Tuesday, January 31, 2017
We got a notice at our house from the Department of Water of Power. They said they were doing some sort of maintenance and our power would be shut off from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm.
I am writing this on my battery-driven laptop.
You don’t realize how completely dependent you are on electricity until the prospect that it will be taken away.
I, at first, went into complete panic mode. No INTERNET? No TV use? Forget watching shows I recorded, I can’t even watch anything? My screener of A MONSTER CALLS is rendered useless? Nor can I stream? Or binge?
Oh yeah, and there’s no heat or lights.
I next went into action-mode. Make sure the phone was charged, make sure the iPad was charged, make sure the Kindle was charged, make sure my razor was charged, make sure my laptop was charged. I even checked to make sure there were batteries in the remote before I realized, what difference does it make? The TV doesn’t work. I also added additional minutes to my iPad data plan. One can never be too safe. The forecast was for rain. A fleeting thought: Do umbrellas need to be recharged? No. I was good.
After a fitful night’s sleep (you can imagine with all of this weighing heavy on my head) I awoke early enough to read and respond to my morning email, check that the coffee was brewing, double-check that the refrigerator door was closed and sealed so nothing inside would spoil (that jello mold from Thanksgiving still eerily looks exactly the same), scan my daily webpages, and then shut off my desktop so there’s no danger of a power surge.
It was like I was preparing for a natural disaster, taking all precautions, facing this emergency crisis head on. No undue hardship was going to lick this Spartan soldier.
Meanwhile, my wife got in her car and just drove off for the day.
Monday, January 30, 2017
Greg Gibson asked:
On many occasions over the years, I've heard actors in interviews say that the spent "two weeks working in a restaurant kitchen" or rode around in a patrol car or lived in a cave for two months or something while they "researched" the role they were playing. I always assumed they were simply being pretentious, but does this actually happen? Is it possible that when you go out for dinner, Meryl Streep is in the back making your salad, or that you may stumble across Robert De Niro someday while out hiking in the woods?
More than possible, it happened to me. I was a sports intern at KMPC in Los Angeles when the General Manager came into the newsroom and said there was somebody about to do a movie on radio and wanted to spend a few days observing a station. Would I mind ushering him around for two days? I said I’d be happy to and the General Manager then brought in Paul Newman. He was about to do a film called WUSA. This was late ‘60s/early ‘70s so we’re talking the BUTCH CASSIDY/STING Paul Newman. I almost plotzed.
He turned out to be the nicest guy in the world. Very down-to-earth. Oh, if only there were selfies back then!
Lots of actors do research. Ted Danson went to bartending school when he got the CHEERS gig.
But that’s NOTHING.
For SOPHIE’S CHOICE Meryl Streep learned German and Polish and learned to speak German with a Polish accent.
Rooney Mara got real piercings for THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTTOO including her nipples.
Marlon Brando’s first movie role was in THE MEN. He spent a month in a VA rehab ward.
Daniel Day-Lewis spent two days in a prison cell without food or water to prep for IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER. And for MY LEFT FOOT he spent the entire shoot in a wheelchair.
As you can see, actors make great sacrifices for their art. But none was greater than Paul Newman, forced to spend two entire days with me.
Sunday, January 29, 2017
My heart always goes out to actors during pilot season (which this is). Here’s how hard it is to become a cast member of a hit series:
When a writer/producer gets the good/bad news that his pilot has been greenlighted the first thing he does is hire a casting director and together they prepare a list of possible worthy candidates for each part. They then meet with the network casting person. She responds to your list. “No, no, hate him, uch, no, no, no, uch, no.” If one of those “uchs” is you you’re dead.
The network casting person will then present her list. One name sticks out. The writer/producer tells her he won’t cast this guy because he killed his grandmother. The network casting maven says, “Well, he didn’t kill a member of your immediate family. Read him anyway.” Basically writer/producers are expected to pursue the names on her list. If you haven’t already been eliminated you’re now at a huge disadvantage if you’re going up against one of these golden names. (By the way, it is very easy to go from this list one year to "uch" the next. Beware.)
Now comes the reading process. Out of all the pilots there may only be a few roles you’re right for. There are also a few more you’re not right for but you apply anyway. You can play Asian if you have to, no sweat.
Your agent submits your name. The casting director may not think you’re right or not be a fan and you’re dead. Assuming you’re over that hurdle you’re invited in to read. There usually are a hundred or more actors reading for every role. Great odds, huh? In these initial sessions you’re usually reading for a committee – the writer/producers, the pod producers, a couple of studio representatives. All you need is one of them to not like you and you’re toast. And by “not like” that could mean “too tall”, “good but we’ve seen him in things”, “he was my waiter last week at the Daily Grill and was terrible”, and “guys are not going to want to fuck her”.
Now there’s a new wrinkle. Networks insist the auditions be recorded and sent to them for perusal. Let’s say you’re reading for a part you’re not right for. Or you just didn’t do well. Not only are you dead but now the network gets to see your bad audition and you’re now on the “no, uch” list for other projects. So for the seven pilots you’re going up for, that one audition just cost you four of them.
Ready to go back to Michigan and teach 5th grade yet?
You make the cut. You get a call-back. By that time you’re not sure what you did that they liked so much? Can you do it again, whatever it is?
You’re on a roll. You kill at the call-back. You’re now a finalist. Your agent makes a deal contingent on studio and network approval.
You read for the studio. Another committee, mostly made up of non-creative types. All it takes is one to hate you.
They don’t hate you. You move on to the network test. You and four other candidates are led into a screening room one at a time where you audition for the network president (and a committee but when the network prez is there their opinions mean nothing).
Talk about pressure. Let’s say you were up for the role of “Rachel” in this pilot called FRIENDS. How different would your life be depending on whether or not you got that part?
