Wednesday, August 31, 2016

the shelf life of sitcoms

Here’s a Friday Question that became a full post.

It's from Joe Stevens.

What is the shelf life of a hit sitcom or how many people watch pre-1978 sitcoms regularly? I chose that date as Taxi and WKRP came out that year.

It depends on many factors. How beloved was the show? How dated has the show become?  How universal are the situations and characters? Is the show still relevant on some level? Is the appeal strictly nostalgia?

Certainly as generations pass on, the shows from their era tend to fade into the mist. But not always. I LOVE LUCY is still around. So is THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. And if you look hard enough, THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW and THE HONEYMOONERS are still on TV somewhere. If I’m not mistaken, a local New York broadcast station still airs THE HONEYMOONERS on a regular basis.

Some series seem timeless like MASH and GOLDEN GIRLS and CHEERS and I suspect they’ll still be around when the Jetsons are alive.

Others like MURPHY BROWN with it’s political references and most of today’s sitcoms that rely so heavily on pop culture references will have very short shelf lives.

And then there are the series that for whatever inexplicable reason still has a following – shows like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH. You explain it.  I can't. 

I’m a little surprised that TAXI didn’t fare well in syndication. Maybe it’s just that audiences didn’t like the setting – a taxi garage was grimy and uninviting. But the writing and characters were top notch. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW also did not have a great afterlife. It could be that the sets today look chintzy. I dunno. A better written show from any era you will not find.

It used to be that independent TV stations needed programming to fill so they bought off-network syndicated programs. CHEERS might be on at 11 at night for several years, eventually replaced by SEINFELD, etc. Shows would have their day and eventually disappear. But now that there are so many more platforms and ways to see old series, shows like FRASIER and ALL IN THE FAMILY and even SAVED BY THE BELL will be available to watch somewhere. This is why I’m particularly pissed that our series, ALMOST PERFECT is not available. Or should I say, not available in America? ALMOST PERFECT is available on Netflix in Europe. But not here. Isn’t that crazy? If they’ve gone to the trouble to digitize and catalog all 34 episodes, why not make them available in the US?

But I digress…

WKRP IN CINCINNATI feels very dated. And on the DVD’s the music is replaced because of rights issues. So you’re watching a knock-off of the original program.

All of this can be said for movies too. Yes, most movies made in the ‘30s and ‘40s have disappeared forever. But not all. And with movie channels like TCM, some of these oldies but goodies can still draw an audience. People will be watching Billy Wilder movies long after they’re watching Seth Rogen movies.

I personally consider myself very lucky. Lots of TV writers toil for years on shows that disappear into the ether. Having done many episodes of MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, and THE SIMPSONS – I’m eternally grateful that people today can still enjoy my efforts. That YOU can still watch my shows.

Now if I could just get Netlix to run ALMOST PERFECT…

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Happy Birthday, Annie!

First off I want to wish the happiest of Happy Birthdays to my fabulous, funny, phenomenal daughter, Annie.  You make me proud everyday.  And you make me laugh everyday.  Could a father ever ask for more?  I love you, kiddo. 

Okay, the rest of you can now scroll down to today's post.  Thanks. 

My favorite celebrity sighting experience

How’s this for one of those cool Hollywood stories? And I swear it’s true.

It’s the summer of either 1969 or 1970 (I’ve narrowed it down to those two). I’m a sports intern at KMPC radio in Los Angeles. KMPC was the big full-service radio station in town. They had star disc jockeys like Gary Owens (from LAUGH IN), Wink Martindale, Jim Lange, Geoff Edwards (all your favorite game show hosts), Roger Carroll (announcer of THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW and many others), and occasionally Bob Crane (HOGAN’S HEROES). The morning man, Dick Whittinghill, was an LA institution.

And when the station wasn’t playing Sinatra or Streisand, it was airing sports. KMPC was the home of the Rams (I’m so glad they’re back), the Angels, and UCLA football and basketball. Dick Enberg and Dave Niehaus were among their play-by-play men. We’re talking “high rent district.”

KMPC had their own planes and helicopters and even a news reporter in a trench coat who was a character right out of Raymond Chandler named Donn Reed who cruised around the city at night filing reports of hold ups and hostage situations. “Donn Reed – nightside.”

My job that summer (whichever summer it was) was to write up sports reports every half hour for the newscasts, change the ticker tape ribbon (my fingers are still purple), and keep track of the police scanners should a liquor store robbery break out. For this I was paid minimum wage. But I didn’t care. I LOVED it. On the side I was writing comedy bits for Gary Owens and interning for Dick Enberg at Rams’ games at the Coliseum. I also got as many Angel tickets as I wanted, but who the hell wanted to schlep out to fucking Anaheim in late afternoon traffic?


