Monday, March 02, 2015

How to get a record on the air or a Golden Globe

Here’s another one of those Friday Questions that became an entire post. It’s from Bill Jones (who did not pay me to answer it):

I was wondering if you could talk frankly about "payola" in the radio industry. From what I know, record labels and radio stations got caught in pay-for-play scandals in the 1950s or so, but the practice lasted for decades beyond (including on MTV, and may still last today in both media). Did you ever witness or hear of such conduct while you were a DJ? Who did the labels try to bribe--station managers? Playlist supervisors? DJs? And was it with money or, um, other substances? Just wondering -- thanks!

Payola was a big scandal in the late ‘50s. Record companies realized that only songs that got radio airplay became hits. Back then radio stations had huge audiences and great influence. There was no Pandora, and the only satellite was Sputnik and they only played Russian hits.

Disc jockeys in those days had much more freedom than they do today. They could select their own music. So needless to say, they were the targets of the record companies. DJ’s were paid under the table to play their songs. Many radio stations knew about this practice and looked the other way. In fact, they sometimes didn’t pay their disc jockeys very high salaries, knowing their income would be padded by the record companies.

But of course this practice was dishonest. Disc Jockeys were recommending crap just because their palms were being greased.

The result was a big scandal. Back in those days congressional hearings and witch hunts were quite the fad. Lots of DJ’s lost their jobs, including the great Alan Freed. Somehow, however, Dick Clark managed to escape unscathed. Clark didn’t take payola per se from record companies, he owned a whole bunch of them. He also received royalties from tons of hits that he essentially made by giving the artists exposure on AMERICAN BANDSTAND. Clark divested of all his record company holdings and walked away clean. Alan Freed was not so lucky. His career was essentially ruined.

Stations assumed more control over the programming. By the mid ‘60s most Top 40 stations had music directors and program directors who ultimately decided which songs received airplay. So to pay off a Disc Jockey was like the stupid starlet who tries to get ahead in Hollywood by sleeping with writers.

Record companies found other ways to “encourage” the PD’s and MD’s to play their songs. Women, drugs, trips, wining and dining, free T-shirts. Is it legal? No, not really. But is this practice any different from what Washington lobbies do to win favor? Is a free junket “payola?” Or an expensive dinner? Or tickets to the Super Bowl?

Does payola still go on? Of course it does. Maybe not as overt, and certainly not as widespread – not because the radio industry is cleaning up its act, but because radio now has way less impact. Why pay to get a record on a station when you could get just as many listeners with a boombox sticking out of your car window?

As for MTV, I don’t think they even show music videos anymore. I don’t know what Music Television means if they no longer play music. To court MTV execs is like that stupid starlet sleeping with writers’ assistants.

Personally, I never took money when I was a Disc Jockey. Hey, I was never approached. A record promo man took me out to lunch once when I worked in San Bernardino. So I played his record on every station I ever worked for from then on. It was a really nice lunch. Dessert too. (Of course it helped that the record was a monster hit and every DJ played it all across the country.)

No record people ever offered me girls. I would have played polka tunes on a rock station if someone offered girls. But alas, they knew I had a very strict playlist, and in some cases the actual order of the songs was predetermined before I got on the air. So there was no reason to court me. Plus, I made fun of most records.

The key is whether the person or organization or congressman can be bought. I’d like to think that most can’t, but then I see the Golden Globes.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

My PLAYBILL bio -- aren't you impressed?

One of my plays was produced in Los Angeles last year.  Who knows?  Maybe someday I'll get to Broadway.   When (if) I do, I'll be asked to write my bio for the PLAYBILL.   The trouble is, if I list that I am primarily a TV writer it’s like putting a big target on my chest for New York theater critics. So I thought I’d fudge, tailor it a tad for the Broadway theater crowd. What do you think of this?

Ken is the adopted son of Stephen Sondheim. His godfather was Bob Fosse who he met while walking Gwen Verdon’s dog. He spent his formative years building the sets for LES MISERABLES. A Peace Corps stint followed where for two years he introduced the Broadway musical to poverty stricken villages throughout Cambodia.

Ken returned to New York where he walked Carol Channing’s husband. He became somewhat of a play doctor, coming in uncredited to save A CHORUS LINE, PROOF, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (originally titled: SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH SHLOMO). WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AVENUE Q., AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (additional dialogue), GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (talking Mamet out of the dance numbers), and THE ODD COUPLE (originally titled: TWO AND A HALF MEN).