You can hit it out of the park and still not get the part. The network president may be partial to a name on his golden list. He may have no ability to judge talent. He may not want to fuck you.
By some miracle he likes you. But there’s a hang-up. He still wants a bigger name. So you hold your breath while the producers make an eleventh hour plea to Paula Marshall. She passes. They settle for … I mean “cast” you.
You’re in, right? Not so fast.
During the week of production there are network table readings and runthroughs. You could get fired at any one of them. And it’s not necessarily your fault. The material could be awful, the director gave you bad direction, they never really wanted you in the first place.
But you survive the week of production and film the pilot. Now comes research and test screenings. I’ve observed these focus groups. One woman says she hates you. Why? She can’t believe you wore those shoes. (That’s a true story.) The network says if the show goes forward you’re to be replaced.
That’s IF she show goes forward. You could give the performance of a lifetime but if the show doesn’t get picked up you’re dead. And again, there are sooooo many factors that go into that decision that have nothing to do with you... although your life depends on it.
There is a God. The show gets picked up. You’ve tested okay. You’re home free now.
There may be an actor from a pilot that didn’t get picked up that the network really loves. They want to make a place for him. That could well be your role. Again, you’re dead.
But that doesn’t happen. Not in this case. You get on the air. I’ve seen actors replaced after three or four episodes (although it’s fairly rare) but chances are you’re safe…
IF the show becomes a hit. How many shows get canceled? About 90%.
You can understand why my heart goes out to actors. I just can’t imagine facing that level of constant rejection. So congratulations to all the actors who do make it. Savor each and every moment. Go to the parties. Be in the parades. Do the photo shoots. Fly in the company jet. You’ve won the lottery. Also, print this out and read it in three years when you start wondering if the show is holding you back.
Good luck this pilot season, thesps!
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Friday, January 27, 2017
Joe starts us off, primarily because it gave me an excuse to post the above photo:
Ken, I know you met Moe Howard and Zsa Zsa Gabor, among many others. Did you ever meet Natalie Wood?
Not per se. I never “met” her or talked to her, but I did see her several times in the MGM commissary. She was filming her last movie, BRAINSTORM, and my partner and I had our office on the lot at the time. I don’t have to tell you my tongue was on the ground.
Brian is up next.
It's fun to see Tom Hanks in an early role in Taxi, or Sherilynn Fenn in Cheers. Who are among your favorite, "...and NOW look at them" people that you and David Isaacs had a hand in getting an early role/assignment?
Tim B queries:
Ever been asked to be on a sitcom writing staff, or to be the showrunner, and declined?
Yes. Several times, and believe me, I felt incredibly fortunate every time that my career was such that I was able to be that picky.
One example: In 1997 Arsenio Hall had a sitcom on ABC that was a trainwreck. Supposedly during a runthrough he made the showrunner cry. We were asked to come in and take over the show. There were only a few more episodes left and the money was good, but we had no desire to walk into that propeller. Our agent accepted our decision but said, “If you guys were twice as crazy you’d be twice as rich.” Probably so but I'd be writing this today from Bellevue.
From Frank Beans:
Did Kelsey Grammer sing every single one of the ending credits theme song live on stage in a different take each episode?
No. He never sang it live for the audience. Those were done in a recording studio.
A. L. Crivaro asks:
How come I never read of or hear anyone in Hollywood discussing the utter brilliance that is Galaxy Quest? Especially in the comedy world? Every time I watch it, I am amazed by how good it is in EVERY regard. But it seems like it gets zero love/recognition. Why is that?
Your question has prompted lots of comments from the readers. GALAXY QUEST definitely has its fans. I'm one of them. I agree it’s very unappreciated.
What’s your Friday Question? Or question for my podcast? Leave them here and I will try to get to as many as I can. Thanks much.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
On the one hand, nice of CBS to shelve reruns of LIFE IN PIECES and THE GREAT INDOORS so they could salute Ms. Winfrey... I mean, Ms. Moore. On the other hand, what a slapdash hour. You really get the feeling they scrambled to get guests. They mentioned that THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW employed women writers yet never mentioned a single one by name or showed one. I would have much preferred to see and hear Treva Silverman than the CBS movie critic. Or Oprah.
Obviously this show had to be put together quickly, but they couldn’t find one MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW cast member or producer to come on? Instead we saw five minutes of her bad movie with Elvis. And Oprah.
A better tribute might have been to show full scenes from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Give the audience, especially the younger audience who might have been unfamiliar with her, a chance to really see her artistry. Instead we got five-second clips. And Oprah.
I'm sorry but WJM could have done better.
Yes, that one magic time of the year when networks greenlight pilots for the upcoming season. So let the casting begin!
For local Los Angeles residents, this explains why there’s now gridlock on the freeways, constant lines at Starbucks, and no sublets or rental cars are available from El Centro to Pismo Beach.
This is a pressure-packed time for actors. There’s never a guarantee that you’re going to land a pilot… unless you’re Kim Raver.
It gets to the point they’re not just passing each other on Coldwater Canyon; they’re passing themselves.
And those thesps not in the game hope to get in the game. Their agents and managers are frantically on the phone to casting directors, begging them to see their clients. There are lots of actors who fly across the country at their own expense, find housing for two months, and never get a single audition.
On the other hand, the truly lucky actors who are hot now face difficult decisions. They’re offered four separate pilots. Which to take? Which looks like it might go? Which looks like it has good writers at the helm? Which films in Vancouver? Which looks like it has legs? Saying yes to a pilot commits you for several years if it gets picked up. Are you signing up for a trip to the moon or the Hotel California? And you need to make those decisions NOW because they’re moving on in fifteen minutes.
The pilot season is brief. About a month for the first round. Once the pilots start filming the second round begins. That’s because networks routinely fire one or more actors after table readings. And sometimes those fired actors can still latch onto another pilot.