One morning I’m at my desk in the newsroom and Stanley Spero, the General Manager comes in. He asks if I’d do him a favor. There’s going to be a movie about a radio station that will soon go into production and one of the people from the film wanted to spend a couple of days just hanging around a radio station, soaking up the atmosphere. Would I mind spending the next two days with this person, showing him around, answering any of his questions, etc.? I said, “Sure.” (Like I’m going to tell the boss “No.”) So he said great and left. A few minutes later he returned with the person.

Paul Newman.

And this was the 1969 (or '70) Paul Newman. The Butch Cassidy Paul Newman. I imagine many of you women readers are now swooning. (Note: If there are readers who don’t know who Paul Newman is please do not tell me. I will be depressed for weeks.)

The movie was WUSA.

So for the next two days me and Paul Newman were BFF’s. I’m happy to report that he could not have been nicer and more down-to-earth. He was gracious with everyone. I thought to myself, “Oh why can’t iPhones with cameras be invented fifty years sooner?” Like an idiot, I didn’t get a photo with him or even his autograph. I was “too cool” for that. Moron.

When the movie came out I was the first one to see it. Looking back, I was the ONLY one to see it. But those two days together were amazing. I felt guilty taking KMPC’s $1.25 an hour. I went from Newsroom Kid to Sundance Kid.

Monday, August 29, 2016

R.I.P. Gene Wilder

So sorry to hear today of the passing of Gene Wilder.  He was 83.  What a truly talented, funny, and from what I've always heard -- lovely man.   I didn't know him personally.  Sitting in a movie theater once with him doesn't count.  But I know someone who did know him -- and worked with him.   Tom Straw, a terrific writer and dear friend.  So I reached out to Tom who graciously agreed to share some personal memories of Gene Wilder with my readers.   Tom, I can't thank you enough, especially now during your time of loss.  This is a wonderful profile that really gives you a feel of who Gene Wilder really was.  R.I.P. "Genedy." 

“Some Memories of the Great Gene Wilder”

Gene Wilder was much loved, and, for anyone reading this who wonders, your affection is well-placed.

My first memory of Gene was when I was a disc jockey in San Diego with a certain Ken Levine, going to see Blazing Saddles, laughing our asses off.

Flash forward to the year 1999. I’m living in Connecticut and a mutual friend from LA is visiting, staying at Gene and Karen’s house in Stamford, and asks if my family would like to come over for brunch the next day. It would be my first meeting with Gene, and it was memorable. My kids were quite young, and, at brunch, conversation went to which of his films would be appropriate for them to see. Someone said, “Young Frankenstein.” Gene and I made eye contact, and in unison said, “Fronckensteen, please.” A fan crush became a friendship.

The next week, I got a call from Gene. He was writing the second of a TV movie series he was also starring in, and felt stalled. He asked if I would mind reading his pages and offer any thoughts. It’s one of those reality-check occasions where you stare at the phone and then say, “Well, um, sure…” I don’t need to say that his writing was terrific. As an actor he had a writer’s ear and a director’s eye. But I did offer a few suggestions (I would never have presumed to give him notes). He listened graciously and incorporated them, for the most part, but beyond that, my agent got a call a few days later. Gene Wilder had an idea for a movie, and would I write the screenplay with him? Fuck yeah.

Our routine was to write a few days a week at his house. The work went very well, and man, did we laugh. One of the true joys was reading finished pages back and forth. Once, I read a line of dialogue and he busted up. I said, “What do you know, my reading made Gene Wilder laugh.” He nodded and said sagely, “The trick is, Tomedy, can you do it seventy five times, the same way, for each take?” That’s when he started calling me Tomedy.

Our phone calls always began, “Hello, Tomedy?” And I’d reply, “Yes. Genedy?”

In downtime, I would pump him about directing and an actor’s private work. I was especially keen to know about his maniacal “Live! Liiiiive!” from Young Frankenstein. He grew very serious and said that when he did that scene, he wasn’t thinking of comedy, but tapping into the deep anguish he had once felt about someone he cared about who’d been at death’s door. And yet, we all laugh.

He told me that the best way to judge a good director was to watch the movie with the sound off, like on an airplane. The storytelling would carry. Or not.

Gene was a talented artist in other ways, too. He was a fine watercolorist. I do oils and acrylics, but when the screenplay work was done, he invited me to join him and his wife Karen for a few hours of watercolor painting together. A memory I’ll always treasure.