An experimental work of his own played two nights in Boston and two nights in St. Louis. It was called the 2004 WORLD SERIES.

He has never seen a television show, watched a movie, or read any book not written by John Simon or Frank Rich.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

You can't say that on the radio

Here's another tale from my misbegotten radio career.  It's also a re-post from six years ago.

1972. I’m a relief engineer at KABC and their sister station KLOS-FM. That meant I played the records on KLOS and played the commercials on KABC. My shift on Sunday nights was to play the public service shows. As preposterous as it sounds now, radio and television stations once were expected to actually serve the community. A certain amount of their programming had to be devoted to public affairs. So of course stations would bury these shows in the middle of the night or early and late Sundays when no one was listening.

One Sunday night I see we have a new program scheduled. IMPACTO. It’s a talk show geared to the Hispanic community. I’m thrilled. It was live. Normally I played half hour tapes on how to fill out Social Security forms.

The host is Joe Ortiz. He’s relatively new to radio; primarily a community advocate. I ask, “What’s the game plan?” He says he’ll take calls and if there’s a lull I’m to just play a record. What kind of record? He says it makes no difference, just grab something KLOS normally plays. Sounds easy enough to me.

So he starts taking calls. And every other one starts off like this: “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” Whoa! Every two seconds I’m diving for the kill button (we were on an eight second delay). I tell Joe on a break to remind his callers they’re not allowed to swear on the radio. He gets pissed at me. That’s censorship. No it’s not, I tell him. It’s the FCC. We could lose our license. He ignores me.

So for weeks I’m hitting the kill button so often you’d think I was tapping out Morse Code. Needless to say, our relationship was frosty.

From time to time there are lulls and he calls for a record. He says, “We’ll be back right after a little music” and I play Crosby, Stills, & Nash or whomever. KLOS was your classic rock station even before we knew the stuff was classic.

So one night the swearers aren’t calling. He signals for a record. I grab one from the rack and cue it up. He announces on the air, “We’re going to take a break but here is a record that expresses the perception of the Hispanic community.” I let the record fly. It’s “Dead Skunk In the Middle of the Road”.

Joe goes nuts. I show great restraint by not falling to the floor in laughter. I say, “It’s on the playlist. Who the hell told you to introduce it like that?”

So Joe files an official union grievance on me. I have to go before a board of the Chief Engineer and union representatives. I’m charged with being a racist. Once they hear my side of the story they fall on the floor laughing. The grievance is dropped and I’m completely pardoned. Better yet I’m taken off that shift.

For years I had no idea whatever happened to Joe Ortiz. He hasn’t befriended me on Facebook. I understand he's no longer in broadcasting. But ironically, his last on-air gig was hosting a talk show on a Christian station. I wonder how “Hey man, I’m tired of this fucking shit…” would go over there.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Questions

Hello from somewhere in the Far East.   Here are some Friday Questions although where I am it's Saturday.

willieb asks:

Any truth in those "everybody has a screenplay" stories ("My hairdresser/valet/dry cleaner gave me a screenplay to read")? Have you been bombarded with sample scripts? If so, what's the weirdest situation you've had to deal with?

I’ve received scripts at my high school reunion, I’ve told the story about getting pitched a movie while making funeral arrangements for my grandmother, and a couple of years ago one of the host helpers during my mother’s condolence wanted to pitch me a pilot idea. When I announced minor league baseball people would come up to the press box all the time with scripts. It's not like there was great security in ballparks in Rochester and Toledo. If someone had the lung capacity to climb those stairs they could get in.

A director I know was attending High Holiday services one year at his temple and a fellow congregate pulled a script out from under his prayer shawl.

I’m sure a few of the working writers who read this blog could weigh in with their own appalling stories.

Cap'n Bob Napier wonders:

I just saw a M*A*S*H episode written by MacLean Stevenson. When actors do this are massive rewrites usually required or are they pretty good to start with?

I don’t know about that particular episode but yes, massive rewrites usually are required. One reason: they often give 90% of the good lines to themselves. But in fairness, they’re not writers. If I were to suddenly have a big guest role in a MASH or CHEERS episode I’m sure I’d suck. I’m not an actor.

I will say this though, Alan Alda’s scripts were terrific and we changed very little.

From Steve:

On a show like Cheers, do the showrunners or writers know where they want their main characters to wind up by the end of the series (e.g., Sam & Diane will finally get and stay together), or is that unusual and more typically the story arcs are just thought of season by season, or even every few weeks?