So the most insane game of musical chairs commences. Producers have their own hell, but my heart goes out to these actors. Pilot season can be life changing. It can also be soul-crushing. There’s only so many times the guard at the Galaxy Avenue gate doesn’t have your drive-on before you want to blow your brains out. Or the last parking space in the lot was taken… by Kim Raver.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
As if Ken Levine didn't offer you enough with his blog and podcast, now he's offering you tips on getting more laughs. Ken teaches comedy writing, and this episode is begins with some thoughts on whether you can teach people how to be funny (spoiler alert: not really). Even though you probably have to be born humorous, you can learn how to refine your existing comedic sensibility. He also shares the crazy casting story ever! David Isaacs and Ken Levine were casting a pilot, and things got a little wild (let's just say there was nudity involved).Plus, hear a clip that is essentially a master class in comedic timing.
It always seemed like she led a charmed life, but it was filled with health issues, struggles, addictions, and personal tragedies. And yet she courageously fought through all of them... while still keeping that smile.
She leaves behind a long legacy of excellence and future generations will fall in love with her just as we all have. RIP Mary. RIP Laura.
AMY: Hey there.
AGENT: Hey yourself. This is so freaky. I’ve been in “Amy Adams Land” all morning, fielding projects for you.
AMY: Listen, I am so exhausted. I just finished JUSTICE LEAGUE. I’ve played Lois Lane three times now. All the running and CGI stunts – I’m pooped. And then ARRIVAL, I had to wear this bulky space suit, and those weightless stunts – ugh! For my next picture please find me something a little less taxing.
AGENT: Meaning what, love?
AMY: Think Bob Newhart on NEWHART. He just stood behind a counter. I want a role like that. But Oscar worthy certainly.
AGENT: I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be in “Matt Damon Land” this afternoon and then “the second daughter on MODERN FAMILY Land” tonight, but I’ll be back in your land first thing in the morning.
AMY: Thanks. I’m tired of being kidnapped or playing scenes with giant squids.
AGENT: Amen to that. Amen to that.
The next day Amy gets a call from her agent.
AGENT: Amy, darling, it’s me, Mr. “I heard you and am delivering big time as I always do.”
AMY: Whatcha got?
AGENT: The perfect project for you. It’s called NOCTURNAL ANIMALS.
AMY: What’s it about?
AGENT: I don’t know.
AMY: You don't know because you only read my part or the movie is confusing?
AGENT: No, I think because it’s not about anything. What was SUPERMAN about?
AMY: Fair point. So what do I do in this movie?
AGENT: You read.
AMY: Read what?
AGENT: A book.
AMY: Then what?
AGENT: That’s pretty much it. I think there are some scenes in restaurants where you wait for people, but pretty much you read a book. No dialogue to memorize either.
AMY: Sounds promising, but how will I get an Oscar nomination?
AGENT: There’s this amazing scene where you get a paper cut.
AMY: Oooooooh! I could squint, I could curse, I could yelp, I could be brave, I could faint –
AGENT: I can think of maybe three other actresses in the world who could pull that off. And Fran Drescher doesn’t make movies.
AMY: Why am I reading this book?
AGENT: Your ex-husband sent it to you. He wrote this novel that is supposed to hit home and make you uncomfortable.
AGENT: God, that is brilliant!
AMY: Hmmmm. I also want to show my sexuality, remind people that I’m hot. Oh, I know. I could read the book while taking a bath for some scenes.
AGENT: Inspired. I’m sure you could demand a rewrite.
AMY: It was hard for my fans to jerk off to me in ARRIVAL. I broke down language code.
AGENT: Your fans will be screaming: “Take the glasses off!”
AMY: I love it! Tell them I want the part.
AGENT: Great. Want me to send over the script?
AMY: Yes, yes! Great preparation. I can rehearse reading.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS continues to play at some cineplexes.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
There has been lots of grumbling in the past about lack of diversity so there’s a lot of diversity.
What there is not a lot of is suspense. LA LA LAND figures to run the table. Sorry... SPOILER ALERT (even though the ceremony is a month away).
For all that diversity, they snubbed Taraji P. Henson, who was fantastic and I’m sorry but way more deserving than Meryl Streep this year.
If Meryl Streep wins it’s only so she could rip Trump again in her acceptance speech.
Mel Gibson received a Best Director nomination meaning either Hollywood forgives, Hollywood is less concerned about anti-Semitism these days, Scorsese's film was just unwatchable, or he made a wonderful movie and deserves it. It makes no difference because Damien Chazelle is going to win for LA LA LAND.
Yes, Martin Scorsese was snubbed. Hey Marty, make movies people – anybody – wants to watch.
I think the “In Memoriam” section will be an hour this year. Fifteen minutes alone for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
What’s interesting about LA LA LAND is that not everybody loved it. I didn’t. Since when is it okay to do a musical where the stars can’t sing?
Of the list of Best Picture candidates I’d vote for HELL OR HIGH WATER. But it has no shot. I’d also vote for HIDDEN FIGURES. No shot either.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is probably the top runner-up, but it’s a downer and LA LA LAND is an upper. If only MANCHESTER had some songs.
The only categories I don’t think LA LA LAND will triumph are Best Actor and Actress. Casey Affleck and Natalie Portman might prevail. Both can sing.
SULLY was snubbed. Okay, Clint Eastwood – staunch Republican – I can see where Hollywood kicked him to the curb, but Tom Hanks? Hey, what did he ever do? I hope the Academy is not holding VOLUNTEERS against him.
How did ARRIVAL get all these nominations and none for Amy Adams? Unless voters confused this with her performance in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (my sort-of review of that comes tomorrow).
There was speculation that DEADPOOL would get a Best Picture nod – it being a film that people actually SAW. But it was not to be. If Deadpool was mourning the loss of a family member that would put it over the top. Might be food for thought for the sequel.
