Wednesday, July 01, 2015

One of those GOOD Hollywood stories....

They do exist.  Every now and again.  Once every five years... okay, ten.    So this is a refreshing change from the horror stories that Hollywood seems to take particular delight in.

It involves Laurence Juber.

Mr. Juber is a guitar player. He played lead guitar for Paul McCartney’s WINGS, so you know “that little country boy can play.” ( Actually, wrong country. He’s from England)

One day, as a tadpole, Juber wandered into an East London movie theater and saw an early James Bond movie. What knocked him out was that great guitar riff that twangs the melody in the first stanza of the James Bond theme. You know the one.

From that moment on, when every boy wanted to be secret agents, he wanted to play guitar.

And so he did. You can’t do too much better than being in a Paul McCartney band.

After the group disbanded he moved to California and became a session player. Lots of albums, soundtracks, commercials, etc.

One day he got a call to lay down some tracks for a movie soundtrack. There was nothing from the somewhat generic title that gave him any clue as to what the movie was about. The title was “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Yes, it was that "Spy Who Loved Me." And his assignment: to play lead guitar on the James Bond theme.

Now, seriously -- “How cool is that?”

Talk about a dream come true, or coming full circle, or six other Hollywood clich├ęs. Every time I hear the James Bond theme it gives me chills… because of that. I, on the other hand, never became a secret agent. It’s a lot harder to ask Mom for espionage lessons rather than guitar lessons.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Hollywood generosity (an oxymoron)

Not to be a name dropper but (okay I am a name dropper) I was having lunch with Shelley Long and grousing that I had to buy the CHEERS DVD set. Paramount didn’t give me one, which would have been nice considering I wrote a lot of episodes and my royalties from DVD sales are a fucking joke. I was amazed to learn that Shelley wasn’t provided a complimentary copy of the collection either. You’d think as just a common courtesy the studio would give the cast DVD’s.

When a recording artist makes an album the label generally gives him a copy or two. When an author publishes a book he usually doesn’t have to go to Amazon and order a copy.

But we’re talking show business and a mindset where if they don’t HAVE TO do something for you they won’t.

20th Century Fox did not offer me any DVD’s of MASH, despite my involvement. In this instance, I even called and asked. I was told giving away free copies, even to members of the creative staff, was against company policy. Like it would break News Corp.

A few years later I received a call one late morning from the 20th publicity department. The MASH DVD’s were being released in the U.K. and they were arranging a telephone press conference with British critics. Since I had worked on the show for four years and had a popular blog, would I mind representing the show at the conference? It would take about a half hour; I would just answer questions, etc.

I asked when this conference was scheduled for. 2:00 PM my time. It was now about 11:30. I said, “I tell you what. If the complete box set of the entire series of MASH is delivered to my door by 2:00 I will participate in the conference. If not, I’m not doing it. And that’s every year, any bonus material, suitable for Blu-Ray.”

Needless to say, faster than a Domino’s pizza, the DVD’s were on my doorstep.   That's what it takes for them to be generous -- they need something from you. 

I always wondered – if at the last minute the press conference was cancelled, would they send someone to get the DVD’s back? Seriously, I wouldn’t put it past them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Come see a Levine & Isaacs pilot

The Whitefire Theatre in fabulous Sherman Oaks (the heart of the San Fernando Valley theater and auto repair district) is staging a night of three TV pilots that never made it to air. One is a pilot my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote called UNDER ANDREA. We’ve turned it into a one act play and I’m directing it. It’s very funny as are the other two (by Russ Woody and Rick Dresser). 

The program is called DEAD PILOTS SOCIETY and will run for four Monday nights beginning TONIGHT. (The others are July 6, July 13, and July 20. )

 You can get tickets here.
Now a little background. And it’s a typical Hollywood story. UNDER ANDREA is about a Devil Wear’s Prada head of a magazine empire like Conde Nast. She gets three new assistants – the best and the brightest – and informs them the first day she’ll fire one after the weekend. She then gives them impossible tasks to complete over the weekend. This was before THE APPRENTICE and I think before the movie of DEVIL WEARS PRADA. What seemed fun to us was Millennials who were ambitious and whip smart, not slackers or bar flies that only existed to hook up.
The only note we got from Fox after we turned in our first draft was “put a hot babe in it.” We said “to do what?” They replied, “We don’t care. We’re Fox. We want a hot babe.” So we did. Ultimately, Gail Berman, who was president of Fox then passed, saying it felt too sophisticated and too much like an NBC comedy. (Those apparently were bad things.)