First off, it’s unusual that shows are so successful that producers can determine when the series will end. Usually it’s America.

In the case of CHEERS, we always thought it would be great to bring Diane back for the finale but Shelley Long had to be available and agreeable to doing it. If she were in Norway making a movie we were shit out of luck.

If producers know where the finish line is they’ll usually work towards it in the final season.  Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED has said recently he doesn't know how the series is going to end.  Hopefully he does by now.  We're halfway through the final season. 

Some shows have built in endings. the war ends on MASH.  And of course, the final scene of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER? was filmed only a couple of years into the series, and since kids were involved and they have the audacity to grow, the producers were pretty locked into that ending. 

A bigger question than what to do for the finale is how long the finale will be? Networks try to make huge events out of these and stretch them from a half hour to (if they had their choice) nine hours plus an intermission. This greatly affects the storytelling. MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS, and SEINFELD were waaay longer than they needed to be but the networks got one last massive payday out of them. In my opinion, as good as all of them may have been, they would have been far better if they were only an hour.

Kudos to THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, NEWHART, and EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND for ending their series with half hour episodes. For my money they’re three of the best finales ever. And that's one reason why.

My partner and I have had three series and none of them had a planned final episode. Once the network says, "You're canceled! Now get out!" that pretty much puts the kibosh on your glittering two hour finale. If we knew we were doing a last episode of ALMOST PERFECT the plan was to bring back all the characters from our other two series and end all three at once. Well, maybe when our next series is canceled.

Ask your question in the comments section. Thanks. Have a great weekend wherever you are.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I think I need therapy

I think I need therapy based on a very disturbing dream I had last night. (No, it wasn't that you didn't buy my book.)

First, I should mention that I’m not a great dancer. You know when clothes get clogged in your washing machine during the rinse cycle and the whole machine shakes so violently you think it’s going to break? That’s me during slow dances.

But back to dreams. They’re supposed to provide you with wish fulfillment. You’re making love to that one unobtainable person you lust after. You’re a superhero and you can fly. You’re at a Cubs World Series game (okay, that’s maybe too crazy). In any event, unconscious desires often get played out in the privacy and safety of dreams (your Democrat friends are not going to kill you because Ann Coulter is your nightly dominatrix).

Anyway, last night I dreamed I was at some party in a ballroom and there was a large dance floor. Very SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. (My dreams do have good art direction, I will say that.)  No one was dancing, but in the dream I thought to myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could go out there and bust some moves? Wouldn’t it be cool if I were suddenly Fred Astaire?” I sighed and that was that.

When I woke up I thought, “Hey, I shouldn’t be WISHING to dance in the dream. I should be actually DOING it.” If I can't dance in my own fucking dream then when can I?

How pathetic am I that my fantasy is to wish for something? And that’s when I realized I was in need of professional help.

Now this could just be a by-product of being a writer. I’m used to playing out cool scenarios, but only on the page. Highly paid actors get to do the steamy love scenes I construct – not me. Actors get the big laughs. Actors light up the dance floor.  I get network notes. 

Here's another dream I once had.  This was back in the days I was writing for MASH: I was with Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers. We were just talking. And then, at one point I stopped them and said, “No, David you say this, and then Alan, you say that.” I was rewriting people’s dialog in my dream. This too is not normal.

I hope to eventually work through these nocturnal issues. I long for the days I can actively play out my fantasies. I’ll let you know if that’s what I wish for in my dreams tonight.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

There was comedy before 2005

As some of you know, I am in Andy Goldberg’s Improv Workshop on Wednesday nights. It’s always a blast. I did a scene a few weeks back with a fine improver (if there is such a word), John Content. It was a “Man on the Street” scene. You’ve seen those. Jimmy Kimmel does them frequently – an interview snags passersby and asks them various questions.

I was the interviewer and John was the “man on the street.” We got the preliminaries out of the way. I asked him his name and where he was from (New Orleans). The objective of this exercise is to force you to really create a “character.”

At that point John launched into a hilarious ridiculous story involving UFO abductions, space cows, God knows what. He got big laughs. But what made it funnier was that he delivered it all very matter-of-fact. As he was unspooling this absurd raft of bullshit a thought hit me. When he finally took a breath I interjected, “You’ve said some very interesting things. I don’t want to just slide over them, so let’s back up a bit. What part of New Orleans?”

This too got a big laugh.

John answered my question then launched into more outrageous nonsense, much to the delight of the audience.