Nate Parker is learning that the Academy frowns on sexual assault charges. BIRTH OF A NATION was DOA.
Boy, the Academy loves Nicole Kidman, don’t they?
This might be the first award show ever that Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t win.
It’ll be interesting to see who wins the Consolation Oscar (which this year is Best Original Screenplay). Kenneth Lonergan for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA or Taylor Sheridan for HELL OR HIGH WATER?
But congratulations to all the nominees. Enjoy the next few weeks. The big night is February 26. The NFL won't still be playing, will it?
As always I will be filing my bitchy Oscar review the morning after the ceremony. But this year I’m doing something different. I am not posting it on my blog. I am delivering it on my podcast. There will be a new episode that Monday morning. It’ll give me a chance to really riff. So if you want to hear it, please subscribe. Click on the button under the masthead. Hopefully I’ll be funnier unleashed.
Here's a full list of the nominees.
Unfortunately, Hollywood took notice. They snatched up the best of these little gems and distributed them. A few made money. So major studios opened indie divisions. Agents and studio people started gravitating to Park City. “Reception” stopped meaning a little post-screening party at a local pub; it meant: “how many bars are you getting on your cellphone?”
For Hollywood it was perfect – a chance to buy pre-existing product they didn’t have to develop and fund, a ski vacation they could write off, and most important – a chance to finally get out of town. After taking the entire month of December off, they had been back at work for three whole weeks. Finally! Some light at the end of the tunnel.
Sundance became not about showing but selling. Bidding wars broke out for desired projects. Novice meggers were getting signed by the major ten-percentereries. Show business had arrived at the slopes.
Thus it became much harder to get your film accepted by Sundance. The amount of entries swelled to a ridiculous number. And since investors figured out there was gold in them ‘thar Utah hills, they started making movies with ringers. Known actors began appearing in these small films. Then big actors. Needless to say, these were now the films being selected. And why not? More buzz for the festival. Movie stars up close and personal. Ben Affleck getting out of a cab!
So when I read that movies starring Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Keanu Reeves, John Krasinski, Sam Elliott, Krsyten Ritter, Carrie Preston, Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, Abbi Jacobson, Allison Brie, and Molly Shannon (to name but a few) have beaten the odds to make the long journey to Sundance I have to scoff. The only way Jay & Silent Bob break into Sundance now is if Kristen Stewart directs their motion picture.
And then this weekend, the studio that produced the ABC sitcom DOWNWARD DOG got Sundance to screen four episodes for a full house screening in the hopes that the strong reaction will change ABC's mind about the upcoming series. It is slated to premier in the summer, pretty much as a throwaway. So has that what the festival has now become, a way to better position network television series?
I miss the Sundance Film Festival.
Monday, January 23, 2017
My normal viewing habit is to sample a show if it seems intriguing for any reason and then either give it a few more tries or never come back. But in the past, I remained aware that those shows I abandoned were still on the schedule. Perhaps it was because I was more in the business and would check the weekly ratings but also because there were far fewer shows, and the way I view television is now radically different. And it’s probably even less radically different from the way YOU watch television.
When watching shows in real time you see promos. So even though I might not be on the QUANTICO train (I watched the pilot, thought it was stupid, bailed), I was still aware of its continued existence. But I never watch shows in real time anymore. Does anybody? Now that I record everything, and zap through the endless commercials and promos, these discarded shows get erased from my memory. Also, since I record everything for later playback, I have no idea what the time slots are for these shows I snare. They just appear.
It doesn’t help that series are making fewer episodes so they disappear for long stretches. Is the show on hiatus or gone permanently? Unless you’re a TV critic who’s going to keep track of all of this? And I bet a few of them channel surf and go “QUANTICO’s still on?”
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.
Don’t put yourself into the show and make yourself the lead character. I once read a CHEERS where Alan had more lines than Sam & Diane combined. Alan? Who’s Alan? Alan was one of the extras. And so he remained.
And just because people tell you you look like Kaley Cuoco (pictured above) doesn’t mean you should write a BIG BANG THEORY entitled “Penny’s Sister.” If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.
Don't submit specs for canceled series. You are not going to get a job off your spec OLD CHRISTINE or I MARRIED JOAN.
Don’t hand write your script, no matter how good your penmanship. Send your spec in a UCLA blue book and you’ll get an F.
Don’t invent a format.
Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!
Keep in mind the production parameters. A MASH I once read featured this:
EXT. YANKEE STADIUM – DAY
Hawkeye is on the mound during the World Series. 60,000 people cheer.
Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Steven Spielberg or James Cameron make this? And if the answer is no, especially for a multi-camera show that takes place in a living room, then don’t do it.
Similarly, avoid dream sequences. THE GOLDBERGS is not looking for the next Fellini.
Don't require 3D or IMAX for your sitcom pilot to work.
Don’t hinge your show on stunt casting. I read a BECKER where former President Jimmy Carter came in for a check-up and offered dating advice. Yeah, President Carter gets his physicals in the Bronx. And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.
Even with cable shows, there is some line of decorum and taste left. I once read a NEWSRADIO where the story was the Dave Foley character comes into his office in the morning and discovers a semen stain on his couch. Then the episode went downhill.
Don’t marry off any of the main characters.
Don’t kill off any of the main characters.
Don’t go the first ten pages before doing a joke. This even applies to many drama specs.
Don’t do the “supersize” hour episode.
The last sentence in your script should not be “To Be Continued”.
Don’t change the characters’ reality to fit your story. Tracy Jordan is not Jewish. THAT’S why he can’t have a bar mitzvah.
Don’t include a cover letter telling the producer that you sent him a copy of the script months ago and that he was shirking his responsibility by not reading it. Our agent did this once and trust me, David Lloyd was not amused.
And finally, avoid this ploy: I once received a spec MASH with a note that read “This script was written by my brother. On his way to the post office to mail it he was hit by a car and killed. I’m sure he would have wanted you to read it anyway. P.S. If you want any changes I can make them.” He received a touching rejection sympathy card.
