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.

UnReal

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 en...joy?

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Transitioning from comedy to drama and vice versa

Had lunch recently with fellow writer/blogger, Earl Pomerantz. Topics included the usual: shows that aren’t funny, baseball, health insurance, our kids, Hawaii, and of course other writers.

One name that came up was a writer we both admire, Chris Downey. We both worked with him on LATELINE, the (Senator) Al Franken sitcom of the late ‘90s. Chris is currently executive producing SUITS after co-creating LEVERAGE. We noted how well he transitioned from comedy to drama.

And that got us to thinking of others who made the switch from half-hours to hours. I am a huge fan of Shawn Ryan. THE SHIELD is one of my all-time favorite shows. But when I met him a few years ago he said his real goal when he got into the business was to write for CHEERS. His comedy scripts weren’t cutting it and he gravitated towards drama (where he is an exceptional writer). Likewise, David Shore wanted to be a yuckmeister but found much more success creating HOUSE. And sitcom hopeful Leonard Dick is an integral part of THE GOOD WIFE.

Stephen Nathan wrote on Diane English sitcoms and now is running BONES.

Matthew Weiner toiled on BECKER and THE NAKED TRUTH before sliding over to THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN. Comedy veterans Janet Leahy, Tom Palmer, Michael Saltzman, and even my writing partner David Isaacs all had stints on MAD MEN.

Alan Ball was on staff of CYBILL (poor guy) before writing AMERICAN BEAUTY and then SIX FEET UNDER.

Was DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES considered a drama? Well if so, add a bunch of former FRASIER writers to the list – Anne Flett Giordano, Joe Keenan, Bob Daily, Lori Kirkland to name a few.

And former CHEERS scribe, Phoef Sutton worked on TERRIERS and BOSTON LEGAL.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples but they needed our table.

Here’s the interesting thing we noticed though: Whereas lots of comedy writers have transitioned to drama, very few go the other way. Writers of drama rarely reinvent themselves as comedy writers. Even Aaron Sorkin struggled with STUDIO 60. Not saying that it hasn’t happened or can’t happen (Jane Espenson goes back and forth with ease), but it’s more difficult. Oh yeah, and Shakespeare could do it pretty well.

This phenomenon makes sense to me. A good comedy is just drama with a comedic spin. Comedy writers still have to know dramatic structure, suspense, and at times, tapping into genuine emotion. But the ability to write and construct comedy requires a different skill set than drama.

Some drama writers might disagree. And often when they do attempt a comedy they treat it like they’re slumming. David Mamet writes brilliant dramas but sorry, his comedies aren’t very funny – certainly not as funny as he thinks they are.

This discussion made Earl and me feel better about ourselves, which was really the point. Especially after the discussion of health insurance. Comedy writers rule! Fortunately for you drama writers, most scripted shows are dramas. And many have dashes of humor.  Maybe one reason why drama writers aren’t getting into comedy is that they don’t have to.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

My review of THE NIGHT OF

I can’t wait for Sunday night’s conclusion to THE NIGHT OF (now showing on HBO). This eight-part series has been absolutely gripping. It feels and looks like a Sidney Lumet movie. (Have you noticed that television limited series are way better and more complex than movies? Few and far between are films like THE VERDICT.)

In THE NIGHT OF you start with A-list writers in Richard Price and Steve Zaillian. And Zaillian has become an A-list director as well. But here’s the thing: they actually deliver. How many times have you seen a marquee pitching match-up like Clayton Kershaw vs. Madison Bumgarner and the final score is 10-9?

But Price and Zaillian both pitch perfect games.

This was taken from a British series and adapted for US audiences. James Gandolfini was supposed to play the lead character (the rumpled lawyer) but tragically passed away. (He still gets an executive producer credit.) DeNiro was in for five minutes but he bailed (probably to take DIRTY GRANDPA or some other truly terrible role). John Turturro stepped in and gives the performance of his career.

And yet he doesn’t steal the show. There are two ahead of him. Riz Ahmed as the Pakistani kid who is charged with murder goes down this rabbit hole of hell and to see him adapt to his circumstances is the stuff of Emmys.

And he still wasn’t my favorite.

Bill Camp was. I’ve mentioned him before. Camp is a character actor who has a bunch of credits although he’s one of those guys you never remember. Well, that will change with this role. His portrayal of the chief detective is so real, so riveting, so better than anything you see on CSI that for me, he was the stand-out of stand-outs.  And isn't it fun to see someone NEW (or at least new to you)? 

The supporting actors were equally terrific. Notably Jeannie Berlin, Peyman Moaadi, Glenne Headly, Amara Karan, and of course, Chip Zien.

This is probably not a series you can binge. The intensity level is pretty high – especially when they go to Riker’s Island. This is OZ with better lighting. I think I’d last eleven seconds – and that’s if I had protection. What’s bizarre is that I watched an episode of this and then an episode of SUITS where their lead character Mike is in prison, and compared to Riker’s it is like a W Hotel.

Sunday is the finale. We’ll hopefully learn who committed the murder and whether Turturro will keep his cat? Now THIS to me is a cliffhanger (the cat part I mean).