I finally broke in with “What side of the street in New Orleans?” Again, a big yuck.

The bit worked for several reasons. First, John figured out immediately what I was doing and played along. And secondly, the construct was very funny. We all know interviewers who don’t listen.

But here’s the dirty little secret: I was essentially doing a Bob & Ray routine. Bob & Ray were a radio comedy team back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their sketches were uproarious. Always dry, always underplayed, but their premises were always absurd and their timing was impeccable. Although they did not do this exact bit, they did a lot of similar interviewer-guest sketches. Once John launched into his crazy UFO scenario I thought to myself, “This feels like a Bob & Ray sketch. What would Bob & Ray do?”

So two points I want to make: The first: seek out Bob & Ray radio shows. They’re hilarious. And two: comedy evolves. Current comedy has been influenced by what has gone before. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob & Ray didn’t borrow some of their routines from old Vaudeville comedy teams of the early 1900’s.  Comedy wasn't invented in 2005. 

Just being a “funny” person isn’t enough. You need to do your homework. You need to study forms of comedy in the same way that musicians analyze the greats that have gone before them.

If you want to be a sitcom writer watch great sitcoms like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, CHEERS, and twenty other classics. If you want to be a stand-up comedian watch borscht belt comics like Alan King, great storytellers like Bob Newhart, edgy comics like Lenny Bruce, edgier comics like Richard Pryor. Louis C.K. is fucking awesome, but he didn’t invent stand-up.

If the theater is your goal -- read plays by Noel Coward, Kaufman & Hart, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon. Screenwriters -- watch Preston Sturges screwball comedies, and Billy Wilder comedies, and Mel Brooks parodies. Long before there was SNL there was Sid Caesar’s YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Yes, some of the routines are dated. But watch how they construct sketches. How they get in them and out of them. How they create characters.

Ask yourself the question: why is this funny? You don’t have to deconstruct every line, but figure out the game plan. Recognize and appreciate templates that work. And then make them your own.

Often you’ll find it’s a lot easier to get laughs by creating a funny comic premise than just coming up with “jokes.” I got laughs with “Where in New Orleans?” “What side of the street?” It was all about context. Do your homework. The good news is it’ll be the most enjoyable homework you’ve ever done.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why it's cool to be a TV writer

I’ve bitched in the past about the frustrations of being a TV comedy writer -- notes, crappy food, etc.  So you might ask: “why WOULD I want to become a TV comedy writer? What are the pluses?”

Okay, how about these?

First – a disclaimer: these points apply to when you’re in a good working situation. No matter how “dream” the “dream job” is, if your boss is a monster, your co-workers are the Manson family, and the working conditions are a notch below the Triangle Shirt Factory you’re going to be in the sixth ring of hell. But assuming you’re in a decent situation (and many of them are):

You get to work in a big Hollywood movie studio (or maybe a warehouse in Chatsworth but there are still sound stages and stuff).

Parking is provided (usually)!

You spend all day working with funny people. And I don’t mean “Funny People” like the Judd Apatow movie – these people are ACTUALLY funny.

So all day long you laugh and make them laugh. Can you think of a better way of making a living once you’re too old to be a porn star?

Without having to give thousands of dollars to charity first, sometimes hot actors and actresses on your show will hug you.

You see your name on television.

People who thought you were a total loser see your name on television.

Words that you write get performed. Not by waiters but former waiters who are now TV stars.

You’re fed all day long. This is great for the first couple of years.

You hear amazing showbiz stories. Every so often one is true!

You receive a birthday cake from your agent. And, as a bonus, he doesn’t drop you!

You have scripts to donate for your kids’ school silent auction. (But do yourself a favor and don’t compare what your script brings in versus the MODERN FAMILY that another parent donates.)

As you hear other writers discuss their upbringing, you suddenly feel sooooo much better about yours.

You know the expression “women are attracted to men with a sense of humor”? The REAL expression is “women are attracted to men with a sense of humor who are getting paid for it.”

You sometimes get nominated for awards...

You sometimes win...

Sometimes a show that you write goes into syndication and pays residuals. In how many professions can you make money while you sleep?

People will follow you on Twitter.

When you have a blog in twenty years people will bookmark it.

You get show SWAG. I still get compliments on my WINGS jacket.

But most of all it’s that laughing thing. For all the hours and aggravation, being able to laugh all day is a wonderful way to your spend your life. Hopefully the bad food won’t shorten it.