Just remember this, when producers read your script they want to like it. They want to discover the next Larry Gelbart. It only helps them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like relying on Jimmy Carter to get your laughs.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.
Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.
Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.
Generally, farces take place in real time. There are no fade outs, no dissolves, no relief. And as the piece builds the pace quickens. If done right, a farce should be a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining momentum and size.
Neil Simon, who wrote the wonderful farce RUMORS, is quoted as saying “At the final curtain, the audience must be as spent as the actors, who by now are on oxygen support. If the audience is only wheezing with laughter, you need rewrites or actors with stronger lungs.”
They’re incredibly tough to pull off but unbelievably satisfying when you do. And for my money, no show ever did them better than FRASIER.
This is a re-post from five years ago.
Friday, January 20, 2017
Bob K. gets us started.
When writing for shows like "MASH" and "Frasier", where some jokes are directly related to specific technical areas (in this example the medical or psychiatry fields) is the writing process different? Would you consult with a field expert on a comedic storyline or specific jokes? Or do you let the comedic elements just come from the research and/or your writing sessions- leaving the comedy, so-to-speak, to the experts?
If you have to rely on experts for comedy you're in trouble.
On MASH we had Dr. Walt Dishell who was our technical advisor. We would write operating room scenes and just dummy in dialogue and send the scripts to him. He would then fill in what the surgeons might actually say. So our scripts were like:
HAWKEYE: Nurse, hand me the frabazabber.
NURSE: Yes, doctor. Oh, he’s hermaygolading.
HAWKEYE: Let’s give him 10 CC’s of Blojamin stat!
But any jokes (Hawkeye flirting, the war sucks, etc.) were in the scene before it went to advisors.
We also had a nurse on the set to make sure the doctors weren’t just stabbing each other.
But we never put any comedy burden on the advisors. That was our job.
On FRASIER, there were times when I consulted my wife who is a therapist. And I majored in Psychology at UCLA so I knew enough psycho-babble to get by on most occasions. But there were instances when we'd ask how a shrink would handle a certain situation or patient and then write the scene, again putting in the humor ourselves.
From Charles H. Bryan:
Why did I not know that B.F. Pierce was based on an actual doctor? If I knew it, I've forgotten it. FRIDAY QUESTION: Who is he?
Dr. Roger Willcox. He passed away in 2006. Here’s his obit. You’ll see what a remarkable man he was.
RSaunders has a question about Carrie Fisher:
What were her special skills as a screenwriter and as (didn't realize this) a script doctor?
She was also extremely funny and wrote great character comedy. So she didn’t pump in jokes, she just made the existing characters funnier and more interesting.
She also had great pathos. She wasn't afraid of emotional moments.
Additionally, she was fast. Lots of times when a producer needs a rewrite or polish there’s a time crunch. They’re going to start shooting next Tuesday, or they’re trying to entice an actress and would like something to show her over the weekend, etc. Carrie could knock out the pages quickly.
Finally, I think producers and directors just LIKED her and enjoyed her company. She knew the business inside and out and was a genuinely nice and entertaining person. You got a great rewrite and some fantastic Debbie Reynolds stories.
And finally, from ScottyB:
Have there ever been any successful 2-person comedy writing teams that you know of where one person is extremely funny but can't develop a story to save his/her life while the other person has a fantastic ability to develop great stories and characters but hasn't the knack for banging out the actual laughs? Elton John and Bernie Taupin are a well-known musical equivalent, but have there ever been any in the TV or film industry?
Any possible combination of personalities and working arrangements exist between writing partners. Usually one partner is stronger in one area complemented by the other who is better in another. But not necessarily. As time goes by they learn from each other and grow.
David Isaacs and I write head-to-head but a lot of teams will divide up the scenes and write separately. Or one will do the first draft and the other will rewrite. One team I know works on the outline together, then they each go off and write a first draft. Then they merge the best of the two.
And another team worked this way: One just schmoozed and cultivated contacts while the other did all the writing. David and I both marveled at this arrangement. We would have adopted it for ourselves but both wanted the schmoozer role.
What’s your Friday Question? Remember, I now also answer them on my podcast as well. Have you subscribed yet?
Thursday, January 19, 2017
People primarily know him from dramas. I used to kid him that he's been in every TV drama over the last twenty years. Even Harry Morgan didn't guest in as many series. But what folks might not know is that Miguel was a gifted comic actor. Amazing timing and a pitch-perfect knack for delivering dialogue. Some actors need to be led to the joke, not Miguel. He instinctively just "knew" comic rhythms and tone.
He was also, a pro's pro. I'm sure one of the reasons he worked so often is because so many producers, directors, and actors loved him.
Miguel was also a great storyteller. And when the stories involve David Lynch (he was in TWIN PEAKS), George Clooney (his cousin and one-time roommate), ROBOCOP, and mother Rosemary Clooney you knew you were in for a mesmerizing tale. I was hoping to get him to guest on my podcast.
My condolences to his family and fans. Damn! Miguel Ferrer. This one hurts.
To combat this, the networks are leaning towards known franchises. At least they have some recognition. You may not know what HIGH MAINTENANCE is but you have heard of 24.
So this is the year of reboots.
24 is back but with a different lead character. Still, it’s the same format where the star kills many people and never once goes to the bathroom.
A lot of shows are coming back with original casts. WILL & GRACE just officially announced its return. Up first is PRISON BREAK. (I think there may be budget problems because this time they break out of the Disneyland lock-up.) Last year the X-FILES returned and might return again as the FBI is currently investigating the election being hacked by Martians. And TWIN PEAKS will be back. The ghost of Laura Palmer steals the log lady’s log. FULLER HOUSE is a hit on Netflix. And they keep saying ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is returning for another season, but I think we’ll see that when Mexico builds that wall.