Gene got very ill during our time working together. He made me swear to tell nobody. Now that he’s gone, I suppose I am released and can tell two stories about that. I was also working then as Executive Producer of COSBY, which also starred Madeline Kahn. She came to me one day to break the news that she had cancer. She said, “I know Gene is a friend of yours. Will you promise-promise you will not tell him?” I agreed. And kept my word to both, feeling so strange to be in that sad triangulation.

Happily, Gene pulled through, but there’s one other thing that bears mentioning. During that illness years ago, Mel Brooks and Charles Grodin were not only visitors to Gene. They were constant visitors, staying with him for hours at a time over weeks and months to bolster him. Nobody better ever say anything bad to me about those two after what they did for Gene.

Of course, they did it for Gene Wilder, who was a mensch. From the day we met 17 years ago he was always a joy. Honest, brave, caring, smart, talented… and so damned funny. I remember once we took a break from that screenplay and were having lunch in his kitchen. From the basement, Karen called out there was a dead mouse. He paused and gave me that signature Gene look. I said, “It’s your house, buddy.” Resigned, he got up and went to the basement. One minute later—perfect, perfect timing—I hear him at the top of his lungs, “Live! Liiiiiive!"

I’m kinda saying the same thing now in my head. He always will.


This is one of those posts where I really want your input.

In 1982 there was a popular movie released called VICTOR/VICTORIA by comedy stalwart Blake Edwards. I went to see it in a full theater and the movie was getting tons of laughs. But none from me. And it really worried me. I’m supposed to be making my living by knowing what’s funny and what makes people laugh and yet here was this big crowd in hysterics and I didn’t know why. Was I completely out of touch? Was I former Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch who suddenly one day couldn’t throw the ball to first?

That’s the way I feel about UNREAL.

First, let me back up, my TV mentors were Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds, and James L. Brooks. I learned from them that writing becomes richer and deeper if you strive to celebrate the human spirit, not just load up your script with jokes.

Now times change and styles change and I’m willing to concede that this approach might be deemed out-of-fashion, passé, or naïve to today’s hardened audience.

And that brings me to UNREAL.

I had never seen the show. It’s on Lifetime. For a long time I didn’t know it even existed. But I started hearing good buzz. And the creator is Marti Noxon who I greatly admire. The reviews were sensational. The show even won a Peabody Award. So I grabbed my TV Academy screener discs and eagerly looked forward to discovering this hidden gem.

The premise of the show is this: It’s a fictional behind-the-scenes look at a reality competition show like THE BACHELOR – warts and all. I like shows that pull back the curtain. So premise-wise I was all in.  And I understand that it's not a "comedy." 

After two episodes I felt the same dread as when watching VICTOR/VICTORIA. To me this was one of the most cynical TV series I had ever seen. The fictional crew making the show (EVERLASTING) had utter disregard and contempt for any of the contestants. Their only goal was to make flashy television, no matter how deceitful or hurtful they had to be to achieve it. And the contestants were all portrayed as narcissistic golddigging airheads.

Now I’m sure that’s EXACTLY the way it is in real life. I believe Ms. Noxon worked on one of these shows. Authenticity is not an issue.

I know it’s a cliché to say you must have someone to root for. And agree it's not absolutely necessary.  I like HOUSE OF CARDS and Frank & Claire Underwood are reprehensible but it’s set in a arena where the entire world hangs in the balance, and ultimately I hope they’re led out of the White House in handcuffs.

But UNREAL is about a cheesy reality show -- an easy target.  Full disclosure: I don’t watch shows like THE BACHELOR. I’m sure if I did I would be more invested. But from where I sit this series is very mean-spirited. And I just find it uncomfortable.

So I ask you readers – what am I missing? Is it mean-spirited but that’s the fun of it? Is that considered “edgy?” Is there humanity that I’m just missing?  Is this just the current style?  Are moral characters now uninteresting?  Are we just now desensitized to human suffering?  

As a writer, I was always taught to love my characters – even the antagonists. It doesn’t feel to me that the writers of UNREAL love their characters. In some cases it seems they loathe them. But again, that might be the point. That might be the hook. I’m sincerely asking because I would love to perhaps view this show from a different perspective and give it another try. I hate being out of step, especially in my own industry. So is it a generation thing? A sensibility thing? Or something else I’m just missing entirely?

Or, as a last resort, you agree with me?  

Let me know what you think. I'm really curious.  Thanks in advance. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I hate Power Point

Imagine you had to give a presentation to a fairly large group. The topic is something you know something about. The quarterly report. The latest advances in merkins. Whatever.  And while you're delivering this presentation you also have to put on rock climbing gear. Bulky jacket,boots, lacing up the heavy boots, attaching one or two harnesses, stocking up on flares and picks. All this while you're analyzing T.S. Eliot poetry.