One of the executives at Fox at the time moved over to NBC a few years later. Kevin Reilly was in charge. He said he wanted to go back to the “Must See TV” era of great urban sophisticated NBC comedies. The executive remembered ours and suddenly we were in play again at NBC.

We did a quick polish, they were all excited. We were on the fast track. And then….

MY NAME IS EARL premiered, got good numbers and Reilly decided to change his game plan. No urban sophisticated comedies. Now they wanted rural goofy comedies. Within 24 hours UNDER ANDREA was dead.

But it’s a script we always loved. A good friend, Russ Woody (MURPHY BROWN, BECKER, I forget what else but he has a bunch of Emmys) told us about this program the Whitefire Theatre was mounting – three unsold TV sitcom pilots – and invited us to submit one.

Like most writers we had several to choose from. Of those, we felt UNDER ANDREA would translate to the stage easier than the others. We took a day and adapted it into a one act. Happily, it was accepted.

We put together a terrific cast and I volunteered to direct it. I’ve directed many multi-camera sitcoms, but this was my first venture into theater directing. When I had my play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre last year I wisely let Andrew Barnicle, a seasoned veteran, direct, and I learned a ton. Helming a half hour theater piece is a good way to get my feet wet. It’s play directing with training wheels.

The process has been fun and challenging. I’m not used to working with small spaces, limited props, and finding creative ways to convey time and place. On the other hand, I don’t have cameras to deal with. I’m really enjoying the intimacy. Of course, that’s the beauty of Equity Waiver (that Equity is trying very hard to destroy, despite 2/3rds of its local membership demanding that things stay the same.)

Last week we had our  “tech” rehearsal, which means setting all the light and sound cues, nailing down the costume changes and props, figuring out the scene transitions, etc. All the details you put off till later?  Later is now.  It’s somewhat laborious and very exacting. I just kept thinking, “What must tech rehearsal on PIPPIN be like?”

As I said, this has been a learning process for me. For example: I’m used to saying “Action!” to begin a scene. They don’t do that in the theater I found out. They say: “Anytime you’re ready” or “Curtain up” or just wait for the actors to begin. Fuck it. I still say “Action!” In TV if I need a prop I call for the prop master. Here I go and buy it.

What’s made the experience so pleasant and fun is that the Whitefire provides great support. My eternal gratitude to Bryan Rasmussen, Jake O’Flaherty, David Svengalis, and the entire theater company.

Tonight is opening night and I’m very excited. If anything, watching the pilot come to life, both David Isaacs and I had the same reaction – Fuck NBC and Fox for not making this. It’s a helluva lot better than most of the crap they did make.

See for yourself. And if you come, I’ll be around. Stop by and say hello.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Blow in her face and she'll follow you everywhere.

Are you having withdrawal symptoms now that MAD MEN is over?  Well, to help you through these difficult times I thought you might enjoy these actual magazine ads from Don Draper's day.   Noted without comment except to say, JESUS EFFIN' CHRIST!!?"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How to sell a one-hour drama to USA, FX, A&E, TNT, or whoever

It's very simple.  I have discovered the basic cable one-hour formula.  Follow these steps and you premiere right after BURN NOTICE. 

Start with a handsome likable actor. Heavy on charm, athletic, has a dimple, and can deliver a joke without needing a stunt double. For background, he was in some branch of law enforcement. Cop, U.S. Marshall, CIA, secret service, security guard at Warner Brothers.

And we learn he’s a real rogue. Does things his own way. Often gets in trouble with his superiors. He’s just incorrigible. But he’s the best cop/Marshall/CIA agent/gate guard at Warners that has ever been. Lightening fast draw, sharp shooter, explosives expert, Mensa candidate. He’s absolutely fearless but super cool. He drinks beer. He sleeps with any woman he’s assigned to protect.

As the pilot begins his rogue-ness gets him in trouble. He’s fired or reassigned. If fired, he’s trying to get his job back. If reassigned, he’s sent to the most fish-out-of-water locale you can find. Let's say he's from Chicago. Ship him off to the Everglades.

If possible, set the show in some sun drenched city. Miami, San Diego. Great excuse to show hot girls in bikinis, bright beauty shots, and easier to duplicate when you shoot in San Pedro, California.

Also, try to set him in a town where he has ties. Give him a hot ex-wife or ex-girlfriend that he still sort of loves and still sort of loves him. They broke up because of his rogue-ness or some fault that he has that every woman in America would ignore in two seconds to snare a prize like this.