Netflix also has ONE DAY AT A TIME, but with a Latino cast. It’s really a reboot of CRISTELA.
Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that call from a network wanting desperately to reboot BIG WAVE DAVE’S.
With all these re-boots I’m reminded of the great line by Billy Wilder. When asked about remaking one of his classic films he said, “I don’t understand. Why remake movies that work? Remake movies that didn’t work and fix them.”
Oh God, what if someone wants to try AfterMASH again?
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
My iMac desktop computer (designed by my son and his team at Apple).
Mouse on a UCLA mouse pad.
Froggy Gremlin childhood toy.
Bob Hope in Dodger uniform bobblehead. (next to Koufax he was my favorite Dodger.)
Cup o’ pens.
Microphone and microphone stand for the podcast. (Please listen and subscribe.)
High end digital ZOOM recorder.
Fathers Day cards.
Seattle Mariners paperweight.
A Gary Larson FAR SIDE card showing the BEWITCHED writing staff brainstorming in the fourth season. Brilliant notions like: “What if Endora casts a spell on Darren?”
Allstate accident report I was supposed to fill out in 2011.
Box of Ralphs market Oyster Crackers. There are some things it's okay to buy the generic brand.
Plastic Bob’s Big Boy (I’m a Bob’s Big Boy fanatic and can never figure out why that checkered jumpsuit look didn’t catch on.)
Five old drafts of my play, GOING GOING GONE (with practically every page dog-eared).
Initial draft of my new play. (with EVERY page dog-eared).
Ellen Sandler's TV WRITER'S WORKBOOK, which is required reading for my UCLA class. (Note to my students: BUY IT)
Lucite encased Real Don Steele KHJ business card.
A hard bound copy of TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT (personally signed) by author Maria Semple. (Fun reading. I recommend it. Actually, I recommend all of her books.)
A spec pilot from my rabbi.
A spindle of CD’s that includes albums from Frank Zappa and Joanie Sommers. Who plays CD's anymore? Why isn't this in the garage?
Dodger Stadium and Pauley Pavilion replica paperweights. Both very dusty.
50 GOING GOING GONE promotional postcards (now completely worthless).
Lucite encased picture of me with AfterMASH writing staff (that includes Larry Gelbart).
Vintage typewriter from 1890 with the carriage return arm on the right side. No FINAL DRAFT version for that.
93/KHJ Boss Radio mike flag.
Box of brads and paper clips.
My bobblehead collection that includes Harry Caray (pictured), Speedy Alka-Seltzer, and Jesus Christ.
And -- Oh God – I think there’s still a sandwich.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
It attacks discrimination on every front – racial, gender, declared majors – but doesn’t clobber you over the head with it. This isn’t DJANGO for pencil pushers. There’s no Helen Reddy "Hear me roar" anthem. It’s three “BEAUTIFUL MINDS” with a dash of NORMA RAE and THE HELP. Or IMITATION GAME with a happy ending.
Probably because the story is true(ish), but I found HIDDEN FIGURES to be a stirring celebration of intelligence and science – two things that many Americans today don’t believe in. Oh, for the days when complicated important decisions were left to qualified people.
For all the hype the Oscar-grab movies are currently receiving, this modest little tale is more satisfying. And it does my heart good to see it doing so well at the boxoffice. So again, go see HIDDEN FIGURES. Travel back to a simpler time; a time where we outsmarted Russia.
Monday, January 16, 2017
But LA is not a football town. Sorry Angelinos, suck it up.
Oh yes, when USC has a good team they can fill the Coliseum. Same with UCLA (on those rare occasions when they do have a decent team). But the NFL? Yawn.
At one time we had two NFL teams. First the Raiders left (leaving drunks and the refuse of Los Angeles nowhere to riot on Sunday afternoons), then the longtime Rams. The city’s reaction: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure?” The two teams defection left the same vacuum that Fotomat going out of business did.
Decades went by without an NFL franchise in Tinsel Town. Even when the Rams were gone ten years people were saying: “They left? Really? Where did they go? Are you sure? Hey, what happened to Fotomat?”
When Baltimore lost the Colts (the sniveling owner moved them in the dead of night), the city was in mourning. Now they have the Ravens and the town is crazy for them. Same with Cleveland losing the original Browns (although my heart goes out to their fans with that current team). Imagine Philadelphia losing the Eagles. Half the city would move.
But here in LA there was a much bigger uproar when the Frederick's of Hollywood Museum of Bras closed.
Last year the Rams returned… with all the fanfare of a cheating husband slipping into bed quietly so his wife doesn’t wake up. For the first four or five months there were no billboards, no commercials, nothing. Their first few games drew well out of nostalgia, but once it was clear they were terrible the fans stopped going. I’m not sure even Rams fans knew what radio station they are on. You don’t see any Rams bumper stickers around town. No one wears Rams jerseys or helmets in the street. It wasn’t so much a triumphant return as your old Uncle Lester returning after twenty years to borrow more money.
And now comes word that the San Diego Chargers are returning to Los Angeles. Wooo hoo! This announcement has generated the same level of excitement as a new tattoo parlor opening on your corner.
At a Lakers-Clippers game last week they showed the Chargers' new LA logo and the fans boo'ed.
They’re here of course because two major television networks cover the AFC and NFC and each feels they need a team in the nation’s second largest market. Once the Rams came it was only a matter of time before some AFC franchise followed them to the Land of Milk and Money. At least it’s not the Raiders. Fans who do go to games will not have to fear for their lives.
A new stadium is being built (that both teams will share) and I imagine when that opens interest will rekindle (as long as there are enough luxury suites). But make no mistake, if it’s sunny and 80 degrees on a Sunday afternoon in November that new stadium will be half empty regardless of who’s playing. While at the same time it could be -20 in Philadelphia and Lincoln Financial Field will be packed to the rafters.