Well for the most part, that's what it's like when you do a presentation with PowerPoint. Ive been to a number of conferences lately where good speakers with interesting topics were derailed by PowerPoint presentations. They spent half their talks fumbling around with slides. At first the audience is patient and has a little empathy. But after five minutes you want to scream, "Hey, numnuts! They're friggin' bullet points. Who gives a shit?! Just talk!".

PowerPoint and similar programs kill more lectures than they help. Yes, if you need visuals, fine. Let's say you're explaining how Facebook works or just "what is pornography?"  Slides would help -- in some cases the bigger, the better.

But now you can easily make graphs and graphics to just underscore the text of your talk. 68% of homeowners have spice racks.  "I don't believe you. Oh wait, I'm now looking at a slide of a spice rack and underneath it says 68% of homeowners have these. Okay, you sold me!".

The truth is speakers now use PowerPoint as a crutch. They think the can jazz up their presentations with visual aids. All too often though this results in technical snafus, fumbling around, the wrong slides, and takes the speaker right out of any rhythm. And most of the time the slides are boring, hard to read, and unnecessary.

Some people think if they don't arm themselves with PowerPoint that the audience will think they're unprepared. That's bullshit!

As a speaker, your job is to communicate. Talk to us. Share ideas, if it's a topic you're excited about let us see that.  You don't have to be the worlds greatest speaker. But your genuine enthusiasm will sell your message. Not a dizzying display of pie charts.

A helpful tip that will mean more than a slide proclaiming "4 warning signs of gum decay" is to start your talk with a story. People love stories and it puts them at ease. People think you have to begin with a joke -- the great woody Allen intro: " I'm reminded of the incestuous farmer's daughter...". No. You don't have to do that. If you got a great joke and you're good at delivering jokes then yeah, kill 'em. But a brief story, preferably personal, will achieve the same goal of disarming your crowd.

Speak with passion. Again, you don't have to be Billy Graham or Zig Zigler. But make us understand why the topic is interesting to you. In this case, a well placed word is worth a thousand pictures.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The easiest way to make money EVER

On the surface that's what you'd think.  Be a voice over artist.  Go into a recording studio.  Read one tag line, collect a big paycheck, and you're back in your car in five minutes.  If the commercial catches on and they use it after a thirteen week run you get paid again.   If they use it for years you're set for life.   Remember the "Parkay/butter" spots?  The guy who said "butter" has more money than Trump.

However, it's not as easy as it sounds.  Most of the time these VO artists are given "direction."  And you would think there are only so many ways to read a line.  But you would be wrong.

Here's a hilarious short film by Tim Mason that REALLY shows you what a commercial recording session is like. 

It was made by Hog Butcher, a group of improvisers, comedians and writers from various Chicago institutions like Second City, IO and the Annoyance Theater. Its leader is Ron Lazzeretti.

I bet there's not a professional voice over artist who has not had this experience -- ten times. Enjoy. Or should I say ENjoy? Or maybe enJOY? Or

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday Questions

The great thing about Friday Questions is I don't have to think of a new subject title.   Here are this week's:

Wally starts us off:

A Friday Question based on what Wikipedia says:

Did NBC only allow Ratzenberger to attend Nick Colasanto's funeral in RI since it occurred during the season?

No. As shocking as it is to learn that Wikipedia is wrong, that is incorrect.

There was a funeral for Nick in North Hollywood that I along with the entire cast, and staff attended.

I still miss him. And as wonderful as Woody was, nothing could top Nick as the Coach.

Brian Phillips asks:

Not a lot has been written about the "Cheers" spinoff, "The Tortellis". I noticed you and David Isaacs contributed a script. What was it like working on "The Tortellis"?

Well, David and I were never on staff. The Charles Brothers asked us to write an episode, which we did.

For those six people out there who don’t remember THE TORTELLI’S, this was a 1987 spin-off of CHEERS centering on Carla’s ex-husband Nick (Dan Hedaya) and his new wife, Loretta (Jean Kasem) moving to Las Vegas.

The pilot script by Ken Estin was terrific.

But the spinoff fell into a familiar trap – making second bananas your stars. Nick & Loretta were funny characters but very broad, so they worked well when used sparingly, but on their own they could not carry a show.

I remember David and I meeting with the Charles Brothers to hammer out a story and it took two days. I asked Glen Charles, “What number episode is this?” He said, “Four,” and I said, “If we’re having this much trouble coming up with the fourth episode there are some serious problems with the premise of the series.” He agreed.