He has a dark past that he needs to work through… when it’s convenient. Former lover died.  Former partner died.  Steve McQueen died.

For good measure, throw in an eccentric parent (preferably one who was hot and starred in a show his or herself in the 80s).

He also has to have a partner who’s either crazier than he is, or the total opposite. Someone has to say, “You’re going to get us KILLED!” at least once an episode.

It’s very important that your hero have a moral code. He only kills bad guys. He has a soft spot for innocent downtrodden saps who are in trouble. Yes, he’s tough but he’s empathetic, and don’t you dare make a big deal of thanking him. He’s adorably shy.

In addition to solving crimes, and dodging ten thousand stray bullets an episode, there’s always a larger story arc. Some secret to uncover, or an elusive nemesis he needs to catch… when it’s convenient.

Throw in some action sequences, chase scenes, explosions (at least for the pilot), and there has to be a helicopter in at least one scene (I have no idea why but you do). Then mix in some "character" scenes so we see the hero is sensitive as well as strong. 

Give the show a snappy title that’s no more than two words. JUSTIFIED, TERRIERS, THE GLADES, BURN NOTICE. And you’re good to go.

Best of luck. Give me shared creator credit when you sell your show. And you better hurry. Other writers have figured out this formula too. And John Corbett is not going to be out there forever.

This is a repost from five years ago, but nothing's changed.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Questions

Live from New York! It’s Friday Questions!

Julia Littleton gets us started.

Can you explain something about the art of the setup that won't, as it were, kill the frog in the process? Probably you've explained it before, but I can never get enough of this stuff. The setups on Frasier were so elaborate that the reward, when it came, was truly memorable.

The key to the set-up is providing the information the viewer needs to make the joke work. A Donald Trump hair joke makes no sense if you don’t know that Donald Trump has a ridiculous comb-over. Make sure the audience has the information it needs to know in order for the joke reference to connect.

The other thing set-ups have to be is very specific. You want to lead the viewer down one specific comedy path. If the punch line can be viewed as ambiguous (is the joke about Donald Trump’s hair or his money?) you shoot yourself in the foot.

People underestimate the importance of set ups. Often when a joke doesn’t work the first thing we do is not throw it out and find another joke, it's analyze the set-up. Maybe the punchline was right; the set up was not.  Changing a word or two or clarifying can save a good joke.

Griffin asks:

I'm a crew member on a network show who has been guaranteed a directing assignment. I don't have an agent, and I'm wondering -- is now a good time to try to get one? Should I wait until the episode goes well?

No. Get one now if you can. Strike while the iron is hot.  Hopefully your episode will go great, but you’ll have no more clout than you do now. Agents sign people based on their marketability (and thus commissions), not how brilliant their work is.  The credit is the main thing, which you will now have. Congratulations on the directing assignment. Break a lens.

Jose wants to know:

Ken, not that you would, but at the height of your career (or even now), could you have "blackballed" someone starting out that you didn’t like?

No one has ever asked me that question before. No. I don’t know any writer or producer who has that power. Showrunners do talk and maybe a bad experience on one show could keep a writer from landing on a few others, but it’s not like the blacklist of the ‘50s where certain writers and actors were essentially banned from the industry.

And honestly, even if a writer gets a bad rap, sometimes it’s unjustified, and you put that same writer in a better situation then suddenly he thrives.

For the record, I’ve never tried to get anybody blackballed. Nor would I. Life’s too short to engage in that kind of toxic bullshit.

UPDATE: In reflecting on this further today, I would have to say that I do know some writers who are vindictive and try to derail people.   It's a loathsome practice and regardless of how successful they may be at it, they're still taking advantage of their power position (whatever level it is) to hurt someone who is in a lesser position.   Like I said, I don't condone it and have little respect for those who practice it.

Usually I don’t answer questions from Anonymous readers but this MASH-related one was worth addressing. That said, please leave a name. Thank you.

Winchester's sister was HonORRia, or a something like that (make sure to use the Boston accent). Near the end, maybe even in “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (the series finale), someone pronounced her name so it rhymed with gonorrhea.

Was that always a joke in the pocket from when the sister was named, or a happy coincidence? My lowbrow mind thought it was one of the funniest jokes on the show, especially in the last couple years.

The name Honoria comes from a girl I dated briefly in college. She made it very clear that she wanted to be referred to by her proper name, no nicknames like “Honey.” So when we were looking for a name for Charles’ sister, someone rigid and a little snooty, I thought of Honoria.