LA is not a football town.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
Some reflections on memorable table readings:
The network and studio also have representatives in attendance. And usually they’ll grace us with their notes. Page after page of them. Suits must assume that if they left writers to their own devices we would never change a thing. But the truth is most of us are tougher on the material than they are. Except we have a better idea of what’s wrong and how to fix it. Yet, that doesn’t stop them from thinking they’re saving the show with suggestions that are often obvious or useless.
On one show I was showrunning we had a network executive who was terrible at notes. He was a good administer, but script doctoring was not his forte. We’d have a mediocre table read and could see him approaching us. He would practically be sweating. Obviously he didn’t know what the hell to tell us but was obligated to give notes anyway. Before he could speak we'd jump in, saying: “We know. We have some work to do.” That’s all he needed to hear. Like a shot he was out of there. Then on show night he would thank us for taking his suggestions.
Actors sometimes have embarrassing moments – especially when they mispronounce words they should know but don't. One actress pronounced epitome “ep-a-tome”. Another pronounced hyperbole as "hyper-bowl". Worse was the thirtysomething actress who referred to a famous New York neighborhood as “Green-witch Village.”
One time I was directly across the table from an attractive actress. It was summer and she was wearing a little halter top. She was so engrossed in the reading she didn’t notice that one of her breasts had popped out. I sure noticed it. I tried to silently signal her. She waved me off, essentially saying “stop bothering me during a reading.” Ohh-kay. So for the next fifteen minutes I enjoyed a delightful view. Eventually she realized it, and to her credit, just popped it back in like it was no big deal. No embarrassment, nothing. She did thank me later for trying to warn her though. I said, “oh, you’ve thanked me enough.”
Right after 9-11 we had a bomb scare at the studio during a table reading. The inspectors alerted us of the situation and advised we just stay put. He told us not to worry. It appeared to be a false alarm. That didn’t stop one of the cast members from freaking, screaming at other cast members who tried to calm him down, and then running out of the room.
One table reading was delayed when the star was late. She finally swept in and said, “Sorry I'm late. I was fucking my husband.”
On another show I co-ran, we decided to have an early table reading so we’d be done by the O.J. verdict that was expected later that morning. That proved to be a good decision. Imagine trying to be funny after that?
On Kirstie Alley’s first table reading at CHEERS she came in wearing a blond wig a la her predecessor, Shelley Long.
My partner and I got our first staff job on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW at MTM. Our first day was the table reading of a script we had written. Just before the reading, Tony stood up, announced that he had just come back from London and was so impressed with British comedies. “Compared to them, everything we have here is shit!” he proclaimed. With that lovely introduction he neatly segued into our script.
Where you hold table readings is important. We always tried to do them in large conference rooms. Some shows do them on the stage. But laughs get lost in such a cavernous space. Better to hold the readings in close quarters where laughter can fill the room. The SOUL TRAIN stage was not conducive for comedy it turned out.
Big laughs at table readings can be deceiving however. Sometimes a line that worked at the table falls flat on stage. When that happens you’ve got to take out the line even if it originally got a big response. Likewise, there are jokes that are dependent on physical performance. Writers need to resist the urge to change everything just because they don’t get laughs.
There is always a crafts-services table set up in the corner with fruit, lox & bagels, Danish, etc. One of my pet peeves is that some actors will eat during table readings. They’re trying to deliver lines with their mouths full of food. You can’t understand what they’re saying, much less whether their joke works. At best they sound like Sylvester the Cat.
And you can always tell which actor read the script beforehand and which actor is just winging it, reading it for the first time.
Usually actors will give so-so table readings but after rehearsal they lock in and deliver great performances on show night. But there are a few who just have great natural instincts and will give sensational table readings. Unfortunately, as the week unfolds they start to over-analyze the script and their performance gets progressively worse.
And pilots are worse. This is how crazy things have become. A lot of studios will want to have pre-table readings before the actual table readings with the network. This was suggested before one of our pilots. We said okay but only we would be present for the pre-table reading. No studio presence. The executive then said, “Well, I want to be there, so if that’s what you want, then maybe schedule a pre-pre table reading for just you guys.”
And remember, this is just the START of the process.
This is a re-post from four years ago.
Saturday, January 14, 2017
Friday, January 13, 2017
So for the moment I'm hanging the OPEN DURING CONSTRUCTION sign.
Thanks for your support. I'm always looking to make the blog better so everyone gets their money's worth.
Julian Brown leads off:
Have you ever encountered a professional situation where the jockeying for position backfired in a big, unintentionally schadenfreude inducing way?
[i was thinking about Edwin Encarnación signing with Cleveland, who eliminated Toronto in the playoffs last season, which begs for some karmic comeuppance. For instance : NHL player Marion Hossa 'chased the cup' with consecutive 1 year deals in Detroit and Pittsburgh, who met in the finals both seasons, and whichever team he was on lost that year.]
In television and movies that happens more on the executive level. I think of Fred Silverman, who built CBS in the early ‘70s, ABC in the mid ‘70s, and was a complete bust programming NBC in the late ‘70s.
But I’ve found that “revenge” is not a great motivator in show business. Yes, CBS might have canceled my show and it would be great to do the next one on NBC and kick their ass. But realistically I would like the option of going back to CBS with that next one. The truth is the same people just move around, it’s Hollywood musical chairs. It makes very little sense to hold grudges and try to get back at people or networks. At least that’s how I feel.
Rolling Stone ranked 100 TV shows of all time..MASH came in at #15(should have been higher)..Cheers made the list but Frasier did not..and that's a crime.
Do writers use those kinda of lists to boost their profile or payday?
No, because they’re ridiculous. No one in the industry takes these ranking lists seriously for a second. They’re so subjective and idiotic.
I’m not sure winning an Emmy would even boost your asking price these days.