And indeed, the show lasted only 13. I don’t have a copy of our episode so I don’t really remember how bad or good it was.

Random memory of THE TORTELLI’S: it was shot at Paramount in front of a live studio audience. And visible from the living room set you could see a swimming pool in the backyard. An actual swimming pool (or at least a great facsimile) was constructed on the stage. For that alone the series should be considered a classic!

From Laura H.:

I have been watching reruns of Barney Miller, a show I loved as a kid. Happily it still stands up. It occurs to me now that virtually all of the action takes place in the squad room - only once or twice throughout the long run of the series did they step out of that setting. Cheers, of course, was the same way, although they left the bar a bit more often.

After reading your recent post about writing sharp dialogue being a lost art, I started wondering about working on shows like Barney Miller and Cheers. Do those static settings make it harder or easier to write for? Clearly you can't slack on character development and dialogue, since the story itself plays out in that one room. (Not that you should ever slack on character development and dialogue!)

BARNEY MILLER evolved into a one-set show. If you screen the very early episodes of the series, they go back to Barney’s house. His relationship with his wife (played by Barbara Barrie) was originally going to be a major element of the series. But they found their money was in that squad room. Barbara and his home life were phased out. 

The first season of CHEERS we never left the bar. The first time we deviated from that was the season premier of season two when we went to Diane’s apartment. (Remember all the stuffed animals?)

The problem with never leaving the bar was that anything that happened away from CHEERS had to be told to the audience, and it’s always better to see it.

BARNEY had less of an issue with that because their format was bring in three or four different oddballs and have them interact with the regulars. So all the action was right in front of you.

I personally like shows that basically center in one location, especially if the setting is inviting (like CHEERS). In those shows the emphasis is clearly on the characters, their interaction, and dialogue, and if done well you can really mount a smart show.  Also, the location itself almost becomes a character. 

And finally, long time friend of the blog, Johnny Walker wonders:

How do you feel about taking the time to write a character's bio before starting writing? I've heard some people swear by it, but others (including Sorkin) consider it a waste of time. I think I fall in the latter camp now. Provided I know what makes the character tick, I don't need to know what school they went (if the character is well defined enough, you should be able to infer it afterwards - in fact things like that should start to become obvious). What do you think, Ken?

For my UCLA students I recommend writing character profiles. It helps them answer the questions – what do these characters want, what’s interesting or unique about them, what’s funny about them, what are their attitudes, and what are their backgrounds? Answers to all of these questions are a must, whether you write out a bio or not. 

For myself, I do a modified profile. I’ll list key traits, objectives, and generally try to come up with an actor prototype (although I don’t expect to get him).

So bottom line – is it worth doing? Sure. What could it hurt?

What's your Friday Question?  

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hey, wanna see my new play?

Happy to announce that my new play, GOING GOING GONE, will be performed for six weekends beginning October 1st at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood. The Hudson is unique in that there’s a café and parking. That's right -- parking.  The seats are comfortable and the theatre isn’t massive so you can actually see the actors without a telescope.

The play is about four reporters in the press box of a big league stadium and how their lives change over the course of one baseball game. The theme is our need to be remembered set in a world that’s all about celebrating milestones and keeping track of everything.

Plus, I’ve spent many years in these press boxes listening to these guys and trust me, it was not hard to make this a comedy. There were many nights when the byplay in the press box was waaaaay more entertaining than the game on the field.

Andrew Barnicle, who directed my other play, A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre is directing this too. And I couldn’t be more thrilled. The best way to learn how to direct a play is to watch someone who is a master at it. Learning to write a play was harder. I couldn’t just sit and watch Neil Simon type.

I’m also blessed with an awesome cast. Annie Abrams, David Babich, Troy Metcalf, and Dennis Pearson. (My last play featured two actors, this one has four. I don’t know what possessed me to write a spectacle this time.)  There are also "special appearances" by Harry S. Murphy and Howard Hoffman.

Rehearsals begin Tuesday and I’ll keep you up to date on the progress like I did when A OR B? went into production in 2014.

We open Saturday night, October 1st. There will be two previews beforehand – Thursday September 29 and Friday September 30. We’ll do the previews right there at the Hudson. We’re not going to New Haven for two days. There will also be a matinee on Sunday October 2nd.

Following that first weekend, performances will be every Friday and Saturday night at 8:00 and Sunday at 3:00. It closes November 6th.

Yes, I’ll be there every night so if you ever wanted to meet me or see me pace, this would be the perfect opportunity.

For tickets call 323-960-5521 or go here to purchase them online.  Seats are limited. 

Thanks much. See you at the thee-ah-tuh.