that if the actors were performing in front of a studio audience they would be pushing for laughs. What's your take on that, Ken, especially since you're a director as well?

I think it depends on the premise and tone of the show. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW had a more naturalistic easygoing tone – much like Andy himself. Other shows like BIG BANG THEORY really go for the big laughs, and in that case, a studio audience feeds the energy.

I can’t see MASH as a multi-camera show and I can’t see CHEERS as a single-camera show.

What’s your Friday Question? I’ll get to as many as I can. Thanks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 and David & Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.

For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even thirteen years later, so inconceivable.