The mispronunciation by Hawkeye to needle Charles was a happy accident.

I always wondered whether the real Honoria was flattered or pissed that we used her name.

Johnny Walker queries:

Were there any unaired episodes of Big Wave Dave's? Wikipedia says there were only ever six produced. Is it right?

Only six made. All six aired. All six did great in the ratings. Maybe double the audience BIG BANG THEORY enjoys now. CBS cancelled us.  I'm not at all bitter.

From Bert:

You've frequently provided insightful advice for aspiring TV writers. What would you suggest for a young high school kid, a sports buff, who wants to be a sports broadcaster?

Take English courses. Read voraciously. Develop your communication skills and build your vocabulary. It’s not just about “sports.”

Study the sportscasters you admire, but don’t copy their style. And then practice the 10,000 hours. The best way to do that is to grab a taping device, go to games, sit high in the stands away from others, call the game, then listen back and critique yourself, really being brutal. It’s not the same sitting in front of your TV with the sound down. You don’t want someone else to show you the pictures. You want to be able to see for yourself -- check out the defensive alignment, or what’s happening on the bench or in the dugout (depending on the sport). And it’s great to have that crowd ambiance.

It doesn’t have to be a Major League baseball game or NBA or NFL game. Go call a college game or even a high school game. The more experience you get, the better. Oh… and keep giving the score.

What's your Friday Question?  Please leave it in the comments section.  I'll try to get to it no matter what coast I'm on.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Striving for the BIGGEST laugh

The biggest laugh I think I ever had was from a joke on THE HONEYMOONERS. I must’ve rolled on the floor for five minutes straight.   If LMFAO is bigger than LOL, what is bigger than LMFAO because that's what I did?

THE HONEYMOONERS, for many of my younger readers (and hopefully I have more than six), was a 1950’s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason (who was a guy) as Ralph Kramden, a New York bus driver who was always looking to get rich.

In one episode, called “The $99,000 Answer” Ralph goes on a live national game show (very much like 500 QUESTIONS). He has to identify songs. At any time he could stop and keep the money he’s earned, or risk it all for more money if he answers the next question. You know the drill. He enlists the help of his best friend, Ed Norton (no, not the actor – the character played brilliantly by Art Carney) to prepare for the show. He rents a piano, gathers sheet music, and Norton tests him by playing various songs. All well and good but Norton has a quirk. He starts every song with the opening riff of “Suwannee River.” It drives Ralph insane.

By the time he has to go on the show he knows every song ever written. Now the joke. 60 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT. The very first song they give him is “Suwannee River” and he doesn’t know it. Maybe because I was like eleven at the time but I didn’t see it coming. That joke utterly killed me.

Today we are more savvy. We’ve all seen a billion more sitcom episodes. It’s hard to imagine an audience not anticipating this punch line.

But I always loved it, and I always admired the courage of building an entire episode around one payoff. Talk about all or nothing. Plus, like I said, it’s harder to pull off today because audiences are more sophisticated to sitcom-plotting-ways.

Still, as a comedy writer, it’s something I always wanted to do. On CHEERS I got my chance. David Isaacs and I had an idea – what if Frasier and Lilith are worried because their toddler Frederick still hasn’t spoken? Lilith questions her own parenting skills. So Frasier takes over as primary care-giver. Frasier, of course, brings little Freddy to the bar every day. And this is what happens. (They won’t let me embed it so you’ll have to click on the link.)

Happily, the studio audience did not see it coming and erupted in huge prolonged laughter. It was both a rush and a major relief.

Writing it proved to be a bitch, but not for the reason we expected. We had to somehow set up the joke without telegraphing it.  That part we knew.  To do that we established that parking meters were now installed on the nearby streets and Norm had to feed the meter every couple of hours. That way he could enter the bar four or five times and Frederick could learn the pattern. But what it meant for me and David was that we had to write four or five Norm entrances. At that point in the series run writing one was a bitch. We kept grumbling through the entire first draft, “We are such schmucks! We did this to ourselves!”

Ultimately, the show worked like a charm. The episode title, by the way, is “Breaking In Is Hard To Do” and it’s available on Hulu Plus if you want to watch it. I can’t embed that either.

But I owe it all to THE HONEYMOONERS and writers Leonard Stern & Sydney Zelinka. Another great example of an entire episode based on one gigantic payoff is the “That’s My Boy” installment of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen it (I gave you sixty years to see “the $99,000 Answer”), but thanks to writers Bill Persky & Sam Denoff.