I remember several years ago the Oscars did a feature where they brought back as many winners in the acting category as they could get. I was struck by how many of them were out of work. And these were Oscar winners.
Seriously: Is there some reason why studio executives are usually the last to understand what the public might like?
Well, start with William Goldman’s great quote that no one in Hollywood knows anything.
And then factor in that studio heads have to project several years into the future. Unlike TV where you can eat it while it’s hot, there is a long process in films between development, production, and editing so years go by before the product finally reaches the marketplace.
So which hot trend will endure and which will flame out? All studio executives can do is guess. And generally they guess wrong.
That’s another reason why sequels are so popular with execs – they’ve already been accepted by filmgoers with wallets. They’re much safer bets.
And finally, from 404:
Esoteric Friday question, Ken: based on that, how many different sitcom ideas do you think are really out there? And how many sitcoms are just rehashings of the same things over and over again in just slightly different situations?
I believe it’s less about the situation and more about the execution. You can take an arena like, say, a bar and do numerous series. ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE, SULLIVAN & SONS, some Stiller & Meara thing, and probably seven or eight more. But CHEERS rose above them all due to the execution.
Yes, there are standard tropes – workplace comedies, family comedies, romantic comedies, but people do stretch the rules a lot. How do you fit MASH into any one category?
New things always seem to come along, you just don’t know when or whether they’ll be accepted.
What’s your Friday Question?
Thursday, January 12, 2017
When I was thirteen I watched THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Today I still watch THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW.
When I was thirteen I loved Bob’s Big Boy hamburgers. Nothing’s changed there either… except that they now go to my hips.
And of course my crush on Natalie Wood still seems to linger.
But I had my bedroom station. And I would bet that by noon there will be a bunch of comments from other radio freaks who also had bedroom stations in their formative years.
Mine went nowhere. But some had stations way more elaborate. A few even had low power transmitters and were actually broadcasting. I was content to stick the tapes in a drawer (where they shared space with my homemade comic books).
This is amazing to me. Anybody today can “broadcast” all over the world. 24/7 internet radio stations are just computers sitting in bedrooms. Thank GOD these options didn’t exist when I was thirteen. I’d still be living it down.
But the pressure is on, with so many audio options available, I’ve got to really up my game. No interviews with my mailman or discussions about shopping for tires. I’ve got to go out of my way to impress. It’s like when I first tried to attract girls. God, I am thirteen again.
Episode 2 should now be available for downloading. Stories about MASH, why I got fired so often from radio jobs, and FQ's. Check it out and please subscribe. Thanks.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Get a behind-the-scenes look at one of television's greatest hits as Ken Levine discusses how the writers of MASH handled the actors' notes. Plus, we learn about Ken's ersatz radio career, and he uses a popular segment from his award-winning blog by taking listener questions! This episode is filled with insider information on what goes on making a hit show including stories of what the audience usually doesn't see!
Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!
BLACKISH finished second best. 29% have watched it (although it doesn’t say whether they still watch or sampled it once), another 53% have heard of it but haven’t seen it, and only 18% have never heard of it. Kudos to ABC.
GAME OF THRONES has been seen by 26%, another 68% have heard of it, and only 6% have never heard of it. Boy, that’s a big percentage of folks who’ve heard of it but have no desire to check it out.
STRANGER THINGS is this so-called viral hit on Netflix. Only 15% have seen it (still pretty good for a streaming service), 37% know about it but aren’t seemingly interested, and 48% has never heard of it. Almost half the population doesn’t know this zeitgeist darling exists.
WESTWORLD has been seen by 12%, another 36% are aware of it, but 52% have never heard of it. That’s a pretty high number for an HBO show.
Then things get really shocking. VEEP. It wins Emmys for Best Comedy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus wins Emmys every year. Big comedy hit, right? Are you ready? 6% of the population has watched an episode of VEEP. 38% know of it but haven’t watched, and despite all the hype and Emmys and HBO and the fact that it’s in its sixth or seventh season – a whopping 56% of Americans have never even heard of it. Wow. Just… wow.
But wait. It gets worse. Way worse.
THE CROWN won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. 5% of the audience has seen it. 24% has not seen it but knows of it. And 71% of America has never even heard of it. 71% of the audience has never heard of the Best Drama (according to the Golden Globes).
ATLANTA won Best Comedy. 3% have seen it. Another 28% have heard of it (although how many of those thought they were asking about the city?), and 69% were clueless of its existence.
Okay, now let’s get to those shows we’re told are groundbreaking and game-changing. Hold onto your hats.
Let me reiterate – this is an independent study by a company that studies media and determines the best uses of advertising.
Finally, there’s MOZART IN THE JUNGLE. 2% have seen it. Only 15% know about it but have yet to watch. And a staggering 83% of Americans have never heard of it.
What can we conclude? Niche shows have tiny audiences. Even excellent niche shows. I’m still gobsmacked that after all this time, 2/3rds of the population have never even HEARD of TRANSPARENT. I get that many don’t watch it. Amazon is not one of the biggies (yet). But how can so many people not even know it exists?
And the big takeaway is the disconnect between critics and viewers. It used to be that winning awards elevated shows awareness. CHEERS winning Best Comedy its first year resulted in way better ratings. Now it means nothing. And I don’t know what TRANSPARENT and VEEP can do to get on peoples’ radar.
Television needs HITS. REAL hits. Not media darlings, not underground favorites. Shows that people WATCH. Or at least KNOW. When no one is interested in even the so-called best that television can produce, it’s time to really take a hard look at what is being produced, how it is being promoted, and maybe (as a last resort) what the viewer WANTS to see. Maybe your show is excellent but it’s not what the population wants. Could it be that THE BIG BANG THEORY is really the Best Comedy of the Year? And GREY’S ANATOMY is the Best Drama? I bet you've heard of them.